Round-the-world: Dodging sea snakes on Lifou

From Sydney we took a two-and-a-half hour morning flight to the French territory of New Caledonia and then jumped into a taxi headed to Nouméa, the capital. We then spent the better part of an afternoon exploring the capital. (Don’t worry. I’ll circle back to Nouméa in a future post.) Ahead of us: six nights on Lifou, one of New Caledonia’s four Loyalty Islands.

Our Air Calédonie flight from Nouméa’s domestic airport to Lifou, arrives just before 6 pm. By 6:30 pm, when we get into the van organized by our hotel, it’s completely dark. We hurtle through the night. Most of the streets have no streetlights. Our driver points various things out: the bank; another bank; the mayor’s office; the post office. It is deeply exciting to be introduced to an unfamiliar place just beyond dusk.

Logistics first. There is a secret to every place you visit. On Lifou, the secret is that you need to rent a car. Distances are considerable. The best beaches are 12 or so miles apart from one another, and there is neither public transportation nor a taxi service.

The other secret, except that it’s not really a secret at all, is that the reefs around Lifou are teeming with highly venomous sea snakes. They are apparently very curious and have a habit of zipping over to snorkeling humans to say hello. Despite their serpentine toxicity, everybody claims that they are harmless. Ne pas toucher says the woman at the reception desk at our guest house, with a shrug. My fears are not assuaged.

On our first full day, we rent bikes built for people smaller than us. We bike along Lifou’s main road in early morning, stopping at little shops to pick up a baguette, tinned sardines, water, and crackers. We bike to Luengoni Beach (see above) on the island’s east coast. A deserted beach, a makeshift lunch. It is shockingly perfect, even with two rain showers. Returning in mid-afternoon we are caught unprepared by yet another rainstorm, this one pretty massive, though by the time we make it back to the guest house it has become very hot. The bike journey, at over 20 kilometers, is pretty arduous in the heat. We quickly came to the conclusion that we need a car and rent one the next day.

The cove opposite Oasis de Kiamu hotel.

Lifou’s beaches are ridiculous. The sand is powdery and white and the bays arc gently. There are two perfect beaches on Lifou’s east coast: Chateaubriand Bay, which cradles the town of Wé, the administrative center of the Loyalty Islands, and the beach in the settlement of Luengoni, to the south. There is a smaller beach further south along on Wiadra Bay, also picturesque although lacking the majesty of the largest beaches. There are also many coves, such as the one across the road from our comfortable guesthouse, Oasis de Kiamu (see above). The west coast is home to Peng beach, described by everyone as the most perfect of all. The road leading to Peng, however, is currently barricaded by locals protesting plans to build a new hotel there.
The view from Jokin’s cliff side perch.

Beaches aren’t the entire story on Lifou. We drive the island from top to bottom. At the northern end is the town of Jokin with its picturesque cliff side vistas (see above) over coral reefs. Inland along the western side of the island are dense forests and a string of villages that feel a world apart. The signs here are in Drehu, the local Kanak variant, not French. At one point a man raises his arm to wave at us and we notice that he is holding a rifle, presumably for hunting. The southern tip of the island is home to spectacular cliffs that permit views of Tiga, the smallest inhabited Loyalty island.

New Caledonia is a part of France, and Lifou is unmistakably part of the French-speaking world. That said, it is truly on the outskirts of the French state. Almost everyone speaks French, and emblems of the French government are omnipresent, yet the blending of contemporary and traditional forms of clothing among women, the presence of traditional Kanak huts next to modern houses, and the sharing of power between tribal and French jurisdictions makes for a place that feels like both an outpost of France and an emerging Pacific nation.

Lifou is not a budget destination. With the more or less obligatory car rental, costs come to about $160 a day per person for accommodations, meals, and transportation combined, assuming a double room share. By staying in tribal accommodations, getting meals from supermarkets, and eschewing a car rental, costs would plummet considerably, though probably not below $75 per day per person. Our costs included a nightly dinner at Oasis de Kiamu, our friendly little guest house. Three-course dinners, prefaced by an aperitif and an amuse-gueule, came to around 3800 francs (about $42). Our room cost 9000 francs per night, which is around $101.

Finally, back to the dreaded sea snakes. While terribly poisonous, they are, according to the research Matt did online, famously meek. They’re so agreeable, in fact, that fishermen apparently toss them by hand back into the ocean when they get tangled in nets.

I never saw one.

Check out other posts in the Capricorn Route series here.