by Meredith Stephens
Whenever I embark on a sailing trip, my sister Rachel wants to know the dates of our blue water passage. This is not because of curiosity, but rather because she will pray for my safety. Skipper Alex and our crew of three sailed from the east coast of Australia, New Caledonia, over five days and nights. For a break from sailing, we rented a car to explore the main island, Grand Terre. We found ourselves in a delightful bed-and-breakfast accommodation, known as a gite in French, and told our host of our plan to sail across to the Loyalty Islands.
“If you go to the Loyalty Islands, you have to carefully observe local protocols,” she warned us. “You have to give the locals some fabric and one thousand Pacific Francs. If you don’t do the right thing, they might come onto the boat with guns.”
The guidebooks had instructed us to bring a gift, known as la coutume or le geste, for the chief, but we did not know that the consequences of not following protocol would be so dire.
We sailed from Yate on Grand Terre to the marina at Wé, on the island of Lifou. We had been advised to arrive during the daytime. Alex rose at dawn and started the sail to Lifou. The wind was in our favor and we sailed at over seven knots the whole way without motoring. Despite our best efforts, we arrived in the Wé marina at night when it was unattended, but the harbourmaster knew we were coming and had notified us of our berth.
The next morning, we received a hearty welcome in a mixture of French and English by the harbormaster. We asked him where we could anchor as we sailed around the island of Lifou. He made courtesy phone calls to the chiefs in various bays. At the first bay, we just needed to produce the customary fabric and one thousand Pacific French Francs. Then we asked about the neighboring island of Ouvéa. The harbormaster called around, explaining that he didn’t know the protocol. Then he was given a further phone number to get a definitive answer. This time, he was told that we could not anchor in the waters of Ouvéa without permission. We would have to wait for a response to his email.
He explained, “A couple of years ago, a large commercial fishing vessel anchored off Ouvéa without permission. They stayed for as long as a week. The locals fired at them and were put in prison. The visitors were saved and unhurt, but they will no longer accept visitors to their island.”
We left the marina at Wé not knowing whether we would be able to visit Ouvéa. We sailed the twenty-five nautical miles to Jinek. It was warm even though it was a tropical winter. The boat cantered like an aging but unpredictable Clydesdale, lurching in slow motion in various directions. We sailed alongside green cliffs until we spotted a cluster of houses with blue rooves. Alex weighed fifty meters of anchor over clear blue water through which we could see coral.
Visiting the chief was a priority. We caught the dinghy to a stone stairway ascending the cliff. I clutched a knotted rope at the base of the cliff, found footholds, and pulled myself up to the concrete stairway. Alex followed me and we ascended the many stairs to the top of the cliff, surrounded by lush tropical foliage. Once at the top we tried to find the chief’s house. I had memorized the French expression the harbormaster had told me.
“Où se trouve la maison du petit chef?” (Where is the chief’s house?) I asked a passerby.
The problem was that all the passersby were tourists and I couldn’t see any locals. The tourist didn’t know who the chief was either, so he pointed me in the direction of some indigenous Kanaks. Alex and I approached some houses and I spotted a Kanak gentleman working with a chainsaw.
“Est-ce que c’est la maison du petit chef?” (Is this the chief’s house?) I asked.
“Oui,” he assured me with a wide smile, and then giggled. “Je rigole!” (I’m joking).
He pointed us in the direction behind the church. Alex spotted a large traditional house with a conical roof made of grass, next to a western dwelling. We entered the gate and called Bonjour until a woman came out. We greeted her and offered her our presents. She gracefully accepted them and told us that she operated a cafe for tourists at lunchtime, offering authentic local cuisine. We told her there would be five of us and agreed to turn up at midday the next day.
The next morning, the skies were overcast, and it was pouring. I wondered whether we could keep our promise to the chief’s wife. How could we pull ourselves up the foot of the stairs in the mud and safely climb all the way to the top of the cliff? However, by midday, the skies had cleared, and it was warm. We climbed into the dinghy and motored to the cliff. I looked out for coral in case we snagged the base. Once we reached the staircase, I found a foothold, grabbed the rope, and dragged myself onto the base of the staircase. We trudged up the stairs lined with lush jungle foliage and reached the top where the chief lived. We walked past the traditional hut, calling Bonjour until our greeting was returned. We walked into an outdoor eating area where we found a table set with a pink floral tablecloth and places set for five.
“I’m Clarisse,” the chief’s wife said in French.
We introduced ourselves in a mixture of French and English and were ushered to the table. Clarisse had made a traditional dish for us of yam, pumpkin, banana, spinach, freshly grated paw paw and chicken.
Despite our earlier sense of trepidation, we now had a strong sense of being welcomed. We exchanged chit chat about our families, countries, and tribal life. Then Clarisse told me that the two most precious things in her life were following Jesus and her local culture. She explained that the most important building in the village was not the chief’s house, but rather the church. The church towered over the other buildings in the center of the village.
We were curious to ask about her attitude to westerners. Visiting the Loyalty Islands had been sensitive since 1988 when French police quashed a Kanak uprising in Ouvéa. I found myself interpreting with my rusty French for my English-speaking crew members.
“How do you get along with the French?” Alex asked.
“It was horrific when they came in and killed nineteen men during the standoff in 1988,” she replied. “It was tragic, but I am afforded the freedom that comes with forgiveness because I am a Christian. Those Kanaks who have not adopted the faith are still very bitter.”
My fellow crew did not share my faith. Suddenly, Clarisse started excitedly sharing her faith with them and I found myself in the position of interpreter. They listened respectfully. Missionaries may have shared their faith with the Kanaks in the 1800s, but now this Kanak woman was sharing it with visiting westerners.
We reluctantly bade farewell to Clarisse and trekked down the mountain to do some snorkeling to enjoy the coral reefs. Then we boarded the boat and sailed around the headland to Xépénéhé. Alex and I made our way to shore in the dinghy, and asked some workers on the beach to direct us to the chief. We walked up wide streets lined with both traditional and western houses, surrounded by expansive lawns and bordered with stone fences. After following the workers’ directions, we found the chief’s residence, a western house adjacent to a traditional one. We walked around to the back of the house, calling out Bonjour until we spotted a family having lunch. The chief and his wife stood up to greet us and we offered them the requisite fabrics.
“Can we anchor in your bay this afternoon? We don’t plan on doing any fishing,” we reassured them.
“You are very welcome to stay here!”
“Do you get many tourists coming here?”
“We haven’t had tourists for nearly three years, but the cruise ships will resume their stops here next month in September.”
“How many are aboard?”
“Two or three thousand.”
I couldn’t imagine so many visitors coming to this remote and sparsely populated village, but I could understand why the cruise ship companies would choose such a location.
Then the chief’s wife appeared with gifts for us – a tray featuring a map of New Caledonia, a piece of traditional fabric, and a one thousand note Pacific French Francs, of equal value to the note we had given them. We asked them whether we could sail to Ouvéa and they reassured us that we could if we showed respect to the locals. We had not received confirmation from the harbormaster in response to the email, so we decided to follow the chief’s advice.
We returned to the boat to enjoy the sunset and ready ourselves for the twelve-hour sail to Ouvéa the next day. Alex and the crew looked at the Predict Wind app to determine the most favorable weather conditions, and planned our departure and arrival times accordingly. Around two pm, we spotted the township of Saint Joseph. The most prominent building was the church with a red roof and tower.
There were no other sailboats in the bay. After anchoring, Alex and I appointed ourselves to head ashore to find the chief. There we were greeted by a wide-eyed five-year-old boy on a bicycle with a generous head of brown and gold locks. He greeted me in French and used the vous form reserved for formal speech. He spoke quickly, and I had to ask him to repeat himself several times.
“Please come over here to meet my fellow tribe members.”
They had observed us sail in and appointed the boy to greet us. We followed him to a group of six locals sitting on picnic rugs and addressed them in French.
“We are tourists from Australia, and would like to pay our respects to the chief.”
They welcomed us and introduced themselves. Because I had previously worked as a teacher, I had made it a habit to memorize names of groups of people quickly. I told them my name was ‘Merri’ and they repeated it with a clear English pronunciation.
A young woman and man stood up and accompanied us down the road to the chief’s neighbor, telling us that the chief had deceased. We were ushered into the neighbor’s patio and were offered seats. We offered her the customary fabrics and a one thousand Pacific French Franc note. We exchanged pleasantries and asked permission to anchor in the bay for a night, which was granted.
“Next you have to visit the grand chef,” the young woman who had accompanied us advised us, referring to a more senior chief.
“Where does he live?”
“Turn right at the church and continue walking. It’s quite a long way.”
“We don’t mind walking.”
We decided to go back to the boat for more presents, but the locals on the beach offered me a place on their picnic rug. I accepted their offer while Alex returned to the boat in the dinghy to get the presents and bring the rest of the crew to shore.
The locals were keen to explain their local produce to me, such as green coconut, and a sweet potato unique to the island.
“Come back here tomorrow at 10 am and we will bring you some,” they entreated me.
I accepted their offer, and then Alex, Luke, and I walked in the direction of the chief’s house bearing our gifts. Every now and then, a car would pass us, the drivers would give us wide smiles and big waves. We could hear cows mooing and spotted several horned chestnut cows grazing near the roadside. We identified the grand chef’’s house by the enormous fence made with giant tree trunks. We entered, calling out Bonjour, but received no answer. We continued on our way, I saw a thin elderly man with his arm encased in plaster cycling towards us. I hailed him with a Bonjour, and as he stopped to greet us, he gently fell to the ground. I realized I shouldn’t have hailed him. We asked him where the grand chef’s house was and he informed us that we had come too far. We thanked him and retraced our tracks to the house lined with enormous tree trunks. Enclosed was a spacious lawn, and the house was situated by the rear border of the garden. We called out Bonjour again but there was no response, so we returned to the boat for the evening.
The next morning, we returned to the shore at the appointed time. There was a school oval next to the church, and we were greeted by one of the members of the tribe who had been at the shore the day before. They invited us to the school fete and informed us that we could buy coconut juice and cakes in the classroom. Upon hearing the word ‘cake’ I decided to hurry over. We purchased fresh coconuts. The vendor slashed the top of the coconuts so we could drink them straight from the coconut. I also purchased five pieces of home-made cake for the crew.
As we were leaving, we noticed the tribe members who had welcomed us the previous day sitting on a picnic rug. They invited us to sit down and shared the promised sweet potatoes with us. They had provided freshly cut lemons and tinned sardines to accompany them. They showed us how to peel away the thick potato skin, cut it into rounds and top it with the sardines and lemon juice.
We sat on the picnic rug while the locals sat on the surrounding grass. We could see the picture postcard coconut palms giving onto white sands and turquoise waters with our boat in the distance. We were still the only visiting sailboat in the bay.
“We informed the grand chef that you had visited him to announce your arrival. Apparently, he was at a wedding yesterday. We will make sure the gifts you presented to the neighbor of the other chief will reach him.”
That afternoon, we continued sailing to Mouly. The guidebook advised that we needed permission from the chief if we wanted to visit the nearby Gee Island. Alex and I went ashore immediately upon arrival to find him. We asked some children where he lived, and they pointed us down the road. They told us in French that his house could be identified by the wooden fence. We walked until we found a housing complex enclosed by a boundary of enormous tree trunks. We entered and called Bonjour but there was no answer. Then we enquired of a passerby where the chief was and were told he was not at home. We wandered back along the main street. As at Saint Joseph, drivers in passing cars gave us wide smiles and waved enthusiastically. We decided to walk to the most prominent building in the village, a church with a red roof stretching into the sky, reached through an avenue of pine trees.
We continued walking the length of the village, greeted by locals riding on the back of pick-up trucks wearing colorful head-dress and other finery. We spotted an abandoned roadside stall, fashioned with walls made of contrasting panels of woven grasses. At the end of the village, we found a gite, consisting of traditional housing, huts made of natural materials.
Then we wandered back onto the beach to return. The sunlight was blinding and I walked in the shallows to relieve myself from the heat. We left the beach to head back to the grand chef’s house. Once we arrived, we spotted a couple in the neighboring house, and asked them where the chief was.
“They’re at a wedding down the road.”
They pointed us in the direction of the wedding. We spotted a woman in an elaborate head-dress and a brightly coloured dress. We asked her if the chief was at the wedding and she informed us that he was not there. We headed back to the chief’s house and noticed a car entering the driveway. We entered and waved to the driver. A tall slim young man faced us.
“Do you know the chief? We need his permission to anchor in the bay.”
“I’m afraid he’s away at the moment.”
“We have come to offer la coutume, and to ask permission to swim off Gee Island. We don’t want to fish,” we reassured him.
“Do you know the chief?” we asked.
“I’m his son!”
We were relieved to hear this.
“Have you come here to perform the ritual gift giving?” he continued, noting our parcel.
We offered it to him and he accepted it with a smile.
“Can we dive around Gee Island?”
“For how long?”, he replied with a frown.
“About four hours.”
“Two hours would be okay. It’s a special place.”
We were glad we had asked.
“And watch out for the reef sharks,” he warned.
Suddenly, I felt like I didn’t want to snorkel after all, but Alex was unperturbed.
We bade him farewell, and he thanked us again for the gifts.
“De rien,” (Not at all.) we replied, using the expression that we had heard so often in the last few weeks.
Next was the visit to the island of Gee. We motored for an hour in calm waters. We hopped in the dinghy and threw the anchor around some protruding rocks. Alex and the crew had their wetsuits on, and popped out of the boat to do some snorkeling to enjoy the coral reefs. I was wary of sharks, so I stayed in the dinghy.
Soon the sky became overcast, and it grew cold. The crew found refuge back in the dinghy. Noticing us waiting, Alex then decided to return.
“I could have done that all day,” he quipped, holding his underwater camera.
We headed back to the boat and then the sky erupted in a downpour, just as we entered.
Twenty-seven hours later, we arrived back at the mainland, Grand Terre. We anchored overnight and headed for the marina the following morning. We left the large Kanak flag flying on the mast, having had happy memories of our intercultural exchanges in the Loyalty Islands.
We wanted to return one day, and sought out a charter company to make some enquiries.
“Can we rent a boat and sail to the Loyalty Islands?”
“C’est interdit!” (It’s forbidden!) warned the receptionist.
I was surprised at the swift answer. Overhearing our conversation, the boss emerged from an adjacent office and explained why it was so. There had been incidences of violence between visiting boaties and locals. I described the hospitality that had been extended to us during our visit.
“You should come and work for us!” he joked.
“We’ll come back in two years when things have settled down,” we offered.
“See you in two years then.”
Whether we can return to New Caledonia is uncertain, but our encounters with local people touched me deeply. Despite dire warnings about the Loyalty Islands from our hosts on the main island, we were welcomed by Kanaks once we reached the islands. They shared their food with us despite us being strangers, and one host shared not only food but also her faith with us. On the basis of my limited experience, I am not in a position to advise others whether it is safe to travel to the Loyalty Islands, but I am grateful for the warmth, hospitality and openness shown to us as foreigners who did not speak their native languages and spoke very imperfect French. As Clarisse said, her faith had spared her the anguish of carrying the resentment for the way the Kanaks had suffered during conflict. I hope that others will find the freedom of forgiveness too, and that fellow Christians will keep this country in their prayers.
After our sail from the Loyalty Islands back to Noumea, we safely made the long sail back to Australia. This time we decided to sail to Sydney, so rather than five days and nights, it took us seven. As always, my sister Rachel wanted to know the dates of our blue water passage. I would like to thank Rachel for her prayers. We did safely arrive back in our homeland.
Meredith Stephens is a retired professor from South Australia. She taught in Japan for over twenty years. Her work has appeared in The Font- A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, Transnational Literature, The Blue Mountain Review, The Muse, Borderless, The Writers’ and Readers’ Journal, Reading in a Foreign Language, and The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching.