Saturday, October 8th, 2011: Lifou, New Caledonia
After two sea days working our way northeast from Sydney through the Coral Sea, we arrived shortly before 10am to the island of Lifou in New Caledonia. The largest of the Loyalty Islands, this island paradise is truly unspoiled, untouched, and quite amazing. Nearly the entire island is covered in thick tropical forest, with the exception of the single ribbon of asphalt that provides the few vehicles on the island a way to get from one town to the next.
We tendered into the tiny settlement of Easo, on the northwest corner of the island, and from here, there were a few two hour shore excursions provided by the ship, otherwise, you could simply walk on your own to a few spots within 3kms of Easo. We elected to do the latter and set off from the jetty and into the “town” of Easo.
On exiting the tender, we came across a number of small vendors, lined up on mats along the pathway. Many were women offering the tourists their choice of hair braiding or massage, while others presented a number of crafts for sale. Most were souvenirs like purses, sarongs, and keychains, while others made the most of their culinary talents and offered sandwiches, local food, ice creams, coconut juice, drinks, and beer. We would estimate there weren’t more than three dozen or so, and upon passing them, we had reached the main road of the island, with only a simple question on our minds… “Turn left or right?”
Without much more than a fleeting thought, the left turn had been completed, and in mere moments, the hustle and bustle (if you could call it that) of Easo was now behind us and quickly faded into silence as our Vibrams shuffled against the asphalt ground and the occasional gravel from the roadway. This road would run for about 2kms to the northwest and reach a dead end, where a simple footpath would then be our guide to the end of the island and to the Church of Lourdes, one of the oldest churches on the island, and a true testament to survival.
French Missionaries were some of the first western settlers to the island, bringing along with them trade possibilities for the local island products and exports as well as a solid foundation of the Catholic religion. For reasons that seem to stump most of the locals, the Church of Lourdes was built at the highest point on the Northwest corner of the island, with no protection from trade winds, storms, and the relentless tropical sun. A statue of Mary stands at its top, and the small church (you might call it a chapel, given its miniscule) has faced more than 150 years of wear, tear, and torment, and yet continues to return to this place over and over again.
As we arrived, the church was in the throws of a massive rebuild project, with little more than its floors and that famed statue of Mary remaining. Apparently, a huge storm (likely a cyclone or hurricane) in the last few years, ravaged the little church to the ground, destroying most of the building, and that 4 foot statue of Mary tumbled not only off of its high point on the steeple, but continued its plunge off of the jagged cliffside bluff, falling into the surf, rocks, and waves, nearly 200 feet below. It wasn’t until quite recently when a set of determined and somewhat insane divers decided to find the statue of Mary in the jagged rocks and surf below the cliffside and return her to her rightful place on the island, at the top of the little church’s steeple, over its entrance.
Sure enough, with our arrival, the statue, with its obvious battle scars and many threads of rust like coloring running through her, was back in its rightful place and the construction of the Church of Lourdes is now ongoing with financial support from the New Caledonia government. When we were there, only the four walls and some roof supports were in place, and though it will take some time to restore the church to its original and simple beauty, the view from the outlook that the church provides answered at least one question — looking out on the turquoise waters and nearly the entire island of Lifou to the south and east, this church watches over the island, just as much as its people watch and care for it.
After some pictures and a an opporutunity to enjoy the view, we headed back down the footpath and back to the main island road. Along the way, we encountered others from the cruise ship that for some reason seemed to believe that there was an escalator operating to the top of the tall hill, vs. the gravel staircase offered by the locals, but somehow they would find their way. We on the other hand, headed back along the road and took a slight detour to the north, and found ourselves at our next stop for the day, Baie de Jinek.
The Baie is well known amongst cruisers to the island as a basic, but spectacularly beautiful place to snorkel. Upon our arrival, we joined another dozen or so folks that were in the water, or quickly donning their snorkel gear to begin their time in the bay. This place was far more mellow than Easo, with just a single vendor offering up cool drinks, snacks, and snorkel gear to rent. Storm damage (likely the same one that devastated the Church of Lourdes) took out the access point to the water entry point (there is a good 12-15 foot drop to the water), so a rudimentary ladder was lashed together by the locals with tree branches. Surprisingly good craftsmanship for 2″ thick tree branches and old power and usb cables (seriously — IT here takes on a new meaning). We made our way down to the water’s edge and took in an amazing view.
Unfortunately for us, we weren’t aware of the new vendor at the Baie, with her assortment of a dozen or so snorkel masks, otherwise we would have worn our swimsuits and spent some time out in the coral lined bay. Not a huge loss, we threw off our shoes and got into the water up to our knees and enjoyed the temperature drop from the warm, tropical sun. After a while, it was back up the ramshackle ladder and onto the path that brought us once again back to the main island road (seriously — its nearly impossible to get lost here!)
From here, we worked our way back towards Easo, and passed by a traditional Melanesian hut and prayer shrine, where the owners simply left a metal can out for “tips” to photograph the old-style building. Though the contemporary Melanesian building is a small concrete building with no official windows about the size of a motor home, it seems that the people are content, as long as the satellite dish on the roof continues to get a successful TV signal.
We passed the big intersection in the island road back to Easo and the ship and walked another 2 kms to the primary French Catholic church serving this area of the island. Larger and nearly three stories in size, it also had a tall bell tower and a choir loft, though the building was beginning to show its age, with some peeling paint (high tropical humidity is a huge problem for paint we imagine) and a few cracks in the plaster, but the spirit of the community was evident in the projects that the church supports for the local people. We enjoyed viewing the inside of the church and decided that it was time to head back to the beach in Easo for a while before reboarding the ship.
The small stretch of beach in Easo became a very busy and popular place with cruise ship passengers, as quite frankly, this tiny little island offered not much else beyond crystal clear water, and fine white sand beaches. Some folks had to be reminded that their iPhones didn’t work here and that the point of being in this place was to relax and enjoy the sun, the surf, and the sand. So, for a couple of hours, we did too. We found a shady spot, dropped our beach towels and just watched the world go by.
Once we were baked to a golden brown (or a fiery pink in Darin’s case), we headed back to the ship, after a very mellow, but very enjoyable day on the island of Lifou, New Caledonia.