Francois et le Parc de la Riviere Bleue
Francois et le Parc de la Riviere Bleue
Notes from a Time Warp
Francois is a keenly intelligent man who was born in Paris of a Vietnamese father and a Polynesian mother. At one year of age he came with his parents to live in New Caledonia and grew to love the country. His education and location taught him English and French and he was brought up with the Japanese language. Along life’s path he has learned and retained as much knowledge about the geology, flora and fauna of the Great South as you could want and enough to do conducted tours for the world’s scientists, geologists and botanists. So the five of us were very fortunate to have him as our guide.
The five being, apart from Rob and me, retired history teacher from Brooklyn, NYC Robert and Takahiro and Azusa from Hokkaido, Japan. So Francois commentary was given in perfect English and then Japanese which was great because the latter repetition gave me time to make a few notes. Our host constantly involved us all and as a result we were soon chatting with the others and encouraging Taka and Azusa with their little knowledge of English.
We drove away from Noumea through dry forest around Mont D’Or, named because it looks golden with the evening light shining on it, and stopped in a viewing area where Francois gave us an insight into how New Caldonia was formed and why its geology is unique in the world.
Two hundred million years ago a section of the massive landmass known as Gondwana broke away to form Australia and the island group of New Caledonia and there are two tectonic plates that came together in the fashion Francois is showing us in the picture which is unique in the world and means that the ecosystem has remained unchanged since then and the endemic plants are pre-dinosaur, without predators and still thriving.
Surrounded by a protective barrier coral reef the island, measuring 400km by 50 km, lies in the biggest lagoon on the planet. We were visiting at the end of the cool dry season from June to September. Over 800 mother Humpback Whales come to the safe shallows of the lagoon with their calves in July and that is when the farmers plant their yams, when the whales come.
Francois explained the four different ecosystems as we were driving up the hills towards the Park over green/grey roads made of non-toxic nickel slag; there is the shoreline mangrove region behind which the savannah once reduced to 7% of its original area is now increasing with careful management mainly on the north and west of the island where there are cattle ranches and then the scrub dominated marshlands land full with plants that dinosaurs ate and finally the sub- tropical wetland forest.
Along with the unique and considerable ancient biodiversity endemic to the island is the variety of ores and minerals that have been found and exploited, especially over the last 160 years. The plants suck their life support from the alkaline soil full with ore including nickel (green colour), copper, iron (hence the red colour), serpentine, pink bauxite, jasper, jade, sapphire, manganese, stainless, chrome, fluoride to name but a few!
As Francois explained the geology to us honey eaters sang from a nearby ‘toothbrush’ tree in between poking their sharp curved little beaks into the flowers. The ground gets so hot in summer that plants growing near the ground cannot have flowers or spores, instead their stamens grow extra-long within the protection of the leaves and form the fruit and then seeds at their ends.
The tray of ore Francois showed us could have come from a geology lab and I for one felt privileged to be receiving this depth of information from him. On the information board with the six circles there is only one ‘specimen’ we did not see and that was the little gecko and we weren’t too worried about that as grandchildren Henry and Ruby have a pet gecko ‘Gordon’ from New Cal so we are familiar with them. He lives in his own little rainforest, sprayed once a day by Henry.
We stopped at the park entrance amidst a wonderful plantation of Kauri that are being grown commercially in some parts of the forest. A fifty year investment before they can be felled and no trace of kauri die back suggests a good future for them. Ironically their commercial value that once nearly caused their extinction is now ensuring their continued existence.
When James Colnett sailing with Captain Cook re-discovered the island in 1774 Cook named it New Caledonia because it reminded him of Scotland and as you will see from future images he was right. He must have named the island from his vantage point on the ship and have been referring to the abundance of kauri and sandalwood visible from offshore and also from the mountains, streams and plantations, “little straggling villages” woods and beaches “might afford a picture of romance” a Scottish Highland romance.
“No people could behave with more civility than they did” Cook said of the inhabitants who were generous in supplying the mariners with fresh water.
Onwards and upwards for us to the wetlands and the sunken forest created when the Rivieres Blanche and Bleue were backed up to create the Yate Lake, now a popular leisure activity area. We saw osprey nests perched at the top of the bleached trees and Francois gave us another lesson on the local flora and how it survived the hungry jaws of the dinosaurs. The diverse flora of the island remains 75% endemic species.
We peered into pitcher plants to see the half-digested flies inside and the pleasure of seeing a half Vietnamese, half Polynesian man showing two Japanese youngsters, at the start of their life’s varied path, around his south west Pacific home after the turbulent history of their nations over the last century was not lost on me. Travel, the great peacemaker.
Francois stopped on a roundabout, it didn’t matter as there was no other traffic on this red earth road at the time,
“It’s not raining too much, would you like to walk down to the bridge and I’ll meet you on the other side, we cannot take vehicles over it?”
We chatted happily, the five of us as we walked the short way down to the wooden Perignon Bridge in the drizzle, at least it was warm.