Getting to the heart of it in New Caledonia
By CHRIS JOHNSON
In 1999 French aerial photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand published a book titled Earth from Above. It was the culmination of a five-year, five-continent, 60-country, UNESCO-sponsored study of the planet.
The stunning photographs throughout the book included such marvels as Mt Everest, Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park, a flock of red ibises in Venezuela, and a caravan of camels in Mauritania.
All of the photos depicted the beautiful and fragile state of the world, presenting Planet Earth from a unique perspective – the view from above.
The photos of some of Earth’s most brilliant landscapes were taken from helicopters, hot-air balloons and other light aircraft.
The book was translated into 24 languages and sold more than three million copies. It is now in its fourth edition (including the special 10th anniversary edition).
One of the many features to make this book such a gorgeous standout was the photograph Arthus-Bertrand chose to place on its cover.
A massive mangrove swamp naturally forming an almost flawless heart shape edging against the barrier reef of New Caledonia’s largest island Grande Terre was the perfect choice.
The book – its cover – made this intriguing site an instant global attraction.
The Heart of Voh is now recognised around the world and is a worthy inclusion for anyone’s bucket-list.
Situated on the north-west coast of Grande Terre, it is a four-hour drive from the capital Noumea just to reach the township of Koné, which is the gateway to the attraction.
It is more than worth the effort of getting there.
The Heart of Voh can be viewed from a 400m high lookout on Mt Kathépaik, which involves a two-hour return trek.
But the best way to view this spectacular sight is how Arthus-Bertrand captured it – from the air.
That is what my partner and I chose to do during a last-minute, spur-of-the-moment short visit to France’s gem in the Pacific, New Caledonia.
With only a few days on the island, we made Noumea our base and created our itinerary from day to day.
Beautiful beaches, incredible snorkelling, great dining, and fun nightlife were all on our doorstep and we made the most of it all without having to drive anywhere.
Then came the question of the Heart of Voh.
“That’s a long drive.”
“We would have to go there and back in one day.”
“Looks stunning in the brochures.”
“We’d have to leave here while it’s still dark.”
“Who knows when or if we’ll ever get back here?”
“It does look like it would be incredible.”
“A lot of money.”
“Would be worth it.”
“A long drive.”
“Let’s hire a car.”
And so off we went, leaving at dawn on an exciting adventure that turned out to be even more rewarding than we had anticipated.
We arrived at Koné tired after the long drive, but we soon perked up once we saw the twin ultra-light aircrafts that were to carry us above part of the turquoise lagoon of New Caledonia.
A World Heritage Site since 2008, the New Caledonian lagoon is the largest in the world and encased by a barrier reef beyond belief.
Because ultra-light aircrafts – at least the high-performance microlight Virus Short Wing Pipistrel planes we were taking advantage of – can only fit one passenger and a pilot, we had what’s known as the Duo Flight.
The Duo Flight involves separate aircraft leaving together, flying over the same area and in visual contact with each other as well as audibly through helmet microphones.
It is a shared experience – together apart.
These planes are the fastest two-seaters in the world and are capable of covering 200km in just 45 minutes.
Our flights were an hour long, allowing us ample time to inhale the gorgeousness below.
Immediately after take-off the enormity of the natural beauty was evident.
Where to look first? Too much to see. Great problem to have. No problem at all.
I spotted an adult humpback whale with her calf, both breaching on the reef.
My pilot was stunned as he radioed the other plane and we all flew in for a closer look.
“First of the season,” he said.
“You are so lucky. We have been looking for whales for the past couple of weeks and have not seen them until today.”
Watching humpbacks from above as they frolicked in the water and suddenly (and repeatedly) burst out of it was quite the sight. Lucky indeed.
The reef provides spectacular views and in itself was a highly memorable experience.
But there was so much more to see.
As we approached the mangroves from above, there were many unusual giant shapes protruding.
The swamp had formed one formation that looked like a giant turtle. Another was named Snoopy by the pilots because it resembled the famous Peanuts comic strip character.
But then my pilot called over to my partner in the other plane and told her that I had actually snuck up to the coast the day before and carved out this huge heart below just for her.
“Yes I did!” I laughed through the microphone.
She didn’t buy it.
The Heart of Voh is every bit as stunning as the photographs suggest.
We circled it for quite some time and I heard myself repeating the words: “Wow. Wow. Wow.”
It takes its name from a nearby commune called Voh.
Inside the natural heart-shaped mangrove swamp is a weather monitor of some description. Our pilots told us that was the heart’s pacemaker. Laughs all round.
As if that wasn’t enough for one day.
The flight also took in breathtaking views of the Blue Hole – a sprawling 200-metre-deep hole of water inside an otherwise relatively shallow coral reef.
Stunning doesn’t begin to describe it. I think I was even more impressed by Blue Hole than I was by the Heart of Voh.
On the flight back to the airstrip, the pilots made sure we still got to explore the reef from the sky.
We spotted stingrays and turtles from above… but couldn’t find the whales again.
A Go-Pro attached to one wing of one plane gave us a visual record of the flight to take home.
We couldn’t have asked for a better experience.
To make the most of our hire car and our time in New Caledonia – and to make sure we were completely exhausted by day’s end – we chose to drive back to Noumea the long way, crossing the island and two mountain ranges to take in more picturesque views and some villages of the indigenous Kanak.
New Caledonia offers so much to see and do, but we had so little time.
I think we chose well.
(Photo by Maria Rivarola)
Published: 16 Aug 2017