Fiji Part 1: Arrival

James & Amelia Gould
Tue 7 Oct 2008 19:44

11 - 15 September 2008: Suva, Fiji


The week long wait in Tonga for good weather proved worth it as we had a cracking sail to Fiji, finally enjoying some perfect trade wind sailing.  We had some light winds in the first day which allowed us to gently get back into our sea routine.  It was a glorious day so we hoisted the spinnaker to try to coax a little more speed out of the light Easterly wind.  The spinnaker was flew quite happily with only minimal tweaks for about 3 hours, then when I was down below completing the log all went quiet and the boat started slowing down.  I poked my head out and to my horror the spinnaker got itself wrapped around the forestay.  No amount of pulling or tugging would get it out, so I called James from his slumber and we stared at the mess in our rigging for a while, wondering the best way to untangle 76 sq m of delicate sail from the forestay. To cap it all (why does Neptune always do this?!) the wind started to increase, making it too windy for the spinnaker.  As we couldn't unravel the sail from the deck the only way to counter the wrap was to motor in circles, freeing sections of the sail with each turn.  We spent an agonising and uncomfortable 45 minutes driving in circles in the middle of the Pacific with the slowly growing spinnaker flapping like crazy, shaking the boat and the rigging.  The whole affair was putting a huge strain on the mast and we tried to sort things out as soon as possible.  Finally we made the last turn and the spinnaker came free.  We dropped it as quickly as possible, and breathed a huge sigh of relief to have escaped with no damage to the boat or sails.  Then a new rule was made - we do not fly the spinnaker unless we have crew onboard!


The rest of the passage was uneventful.  James finally broke his dry fishing spell and caught a big bull Mahi Mahi not long after we left Tonga and a Wahoo as we approached Fiji.  These were the first fish he has managed to land since we left the Galapagos, and there were smiles all round as we became self-sufficient again.  The fridge was full of fish, so James was banned from fishing (hurrumph…J) until we ate through the tasty fillets.  I also saw some whales on the surface about 50m from Rahula, and still marvelled at their enormous bulk swim so gracefully. 


We passed a landmark point on our circumnavigation on this passage.  At 1300 GMT on 12 September Rahula crossed the Date Line (180 Deg East/West) and we were officially half way around the world after travelling 16,000 nautical miles.  We could now say we were on our way home as instead of counting up degrees West as we sailed away from the UK, we were now counting down degrees East towards home.  It was a significant moment, and made us reflect on all we have seen and experienced on our travels in the Western part of the globe, and hope that the Eastern part would be as fascinating (it was historic, but unfortunately I was changing sails and missed the vital moment on GPS!).


As we approached the largest island in Fiji, Viti Levu the weather started to deteriorate and we sailed through torrential rain and fierce squalls.  Our timings were such that we would have to make a night entry into Suva and we prepared ourselves for navigating through the outlying reef in the dark and rain.  Luckily the rain cleared as we started making our final approach and the leading lights into the harbour guided us safely through the pass in the reef.  Our Dutch friends, Mat & Rose onboard Delicate Dawn, were already at anchor near the Royal Suva Yacht Club and gave us advice on approaching the anchorage over the radio.  We set our own anchor at 2130 and Mat was soon over with some wine and homemade pizza to welcome us to Fiji.


We arrived on a Saturday night aware that there would be little chance of clearing into Fiji on a Sunday.  Mat had tried to visit Customs and Immigration on the Saturday and was told to come back on Monday, so we decided to follow his lead, and spent a relaxing Sunday wandering around the empty streets of Suva window shopping.  When we returned to the Yacht Club we found that the weather had deteriorated again and nasty black clouds were looming overhead bringing lots of wind and rain.  We raced back to Rahula to keep an eye on our anchor, and were pleased to see that we didn't budge an inch.  Delicate Dawn, however, appeared to have shifted from her position and drifted back into the shoals, and there was no sign of anyone onboard.  We launched the quick reaction Tinker and James leapt onboard Delicate Dawn while I went in search of Mat & Rose at the Yacht Club.  I found them just returning from town, shocked to discover that their anchor had dragged (it was their first time!).  They soon weighed anchor and had the boat safely secured in deeper water.  The poor weather meant we changed our plans for the evening as we decided someone should stay with the boats.  So the boys stayed on Rahula to do guy things (like drink beer and talk rubbish for a couple of hours… J), while Rose and I had a girly night at a local hotel watching what was billed as a "Traditional Dance Show".  It turned out to be a shy performance given by the hotel staff - the chef, receptionist and bellboy all took part, and gave a sweetly amateur act.  Rose, as a professional Dance teacher tried not to be too critical, so we sipped our wines and clapped politely, savouring an evening alone with some fellow female company.


Monday was an action packed day as we had lots to do before sailing the following day to the west side of the island to meet my sister in time.  James and Mat spent all day at Customs, Immigration and Quarantine trying to check in to Fiji, and Rose and I did some provisioning and souvenir shopping. (We first went to Immigration, where the official was extremely friendly and dealt with us quickly whilst understanding completely why we had left it till Monday to check in.  This lulled us into a false sense of security.  After Immigration we went to Customs, who gave us a myriad of forms and told us to return at 1400 when the health inspector would be in the office and we could deal with Customs and Health at the same time.  So Mat and I retired to 'Planet Cappuccino' to fill in the forms and wait for the allotted time.  Eventually we returned at 1400 on the dot, only to be informed that we also need a cruising permit from the Interior Ministry a few blocks away.  Why they didn't feel it necessary to tell us this before, when we had all morning to sort it out, I don't know. So we dashed over and got our cruising permit and returned to Customs only to be told that the health inspector had gone home.  There were various exchanges of pleasantries but little in the way of action and I was beginning to lose my rag a little.  Eventually we convinced them to ring the health inspector and get her back so we could complete the whole process and not have to return in the morning.  I won't say what was said as children may be reading this but suffice to say that Mat saw a different side of me for about 15 minutes until someone actually did something constructive…J).    


Suva came alive on a week day and it was fascinating walking around observing all the different cultural groups mingling and trading with each other.  Fiji was populated by Melanesians and Polynesians before the British colonised it in the 19th century.  The British brought sugar to Viti Levu and encouraged people from India to come to work on the sugar plantations.  Many Indians stayed after their work contract was up and the Fiji population is now made up of 40% Fijians and 40% Indo-Fijians.  The rest of the population is mainly Asian and European.  The Indians have integrated completely into Fiji and even have their own political party.  Suva is therefore full of shops selling traditional Fijian handicrafts such as wood carvings and Tapa cloth made of tree bark next door to shops selling saris and Bollywood movies.  The city also has a small Chinatown, filled with steaming Chinese food stalls and shops selling cheap plastic goods.  It is a strange contrast, but seems to somehow work very well, and there was no sign of any animosity between the cultural groups (despite the political strife and coups which took place a few years ago).  Suva's produce market is one of the largest in the Pacific, and I could have spent all day browsing through the huge array of fruit and vegetables on offer.  On other islands we have visited the markets usually had a limited selection of what could be grown on the island - normally cabbage, tomatoes, breadfruit, yams and of course, coconut.  In Suva the range included apples, pears and grapes, real treats after eating nothing but pineapple and watermelon for 6 months.  The stalls were manned by Chinese, Indians and Fijians, all selling food to suit their cultural tastes meaning I could get ingredients for everything from a stir fry to a curry. 


The Suva Craft Market was an equally eclectic collection of Fijian artifacts and Indian objects.  Sifting through the usual rubbish of bad wood carvings, polished shells and endless woven bags we managed to find a few gems that looked like "the real thing".  I came across a small stall run by Max, from the Lau Group of islands to the East of Viti Levu.  The wood pieces at his stall were far superior to anything I had seen in the Pacific, and all were beautifully designed, crafted and displayed.  Max was also a character, slightly shy for a market tradesman, but chatty and friendly, telling me all about his village and work.  It was difficult to select one piece to sum up Polynesian handicraft, so I haggled until I managed to get two things within my budget.  This is the only large souvenir we have allowed ourselves from the Pacific, and I think it was worth the wait for getting something special.  James and I return to Max's stall a few weeks later to buy some Christmas presents (family - stand by for random wooden stuff…J) and he remembered me and gave me another hefty discount!


The Royal Suva Yacht Club was a real bastion of colonial Fiji, and reminded us of our Yacht Club back home.  The club house had a huge hall filled with pennants from clubs from all over the world (we added the RNSA burgee to their collection).  The main entrance was filled with pictures of the Queen, and black and white photographs of the club in its hey day, clustered around club notices and rules.  The bar was always busy, and had a friendly, relaxed feel.  Though the anchorage was on the edge of the main city docks, the club had a real secluded feel and provided a calm getaway from the hustle and bustle of the main town (they had recently applied to retain the Royal warrant and succeeded, whereas the Suva Golf Club did not.  There is justice in the world!  J).  We wished we could have stayed there longer, but my sister and her boyfriend were due to arrive in a couple of days and we needed to get to the other side of the island, 150 miles away. 


We returned to Suva a few weeks later by car to see the sights we missed in our rushed first visit to the city.  We visited the Fiji Museum, which is set in beautiful Botanic Gardens.  The museum covers Fijian archaeology, boatbuilding and has a huge collection of Fijian war clubs and spears.  The main hall had several double hulled canoes, complete with woven mat sails and oars.  The collection then went on to display beautifully carved war clubs, covered in intricate geometric designs.  Fijian cannibalism was touched upon, with a clear stress that the practice has definitely stopped now.  The final room covered the history of Fiji since colonisation, and included sections on each of the main cultural groups.  It was a small, but well laid out museum, and well worth the trip back to Suva.  We drove around the other few sights of Suva, but there was nothing to catch the eye in the concrete jungle of office blocks and flats.  It seems the country's beauty is mainly outside its capital, and we were glad of the chance to explore a small number of Fiji's 322 islands by boat and by car.