Bula! Anyone for Kava?

Trip Start Aug 16, 2005
Trip End Apr 14, 2006

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Where I stayed
Sun View Motel, Nadi
Royal Hotel, Levuka, Ovalau Island, Lomaiviti Group
Caqelai Island Resort, Lomaiviti Group
Nananu Lodge, Nananu-I-Ra Island, Viti Levu

Flag of Fiji  , Viti Levu,
Sunday, December 4, 2005

In Nadi a wall of heat met us. It was the most humid time of year and also hurricane season! At immigration we had a frantic few minutes as we stuffed contraband food into our mouths and debated the veggie sausages we had with us. They are very strict on bring foodstuff into these island countries (in NZ we had the sheep dip treatment). As it turned out they were so unorganised we could have walked through with a kilo of cheese and all manner of fruit and veg. We reckon they raid the amnesty bins for their dinners anyway.

We booked our first night's accommodation through a travel agency. We were soon to find out that underneath the friendly Fijian surface lies a tendency to pull the wool over tourists' eyes and a frustrating inability to give a direct answer. We arrived at the 'hotel' and it looked like a 50's borstal, only not as clean. Never mind, we were only there for one night and it had cooking facilities so we could feast on our semi-smuggled food. Then we found the kitchen - a mosquito infested cupboard leading into a toilet. Darren put his trusty flipflop to work while Angie attempted to concoct something palatable. Then we were told that the coach in the morning was not going to pick us up, as our travel agent had promised, but that we would have to walk nearly 2km to meet it. After dinner we strolled to the nearest bar and watched the sunset throw a spectacular crimson blanket over the sky and bath everything in orange light. On return to the hotel we had a neighbour in the room next door - a glamorous young lady who had a succession of male visitors visit during the evening. Mmmm. We didn't want to jump to conclusions but this was not exactly the tropical paradise Fiji we'd imagined.

The next day a 4 hour journey across the main island took us to the capital, Suva, a bustling and hectic city. Lugging our rucksacks down the street in the overwhelming humidity was intense - unidentifiable smells accosted us every few paces and car horns tooted furiously. Then some gospel singing spilled out from a doorway and we were reminded to take the rich tapestry of these new experiences in our stride. While trying to find the tourist info we came across another example of Fijian 'helpfulness'. A taxi driver sent us totally the wrong way and we ended up hot and bothered a long way from where we wanted to go.

Fiji's indigenous population has been boosted by large numbers of Indo-Fijians who were brought here from India and exploited as cheap labourers in colonial times, but have mostly stayed. The fusion of the two cultures is particularly vibrant and not without social strains, but mostly from what we've seen the mixture is harmonious. Afros are BIG in Fiji. So are UB40.

We invested in a snorkel set each and during our time in the country got our money's worth. We snorkelled nearly everyday and saw amazing coral and all sorts of marine creatures. We also saw a lot of dead coral, people taking live shells from the seabed and boats dropping anchors on the reef, which was all very depressing. It seems that the fragileness of this environment has not hit home to some yet.

We headed for the Lomaiviti Group of islands, a bit off the beaten track. The largest island is home to the town of Levuka, which has a lot of history going on, as it was the first European settlement and the old capital of Fiji. It was renowned for drunkenness and fighting and visitors would know they were getting close because of the empty bottles floating out. Now it is a slow-paced sleepy place. The main employer is a massive tuna-canning factory - fish can be smelt over the whole town and chances are if you've eaten tinned tuna it was canned here.

The journey from Suva started with a 2-hour public bus ride, the last part along unpaved roads that was reminiscent of our Bolivian journeys, but a lot hotter. Then we had an hour boat ride in a rusting hulk of a ferry. We shared the journey with a truck which had goats tied onto the top of its cargo. After another bus journey (it had taken 11 hours to travel 200km) we finally arrived at our hotel - The Royal. Being the oldest hotel in Fiji it had a colonial time-stood-still feel about it. There was a four-poster bed in our rather musty room and a huge hundred-year-old billiard table in the communal area. The place seemed a bit like the Marie Celeste in terms of staff with only one person on duty at a time. When we arrived there was a bell on the front desk that you could ring for attention, but we must have overused it so much that it was removed by the next morning! It was also time for another dose of Fijian fibbing when the free Kava they promised never materialised.

The next day we hired bikes to go along the coast. We went through a few villages and explored the abandoned building which was Prince Charles HQ when he visited in the 70s for the 100 year anniversary of Fiji being 'handed over' to England. Everyone we passed on the way would wave and shout 'Bula' (meaning hello or cheers) to us, so much so that a couple of times we nearly fell of our bikes while waving back and trying to negotiate the pot-holed road. Near the end of our 10km ride we detoured to climb 200 steps for a view of the town and afterwards did a few laps of the hotel pool, thus participating in our own mini-triathlon!

At the hotel we met Adam, who it would turn out, we would be seeing rather a lot more of. In fact unbeknown to us we had picked up a (harmless) stalker! He reminded us of Marvin the Paranoid Android in Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Everything he had done was boring, not very good or just wasn't his 'scene'...poor chap. It turned out he had changed his plans and decided to come to the small island we were going to the next day. If there were any warning bells then we didn't hear them, much like the hotel staff.

Our tiny boat to the island was not quite as bad as the tin tray in Brazil but a little unnerving all the same (although we would get well used to this form of transport during our time in Fiji). The journey was beautiful taking us past golden beaches, forested hillsides and through turquoise waters. Here was the Fiji we had been waiting for. The skipper even had to swerve dramatically to avoid a shark! We arrived at the island of Caqelai (due to the oddity of Fijian pronunciation, you say it 'dangle-eye') to a crowd of people on the shore singing a welcoming song. The resort was run by a Methodist group and only had a handful of Bures (tiny huts with thatched roofs). You could walk round the island in 15 mins and when the tide was low over to 'Snake Island'. Snorkelling off the beach was amazing and we saw numerous colourful fish and some gorgeous coral, but not the octopus that were meant to be in residence.

The evening activity was a musical statues competition (although it turned out that this and many other resort 'competitions' had no prizes despite Darren's insistence that this would help get people motivated, especially him!). Anyway, we were far too giggly to win. Then we took part in the first of many Kava ceremonies. Kava is a drink made from a ground root that is drunk nightly in large quantities by Fijians (mostly men). It tastes bitter and earthy and makes your mouth go tingly, then numb, but it's a relaxant and like most things, you get used to the taste the more you drink!

We had initially wanted to avoid the very touristy islands to the west of the country, but soon the less than settled weather on the Eastern side which had given us heavy rainfall and cloudy skies changed our minds. The next day we left the island and what do you know? Adam altered his plans to come with us. Back on the mainland we endured another long hot bus journey to get to an island off the north coast called Nananu-I-Ra.

Our boat transfer was very late and when it finally arrived the driver got out and disappeared mumbling something about waiting for others, leaving us sitting in the boat. While we waited, another boat loaded with Indo-Fijians ran out of petrol 50m off-shore. At first we thought they were just being friendly, but then realised they were waving and shouting to us for help. Darren ran off to raise the alarm and had not got back aboard when the driver came sprinting out and took Angie along for the rescue mission. Our little boat towed the much bigger vessel into shore and the passengers cheered and waved at Darren as if he was a hero!

When we finally set off we noticed that our skipper had exceptionally bloodshot eyes and looked a little sleepy. He proved our fears by running into a reef on the way to the island. He looked up in surprise after it happened and said in his defence 'oh, I was daydreaming!'

When we arrived we were at a cheap, funky, backpacker resort that also seemed to attract local families. The resort had a dive shop and everyone seemed to be there to dive. We felt rather inferior with our snorkels. We were tempted to try a dive - they had great cheesy names like 'Dream Maker', 'Breath Taker' and 'Shark Junction' - but the price and the super sleazy macho dive instructors put us off. They also had a massive sound system that pumped out party classics and the obligatory power ballads with a smattering of Boney M. At night we were woken by loud bangs on the roof and at 4am by a herd of goats shuffling around and munching outside our window. It turned out the goats were eating fruit that had fallen to the ground via our roof during the night.

The next day we set off for One Beach - a huge sandy bay on the other side of the island. They walk was beautiful, if tiring in the heat, over the hills and looking down onto the surrounding turquoise reefs. When we got the first glimpse of the bay it took our breath away (see photo). However, on getting to the beach we realised that the tide was coming in and there wasn't much sand left. We had a quick dip and decided to walk to an area where there was more sand and the reef looked closer to the shore. The bay was deceptively long and it took us 45 mins to reach our 'sand is always whiter on the other side' spot. Along the way, parts of the beach were completely underwater at high tide so we were forced to clamber inland through the forest in some parts and wade right out at others. The sandy area was much smaller than it looked and hungry mosquitos immediately attacked us. We tried some snorkelling to escape them but after swimming out a good 100m the reef still seemed a long way away. Angie's mask was letting in water so after some panicky moments we decided we were too far out to be adjusting snorkel kit and headed back to shore. Then we had no choice but to walk back to our original spot. About a third of the way back Darren realised he'd left his sunglasses behind on a log and Angie got three nasty stings from some angry wasps. Paradise didn't seem so perfect now. After a failed walk to the other end of the bay to see a turtle conservation area, and another aborted snorkelling attempt we were thoroughly fed up with this beach. We walked all the way back at lower tide to collect Darren's sunglasses and saw a tell-tale set of footprints leading to the spot where he left them. The only other people to walk along the beach that day had spotted them and nabbed them! Darren later claimed them back luckily.

At the end of such a stressful day we decided to go up to the top of the hill behind the resort and watch the sunset in romantic isolation. Along with every other single person staying there. We drank our bottle of 'Cold Duck'- a surprisingly tasty red sparkling wine - and watched the spectacular sunset with the rest of the crowd.

On the second day we had a super relaxed time snorkelling, swimming, hammocking and reading. Angie unfortunately spent too long snorkelling and burnt the back of her legs so badly that she could already feel the glow at lunchtime. By teatime she could hardly sit down. Very stupid... but if you'd seen the fish you would have understood why. There were dozens and dozens of different varieties including beautiful intricately coloured parrot fish, angle fish, Nemo-type ones, zebra stripers, schools of hundreds of large pale blue fish, tiny electric blue ones, fish with giraffe-like spots - almost every imaginable colour and pattern in fact. It's mind boggling how they all evolved. In the afternoon she continued snorkelling but wore thick wooly leggings bought for cold Bolivian nights and looked most strange on a tropical beach!

We also amused ourselves watching a group of Fijian men attempting to kayak and capsizing in the choppy water. Fijian men have the funniest high-pitched laughs... and they seem to laugh a lot.

After three nights in Nananu-I-Ra it was time to move on and leave the friends we'd met there.
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