One thing I always intended to blog about was my field research for Deep Time. I’ve done a post about the trip to Gabon, but not yet about the one to New Caledonia – and now I’m about to return there to research something else.
New Caledonia is a French territory in the South Pacific, about 1000 miles north of New Zealand. The reason I went there in 2007 is that its flora includes many kinds of trees similar to those which flourished in the southern continents during the age of the dinosaurs, and so travelling there would help me to picture the scenery of that distant time. For example, there are lots of different tree ferns, palms, cycads, araucarias, and podocarps (pictured: Araucaria muelleri). The story behind this is that the main island of New Caledonia split away from Australia 85 million years ago, carrying with it the Cretaceous flora of that time. It then remained in the same tropical latitude till the present day; while other continents drifted about and their climate and ecology changed, conditions in New Caledonia remained relatively stable and many archaic elements of its flora endured.
The reality is a bit more complex. Birds and wind have carried in the seeds of other plants. Island isolation has catalysed the formation of new species; 80 per cent of New Caledonia’s flora is endemic, a figure only matched by Madagascar’s. Moreover, there have been tectonic activity and marine transgressions, so the geologists debate how much continuity the ecosystem can really have enjoyed since the Cretaceous.
My visit to New Caledonia certainly helped me accomplish my aim in Deep Time of bringing sensuously to life a number of prehistoric epochs. But while I was there I had an idea for another novel. It came in a flash, the whole main story arc, while I was hiking in a wilderness area. I’ve been working on this new novel since 2010, but it’s become clear that I can’t finish it to my own satisfaction without returning to New Caledonia to do more research.
I’m going for five weeks, so to keep costs down I’ll be cycling and camping. A very good friend has equipped me with a mountain bike customised to the needs of the terrain, including four panniers to carry my gear. His own experience in many countries is that cycling allows a deeper connection with both landscape and local people than you can get driving around in a hire car. So I’m hoping that travelling this way I’ll learn a great deal. The thing about researching novels is that, whereas an academic tends to focus their research on a specific narrow topic, a novelist wants to know everything. You never know what might turn out to be important.