Chagrin, New Caledonia. Thursday, 4.45pm
The woman’s face is animated as she talks about our connection to the earth and the sea. I sit, respectfully silent, concentrating hard because my listening skills in French are not great. I sip from a warmish Manta beer.
Her head is framed by long thick hair that falls in strands like rope over her traditional dress.
‘We cannot live without the earth and the sea,’ she says in French, pointing to the red dirt at her feet and then to the west where the Coral Sea laps the shore just a few kilometres away.
‘The world is forgetting that simple knowledge.’
She, my travelling companion and I are sitting in a thatch-roofed Kanak meeting place. A bird sings, a freezer hums. (Ah, my warm beers are cooling.)
Nearby are the woman’s house and my tent. Around us is a tropical garden sprouting from the red dirt.
Chagrin is a small village, maybe six or seven homes, set in the gouged hillside of a spent nickel mine. The woman is revegetating the old mine, which is on her tribal land.
We are nearly 400 kilometres from Noumea. Noumea is a city that tenuously overlays French society on Kanak culture. It is: a glass of Bordeaux after a coconut with a straw; a group of lycra-clad white blokes on carbon-fibre bicycles overtaking seven Kanaks in a rusty Citroen with Kanaky independence stickers; a German couple exposing a lot of white flesh to young Kanaks with rasta beanies playing soccer with a Coke bottle on perfect beach.
Outside of Noumea is Kanak land. An hour ago, my travelling companion and I were stranded in Koumac. It’s a little town not far from here. There’s not much there. A shop, a dug-up road, an empty market place.
We’d left Noumea a few days ago in a little Peugeot we rented from a bloke that looked like Barry Manilow.
Outside the Koumac shop, the Peugeot, filled with our camping gear, sat, dusty and tired. The sun was getting lower and we needed somewhere to camp. You cannot camp just anywhere; it’s tribal land. You need permission.
I had the telephone number of a place where maybe we could camp. I called it. A woman answered. She said yes and then… something or other. My French is passable in some situations, but listening to complicated directions over the phone is not one of them. I hung up.
Desperate, I turned to a Kanak woman loading a nearby old Renault with half a dozen baguettes. I asked her if she would phone the camping woman for me and get directions. S’il vous plait. Pretty s’il vous plait.
People are friendly. All over the world, people are friendly. Governments and corporations are not, but people are. The woman rang, talked to the camping woman, and gave me back the phone. She then proceeded to give me the directions to Chagrin, where the camping woman was. I listened carefully, focusing all my French listening skills: We were to go along a road, make four and twenty turns, drive through a river, eat a cat… She stopped mid-sentence, smiled, and said, ‘Just follow me.’
So here we are: watching the sun dip behind the coconut palms and listening to the camping woman, Opao, tell us the truth.
‘We don’t want French law. We have our own law, our own culture. We have the earth and the sea…’
I love road trips. You never know where you will end up or who you will meet. Opao is the chief of her local tribe and the head chief of all the tribes in the area.
She is Kanak royalty and a warm, wise woman.
She is formally welcoming us to her land, her home and her freezer (where my beers are chilling).
Tout va bien.