Days 277-278 of 400: Lifou – New Caledonia, South Pacific

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After riding the tender boat, we arrived in Lifou on the island of New Caledonia.  The island is owned by France which is the main language.  As soon as we arrived, we saw numerous locals selling food and little touristy trinkets.  One tent was offering tours so we immediately asked for information on the options.  Unfortunately…it was a monopoly.  They didn’t have local buses nor taxi’s on the island.  We had to use one of their tour guides for a set 2-hour tour to a beach for $60 or a set 45 minute tour to a nearby village for $30.

Bothered that they wouldn’t customize a tour for where we wanted to go…we decided to take a walk on our own to explore.  The little town right at the port was full of traditional beehive Fiji huts with the straw roofs.  They were small and simple with a bit of landscaping right outside of each home.

As we walked through the village, we noticed an overwhelming amount of black & white butterflies everywhere…nearly running into us as we walked.  Our walk lead us through a narrow trail in the woods.  It was so narrow it almost didn’t look like a trail but we continued and found ourselves in another small village.  We quietly walked through it, stopping to take a picture outside of one of the huts.  Apparently…we weren’t allowed to because a local came out of a house and yelled at us in a Kanak dialect as he waved us away.

The trail had ended and we were on a main road…right in front of a church.  We looked inside and took a picture before paying the guy on the side of the road $10 to allow us on his property where an underground cave was.  We walked through the yard into the woods down another trail until we found the massive cave.  It was rocky but there was a thick rope in place to hold unto as we plunged further down into the ground.  As we continued the walkway got very narrow and rocky and we heard what sounded like light chanting.  We paused and looked at each other as if confirming we both wanted to continue.  We saw the entrance to this part of the cave was leading into complete darkness.

Chanting and a dark cave seemed a bit creepy as we stepped carefully over the rocks.  Once down in the cave, we saw a blanket with no one on it and the chanting had stopped.  We knew someone was in there and it was only Giff and I and this mystery chanter.  Giff yelled bonjour and turned his phone on to get a little light in the pitch dark which barely helped.

We heard movement and looked to the left to see a big local man say something to us in not our language.  He gave us a big flashlight and then jumped in water.  We turned the light towards where he was and saw there was a deep clear body of water there.  He got out and came towards us…we thought he was going to push us in…he was friendly but at the same time it was a little un-nerving.  After only a few more minutes we decided to head back out…we thanked him, gave back the flashlight and went back to the upper cave part where there was plenty of light.

Back out of the cave, we continued walking down the road looking for a bigger village.  It was extremely hot and humid…we were sweating and thirsty and there was basically nothing but a few shacks along the road.  After about a half hour of walking, we ran into some people in a village who let us look in one of their Fijian huts where the chief holds his meetings.  We took our shoes off as it is part of their culture when stepping inside a house.  It was empty inside with straw mats lining the floor.

We asked where a store was so we could buy water.  The women pointed us in the right direction and about 10 minutes later we were guzzling big bottles of water.  We started to walk back towards the direction we came from…but saw the most beautiful teal blue water in the ocean so stopped for a picture.  We also found a little hidden cove to cool off in before continuing to walk.  We saw a couple of buses of tourists and asked if anyone had room for us.  They didn’t but three local women offered to drive us 5 minutes down the road which we thankfully took (isn’t that considered hitch hiking??  Sorry mom!).

Back at the port, we decided to take the 2 hour tour…we had just over 2 hours left on the island before we had to re-board our cruise.  Once in the car, we asked the driver if instead of doing the normal 2 hour tour…if he could take us where we wanted to go now that he wasn’t in front of his boss. He agreed!  About 10 miles later we pulled into a parking lot and saw a trail.  On the tree at the start of the trail a wooden sign read, “vanilla”.

We followed the trail to an open shack in the middle of the forest.  Our driver called out in his language and the sound was echoed by someone else.  Within seconds, an older man and women appeared.  They spoke to our driver in their language and then our driver explained the fee was voluntary to tour the vanilla plantation.  We gave them $10 and the women walked us through the forest/garden.  She brought us straight to the vanilla which were little green pods on a vine growing all over the trees.  She informed us vanilla is actually part of the orchid family.  She said the vanilla would not be ready to harvest until next September…it was green now but would be brown by then.  They have to hand pollinate the vanilla flowers since no bugs to that job…which explains why vanilla is so expensive.  In September, they will pick all the pods…boil them in 70 degree water for 13 minutes and then lay them to dry for 30 days.  They do not export the vanilla…it is all used on the island.

She continued walking us through the forest…she pointed out a cacao pod sitting in a tree but said they do not make chocolate.  As we continued to walk through the path…she showed us plants we don’t have in the US as well as things like pineapple and other fruit.  The forest was beautiful and had many trees entangled with vanilla pods growing like wild flowers.  At the end of the tour, she had us try some of their vanilla flavored cold tea and coffee…the vanilla was subtle but there.  We thanked her for her time and walked back to the car with a vanilla bean given to us as a souvenir.

Another 10 minutes in the car before we found ourselves at the village of Jokin which is the northern tip of the island and is known for its cliffs.  We got out and walked to the edge…our driver pointed out the postcard shot and we took some pictures.  He then walked us down about 50 steps to the bottom of the cove between the cliffs.  There were a bunch of local kids jumping off the rocks into the turquoise water.  He asked us if we wanted to take a swim…how could we not?  We left our clothes to the side and jumped in.  The water was completely clear, we could see right to the bottom of the ocean.  We had fun cooling off while watching these kids effortlessly diving through the water.

Our 2 hours was coming to an end.  We got back into the car and drove towards the port only making one stop.  We of course wanted our daily coconut milk.  At first we thought the driver had taken us to where the coconuts were especially good but after tasting the coconut realized…they were old and he was probably trying to help his friend make some money.  From tasting so many coconuts, we realized…the fresher and younger they are…the sweeter the juice and the softer the meat.  As the coconuts get older, they turn brown…the meat turns so hard…it can only be shaved off and the milk is only used for cooking.  The coconuts we had just bought were on their way to being brown…the juice wasn’t quite as sweet and the flesh was harder to get out.  There was also a bit of bubbly taste to the juice…maybe that happens as the juice ferments.  We are now coconut pros!

Back at the port, we caught the last tender and boarded our cruise.  We ate salads and nachos at the buffet and spent some time catching up on the blog and backing up our pictures.We had dinner in the formal dining room and then found ourselves falling asleep early.

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