Between the two large islands forming the eastern edge of the atoll a shallow pass leads into a small, shallow lagoon. We have passed the entrance several times on our way out diving. It looked interesting. Carl and his friends returned to Australia yesterday. So today, Freddy and I decide to explore the lagoon.
We anchor Moira just outside the pass, off the long gleaming white beach curving the leeward coast of the main island of Ouvea. We get into the dinghy and motor through the notch in the beach and as we round the corner into the lagoon, a gigantic gray cliff comes into view. It is magnificent in the early morning sunlight, draped with garlands of green jungle, standing tall and proud against a sea blue sky. "The fabled cliffs of Lekine" I announce in my best tour guide voice.
"Look at the cave!" Freddy points to the cliff and I see the black entrance of an enormous cave. The lagoon is very shallow and studded with coral thickets. But the tide is still rising and there are some deeper pathways so I throttle up and we race across to see the cave.
As we approach, I can see the cliff is an uplifted coral reef. The closer we get, the bigger it seems. Hundreds of caves and crevices cover the vertical wall. "That's magnificent!" I throttle back and stare up at the towering edifice. "I can just imagine the reef rearing up from the sea in super time-lapse."
The birth of Ouvea. A volcano explodes beneith the sea, emerges, dies, subsides, a circular cone, hard on the rim, a smoking ruin of porous lava rubble in the center. As the volcano sinks below the waves, the rim is crowned with a ring of living coral flicker-growing up towards the light while the volcano sags heavily into the plastic mantle of the planet.
It's an awesome vision. The day by day antics of corals, fish, echinoderms, mollusks, and algae continue for thousands and thousands of years. Their skeletons cement together in exquisite massive detail, each curve and projection dictated by time and circumstance.
After Ouvea was a full grown atoll, the planet's crustal movement caused the sea floor to bubble between New Caledonia and Vanuatu. The bubble bulged the atolls of Ouvea, Lifu, and Mare into the air. Lifu and Mare, on the crest of the bubble, were lifted right out of the water and today are fossil reefs, overgrown with trees and people. Ouvea, however, was on the northern curve of the bulge. The southeastern edge of the ring of coral thrust up into the air while the northwestern edge tilted deeper. Now the whole atoll cants, its leading edge uplifted to form a long crescent shaped island, the leeward edge trailing off into deep water.
During the uplift, the crown of coral snapped to form this jagged break: the lagoon and its pass, the naked vertical wall of the raised reef. We motor slowly through the snapped section, looking at the exposed anatomy of the atoll megabeast.
I nose the Avon up to a megaton block of bare coral rock and Freddy scrambles up onto it. I back off to anchor, so the dinghy will not swing into the sharp coral as we explore. Looking up, I see Freddy climb onto the first ledge of uplifted coral. She is a tiny dot of color high above me on the gray platform. A stunning panorama. Here are the caverns of sea's remembering thrust up from the horizon of Sea to interact with the air and form new patterns of knowing. Green patterns of coconut trees, pandanus, and thousands of jungle creatures.
Along one edge of this enormous ridge of coral I see a place where a section of broken coral has fallen to form a talus slope. There are coconut trees growing on the rubble at sea level and they reach about a third of the way up the cliff. Each coconut tree is 80 feet tall. The cliff makes them look like miniature coconut bonsai trees.
I wade ashore and clamber up to Freddy. We walk through the old coral buttresses, past stalactites and stalagmites, under the enormous ledge, up along a narrow path into the entrance of the big black cave. It is like looking into the eye socket of the ancient megabeast: at once mysterious and scary. Inside, the floor of the cave is reasonably smooth and flat. Towards the back of the chamber I see a raised platform of rock with something behind it. I walk back into the shadows to have a look.
There, near the back of the cave, I discover an altar. Two vases of long dead flowers. Masses of burned out candles. And presiding silently from the shadows, a cement statue of the Virgin Mary: the Christian symbol of the Earth Mother. The spirit of Man lurks within the heart of the Atoll Megabeast.
Standing there, contemplating the Earth Mother, my Inner Voice presents the image of the caverns of seas remembering again, fleshed out with more words. They are "The Caverns of Sea's Remembering reflect our journey through the horizons of our own perceptions as we lift into new patterns of knowing."
I like it. The words conjure a host of concepts. I see fish rising up from the branches of the corals, evolving over eons from coral-like ancestors into creatures with eyes to see and move above the sightless time when no eyes existed on our planet. My mind view is an Escherian metamorphosis of coral into fish. Of sightlessness into vision. It is not entirely an imaginary image. The metamorphosis really happened. It happened through many small trial and error steps of behavior as life learned increasingly complex ways to interact with itself.
The caverns of coral reflect our evolutionary journey. Yes, they really do. They reflect life's slow, many layered, interwoven, movement through the ever expanding horizons of perceptions. The walls around me reflect a lifting of awareness into new ways of seeing and perceiving. Or maybe it's better to think of the uplifting as a more impersonal and inevitable process. Perhaps I should see it as the upward thrust of awareness as mind intersects with the mighty geological events of the planet. A slowly learning maze of planetary awareness.
There is something terribly important, almost urgent, in these thoughts. They hold me, frozen like the stony Virgin Earth Mother, for a long time. I turn and look out into the brilliant daylight. Freddy is outlined in the entrance of the cave, just sitting there quietly, looking out over the water, waiting for me. She's really terribly patient at times. With a start I realize the tide is not ever patient and we could get stuck in the lagoon if I don't get with it.
"That's weird," I muse as we thread our way slowly through the now exposed patches of coral in the lagoon. "It couldn't have been easy getting that statue in there. I wonder who would put it in there anyway? And why?"
Ouvea must have half a dozen big stone churches scattered along the island. There are only about 3000 people and the island is only 40 kilometers long by a maximum of 5 kilometers wide. Why someone would lug a cement statue of Mary into the back of a cave in a place where there are churches galore is beyond me.
"Who cares what those perverts do?" Freddy hates churches and anything to do with them. "More to starboard!" and I swerve to miss a very shallow head. "Creeps. Worshipping a dead man on a stick. Getting off on pain and torture." I have long since given up trying to discuss it with her. Besides. Looked at her way, it is kind of peculiar.
"But that was the Earth Mother in there," I protest.
"Yeah, turned to stone and cemented to the inside of a cave in the dark." No point in discussing it with her at all. We clear the shallows and zoom back to the Moira, get aboard, up anchor and sail back to town.
We anchor Moira well off the beach at the main village of Fayaoue. There is a commotion on shore. A gaggle of people mill about energetically doing something. Small colorful sails litter the white sand. We motor in with the dinghy. About 25 industrious French have flown in for a windsurfing weekend.
Freddy chats with a woman named Monique while I look over the assortment of windsurfers and the even more interesting assortment of women who are, like French anywhere, beaching semi-nude. Monique keeps looking at me. Suddenly she smiles and says, in English, "You don't understand anything do you?"
"Nothing," I smile.
"But Frederique is French!"
I just shrug. "Frederique does not have the patience to teach me. I'm trying to learn."
Monique begins to speak in English for my benefit. "How long do you plan to stay in New Caledonia?"
"Probably for the hurricane season." I shuffle my feet in the warm sand. Ouvea's beaches are among the finest in the world, vast tracts of gleaming beauty edging the sheltered blue lagoon.
"Oh, that's very good. What is your line of work?"
"I'm a marine biologist."
This elicits a long comment in French with lots of hand language and laughter. Frederique translates, "Monique's sister is married to a marine biologist who runs the Aquarium de Noumea."
"Yes, you must come visit us in Noumea!" Monique insists.
Freddy and Monique get back to their conversation. I wander around looking at the crowd of people. They are remarkably fit and very happy, laughing and joking and fitting up their windsurfers in the best of spirits. When one of them decides to go get something, he or she runs there and runs back, usually laughing, head thrown back in the wind of their own energy. They intend to sail up to the north end of the island and camp there. A power boat, which evidently transported all their windsurfers here from Noumea, will go along with them and cart their food and wine up to their camp site.
I move to the top of the beach and stand in the shade of an old Casurina tree. Frederique now has several people around her, all male. She's grinning and laughing in the general good humor of the day. She "belongs" with these people. I can see that. They are alike.
She breaks off and comes running up the beach towards me dragging a friend of Lowell Fink's whom we met briefly in Noumea. Michel Quantard is a very pleasant man with a roundish face, medium build and height, perhaps in his late 30's. "Michel," Freddy says breathlessly as he and I shake hands, "is from Algeria, from the same city my mother and her father were from."
"Yes, many people from North Africa came to New Caledonia after the war," Michel beams happily. "We are Pieds Noir (meaning black feet, referring to the boots the French troops wore). We could not go to France so we came here."
"Why couldn't you go to France?" I don't know anything about the Algerian and Moroccan conflicts except it was in the early sixties. The only reason I know that is because Freddy was born near Casablanca and left Morocco when she was a little girl. She and her parents arrived in America in 1960.
Freddy looks at me as if I'm stupid to ask. "Because France is full of Frogs. Never mind, I'll explain later."
Michel laughs. "Of course New Caledonia was also very beautiful and most of the French who were already here were colonists, like us. Many of the Caldoche have been here for four generations. From the time New Caledonia was a prison colony."
"New Caledonia was a prison colony? Like Australia?" I expand on my historical ignorance.
"Yes, of course. From 1864 to 1897. The remains of the prison are still to be found in the Baie du Prony. You must go and visit them some day." Michel shakes hands again and runs back to join the group that is now getting ready to head off on their windsurfers.
Freddy and I amble over to the small Ouvea Village Hotel for a beer. Since Carl and his friends stayed there, everyone on the hotel staff knows us. A chubby homosexual dressed in a pareo comes over to our table and joins us. "Hi, are you still here? We thought you'd left with your friends." Jon speaks excellent English. Not many people here speak any at all.
"Oh, we'll hang around a bit and explore the island." I respond. Jon is part Polynesian, part European. The hotel owner is also Pied Noir from Algeria but his wife is Polynesian. I notice there are almost no Melanesians around the hotel although they make up the bulk of the population here.
"You must go up to the northern part of the island and visit my village," Jon waves his hand towards the north. "You can take the bus or just wave and anyone will stop to pick you up."
"Is it a Polynesian Village?" I ask.
"Oh yes. We, that is my ancestors, came from Wallis Island. Do you know of it? Yes? One day a group of people went out to one of the smaller out-islands of Wallis to get some wood to build a new canoe for the King. In those days we called the island Ouvea. The French later named it Wallis." Jon stops to light one of his smelly French cigarettes. Freddy frowns and moves her chair further away but he does not notice. His eyes are closed as he inhales the foul smoke.
"Well....while the men were cutting the big tree for the canoe the women were on the beach watching the children and building the fire to help burn out the log. One of the King's sons was with them, a small boy. Just an infant. When the women were busy, the boy walked into the sea and drowned. They held a meeting and decided that if they returned to the main island and told the King his boy had drowned, they would most certainly be killed. So they finished building the canoe and sailed it away, risking the danger of the sea rather than certain death from the King.
"In the end they came to this island. The Kanaks were already here, of course, but they gave my ancestors some land on the north end of the island, and we've been there ever since. You can still see the remains of the original canoe at the village. It is on either side of the entrance."
"And your people named this island Ouvea?" Freddy asks.
"Yes, I suppose so. The Kanaks didn't have a name for the whole place so we named it after our homeland." Jon says wistfully.
"It's interesting you've been able to survive peacefully for so long on such a little island. Are there many mixed marriages?" I ask.
"It hasn't always been so peaceful." He smiles, "And there have been some mixed marriages, but not many. More with the French than with Kanaks."
"I heard something about some trouble with the Kanaks and this hotel," Freddy waves the smoke from his cigarette away.
"Yes. Indeed there was. The Kanaks burned it down. Twice. We've only just finished rebuilding it."
"Why did they burn it down?" I ask, thinking it must have been bad feelings because of segregation. There were never any blacks in the hotel or in the bar.
"We used to allow anyone into the bar, including the Kanaks." Jon cancels my theory, "They used to get pissing drunk, spend all their money and go home and beat up their wives and children.
The women demanded we prohibit their men from coming here. But, of course, we could not do that. It's a free country and people do what they want. So the women came one night and burned the place down. We had to drag their men out of the burning building as some of them were too drunk to move."
"Amazing. So how come you are back in business?" I laugh.
"We've agreed to restrict the bar to patrons of the Hotel only."
"So now that you are segregated the women are happy. OK, why not?" I laugh. The truth is just the opposite of what I imagined.
"Well, the men are not so happy. We're sort of waiting to see what's going to happen. Last weekend one man rented a single for the night and invited all his friends to the pub for a drink." Jon puts out his cigarette and reaches for another. Freddy gets up and walks out.
Out on the ocean, the tiny multicolored butterfly wings of the windsurfers are vanishing into the distance. The powerboat follows the stragglers whose sails keep falling over and then struggling up again.
Just before dawn we thread through the pass, and Ouvea vanishes into a white mist as the sails set and Moira heels over in the light easterly. The breeze stirs Sea as Sun rises over the low islands of the atoll. The golden orange disk of our star reflects in a long spear of light on the wind rippled surface: a golden river of Sun on Sea. As we sail, the golden river moves with us, tracking my eyes.
I see the island moving, the clouds moving, and the golden river moving. But there is a difference. The golden river moves with me and I find this oddly fascinating. The path of sunlight on Sea is mine. Without my awareness, the golden river of sun on sea would not exist. Without my eyes the sun would still be there. The sea would still be there. But there would be no golden river of sun on sea. Not that one anyway.
Freddy hands up my coffee and I say, "Come see the sun." She comes up the ladder into the cockpit. The early golden light makes her very pretty, haloing her blonde hair as she squints into the sun.
"Do you see the river of gold on the sea?" I ask her, smiling.
"Sure, it's beautiful."
"You should see mine," and she looks at me oddly and goes back below. But it's true. The river of gold she sees is not the same as mine. It points from the sun directly towards her eyes, not towards mine. If I photographed what I see now, anyone could look at the same sun river. It's real, it can be filmed, anyone can see it but only second-hand. Only I can see that particular river of gold. And it seems to me this is an especially important idea. The coffee smell distracts me and I let it go.
At 1330 I sight a small island on New Caledonia's reef. Two whales move slowly along the outside of the reef. When they hear us coming they dive and vanish.
Two frigate birds soar high in the sky riding a 25 knot northwesterly wind which comes up just as we drop the anchor in a well protected bay in Port Bouquet. The barometer is falling rapidly.