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Why is it that some of the most magnificent islands in the world were settled by convicts? Was isolation expected to humble the beauty of the land?  It is difficult to imagine that this island of absolute tranquility, one of the most beautiful on Earth, was once a French penal colony. 

Now - neat timber homes in the village of Vao nestle amongst tall straight pines, Araucaria Cooki,  giving the island its name. Loaves of warm french bread rise like a pyramid on the counter of the general store, partially hiding the madame in colourful 'Mother Hubbard' dress. She beams a welcome as I enter. Shelves are lined with canned fish yet the seas are bountiful. The door swings open;  a beautiful young girl prances in. "Bonjour monsieur" she cries joyfuly.

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With Albert Thoma and Tony Klotz.
Click on images to enlarge.

Click on image to enlarge.


On the first of many visits many years ago, I arrived from Noumea with Air Caledonie and sought a man who is known in the Australian vernacular as somewhat of a character. I found him at the jetty on the Baie de Kuto preparing to take a party of snorkellers out to Ilot Bayonnaise. I could not have mistaken him. Impossingly tall and suntanned with a greying beard, Albert Thoma has a divine presence commensurate with his size. The islanders call him Chichu - Jesus. 

"Come and join us," he offered. Within minutes we were chugging over to a tiny satellite island just two kilometres offshore. I was already impressed with the beauty of the Isle of Pines in just the short bus ride from the airport. Looking back toward the jetty I again gazed in awe at a magnificent sight. Tall pines and coconut palms lined a white crescent shaped beach lapped by crystal clear water. Three yachts lay at anchor, each with bikinied bodies baking in the sun -  a cliche vision of beauty but one of reality nonetheless. 

We dined on grilled crayfish and crusty bread, drank light claret and forgot the troubles of the world. I could see why Albert Thoma came to the island from Switzerland in 1969 and stayed. The locally baked bread is magnificent - you can actually taste the grain. Avocados grow wild, and one could believe that wine flowed like water. I was amused when Albert squeezed a slice of lemon in his claret and added ice. "Try it," he insisted. The result was refreshing - a cool summer drink, like a light cocktail. 

History records that Captain James Cook was the first to sight the islands in September 1774. Had he been in a more receptive frame of mind he may have landed and claimed the islands for England but the approach through the outlying reefs tested even this skilled navigator. The French explorer La Perouse may well have been the first European to land fourteen years later but that episode in local history disappeared with the captain on the reefs of Vanikoro. Others were to follow however, and in 1857 Napoleon III gave orders to take possession of New Caledonia, on advice that the island would make a suitable penal colony. 

Political dissidents settled on the Isle of Pines in 1872, with Catholic missionaries arriving a year earlier, duly disrupting the life of the Kunie people . The convicts had no time to appreciate the beauty of their surroundings -  all were subscripted to hard labour constructing roads and buildings which still stand today. The convicts left at the turn of the century; the intact church, and convict ruins, remain to this day. 

It was inevitable that tourism would eventually reach the island. A hotel was constructed in the early fifties on the narrow peninsula between two magnificent bays at the south-west end of the island. A fire in 1971 temporarily closed the hotel ; by 1979 it's doors were bolted permanently, a victim of a predominantly disinterested Australian tourist market. During its peak however, over 20,000 tourists enjoyed the comforts of the Relaise de Kanumera. Club Mediterranie wanted to build on the island but erudite chiefs had had enough of tourism on a grand scale. They appreciated that the natural beauty of the island and the way of life of their people should not be compromised. The Kunies welcome visitors and extend traditional hospitality through the many locally owned and managed 'gites' (small bungalow style resorts). And cruise liners visit for a few hours, for a quick glimpse of paradise. 

During the seventies scuba diving was a popular activity for hotel guests. Albert, his New Zealand born partner Cleo,  and fellow traveller Tony Klotz conducted the watersports at the hotel and established Nauticlub. With the closure of the hotel, Nauticlub lost its customer base and a new clientele had to be saught. Australian divers re-discovered the island, but the political problems of the mid-eighties on the mainland saw another downturn. It is the now the turn of those inveterate travellers the Japanese who flock to the island on day trips out from their five-day stay in Noumea. Australian divers are returning to the island, and yachts are always seen at anchor in the numerous safe bays. 

The richness of the coral reefs and drop-offs around the Isle of Pines, and the tiny satellite islands, is determined by the numerous species of hard and soft corals, shells, nudibranchs, invertebrates, crustaceans, sponges, and fishes. The Alcyonarians (soft corals) are particularly attractive as are the many species of Gorgonia (sea fans). Delicate sea-feathers and tube-worms are prolific; as are tiny Bryozoans (lace coral). And like most tropical waters, brilliant Crinoids (feather stars) add colour and intrigue to the underwater world. Crayfish are distinctive by their colour and shape, the most common being the green crayfish Panulirus penicillatus. Sharks are found off the drop-offs to the north of the island; Trianodon obesus are fortunately known as the 'peaceful beasts of the sea'. They are distinctive by their white markings at the tip of the doral fin and at both extremities of the tail. The common reef shark Carcharinus amblyrhynchos is more active on the outer reefs. 

The best diving off the island is to the north-west in the Gadji region. Some 65 million years ago  in the geological tertiary period the land we now know as New Caledonia rose from the sea. The new crystalline rock mass was subjected to the tortures of the elements which gradually sculptured the island to form the base for its current beauty. Over millions of years the land mass, much larger than it is now, sank back into the sea, thus separating the Isle of Pines from the New Caledonian mainland. An island was born. Coral polyps developed and formed the foundation of the fringing reefs surrounding the island, spreading between the mainland and the island on the shallow ridge joining the two. Another major geological shift occured in recent geological times; the land mass of the island gradually rose, causing the once tidal area to be now several feet above present sea level. You can see clear evidence of this on the tiny islands in the the Gadji district; tiny fossilized shells can be found in the weathered rock structure over a metre above sea level.

I dived through Gorgonia-covered chasms, narrow tunnels and huge caves, following Albert and Tony as they led us through one of the most magnificent dive sites in the Pacific. This was the famous Oupere Grotto, a popular dive site in the Gadji area, on the north-west tip of the island. We had anchored off the main drop-off on the main Gadji Reef. Swimming east we passed through a narrow gulley with walls covered in Gorgonia and soft yellow corals, then through a short tunnel opening up into an undersea cathedral. Huge yellow sea-fans adorned the walls, illuminated by shafts of light streaming down from the narrow openings at the ceiling. 

As time passed the elements continued to sculpture the island, leveling the peaks, washing away gullies and forming caves on the lower levels. The land mass was predominantly limestone, which explains the lack of rivers on the island. Any rain that falls is absorbed, to be drained by underground caves and tunnels, providing the Isle of Pines with yet another incredible dive site. A short drive along the main east coast road , down a track on the lower plateau , brought us to a clearing in the forest.  We walked fifty metres along a narrow jungle track to a huge cavern entrance of some thirty metres diameter, fringed by huge ferns and tree orchids. Albert informed us that this was Paradise Cave, or Commune Grotto Trois, a sunken cave system that is totally awesome.

The track down into the cavern is narrow and steep; care is required on the slippery clay surface. The vista that confronted us was spectacular. Fifteen metres below, a shimmering pool of freshwater laps what could be described as a small underground beach. Three tall limestone columns appear to be holding up the roof of the cathedral, formed by the joining of stalactites with ground rising stalagmites. The dive begins by slipping into cool water and swimming single file between two limestone columns, then down along a narrow tunnel with more columns on one side. This opens into a small chamber - a short swim further and the diver is in a huge cathedral much the same size as the surface one. The sight is staggering.  My underwater torch illuminates dazzling underwater stalactites and stalagmites , huge strings of 'bacon rashes' and delicate comb-like limestone formations. Underwater visibility seems limitless. In the centre of the cathedral, a huge stalactite drops down like a crystal chandallier. The feeling is ecstatic. In the near distance, a shaft of light indicates where the main chamber opens to the grotto. 

A weird effect is experienced in the cathedral. A slight salinity caused by seeping seawater causes a layer of shimmering hazziness much like a thermocline. It has an hypnotic effect and can be a nuisance for photography, but is quite unique. It must be appreciated that the underwater cathedral was once above water level, hence the formation of the calcium-based stalactites and stalagmites. It would appear that although the island rose from the sea, inland structures sank like an unsuccesful souffle, thus flooding the lower cathedral and forming one of the most interesting dives in the world.

During a day of  diving off the north-west coast of the island, lunch is usually taken on one of many smaller islands or cays in the Gadji Bay area. The scenery here is magnificent, with tall pine trees, and coral reefs forming an intricate system which makes navigation difficult. The diving is excellent and varied - no mention has been made of the gorgonia covered walls and schools of pelagics at Swiss Valley at the Gie Island drop-off; the coral reefs at False Pass; or the drop-off and snorkellers reef at The Sandbank. All are worthy of many hours underwater. 

When I reminisce over several visits to the island, my mind is drawn to many images. The bread, the wine, the friendly ambience of the island people; the crystal clear water, inviting and invigorating, in tiny lagoons and bays of sand as white and as crisp as the loaves. The children, all smiles, with not a care in the world just as it should be. This is indeed paradise.

The Ile des Pines , or Kunie as it is known in the Melanesian tongue, is fifty kilometres to the south-east of Cape Queen Charlotte at the southern tip of the New Caledonia mainland. It is the largest of a number of islands scattered throughout a region notorious for its reefs and shallow lagoons. The island is roughly oval shaped; 17 kilometres north to south, 14 kilometres across with a native population of 1200 French speaking Kunies. The highest peak is N'ga rising to an altitude of 226 metres and sloping south with deep gorges descending to the sea. The island is covered with ferns and rare orchids, and several forests. Distinctive tall pines line the perimeter of the main island and its satelite islands. The coastal belt consists of ancient corals forming a pervious terrain of caves and gorges. 







Peter Stone. Email peter@oceans,com.au
Created June 2012. 
Time of visit to IOP: 1980s.