BULA! The official greeting of Fiji

As we have been remiss since our departure from Tonga, we thought it time to stop and reflect on the passage over and our past month in Fiji.

Our passage here was a varied one. The forecast before departure wasn’t ideal, but we were keen to move on and thought we would try our luck. The first two days consisted of light winds but we had reasonable progress, aided by our diesel engine, Ms. Lucy.  Conditions turned on our third day and we ran into a very strong southerly front. For eighteen hours we suffered the southerly winds and rain, with an average of 30 – 35 knots and a few gusts of over 40 – 50 k’s.  In landlubber language, f*&king strong winds! Stronger than either John so I have experienced in prior passages. Rather than battling the conditions, we reduced our canvas to a reefed staysail and fell away to the north. Whilst it was a total rollercoaster ride as we crept up mountainous swells and disappeared into the trough, skipper and vessel are superbly competent and we safely navigated through gale force winds and mighty sea swells. In these conditions we operated as a good team; John looks after the boat and I look after the skipper.

Wind eased the following day and our last two days saw the best weather, and our best runs: 166 miles in one day, even with a conservative sail configuration. I cannot aptly express the satisfaction one gets watching the miles clock down and the boat whistle through the water. These last days provided stunning conditions and we glided Atea through the fringing easterly reefs into safe harbor on the southwestern side of Viti Levu. After five days at sea and 560 miles behind us, we drew into our port of call: Lauotoka.

Lautoka is one of the three ports of entry into Fiji and one of the main cities on the mainland. After clearing customs, applying for a cruising permit, we were free to roam the town and explore. As our fortune had it, we arrived on the opening day of a large carnival that was touring throughout Fiji. Had we not landed on this particular weekend there may have little on offer in the city; however, the festivities offered brought much entertainment and excitement to our short stay.

Fiji has a relatively equal mix of Indian and Fijian populations; as we wandered through the fairgrounds this mix of culture was evident. What struck us most was being submerged in the hip city culture after two months in the quiet, remote Tongan islands. Here, the bands boomed, clusters of men and women roamed around by the dozens, hip teens gossiped in their circles and parent roamed toting sleepy toddlers on their hips. We had entered a totally different world.

As we started to experience what was on offer around us, there was much to muse on and much to offer continuous entertainment. Initially John and I spent our time near front stage, enjoying the humour of a third-rate presenter who ran events: bands, a dance completion, a beauty contest, a wearable-arts show, and the like. I can still hear him welcoming the beauty queens to the stage, “and contestant number 5, with her hair in a barrette, wearing a black dress with shiny bangles on her wrists and magic shoes on her feet…” Other than the random “magic” comment added as a twist, there is nothing like a presenter stating the obvious! But it was kind for kind and presenter and contestant on equal ground, as when she was asked, “If you were granted one wish, what would it be?” the answer came, “I’d ask for a really long nap.”

Collecting treats as we passed the ice cream, shaved-ice, caramel popcorn booths, we finally made it to the long line of food stalls – we couldn’t wait for a break from our galley and a taste of local cuisine. However, there was much left to be desired after we passed the last of the stalls – every single one offered the exact duplicate of the one previous. After the simple selection of barbecued beef and mixed vegetables, we ventured off toward the crys spewing forth from spinning bodies and whirling seats of whizzing, creaking, groaning fair rides. We decided to join the chaos and, daring fate, selected the worlds largest, fastest, and ricketiest ferris wheel – my piercing scream must still be echoing through the deserted fairgrounds.

The main islands consist of two large mountainous islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, each canvased with tropical rain forests, rolling hills, and dense vegetation. City centres sprawl with shops filled with plastic trinkets, electronic supplies and budget fashion – none seem to offer anything specifically different from the other. The Indian influence is strong here, and there seems an equal distribution of Indian and Fijian population all cohabitating on equal terms despite the frequent government battles (though at a guess this distribution is representative of the mainland and not the surrounding island groups).

Local infrastructure functions for the locals and does not cater to the tourist. Internet cafes are few and far between, and you have to hunt through town to find a computer shop that offers internet services. As we wandered around it was obvious that this is not where foreigners spend their time, evident in the merchandise displayed in shop windows and the paucity of foreign faces. For yachties, most of the interest lies in the surrounding island groups which lie to the north, east and west of the mainland. So far we have spent our time in two of these groups, the more touristy Mamamucas and the quieter Yasawas.

After a few days sorting out logistics, we were ready to explore the islands that we’d battled 500 miles of open ocean to get to. It was not, on first sight, anything that we’d imagined. We slipped away from the mainland and headed for the Mamamukas, a southern-most chain of islands west of Viti Levu. Much to our surprise each island was packed with the burnt flesh of newly arrived tourists, basking beside chlorine pools or elbow up to the beach bar awaiting their next cocktail. It seemed on sight the very antithesis of what a cruising experience should be; done away with the remote, unspoiled isles, these seemed to offer the exact opposite: Bars and beach bungalows sprawling along the length of the island. Every island was home to a dedicated resort, not a local village or longboat in sight.

Don’t fight ‘em, join ‘em — and join them we did. We snuck into resorts with our sarongs, sun hats and credit cards, laid poolside with our novels and joined the line at the bar for an order of mai tai’s and lemon juice.  And I can’t say I minded one bit! While embedded in the cater-to-tourist trade, I do confess that it was quite a treat to rag-gab with the tourists and be a part of the not-so-ethnic experience. It provided a great change of scene and allowed us the feeling of “holiday” from our extended holiday.

We made our way to Musket Cove, famous to yachties and holiday-makers alike. Our experience here was made dear by connecting with a friend who was spending the season in Fiji, as well as the other sailors we met. Of particular note during our time here was a Fourth of July celebration – cruiser style. I’d brought sparklers from New Zealand which were

passed amongst the group, and some of the other cruisers brought expired emergency flares…60% of which didn’t work. But they did the trick, and we all ooh’ed and aww’ed as the red flares dropped from the sky, detonated by men with dangling cigarette butts from bottom lip.  Our friend Kurt brought in the American flag accompanied by an American-flag printed oven mitt, adding to the general fanfare of the night.

Musket Cove is an easy spot for any cruiser to get lost in. Come for a day and you stay a week, come for a week and you’ll find yourself there several months later. It boasts some of the best surfing sites globally, just released from private control in 2010, and some excellent sand bars that rise out at low tide offering a great kite-surfing spot and some excellent snorkeling. We, as you do, fell into the trap and stayed much longer than anticipated, enjoying the social atmosphere and the aquatic wonders.

We had a forced departure as we had to get back to the mainland to pick up a friend, Lizzie, who was joining us for ten days in the islands. After collecting her at Nadi (the city closest to the airport), we headed north to the Yasawas.

The Yasawas are a group of twenty islands that stretch north of the Mamumkas. Until a decade ago this island group was isolated and visited by only the intrepid traveler, leaving it unspoiled by tourism and unaffected by resort development.  A daily ferry has opened this area up to tourism, and had significant effect on accessibility to the islands.

Large resorts have not started developments here, but the area has responded to the change and now offers basic bures and upmarket villas hidden amongst the palms. These have not overrun local villages, and the Yasawas still offer sight and feel of the ethnic way of life.

Here locals depend on agriculture and fishing for their livelihoods and longboats as the main mode of transport. There are no roads on any of the islands, and not a car, scooter or bike in sight. Dirt paths provide access to different villages, and wind their way haphazardly through the islands. Pigs abound as a main source of meat, and the occasional cow for meat and dairy.

Most villages have a preschool of sorts, every island a school that is shared amongst the local villages, and to attend high school the youth have to move to the mainland for their education.  School is mandatory and the government fines a family if a child is taken out of school early. As a result commuting or dormitory living is common and starts at a very early age.

For the yachtie, custom is to offer savu savu if anchored off the villages on any of the islands. This tradition involves a gift offered to the chief for permission to stay on local ground, and in exchange travelers are offered protection for the duration of their stay. The most common gift offered is yaqona, the root which is used to make kava – the local grog. It is made by emptying the ground root into an old sock, or the like, and squeezing water through the fine powder until the liquid looks of dirty mud in colour.  The taste is in kind, and the narcotic has a drowsy, numbing effect.

This tradition is a good way to get entrance into the village, and Fijians are natural hosts. You are lead by a villager to the chieftain or chieftess of the village to give your offering, and after a quick ceremony of clapping and chanting, you are welcomed as a guest and made to feel so. This often leads to an invite for lunch or an afternoon tea, a lime leaf in hot water.

While this time of year boasts of consistent trade winds and settled weather, we’ve seen the variety during the month of July. Unsettled wind conditions combined with unreliable anchorages has made many a night less than ideal.

However there are many events that stand out and many memorable experiences to provide the balance. Along our route north through the Yasawas we dove for (but haven’t found yet) manta ray; snorkeled some fantastic reefs and played in a undersea playground hosting a rainbow of different corals and curious, playful fish; hiked through rivers and rock beds through mountains and played amongst its peaks; found a WWII Spitfire in 2 meters of water (though on sight we agreed it was more the remains of a miniature toy airplane); and gabbed with local fishermen who stopped mid-catch to banter in the afternoon heat (Fijians exude friendly warmth and welcome).

One of our favourite anchorages in the Yasawas is the Blue Lagoon, fantasy of many a boy in the 80s (not for the stunning setting, but for the petite jeune fils Brooke Shields). Our love of the area was based not on a Hollywood film but for the wonderful kiting it offered. We saw many boats come and go, however Atea stayed snuggly tucked in at anchor as we spent our afternoons under kite and board.

At seven and a half months pregnant, this was to be my final swansong. Given I needed John at hand to get my feet into the straps as I couldn’t reach the board, the call for an end date was well overdue. What added this spot to our favour was the nearby resort, hosting 12 quiet bures tucked into the hillside. Here we socialized with the guests and connected with several of the cruisers we’d met along the way.

One incidence was an invite onto a 100 foot super yacht for lunch, fully catered and waited on by the staff. We managed to make an impression of our own, however, by coming over on our paddleboards. On departure the coin flipped and we seemed the rich and famous as the enthused owner clicked the camera as we bid our farewell.

It was also a great haven from a provisioning perspective. We’d managed to get an occasional banana or pawpaw along the way when making savu savu in previous villages, but here a local had seen the opportunity and turned his family subsistence farm into a farm offering a variety to the nearby backpackers and villas. This was extended to yachties, and the experience was one of my favourites. We made our way in at high tide and navigated through mangroves up a creek. We were greeted by the family and were taken into the valley where we selected fruits and veg from the selection offered – freshly picked for a fraction of the cost paid at the markets. We were freed of our canned provisions and ate in what felt like pure decadence – to look in our stores and have a selection to choose from – ahhh, what a sight!!

Another favourite was when we were invited into a local home to watch a rugby match. We’d come the week before however reception didn’t work so we spent the afternoon drinking kava and yarning the time away. By the following week the reception was recovered, just in time to watch Fiji play New Zealand. It was a hoot – four of us in the living room with twenty-two Fijian rugby fans, a kava bowl sitting in amongst the group. Whilst the score ended 60 – 17 in the All Blacks favour, there was unleashed enthusiasm when the Fijian made a goal. For the first time I wished for an All Blacks loss, just to hear the craze from our patriotic hosts.

Without drabbing on too long (already done, but if you’ve made it this far thanks so much for your interest) – a conclusion and summary. This past month has been a full one, and while quite a different experience from Tonga, a treasure of the South Pacific all the same.

For those of you who are invested in the little stowaway traveling with us, all continues to go well. I’ve just survived one bout of food poisoning, but other than that our diet has been good and activity continues to increase (along with the belly size!). I’ve seen two midwives while here, each concluding that all fares well.

And for now, that’s it from Yacht Atea. Over and out.

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