Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Fiji - so many islands!

Fiji is huge - its 333 islands and ten thousand square kilometres of coral reef. There are only a few points of entry, so most yachts approaching from Tonga, as we did, would have to sail to Savusavu, fulfil clearing-in formalities and then sail back, upwind, in order to visit the eastern group of islands. Being part of the Rally (27 boats) meant it was worthwhile for customs to come to Vanua Balavu and clear us in there. The team of five officials (health, immigration, customs and ummm - what were they all there for?) went round from boat to boat before we were allowed to go ashore. It was time-consuming, paper-consuming, carbon paper consuming and certainly biscuit-consuming: a packet per yacht, we reckoned. We bent the rules a little and the night before the clearance we gathered on Sea Flute for drinks (OK, we were leaving our boats, but not actually setting foot on land).

Winston destroys, nature grows back
Vanua Balavu was badly hit by Cyclone (aka hurricane) Winston in February 2016 and there's still plenty of evidence of the damage it caused. On one side of the island, coconut trees had been beheaded, their tall trunks standing bare. Apparently they will regenerate in a year or two. Everywhere new houses have gone up, most with bright blue corrugated iron roofs, a gift from Australia. We spoke to a New Zealander who is overseeing the construction of three new school buildings, one in its very final stages in Lomaloma. The village school in Daliconi, where we were anchored, had 16 pupils aged 5 to 11 in one classroom, working in three groups. They sang a couple of songs, one accompanied by complicated drumming. The other, accompanied by actions, was unfamiliar at first, with lyrics in Fijian, but soon became recognisable as 'I'm a Little Teapot'!

The village consists of houses set on
Calliope in Bay of islands, VanuaBalavu
improbably green lawns, with no roads, fences or boundaries between them. As everywhere we've been in the Pacific, chickens and roosters stroll communally - and in the case of the roosters, proclaim daybreak throughout the day. There was a large canopied area, where I ran an eye clinic with Rob and Jeannette of Tianelle and where we gathered in the evening for a welcome party, with Fijian dancing, singing and food.

For three days, we acquired new crew: Stu, a photographer based in Fiji, and Brittany, who works for an Australian yacht magazine. It was great fun to share our experiences and show them what life on board is like.
One day we and three other yachts sailed up to the Bay of Islands (Fiji version, not NZ), where Stu took some amazing photographs of the extraordinary mushroom-shaped rock formations and convoluted bays. On the return trip, Lisanne and Calliope flew their asymmetric sails and Stu's drone flew between them, capturing some incredible footage. It's the property of Ocean magazine, but we hope to be able to post some of Stu's pictures soon. The following day, we returned to the Bay of Islands with most of the fleet and had a great barbecue on a sandy beach. We transferred 300 litres of water onto Boysterous, whose watermaker isn't working, and were invited to supper on board. We had to bite our tongues at times as one of the other guests is a strong Trump supporter!

Qamea school
We had intended to explore the islands south of Vanua Balavu, but it would have meant motoring for hours into the wind and rain, so we headed west and anchored in a bay in Qamea. The following morning we visited the village, school and health clinic, glad that the Chief wasn't around so we didn't have to do sevusevu; this tribute involves drinking kava (crushed pepper root), which tastes like dirty dishwater and has a mildly sedative effect.
Time to head for the village of Somosomo, described by our Sail Fiji app as 'delightful'. We were looking forward to charming restaurants, perhaps a shop or two, possibly even a spa... Somosomo was a disappointment from the rocky, litter-strewn beach, where feral dogs chewed used nappies, to the dingy roadside stalls and the awful 'Wine and Dine' (BYOB if you want wine) restaurant. Oh dear.

Hiring a car the next day gave us the freedom to explore Taveuni. The northern end of the island was much prettier and about a quarter of the island has been designated a nature reserve. With James and Tiggy from Miss Tiggy, we climbed to a waterfall, swam and enjoyed fantastic views. As we walked, we fantasized about our perfect lunch: chilled beer, salad, grilled fish or meat, rose wine... it was getting late and we hurried back to the car, hurtled down the dirt roads, leaping the potholes, only slowing to cross the rickety wooden bridges. On a chance, we stopped at a restaurant called Coconut Grove -- and, oh bliss, on their shady terrace, we fulfilled our fantasy (all except the beer) and more, with decadent cake for dessert, too. The following day Charles dived from a resort on the incredible
Rainbow Reef and I indulged in a massage and much-needed pedicure.

From Taveuni we had a long day's sail in great conditions to Savusavu on Vanua Levu, Fiji's second-largest island . It's a busy little town, with a yacht club (The Copra Shed) and pontoons to tie up to. We prefer being out away from the noise, so we picked up a mooring and then took the dinghy ashore to explore. Fiji-Indians make up 38% of the country's population and that was immediately evident, with masses of small shops, curry restaurants and retailers displaying saris in their windows. Fresh fruit is still hard
to come by but the bustling market had salad, cucumbers and tomatoes as well as mounds of ginger, turmeric root and spices.

Charles at Palmlea
We hired a car again and Charles and I crossed the island to the north coast and the main town of Labasa. Hindu temples and mosques lined the entrance to the town, revealing the background of the population. The Indians were brought to Fiji to work on the sugar plantations. They still don't have
equal rights, which makes politics quite contentious. Outside Labasa, the
sugar mill pumps out sweet-smelling smoke and has a narrow-gauge railway running alongside the road. On the way back to Savusavu, we stopped for lunch and a refreshing swim at Palmlea, a small resort in the hills owned by Julie and Joe, who settled there after five years sailing in the South Pacific.

After a terrific, close-hauled sail yesterday, we are now anchored off reef-surrounded Namena Island,
This was your luxury bedroom on Namena
a lovely spot which used to be a luxury resort until Winston destroyed it. Hurricanes are very much on our mind as we see pictures of the devastation caused by Irma to places we know well in the Caribbean. We'll be able to catch up properly with news when we get to Suva on Vitu Levu in about a week. Meanwhile, much love to all of you faithful readers and happy birthday to Pippa!

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