Resplendent in a crimson T-shirt and a contrasting pair of black tights just below her knee caps, Zerena Vama stood at the gateway to the carpark of the municipal airport of Moue on the Isle of Pines in New Caledonia.

Grinning and shuffling from side to side in a pair of well-worn, weather-beaten pair of beach jandals, it was obvious Vama had spotted us frantically looking for someone holding up a placard of names — Ocean Belcher and Anendra Singh.

It hadn't happened at the La Tontouta International Airport, on the main island of Grand Terre, where we had arrived from Auckland International, via Aircalin, two days earlier.

That day, our first names were scribbled in the corner of a white board amid a rousing welcoming rendition from the traditional Kanak "We Ce Ca" singing trio.

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Well, I don't know about freelance photo-journalist Belcher but this was the sort of unorchestrated island arrangement I had become accustomed to growing up in Fiji. This was, after all, the Kanak way on day two of the four-day travel trip to the fascinating French colony.

"I hope one of you can drive?" she asks as we saunter towards a compact silver car, windows down to let it breathe in the tropical humidity, her "sister" had parked well away from the rest of the vehicles.

Caught unawares by the prospect of driving on rambling, right-hand side roads threading through the 15km length and 13km breadth of the island sitting 100km southeast of the main island, we exchange furtive glances before I volunteer to break the uncomfortable silence: "I can, if you wish."

Vama breaks out into an ebullient smile and replies: "Just kidding."

Aha, I think, feeling like a tourist falling prey to a tout selling wooden artifacts in a Tongan street years ago, amid latent laughter from the Kiwis: "Definitely island wit."

We had arrived 30 minutes late on the domestic Air Caledonie flight with the promise of one of the best pockets of swimming beaches in the country.

A Vau clan member of the Kere tribe before her marriage, Vama typifies the laid-back, island approach to life, laced with humour and devoid of stress.

She seamlessly re-plotted our schedule to sneak in a sumptuous bougna (pronounced as 'boonyah', akin to hangi) lunch that one of her countless "sisters" (including cousins removed), Marie Eustache Cagnewa, had served at her roadside stall. Another sister, Noelie Wemana, had calmly unearthed the banana leaf-wrapped feast minutes before in the backyard of her home nearby.

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It seems Vama is related to almost everyone of the 3000 inhabitants.

"Bonjour," she says habitually, before the ritual exchange of the double-cheek kiss (which I had inadvertently labelled French kissing, to Belcher's horror) with just about everyone she met.

"Everyone on this island knows everyone else," she says of the island which goes by the nickname of l'île la plus proche du paradis ("the closest island to paradise") and, according to Vama, where the eight tribes fiercely want autonomy from France.

The chicken, kumara, plantain, pumpkin, taro and carrot, all wrapped in banana leaves and lathered in coconut milk before they were baked on hot rocks, were a stark contrast to the French fare in the capital city of Noumea and the outskirts of Bourail.

Wemana had crowned Belcher with a tiara-like coconut palm frond before we drove off.
The gregarious grandmother was anticipating a torrent of visitors from the imposing cruise liner hovering near the Kuto Bay coastline but found time with her husband, clad in a cotton wrap-around cloth (akin to lavalava), to show us their vegetable garden that boasted family-sized avocados.

Ocean Belcher with tour guide Zerena Vama (red) and her roadside stall cafe operating cousin, Marie Eustache Cagnewa, tuck into a bougna (hangi) lunch. Photo/Anendra Singh
Ocean Belcher with tour guide Zerena Vama (red) and her roadside stall cafe operating cousin, Marie Eustache Cagnewa, tuck into a bougna (hangi) lunch. Photo/Anendra Singh

It was far from midday but Belcher was famished so we decided to turn the hot lunch into island brunch at Cagnewa's corrugated iron-and-wooden roadside corner. Like me, Belcher wasn't used to a starch-heavy lunch as I visualised hammocks in the humidity.

We immediately hatched a plan, on digestion, to wade through the ankle-deep, low-tide water to the protected Oro Natural Pool nearby. One of Belcher's urban variety jandals had popped at the big-toe groove in the water.

No problems. Vama casually handed over her pair, wading through bare feet on the predominantly moss-covered coral rock colonies. I followed suit, albeit gingerly, quietly proud of trusting my Pacific Island upbringing.

As we approached the white sand-fringed turquoise lagoon, teeming with myriad marine life, Belcher nervously pointed out dead blue bottle jellyfish floating downstream.

Having sidestepped the Aussie cousins of the Portuguese man-of-war in Sydney and Queensland in January, I was gung ho about our chances, assuring the women we would be fine. I was horribly wrong.

Three of them stung me — on my left bicep and across the chest — leaving red rash-like, pimpled scars. The pain resembled a searing wasp sting. I had brushed off the critters from my torso with enough composure to yell out to Belcher to smartly head for shore.

She didn't need a second invite, sporadically staying underwater and mindful she couldn't have sunburn, never mind visible scars, on account of the back-less wedding gown she was slipping on to marry fiance Nick in a fortnight at an Auckland yacht club.

Urinating on the stings was mooted as a pain reliever but Vama's suggestion of rubbing the refined white sand sounded more appetising so I did, with little effect. I wonder how the smattering of tourists in the lagoon had fared that day.

The next day I resisted the temptation to scratch the threaded scars. A duty-free bottle of Tamanu (herbal antiseptic) I had bought at La Tontouta International, on the way back home, had worked wonders. Urban working women swear the oil is an essential part of their make-up kit.

The traditional outrigger tour in Upi Bay at the Isle of Pines in New Caledonia feeds the soul but 90 minutes. Photo/Anendra Singh
The traditional outrigger tour in Upi Bay at the Isle of Pines in New Caledonia feeds the soul but 90 minutes. Photo/Anendra Singh

An Upi Bay (named after Kanak land owner Upe, according to Vama, but changed to suit the French who have difficulties pronouncing it) outrigger cruise was next on the agenda.

It started with an impromptu shower and ended majestically with a signature rainbow on the horizon.

Vama interpreted our questions to the elderly Kanak skipper, who has been at the helm of the business for 40 years, when not talking to the thirtysomething French couple on board.

We envisioned weather-chiselled figure forms protruding from the mammoth coral growths dotting the bay, spotted countless turtles briefly poking out their heads and even a shadowy stingray as well as an airborne needle fish.

But the 90-minute-long sail can become a little drawn out. Vama's story of how she was lost overnight as a sobbing and hungry 9-year-old with two male teenage cousins while gathering shellfish as a pre-teenager before uncles rescued them helped but perhaps a stop for a quick swim or letting tourists manually steer the outrigger could have broken the deathly silence on the leg back.

A 25-minute drive to Kuto Bay beach was simply magical. Despite the torrential downpour late afternoon that sent cruise liner passengers scurrying offshore, Belcher and I weren't going to be deprived of a fresh swim on carpet-soft white sand after I had guzzled a complimentary stubby of Belgium ale priced a whopping N$20 at a waterfront restaurant and bar.

With minutes in hand, Vama whisked us away to the Saint Maurice park where some of the totem poles had a Maori-carving look about them and where Roman Catholic processions take place annually.

After a nominal cash donation to Vama for a glorious day's outing, we caught our Air Caledonie flight back although the landing wasn't as smooth as the one we had departed on in Noumea.

The thump on the tarmac had the usually reserved Asian contingent talking but, overall, it was a fun-filled, absorbing and memorable way of savouring culture.


GETTING THERE: Aircalin flies direct from Auckland to Noumea.
nz.aircalin.com
ONLINE: newcaledonia.travel

Tour guide Zerena Vama at the Saint Maurice park where totem poles mark a monument of the arrival of the Roman Catholic missionaries on the Isle of Pines. Photo/Anendra Singh
Tour guide Zerena Vama at the Saint Maurice park where totem poles mark a monument of the arrival of the Roman Catholic missionaries on the Isle of Pines. Photo/Anendra Singh