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.

Paradise Prison

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Prony, New Caledonia – March 2005

The locals of New Caledonia often refer to their island as “the island closest to paradise”. I find it ironic that many of the people who use this phrase, those who call themselves Caldoches, are descendants of people brought here by force. Exiled to a faraway land to serve out their debt to society. One of my friends, a Caldoche, once told me that she grew up believing that her ancestors were sent here for stealing a piece of bread. Boatloads of Jean Valjeans victimized by the unjust French system. For that is what the elders say. As an adult, she was disappointed to learn that, in fact, the worst criminals were sent here. Murderers, rapists, political agitators from the Paris Commune. Women criminals were sent here as incentive for the men to settle the territory after they were freed. These women were convicted of infanticide, prostitution, or other crimes. Over the generations they intermarried with each others’ offspring. The attachment to this far flung archipelago grew fiercer with each generation. What was once a prison became a paradise.

One individual’s paradise is another individual’s prison.

Here, where the rust-colored dirt road meets the sea, we have come upon the deserted village of Prony. This excursion is a temporary balm for my hysteria. Please, let’s just drive somewhere. Anywhere new, I asked my husband, who understands my disposition. Since I’ve lived on this island, I’ve rationed those precious few lines on the map. Much of the island is inaccessible by road. It’s going on six years now. The supply has dwindled to dregs.

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New Caledonia was supposed to be my escape from the tedium of nine to five and one-hour commutes on packed freeways. From a hamster wheel existence without end. I stopped spinning all right. However, isolation and inertia has not stilled my turbulent mind. I never knew how much of my identity was based upon that action and noise. On this distant rock, time is sluggish, elongated. I feel as if I am lying flat on my back, a boot pressed firmly on my sternum.

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We walk around the tiny village. We are alone, except for the meaty, fist-sized spiders that dangle from the trees like ominous fruit. Their massive webs undulate in the soft breeze. Most of the structures have been totally shackled by banyan roots. A prison imprisoned.

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I stand at the edge of the earth. This sand under my feet is the color of corrosion. Some of those long ago convicts managed to escape. Those who had no writing instruments used charts scrawled in blood.

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A Distant North

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Nouméa, New Caledonia – January 2004

I look out of my refrigerated prison. Palm trees stand inert, exhausted in the sweltering heat. I want cool, fresh air, not this stagnant morgue. I want winter!

“Think of all the poor people in the North who are freezing right now,” my husband reminds me.

So, I daydream of snow, slush, sleet. Icicles stuck to frozen mittens. Glacial winds whipping against my bare face, making me cry.

Thunder rumbles. The vibrations shake me to reality. I jump up, slip on my flip-flops, and run outside into the leaden afternoon. I stand expectantly in the street staring up at the menacing sky. The palm trees rustle in the rising wind. A few furtive raindrops brush my face. Then, as if the sky itself were a dam, the floodgates are thrown open. The rain’s force nearly knocks me to the ground.

Take that, it seems to say. Then, as quickly as it arrived, it moves on.

Steam begins to rise from my body. This has been no respite at all. I stand here as drenched and limp as seaweed. Defeated.

From the window my husband beckons me back into the artificial chill and soothing daydreams of a distant North.

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