22nd April to 5th May
03.05.2006 35 °C
On clearing arrivals, more Fijians were ready in wait to greet me this time with Fijian Dollar sign burning deep within their eyes (you know the look) as I met head to head the Fijian tourist officials. A cunning question posed to all passengers ‘which resort are staying at?’ - a yes results in an easy taxi sale, else a no opens a whole world of opportunities. In the latter category and quite willing to be sold a ’resort deal’ (all island retreats whether backpacker cheap or luxury 5* are classed as resorts) and given it was 4am having had little-to-no sleep in the past 24 hours I succumbed to their salesmanship skills and purchased a 4 day trip to Ratu Kini resort on Mana Island in the Mamanuca group west of Vitu Levu.
Whilst awaiting the transfer, I met a nice New Zealand chap Owen who too had booked the same trip, on his way back home after a season ski instructing in Colorado, all round top bloke and we became good mates for the next few days. Good entertainment too watching the same bewildered looking travellers falling for the same ‘trap’ as us - it’s all too easy to take the first opportunity and must learn to step back from a situation before diving in as you can‘t always rely on good fortune although it seems to follow me around.
A 10 minute taxi ride with an unrequested shop stop at the drivers preferred supermarket, we arrived at our departure point Travellers Beach near Denarau. After a quick chin wag with other travellers we trudged across the muddy, black sand beach (not quite the Fiji I expected) to our awaiting boat and were on our way to Mana Island. As we bounced our merry away in a rickety speed boat by our slightly erratic Indo-Fijian driver across crystal blue waters, any fears of the white sand beaches being a fictional tale were quickly dispelled as we passed by countless idyllic desert islands.
Arriving at Mana Island we were greeted by the Ratu Kini staff with the traditional Fiji welcome song which I was beginning to feel a little bit plastic. A throng of travellers awaited on the beach front bar decking, I felt almost like cattle being herded into market with the buyers eyeing me up and down, but none the less in subsequent days I too found myself adopting the same regime. “Fresh meat has arrived” was one quote I heard, how classy.
Mana Island was a superb introduction to paradise island life with it’s grassy hills, gorgeous white sand beaches and a perimeter 30m wide coral reef - it was a struggle to do anything but relax. The setup was a collection of Burres, bungalows, tents and a 20 bed dormitory (where I stayed) nestled amongst a thriving Fijian village where the majority of the staff for the resorts lived, plus an eatery with beach front bar close by. The inclusive food ranged from basic with salad sandwiches for lunch being a favourite, to delicious particularly the traditional Fijian food night with a meze of sausage, barracuda, Tora and Drauniuto leaves with coconut baked in the ground over super hot stones. The rain water used for drinking began to taste like hairspray so I’d splash out on their chosen mineral water ‘Bom 911’. Please someone send this to FHM or other trashy magazine to claim their funny photo prize.
The main beach close to the resorts (4 others in total) was excellent with mass shoals of small fish congregating near the shoreline and leaping out of the water en mass in a frenzy of activity (I never figured exactly why they did this perhaps to escape a predator of some sort). The beach was a little crowded at times so not the place for solitude but with an array of hammocks to laze in, a nice swim-to platform plus a seemingly endless supply of Scandinavian beauties basking in the sun it was an easy choice for the day. If you could brave the midday heat of 35 degrees plus, a short trek is rewarded with the pick of the beaches ‘Sunset Beach’ offering peace and quiet, the finest white sand and easy access to a stunning section of the reef.
Activity for most involved lazing on the beach, splashing around in the water then lazing around some more which is fun for a while but my metabolism or something just doesn’t agree so I made the most of the water sports on offer. Owen and I checked out the reef break that lay 200m offshore in a rather leaky sea kayak, managing to catch some nice waves riding back in and coming terrifyingly close to capsizing which could have been disastrous with only 1m of water to cushion the blow before you‘d plough head first into razor sharp coral - I have no idea how surfers do this, balls of steel they must have.
Scuba diving in the area was according to the guide books excellent with favourites like Supermarket famed for it’s abundance of Reef Sharks, though the word on the street was the visibility was pretty poor being so close to the end of the turbulent wet season and shark sightings were few and far between, so parked that idea. Snorkelling on the surrounding reef however was excellent particularly off Sunset Beach with an abundance of pristine hard corals and a mass of sea life including groupers, wrasse, clown fish, mermaids and even a leatherback turtle sighted on one memorable trip, sorry no picture of the turtle.
The underwater photography skills were getting better actually managing to get the target somewhere in frame, and snorkelling skills greatly improved now able to dive down to 10 metres or so with time to compose which I was well chuffed with - really it negated the need to scuba at all. The reef terrain was excellent fun with a consistent 10 metre wall leading to a sandy bottom, with an array of crevices, tunnels and canyons to explore and swim throughs which held great silhouette photo potential.
The resort arranged a variety of excursions, if they could cope with the stress of organising such a feat and squeeze cram it in before sundown - their laid back approach termed ‘Fiji Time’ makes it hard to get anything done here. One day was spent island hopping to the now famous Castaway Island and a number of luxury resorts, climaxing with an hours snorkelling off a superb reef in the centre of the bay. Much the same sea life as Sunset Beach until I had my first ever shark encounter with a White Tip Reef Shark - terrifying at first but in fact he paid no attention to me at all as he passed by only 2 feet away, clearly not enough meat on me to bother with. Not at all, I’d heard sharks have a bad reputation thanks to Spielberg’s Jaws and bad media press but this really confirmed it for me that they’re not all cold blooded killers at all, granted if it was a Tiger or Bull shark the experience could have been a whole lot different but Reef sharks are clearly no danger at all. I felt privileged and look forward to my next encounter.
Where would you be in the world without beer?!? The chosen vintage of this blessed land is an interesting brew imaginatively named called Fiji Bitter. Many of these litre bottles would be supped down as the sun set and on a good night, the sun rise.
A weird flavour it had but after a few it goes down real easy. Many a night was spent drinking with the locals Fiji style called ‘Taki’ where a single glass is used for all people at the table, continually passed around and downed until all the beer in the bar had been drunk, the goal being all people get drunk at the same time to the same degree. A nice idea and only a problem when you’ve had enough as ’no’ isn’t an acceptable response. The nights were heavy going as the stack of empties shows.
The people on the island were great fun and met some real characters, particularly the locals or to be pedantic Samoans, but nonetheless were very welcoming and friendly. The guests were a mixture of all nationalities predominantly English but also from Sweden, Norway, Germany, Israel (I actually met a nice Israeli!!), Brazil and Italy. One English girl I met had a fantastic story in that she arrived on the island for a 4 day stay, ended up falling in love with a villager and has stayed for a whole month with plans for a long term relationship and possible move for them both back to Blighty, how romantic! I have to say I was a little disappointed with some of ‘travellers’ I met here (particularly the English ones) and I fear they will become the norm in this leg of the trip - for some it seems travelling consists of organised tour after tour, getting leathered & laid every night, staying in commercial hostels and generally following their Lonely Planet bible. It’s easy to do granted and I’m no experienced traveller myself so in no position to preach really, but I can’t see the challenge or appeal and they might as well save some cash and go to Magaluf instead and get their trophies elsewhere. Bah humbug, I’m such a cynic I know and perhaps it highlights that I’m looking for other things so there in the conflict lies, I’ll stop there and write something positive instead.
After 4 days resting and getting restless, I headed back to the mainland to explore the mainland Vitu Levu. With only a single nights stopover, I explored the town to find that the spectacular Hindi temple was hidden behind bamboo scaffold and palm leaves being renovated for the annual festival. Elsewhere a vibrant produce market was in full swing selling all manner of Fijian grown fruits, vegetables, kava (grog) and sea food, not so sure about the sea grapes.
Here I met a rather unscrupulous guy who ripped me off some for negotiating some local produce but am glad to say that this was the only bad incident in my entire 2 weeks here and was none too heavy. All things happen for a reason as I’m quickly finding out - I headed back to the hotel a little dismayed and settled in at the hotel bar with some peeps I met on Mana. A rough looking chap attempted to steal a handbag and bolt for the door and as I blocked his escape route an outstretched leg tripped the guy who lost his footing and stacked it arse over tit, the bag’s contents scattered across the floor and he bolted out the door. The very grateful owner of the bag was overwhelmed with my heroics and insisted that in return I stay with her family in Lalati Village on Beqa Island. The lady wrote me a letter in Fijian (which I had no real idea what it said) and I was instructed to find a chap called Wame who would treat me as his own, and so the next episode of my trip began.
Arising early next morning, I headed off to the local bus station (no more tourist transfers for me, all too easy) to catch my bus to Navua, the ‘ferry’ port to Beqa Island. Buses are notoriously unreliable and the timetables are not worth the paper they aren’t written on so I had a bit of a wait on my hands, also some confusion with the meaning of ‘when is the next bus?’ as in Fiji this apparently means the one after the next so I watched the first come and go without blinking an eye, why I’d be asking for this I don’t know especially as I stood talking to the guy, ho hum. After a brief stop en route at Natadola Beach as apparently amazing but I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, I arrived in Navua which as it turned out wasn’t a glitzy ferry port at all - the ferry terminal was a rickety wooden jetty, the only boats in sight were flat-bottomed 40hp river boats and there was no sign of another white person let alone another tourist. As the bus pulled away in a cloud of dust, for the first time in my life I felt truly away from the western world as people stared with intrigue, children passed by waving and giggling as this lost traveller attempted to make sense of this madness before the sunset in less than ½ hour. At the jetty I attempted to charter a boat for the 15km journey out to Beqa Island but it seemed I’d missed the last village boat of the day and the locals were looking forward to the evening grog session so no chance of making the journey today. Everyone was so helpful even sharing a smoke with the boat driver in commiseration, passers by would ask me where I’m from and all told tales of their love of the Mother Land (England), topped off with some grog shared with Joe who worked in the market besides the jetty whilst I waited for the bus back to Pacific Harbour. Joe promised to see me again in 2 days for the next boat sailing and his son insisted on carrying my bags to the waiting bus, absolutely overwhelming, I love these people.
The only budget place to stay in Pacific Harbour was Safari Lodge so this would have to do, owned by a slightly eccentric Kiwi who actually turned out to be a raving pervert as the next morning my South African room mate awoke to find him inspecting his nether regions from under his sheet, worrying stuff. The lodge was conveniently located next to a 5 star luxury resort called Pearl who seemingly didn’t mind an impoverished traveller to use all of it’s facilities including swimming pool and private beach.
The diving in Beqa Lagoon was reputed to be one of the best in Fiji (again), famed for it’s soft corals and abundance of Reef, Bull and Tiger Sharks that patrol the reef lagoon so who was I to refuse the opportunity. With my almost mute Japanese room mate, I headed out with Beqa Divers to explore on the lagoon. 2 dive sites were hit, the first a steep wall and overhang outside of the lagoon behind Storm Island, which also made a stunning spot to rest for lunch.
The second was a drift dive between Seven Sisters and Blow Hole. The second was my favourite as probably the strongest current I’ve ever been in covering well over 100m in a 42 minute dive, and some superb Gorgonian Fans more than 2 metres across. Heaven!
On the way back across the lagoon we stopped at the gnarliest surf break I’d ever seen called Frigates Passage which was an almost 45 degree peeled reef break with ridiculously large waves, the biggest I’d ever seen close up. How these guys surf these breaks I have no idea as you’re fish food if you stack it.
On returning to Safari Lodge, I found a new arrival awaiting who became a good friend, Cris and 19 year old girl from Winnipeg. Together we planned to head out to Beqa Island the next day to pursue the village island dream, so the next morning we set off early back to Navua.
Arriving at Navua, we discovered that the boat to Lalati Village had already left but with some negotiation and haggling with a driver destined for another village we commandeered a boat. Crossing the lagoon was spectacular with dolphins racing alongside the boat as we chatted to the other villagers en route home from market, yet nervous with anticipation unknown as to what lay ahead.
Arriving on the shores of Lalati Village we were greeted by a lady (Grace) fishing off the makeshift dock, I thrust the magic letter into her hand and summoned for Wame. After what seemed like an age Wame appeared at first coldly instructing us to not move from the boat, but after reading the letter he smiled from ear to ear as he welcomed us with open arms to his village.
My stay in this very real and traditional Fijian village was by far the greatest experience of my trip to Fiji. I did not see much of Cris for the whole time as we each adopted the role we would follow if we lived in the village - myself working (cakacaka) on the hillside Jungle farm collecting Taro/Dalo (a white/bluey potato), Casava (a white potato with a large brown stem), Vudi (a banana which tastes like potato), Snake Bean (like runner beans) and Kava (the good stuff) battling the extreme heat, mosquitoes and wood ants, then after lunch resting and talking with the other men. The women on the other hand cooked, cleaned, made mats, looked after the children etc. Needless to say, male superiority seems deeply embedded in all aspects of life for example the male bathe in the stream (wow) is upstream from the women’s, only men sit around the kava bowl at night with the women on the periphery, little emotion is shown between husband and wife so very hard to identify relationships, and it would be unthinkable for women to join in with nightly touch rugby game. Totally misogynous I know but all at least at the surface seemed happy with the setup and this was the chosen life for all given the opportunity was open to leave and many women had chosen to do so, although childbirth and the resulting financial dependency seemed a common trap. Hmm.
The people on the island survived on subsistence farming and an endless supply of fresh fish caught daily from the reef making them entirely self sufficient. For income for electricity, boat fuel etc villagers would sell their wares at market, with Wame our host taking care of Kava business for the village which made him The Man to know. (Kava is the root of a plant which grows in the wilds of Fiji, which when uprooted, chopped, dried in the sun and ground into a powder in a giant pestle and mortar and mixed with water makes an intoxicating drink quite different from alcohol. A vial flavour and has the appearance of dirty washing up water, after 4 or so bowls you begin to feel relaxed and more talkative, another 4 and the grogginess sets in, anymore and you start to lose the ability to sit up and limbs become heavy. Good stuff!)
My friend and companion for my stay was 28 year old Eroni, father of Marika and soon to be husband of Rigi. We became good friends exchanging stories of growing up, life in our respective countries and tales of entanglements with women, a common language. I’ll truly miss him and have promised that if I ever return to Fiji to visit him and his family. Kavura on that smoke son :o)
It was with sadness that I said goodbye to Eroni, Nau (mother), Tata (father), Pau, Wame, Rigi, Ebenese, John (uncle) and the children Wame junior, Marika, and Lemeki. The most honest and welcoming people I’ve ever met, and I promise to return their hospitality whenever I can. But my time in Fiji is coming to an end so it was time to head off back to the mainland with practically all of the village in tow (our treat in return for their kindness) and off on the local bus to Suva the nations capital. As Cris was also bound by terms of the Fiji Experience bus, it was time to say goodbye to her too, see you next year maybe for your snowboard lesson and keep up the juggling practice.
With only a single night and day here, it was back to the Lonely Planet’s trusty guide to explore Suva. I shared the journey with Grace and met her friends and family at the market. Around town, the main sights included the government buildings whose halls of corruption keep this beautiful nation in an impoverished state, and the Fiji museum was depicts in graphic detail the history of the island for Fijians and Indo-Fijians alike, and it’s cannibalistic past.
So with only 2 days left in Fiji, I retreated to the island of Nanuna-I-Ra to Nanuna Lodge to relax before heading to New Zealand, involving a sketchy 3 hour bus journey along the Kings Road (one section of which is not yet complete and is really only a dusty track - a bus load of locals recently plummeted to it’s peril from the same road). Before Raki Raki, I jumped off early to save the taxi fare only to be picked up by another kind local who whisked me to my awaiting ferry - such kind people!
Only 15 minutes from the mainland, Nanuna-I-Ra is a stunning island retreat, the lodge owns 50% of the island which unfortunately has just been sold to a Kiwi developer to build 4 luxury resorts in it’s place. For the now, $20 a night gives you the most idyllic setting in comfortable burre-style dwellings. Yet again, the dive shop promised the best diving in Fiji, this time backed up by Jack Cousteu himself as this was listed in his top 10. A dive in the morning to Golden Dreams showed why with stunning soft corals some of which changed colour as the polyps retracted, the largest Lunar Coral I’ve ever seen at over 8 metres high and amazing swim throughs.
In the evening and after digesting an interesting home-made fish curry (I’ve no idea how to disect a fish), a climb to the peak of the hill behind the lodge was rewarded with the most amazing sunset and even a blind man with a pinhole camera couldn’t fail to capture an award winning photo.
The following afternoon further delights, a 45 minutes to the back of the island lies the most pristine white sand beach I saw in Fiji - amazing. I hiked down here on my last afternoon to share the beach with only 3 young Swedish girls, had I landed in heaven I couldn’t be sure but if it’s like this I must start to go to church.
Forcing myself to leave my hammock, I was jetted back to the mainland to return to Nadi for the next mornings flight to New Zealand. Another helpful chap gave me a ride to Raki Raki to catch the bus but I’d miscalculated the timings so had 3 hours to wait. Attempting to negotiate a taxi ride back to Nadi, I was offered by the taxi driver a much more favourable opportunity to stay with his family and make the journey in the morning. Since when does this happen?? So, with my new friend Mahendra I headed into the depths of Raki Raki to stay with his family. They again made me feel so welcome with the eldest son Ravindra taking the lead, giving up his own bed for the night and keen to learn about England we chatted till the early hours. Kanchan cooked the most delightful meal in my honour polished off with the last grog session of the tour. So welcoming and super nice people. Thank you Mahendra, Ravindra, Varunda, Gayendra, Shalen, Ajay and little Vishada for your kindness.
At 6am the next morning, I arose to find a freshly cooked fish curry awaiting as my breakfast treat courtesy of Kanchan, then headed off on the 3 hour drive back to Nadi airport. It was the first day of the week long elections which the whole country was eagerly awaiting, another opportunity to oust the somewhat corrupt SDL and it looked likely that Labour would gain their first term this century. Worryingly, the only times they’ve had the majority vote (1988, 1967) were followed in the next year by a coup so I was quite glad to be leaving as perhaps instability is again on the horizon for this beautiful nation. I hope not as the people deserve to live like kings.
It was a painful journey as I discovered Mahendra’s taxi could not exceed 50km/ph so we crawled along at a snail’s pace. Still, I arrived in time at the airport for my flight, Fiji time it seems does actually work if you just go with the flow. So with gratitude I tipped handsomely and said good bye to this magical land. Next stop, New Zealand.
A debate raged in my mind throughout the trip what is the best thing to do as a visitor for the people of Fiji - to stay at a resort or stay with the locals. Really the only off-the-shelf option for a tourist is to stay in a resort - budget, flash packer, luxury or otherwise. The Fijian tourist board push the resort packages so heavily it almost sends a message that they don’t want you to meet the real people of Fiji on their terms which I found confusing as my encounters with the local people were easily my fondest memories. (Incidentally the tactic is working as most of the ‘travellers’ I met and 99% of the package deal tourists only stay in the isolated resorts and are safely chaperoned from airport to resort without having to meet a local at all.)
Next, I discovered that over 80% of the resorts in Fiji are owned by foreign investors and the extortionate amounts (average luxury resort price USD $200 per night) being charged for stays at such places never even reach the shores of Fiji as are paid for in advance in the country of origin. So how does Fiji make the money - surely they can’t be giving it away for free?!
The biggest windfall for the country is the initial money laid down to buy the land from the Fijian government. The Fijians are smart enough to only lease the land, albeit for 99 years which based on a lease price of $20 million (Fijian) for a good size luxury resort would take about 5 years to pay for itself and 94 years to collect obscene profits. Surely it would be much smarter for the Fiji government to develop the resort themselves rather than make some quick cash from the initial lease, but as a developing country it apparently does not have the resource (or the foresight) to take this approach, some attempt is made but they are often run down and are poorly promoted. Surely $1 million of the revenue from the sale of one lot could be skimmed to pay for development of another resort with adequate marketing so at least the country would move forward a little, but from talking to local businessmen where the money goes post-sale is a mystery - I suspect some highly corrupt government officials are getting very rich as they sell off their own country and watch the poor get poorer.
On a brighter note, a standard agreement is in place for all resorts that they must employ local Fijians to run the resort (cooks, cleaners, bar tenders etc) so the locals benefit in this sense. However, wages are determined by the local economy not the investors home country which in practice sadly means a subsistence income for those with a family to support. Outside of this, local businesses benefit providing leisure activities at resorts such as diving, fishing, island excursions etc, but again bigger operations are monopolising not surprisingly owned by overseas companies.
I’m sure this is a common problem that any country faces where tourism is it’s main income, particulary in the developing world. In order for Fiji to over forwards, it needs to help itself and get financial control over the resorts itself and ensure that profits are actually invested in infrastructure, education, health etc . In addition, the International Community has a responsibility to enable developing countries to help themselves - so rather than providing aid relief when disasters like Tsunamis strike, how about providing $20 million dollars now to build their own resorts etc and gain self-sufficiency. In an ideal world, perhaps it will be so, in this world it’s hard to see.
The Final Word
The greatest memory I’ll take away is of the people, a cliché it sounds but they are totally amazing, give unconditionally and to my delight adore the English which they call the Mother Land. (It seems our colonials did a good job here bringing education, public transport, sewerage, religion, social order and an end to cannibalism.) It takes a lot to drop the guard that has been built up over the years living in a country where open generosity is rarely extended beyond family and friends, but once you do and embrace it with all your heart you discover what makes Fiji such a magical place. I almost cried with surprise and joy at the friendliness of all the people here and their willingness to share. These people deserve the greatest in life yet have so little. Sob sob, I’ll miss this place so much. Moce Fiji, until the next time…..