Boulangeries, sunshine and nakamals
Positioned 20,000kms away from the Hexagon and a mere 1500km from the east coast of Australia sits an island.
It has boulangeries, pâtisseries, and snorkelling that rivals the Great Barrier Reef. Its people speak the language of Voltaire, but their skins bake under the same intense sunshine that beats down on Queensland. It shares, like Australia, a history of indigenous peoples and convict settlement; with France, it shares its government.
New Caledonia occupies a unique place in French constitutional status – over the past 13 years it has been slowly transitioning from overseas territory to statut particulier. This has resulted in New Caledonians gaining their own citizenship, with an ultimate referendum on independence scheduled for 2014.
New Caledonia is frequented by thousands of Australians annually, mostly as part of cruises through the South Pacific. Perhaps, for some, they see enough in this day or two to inspire another trip where they disembark long enough to see beyond the port, to experience something off the well-trodden track. For those, my first recommendation would be a nakamal.
A nakamal is, in broad terms, a traditional meeting place in Vanuatu which is now, in New Caledonia, synonymous with the consummation of kava, a non-alcoholic drink that has sedative and anaesthetic properties. It is made from the roots of the Piper methysticum plant.
The nakamal itself represents an appropriately atmospheric setting in which to drink kava – alcohol and drugs are prohibited and there is an absence of aggression and mindless chatter.
Often a nakamal is by a beach, the setting sun casts its long shadows through the seating area long before the sky darkens – from a bench seat carved out of an old log, one stares at the kaleidoscope of the changing sky.
The adults talk in hushed tones – almost whispers – far removed from the raucous pubs of central Brisbane on a Friday night, while the children occupy themselves. The calmness seems to envelope them too – perhaps children too often unconsciously absorb the tension of their adult caretakers – and their play is creative, busy, and quiet.
It is not for the taste that people drink kava. Or so I assume because, quite frankly, it tastes like mud. It is not sipped. It is not drunk for the pleasure of letting the tasting notes bounce and linger on the taste buds.
It is more a means to an end, something to be endured for the subtly euphoric effects that follow.
And when the euphoria descends, it is indeed subtle – if the effects of a yoga class followed by a massage then by a candle lit spa bath could be packaged in a drink, this would be it. Once the kava is swallowed it is served with a slice of apple to cleanse the palate, washing away the muddy taste.
Like all intoxicants, it is not without its negative effects. Most studies have linked side effects to compounds in other parts of the plant – not the root – rather than the traditional preparation of the root.
A decision to try a cup of kava would probably involve the same consideration as to drink a glass of alcohol, but in the knowledge that it is more about the destination (the effect) than the journey (the taste).
However, the experience – to down a cup of muddy water with a refreshing chaser of apple, sitting by a beach as the sun crawls back under its covers – is something that should not be discounted from that journey. It is not a typical French experience either… but then again, one wonders how much longer New Caledonia will be French!Image credits:
1. A snorkelling beach in Isle de Pins, New Caledonia
2. ‘Le Canyon’, a nakamal at Ducos in New Caledonia – Image credit: lecriducagou.com
3. What you can see from ‘Le Canyon’ – Image credit: lecriducagou.com
4. Kava – rather like muddy water – Image credit: pacificinsider.com