Swimming the world's most isolated reefs
THERE is a reef along the western shore of an island way up in the north-west of Fiji, in the Yasawa island group, which almost no-one ever visits.
Most people pass it by in their cruise ships or their elongated tinny runabouts that are the local taxis with nary a thought to stopping and taking a closer look. Just another island. Just more ocean.
But they are missing perhaps one of the most beautiful stretches of coral in Fiji, and certainly one of the most isolated.
On the seaward shore of Tavewa, out past the drop-off from the island's coral reef, you can swim in the ocean along the outer edge of a coral reef that you can be confident only a handful of western tourists have seen before.
It takes a bit of a pioneering spirit, but not much more, to experience this very special stretch of reef.
Tavewa's western shore is inaccessible other than by water, unless you don't mind tumbling down a steep hillside through mountain goats, chest high grass and random scrub. Even by water, there are just one or two spots where you could land.
We don't need to land, though. Our objective is a “swim cruise”. Not just swimming, certainly not merely “snorkelling”. It's a combination of both: our objective is to swim distance, checking out the reef and sealife along the way.
We've already done a bit of that in Fiji. Before the Yasawas, we spent five days swimming around Mana Island, in the Mamanuca (Ma-ma-new-tha) island group, just off Nadi, to the south.
Mana Island Resort restarted its annual ocean swim this year after an interregnum of three years, offering distances of 500m, 1km and 3km.
Mana's North Beach is perfect for ocean swimmers: the drop-off from the reef is just 75 metres out. The swim along it, for a couple of kilometres each west or east, is beautiful and clear.
Head to the reef at Mana's western end, or far down off Mana's eastern tip for the best reef. Swim east around the first point and check out the Survivor village: the set for Fiji: Survivor, the TV show, shot there in 2007.
The “official” Mana Fiji swim is the catalyst for myriad swims that are inspiring in their beauty, at a water temperature around 26 C.
The glorious thing about Mana Island is that it offers good swimming in pretty well any conditions. Long and slender running east to west, Mana has good beaches on both sides.
North Beach usually is the best side for swimming in prevailing sou'-easterly winds, and a more interesting reef. But if the wind swings around, then head a couple of hundred metres to Mana's South Beach, and swim across a very different reef, which runs a kilometre or so out, white and sandy with random coral plumes.
Up in the Yasawas, access to Tavewa's western shore is by tinny. You round the northern point of Tavewa, clear another reef jutting out to the nor'-west, and you're there.
Pull up the tinny about 50 metres offshore, and jump in. We don't use snorkels or diving masks, just swimming goggles and cossies.
Swimming along this reef, you can be confident that you will run into nobody as a random encounter.
The reef here is a string of submerged inlets, points, holes, coral heads and plains stretching three kilometres from the northern point of Tavewa to its southern coconut-fringed, white-sandy tip.
There are heads of coral, reef platforms, mini-reefs and blooms of deep, electric blues, purples, pinks, reds, greens, whites, soft browns, some black (don't mess with that one)... almost any colour you might imagine.
All the way along, tropical sea life darts in and out of the coral, pokes its head out of holes in the rock, grazes on the new growth, hides in it for protection, or just cruises, just a little offshore, looking for action.
On a sandy bottom, look for the green weed that looks like bunches of tiny grapes. It's nam, sold as a delicacy at the markets. You can pick it from the bottom and nibble as you go along. It tastes like salty oysters.
Out deeper, you might spot other, larger stuff, too. Nothing to worry about; plenty to spike your interest.
Way down there on the bottom, six metres below – although it might be only a metre, so clear is the water – there's a coral snake, striped and pretty, mooching along the sand. Diving off this reef a few years back, we encountered a Spanish Dancer, which looks like a striped leaf waving like a flamenco skirt through the ocean.
Those who watch from a distance aboard a ship have no idea what they are missing.
Out here, there is nothing between you and Vanuatu or the Solomon Islands, apart from ocean.
Tavewa forms the western edge of a vast lagoon that also bears its name. The other shores are Nacula (Nar-thoo-la), Nanuya Lai-Lai (Little Nanuya), and Matacawa (Mata-thawa).
The lagoon offers exotic swimming in water that is clean, clear and quite safe. There may be things lurking there, and it's not to deny the currents that run with the tides, but in five visits to date, we have never encountered problems.
Our first dip is the 1.7km hop from Nanuya Lai Lai, on the point at Nanuya Island Resort, to the southern end of Tavewa, at Otto and Fanny's Place, where the reward is afternoon tea, famed around the Yasawa.
Head out over the reef to one of the markers that indicate the channel between the reefs. With a dropping tide, it's still a metre or two deep over this reef, more weed than coral, with plenty of water to clear even the deepest ocean swimmer's keel.
From the marker, it's a 70 metre skip across the channel to the Tavewa reef, which is broad and sandy, with intermittent blooms of coral. This reef runs a couple of kilometres along Tavewa's eastern shore, and hundreds of metres into the palm-sighing beach.
There is a brisk nor'-easter running, whipping up a small but vigorous chop, and if you breathe only to the right, you stand a good chance of drinking your weight in lagoon.
The current is running westwards with the tide, and, with the wind, we allow for a drag and a push, heading north, before running with the chop and the breeze into the beach.
There is something about white sand and bright sun in the tropics that makes water so clear, so aquamarine, so resplendent when you look down through it, and across its surface. In the wind, the chop neutralises the richest colours, but the clarity is there when you look down.
From Nanuya resort, you also can swim along the beach of the Blue Lagoon, although access is impeded here when cruise ships are moored offshore.
A longer swim is from Safe Landing Resort, in the nor'-eastern corner of Tavewa Lagoon, around the point to the west and around to Oarsman's Lodge. It's a bit over four kilometres and heavily tide dependent: there's a lot of shallow reef along the way, and if the tide is low, you simply cannot get over it. The round-way is much longer.
A freakier swim is from Oarsman's to Coral View. There's a long and beautiful swim along the reef out from the Oarsman's bay, but the channel crossing of about a kilometre from there to Coral View, on Tavewa's nor'-eastern shore, is much longer through deeply dark, blue water.
There's a straight line swim, too, from the nor'-eastern point of Nanuya Lai-Lai, with the wind and the chop into the island's nor'-western tip, which protects Nanuya Island Resort.
At the finish of this swim, Nanuya Island Resort truly offers one of the most beautiful, peaceful havens in all of Fiji.
Tavewa Lagoon is dotted with resorts: 17 of them, according to Fanny Doughty, matriarch of Otto and Fanny's Place. Most of them are attached to local villages and are what you would call at the budget or backpacker end of the market.
They are distinguished from each other often by the standard of food served, and in this Otto and Fanny's Place and Nanuya Island Resort stand head and shoulders above the others.
A word of caution about swimming in the Yasawas: swim with a local escort. Most resorts will be happy to provide a piloted tinny to get you to and from your swims, and to escort you along the way. And, with the exchange rate the way it is, they're not expensive.
IF YOU GO:
Air Pacific/Qantas and Pacific Blue offer daily flights to Fiji, but check online portals such as zuji.com for the best fares available, as well as the airlines' own sites. Often, the airlines will have very different fares, even between Air Pacific and Qantas, who operate codeshare flights
*article sourced from news.com.au