Grande Terre is by far the largest island east of Australia and north of New Zealand, and also the most varied. It's so big, the southern part of the island is noticeably cooler than the north. A mountain chain averaging 1,000 meters high runs right up the middle of the island for most of its 400-km length, crossed at intervals by six main highways linking the brown southwest coast to the green northeast.
The island is divided into two provinces by a line cutting across Grande Terre to the north of Thio, La Foa, and Bourail. Although North Province is a third larger in land area, South Province has well over three times as many inhabitants.
It's very easy to hitch up the west coast and you can thumb your way almost anywhere if you have the time, but the only comfortable way to travel around Grande Terre and discover its hidden beauty is by rental car. You'll save money on accommodations by being able to drive to out-of-the-way campsites, and by picnicking along the way. Buses do exist, but their timetables are designed to serve the needs of local commuters and they don't always coincide with those of travelers. As a supplement to hitching, they're fine, but you'll find them of limited use in touring the island extensively.
Strangely, once you leave Nouméa, you probably won't meet English-speaking tourists anywhere on Grande Terre. Virtually all of the travel facilities around the island cater almost exclusively to the French visitors, especially local French who often go on weekend trips. This is a tremendous advantage to those of us in the know, as you'll find everything fresh and unspoiled by package tourism. A knowledge of French is an important asset, but everyone is so friendly and helpful even monoglots will get by. A great adventure awaits you.
Locals refer to Grande Terre as "Le Caillou" or "La Roche" (The Rock). The interior is made up of row upon row of craggy mountains throughout its length, such as Mt. Panie (1,639 meters) in the north and Mt. Humboldt (1,618 meters) in the south, and it contains 20 percent of the world's known reserves of nickel ore (enough to last another century at the present rate of extraction), as well as profitable deposits of other minerals such as tungsten, cobalt, copper, gold, manganese, iron, and chromium. The landscape, you'll notice, is wounded in many locales by huge open-pit mines—the Great Red Menace. Bulldozer tracks and drill holes leave ugly scars, and sediments unleashed by the mining turn the rivers thick red and wash out to kill the reefs.
The verdant northeast coast of this island is broken and narrow, cut by tortuous rivers and jagged peaks falling directly into the lagoon. The drier southwest coast is low, swampy, and mosquito-ridden, with wide coastal plains and alluvial lowlands. In the far south is a lowland plain of lakes.