Our first night in New Caledonia was almost one year ago: the sky was sunset pink, coconut trees swayed in the February winds, the smell of freshly baked bread for the dinner-rush wafted on the breeze.
A dude on a bicycle leisurely rolled towards us with two baguettes poking out of his bike basket.
“Bonsoir”, he said smilingly as he drifted past us.
We call it, French Tropical. A bubble of France in the Pacific. A melange of petanque and French people, mixed with beaches and manta-ray tattoos.
Brace yourself for some facts we got off Wikipedia, and an honest review of the not very important details of living here.
New Caledonia is a cluster of islands in the Pacific Ocean to the east of Australia, a three-hour flight from New Zealand. It sits in one of the world’s largest lagoons, which is also a UNESCO heritage site. The diving is excellent.
New Caledonia has a population of a quarter million. The indigenous people of New Caledonia are Kanaks and they are of Melanesian descent.
Administratively, New Caledonia is divided into three provinces:
- The South – where the bulk of the population and most non-Kanaks live, and
- The North and Loyalty Islands – where most Kanaks live
The capital is Noumea located in the Southern Province.
Currently, Kanaks are the largest ethnic group and make up 40% of the population. The other 60% are made up of French, Polynesians, Vietnamese and people like us. Noumea is very developed (there are shopping malls), while some areas outside Noumea are not so developed.
A Brief History Lesson
Captain Cook was the first whiteman to discover the islands in 1774. He named it New Caledonia, meaning New Scotland. In 1853 New Caledonia was annexed to France before the Brits could get in. Like other colonised Pacific islands, insert here suspect trading, blackbirding, land stealing, resource mining, reservations, and missionaries.
By 1864, New Caledonia was a French penal colony. In World War II New Caledonia hosted the American army. In 1946 it became a French Overseas Territory. As more immigrants started moving in during the nickel mining peak, Kanaks became a minority. Foreigners got richer while the Kanaks watched from the sidelines. There were attempts, mostly by Kanaks, to free themselves from French rule.
In the 1980s and 90s, tensions built between Kanak independence groups and France loyalists culminating in severe clashes. This ultimately led to the Noumea Accord 1998 which promised New Caledonians three opportunities to vote oui or non to the question, “Do you want New Caledonia to attain full sovereignty and become independent?” The first vote was held in 2018 where the majority voted against independence. The next vote is coming up this year in September 2020.
What it’s actually like living here
Firstly, there is a stark difference in quality of life and social statuses of white people, expats, and Kanaks. At Nid’s workplace of over 200 people, there are no more than 10 Kanak staff, the majority of whom are maintenance. While it is a pleasant place for us to enjoy our privileges, the visible results of colonial history are still being played out. We’ve been told things can get hot with loyalists/independence tensions, but the country feels pretty safe and we haven’t packed our grab bags yet. The only things that are likely to kill us in New Caledonia are sharks and bad drivers.
A typical start to the day begins with a pastry and black coffee. There are three places in Noumea where you can find an ok flatwhite but it’s still UHT. For lunch, it’s a baguette and a siesta which is really inconvenient if you need to go to the library or bank at lunchtime. After work, New Caledonians play hard: petanque, cardio-stations, walking, dog-walking, ultra-running, hiking faster than us, horseriding, hunting, racketstuff, bikingstuff, fishingstuff, windstuff, waterstuff, and paddlestuff. New Caledonians adore sport so much, their national air carrier will let you check-in one sport item on top of your normal check-in, for free.
Although there are dozens of local languages, the lingua franca in New Caledonia is French. If you insist on shit pronunciation most people will acquiesce to English for you but not before rolling their eyes and giving a French pffff.
For men, the correct way to greet in New Caledonia is a Bonjour plus a handshake or two kisses on the cheeks from left to right. For women, always two kisses on the cheeks from left to right. A high-five in New Caledonia is two slaps, not one.
New Caledonia is a right-driving country and they are terrible at it. But they are considerate to a fault and will often, much to our frustration, give way when it is not their turn to give way. The most important driving rule in New Caledonia is waving at every passing vehicle when on country roads. Failure to wave is the same as failure to look deeply into the eyes of your French companions when toasting – seven years of soggy croissants.
Baguettes can be bought using CFP Franc and most places in Noumea will take credit cards. Outside of Noumea, cash and cheques are your best bet. It should be noted that cheques are written with a blase nonchalance: we’ve witnessed a woman pay for two carrots at the market using a cheque and everyone was ok with that. Oh, and it’s also really cool that the French still use 1 cent and 2 cent pieces – it’s fun having a wallet that pulls us off-balance.
New Caledonia is not a cheap place to live. France has a heavy hand on importing and most of everything comes from France because it’s a lot closer than Australia and New Zealand 😐. Take supermarket shopping for example: there is always an extensive selection of French cheese and rillettes (meat in a jar) but rarely any cheddar as the French don’t believe its real cheese. Farmers markets are the best places to get fresh produce at ok prices. You can find most other things but they will probably have a price-tag of two, three, or four times the price.
The weather forecast in Noumea for the whole year is a pleasant average of 24-29 degrees. Celcius (for our American friends). From November to March, it gets hot but there is an extra whiff of wind for the windsurfers and kitesurfers. In Noumea, you are rarely caught singing in the rain because it does not rain often. There are a few months in the middle of the year where sleeves may be necessary, but any Kiwi can swim in the ocean year-round. Watch out for the Australian cruise ships that block out the sun – these come in a few times every month accompanied by a sudden influx of sunburnt daytrippers with Australian accents.
New Caledonia is best experienced when outside. There is so much diverse and gobsmacking natural beauty, all packed into a small and easily accessible space. Beach aquarobics with the geriatrics in the morning, hike up Mont-Dore before lunch, a rinse and picnic at rivière Dumbéa, and a sunset aperitif at le Méridien. We’ve never actually done all of that in one day -because, nap-time- but it’s probably possible.
Overall, we really like living here. It’s pleasant, almost too pleasant. Remember that time when we were volunteers in the Solomon Islands?… nah, not really, pass the brie please.
To check our bias, we ran a survey with a panel of experts.
“Hey guys.” (Guys: our sexist appellation for our fellow expatriate, anglophone friends with disposable income, and less than two years of experience living here).
“Can you describe living here in one sentence, s’il te plait.”
Like living in the South Pacific, but not.
From someone who has not lived in the South Pacific before New Caledonia, but suspects there isn’t usually this wide of a selection of muesli at a typical Pacific island supermarket.
It’s easy, for me.
From someone who is used to, maybe even likes, the taste of Pacific Island flavoured concrete sandwiches.
From someone who can’t find any cafe that serves a tumeric latte, but is ok with that.
From someone who didn’t understand the question.
Also, not a sentence. Must be a scientist thing.
We’re going with, Expensive, but the weather’s pretty good outside. From two kiwis who like doing outside things but still pack their own lunch cos they’re cheap.
Bring on another two years!