Fiji Part 2: Exploring The Western Islands
16 - 27 September 2008: Fiji's Western Islands
We sailed overnight around the southern coast of Viti Levu, weaving in and out of reefs the whole way, arriving at Port Denarau by mid morning. James had to immediately get on the bus to the regional capital of Lautoka to clear in to this part of the island. Why the whole process had to be repeated we never really found out, but we had learnt to go with the flow and complete all the bureaucracy required. On his return we met up with my sister, Eleanor and Andy, who had checked into a local hotel as we arrived after their flight. We were all tired from jet lag and the overnight sail, so we retired early after an early supper at one of Denarau's many restaurants.
Port Denarau was built on a swamp and is a holidaymaker's haven. The whole island is filled with large resort hotels, their thatched bungalows opening onto the beach. There is a courtesy bus that shuttles people between the hotels, and one of the recommended things to do in the area is visit the other hotels… The port is a lot like Port Solent in Portsmouth, a small marina development filled with expensive shops and chain restaurants (including a Hard Rock Café). The place is soulless, and if it wasn't for the smiling Fijians we could have been anywhere. However, it is well located, the anchorage is free (ish - the marina office never seems to chase up the F$15 fee) and sheltered and there is a safe place to leave the dinghy, as well as the usual marina facilities. We stayed there one night, then picked up a well rested Eleanor and Andy and headed out to explore the islands to the west of Viti Levu, described as a cruiser's Paradise.
First stop was Malololailai Island, home to the Musket Cove Resort and Marina. The Marina has plenty of good moorings available in the bay outside the resort for about £5 a night. It is a cruiser's gathering place and we were here to meet up with Hans and Georgie on Arbuthnot and say goodbye to Mat and Rose on Delicate Dawn whose tight cruising schedule meant they had to press on. The marina provides a good barbeque area, complete with picnic tables and firewood, so long as patrons buy their drinks at the bar. We all arranged to meet for a barbeque that evening and James and I spent the rest of the afternoon preparing fish kebabs and salad. Arbuthnot caught a Giant Trevally earlier that day, and Mat & Rose brought chicken so we had a huge tasty looking spread by the time the barbeque was ready. There was much discussion among the boys as to the point at which the fire was ready for cooking (too many chiefs!), but eventually everything was cooked to perfection and the 10 of us sat down for a delicious meal, washed down with the finest Fiji Bitter.
Whilst at Musket Cove we were both intrigued by a huge trimaran made from a very old fashioned design. When we next visited Musket Cove we went over to meet the boat's crew, and met Cynthia and David, a British couple in their 80s who built the trimaran themselves in New Zealand in the 1970s. The boat was the first fibreglass hull ever built in New Zealand, quite an honour considering the country's high reputation now for boat building. Cynthia and David were a fascinating pair who rambled on about their life experiences, rolling one story into another with barely taking a breath in between. We were really pleased to meet them and hear their and the boat's story, and hope that they continue sailing for many more years.
The following day we said another sad goodbye to Mat and Rose (we had already said goodbye in Tonga, when the bad weather forced a happy reunion!). Our plan was to sail North through the islands that day, stopping at Monuriki Island where the film Castaway was made before finding a more sheltered anchorage for the night. As we sailed gently between the islands the weather started to deteriorate and the wind swung round to the North, making most of the anchorages untenable. As a particularly vicious squall hit we decided to head for shelter, and ended up spending the night anchored off Mana Island, having caught a small tuna along the way. This island hosts several backpacker camps and a couple of resorts so the beach was filled with kayaks, snorkellers and volleyball courts. The rain kept all the revelers away and we sheltered inside, feasting on fresh fish and watching Castaway in preparation for our visit to the island.
The next morning dawned bright and sunny so we decided to shun the crowded delights of Mana and head to more secluded spots. We sailed past Monuriki Island, but found Delicate Dawn tied to the only available mooring and the anchorage was too deep for our manual labour. So we took the necessary photos and sailed on. We later heard that Delicate Dawn had dragged the mooring in the strong winds and Mat had to cut the line to free the boat, so we made a lucky escape!
We anchored in a beautiful bay surrounded by the island of Mamanutha-I-Ra. Finally we managed to find the Pacific idyll for Eleanor and Andy - a sheltered bay of azure clear water, long sandy beach, palm trees, and tall volcanic cliffs. This place was picture postcard perfect and we settled in to enjoy the surroundings. A walk along the beach inspired the idea of having a beach barbeque that night (well, actually A and I hurrumphed about the idea as beach BBQs inevitably mean that the boat will be covered in sand the following day as a half drunk crew traipse the stuff back onboard unknowingly in the dark and we had a perfectly good BBQ onboard, but in the spirit of the desert island thing we begrudgingly went along with it and had a lot of fun… J) and we spent the rest of the afternoon gathering driftwood and coral stones to line the fire pit. Andy made several attempts to make benches out of various logs, and all were successful until someone sat at just the wrong place and the whole contraption would collapse. We then quickly picked up the food and beer from Rahula and returned to the beach before it got dark. In the mean time Delicate Dawn came into the anchorage, postponing their departure due to the strong winds - so another cheery reunion took place. The home made barbeque was a great success, and we managed to eat our food without getting sand everywhere. Eleanor and Andy, the city dwellers, marveled at the clear night sky, the Milky Way splashing across the sky like a rainbow leading to the pot of gold on our island.
We decided to spend a couple of days at Mamanutha-I-Ra, so that we could explore all it had to offer. We went for a snorkel after breakfast and discovered a magnificently colourful underwater world a short distance from Rahula. The coral was some of the best we have seen in the Pacific, and in between the different layers of coral there was a huge variety of beautiful fish. Then in the afternoon we went for a walk around the island, venturing inland and away from the beach. The island is uninhabited, but rather strangely we came across a flock of wild goats roaming through the woods that cover the island. We climbed up the two highest rocks, James taking the more difficult route up one rock, while we opted for the goat track leading to the top of the second rock. We had a great view from the top of the Yasawa islands and little Rahula tucked up at anchor. We said goodbye to Delicate Dawn as they yet again tried to head west, and were surprised to see them return a few hours later having taken a real pounding on the open ocean. We decided to stop saying goodbye to Mat and Rose, and just give a cheery wave, as we will no doubt see them the next day!
The forth island we visited was called Nanuya Balavu, which is famous for the huge Manta Rays which frequent the channel between it and the next island at this time of year. We went for dinner at the nearby Manta Ray Island Resort in the hope that they would tell us when and how we could see the rays. The resort catered for backpackers, crammed 30 to a dormitory, and the food was a basic set meal of soup, fish, and beef stir fry, for F$20 per head (about £7). We went out for dinner as we had nothing to offer Eleanor and Andy except fish, so it was quite amusing that fish was on the menu at the resort as well! After dinner entertainment included a challenge to crack a coconut with bare hands, which James managed to do quite successfully (my hand was sore for days afterwards! J) and a musical dance competition (having to stand still when the music stops). It was all very amusing for the young gap year crowd, but we all felt too old, so returned to Rahula for a cup of cocoa…
The next day we were up early excitedly scanning the channel for signs of Manta Rays. We were told that the resort boat goes out to check if they are there, before returning with paying guests. Every time we heard an outboard engine scream past Rahula we looked out in anticipation for the driver to give the thumbs up indicating the rays were in town. By mid morning we were bored with waiting so we decided to check the channel out for ourselves. Needless to say it was devoid of rays, and poor little Tinker was struggling to hold her own in the strong wind and current. So we returned to Rahula and went for a snorkel instead. Yet again we were treated to a glorious underwater zoo teeming with tropical fish and coral. There was a steep drop off at the edge of the coral shelf which meant we got to see some of larger deep water fish too. None of the fish were scared of our presence, so I could get up close and take some great pictures. (We were anchored in a nice spot, but as the wind shifted it became a bit of a gusty lee shore and at the moment I am paranoid about stuff like that, being so close to half way. So we ended up moving to an old mooring we had found on the way back from looking for rays. It was basically an old ship mooring with a floating rope as thick as your arm and about 20m long tied to a chain around a huge coral column, rising up from around 15m to 3m below the surface. I dived to check it out and the chain would have held the old Ark Royal so we moved there, bringing this huge slimy slug onboard. It ended up being the best spot in the bay and the column right underneath our boat was great for free-diving. I slept well as well! J)
We hung around the next morning as well but the Manta Rays never showed up. I went for a kayak along the coast with Eleanor and another snorkel, but still there was no sign of the rays. The weather was looking good for making our way back towards Viti Levu in time for Eleanor & Andy's return flight, so we reluctantly weighed anchor (dropped the slug that is…J) and left the Manta Ray-less channel. We made a short hop down to the next island of Waya, the tallest in the Yasawa group. We anchored in a small bay opposite the Octopus Resort and were soon sipping cocktails in the resort bar watching the sun set behind Rahula.
As we were new arrivals to the island we had to take part in a traditional Kava ceremony where the locals welcomed us to their land. We sat around in a circle on straw mats with some tourists fresh off the plane, and a large smiling Fijian man explained to us the Kava Ceremony process. While he was talking he was stirring a liquid in a large wooden bowl that looked like brown puddle water. We had been warned about Kava, the dried root of the pepper plant, which is ground and mixed with water to form a mildly narcotic and foul tasting drink. Captain Cook hated it, and other cruisers we had met pulled a face when the name was mentioned, so I was not relishing my turn to taste the stuff. But Fiji is very traditional in places, and we had to respect their customs. So we dutifully clapped our hands when instructed and muttered hello and thank you in Fijian. The tradition requires that you down the cup offered in one go and I dutifully slurped the bitter drink. It was as horrible as I expected. When the first round was completed our host insisted on personal introductions and another round of Kava. By this stage my lips were tingling and I needed a real drink to take away the taste. Thankfully the dinner gong sounded and we escaped. Dinner that night was a seafood barbeque, so yet again we did not manage to escape having fish for supper. The food was delicious though, and we chatted to the other guests sharing our table, enjoying the nice atmosphere.
As we had anchored in a bay owned by the local village we had to go and pay our respects to the village chief and get permission to roam his land. We had bought some Kava root for this purpose in Viti Levu and we set off across the island to the village of Nalauwaki. As we wandered into the village someone offered to take us to the chief's house, immediately recognising we were from "the yacht". The chief was a small old man who accepted our Kava gift with good grace, and made a small speech welcoming us to his land. Thankfully we did not have to drink any more kava! We strolled back through the village, absorbing the basic living condition in tin or thatched huts. The villagers led a subsistence existence until tourism took off in Fiji, and now most of them lease their land to operators who build small private resorts. Most of the resorts give something back into the community, often in the form of sponsoring children through school or providing employment for the villagers. The village was very proud of its newly installed set of solar panels powering the village's only phone connected to the mainland via a satellite dish. All his technology looked out of place in the village square amongst drying palm leaves. Everyone we came across was very friendly, wearing the big Fijian smile we had become accustomed to, and calling out a cheery "Bula!" (Fijian for hello).
Having gained permission we went snorkelling in the bay surrounding the boat. The coral here was less colourful, but had formed in odd shapes making deep channels and tunnels. There were large schools of fish everywhere, though the visibility was not as good as in the other islands. Tired of lazily swimming among colourful fish we decided to go for a hike up to the highest peak on the island (567m). We arranged a guide from the local village and paid a "gift" to the person who owned the mountain of F$10 per person (how cool is that: owning a mountain! J). We set off early in the morning, walking along the beach in front of the village before starting the long climb upwards though dense woodland. We passed the village's banana, yam and mango plantations, then broke through the tree line into long grass and steep boulders. The final 20m involved an almost vertical climb up a crack in a rock, but it was worth it for the breathtaking view at the top. We could see the other island spread before us, and the green scrub covering the rest of Waya. The island resembled of Scotland, apart from the hot weather and palm trees. (It wasn't an easy walk and the first part was actually the route the school kids use twice a week to get to school! There were two main villages on the island at different ends and one has a Kindergarten and the other a Primary school, so in effect the kids swap villages for the school week, returning to their own village on a Friday. J)
On our final night in Waya the Octopus resort was having a traditional Fijian evening, so we decided to go along. The evening started with a Meke, traditional song and dance performed by the resort's staff. Unlike the amateur show I saw in Suva this was a much better act, and the singing and the music were superb. This was the first time we heard the song Isa Lei performed, a sad song of farewell which brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it. After the performance a Fijian feast was served and we were treated to a selection of fish (of course!) and curries. We really enjoyed our time at the Octopus Resort, a small, low key resort which has the right mix of activities and seclusion. I highly recommend it if you ever go on holiday to Fiji.
We could not miss the opportunity the weather presented us with the next day - the usually strong SE winds had veered around to the NE, giving us a chance to sail the long distance back to Viti Levu rather then motor into an uncomfortable swell. We sailed early in the morning, caught a Giant Trevally before lunch (it was a giant and the hardest fighter yet! Not sure Eleanor appreciated the killing bit, which was a bit protracted this time… J) and made it back to Port Denarau by mid afternoon, satisfied that we had seen some of Fiji's outlying islands.