Hiking the Pebble

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 Grande 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.

The Mt. Mou trail

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.

Photo taken by Lo Cherbeix

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.

67 thoughts on “Hiking the Pebble

  1. Even somebody with the same sense of philophy of an onion like myself would be mesmerised by this story. It must’ve taken an incredible amount of strength to keep on hitting those trails despite the phisical pain they brought, hats off to you Julie.
    New Caledonia seems so distant, so interesting, yet I alway thought it to have been “blandised”, so to speak. I saw photos of streets that looked incredibly French. A former colleague of my dad moved there, and drove a Mark 1 Fiat Panda. The park-o-meters were exactly the same kind as the ones we have in Italy, the one with the small solar panels on top. Yet, you tell stories of uninhabited hills, clan borders, a ritual homicide… As always, wish there was a part 2, 3, 4 to this blog post!

    • Thank you, Fabrizio. I still marvel at my obstinance. But it’s difficult to give up the things that fulfill us, even if there’s danger and/or pain involved. Hiking centers me, fills the void, and living in such a tense place, I needed it.

      New Caledonia is very different from the other Pacific islands – the geology, flora, and history and ethnic variety of the inhabitants. Lots of layers.

      There is supposed to be an independence vote this year, so possibly New Caledonia will be on its own soon. The safety situation has deteriorated. I’ve just heard that now gangs of Kanaks are descending on shops and gas stations and gutting them. As usual, nothing is done. At this point, nothing probably can be done.

      If you’re interested in further reading, I have a couple more posts about New Caledonia in my archives. Just click on the “New Caledonia” category on the right sidebar under “Destinations Known”

  2. What a beautiful story in pictures and words. I too like to explore off the beaten paths of tourists. You get to see so much more. I would think that knowing that nickel was a problem that some type of breathing apparatus would have been of great assist seeing as how you like to hike so much. I agree with a previous post that future stories and pictures would be a pleasure to read.

    • Hello and thank you. 🙂 I wasn’t aware at the time that the problem came from nickel. If I had, I probably would have left, because I was also ingesting it through the fruits and vegetables. I have more posts about New Caledonia. You can find links to a couple of them at the bottom of this post under “related”, under the “likes” button.

  3. This post brings out so many different reactions in me. On the one hand the description of the land and your passion for it and discovering and knowing it, is so powerful. But to be poisoned with toxins from the very earth you live on and walk on! Such a strange phenomenon this poisoning. Good that you discovered the source of the illness and were able to recover.

    As always, so beautifully written, to the point of being mesmerizing. I know so little about these lands…. The photos are wonderful too.

    Peta

    • Thank you so very much, Peta. I didn’t allow myself to believe that it was the land that was making me sick. Almost everyone I knew loved it there and felt just fine. I had heard of others who had to leave for health reasons, but no one wanted to talk about the possibility of nickel being the culprit. It is the source of so much wealth and employment. Not that shutting down the smelters would have made much of a difference for me. It’s in the soil itself. I’m obviously very allergic and that’s why I was so sick. Honestly, I don’t know how I lasted 7 1/2 years. Even when I didn’t hike I had horrific migraines 3 times a week. It is a fascinating place, though, and I don’t regret living there at all. The Pacific islands region is off most people’s radars, but there is so much to discover there.

  4. Yes, hats off to you, striding forth on those trails. But how disturbing – this toxic paradise – like the beauty of a very poisonous flower. I have just started reading about the work of Snowchange, a cooperative of Arctic indigenous peoples recounting their observations of climate change. At the root of some of these people’s apprehension of the world, is the belief that the land has consciousness, and humans and land are conjoined in a state of reciprocity – that there is a unity between language, psychology, landscape, the minds of people composed of visible ecological domains that also have numinous qualities. As these domains are allowed to mature and grow old so this is expressed in the traditional maturing of people’s minds and cultures. It’s a fascinating view of the the land on which humans depend, and now I’m wondering how one might think of New Caledonia in the light of this kind of living inter-relationship. Just pondering. Splendid writing as ever, Julie.

    • Hi Tish – sounds like fascinating reading and similar thoughts crossed my mind when I was there. I believe that New Caledonia is a negative vortex for some people. The energy there is so leaden and suffocating and soul-crushing. I desperately wanted to leave, but couldn’t find the strength to do so. A holistic doctor who treated me said that I needed to get the hell out of there. It is deadly for some people. It helped so much to hear my feelings validated. I left soon after.

  5. You have had the most fascinating experiences. As someone who also loves to explore nature, I was chuckling at your phrase, “you haven’t truly hiked Le Caillou until you’ve climbed Mt. Mou.” How many times I have said similar things in the aftermath of a successful walk.

  6. What a rewarding and, at the same time, dreadful experience. I had no idea those islands could be so toxic for some. One of our French exchange students lived much of his childhood in New Caledonia. He and his family were there about the same time as you. His parents were teachers and they all lived on a smaller, outer island. I wonder if the problem was the same throughout the country?

    • Hi Peggy. The outer islands are coral atolls like many of the Pacific islands, so they don’t have the same soil at all. The place as a whole is so very beautiful and fascinating. Despite the turbulence, it is so worth a visit.

  7. Each day involves weighing up the pros and cons of our actions. I can understand your communion with Nature, and your desire for it. I certainly hope there are no long term side-effects from the prolonged allergic response and poisoning, but no doubt it was worth it to you.

    Wonderful writing as usual.

    • Thank you. The body has an incredible capacity to heal itself. It’s been 12 years since I left and I still feel so much better physically than I did then. So maybe once an allergen is gone, it’s gone. I hope.

  8. Fascinating read and images, as ever, told with your wonderful edge – but you do suffer for your art Julie. Nickel poisoning and the threat of ritual murders, we don’t get that in Northumberland – can I recommend our coast to coast walk 😉

  9. Ahh New Caledonia, a place I was told notoriously difficult for Indonesians to get to. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but it has been fascinating me since my father mentioned about it when I was little. I didn’t know about the toxic soil, so this is something new I learned from your post. I really hope whatever the people there decide this year, security will be maintained on the main island and the other islands nearby. Too many troubled places already on this planet, I hope New Caledonians can learn a thing or two to prevent their country from experiencing the same fate.

    • Hi Bama – There is, in fact, a community of Indonesians there. I think they are descendants of those brought to work in mining many years ago. It’s notoriously difficult for any foreigner to move there. I was married to a French local who grew up there, and they still purposely made me wait for months to get a visa. Even with the help of the French embassy in Los Angeles.

      Yes, if they vote for independence, hopefully they will learn from the fates of so many other former colonies. But I doubt it. The majority of the locals are decent and many of them want to remain a territory of France, but nothing is done about the others who thrive on violence. Lots of people (those who don’t want to return to France) have bought property in Australia or New Zealand just in case.

      • Wow! I wonder why they made it so difficult for anyone to move there.

        A few weeks ago I read an old NatGeo article about the main island of New Caledonia where most French live in the south while the Kanaks live in the north. I don’t know how much divided the island still is today.

        • They are just really xenophobic. Even (especially) against the French, but they can’t stop them from moving there. Yet.

          The island is still divided, but it’s mainly because any outsider, even French, would have a very difficult time up north. It’s just accepted that it belongs to the locals – both Melanesian and Caldoches (French penal colony descendants). It’s not really a bone of contention for foreigners. Nouméa is where all the action is. And there are many Kanaks in Nouméa as well. I think they are, in fact, the majority.

          • I just looked up the ethic composition of New Caledonia and if the information is to be trusted apparently around 40% of the population are Kanaks.

            I guess everyone’s waiting for that vote on independence with trepidation for an uncertain future is about to come.

          • Yes that sounds about right, but because there are so many other ethnicities in NC, Kanaks are still the majority. French (including Caldoches) are around 30%, then there are other Pacific Islanders, Vietnamese, Indonesians, Chinese, and others.

  10. I am always in awe of your ability to recollect details from travels that occurred years ago. Perhaps those memories get retained in the handful of photos you retained. That you chose to save them and carry them with you from place to place indicates to me that you understood both their value and your resolve to be a writer.

    • Thank you. I have a close relationship with memory. Probably too close. But the photos help me remember small details. I thank the digital revolution for the ability to carry thousands of photos from place to place. Otherwise, I’d need to buy another suitcase. 😁

  11. Wow, that’s hardcore. If I knew a ritual hike had a strong chance of me finishing by worshiping the porcelain god I’d be inclined to find a new way to commune. Still, it sounds like a fascinating place to wander about – so many strange beauties.

    Side note; I wonder if extroverts ever hike alone.

    • Hi Dave- I kept hoping that “this time would be different”. I always felt good when I started out and I’d try different strategies like drinking electrolytes and eating various foods to see if it would help.

      I’ve also wondered that about extroverts. I bet it never even crosses their minds.

  12. Fascinating, Julie! Metal toxicity is something under-diagnosed I think, and not entirely understood. Holistic practitioners seem to have a better understanding of this, and I’m sure it was a relief to get some insight into that mystery. I can completely understand continuing something, hoping it will be different, yet being unaware of the root cause of distress. I think we do this all the time, in many ways. Correcting for location is so rarely done with illness. It’s kind of the last thing we think of: that we might be living in the wrong place! How could that even be possible? And if it is, why isn’t everyone else feeling this way? It’s how we dismiss much that is real, and miss seeing things for what they are. I’m glad you are well now and removed from the source of toxicity!

    The way you describe the place makes it sound like its from another time–an island still lagging in history or something. Parts of it unexplored. Untouched and a little wild. I probably read too much into it. But the disappearing tourist, the ritual killing–it sounds like the inevitable result of a western power intersecting with a tribal culture from another era, comparatively speaking. It always leaves a mark.

    Michael

    • Hi Michael –

      It’s good to see that more is being said about metal toxicity these days. It’s in so many things that we consume and it accumulates in the body.

      I think one of the main problems, on many levels, is comparing ourselves to others. We do this on a superficial level regarding perceived success, but I think it can apply to other facets of life, including physical well-being. We are individuals with unique sensitivities. Sometimes the solution really is as simple as a move to another location. I’ve lived in other places that were negative for me on an emotional/spiritual level – San Diego (Gasp! What kind of a person dislikes SD?!) & Grand Rapids, Michigan (quite a few people agree with me on this one). And then there were places where I thrived on all levels – Slovakia and the Anjou region of France, especially. Our bodies are so very intelligent, but the majority of us don’t know how to listen to it.

      Wishing you a pleasant weekend!

      • Well said on the issue of personal comparison, Julie. I’ve often thought that a mistake of medical research is to sort of smear all humans into an average, when our individual systems and needs are in fact such complex and uniquely developed systems. And yes, our bodies have astounding intelligence, and I’d say we’ve hardly scratched the surface of understanding that… The hubris of medical research is to assume we have this more or less figured out, when I’d say in point of fact we still don’t have an accurate “model” of the body on which to reliably base the interpretations of our observations.

        Michael

  13. Wow, I had no idea a nickel allergy could be so serious, though it sounds like it takes a certain context to have such awful symptoms. Even so, I’m glad you were able to have your adventures. You know I also adore hiking. For me it’s a way of feeling insignificant but in a good way, more connected with everything else. And it definitely leaves me in awe of all of the other types of life on this earth. Thanks as always for sharing you memories!

    • Hi Leah – From what I’ve read, it’s usually people who work with nickel, in the mines and smelters, who can get actual poisoning. While I never felt really good there, it was always some kind of physical activity outside that set off the symptoms. I tried running on the beach and had the same results. Sun and heat didn’t help things, but even when I hiked in the “winter” on a cloudy day, I got sick. To compare, I did a 15 mile bike ride through the Everglades (no shade whatsoever) in July 2005. I was tired, but that was it. That’s when I really knew it had something to do with the island.

      Yes, you are a splendid hiker. 🙂 And you live in such a glorious region for it.

  14. Enjoyed your hugely engaging narrative on the Caledonian trails. “The atavistic gratification of traversing a land on my own two feet” literally conveys itself to the reader who, as much as you do, is finding your company interesting.

  15. Chère Julie. Ton talent d’écriture ne cesse de m’impressionner et de m’émerveiller. Le souvenir de cette fameuse randonnée du Mont-mou m’est soudainement, merveilleusement et douloureusement revenu. On peut effectivement se demander si le prix à payer pour vivre dans ce que beaucoup nomme un “paradis” n’est pas la maladie et la mort (corporelle ou psychique)….! Oh ! N’est ce pas la condition pour gagner le fameux éden !? Merci d’écrire aussi bien et de montrer toutes les qualités et les défauts de notre belle terre.

    • Chère Lo – Merci pour tes gentils mots, mon amie. C’était une randonnée inoubliable, c’est sûr. Peut-etre que tu te souviens que tu était même obligé de conduire ma voiture après parce que je n’arrivais pas, j’était tellement malade. Mais je ne le regrette pas. Peut-etre tu reconnais la dernière photo de Bouraké, où on a fait une balade bien plus…sage. 🙂 Tu sais bien ce que je pense de cet ile. Mais j’ai essayé de montrer tout ce qui est belle et magique. On s’entendais pas, Le Caillou et moi. Mais pour les gens comme toi, qui l’aime tant, j’ai voulu le rendre hommage. Je t’embrasse très fort.

  16. As I mentioned on Instagram, I love the photo of you by the old plane sleeping in the folded earth. You remind me of me, sartorially, physically, and in your utter stubbornness. The plane and terrain evoke my mental image of the plane crash in the Andes in the 70s, an event that gripped me for years after I read the book (Alive!). The rest of the story about the nickel and its effects was disturbing, but I’m glad there are no lingering symptoms. Hurry up and publish your memoir so we can read dozens of these tales from your peripatetic life!

    • Yes, I can see that, having read so many of your blog posts about hikes in less-than-optimal conditions. I’m a lot less stubborn these days. If it’s too hot or rainy, I call it off. I’ve just learned that the plane is nearly gone now, because people started taking souvenirs. Glad I got to see it. I don’t know the fate of the pilot. Maybe his ghost wanders at the summit. Given the spooky atmosphere up there, I wouldn’t doubt it.

      The memoir is done, but it ends when I’m thirty, before my time in New Caledonia. Just doing the synopsis and book proposal so I can start shopping it around. I’m not going to self-publish. I will keep you posted. Thanks for the encouragement. 🙂

  17. What a dangerous but beautiful landscape to explore. You remind me of a friend who keeps returning to the mountains despite the accidents and near-death experiences he has had, a compulsion to walk the way he wants, and has to, despite the pain.

    Your insights into how we can react to and engage with place on so many different levels were thought provoking as well, although I’m never experienced anything like your toxic reactions.

    As for extroverts walking… many people walk to battle demons, depression and anxiety. I know I do! It’s quite common in the accounts of walkers going back through the ages. It’s worth reading The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane if you’ve not done so already. Fascinating book and this was a fascinating post!

    • Hi Alex- walking is superb medicine. I think I’m one of very few who’ve had that particular toxic reaction, but there are many who take other risks while hiking. Such as your friend. I’ll keep an eye out for that book. Thanks!

  18. This is such a wonderful post, Julie. I love your writing here, and I also like how you not only bring the place to life but also write about its very real physical and emotional effect on you, due to the nickel. I had to look up New Caledonia, as I didn’t even know where it was. That’s sad! But I’m so glad I read this and learned something new. It is also interesting, and quite scary, about the ritual murders, and the fact that the tribal land boundaries are invisible.

    • Thank you, Cathy. When I first met Monsieur Riso, I didn’t know exactly where New Caledonia was, either. I liked to think that I knew about the existence of everywhere. Nope! Every once in a while, I still learn of some new place. Hope I always do. It keeps the mystery about the planet alive.

  19. Hi Julie. Finally made it back here. 🙂
    It took me a while to understand “the pebble” until I remembered my Caldoches friends calling it “Le caillou”. 🙂
    I had no idea Nickel could be so… toxic. Glad you are over it. (But then you are resilient, aren’t you?)
    About the referendum? I’m not too optimistic about it. From a distance (and with other examples in mind) it seems to me that too much hatred has accumulated on both sides… We shall see.
    Good luck on your shopping around for the Mémoire. (Let me know if you find an intelligent editor. And maybe we can exchange ideas . I’m not keen on self-publishing either)
    Bon week-end mon amie.

  20. I too have often heard why hike? what’s there to it? I’m with you on trying to have that relationship with nature. Sometimes, All we can do is keeping do it and maybe others will see the passion and come along 🙂

    • I guess it’s kind of how I feel about TV. People laugh because I’ve never owned one. The fact that not everyone likes hiking keeps the trails less crowded, too 😉 But if some were to catch our passion, they’d be welcome. Thanks for stopping by.

  21. Wow. Julie you are something else.Talk about stamina. I am glad you got out. So sad that something so stunning and fulfilling was poisoning you.
    I was surprised by the ritualistic killing on the Isle of Pines.All the islands have the friendly persona being promoted.
    I really get your sentence … The atavistic gratification of traversing a land on my own two feet. I wrote a line in my most recent post.Good luck with your book pitch. Louise

    • Thanks, Louise. So nice to hear from you. Islands are always promoted as welcoming paradises, and a lot of them are, but some are really dangerous and some inhabitants simply do not want outsiders around. New Caledonia is somewhere in the middle. It’s not the friendliest island in the Pacific, but it’s not the most dangerous or hostile, either. Stay in the tourist areas on Isle of Pines (and the other islands in the archipeligo) and all is very well.

      Walking has been a mode of transportation since the dawn of humanity. How many millenia did we walk the Earth before the wheel was invented? Sure, you can get to places faster with a bike or a motorized vehicle, but you don’t hear the birds or the breeze rustling through the leaves.

  22. What a beautifully penned… Thanks for telling us about Grande Terre.
    Sounds like a mesmerizing place…
    The descriptions and your writing are so convincing and good…
    Being an “explorer” is a great way to build trust, while one feels a sense of belonging, and living in the moment. Great post, dear JUlie. Love & best wishes 🙂 ❤

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