As we corkscrew our way through rugged terrain, the Grand South of New Caledonia defies attempts to pigeonhole it, but it's clear we're on the treadmill of an unspoilt playground, so perish any thoughts of alighting from this cardio belt until it has run its programme.

"I'll show you the cagou first, then we'll have lunch and then go see the grand kauri," says Axelle Battie, the owner of Toutazimut, a tour operator in the capital city of Noumea, as we whizz along in a rough-hewn Land Rover heading into the Blue River National Park.

As luck has it, on day two of the four-day trip to southwest New Caledonia, we strike gold with a cagou almost immediately after venturing barely 20m on to the beaten rainforest track. This orange long-legged, bluish-grey babe knows how to seduce cameras on nature's catwalk. Battie explains how moving one's foot in an angry bull-like fashion on the leaf litter will entice the cagou closer, and we're all eyes for the crested one. It's another solid-gold hit.

The cagou — blissfully unaware of its status as a decades-long protected species — shows off, striking a one-legged pose. When these monogamous birds partner up, it's often for life.

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Cagou preen for the camera. Photo / Supplied
Cagou preen for the camera. Photo / Supplied

We watch as the bird holds still for the two-legged professional shutter bugs — and even the cellphone-toting species like me — before the carnivorous cagou strikes to prey on the creepy crawlies of the fertile forest floor.

It was a pleasant interlude after an earlier stop looking at reforestation efforts on the red-ochre soil following years of voracious mining operations.

From bird watching, we change gears to a mountain-hugging drive for about 25 minutes to an enchanting river, a spot reserved — I'm told — for a privileged few. We wolf down a ham baguette, but I resist the temptation to wash it down with fizzy drinks or beer. Instead, I head for the crystal-clear flow from the waterfall on the opposite side of the river.

On the way to the "drowned forest" for kayaking, we stop to marvel at the signposted, kauri pine touted to be almost 1000 years old. The tree's girth at chest height is 2.7m and it stands 40m tall, 20 metres of which is the trunk alone. Inevitably, conversation turns to the dieback disease holding the kauri at ransom in the upper North Island of New Zealand.

We make one more stop for the day, taking in the spooky sight of countless bleached logs — long-dead kauri trees — at the bottom of the artificial Yate Lake created in 1958, the side effect of building a dam, which resulted in the demarcation of white and blue rivers in the valley. Here, life maintains a rapport with death — birds with huge wingspans eerily build nests among the naked branches.

We take to our kayaks to bob and weave our way around the trees for more than 1km before I start to cramp up. "You need more vitamin K," says a travel buddy, relishing every click of her camera to capture an ageing man's affliction.

"Oh, to be 30-something again," I think, wondering whether that 5.30am jog at the Chateau Royal resort along the picturesque Noumea waterfront had been such a good idea.

On day one, after a round of golf, we ditch a surfing trip because of poor swells and instead take a 30-minute ultra-light plane flight over the turquoise coral lagoon teeming with marine life.

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It is a startling first-time experience.

My pilot, Gilbert Staes, soothes my jangled nerves, though his English is pretty much limited to: "No problems."

There was a translation hiccup when what I thought was a dolphin, turned out to be a dugong.

We talk via radio telephone to the pair in the other aircraft, waving and taking photos of each other and the beautiful sea and islands below.

After landing, we head off with tour operator Emeric Amice to his family property perched on a hill with breathtaking 180-degree panoramic views of the Bourail coast. Amice started Gecko Evasion in 2016 after graduating from university in France.

The third-generation descendant of French settlers takes us along the narrow, lumpy track in his 4WD to a vantage point where groups can enjoy a steak and French sausage barbecue lunch or elect to stay the night. Amice pitches the tent and affords them total privacy.

The beautiful landscape of Bourail. Photo / Getty Images
The beautiful landscape of Bourail. Photo / Getty Images

The food is fantastic, his effervescent personality infectious.

On the way back to the 4WD, I spot a humming hornet's nest before zeroing in on two ripe guavas a few metres away. Amice plucks them off the branches.

On the final day, my highlight is a jetski trip from Nouville Plaisance, where Locajet guide Jeremy, after a brief lesson on the dos and dont's of ocean hooning, takes us to Largenere Islet for snorkelling and a pre-packed picnic lunch.

I love jetskiing for the first time although I have a panic attack of sorts when I find my tight and saturated wetsuit doesn't offer me enough leverage for a freestyle stroke in the middle of the ocean where we have parked for a swim.

But Jeremy fishes me out and later I thoroughly enjoy cutting into the waves in the open channels after whipping off the top half of the wetsuit from under the lifejacket.

Later, back on the mainland, I cool off with a trek to a waterfall on a private trek.

We're off nature's treadmill for now, drenched in sweat and deliriously spent — but still smiling.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Aircalin

flies direct from Auckland to Noumea.

ONLINE
newcaledonia.travel