Friday, 23 November 2012

Fiji time

Sometimes that stereotypical image is true!
When we first told people we were spending a month in Fiji, the usual response was 'A MONTH?! What are you going to do for that long??!' We'd even started to wonder ourselves whether there would be enough to occupy us. After all, the standard image of Fiji is a  resort on a white sand beach, backed with palm trees. Nice for a few days, but not very interesting for longer.

It must be due to the weird distortion of time, well recognised by both locals and tourists and known as Fiji time, that our month went by so fast. The country showed itself to be much more than the cocktails on the sand, honeymoon destination cliche. We honestly hardly had time to lounge on the beach, and there's more to see than we had ever expected. It's an incredibly easy and enjoyable country in which to travel independently. Totally hassle-free, and with the luxury of practically the whole population speaking perfect English.

Walking in rural Fiji
Our first day was spent at some mud pools and hot springs in the rural Sabeto valley- a very authentic natural spa experience involving coating ourselves in gloopy mud and wallowing in a warm, dirty brown pond- all very good for the skin we hear. Walking back to our accommodation alongside sugar cane fields and past small farmsteads, we had a friendly 'Bula!' greeting from everyone we met, shaking hands with a couple who welcomed us to their country with broad and very genuine smiles. It was a great start and a sign of the happy, laid-back and welcoming people we would come to meet.

Kayaking on my birthday
We decided to initially travel around the 'mainland' of Viti Levu by bus. On that first journey, upbeat pop music booming from speakers and with our rucksacks crammed in next to us, Karl and I smiled at each other.  After a 3 month break in the USA, it felt great to be backpacking again, and on a local bus! Our first stop was a small island called Nanuna-i-ra, famed for windsurfing in the reliable trade winds that buffet this coast. This was where I spent my birthday, staying in a quaint little cottage at a low key, locally run resort. We took out kayaks to explore the nearby bays and snorkel on offshore reefs, finding our own deserted beach under dazzlingly blue skies. It was a perfect day in a lovely setting.

Levuka's church
The beach weather I enjoyed on my birthday soon proved to be atypical. Our next destination, the old colonial capital of Levuka, was drenched in a constant and very English drizzle. The hotel provided umbrellas to rent, which says something about the usual conditions here. Levuka was nevertheless very interesting, and with very few tourists this far from the beach. There was the one 'main street' of ramshackle timber shops, stacked to the ceiling with cans of tuna from the local cannery, which gives the whole town a distinctively fishy smell. The central church was painted clapboard but with a big English style tower, and the schools dated from the early days of British rule. We stayed in the oldest hotel in Fiji, slowly falling apart but full of character, with creaking floorboards, cane furniture and a billiard table overlooking the cricket ground. All we needed were scones and jam, and even these were available in the enticing hot bread shop. The availability of scones and the fish and chips might have been a throwback to British times, but Levuka was still very much Fiji. Here, the church clock strikes twice each hour- once on the hour, and again 5 minutes later for those operating on 'Fiji time'!

Rain, rain and more rain in Levuka

Bili bili racing on Fiji Day
We were back on the mainland in time for 'Fiji Day', the annual celebration of independence from Britain. The festivities in the town of Sigatoka were typically Fijian, with a lot of laughter. There was a carnival atmosphere on the riverside at the Bili Bili races, where rafts made from bundles of long bamboo poles were manned by teams from local hotels. The aim seemed to be to complete the race without sinking, and some barely managed this. The Fijians don't take life too seriously, and other events included coconut relays and balancing a tray of drinks around a course, and men pom-pom dancing in drag.

Our next journey was an 18 hour ferry from the Indian flavoured capital city of Suva to Taveuni, one of the northern islands and, like so much of Fiji, blessedly undeveloped. We ate in a local 'wine and dine' restaurant with reggaeton playing, and stayed in some intimate little guesthouses that were more like homestays. On a Sunday we attended mass at the Wairiki Catholic Mission, a beautifully situated church on grassy slopes above the shore. The Fijians were mostly dressed in white, sitting cross legged on the church floor, and the first hymn, Amazing Grace- in Fijian and with everyone singing at the top of their voice- was really very moving. That afternoon we headed along an inland track to the village water slide in the forest- a narrow chute of rock the river is forced through on its journey between waterfalls. There were some locals there to show us where to start, and we could watch their technique before launching ourselves over the first waterfall to be propelled along the slide, the water pushing us high onto the smooth rock sides and depositing us in a pool at the bottom. It was brilliant!

Waterfall near Lavena
A highlight of our time in Taveuni were the days we spent at the small coastal village of Lavena. The forward thinking villagers here rejected lucrative offers from logging companies back in the 80s and instead chose to preserve their rainforest as a national heritage area. It remains completely unspoilt, and the tiny little village run lodge is eco-tourism as it should be, with every dollar staying in the community and helping to conserve the environment. The villagers take it in turns to staff the lodge and cook meals for guests, with the village chief calling in one day and teaching us how to weave palm leaves into a basket. We walked along the coast to some beautiful waterfalls to swim and beach-combed on the wild, white sand beach under dark clouds that emptied themselves onto us. Unfortunately, as for much of our time in Fiji, it rained. But here it rained a LOT! We couldn't believe there could be so much water in the sky as one day it hammered down, tropical rainstorm style, for over 10 hours. Half the road was washed out, mudslides covering the other half, and the bus stopped running.

Surf at Qamea
After a day stranded by the weather, we managed to get a lift along what remained of the road, followed by a boat transfer out to a small backpackers' surf camp on an offshore island called Qamea. This was a cool little spot, with a social atmosphere and generous portions at the nightly kava ceremony. Kava is the traditional narcotic drink made by pounding roots and mixing the resulting powder with water in a big wooden bowl. It resembles dirty dish water, and is drunk from a coconut shell in a nightly session involving a lot of clapping. It doesn't taste too bad (certainly not as unpleasant as it looks) but the only notable effect for me is to create a numb mouth. The best places we stayed in Fiji would have everyone sit around in a circle for the kava, encouraging people to introduce themselves and get talking. On Qamea we bunked in a safari style tent-dorm just above the beach, overlooking the offshore reef where Karl was keen to surf. He was rewarded with some classic waves the first day, but the surf was as fickle as ever, and one day's fun was all it gave during our stay.

Dramatic skies at Qamea
It sounds ridiculous to say we felt rushed, but a choice had to be made- wait for the surf to pick up, or head to the Somosomo strait to go diving. Diving in Fiji couldn't be missed, and the Rainbow Reef of Taveuni was a great taster- rightly famed for the beautiful soft corals in every shade of purple, swaying in the current, and surrounded by reef fish and the odd shark or tuna cruising by. We were the only divers that day which made it a very personal trip, with a lesson on reef marine biology thrown in. We also seemed to be the only guests at Bibi's hideaway, our lodge of wooden cottages scattered amongst a big garden of tropical fruit trees. It was all very quiet here on Taveuni, and we understood why our American dive master and her family had left the traffic of California for a simpler life here. As she said, 'life's too short, don't work it all away' (she was preaching to the converted!).

The Yasawa islands
Having spent 3 weeks fairly off the beaten track, we decided to treat ourselves to some beach time and finish our travels with a taste of the side of the country most people imagine when they hear the name Fiji. The place for this is a chain of islands called the Yasawas. This is where Castaway and  the Blue Lagoon (and, less notably, Survivor Fiji and Celebrity Love Island) were filmed. It's all got pretty developed as a result, with a fast catamaran, the Yasawa Flyer, serving the dozens of resorts on a twice daily schedule that is far removed from the 'Fiji time' we'd become accustomed to. You can get off an international flight and be transferred to the resort of your choice (choosing 1 coconut to 3 coconut standard in the colourful brochure) within just a few hours.

Walking in the Yasawas
The 'Awesome Adventures Tropical Awegasm' package is not really the way we prefer to travel, but the monopoly the company has here makes independent travel impossible without your own boat- we were envious of the yachts heading off to secret anchorages. But the Flyer has its advantages when you want a few days of tropical island hopping, and there's a great view from the deck as it whizzes between islands. The Yasawa island chain is surprisingly rugged and very beautiful, changing character along it's length from black rocky spines of jungle covered islands to dryer, grass covered islets that seem to float on the turquoise waters of shallow lagoons.

Blue lagoon's rather lovely beach
The resorts are all thatched and very low key and there were luckily no jet-skis or multi storey hotels in sight. So we saw how the other half see Fiji and it wasn't at all bad- staying in a very smart dorm at an award winning beach resort and eating restaurant quality food. The beach was gorgeous, there were nightly activities in the bar and it was understandably popular, but just a short walk away you could have complete seclusion and we enjoyed climbing to the high point of the island for a birds eye view of the village, bays, lagoons, and offshore islets. After a couple of nights of relative luxury we island hopped down the chain to a quiet, more rustic spot, appropriately called Barefoot, on a peninsula with 3 stunning beaches and beautiful coral structures to snorkel around. These Yasawa days were very much a holiday, and we were glad to get a bit of beach time, enjoy sunsets in the warm evening breeze and do some great snorkelling to finish off our travels in the tropics.

The staff getting involved with evening activities at Barefoot lodge

We pulled ourselves out of the water and back onto the Flyer on the typically hot and sunny day on which we were due to leave, and after one last kava session at a backpackers hostel in Nadi, it was time to go to New Zealand. We weren't ready to leave! Excited as we were about our next destination, it's hard to say goodbye to the barefoot freedom of island life.

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