Before I moved to New Caledonia in 1999, I was a connoisseur of roads and paths. Interstates and back roads. Forest trails and city sidewalks. Michigan, California, Arizona. The states in between. America has an infinite supply of lines on maps. You can spend a lifetime exploring new routes and never see them all. But my road-tripping days came to an end.
Most of Grand Terre, New Caledonia’s main island, is uninhabited and inaccessible by vehicles. I exhausted the supply of road within months. I turned to the trails. So many landscapes to traverse. Beaches, of course. The arid ranch land north of Nouméa. Along the flowing waters of the Parc Provincial de la Rivière Bleue. I could gaze at the two round peaks of the Monts Koghi from my home. I learned those trails by heart. Few images exist of these wanderings. I carry them in my body.
The famous trails are marked, others are discovered by word of mouth. You must find your own way there and back. Hidden water holes. The strangest flora, much of it endemic. Primeval silence. I was not the first person to tread there, but it sure felt like it. But beware. Wandering down the wrong path can cost you your life. The boundaries of tribal land are invisible. In 2002, a Japanese tourist was the victim of a ritual murder on the Isle of Pines. Nothing was done about it. Nothing ever is.
I don’t understand why people like hiking. I’ve heard this remark on more than one occasion. Voices tinged with disapproval. Walking for hours and hours. No people around. How boring.
How to convey this communion with nature? Every step a sweet kiss on the Earth’s exquisite face. The atavistic gratification of traversing a land on my own two feet. And I guess I just don’t find my own company boring.
This pleasure came at a price. That picturesque red earth is made up of metals. Toxic metals. Nickel, chromium, cobalt. New Caledonia is the third largest source of nickel in the world. Dust kicked up by my boots, dust emitted into the atmosphere from the nickel smelters. The local produce is grown in this soil. Nickel is a known carcinogen. I am allergic to nickel jewelry, but somehow I didn’t make, or didn’t want to admit, the connection between this and the debilitating aftermath of any sort of physical exertion. No one else that I knew had this problem. For them, Le Caillou, The Pebble, was paradise. The longer I was there, the more severe the consequences of these jaunts became. I lost count of the nights I spent on the bathroom floor, throat shredded from vomiting, transcendent pain in my head. It took at least one more day to fully recover. Yet I persevered.
No way I was going to pass up an ascent of the Plateau de Dogny with my sister, who had come in search of Amborella, the oldest known flowering plant still in existence. Found only in New Caledonia, Amborella was the subject of her master’s thesis in genetics. Such a delightful morning that was. A German shepherd from the hotel at the trailhead trotted by our side, a gentle guardian. It is the only time in my life that I have been unable to complete a hike. Blurred vision, churning stomach, an ominous tremor in my cells. Just before the summit, I collapsed on the side of the trail and waited for my sister to return.
A few months before my departure from New Caledonia in 2006, I did the infamous Mt. Mou ascent. My friend Lo and I were prepared for the inevitable bruises and scrapes. These are considered badges of honor. You haven’t truly hiked Le Caillou until you’ve climbed Mt. Mou. Dust underfoot morphs into moss-carpeted cloud forest. Tree roots transform into a staircase that disappears into the mist. Every step must be contemplated. Sometimes the only way forward is flat on your stomach through the decaying carcasses that have fallen across the path. Just beyond the peak, the wreckage of a WWII-era American military plane lies on the slopes. The exhilaration and relief that I felt at this place. No sign of any discomfort. Maybe this time would be different. But it crept up on me during the descent.
After I left New Caledonia, it didn’t take long for the symptoms to dissipate. I learned that they are indeed signs of nickel poisoning. Strength and endurance returned. It remains to be seen if permanent damage lurks in my cells. Even so, I don’t regret any of those explorations. These days, every hike is done with gratitude. Without pain, it’s impossible to experience the bliss of its absence.