Between May and September, it is wedding season in Lifou (or Drehu, pronounced Djehu, in the local dialect of the same name), and, this year, thirty-eight of them are being celebrated. So when we arrive unannounced at Wè Marina on the first day of the school holidays and try to hire a car, we are received with incredulity by the rental agencies we ring, whose vehicles have been booked out up to a year ago. Undeterred, I jump on my electric bike, decided to visit them and argue my case in person. The last one and closest to the marina, Autopro, gives in to my droopy eyes when I explain I only need the car for twenty-four hours. Thanks to Air Calin’s strike which has delayed all arrivals from Grande Terre, they happen to have a couple of vehicles which will only be collected the next afternoon.
With only one clandestine day to spend on the island (on our way to Vanuatu, already cleared out of New Caledonia), we have to optimise it and depart at 7am (albeit a late start by the locals’ standards who are all out and about from 5 in the morning, opening hour of the bank in Noumea too).
We start with the hike to Kiki beach, parking our car in the garden of the house next to Xepenehe football stadium, deposit our entry fees (500CFP/pers) in the little honesty box on display, and venture in the jungle following the well maintained track to the beach. There, we marvel at the gradient of white to aquamarine, climb up a cave in the cliff, swim, and play a game of Triple Square (one of Zephyr’s invented sports derived from rugby, with a set of rules as random as granting a point to both teams in some scenarios or halving all participants’ scores when they turn out even simultaneously), before other tourists arrive and break the spell of the isolated beach we’ve had all to ourselves until then.
Next on the program designed for us by Nathalie (one of my uncle’s friend settled in Lifou since February, who we’ve met over a lunch on Obelix the week before to squeeze any useful information out of her) is the visit of Notre-Dame de Lourdes, up the hill from Easo, overlooking the impressively vast Baie du Santal (cf. feature picture). We pull a bench from the Chapelle, as instructed, for a picnic with a view, before making our way to Jinek’s natural aquarium. Despite the wind blowing from the South-West, which disturbs the peace of this little bay with pristine water and a maze of corals, the visibility is excellent and the fish abundant. My favourite are the schools of vertical yellow fish with long snout, either black striped, checkered or with a big black dot on each side (tang?).
The day is not complete without a visit of the Maison de la Vanille in Hnathalo, and Elisa’s vanilla plantation just opposite. Elisa explains to us how, once afraid of coconut crabs, she was taught by her husband how to capture them by t make ends meet by selling them to restaurants. Thankfully they no longer need this activity to support them since her husband now has a job and she is starting in the vanilla business. At the end of the visit of the caged coconut crabs, wild pig, lonely male fruit bat (they once had eight but ate all the others, and now are hoping to catch a female so they can mate), and hundreds of vanilla plants, as we are sipping our vanilla infused tea and coffee, I even get to learn “Nyipeti A Troye”, a song in Drehu celebrating Jesus Christ. Halleluijah!
A satisfying stop-over, perfectly timed as we hand over the car keys to the agency at 16:35, with enough time to ready the boat for our 160 nautical-mile trip to Tanna, Vanuatu the next morning.
When I wake up and prepare to sail at 7am, busying myself around the boat, I catch a glimpse of appetising fresh bread in the neighbour’s boat (a diving instructor himself getting ready for a session) and enquire where he found it, the small dairy opposite the gas station a 5-minute walk from the marina. He warns me though that when he got his at 6am, they were already running short due to all the weddings. When I hurry there, I indeed witness the established hustle with people coming and going out of the dairy, and can’t help but notice with great concerns their baskets full of bread amongst their other groceries. But when I step into the shop, bless the baker, the shelves are just being loaded with a new batch of bread. So I return to Obelix victorious, with two baguettes under my arm like a respectable french housekeeper.