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Le Tour des Baguettes de la Nouvelle-Caledonie

01 August 2015

By Ollie Whalley

Tristan takes in some natural beauty near Panie


When searching for a holiday destination, the constraints were tough but few. It needed to be warm to offset the cold winter we'd been suffering, cheap to fly to, and we wanted quiet roads and friendly people. We ended up landing in France’s Pacific territory of New Caledonia, and over the course of our 860km, 11 day ride we found the place ticked all the boxes, leaving us convinced that New Caledonia was tres bien!

Gangsters seek refuge from the midday heat at the tip of Grand Terre


Our rag tag group of tourers consisted of good friends Tristan and Anja, with myself and wife Heidi (manning a pint sized rental car) rounding the crew out. Given Tristan and I had had grown up riding together, there was a risk that the ride would descend into a grip clenching smash fest, but Anja's calming influence meant we kept irrational bursts of speed for the signposted summits of cols, or the very occasional dog attack.

One of the many Cols which punctuated the ride


Our loose plan was to circulate the main island of Grand Terre, some 400 kilometres long and 50 kilometres wide. Divided by a mountain range peaking at 1600 metres, it created a climatic effect not dissimilar to that found in New Zealand's South Island (only in reverse). The east coast is lush and tropical with palm lined roads and gushing streams that made for pleasantly cool riding conditions. By contrast, the west is covered by dry grassy plains with hotter temperatures that made a dip in the ubiquitous lagoon even more attractive. Perhaps the best feature of the geography was the sea breeze that kicked in mid-morning and blasted us north up the east coast with surprising ease. While we were expecting to face a similarly robust headwind heading south, this didn’t eventuate and it seemed we had happened upon the perfect wind conditions which cyclists only dream about.

Pastry perfection was enjoyed by all in Koumac


To further embellish the fairytale, one of my favourite aspects of French culture had made the jump from continental Europe. Villages along the way were stocked with the most delicious pastry treats including croissants and baguettes. Our daily routine would consist of multiple servings of crusty bread and flaky pastry, our gluttonous consumption often eating small villages out of their limited supplies. We were surprised by the lack of cafes and restaurants along the way, but improvised with fresh local produce from roadside stalls and the occasional fillet of fish or canned saucisse, all cooked over our primus stove.

Roadside ladies offer up some local delicacies in Thio


While the roads of Grand Terre are mostly sealed, the randomly placed potholes made our choice of mountain bikes a wise one. Semi-slick tires and rigid forks were fine, with fatter tires more conducive to the occasional off-road excursion. Gear was loaded into frame, handlebar and saddle bags, with any excess stored in the rental vehicle. We even converted the rear parcel tray to a baguette holder for emergencies involving carbohydrate deficit.

Bikes reassembled at La Tontouta ready for the trip


After arriving and assembling our bikes at the international airport of La Tontouta, we pointed north stopping at the first town of Bouloupari to set up camp. We quickly discovered from the two-horse nature of the town that the bulk of New Caledonia’s 260,000 population resided in the capital of Noumea. While this left the roads clear and avoided the hustle and bustle that dense populations can bring, it also meant that services were fairly sparse and that our trip would be more towards the 'dirt bag' end of the touring continuum rather than 'showered luxury'. Fortunately this meant that camping spots were abound, and whenever we couldn't find one we'd enquire with a friendly local who would even go as far as riding with Heidi in the car to show us the nicest spot.

Camping spots were cheap and easy to come by, like this one in Highene


A highlight for me was the sheer natural splendor on offer along the way, but particularly at our campsites which featured immense natural beauty. Pitching our tents clear of where towering coconut palms could drop their husky bombs, we had vistas of picturesque beaches, rock pools teeming with aquatic life and/or a grassy bank to while away the evening. On several occasions the island’s fringing reef was in close proximity and we donned snorkel and mask to meet the fishy locals face to face.

While the natural splendor was abound, the culture was equally interesting with only our limited grasp of francais restricting us from getting to know the locals properly. We did sense a tension between the indigenous Kanak population, who have embraced Rastafarianism in all its forms, and the population of European descent who have a distinctly French joie de vivre. The historically bloody battle for independence is still playing out, and we got hints of this along our journey. It is clear that the population has experienced the benefits of French support, with services that are the envy of any nation in the Pacific. However I was prompted to ask at what cost, with the environmental degradation caused by mining the most obvious impact.

The scale of this nickel processing plant near Prony blew us away


For a large swath of the south, the only place one could look and not see the effects of mining was the ocean, and even then the sediment laden runoff put their UNESCO listed lagoon under threat. The loose red scoria soil has combined with the high rainfall and thin plant coverage to render old cuttings into irreparable scars on the landscape. All this damage resulted from an unbridled quest for nickel, with New Caledonia's ample resources providing this element which has become vital for the batteries which power our connected world. It really brought home to us the impact that all our decisions have, and while my lasting memory will be of the beauty of the place, the destruction caused by mining certainly cast a shadow. We ended up camping at Canala, Bwa, Panie, Koumac, Voh and Poe Beach, treating ourselves to a roof at Poindimie and La Tontoua. In the east our days were 30 to 100 kilometers in length, while we pushed the pedals a bit harder in the west with some bigger days, up to 155 kilometers.

Anja and Tristan blast northward on ore stained roads


One of the best things about New Caledonia as a destination was the sheer ease of it all. Physically the tailwind helped, while the one circular road made navigation straightforward. Our hasty preparation consisted of a quick read of the Lonely Planet guide, which on reflection was neither particularly useful nor current. But this proved to be a blessing as we were forced to rely on our cunning and charms to meet our basic needs, all the while comforted by the knowledge that we were in a safe place with few nasty people or vicious critters. As a cycling destination New Caledonia was fantastic and I can wholeheartedly recommend it to seasoned cycling adventurers, and even as a stepping stone for budding cycle tourists.

Waterfalls (and tempting swimming holes) were abound on Grand Terre


Nitty Gritty
  • We used this great map to (roughly) plan our trip 
  • Road signs are optional outside Noumea so be prepared with a detailed road map or GPS base maps
  • We travelled in July, and while it made for perfect riding conditions with only a slight chill after swimming in the lagoon. We only had a couple of days of rain so be prepared with good gear.
  • Roads are quieter on the east coast (where the tailwind blows you north), while the west coast roads largely have a wide shoulder. We even got a nice section of bike lane at Kone.
  • It is worth brushing up on your high school French as the rural areas aren’t conversant in anglais. Don't let this put you off though, as any impasse can usually be overcome by gestures and a friendly smile.