ON TO FIJI
We’ve now moved south to Fiji – hundreds of islands sprinkled over thousands of square miles of the blue, blue South Pacific and about seventeen degrees below the equator – due east of Cairns on the east coast of Australia and out about a twelve hundred miles. Fiji is a cultural/ethnic crossroads of the three great Central/South Pacific cultures: Polynesian (which most are familiar with – Hawaii, French Polynesia, New Zealand), Micronesia (small islands scattered across the Central Pacific including the Palau chain, Yap, Chuk (Truck), Pohnpei, others), and Melanesia (New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, others). Of the three, Fiji is most aligned ethnically with Melanesia, but cultural influences come from all three, as well as the British who began contact/colonization some two hundred years ago.
After a brief stop at Nadi (pronounced “nandi” – in Fijian, the letter “d” usually has a silent “n” in front of it) on the biggest island of Viti Leviu, we flew down to Kadavu (again the silent “n”) for several days of diving the Great Astrolabe Reef – one of the largest barrier reefs in the world, birding (about eight species live nowhere else), and exploring the unique culture there.
Flying in a Twin Otter
For our trip down to Kadavu, we, along with one other passenger had a Fiji Airways Twin Otter to ourselves. For those who have traveled to remote places, the De Haviland Twin Otter aircraft is usually an old friend. Twin engined, simple to maintain, rugged and unpressurized, the Twin Otter can take off from strips most would think impossible. On these short bush airstrips, Otter passengers cannot help but notice a unique ritual. The pilot taxies to the end of the strip, pivots the plane facing down-strip and into the wind, locks the landing gear, then takes the engines up to full power. The engine roar and shuddering airframe is awesome. The co-pilot then places his hand on top of the pilot’s hand on the red knobbed throttles (one for each engine), hand over hand, to be absolutely sure they don’t slip back from full during take off. When the pilot releases the brakes, the Otter shoots down the strip like if was fired from a catapult and into the air faster than you would believe possible. Bush “E Ticket” ride!
On Kadavu, we stayed at Matava, one hour’s trip via open launch and into the teeth of the Trade Winds inside the Astrolabe Reef lagoon, slaloming between the patch reefs through azure waters. Matava is run by a fascinating Brit ex-pat, who has created a beautiful and peaceful place off the grid on the south shore of Kadavu. When we arrived, what is normally spectacular diving outside the Astrolabe Reef wasn’t possible due to the southeasterly trade winds turbocharged by a high pressure system over the ITCZ (Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, a.k.a “the doldrums”) to the north. The subsequent high seas made it impossible to get safely through the barrier reef pass and into the crystalline oceanic waters. I was reminded of the great early 60’s surfing movie “The Endless Summer”, where the running theme was: “you guys really missed it, ya shoulda been here last week…” (the previous week, the seas were flat calm with water visability at 200’). Ironically, the surfing appeared to be amazing, with miles of perfect overhead curls and tubes breaking on the Great Astrolabe Reef. Not a single surfer rode them.
Even with marginal weather, our stay on Kadavu was great. We learned much about Fijian culture, walked that beautiful island and decompressed – literally and figuratively – from our previous 10 days of diving in New Guinea
On to the Na’ia, The Bligh Waters and the Northern Islands
On returning to the big island of Viti Livu, we boarded the Na’ia, another “liveaboard” dive boat (see previous post), where we again spent ten days of diving ane exploring what Jacques Cousteau called “the soft coral capital of the world”. During the ten days, we headed north up the west coast of Viti Levu, then south and east through the Bligh Waters (as in the infamous captain of the Bounty who navigated his open boat through these waters when cast adrift two hundred years ago), and down the east coast of Viti Levu to some of the more remote island chains. Cousteau was right about the soft coral. Soft coral, like their stony cousins, consist of large colonies of polyps – individual animals related to sea anemones, but with a plant or bush-like appearance when seen as a whole. Commonly called sea fans or gorgonians, and being filter feeders, soft corals, open their feathery arms with stronger currents in the most spectacular colors imaginable. Blue, pink, purple, fluorescent red…and many colors in between. One way to experience them is to do a “drift dive”, meaning that you jump into a strong current, normally caused by tides rushing into and out of coral lagoon “passes” (breaks in the reef system), and drift along underwater, watching the show. And what a show it is. Soft corals unfold like a spectacular underwater wildflower display, and as you pivot and look out into the blue (most drift dives are along a wall that may drop from just a few to hundreds or thousands of feet), reef sharks and other big predatory fish soar on the aquatic wind, very much like a hawk does in air, inspecting the vast schools of reef fish for those vulnerable to their swift attack (sharks are normally not a threat to divers – indeed they are the highlight of many dives).
“Yachties” Nomads Of The Sea
Upon disembarking from the Nai’a we stayed for a few days at a mellow place away from the main tourist haunts around Nadi. The place (First Landing – named after the place the first Fijians landed fifteen hundred years ago according to legend) was next to a small craft harbor full of small sailing vessels from every corner of the globe. Transom lettering spoke of ships from Australia, New Zealand, California, France, South Africa, Holland, and more. A few things immediately identify a sailboat rigged to spend serious time in blue water. Most have something called a “vane” on their transom (back of the boat), which looks, and indeed acts, much like a weather vane does in air. You set the vane to sail you at a given point to the wind and it then takes over the helm, making corrections by its wind vane. In areas of consistent winds like the trades, the wind blows consistently from the same direction for thousands of miles (NE in the northern hemisphere, SE in the south). A vane liberates you from the helm, sometimes for days or weeks on end. Most blue water sailboats also do not have “Marina Del Rey”style gleaming hardware and china white decks. The topside is typically arrayed with solar panels, emergency liferafts, heavy duty anchor tackle, spare rigging, fuel and water jugs – the things you need for days or weeks or months at sea. At this marina near Lautoka, “Yachties”, as those who have adopted the nomadic lifestyle of living on their boats are known, are busy with a thousand tasks. Many have had their boat hauled and are repairing the hull and cleaning/repainting the bottom, servicing the prop and its cutlass bearing. Others are treating weathered wood decks, replacing worn shrouds, backstays and mast spreaders, debugging electronic and communications gear and much more. A couple – he from Maine, she from Panama – came on board the Nai’a for dinner one night. He set our five (or was it six…) years ago from Maine, sailed down the east coast of the U.S. through the Caribbean, stopping in Panama to rebuild his bank account by building tourist bungalows, got married, then transited the Canal and set out across the Pacific to New Zealand, through the Solomons, Tonga and now Fiji. Their boat, 34’, was all business – beautiful in the functional way the great blue Pacific demands.
Our next stop is the island chain and nation of Vanuatu…more from there.