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In the Wake of Captain Cook by Sally Andrew


Most of our coastal hopping had been dominated by light winds and lazy sailing, but FellowShip lifted her skirts and fairly flew as we passed Ouaième River valley, a deep cut in New Caledonia's Panié Massif. We carefully navigated the narrow Passe de Panié then scooted north past the tall and dynamic Tao cascades.

Northern New Caledonia

At Pouébo, the reef was visible despite murky river water and glare from the afternoon sun and we anchored for the night. Local Kanaks, armed with fish-nets, prowled the shallows near shore. Next morning we headed to Mahamate (pronounced Ma-a-mat) near Balade, anchoring off the same beach that Captain Cook discovered on his arrival in September, 1774. James Cook was the first European to stumble across and name "New Caledonia".

On a boat there is simply not enough space for unlimited consumption and collecting. However, one of our treasures is the Hakluyt Society's complete set of logbooks written by Captain Cook during his three voyages in the Pacific, four volumes that span twelve inches on the bookshelf! From these we learned that Resolution had departed from Espiritu Santo. Cook named Cape Colnett for his midshipman who sited Grande Terre on the morning of their fourth day at sea.

Cook was anxious to get ashore at Balade for two reasons. First, he wanted to look at the land and its people, culture, plants and geography. Second, Cook was a keen astronomer and wanted to observe an eclipse of the sun from a tiny islet he called - you guessed it - Observation Island.

Known locally as "Poudié" Islet, Observation Island is tucked behind the barrier reef in the bay at Mahamate. We walked around the sandy islet in a couple of minutes, toasting the great Captain with cups of tea while our portable GPS sought a position to compare to our chart. We needed no confirmation that the island had shifted since Captain Cook's day.

Nearby, in the shallows, lies the grave of Huon de Kermadec, the first Frenchman to die in New Caledonia. Kermadec was second-in-command aboard D'Entrecasteux's ship L'Espérance which made landfall at Balade 19 years after Captain Cook. At the time, D'Entrecasteaux was looking for La Pérouse, trying to solve the enigmatic mystery of the French explorer's disappearance. Alas, the sand has shifted about twenty meters westward and Kermadec's grave and bones, once buried on the islet, now lie below the high tide mark.

Reading Cook's log on board that evening, we discovered that Simon Monk (his ship's butcher) died here at Balade, too. Perhaps a distant relative of my English grandmother Gladys Monk, poor Simon fell down the forward hatchway while the ship lay at anchor, injuring himself beyond recovery, and was consigned to the deep.

Kanak Lady Baie Pam

One of the first things Captain Cook did on arriving in New Caledonia was to climb the highest hill to survey Grande Terre. Glimpsing water to the west, he realized the island wasn't very wide. We didn't climb nearly as high, just far enough to get a fantastic view of the lagoon. In his logbook, Cook describes a rocky, scorched countryside with coarse grass and sparse trees, and a white soft-barked tree called niaouli (nee-ow-lee) whose leaves look like New Caledonia and smell like eucalyptus. The landscape remains essentially unchanged after 200 plus years.

On the beach, Cook distributed gifts of cloth and nails to a friendly crowd. Then, using a small stream nearly abreast of the ship, the crew got busy filling water casks. We needed to replenish our tanks too, but had it easier. Today, there is a water tap on the beach! There is also a traveling "Truck Store" which arrives daily with fresh bread, sugar, flour, tin meat and other supplies. We joined several ladies standing along the roadside making purchases. Times had changed, and we needed Pacific francs, not nails.

Church in Mahamate  
Hut in Mahamate  

At Mahamate, a great banian tree marks the spot where Brother Blaise celebrated the country's first mass in 1843. Nearby, a traditional sailing canoe, built by Kunie (Isle of Pines) boat builders commemorates 150 years of Catholic missionary presence in New Caledonia. Three km down the road at the village of Balade, tall coconut trees, stately pines, bright flowers, red croton and well-kept lawns surround a charming church. Inside, stained glass squares and wrought iron biblical scenes adorn whitewashed walls.

Captain Cook gave several dogs to the locals, whether intending them as companions or food, is not clear. Giving away a boor and a sow proved more difficult.. Nobody knew what they were either, and nobody wanted them. Cook finally convinced an elder to accept by explaining with gestures how they would multiply and provide good food. It must have been an interesting game of Charades.

Kanak kids
Kanak kids

We needed to stretch our legs so despite the drizzle we rowed to Observation Island where Florentin, Ishmael and Alexandre were running around the reef, hollering, chasing fish in the tide pools. Crouching to minimize wind chill, we shared our Ovomaltine with Raymond who thought we should move FellowShip closer to the beach, in case the wind got stronger.

In the afternoon, the guys rowed their leaky aluminum dinghy out to FellowShip and gave us their catch of the day - three bizarre-looking fish with red lips and red-tipped fins and tails. Not particularly tasty and a bit chewy, it was a nice friendly gesture, nonetheless, and I ate them. Foster abstained, claiming to enjoy fish only when it comes wrapped in newspaper with chips.

They four chaps again suggested we move closer to the beach, so with dinghy tied astern we took them along for the ride, re-anchoring in very shallow water but well out of the wind chop. Afterwards I served up more hot drinks and chocolate cookies. It was hard to believe we were in the tropics, but precipitation combined with a breeze made it seem bloody cold!

Although everyone now knows about goats, cats, dogs, and hogs - all alien in the eighteenth century - not much seems to have changed at Mahamate since Cook's day. Even on shore at night, few lights betray the fact that the new millennium has begun.

Kanak carving  
Kanak carving  
Kanak carvings  
Kanak carvings  


This article previously appeared in the magazine Pacific Islands Monthly, March 1996, volume 66, number 3, pages 56-58.
It appears here by permission of the author, whose generosity is gratefully acknowledged.

Pacific Islands Monthly was published each month between August 1930 and June 2000.

Sally Andrew writes (May 2005)
Now exploring the French canals aboard a rare 11.5 meter barge Vagabond (built in Holland in 1910), cruisers Sally Andrew and Foster Goodfellow sailed from California to Hawaii and points southwest in 1990 aboard FellowShip. They spent the next 12 years voyaging between the islands of the South Pacific.

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