Anyone for Cava?

John & Susan Simpson
Tue 5 Sep 2023 03:41
We left Tonga in the rain, dodging the whales splashing about between the islands, and had one of the coldest, wettest, windiest sails that we have had for some time for the two day passage to Fiji. Casamara has the benefit of good visibility from inside the cabin and a remote handset that enables us to steer the boat from inside. So after a couple of hours of sitting huddled miserably in the cockpit in our full oilskins we set the sails, went down below, shut the hatches and sailed from the warmth and comfort of a dry cabin. The last time we resorted to this tactic was whilst sailing in the North Sea!

We emerged from the cabin as we approached the eastern most islands of Fiji. Like Tonga, Fiji is a country made up of a collection of islands, more than 300 islands in Fiji’s case, and none of which is actually called Fiji! The eastern islands form the Lau Group and we made landfall on Vanua Balavu, a small island with 1200 inhabitants. We were invited to a welcome ceremony - a sevusevu - in Daliconi village. Across the Fijian islands it is traditional that when you arrive you must go to the village elders and seek permission to visit, although  Fijian people are so friendly I can’t imagine permission is ever refused. I’d heard that sevusevu involves the sharing of Cava and as I’m partial to a glass of bubbly I was rather looking forward to it. Sadly, Kava (not Cava) is made from the roots of the yaqona plant and is an acquired taste!
Yaqona root bundles can be bought in the market

The roots are crushed to a powder which is then mixed with water. Once the mixture has had a good stir it is filtered by squeezing the gloopy mixture through a cloth bag, leaving a bowl of opaque liquid reminiscent of a silt filled puddle.  The ceremonial bowl of kava is shared amongst the group of villagers and visitors. Each person in succession is presented with a half coconut shell containing the kava and after each has drunk their share everyone claps their hands three times. Kava isn’t reserved for the sevusevu ceremony but is widely drunk all over the islands. We saw local people ordering it in bars, sitting with the serving bowl on the bar table and sharing ladles of the stuff. We were warned that the drink would numb the tongue and lips and it did, just like the after effects of a dental injection! It is supposed to have a sedative effect too, so much so that it is banned from government offices as drinking it at work was reducing the productivity of the workers. 
Presenting our gift of roots for making kava to the village elders in Daliconi

Preparing the kava bowl in Daliconi 

The sevusevu was followed by a meke (pronounced meck-ay), where the villagers gathered to perform traditional songs and dances for us. These were accompanied by a guitarist or recorded music played through an intermittently working sound system, much to the amusement of the dancers. Unbeknownst to us, one of our fellow sailors had decided the rally fleet should respond with music and dancing of our own. So we ‘treated’ the villagers to a rousing rendition of ‘What shall we do with a drunken sailor’ and twirled the local ladies round to a selection of ABBA songs played through the unreliable speakers. The local people found that so hysterical they were screaming with laughter and rolling around on the floor. It was a wonderful experience altogether. 

World ARC Pacific Rally people walking around Daliconi. Ladies had been asked to respect that legs and arms should be covered, hence our unusual clothing!

We were told that Daliconi had a shop and we never pass up the opportunity to stock up on provisions as you never know when the next chance will be. We found a kiosk that looked like a shop but it was closed and, to be honest, it didn’t look as though it would have much to sell even if it had been open. However, as we walked past the primary school on the way back up the boats a young man ran out to greet us and invited us in to see the school and meet the children. The school had 30 pupils and they seemed to enjoy the impromptu appearance of foreign visitors. They chatted to us individually and gathered together to sing us some songs, all in the ‘with gusto’ style and harmony that we’d come to know in Tonga. Some of those children had very powerful voices! 

We couldn’t help noticing that the school seemed very short of stationery, particularly pencils. Some of the children were writing with pencil stubs so short there was barely anything to hold onto. So we nipped back to the boat and gathered up all the pencils and paper we could find to give them, plus some other goodies we’d been saving in case we needed to give gifts anywhere along the way. It was the least we could do having been made to feel so welcome. 

The children sing us a farewell song

Vanua Balavu is known for its beautiful Bay of Islands area and we spent a few nights anchored there with other boats from the rally fleet. The weather was still overcast and drizzly for the most part but it was still an impressive place with some incredible rock formations. 
Bay of Islands, Vanua Balavu

The waters around Vanua Balavu proved to be quite difficult for navigation as the channels and bays were full of rocky coral heads. Two of the rally boats damaged their rudders negotiating these waters so we considered ourselves fortunate that Casamara came out of the Lau Group unscathed!

Our first impressions of Fiji were of remote, stunning unspoilt scenery and close-knit communities living with very few resources, but this was only the start of our journey across the islands.