MELANESIA (Part 1) – April 2009

Onboard Rhapsody of the Seas (Here We Go, Out to Sea Again…)

In stark contrast to other journeys, Huckleberry B had gathered together a posse…

Among our group were B’s sister, M, and her husband, D, together with B’s brother, Y, and his wife, C.

After settling into our cabins, our group gathered for our first lunch together at the Windjammer Café – a buffet style eatery perched on the 9th deck of the vessel, overlooking the stern. Whilst in port, we enjoyed a lovely view of the Museum of Metropolitan Art and the city beyond. My thoughts only occasionally strayed to the random happenings at my office, less than a ten minute walk away.

Later our merry gang gathered on the balcony of our cabin to drink some sparkling wine as Rhapsody of the Seas drifted from the dock, made a three-point-turn under the Harbour Bridge and headed down the Harbour towards the Heads.

Cruising down the Sydney Harbour is always a thrill. We were fortunate to find that our cabin was on the southern side of the vessel, allowing us a spectacular view of the Opera House and the city lights as we glided by.

Before long – as the light failed – we passed through the Heads and headed majestically out to sea. This is always one my favourite moments of any cruise. Breaking the ties that bind us to our everyday life, we stand on our balcony until we can no longer see the land behind us. Before long, our ship will be steaming ahead, at full pace, slicing through the water. Soon our small group of seafarers will be alone at sea, with neither land nor other vessels in sight. Nought but adventure awaits over the horizon.

Two Days at Sea (Won’t Somebody Calm the Ocean Down?)

Our first two days onboard Rhapsody of the Seas were spent at sea, steaming north-east to New Caledonia.

The ocean was far from flat. Whilst perhaps it would be unfair to describe him as `angry’, Neptune certainly had a short temper.

The water was choppy and we were heading into the wind, causing Rhapsody to lurch up and down and from side to side. It is fair to say that some of our group handled the rough seas better than others. Names shall not be mentioned in this forum, however, one or two members of the family remained in their cabins for extended periods and, even when making a surprise guest appearance at meal time, appeared somewhat green of complexion and tender of stomach.

One our or band who proclaimed to `love cruising’ – when Rhapsody of the Seas was still safely moored at Circular Quay – was not said to be `re-assessing’ his position!

We learned later that members of our family were not the only ones affected by the rough seas. Evidently, over 150 passengers – well over 5% of those on board – attended the infirmary for treatment. The pools on deck nine were emptied, both to prevent water from sloshing across the deck and to remove the weight at that top of the pendulum which only operated to accentuate the side-to-side sway of the vessel.

Huck B and I, however, decided that there were really only two things we truly wanted to do on these two grand days at sea: eat and sleep.

A Day in Noumea (A Tale of Two Cities)

We must confess that we had trouble getting too excited about Noumea, the capital of the Island of New Caledonia.

The dock area, in particular, is less than inspiring. The remains of a beautiful natural environment are evident – with a pleasing harbour and mountains rising across the skyline – however, the architecture of the town sits in argument with the topography.

We were told by a local guide named Claude – to whom I shall return later in this narrative – that there is a high level of unemployment and homelessness in the city. Shops shut down at 6pm because, come sundown, petty crime overtakes the will of the local gendarmerie to bring lawfulness to the streets.

That said, some extremely rich people live in Noumea. Claude told us some zillionaires owned some of the small islands in the harbour and had constructed private tunnels to allow them drive their late model sports cars from the mainland, underwater, to their lavish homes.

In any event, our little troupe spent the morning at a local market which probably does its best business on days when a cruise liner is in town. Whilst M bargained for a cute little hat with a very large flower, no purchases were made and we returned to Rhapsody for lunch.

Our afternoon was better spent than our morning. I mentioned Claude earlier. A Belgian gentlemen who spoke impeccable Japanese and questionable English, Claude was a tour guide who could probably make a better living as either a comedian or a formula one driver.

Whilst Claude was engaged to take us on a two hour tour of Noumea and the surrounding countryside, his services extended to telling amusing anecdotes whilst illustrating his stories with expansive hand gestures – often resulting in him travelling at express speed with no hands on the steering wheel.

There were two factors which heightened the danger of Claude’s reprehensible conduct. The first aggravating factor was outside our control. Whilst on a mountaintop overlooking the city and the ocean beyond, Claude suddenly announced that he had 20 minutes to complete a 35 minute trip back to the tourist centre where another group would be waiting to go on their tour.

The second factor which exacerbated Claude’s manic behaviour was very much within our control. Rather than allowing Claude to concentrate on negotiating the winding road back into town and focus his energies on completing a rapid – but safe – journey, Y insisted on peppering him with questions about some of the features which were flashing by our windows at terminal velocity. Y’s inquiries – though actuated by a desire for knowledge – only encouraged the extremes of Claude’s flawed character. Suddenly he was making high speed, 120 degree turns whilst barely touching the steering wheel!

Claude ultimately came to a screeching halt some two or three minutes late. We gratefully exited his suicide machine and another group of potential victims entered.

Before long we were back onboard Rhapsody, safe and sound, sound and safe…

The six of us late gathered on the balcony of our stateroom to wave Noumea goodbye, whilst sipping on some sparkling wine and nibbling on some fruit and cheese. As the sun disappeared over island, we were again heading out to sea on a northerly vector towards Vanuatu.

Mystery Island (Of Tropical Fish, Coral and the Demise of an Expensive Camera…)

Day five of our voyage proved to be the highlight so far.

Mystery Island lies on the southern most point of the Vanuatu archipelago, on a latitude just below Cairns. It was used as a landing strip by the allied forces during World War II.

Totally uninhabited, it would take a strong pair of legs about twenty minutes to run around Mystery Island’s circumference. It took our entourage almost twice as long to scout the coast line for a place to swim.

Once in the warm, salty water, however, the day was glorious. Standing with the water lapping against my chest, I could look back to the white sands of the island bordered by lush green vegetation and palm trees. Behind us, hovering like an oasis on the water, was Rhapsody of the Seas. It was an idyllic view.

I could not honestly say that there was an abundance of fish swimming about. All that seemed to live in the low sandy waters were some sea grass and – to the amusement of the Chinese chefs among us – some sea cucumber.

Swimming further from shore, however, I found some outcrops of rock and coral around which some fish frolicked. One group of fish was light grey in colour with a bright blue circle around the middle and near the nose. Another school were round in shape and brown in colour with white poker-dots. They had a narrow snout which made them look a little like an underwater echidna. Occasionally, I came cross a bright blue starfish lying on the seabed.

After swimming for about an hour, D announced that he had found a wealth of coral about 100 metres out from the shore. So the two of us set off to take a look – me flapping my flippers for propulsion, D flapping his size 12 feet to much superior effect…

D was right about the coral. It was wonderful. There were patches of bright yellow and pink, the odd shade of blue and even a large area of rusty red. Doubtless, the highlight was a beautiful tiara of stark white coral which sat proudly in the water.


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