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Pacific Birding - New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Samoa & the Cook Islands
By Dave Sargeant
8th October - 2nd November 2006
Part 1 - Practical Information
The expanding itinerary of this trip resulted from a mixture of opportunity, timing, weather and, most importantly, both international and domestic flight schedules. This trip involved a total of 24 flights, all of which needed to run fairly smoothly or a major spanner would be thrown in the works. As with any trip across the Pacific, planning the logistics as much as possible pays dividends. A couple of the flight connections were rather tight, but fortunately none of these was late. Trips around the Pacific should also be issued with a wealth warning; this is not a cheap part of the world!
The first stop, New Caledonia (Nouvelle-Calédonie), was an obvious choice with its 20 extant endemics, during which I was joined by my friend Phil Hansbro from Sydney. Thereafter I travelled on my own, so added Vanuatu (formerly known as the New Hebrides Islands), Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) and the Cook Islands, as they form a fairly logical band across the south Pacific, although travelling between them is not necessarily as easy as it looks on a map! Fiji was excluded as I'd visited previously. I'd also wanted to include Tahiti, which is readily accessible from the Cook Islands, but simply ran out of time. The number of days on each island worked out reasonably well, though longer on Vanuatu would have been preferable.
At this time of year, weather should have been reasonable throughout. However, a huge tropical cyclone in the northern Pacific generated major rainfalls in both Vanuatu and Samoa which affected my trip considerably, resulting in a few missed birds. Vanuatu in particular turned into yet another chance to spend hours in the rain, with mud-filled boots searching for elusive denizens of the forest.
Despite the weather, and falling ill, I enjoyed the atmosphere on Samoa greatly. This is a great place -- very laid back with friendly and welcoming natives; I really felt welcome in this country. Everyone smiles and is helpful, and it's one of the few countries in the world I've visited with honest taxi drivers. When people know you are from England they immediately break into conversation about rugby, so brush up on a few facts before visiting if you are from a rugby-playing nation.
Birding is easiest on New Caledonia and the Cook Islands and most difficult on Vanuatu, where a number of the species are rare and difficult to locate.
For further information contact Dave Sargeant: akalat [at] gmail [dot] com
Getting there - Flights and Visas
Due to the high cost of accommodation (and everything else) on New Caledonia, it's usually better to find an all-inclusive deal combining international flights, accommodation and car rental. We arranged such a combination with Qantas through Travelworld in Newcastle, Australia. New Caledonia is connected to several cities from Europe, Australia and New Zealand. As it is a department of France, European Union nationals can enter freely. Holders of most western passports do not require a visa either, with a 30-day visa issued on arrival. Immigration check return flight tickets of all arriving passengers. The international airport is located on the west coast, about 40 km north of the capital Nouméa.
Vanuatu is most readily accessed via Sydney, Auckland or Suva in Fiji. Visas are not required for holders of most western passports, a 30-day visa being issued on arrival. The international airport is located just outside Porta Vila, the capital, from where it is easy to take a taxi to town. Birders however, need to visit the island of Santo, where all the endemic species are known to occur, which requires a domestic connection.
Samoa is most easily accessed from Auckland, New Zealand. Visas are not required for holders of most western passports, a 60-day visa being issued on arrival. The international airport is located about 35 km from Apia, the capital. A taxi to town costs around WST 30. International flights are subject to a departure tax of WST 40.
The Cook Islands are most easily accessed from Auckland, New Zealand. Visas are not required for holders of most western passports, a 31-day visa being issued on arrival. The international airport is located just on the edge of Avarua, the capital. A taxi to town costs around NZ$10-15. It should be noted that Air New Zealand, quite-rightly, strictly enforces hand-baggage limits, with a weight restriction of 7 kg.
New Caledonia uses the Pacific French Franc (FP). The exchange rate was US$ 1 = FP 89. At the international airport, foreign exchange was only available within the transit lounge, not outside in the arrival and departure areas. Credit cards should be widely accepted, and one was used for the car rental.
The currency of Vanuatu is the Vatu (VT). The exchange rate was US$ 1 = VT 108. Foreign exchange is available both within the transit and arrival/departure areas. However, the later was closed during my departure so might not be that reliable. A credit card was not used, and I would not recommend relying on one, other than for purchasing flight tickets.
Samoa's currency is the Tala, or sometimes referred to as the Western Samoa Tala (WST). The exchange rate was US$ 1 = WST 2.7. Confusingly, locals often refer to Tala as "dollar", and to make matters even more confusing prices are often written with the $ symbol. After a while on the island you realise that locals are always referring to the Tala, though I'm sure some tourists inadvertently pay three times the price! Credit cards are fairly widely accepted in stores and restaurants.
Being a protectorate of New Zealand, the Cook Islands use the New Zealand dollar (NZ$). The exchange rate was US$ 1 = NZ$ 1.38. Money exchange was freely available in the airport and banks in town. Coins in circulation are both those minted in New Zealand as well as a local Cook Island version with ethnic designs. Be aware that the Cook Island coins are not legal tender in New Zealand. Credit cards are widely accepted.
In order to assist others planning such a trip, a breakdown of costs is given, with approximate US$ equivalent. The costs are for travelling alone. Savings would be made when sharing costs such as car hire, guides and accommodation.
Note 1: The trip to Ouvéa was priced per person, as a package, including transfers, accommodation, food, and local guide.
Note 2: International flights to Vanuatu, Samoa and the Cook Islands, as well as the domestic flights within Vanuatu were booked as one package for Aus$ 3,150, which I have arbitrarily split three ways in the above.
Health, Safety and Hassles
Insects were not too bothersome, and insect repellent was rarely used. On New Caledonia almost no insects were encountered other than a few mosquitoes on Ouvéa. On Vanuatu the forests were surprisingly free of mosquitoes, but mosquitoes were very active within the villages at Loru and Ipayato. Vanuatu is considered a malaria risk zone. Locals I spoke with said malaria was mostly a problem during the wet season. A few leeches and ticks were found at higher elevations on Pic Santo. Despite being wet, Samoa presented no insect problems. The Cook Islands are malaria free, but all damp forests had plenty of mosquitoes active day and night.
The only realistic option for visiting birders is to rent a vehicle. We rented a small 4x4 (Suzuki Jimney) with barely room for our baggage. The four wheel drive was not essential as the weather was dry. It was certainly good though to have the clearance on the road up to Farino. However, any rain would have made four wheel drive essential at Farino, Rivière Blue and other interior roads we travelled.
We purchased a map in advance of our arrival, but basic maps were available from Hertz when we rented the vehicle. We did however get very lost driving around Nouméa on several occasions. Signposting is extremely poor, and it didn't help that the Nouméa map provided had no indication of north, and was in reality rotated 90 degrees! Be aware that the highways north of east from Nouméa have small tolls (FP 100-150), so that driving into Nouméa from the airport after arrival you will need to have changed at least a small amount of currency. Driving is on the right hand side. An international driving licence is not required. Once out of Nouméa, driving is straight-forward.
Depending on time and preferences, inter-island travel can be made on domestic flights, or on the speedy inter-island ferry. A major problem for birders wishing to take the ferry, in order to observe pelagic species, is that schedules are only finalised and published (in local newspapers) two weeks in advance. This makes advance planning extremely difficult, and to make matters worse, internal flights generally fill up weeks in advance during peak-season. To attempt to surmount this problem, we booked domestic flights in advance and then tried to change our itinerary around once we'd arrived and knew the ferry schedule. This proved impossible due to completely booked internal flights. All internal flights are operated by Aircalin. Domestic flights operate from the domestic airport in Nouméa.
Due to limited time, and our visit coinciding with peak tourist season, we made all accommodation, vehicle and domestic flight reservations in advance. For those wishing to visit Ouvéa to see Ouvéa Parakeet it is advisable to line this up also. We made all internal arrangements via Arc en Ciel Voyages in Nouméa, where we dealt with the efficient Virginie Blache, and can recommend their services. We paid by bank transfer, and coupons were waiting for us at their airport kiosk on arrival.
For those visiting Ouvéa, an important aspect of local culture to be dealt with is manou. We became thoroughly confused by this custom as no one, not even Arc en Ciel, were able to properly explain it. Leaflets available at the airport are equally confusing and useless, and explain it as, I quote, "The meaning of custom and the traditional spirit of the Kanak people remain, but Kanaké must, in order to preserve its authenticity, make a continued conscientious effort regarding the material and symbolic expressions of his way of life. If he is not careful, he could find himself the depository of rites, and phrases devoid of content" Clear as mud! So what does all this mean to the visiting birder? Well, to put this into plain English, when visiting Ouvéa, an island of the Kanak tribe, it is necessary to present a traditional gift on visiting a local family. Birders will need to do this when looking for the Ouvéa Parakeet as they are most easily found on private land, so a gift on entry will be almost expected. Manou is a coloured piece of material (a women's wrap) which is available in shops in Nouméa costing around FP 500 upward. This should be presented together with a packet of cigarettes and a FP 500 note when first meeting the land owner or manager.
As most birders visiting Vanuatu concentrate on two or three main sites, only transportation between them is required. Roads around the few towns are paved, but elsewhere are dirt, in varying condition, so a 4x4 with driver needs to be arranged. The road to Ipayato, to access Pic Santo, is particularly bad and surely impassable in the wet season. Although taxi rides around town are cheap, renting a 4x4 for a longer trip is quite expensive. I paid a total of VT 28,000 for the four trips to/from Loru and Ipayato. Surprisingly, as Vanuatu was a British protectorate before independence, driving is on the right.
A mixture of language and logistical difficulties make it highly advisable to make advance arrangements, especially for those with limited time. All my arrangements were made with the assistance of Marie Kelsei, of the local environmental NGO, Positive Earth, whom I thoroughly recommend. They have a lot of experience with helping visitors to Loru and Vatthe, but none for Ipayato and Pic Santo. Arranging my trip has now given them arrangement and guiding contacts for the Pic Santo area.
Domestic flights are operated by Air Vanuatu, which has a reputation locally for delayed and cancelled flights. Tax on domestic flights is VT 200.
Maps were not bought in advance, and none were really necessary.
Travel on Samoa can be by taxi, bus, or rental vehicle. With the exception of the mythical Tooth-billed Pigeon, and the Samoan White-eye (which occurs on a different island), all the endemics can be found at a few sites within striking distance of Apia, the capital. This makes the inexpensive and abundant taxis ideal transportation for birding. For those with more time who wish to explore further, small 4x4s can be rented from several places in town. Driving is on the right. An international licence is not required. Adequate tourist maps were available, free of charge, both at Auckland International Airport and on arrival in Samoa.
The Cook Islands
As the endemic species are scattered across several distant islands, looking for them requires a number of domestic flights, as well as a variety of transport once there. Those seeking all the endemics and specialities need to visit Rarotonga, Atiu, Aitutaki and Mangaia, and as flights are not daily, careful planning of the itinerary is necessary. No flights operate on Sundays. Air Rarotonga is the only domestic carrier, and, outside the Cook Islands, operates an internet-only booking system. I found them reliable and efficient, although they did throw a spanner in the works when they changed the schedule of the Mangaia flights just before my arrival, necessitating a complete change-around of my itinerary. Flights at peak season fill well in advance, so plan early.
On the main island, Rarotonga, the most effective transport is to rent either a car or moped. These are available from a variety of shops and kiosks along the high street in the main town, Avarua. Small cars are around NZ$ 50 per day. I rented from two operators, Raro Tours and Island Cars. Many of the major international rental companies also have branches in Rarotonga.
Annoyingly, foreign driving licences are not accepted on the Cook Islands. In order to rent a vehicle it's necessary to visit the police station to obtain a local, temporary, licence. Although this is straightforward, and cost me only NZ$ 2.50, these are only issued on weekdays during normal office hours, so require a special trip, usually inconvenient to birders. At the time of my visit, the main police station was being rebuilt, so licences were issued from a temporary office at the harbour. A passport photo and your foreign licence are required. Driving is on the left. Adequate tourist maps were available, free of charge, both at Auckland International Airport and Avarua on arrival.
Buses can be convenient and cheap. There are only two routes: clockwise and anti-clockwise along the round-island loop road. A return ticket is NZ$ 5 regardless of distance covered. Taxis are strangely difficult to find, and are best booked in advance through your accommodation. Even at the international airport, do not expect taxis to meet flights.
On Aitutaki, mopeds and bicycles can be arranged from many of the accommodations between town and the airfield. However, as I discovered, it's a few kilometres walk to the nearest rental, so if you are unaccustomed to walking in the heat it would be sensible to book something in advance to meet you on arrival.
Atiu is poorly visited by tourists and did not appear to have any moped rental available. As the island is relatively small though, getting about on foot was easy. The airfield is several kilometres from accommodations, so ensure you arrange to be met by wherever you are staying.
On Mangaia it's definitely advisable to be met at the airfield, as it's eight kilometres to town, where mopeds are available for rent at NZ$ 35 per day. Roads in the centre and south of the island are in poor condition and slippery when wet; take care on a bike or moped.
When arranging your itinerary, remember to take crossing the date-line into consideration when connecting between domestic and international flights. Flying into the Cook Islands from Auckland, you will generally arrive the day before you leave!
Other Miscellaneous Information
The electrical supply throughout the region is nominally 220-240V, 50 Hz. On New Caledonia electrical sockets are, unsurprisingly, the French recessed two-pin type. On Vanuatu, Samoa and the Cook Islands, electrical plugs are the flat prong inverted V-type. More information on electrical outlets throughout the world can be found at Travel Images.
During my visit the sunrise and sunset times varied between 05h30 (on New Caledonia) and 05h45 (on the Cook Islands) and 18h00 (on New Caledonia) and 18h45 (on the Cook Islands). Time zones are New Caledonia GMT+11, Vanuatu GMT+11, Samoa GMT-11 and Cook Islands GMT-10.
Le Lagon, Nouméa, New Caledonia. This is probably the cheapest of the "tourist" accommodations used by airlines for package deals. We had a twin studio room with a hot-plate and fridge which enabled us to cook very basic meals and prepare sandwiches for lunch. The rooms are adequate, but on the small side. As a base for birding it was fine, but don't expect too much for the price. Our week's stay was booked as a package with flight and vehicle.
Drehu Village Bungalows, Lífou, New Caledonia. A typical small resort with bungalows on the beach, and certainly the nicest place we stayed.
Gite Le Banyon, Ouvéa, New Caledonia. Small thatched bungalows [photos] owned and run by Roland, our guide on Ouvéa, together with his wife. Speaking to aid workers also staying, this appears to be the best, simple accommodation on the island. Roland knows local landowners, and can take you to see the Ouvéa Parakeet. Meals were simple but good. For some bizarre reason the doors of the bungalows are designed for midgets and only one metre high – looks nice but great for smacking the head on! Bathrooms are communal. We booked Roland, transportation and the accommodation through Arc en Ciel.
Coral Motel, Porta Vila, Vanuatu. This budget motel was chosen purely on its convenience to the airport. The owners are extremely helpful and will provide a free pickup and drop service to the airport, only five minutes away, which saves the VT 1,000 VT taxi fare. I highly recommend this place for those needing accommodation near the airport. The rooms include a small kitchen and fridge. I saw no restaurants nearby, but stores were adjacent. Cost VT 5,900 per double.
Cloud 9 Eco Lodge, Apia, Samoa. Without doubt, one of the most spectacular views of any guesthouse I've stayed. Perched high on a hillside above Apia with a view across a forested valley, breakfast can be taken whilst watching White Terns, White-tailed Tropicbirds, colourful Fruit-Doves and several of the Samoan endemics. Awesome! The accommodation is somewhat rustic, but excellent for birders and naturalists. The owner (the locally famous musician David Parker) and staff are very accommodating and friendly. The only drawback to Cloud 9 is its location; if you do not have a rental vehicle you need to call for a taxi from town as the lodge is well away from the nearest road. Some taxis don't know it or don't want to go as they can't get another fare back easily. However, the owner will drive you down at 08h00 and back again at 17h00 as he owns a shop in town. On some nights, when the resident large geckos start tap-dancing on the tin roof, you'll need earplugs.
Paradise Inn. Avarua, Rarotonga, Cook Islands. This is probably the best "budget" accommodation on Rarotonga, and with good reason. At around NZ$ 65-80 it represents good value. Each room has basic cooking facilities and a fridge, and the management try to help with everything. The location on the eastern edge of town is also great and not more than a ten minute walk from town. This accommodation is popular, so book early. The only negative issue is the noisy neighbours on the east side, which the management know about but struggle to control. Try to request a room on the western side of the building.
Taparere Lodge, Atiu, Cook Islands. This lodge is family-run with two or three basic, but comfortable bungalows with cooking facilities and a fridge. Food is not available, but the owner will make arrangements for you to eat at the Atiu Villas a couple of kilometres away. The price was NZ$ 75, plus NZ$ 14 for airfield transfers.
Babe's Place, Mangaia, Cook Islands. As Mangaia is so far from the tourist path, choice of accommodation is limited. However, Babe's is comfortable and convenient, and reckoned to be the nicest place to stay on the island. Rooms were quite large and comfortable, with a communal dining and lounging area. It had a nice homely atmosphere. The price was NZ$ 75 including all meals and airfield transfers.
A mixture of expense and remote locations meant this was far from a culinary trip! As prices of almost everything on New Caledonia are prohibitive, and our accommodation in Nouméa had basic cooking facilities we simply shopped at supermarkets and prepared all our own food; cereals for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, eggs, beans and similar for evening meals. We brought wine with us from Australia. The beers we had at a street café at the end of the trip were ridiculously expensive. Supermarkets were as well stocked as in Europe, except that the prices were double or more.
On Vanuatu, at least in Luganville, small supermarkets are stocked with basics. As most time was spent trekking up Pic Santo, all food was carried and, as we didn't expect to be able to cook, we were restricted to tinned fish and meat and some really awful cream crackers. The local crackers on Vanuatu are real tooth breakers – production must be supervised by some five-year-old; mix together flour and water and bake till consistency of concrete. Luckily we took some tea bags, so at least getting them down was possible. Beer was a luxury we didn't have on the trek, but I sampled the local brand, Tusker, on the last night. Verdict? Eminently forgettable.
On Samoa the situation was much improved, with a fair line of birders' junk food available. Breakfast and evening meals, taken mainly at the lodge, were simple but good, and supplemented with the local Vailima beer, which was an order of magnitude better than Tusker.
On the Cook Islands, supermarkets in Avarua were well stocked, so other than one night at the excellent Trader Jack's seafood restaurant, I prepared my own food. For trips to the outer islands I took along some junk food from Rarotonga, and supplemented it with meals from local establishments in the evenings. Prices on the Cooks are high -- on a par with New Caledonia.
New Caledonia. French is spoken by everyone. However, as a major number of tourists arrive from Australia and New Zealand, English was more widely spoken than I'd have expected. The exception was Ouvéa where neither our guide nor locals we met spoke any English.
Vanuatu. I'd been expecting major difficulties here, which was one of the reasons I had engaged War as my local guide. The main language spoken is Bislama, a kind of Pidgin English mixed with French and Melanesian words. A few people speak English. What I hadn't expected though, was that in some areas French is spoken. French missionary schools seem responsible for this. Certainly around Ipayato French was widely spoken, including by our porters, although their understanding of modern French seemed lacking, so it was necessary to use a limited vocabulary.
Samoa. Samoan is the national language, but almost everyone I came across spoke good English. Getting around here presented no problems at all.
Cook Islands. The national language is Cook Islands Maori, although English is very widely spoken.
As the weather patterns across all these islands is similar, the best months for visiting, to avoid logistical problems associated with heavy rain, should be July and August. My visit in October coincided roughly with the end of the dryer season, and should have been OK. The weather was however decidedly mixed. On New Caledonia and the Cook Islands it was clear, bright and sunny with variable amounts of cloud, and a fair amount of wind on the former. The Cook Islands were similarly windy the first few days but, with the wind dropping and temperatures rising, it turned out perfect for birding and sunburn. In contrast, Vanuatu and Samoa were extremely wet. An unseasonable tropical cyclone was present in the north Pacific making the weather on both difficult for birding. Just after my stay on Vanuatu the cyclone hit northern parts of these islands causing extensive damage.
New Caledonia. The climate is pleasant throughout most of the year. Average temperatures vary from 20 degrees in July and August, up to 26 degrees in January and February. The driest period is from August to December, the wettest from January to June; even so Nouméa only receives an average of just over one metre of rain per year.
Vanuatu. On the coast, temperatures vary little throughout the year, with average temperatures of 24-26 degrees. The driest period is from July to September, and the heaviest rainfall from December to April.
Samoa. Temperatures vary little throughout the year, with an average temperature of 25 or 26 degrees. Daily maximum temperatures are in the low 30s degrees. The driest months are July and August, with the wettest from November to April. Samoa receives almost three metres of rain per year, so at any time prepare to be soaked.
Cook Islands. Average temperatures vary between 22 and 26 degrees, with the coolest months from June to October. The driest period is also June to October, the wettest from December to May. Total yearly rainfall averages two metres.
Pratt, H.D., Bruner, SP.L and Berrett, D.G. (1987). A Field Guide to the Birds Hawaii and the Tropical Pacific. Adequately covers Samoa and the Cook Islands.
Doughty, C., Day, N., and Plant, A. Birds of the Solomons, Vanuatu and New Caledonia. (1999). Christopher Helm, A & C Black, London. Adequately covers Vanuatu and New Caledonia.
Dick Watling. A Guide to the Birds of Fiji and Western Polynesia
Collar, N.J. (editor) (2000). Threatened Birds of the World BirdLife International, Lynx Ediciones and BirdLife International.
Clements, J.F. (2000). Birds of the World: A checklist. Ibis Publishing Co.
Bregulla, H.L. (1992) Birds of Vanuatu. (1992). Anthony Nelson, England. Detailed annotated checklist. Somewhat dated, but interesting reading.
Howard and Moore. A Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World.
World Birdwatch. Vol. 17 No. 4, December 1995, pp 12-16. Article on Loru.
Wright, B. & Bostock, N. Birding Trip to Vanuatu and New Caledonia. (1999). Link - on WorldTwitch.
Hoff, R. New Caledonia, 28 March - 4 April. (2004). Link.
Klauber, D. New Caledonia, 20-29 July. (2002). Link.
Noakes, P. New Caledonia, 22-27 November. (2004). Link.
Eadie, S. French Polynesia and Cook Islands, 26 June - 14 July. (2000). Link.
van Biers, M. Polynesia, 8-30 September (2004). Link (pdf).
Faanes, C. American Samoa and Western Samoa, 17-20 November. (2000). Link.
Talbot, G. Samoa, Fiji, New Caledonia and Vanuatu, 7-24 October (2005). Link.
Sound recordings were only used on New Caledonia. We had a tape of New Caledonian bird recordings by Yves Letocart made some years ago. This is supposedly still available from shops in Nouméa, but we did not look for it. Without a tape, sound recording equipment would be extremely beneficial, especially for species such as the grassbird. A CD of the Birds of Polynesia by Leslie McPherson was published in 2002. Recording equipment would have been most beneficial on Vanuatu and Samoa, but keeping equipment dry is a major consideration on the trek up Pic Santo.
In addition to people whose trip reports I used, I would specifically like to thank those who provided up-to-date information and answered emails and offered advise on birding and logistics for this trip: Alan McBride, Guy Dutson, Mike Tarburton, Roy Hill, and finally Tony Wilson and Carol Harker of Manu Tours. Thanks as usual to my friend Phil Hansbro, for assisting with arrangements and with whom I travelled in New Caledonia. Special mention should be made of Marie Kelsie and War Ser on Vanuatu who arranged all the logistics and acted as my guide respectively, and without whom Vanuatu would have been very difficult to arrange. I'd also like to thank Otto Samwald and Phil Hansbro for the use of their photographs appearing in this report.
As a special note, at the time of my visit War at PositiveEarth was in need of any desktop or laptop PC to assist with his field work. If any subsequent visitors have the possibility to supply an unwanted but operable machine it would be greatly appreciated.