New Caledonia: Cast away

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Charles Rangeley-Wilson travels to New Caledonia in search of some of the most prized and elusive of angling catches

My sleep was so complete, it was as if I'd woken from anaesthetic. A huge hole in time lay behind me, the night simply subtracted from my life. Making notes, late in the dark, pages ruffling under the waft of a busy ceiling fan, and then awake to dawn in New Caledonia. Nothing in between. Nothing.

Outside, there is no wind and the pale, watery sky is clear. A Morse code of bird calls has begun and in this gauzy light, the sound is intense, almost electronic. The sea is flat as slate all the way to the horizon and, with the sun still so low, it seems as impenetrable, too. And yet we have come here expressly to peer into it. What lies ahead of us is day after day of wading this ocean trying to X-ray that slate, to unlock its secrets. We've come here chasing a rumour: that in the seas of New Caledonia swim the largest bonefish in the world. To three fly-fishing bums, that is a rumour worth chasing no matter how far it takes you.

Last night's drive was the final leg in a journey that yawned open and swallowed two days whole Heathrow, Bangkok, Sydney and finally on to Nouma, a four-hour flight into the south-west Pacific. The whole thing a tongue-lolling unsleep of blow-dried eyeballs, of departure gates and back-ache. Finally on the ground and desperate for stasis, we were instead lullabied by a welcoming ceremony of hula skirts and guitars at the door to the airport. Swathed in garlands of flowers and now dripping with pollen, we were then bundled into the back of a Land Rover for the immense drive north.

The road droned on interminably. Day slipped into dusk. Looming blackwood trees covered with vines black against the lighter sky, then suddenly yellow and stage-lit in our headlights turned our world into a tunnel through blackness, from which we emerged every so often into a twinkling township of French signage and New-World architecture. Gradually as we closed in on the remote and tropical north end of the island, the air coming in through our open windows became warm and biscuity. And now we are here, as far from home as I have ever been and as far as I ever could get.

Most people, it seems, think that New Caledonia is somewhere in Canada. It might as well be on the Moon. It is certainly at the other end of the world. Home to the indigenous Kanaks, the island was discovered (in our imperial sense of the word) by Captain James Cook in 1774, though 60,000 of these Melanesians called it home before that. Cook landed on the north-east coast, where we will be spending most of our time wading the sand flats, which have been deposited in the lea of the restless ocean currents that sweep up the east and west coastlines. Cook named it New Caledonia because the craggy shoreline, the precipitous falls and the backdrop of mountains reminded him of Scotland.

Cook sailed down the east coast, so he wouldn't have seen the stately valleys of the western plains, which, as the light faded on our drive north, reminded me more of English parkland dragged towards the equator an unaffected, natural Palladian landscape of vistas, lakes and tulip trees. But up here, I know what he meant.

Later, thigh-deep in the sea that a rising sun has turned from slate to shimmering kaleidoscope, wading the immensity of the flat, white sand of St Bhale, I finally pin down what has felt so incongruous all morning. Here the central mass of Grand Terre, the main island of New Caledonia (about 200 miles long and 25 miles wide), has narrowed to a single spine of mountains that fall like the tail of a vast dinosaur skeleton to a tapering point.

Now, I have waded tropical seas looking for bonefish in most places they can be found, but they have always been fish of empty, limitless horizons. In New Caledonia, I sense that I may be at a symbolic endpoint of my search; time will tell if I catch the Moby Dick I've always been after. But in all those years of seeking, I have never, ever looked for bonefish with mountains in the background. This sense of the incongruous is one of the things I love about fishing the prospect of turning up something amazing, somewhere unexpected.

Seeing things as I do through what someone described to me the other day as my spectacles of "fish-autism" I've always felt that Britain would be pretty much perfect except for the fact that there are no bonefish there. Now that I've found that someone has towed the west coast of Scotland into the tropical Pacific, things are looking pretty much complete.

Except, of course, I haven't found any bonefish yet. It was never going to be easy. What little I'd discovered about bonefish in the tropical waters New Caledonia told me only two things. That they are very hard to find; and that if you do find one, it will be very, very large. It's the latter more than the former that dragged me here.

To a man with fish-autism, bonefish are the telephone book I've memorised, a fish I could happily pursue for the rest of my days. There are many species of bonefish worldwide, but while the physical differences are subtle, they are all paranoid, skittish, morphing ghosts that mess with your mind, your eyesight and your sanity. With their reflective scales and TGV snouts they grace tropical flats and shallow seas, wafting hither and thither on the rhythm of the tides, feeding on shrimp and crab and other little beasties that can be conveniently imitated with feather and hook. If you can train your eyes to see them, and if you can steal close enough to cast to one without treading on the motion-sensing bomb of its overwrought nerves, and if it takes your fly and you set the hook, then you truly and very intensely live. It's the fly-fisherman's rush: our way of catching the perfect wave. It is as if you are, for just those moments, in touch with one of the most elemental forces of nature. All of that applies to any bonefish and in most tropical seas even a small one will pull your string. But in New Caledonia the whispering goes that these fish become truly massive. The biggest rush, the biggest wave.

But it is only a whisper. A few years back, a Frenchman called Philippe briefly ran a fishing operation at this northern end of the island. A few people came from overseas. Mixed reports leaked out of large fish and but also of fishless days. Then he "went feral", disappearing into the forested mountains for increasing lengths of time until finally he vanished altogether and the operation shut down. Now another Frenchman, Richard Bertin, has taken on the idea and Mat, Peter and myself are his bonefish guinea-pigs.

We've come with Herv, our Kanak guide, across the Baie D'Harcourt to St Bhale, 1,000 acres of white sand lying to u o the south-west of Ile Balabio. It was Napoleon III who annexed New Caledonia in 1853 hence all the French names and the fact that it remains a French dependency and until 1922 the island was used as a penal colony.

The first century of French rule was not a happy time for Herv's ancestors, the indigenous people of New Caledonia. Prevailed upon by slavers and missionaries, they were finally with the discovery of nickel squeezed from their ancestral lands altogether and confined under an apartheid-like system of government called indignat. Nowadays the Kanaks have reclaimed their heritage, their land and their sense of place and the island is evolving towards an overtly more inclusive common identity, a mixture of French and Kanak culture.

In reality, the place feels layered rather than mixed. Nouma, the capital, is very much France somewhere else: the meandering seafront of the city yields narrow beaches framed by palm trees and the steady sigh of the Pacific, rather than the Mediterranean. Even so, the topless bathers, marinas, taut tummies over Speedos and painted ladies walking poodles are all there. Facing the Dufy seafront are rows of cafs and smart hotels. The heart of the town lies two streets back: Place des Cocotiers, a Parisian square of statues and fountains but overarched by immense tulip trees with gnarled and ancient trunks.

Offshore a ferry-ride away there are tropical resorts on cays of white sand, further still the Great Barrier Reef. To the visitor, this end of the island is a tropical paradise in the regular sense of the phrase. But Nouma soon gives way to a wilder, undeveloped land Kanak land with only one main road; the interminable one that we drove along to get here. Its Tarmac finally ran out and for 20 miles this morning we bumped along a dirt track, snaking a course between that cascading ridge of red hills and swampy inlets of mangrove and mud-creek. A hand-painted sign, in dripping red paint on a driftwood board, marked the end of the road.

The cul-de-sac was the hamlet of Poingam. It was Sunday morning and the locals were playing boules. Their kids mucked about on the road, too, practising catching each other with throw-nets. One old boy was repairing his fishing boat with a power-sander. The Kanaks, my guidebook told me, are gentle and shy people, with whom one should not mistake their not talking too much for animosity. All this was useful advice when it came to Herv. On the ride over, I tried my best in broken Franglais to learn a little about him. He told me that he has been fishing since he was a toddler, that he has two children and that they are at school and not yet les pêcheurs. But every bit of information was hard-won and I decided in the end that Herv, like the rest of his people, just likes silence.

We've dropped our anchor at St Bhale and jumped overboard into the warm saltiness. Herv has shown us which way the fish will be coming from and is now off on his own at the far end of the flat. Richard says that Herv has eyes like an eagle. But he fishes like a heron. The weather has turned now and a dark sky is closing in from the south. The wind has picked up and fat, rolling waves are heaving off the shallow water and smacking against my legs. Worst of all, the sun has vanished. One minute I'm trying to find a needle in a haystack, the next I'm trying to find a needle in a haystack with the lights off. Peter and Mat have walked back the other way to chase reef fish until the conditions on the flat pick up, leaving me alone and feeling something like Lear on his heath, wondering if that immense journey is going to have been worth it.

Herv remains motionless on the horizon only now I look again his rod is bent double, I'm sure of it. I wade towards him. He looks over, sees me coming and slowly closes the distance between us, his rod hooped over his shoulder. As I draw closer still I can hear his rusty fishing reel croaking like a bucket of hot frogs as whatever he is attached to makes for the far horizon.

"Is it a bonefish?" I ask.

"Oui," says Herv.

"Grande?"

Herv shakes his free hand in a comme ci, comme a kind of way as a dark curtain of rain lashes up the sea towards us and wind sings in the taut line. We gaze at the horizon for a long time, Herv very slowly winning the fish back until it comes close enough for me to see it, a green hulk anchored by its own weight and strength to the sea bed, and circling stubbornly beyond reach. It is quite simply massive. It circles endlessly, Herv's rod bent into a ludicrous hoop. And when we finally get it in Herv's cool gives and he breaks out into a broad grin. We let his fish go the Kanaks can and do eat them, but sportfishermen return fish that are worth more to the local economy back in the water than in an icebox. Well done, I say, shaking him by the hand. I ask if he'll help me find a fish, too.

"Yes," he replies as if I'd only ever had to ask. "Follow me."

I do. And Herv takes me to my fish, the faintest shimmer of green, no more than the reflection of a wave. I make my cast and hook it and the atomic energy of the thing drags me 200 yards inshore, on to the pale, shallow crown of the flat. When I catch up with it, I am alone. Herv has drifted off to stand again like a heron on the horizon. But I have my fish, and yes it is a whopper, and yes the journey was worth it.



Charles Rangeley-Wilson's 'The Accidental Angler' is out now in paperback (Yellow Jersey Press/Random House, 7.99)

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

There are no direct routes between the UK and New Caledonia. The main approaches to Nouma include Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; www.airnz.co.uk) to Auckland via either Hong Kong or Los Angeles, with onward connections on Air Caldonie; Air France/KLM (0870 142 4343; www.airfrance.co.uk) to Tokyo or Osaka via Amsterdam or Paris, again with onward connections on Air Caldonie; and Qantas (08457 747767; www.qantas.co.uk) via Singapore or Bangkok to Sydney.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).



FISHING THERE

Mathew McHugh at Fly Odyssey (01621 743711; www.flyodyssey.co.uk) can arrange everything. A seven-night fly fishing package starts at 2,500 per person. The price includes full-board accommodation, six day's fully-guided fishing, licences and transfers. International flights are not included but can be arranged by Fly Odyssey.



STAYING THERE

The northern end of the island has several rustic gîtes and relais dotted along the shoreline.

The writer stayed at Relais de Poingam in Poum, North Province (00 687 47 92 12; www.gitesnouvellecaledonie.com). Bungalows start at 8,500 Pacific francs (51) room only; furnished tents from 1,500 Pacific francs (9).



MORE INFORMATION

New Caledonia Tourism: www.newcaledoniatourism.co.uk

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