Somewhere near the end of my stay in New Caledonia, I must have commented to Phil that nothing about the place had seemed especially tropical. New Caledonia is technically in the tropics, just inside the Tropic of Capricorn, but apart from some langorous aspects of the human culture it had seemed entirely temperate. The weather had been cloudy for most of my mid-September visit, the temperatures moderate and often cool.
I meant, really, that New Caledonia wasn't conforming to any of my stereotypes about what the tropical Pacific should be like. And when I pressed on this stereotype a bit, it quickly came down to a certain extravagant lushness of vegetation flowing down to long, soft-sand beaches. I was thinking, in short, of emergent volcanoes: mounds of fresh nutrient-rich soils, often black, recently thrown up from inside the earth -- a profile that describes Hawai'i, Fiji, Tahiti, and most of the other Pacific dots.
New Caledonia is something else. It's a block of very old rock that rifted off of Australia around 65 million years ago. As in Australia, the red soil has a striking poverty of nutrients, but there is also an unusually high concentration of heavy metals, which explains the dominant role of nickel mining in today's economy there.
It's easy to forget that soil chemistry dominates a plant's life as much as food dominates ours. It's easy, for example, to explain many features of Australian flora in terms of the continent's famous dryness, but the nutritional poverty of the soil is the larger factor, demanding at least as much specialized adaptation. New Caledonia drives this point home, because unlike Australia the island gets plenty of rain, and most of its rivers run year-round. The "Niagara Falls of New Caledonia," Chutes de la Madeleine, drains only a tiny area but has a strong and steady flow, just as it would in any wet climate.
Only on my last day in New Caledonia did we finally visit a credible tropical beach. Driving north from the town of Yate, at the island's eastern tip, we were soon on a one-lane dirt road parallel to the coast, and not long after that, the road ended where a river flowed across its path into the sea. I would point out the spot on Google Earth, but this is one of those places where even the patience of satellites hasn't outlasted the clouds.
I'm grateful for this cloud. It enhances my memory of the beach as secluded, invisible even to an all-seeing eye that can count the chairs in my back garden in Sydney. This vast stretch of roadless coast that begins here is called, with typically French excess, La côte
oubliée -- "the forgotten coast" -- as though some past civilization had remembered it better than we do. It's not so much forgotten as simply remote, not of much use to a small population that's more obsessed with mining and farming than with remembering or discovery.
The river turned out to be just over a meter deep, easily forded with a bit of leadership from Phil. Then we were on a long, rocky beach, backed by rainforest. There were still houses here and there, but quite basic ones, as though made entirely from things that could be brought by boat. And here, finally, was my tropical cliché:
Cocos nucifera has spread across the tropics, from an unknown origin, by being very tolerant of saltwater and conceiving a fruit that easily floats on the sea. I most remember the various ways that coconuts lie on the beach. Those that have dropped far enough from the waves have a chance to sprout.
But existentialist that I am, I found myself drawn to the coconuts that landed on the open sand, where the waves wash over them. A wave comes in, they roll a bit one way. It goes out, they roll a bit the other way.
Like the stock market, the wandering oscillation yields briefly newsworthy highs and lows. At one moment the coconut will be well down into the waves, as though about to become seaborne. At some other moment it will be up near the high tide mark, almost in the dry sand where it might relax and sprout. It was pleasant to ponder, then, that the spread of coconuts has largely relied on no mechanism but this. Back, forth. Maybe (but very unlikely) float away. Maybe (but very unlikely) reach firm land and sprout. Watching them this sentence came to mind:
Sufficiently vast quantities of time are a kind of intelligence.
... and I wondered what that might mean.