Another weekend arrives and Nouméa switches to her decompression mode.
Early on Saturday morning, the city's long waterfront fills with sportsmen determined to sweat the punishment from Monday to Friday.
During the week, they can only feel the summer atmosphere from abroad through the windows of the offices, subject to the hours of the French branches on the island, or from the businesses and alternative lives in which they ventured to enrich themselves and escape the constraints of the distant metropolis.
The daring ones seem to achieve the first of the goals with relative ease.
Compensation from Tropical to Punishment from 9 am to 5 am
After jogging, inline skating and cycling, there is a quick passage through the house to the shower and then join the journey to the rounded sandy beaches of the Baie des Citrons and Anse Vata.
The distance from the apartments only in rare cases justifies a motorized trip, but the wear and tear of the morning effort combined with some need for ostentation complicates traffic parallel to the sea. There are common vehicles, small Peugeots, Citroens and Renaults that the mother country exports at inflated prices.
But among these, an unusual number of newly acquired cars, Audis Q7s, exuberant BMWs and the sumptuous Porsche Cayenne that, thanks to the homage paid by the German brand to the exotic capital of French Guiana, doubly seduce Gallic millionaires are looking for parking.
It is an urban coastline but this one shared by the meters, zoreilles ou jokes (French who were born in France), broths Caledonians (French born in New Caledonia descendants of criminal prisoners or free emigrants) and Kanak (the indigenous Melanesians).
It doesn't offer the tropical color or glamor of others that the South Pacific hides offshore, but it's three or four minutes from downtown.
As in most colonial realities, the Kanak they are reduced to their immigrant survival in the expensive capital. Instead, a surprising number of meters, broths city dwellers and inhabitants of Asian origin resort to the sailboats and yachts that clog the city's marina to sail to the dream islands of New Caledonia.
Or they boost the territory's emerging economy by spending on Nouméa's sophisticated shops and terraces.
Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center: a monument to Kanak identity
In the middle of the afternoon, the weather betrays the population's leisure activities. Pitch-black clouds are approaching from the sides of Vanuatu and release a withering deluge that the uninterrupted thunder and lightning give the air of an unforeseen apocalypse.
Around that time, we entered the Tjibaou Cultural Center. Seconds before we took refuge under the eccentric structure of the kanak complex designed by Renzo Piano, from far away, the architectural structure most creative in the city, just a few heavy drops hit us.
A photography exhibition displays historical images from Melanesia (the South Pacific region that includes the Solomon Islands, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and Fiji) found by adventurous anthropologists of the early XNUMXth century.
To the sound of rain, thunder and musicians' rehearsals Kanak that will perform at night, these images allow us to go back in time.
From the Inevitable James Cook to the Controversial French Annexation
As with so many other parts of the Pacific, it was the inevitable James Cook the first European navigator to come across the island of Grande Terre, in 1774. Although already tropical, in his view, the rugged and mountainous coast was similar. , to that of Scotland, where his father was originally from.
Cook therefore decided to give it the Latin name of that territory.
In the XNUMXth century, whalers began operating from the coast of the main island of the archipelago, as well as sandalwood traders. The raw material has run out in the meantime, but as other islands around were colonized by the British, the latter increased the blackbirding.
They dedicated themselves to kidnapping Melanesian natives to use as slaves on the sugar cane plantations of Fiji and the Australian province of Queensland. In time, the victims and all native peoples of Oceania would be called the Kanaka, according to the Hawaiian word for “man”.
After the French annexation of New Caledonia, achieved by Napoleon III in fierce competition with the English, the term would come to be shortened to kanak and began to be used in a pejorative way by the colonists. In reaction to prejudice, the indigenous population proudly adapted it to define themselves and their nation.
The Afrancesamento de Grande Terre, by Opposition to Neighbor Vanuatu
"Bonjour monsieur, madam" the Melanesian employees at the reception of the Jean Tjibaou Cultural Center greet us. The greeting is formally polite. It sounds like the delicate and often forced Gallic composure rather than the timidity typical of the natives and speaks volumes of the dilemma in which the Kanaks currently live.
Two years earlier, we had visited Vanuatu, a vast island stronghold also colonized by the French, in condominium with the British, until 1980.
And, just some time after we landed in Nouméa, we are already amazed at the civilizational distance that separates that archipelago from New Caledonia, despite the geographical and ethnic proximity of its peoples, both savages and cannibals a few centuries earlier.
For historical and political reasons, the French influenced the landscape and culture of New Caledonia much more strongly.
They were present with a growing community of broths e meters and, later, with companies and institutions imported from the metropolis. Today, as in the past, many kanaks doubt or disagree with the benefits of the French presence and the French special collectivity status accorded to their nation.
They re-examine the ideals and contestation of the martyr-priest Jean-Marie Tjibaou who left his studies in sociology at the Catholic University of Lyon and returned to New Caledonia to lead a process of cultural revolution aimed at regaining the dignity of the Kanak people and pursuing independence.
Jean-Marie Tjibaou, an Emblematic Leader of the Kanak People
Tjibaou abandoned his religious vocation considering that, at the time, “it was impossible for a priest to take a stand, for example, in favor of the restitution of land to the Kanak people.
Among other later forms of struggle, he led, in 1975, the Melanesia Manifestation 2000, which brought together, in the place of the center that honors him, all the tribes of New Caledonia.
Having ultimately avoided an imminent civil war between the natives and the settlers, he signed, in Paris, in 1988, the Matignon Agreements who established a ten-year development period with economic and institutional guarantees for the Kanak community, before the neo-Caledonians pronounced on independence.
After this period, a new agreement was approved by the population and signed in Nouméa, under the aegis of Lionel Jospin. It provided for the transfer of sovereignty, in 2018, and independence in all areas except defence, security, justice and currency.
Jean-Marie Tjibaou was no longer present in any of the post-Matignon agreements. was murdered in the Ouvéa island by a radical independentist, who opposed the leader's concessions.
Discovering the Grande Terre, the Great Pebble of the South Pacific
Before leaving Nouméa, we went through the airport to deal with bureaucracy related to car rental. And the employee at the counter, who has an eternally youthful look reminiscent of Jean-Paul Belmondo, doesn't hide his curiosity: “And what are two Portuguese people doing in New Caledonia, something so rare?”
Then he exults with the answer: “Reporters? Look how wonderful! It's great that they promote us there in Europe. They know the French don't care much about it. To give you an idea, when French TV broadcasts images of New Years Eve in the Pacific, they always show Sydney and they ignore us, when our party even happens before Sydney's.”
We take the highway heading north. We unveil the first green plains and hills of La Brousse, the rural vastness of the Grande Terre from which the broths have seized and continue to explore.
On the way to La Foa and Sarraméa, the impenetrable jungle that still covers most of the neighboring Vanuatu archipelago, was replaced there by endless pastures covered by large herds of cows. To drive them, Caledonian cowboys are increasingly turning to pick-up trucks and quads instead of classic horses.
The highway gives way to conventional, well-maintained roads, which locals, annoyed by the distances, travel at enormous speed.
The name is not deceiving. Grande Terre is really big.
After all, it appears in the geographical ranking as the 52nd island in the world, 22nd in the Pacific and is twice the size of Corsica.
Voh's Heart That Shatters Ours
Wary, we continue north, hoping to glimpse the heart of Voh – the cover of Yann Arthus-Bertrand's illustrious book “Earth Seen from Heaven” – and explore the surrounding scenery. But reality quickly undoes any romanticism.
Another of the names given by the French to Grande Terre is Le Caillou, in Portuguese, O Calhau. In Voh, we had the opportunity to see why.
The island's soil contains an enormous wealth of critical industrial elements and minerals, including a quarter of the world's nickel. Prospecting and mining are visible all over the place but the Voh region concentrates the activity and its landscape was inevitably overturned and injured.
The vegetal heart, that one, appears in a small mangrove near the mines, but, as the book by Arthus-Bertrand indicates, it is only detectable from the air and in specific meteorological conditions.
So we return to the south, with Bourail in sight. A green valley leads to a wide beach where the coast, due to geological whims, rises slightly below sea level.
The danger warnings are repeated in the event of a tsunami, but none of the owners of the houses installed there seem to care, busy with the gardens and barbecues.
The Mar Rude Beach and Elegant Pines of Baie des Tortues
Right next door, the Pacific punishes Baie des Tortues with the first real waves we've seen on Grande Terre, which, like all of New Caledonia, is protected by the largest enclosed lagoon in the world.
We travel a few additional kilometers in the forest of La Brousse and we arrive at Pouembout, a village where one of the possible longitudinal crossings of the island begins. We go inside and skirt the mountains to revalidate the vision of nature with avoidable blemishes.
Along the way, small armies of kanak work at the side of the road, cutting through the resilient vegetation that the tropical climate renews. In the middle of the monsoon season South Pacific, the rain settles and disappears depending on the slope along the route and makes the most precious contribution.
An hour later, we arrive in Touho, on the east coast of Grande Terre.
On that side, the atmosphere cooks moisture and heat like a pressure cooker, a phenomenon reinforced by the retention of the now compact jungle and by the absence of wind that makes the inner Pacific offshore (enveloped by a far reef barrier) a kind of sea dead.
We continue along a dark and narrow road in which new tribes – hamlets or Kanak villages – appear, peaceful, or just their houses, identified by poorly populated sales stalls or by clotheslines that display the gaudy ethnic patterns of indigenous clothes.
Hienghéne, the Last Really City of the Northeast
Hienghène is the first town worthy of the name to be found in the northeast of the island. And, if the population proves itself, there, mostly kanak, the intrusion of French modernity makes itself felt once again. Several women chatting together in the local market form a curious conglomerate of folk dresses.
The discussion flows animatedly under the shadow of the polished white building, but one does not glimpse or feel a true atmosphere of tribal commerce, such as that which once animated the region.
Instead, kanaks, broths and meters buy baguettes from the small adjacent grocery stores. In this way, the functional predominance of Francophonie throughout Grande Terre is proved.
The northeast extends, on the map, above Hienghène, adorned by imposing coastal mountains that only Mont Panié beats in altitude.
And broken by dark rivers lost in the jungle, like Ouaiéme, which, in the modernized way of the Camel imagination, is regularly crossed by a motor raft.
Ouaiéme marks the northern boundary that we had drawn to explore the Grande Terre. After investigating one or another of its exotic views, we reversed our march to return to Noumea.
Somewhere in the vicinity of the South Pacific, the Isle of Pines, one of New Caledonia's perfect idyllic playgrounds.