To the tropics

Trip Start Jan 16, 2007
Trip End Aug 20, 2007

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Flag of Fiji  ,
Monday, May 28, 2007

So it was from one winter to another. If all winters were like Fiji's, bring on the global warming! Though technically they are in winter, it's pretty much the period with a bit less rain, more regular wind, and more comfortable temperatures (mid to high 20s). Though there's been quite a bit of fretting about the coup that happened, away from the capital Suva (on the south of the island) there's hardly any noticeable difference. The only police road blocks I saw were on my way back to the airport, just before leaving, though as with most things in Fiji, they weren't too thorough in their investigations. It seemed more like a party atmosphere at each checkpoint (with machine gun in tow) than stop-and-search. As for the coup itself, after talking to the locals it seems as though only Fiji would have such a laid back coup. It was all meant to happen on a Friday, after the military had got increasingly fed up with the ruling party's inactivity in many areas (could the abundance of local rum have anything to do with this?!). However, they didn't get their act together in time for Friday so no show there. Saturday was not going to happen either, as there was a rugby match on. Nothing happens on a Sunday anyway, so it was Monday before they finally got round to doing away with the government. Nobody seemed to mind much either, though the military is now suffering from the same lacklustre performance as those they ousted. To the outsider, this comes as no surprise, as the whole country seems to operate on 'Fiji time' (translate: whenever they feel like it), and the further out you get, the more pronounced it becomes.

I've taken to not organising anything for a particular country before I get there (or at least doing the bare minimum) as it's not only a real hassle, but makes it all the more interesting when you finally arrive and you don't know where you're going or what you're doing. Any preparation that does happen seems to be in the last few minutes before landing, hastily finding somewhere to stay in the guide books to satisfy customs (regardless of whether I intend to go there or not). Such was the case for Fiji, and after a day spent in Nadi (a random, sprawling town on the north coast) I'd managed to find stuff to do for the rest of the week at (mercifully) minimal cost. Keen to stay away from the main tourist hotspots of the Mamanucas and Yasawas to the North, I chose to go somewhere which required a bit more effort. The area I chose was a small island called Nananu-i-ra just off the North coast, (supposedly) two and a half hours from Nadi (put into Fiji time, nearly 5), right next to the Bligh Waters with some of the best diving in the world on the doorstep. The area's called the Bligh waters as, rather unsurprisingly, it is part fo the area Captain Bligh went through after his famed misfortune on the Bounty. He seems to have gone round most of Fiji trying to find his boat/crew, and ended up being chased through the Yasawas by natives in canoes. All rather frightening when they were still eating their prisoners.

If anyone is a bit of a fanatic for old buses, then Fiji could not be a bad place to start. For the princely sum of just over $1 (about 30p) I had the first part of my foray up the coast. This was on one of the local 'happy buses' up to Lautoka, where I think I was pretty much the only white face in town. These local buses are straight out of the 1950s, though with a few modifications. To get up to modern standards with air conditioning, rather than be lumbered with all that costly equipment, the bus simply lacks any windows, allowing the air to circulate freely. In the unlikely event of any rain, the lack of windows is not a problem. There is a rolled up tarpaulin at the top of the bus, which can be brought down and clipped in, thus giving a nice dry ride. To stop the machine, there is a bell, but it is a bicycle bell. To activate this leap in technology, simply pull a piece of bailer twine that is threaded through hoops down the bus and attached to the bell. Simple, and, may I say, a bright idea in recycling. European governments take note - this could be the way forward with all those unwanted bike bells. The express bus from Lautoka to Rakiraki (another town where I seemed a bit out of place on the North coast) was first class though - windows, and the bus stopped only about a dozen times, at designated stops too (to get on a 'happy bus', simply hail it as you would a cab. It will probably stop even on the highway). After a land then water taxi, I finally arrived on Nananu-i-ra. Quite a small island (kayak or walk around in about 4-5 hours), it is the sort of South Pacific island that appears in films and in people's own perceptions of what one should be like. Undeveloped, with palm-fringed sandy beaches, coral reef just off the shore, and sun. The island is infact the sunniest place in Fiji, with more sunshine hours recorded than anywhere else. As the rain clouds get caught by the highlands of the main island, relatively little gets dumped here. Walking up to the top of the island, you can often be bathing in cloudless skies, whilst only a mile away the rain is being deposited all on the highlands. Fantastic. I stayed at a place called Safari Lodge, a spanky new lodge with one of Fiji's best beaches right on the doorstep. Run by Warren Francis, the National Development Coach of the Australian Windsurfing Academy (also represented Aus at times), there's obviously fantastic opportunities for windsurfing, as well as kite surfing, kayaking etc. I managed to not totally disgrace myself with the windsurfing (I can now turn the thing as well as get up some speed), and took a kayak round the island for a little paddle as well. Not bad at all.

As I wanted to do something relatively constructive with my time in Fiji, it seemed as good a place as any to do my Advanced Open Water diver course. Getting this just allows me to go down to 30 metres, and I did thing like drift diving and underwater navigation as well. Before I started the course though, I just did a day of diving further out - mostly on the recommendation of a couple of blokes staying at Safari who had been diving for the previous few days. The sites due to be visited the next day were ranked amongst the best in the world for both soft and hard corals. They were not wrong, as they were truely amazing. The first dive was a bit of a baptism of fire for both drift, current and depth diving. Named the Vatu Express for good reason, it shot you along past the walls of coral, before spitting you out at the other end. Luckily I had ascended to just the right point to grab the boat line as I went past. Some of the others had quite a job swimming back to it. Being carried along by the current was pretty cool though, and the sheer quantity of coral qas quite staggering. This was the same at the next two sites, where flourescent yellows mixed with fans and huge arrays of fish to create something that was completely out of this world.

Though the sites I went to for my course over the next two days were not quite as spectacular in the sense of the corals, they were quite stupendous for several other things. The deep dive was really something else. Sharks (reef tips) emerged from nearly every direction, gliding eerily past in the milky depths, though the most spectacular part was when a couple of manta rays (the 4 metre type) glided above me and my instructor, before swooping down and cruising along the bottom by the garden of sand eels. It was a much more intimate experience than that in Western Australia, as it was just us and them. The others from the dive boat that day (just people having a swim around) had gone off elsewhere on the site. The other dive that stood out for me was one of my speciality dives - the wreck dive. I chose to do this one, as any in England are generally in freezing water with limited visibility. This one wasn't crystal clear (onyl about 5 metre vis compared to 20 for the other dives), but that all added to the experience. Descending to the relatively shallow depth of 19 metres, the ship gradually appeared out of the murk. Though it didn't have the abundance of fish and corals that were at all the other places I dived, what was there was giant size. Giant clams were already growing on the deck, and a group of bat-fish two feet across followed us around the bow, wondering what these weird things were blowing bubbles. As fish have a very short memory, this thought no doubt went through their head several times, no doubt keeping them amused. There were also some huge surgeon fish (or at least that's the nearest thing I can find that looked like them) of about the same size that lived in the funnel, and who periodically popped out, making sure we didn't invade their space. Apart from a huge sweet-lips (think of Mick Jagger) in the captain's office, that was about it. But it was so cool just swimming around it, seeing the ship being gradually dissolved by the sea, that it was one of the best dives that I've done.

I stayed at Safari until the last possible moment before my flight, and the drive back to Nadi airport (me and some others clubbed together and got a van to drive us - just over two hours, and not much more than double the price of using public transport) was just like a summers evening in England - a soft sun bathed the hills, whilst the sugarcane (OK, so this part wouldn't happen back home) blew softly in the breeze. Thankfully the van ran on airport time, rather than Fiji time. Leaving Fiji, heading for LA, it was almost time to have my Sunday all over again. Thank you International Date Line.

Here's a link to the photos from Fiji. Much easier than loading them up onto this site, which is a little bit slow...
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