New Caledonia isn’t a place many people have heard of. Sitting east of Australia, about equidistant from Melbourne and Auckland by plane, it’s a sizeable collection of islands with a population nearing 300,000. The majority of the population is Kanak, the name for the indigenous Melanesian inhabitants who have existed there for 3,000 years. The Kanak are composed of many different tribus, or tribes, scattered throughout the islands.
Since the treaty which established New Caledonia as a “special territory” of France about 150 years ago, the island’s official language is French. The majority of the tourists there are from mainland France, with a dash of Australian visitors who mostly come into the capital, Noumea, for a day or less off their mesmerisingly huge P&O ferries.
I therefore found myself in serious Francophone territory and company at my hostel, L’Auberge de Jeunesse (youth hostel) that sits in the hills above Noumea. A little daunted at first, I had to remind myself that my main reason for visiting was to brush up on that language I’ve come to love and haven’t used since leaving Paris.
And so I projected a confidence I didn’t feel as I approached my first hours in New Caledonia, and found to my surprise and joy that the tropical weather and tendency for most fellow travellers to be older (average age: late 20s) than those populating the hostels of New Zealand contributed to an atmosphere of bonhomie and openness. Within days I had met a lovely group of people who spoke in easy Franglish (but mostly French, which was great for practice) and with whom I explored the island’s treasures. Lots of Frenchies are there to complete internships or to work on temporary contracts, as the islands are always short of professionals such as medics (there is no medical school in New Caledonia, and a lot of young people leave).
In this part of the world, the Antipodes and the Pacific Island nations, one really feels the reverberating benefits of (post)colonial “arrangements”. As a British passport holder and EU citizen (yes, still am at this point!), I can travel to New Caledonia without a visa and, although I can’t work, French citizens can move and work freely here. In Australia and New Zealand, generous reciprocal deals mean that British citizens can enter, without paying anything for their visitor visa, for up to six months (in New Zealand) and three months (Australia) and there are few limits placed on us when applying for under-30s work visas, which can be extended for up to two years.
Even citizens from some other EU countries, such as those from Austria, must take part in a visa “lottery” – only a certain amount are given out each year – and fulfill stringent (and expensive-to-obtain) English language requirements. If you’re from a country without any of these arrangements in place, it’s a different story, although my experiences with immigration officials and services in both Australia and New Zealand were always affable and positive. It’s made me think a lot about post-Brexit freedom of movement and has opened my eyes to the other options available to those who, like me, are in possession of a highly desirable passport and prize international mobility more than anything. In short, we’ve got options; and wonderful ones at that.
Back to New Caledonia. L’Île-des-Pins, or Isle of Pines, is a small island east of the biggest island, Grand Terre, and is reachable by ferry or plane (a ferry round-trip, which I paid about 100 euros for, takes 2.5 hours each way). Because I didn’t have loads of time or money, a day trip was enough for me, but it is definitely better to stay longer if you can. It’s deceptive in size, hilly, and requires a car to get efficiently from one side to the other. Fortunately for me, one of my French buddies, Marion, had generously offered to share her driving skills and car with me and another friend from the hostel, Chris. So we spent the day on the island, most of our time being at the locally-famous piscine naturelle – natural swimming pool – aptly named because it looks like this:
It opens up into a delightfully blue lagoon with the clearest water I’ve ever seen. Snorkelling, you can see all the way down to the bottom and dozens of metres ahead, and there is all manner of coloured fish, rippling clams, and sea cucumbers to gaze at for hours. The sand is white and we were fortunate to have sunny weather most of the day (New Caledonia’s climate is very temperamental, with storms and rains frequently bursting through the humid air). It was bliss.