I write this at the helm, surrounded by a calm rippling ocean and a soft ocean breeze. I am on a short watch, just after daybreak, giving John rest after his all-night sentinel.While he was supposed to wake me when he tired to swap post for pillow, he pulled a nine-hour watch so that I could sleep and “grow bubba.” Either pregnancy is his excuse to spoil me, or I am going to bear the yoke next season to make up for all this special treatment. Getting pampered is so addictive.
This morning is a good one for pondering on the experiences of our three-week circumnavigation of Vanua Levu. I woke at 6AM to a stunning blood red horizon. As the sharp colour faded into a light blue sky, a brilliant rainbow unfolded itself ahead of us from port to starboard.We sailed through the arch filled with awe at the stunning seascape before us. Such earthly beauty gives cause to pause, pull into ones reverie and absorb the spiritual inspired by the van der Helst masterpiece held before you.
The pictures taken do not capture the beauty of this trip; they are far from reflecting any of nature’s masterpieces we’ve had the privilege of viewing. I don’t say this because a photo is never as accurate as the eye. I say this because it hasn’t been in the scenery that we have been so in awe, but in the wonderful people we have met and the cultural experiences we have been honoured with.
Vanua Levu is one of two main islands in Fiji. It is second in size to Viti Levu which lies across the Koro Sea to the southeast. What makes Vanua Levu unique is the paucity of tourist infrastructure and a slow pace of life – my ideal travel destination. It presents lush, unspoiled tropical beauty with a spattering of traditional villages set on beaches surrounded by verdant forest and coconut plantations… a world away from the hub of activity in Western Fiji.
When we first unfolded the chart of Fiji, John noticed Kia Island north of Vanua Levu. We both laughed at the idea of my own personal oasis but it was a long way off our route and a significant distance upwind and so we didn’t count it into our itinerary. After running into another yachtie who spoke of Kia as a highlight, off the standard cruising route and away from the tourist hub, we thought a visit to “me” was a must.
A few weeks later our calendar became free and we decided to go for it. We both felt that we’d not yet found our Fijian Shangri La. Whilst the Yasawas and Mamancas were pleasant, they were well populated with westerners and we wanted to get a feel for an authentic Fijian experience. Vanua Levu and the surrounding islands offered this — no more fancy resorts and Fijian wait staff, no more tanning tourists and traveling yachties. We wanted real Fiji. We wanted something special. We wanted “Welcome to Kia Island.”
To get there, it was going to be 500-mile round trip. First east to Vanua Levu, then nor-northeast around the island, and finally a run along the top west to Kia and connecting back into the far north of the Yasawas. A wide circle, but it was well worth the trip.
As we made our way around the mainland and stopped in the outer islands we got our taste of culture, of community, of the traditional Fijian way of life. Every port of call held a new welcome and a new invite. Each stop holds a very special memory, thanks to the genuine hospitality of the local islanders to whom we owe nothing but gratitude for their warmth and welcome. I will cut short to some of our more favourite experiences in route, and share some of the moments that made this particular journey so special for us.
To start this trip we needed food for ourselves, fuel for Atea and an updated travel visa for the areas we intended to visit. We are able to buy fruit and vegetables in town and a few of the villages, but Atea’s thirst for fuel is much less frequently satisfied. She gulps 1000 litres of diesel at each sitting and is a huge demand on our budget, so thankfully our stops for a refill are usually two months apart.
We like Lautoka but this time chose to anchor on a little island off the mainland and take a dinghy ride ashore. Rather than arrive into the dockyards, this time we pulled into a mangrove-lined bay, surrounded by local houses. We asked a family if we could come ashore and were warmly greeted, and after introductions and pleasantries one child from the cluster of children escorted us through the village into town.
We were greeted by the community as we walked by local houses with vigorous waves from children standing in doorways, clusters of women weaving mats or shredding cassava on their lawns or men taking turns pounding yaquona by the dirt road. We did our shopping at the market and after a wander through town with our arms full of fruit-filled bags, we wove our way back to our dinghy. It may have been a simple errand, but the encounters along the way made the ordinary act of grocery shopping a memorable event.
Our first few days were a bit of a slog, heading east and into the tradewinds. The main islands are fringed by a surrounding reef and we chose an inside route which made for calm sailing but called for our constant vigilance as we winded our way through the coral-strewn pass. After two days we were free of the reef and could ease sheets and relax on an exceptional day sail across the Koro Sea between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.
Stepping ashore from our paddleboards onto the dock, we were greeted by laughing kids, all enjoying the simple pastime of kids everywhere – jumping into the water again and again and again. They were thrilled at being invited to play with our paddleboards, again showing the universal attraction between children and the sea.
While watching the games, we got chatting with a local couple who invited back to their house to enjoy a kava ceremony (the local grog) and a spread of home-cooked food. It was such a treat for us to enjoy the comforts of home after the many months in the tight confines of a salon and galley.
Five days after leaving Lautoka we finally arrived at the port of entry on Vanua Levu, the sleepy little town of Savu Savu on the southern side of the mainland. Here we checked into Fiji customs to register our arrival and intended route, whereby we named all possible ports of call as there are severe penalties for being caught off your reported schedule. The town held the feel of the colonial era – waterfront bars, affordable prices, gentle climate and plenty of white faces, many of whom were cruisers a few decades ago who dropped anchor and neglected to raise it again, those who arrived and stayed – John and I just might turn into one of them – it is that kind of place.
Pressing eastward from Savu Savu, we arrived at the island of Taveuni and stopped at the quaint village of Somo Somo for Sunday church. Christianity is strong throughout Polynesia on Sundays the villages are always quiet except for the beautiful singing that echo’s out from every church. We’d gone ashore to see this very integral part of island life and bathe our ears in the beautifully harmonized hymns. We were lurking in the back row enjoying the service when the pastor spotted us and accommodated us by giving half the sermon in halting English. No more day dreaming or sly gestures to the rambunctious kids amongst us; we had to pay attention and nod sagely at his relevant points, our reprieve coming when he resumed his table-thumping sermon in Fijian. Church in Polynesia is not an experience to be missed. So much so, in fact, that we attended two different services at same day. I can still hear the ringing of the choir in my ears.
After Somo Somo we headed to the northern tip of Taveuni to Matei. Here we based ourselves for some inland exploration and took a local bus around the island to the national park. We wandered up the mountainside to view waterfalls and swim in the refreshing water. It was bizarre to swim in salt-free pools, free from the taste of salt in your mouth and sting of spray in your eyes.
Our next stop was Katherine Bay on Rabi Island. This island is unique as it is a resettlement community of Micronesians originally from Banaba, in the Kiribati island chain. In the early 1900’s the British mined Banaba clean of its natural phosphate resource, resulting in the ruin of the island by over-mining and foreign settlement. Following WWII the British purchased Rabi, paid through the islander’s own funds, and 2000 Banabans were relocated. The islanders still hold to their traditions and culture, and while Fijians have merged into the culture through work and marriage, they adhere to the Banaban way of life.
Timing in travel can make the difference between average and exceptional. We arrived at Baukonikai village during a week of celebration to honour the return of the village preacher. There were two preachers, husband and wife, and the wife had been assigned to another village for the past three years. After petitioning she was permitted to return to her home village, an event that signaled the occasion before us. We were invited to join in the celebration, and thus we did.
The following afternoon we wandered into church during an honorary lunch with the village elders and we were immediately ushered over to join the feast. Sitting with this select group, we were treated as guests and participated in the rituals. We spent long hours in the meeting hall afterwards with one of the elders, a retired man of the church, and were able to learn a diverse account of the island, its people and its history.
We were asked on our departure to return for evening service, dinner and festivities. There is much that stands out in those evening hours. When we heard the “bells toll” – a stick beat against a hollowed out tree trunk – we made our way to the church. The whole community was so welcoming; it felt like a homecoming amongst strangers. The pews are split into two, with men gathering on the left and women to the right. I made my way down the aisles and was signaled by the guest of honour to come and join her. She guided me through the service and held up her hymnbook for us to share, and so I diligently followed along with my best attempt at the local dialect in song. John had no such guidance but chose to join in the male chorus and sang with gusto.
Afterwards, we were ushered to the meeting hall where an array of food was spread out in the centre of the room. Here the elders, the two preachers and ourselves were seated for the meal. As we did so, the community sat at the entrance in a large group and sang throughout dinner. It was a guess as to what each of the plates held, but the food was delicious. My favourite custom at mealtime was the application of talcum powder to potentially offensive areas of the human body.
At lunch I had quite the surprise, as I had been the first to experience this particular “refreshment.” When I sat down to join the elders earlier that day, a woman came up behind me, raised my arm and applied a generous dose to my armpit. I was quite relieved when John was likewise doused. Now, at dinnertime, the same ritual was repeated, this time with the accompaniment of a bottle of perfume. My neck was showered in the white powder, which cascaded down my chest and belly, then assaulted with a liberal spray of acrid perfume. Fortunately, we were all included in this ritual so it wasn’t only John and me sitting there looking like volcanic ash victims.
Three claps in unison released us from dinner, we got up and the food was passed over to all the men, women and children who sat waiting in the wings for their disbursement of leftovers. After everyone satiated their appetites, the preacher was dressed up for a fun and comic dance, signifying the arrival of the original Banabana residents to the island. Afterwards, five woman draped in leaves and crowned with flowers spent the remainder of the evening in dance. The first was in Fijian-style, the remaining in beautiful Banaban form.After so many church events in succession, I feel a primal need to do something quite devious.
The other highlight to our stay here was precipitated by a fellow yachtie who shared the bay with us. Hauke, from yacht Serendipity, had been given schoolbooks by friends to disburse as appropriate, so we joined him in bringing these ashore. As we rowed to shore the children gathered and so we passed out books to eager hands, eyes filled with curiosity. I was very impressed with how well mannered they were, none pushing or shoving, some looking after those who had not yet received their goods. Once collected, they brought them to the teacher who came out with a bundle in hand and invited us into the classroom. We played with the children (ages three-five), read to them, and shared a wonderful afternoon.
One child came up and gave me a coconut; I found out that her mother was there and only had two, one for each of them, and the little four-year old had wanted me to have hers. The generosity of spirit at such a young age will ever impress.
I have seen that selfless sharing many times during our stay here, indicating that possessions are not hoarded but shared amongst each other. There is much to be learned in the lessons brought through travel. I did drink that coconut, but perhaps I should have brought it home to share within my own community. I’ll have to work on that lesson.
Onward to our next stop in route, the gold at the end of this particular rainbow: Kia Island. Perhaps it is fitting that this island has been my favourite out of all the Fijian stops we have made. My affinity for the place is a combination of its natural beauty in both land and sea, as well as the incredible warmth of its people.
To get there, we did a 24-hour passage through a moonlit night, and rolled toward Kia in the late morning. The surrounding reef provided platform for fishermen with hand-lines, and local boats scattered off the shoal. As we made our entrance through the pass, we caught a great surprise as, one-by-one, spear-fishermen popped up on either stern. I am often out on the bowsprit on watch for coral heads, however this is the first time that I have been on lookout for human bodies. They would pop up and wave, welcoming us in. Our arrival, apparently, was an exciting occasion for all.
Kia gets an average of one boat a month during the cruising season. Given a handful of boats visit a year, the arrival of our vessel was cause for much excitement amongst the locals. We had visitors to our boat on dropping anchor asking for an invite to board, kids running up and down the beach hollering and waiving, curious faces peeping out from huts along the shoreline. We made our way in to give sevusevu and while this can be a routine process in many of the villages in the Yasawas, it was treated with celebration on Kia. We offered our yaqona and after speech and acceptance were asked if we wanted to share in the grog. We were given coconuts to sip on as the kava was prepared, and we introduced ourselves to villagers as they arrived. Every time we greeted one another there would be a flurry of conversation at the mention of my name, and much laughter. Introducing myself as Kia in Kia made for a great icebreaker.
After we shared a bowl of kava we were hosted around the grounds by Anna, a twenty-year old woman who had returned from her studies the previous year and spoke excellent English. She and a tribe of kids wandered around the village with us and took us to one of the neighbouring villages. Before departing we invited Anna to have breakfast with us onboard in the following morning.
The next day, we were woken at 8:00AM by knocking on the hull and outside laughter. Anna and a friend of hers had a reprieve from fishing for the day and were dropped off by family on their way out to the reef. After breakfast we came ashore for a hike over the mountain and visited a village on the other side of the island. Anna was our escort, flanked once again by a flock of children. We spent a wonderful day hiking and wandering around the island, playing on the beach and hiking around the rocky shores. We were to head out in the late afternoon, but before we bid our farewell we were invited to share tea and pancakes with some of the local women.
We said our farewell, the children helped pull our dinghy into the water and two of them walked us out until the water was neck high. Once onboard, the waves and cheers continued as we pulled anchor and set out through the pass.
If anyplace has captured my heart, it is the people of Kia. A piece of Kia was left on Kia – now, how more appropriate could that be? That evening we sailed another 24 hours back to the northern tip of the Yasawa Islands. We completed our circumnavigation of Vanua Levu, and found what we had been looking for. With travel appetites satiated, we now look forward to the remaining three weeks in Fiji. This next period will be filled with the arrival of good friends from New Zealand and Australia. After a healthy dose of the local, we now look forward to the social.