THE guide pointed away down the half-dry river. He would go no further. He said something that was lost in translation and, with a final finger-thrust to the far end of the river, turned his back and abandoned us to our fate.
The group shared nervous glances. The river was bubbling at low tide, but its wide body only seemed to end at a bank of wild, thick brush: where was the path?
Somebody took the first step and waded into the knee-high deep water, the rocks smooth and slippery under foot. But there, on the other side, an opening had been crudely hewn into the tree line! And then we walked.
The path twisted, turned and seemed endless. Trees invaded the way and low branches snagged the unwary. The heat of the day seemed to stifle and stick. Someone asked - not for the first time - if we were going the wrong way.
But something was happening. The river, always on our right, was becoming more swollen with each step, the muddy water now a clear and intoxicating blue. And then around one final bend, the brush let loose its stranglehold and a white, sandy beach opened before us, leading to a natural pool, pristine and deep as it is beautiful.
Welcome to just one of the natural wonders of the Isle of Pines (Ile des Pins) in New Caledonia.
The island sits just off the coast of New Caledonia's capital of Noumea and is mainly reached by an easy 20-minute flight or a twice-weekly ferry. The flight is stunning - flying low over small islands dotted across the reef before a large, green jewel, surrounded by a hypnotic swale of blues, emerges on the horizon: Isle of Pines.
The island's name is as obvious as the forest of tall pine trees that greet you at the airport. The rest of the island is left for you to discover.
There are three main resorts on the island while a host of camping grounds offer the budget traveller a more affordable stay. My partner and I settled on the Oure Tera Beach Resort.
The resort's spacious and relaxing bungalows have a beach-front view of one of the island's most picturesque spots: Kunamera Bay. The bay's inviting waters are ringed by white sand and two coral reefs (a snorkeler's heaven) but the centre piece is Sacred Rock - a craggy monolith that rises from the ocean bed to soar above the waves. Imagine reclining on your day-bed, drink in hand, the ocean breeze drifting through the palms and that view dominating the landscape?
But we've only started to scratch the surface.
Travelling around the island is easy enough - though you may have to switch to the slowed-down pace of local life - with drivers, rental cars, scooters and even bicycles at hand to get you around. But this is the islands and why take to the road when you can hit the water? Kayaks and stand-up paddle boards swirl around the bays while local tours can blast you out to the reefs and some of the most stunning quays - think sand so white you can hardly glance at it against the brightness of the cloudless sky. But for a truly unforgettable journey, jump aboard a traditional outrigger and sail the waters like the local Melanesian Kanaks from the village of Vao and across Upi Bay.
Step back on land and the natural pool and lake-like Oro Bay are near at hand. The natural pool is a lagoon at the head of a river shielded from the ocean by a rock wall. A small reef has formed in the clear, deep waters, and every day, hundreds of tourists make the pilgrimage to spend the day baking in the sun or pulling on their goggles and slipping into the lagoon.
A short walk away is Oro Bay - the placid waters flanked by tall islands with even taller pines. Away to the right is the endless white tips of the crashing reef, but in the bay, water beads and shimmers like an inland lake. And don't visitors to Le Meridien Ile des Pines - the island's most boutique resort - take advantage with stand-up paddle boards, kayaking and sailing dotting the calm waters.
A breeze springs off the coast and travels inland, hits Pic Nga and travels across the backs of climbers as they work their way up the island's highest point. But this is no Mount Everest! At an elevation of just 262 metres, the peak is triumphed daily by even the most modest of mountaineers.
Back at the resort and the 'dinner bell' is about to sound. Steaming fresh fish, beef that falls off the fork, or perhaps a pastry is more your thing? (we are in French territory!) It may not be Michelin-star cuisine, but the island's restaurants won't leave your stomach rumbling for long. However, it will leave your wallet as bare as a bone!
That's the one gripe about this paradise - and New Caledonia as a holiday destination. The cost. Everything - the meals, the tours, the drinks - have been jacked up three-times the price we are used to in Australia. It's not a major problem if you're prepared (GO PREPARED!) but it's certainly a shock to the system if you're expecting a bargain or two under the swaying palms.
Luckily, sitting on a beach, the palms singing in the breeze and the waves calmly crashing at your feet, while your worries and cares sink with the setting sun cost nothing at all.
The author paid for the entire trip to New Caledonia.