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The island closest to paradise

Forget the overcrowded Bora Bora and the overpriced Tahiti. Travel a little further to New Caledonia. There are sandy beaches here that holidaymakers have all to themselves.

No, this photo has not been edited afterwards: The sea around New Caledonia is actually just as blue. New Caledonia? Have you never heard of it? The archipelago.

Before a trip to New Caledonia, a fundamental question has to be answered: “Where is that located at all? A survey of acquaintances provides little information: “Before Canada? No, that’s Newfoundland. “Isn’t that a French island in the Caribbean?” French rather, but not really in the Caribbean. “In Tahiti, there in the corner, right?”

That’s not entirely wrong, at least if you take the fragmentary map on my French desk pad as a basis, which depicts “La France d’outre mer” – that is: Overseas France – bit by bit. Nouvelle Calédonie is actually in the corner to the right under Tahiti. On a nearer map, however, it is more to the left of Tahiti, about 1500 kilometers east of Australia.

New Caledonia was a French overseas territory until 5 May 1998, since then it has had the status of a French overseas country with full autonomy. It is quite far from the shot and far from any imagination. There are pictures of Tahiti, but not of New Caledonia.

In travel literature anthologies on the South Seas, the island, which at some point cheekily broke away from the Australian continent, usually does not appear at all. The Europeans first noticed the island in 1774, when James Cook passed it. In 1853 Napoleon III conquered the island for France and transformed it into a penal colony in 1864.

Prisoners were banished to New Caledonia

Existing Canakian natives were resettled unasked. After 1871 it became lively – numerous political prisoners were deported to New Caledonia after the downcast uprisings of the Paris Commune, among them the author and columnist Henri Rochefort – who managed to escape – and the women’s rights activist and revolutionary Louise Michel – to whom the anarchist movement owes the black flag.

Many of the deportees received a double penalty: after serving their sentence, they were forced to stay in New Caledonia, but were allowed to work a piece of land. Some did and married locals. Today, the New Caledonian population mix consists of these Mestiz families, French immigrants, North Africans, Melanesians and Micronesians who sailed to New Caledonia, as well as the native Kanaks.

From Paris one usually flies over Tokyo or over Seoul. The journey takes more than 20 hours, but the effort is worth it. New Caledonia is an elusive, fascinating collage of different landscapes.

Those who entered Paris shortly before midnight, two calendar days later at dawn, tumble out of the machine at the other end of the world. The journey to the capital Nouméa takes about an hour through the relatively dry pastures of the west coast of the main island “Grande Terre”.

It is the area of the “Caldoches”, this is the name given to the French immigrants who have lived here for at least two generations and are mostly engaged in cattle breeding. Two thirds of the 280,000 inhabitants of New Caledonia live in the catchment area of the capital Nouméa.

The South Seas cannot be far away

The city isn’t exactly what you’d call a pearl. It is dominated by unadorned functional buildings, remains of attractive colonial architecture are scattered. But the city, which lies on a sprawling peninsula, is not without charm. Green hills surround Nouméa, it extends over dozens of small bays and offshore islands. The water is blue-green, sometimes it shimmers turquoise. The South Seas cannot be far away.

From Nouméa, one can explore the various regions of the main island – but one can also do it differently and leave Grande Terre immediately. The orange and white Air Calédonie propeller aircraft take off from the toy-like airfield and carry the passenger in half an hour to the offshore “Îles Loyauté” – four atolls with the strange name Loyalty Islands.

A last small effort, which is demanded of the time lost from Europe. But one should take it upon oneself. Because out there the South Seas really begins. Already from the scratched airplane window the sea shimmers in the colors blue, green, turquoise, and this although the sky is covered.

After 30 minutes, the plane will touch down at the Ouvéa airfield. The baggage reclaim is somewhat unorthodox, it is done by hand in a highly individual, leisurely rhythm. I get a first impression of what the term “le temps kanak”, which is used here, means.

Céline welcomes me for a first ride over the 37 km long and only a few km wide atoll. She comes from Nice, but 15 years ago she fell in love with a canoe during a visit to Ouvéa. She stayed. And whoever sees Ouvéa can understand that. At first sight, the atoll seems to consist of a single, endless and almost untouched sandy beach.

The nature here is impudently beautiful

It’s a strangely uplifting feeling to experience something I thought existed only as digitally edited photo wallpaper. The sand is white and fine, and of course it is lined with coconut palms. But the greatest thing is: There is obviously nobody there except me.

Ouvéa is one of those places where the almost outrageous beauty of nature has not yet been exploited for mass tourism. This is not least due to the fact that the majority of the Kanaken living here have little desire to market their homeland excessively. There is only one medium-sized hotel on the island, otherwise only “acceuil en tribu”, which literally means “reception in the tribe”. It is less exotic than it sounds.

Canakian life in New Caledonia is still organized in tribes that are distributed among the different villages on the islands. And in some of them it is possible to stay in small private boarding houses.

My accommodation in the “Banian” consists of a traditional round straw hut. The entrance is waist-high. Inside there is a bed and a neon lamp that should not be left burning for too long if you don’t want to spend the first night with reptiles and poultry. Bougainvilleas bloom between the huts; and pension owners Rosaire and Roland prepare an extremely tasty Mekoua fish in the evening.

Céline picks me up early the next morning for an island tour. We visit the village Saint Joseph and its picturesque Protestant church in the north of the island. From here, one can start a three-hour hike to the northern tip of the island, which ends in a shallow basin where relatively peaceful baby sharks splash around. The tour is aptly called “Nimek”, which on Kanak means “will die tomorrow”.

Less risky visitors can either observe turtles in the “Trou à tortues” in the bay of Ognat or search for the Ouvéa parakeet in the nearby pine forest of Ohnyat. The Perruche is a bright green endemic bird species that only exists on Ouvéa.

New meets traditional culture

We have lunch break in the “Soleil levant”, a beach bar on the east coast. There is coconut cancer, a creature that nature has wisely equipped with such large scissors that it can also crack coconuts. “The Canakian culture is a narrative culture in which you share words with others,” Roger Wama tells me at lunch.

Wama is president of an organization for the care of customs on Ouvéa. “It is becoming more and more difficult to pass on this culture, because the parents are no longer at home, they work in the city, there is television, the Internet,” Wama describes a time when Kanak traditions are in danger of being lost. “We have fought for years to make it possible for Canakian languages to be taught in the schools of the French Republic.

Wama has said some beautiful and thought-provoking sentences about the contrast between the French and Kanak worlds that meet in New Caledonia. And about people who work so that they can finally afford a holiday afterwards. That is strange. Indeed. On Ouvéa it must seem very strange.

It is no coincidence that the conflict between the French colonizers and the Canakian natives once broke out most violently here. At the end of April 1988, a hostage-taking of militant independence fighters on Ouvéa ended in disaster. During the liberation of the hostages by French troops, 19 hostage-takers and two soldiers were killed. A memorial near the village of Fayaoué reminds of what is still called “the events” in New Caledonia. The question of independence remains topical. There is to be a referendum in 2014.

But such serious political questions are relatively easy for visitors to Ouvéa to ignore. The turquoise blue water surrounding the atoll is too comforting. The coral sand is too calming if one lets it trickle over the legs while sitting on the beach. On the bridge of Mouli that connects Ouvéa with the southern tip of Mouli, one can stand for hours, look into the transparent water and stare after the rays scurrying through below.

In the 1960s, a Japanese author wrote a kitsch novel about Ouvéa that became a bestseller. That’s why Japanese honeymooners still come to New Caledonia today. The book is also called “The Island Closest to Paradise”.