Finding our Feet in Fiji

Port Denarau, Viti Levu, Fiji

By: Kerry

We ended up spending around three weeks in Savusavu (where I last left off). It took us a week or so to recover from the trip up from NZ – and even longer to recover from the last eight gruelling months of boat sh*te! Plus we had (yet) another period of ‘enhanced trades’ that saw strong wind warnings for all Fiji waters. We’d initially planned to head out east, but as this was right into the teeth of the trades, the more attractive option was simply to stay put, hang out in the yacht-friendly town and just chill. A lot of other yachties had the same idea, and at one point there were around 80 boats in the anchorage!

We used the time to get Damian certified (yes, you may have thought he was certifiable) as a SCUBA diver. Not a bad place to learn to dive: warm water, stunning corals and even the chance of seeing schools of hammerhead sharks on his first open water dive. Unfortunately, the hammerheads took the day off, but the diving was still fantastic. (I got my PADI certificate 25 years ago, so didn’t need to do the course, but went along on several dives).

Eventually giving up on heading east, from Savusavu we headed south to Namena – a tiny island with an even tinier, low-key resort, focused totally on diving. The surrounding reef was proclaimed a marine reserve in 1997 and so the fish and coral life is vibrant, abundant and simply spectacular. I did a drift dive (for more advanced divers) and then Damian came along for the next dive which was called The Chimneys: a series of rock pinnacles rising up from the sea floor to about five metres below the surface. During the dive, we swam in spirals around each pinnacle, working our way up and down the sheer sides, which were covered in floaty purple and white soft corals, lace and fan corals and all sorts of hard corals, all in pristine condition and vivid colours.  In and around the corals there were hundreds and hundreds of fish, all competing for the most lurid body paint, while just off in the deeper water we saw massive dog tooth tunas, big hump head wrasse, barracudas and sharks cruising around.

Overall, it was one of the best dives I’ve ever done, but the decompression stop at the end was far and away the most magical dive experience I’ve had. We floated at five metres, suspended over the top of one of the pinnacles. The water was warn and crystal clear. Shafts of sunlight shone down through the water onto the coral garden that covered the top of the ‘Chimney’ (rock pinnacle). A dazzling diversity of corals in all shapes, sizes and eye-popping colours were crammed in together. Thousands of different, tiny technicolour fish surged and darted in and out of the corals and all around us and as the sun caught them, they’d shimmer and sparkle so that it was like being in the midst of an insect swarm or a cloud of Tinkerbell dust!

(Here are some pix I pulled off the interweb to give you an idea of what it was like).

The Namena Marine Reserve is home to more than 400 species of corals and over 1,100 fish species. We also saw octopus, a turtle and whole gardens of garden eels, which stick up out of the sandy sea floor like a patch of pale asparagus stalks. Above sea level, the island is home to around 400 pairs of nesting Red-footed Boobies. The youngsters  are ridiculously curious and when we were snorkelling they’d come down and try to land on your head or in the water beside you. They are bloody big birds, so at first it’s a bit intimidating, but they’re so goofy you just end up laughing at them.

The only problem with Namena is that Damian is now totally spoilt for diving anywhere else…

We continued south, crossing to Makogai Island, which was a leper colony from 1911 until 1969. Around 4000 patients from all over the Pacific were treated on the island, some living there for decades, so the facilities – for patients, carers and administrators – were substantial. There are still a few buildings more or less intact around what is now a mariculture station and a few local houses.

Fijian tradition – and our Cruising Permit – decrees that, whenever we anchor near a village, we must ask permission from the Chief of the village to swim, dive, snorkel fish, etc in their waters, or to visit the village, go for a hike etc. The permission-seeking process is called sevu sevu and protocol involves going ashore as soon as possible after anchoring, armed with a bunch of dried kava root (known as yangona or grog) and presenting it to the Chief. There is then supposed to be a ritual of grinding up the root, mixing up the kava with water and passing coconut shell bowls of it around to be drunk by each individual, with ritual clapping from all involved. The kava is a narcotic that will send your tongue and lips numb and a really strong brew can knock you sideways if you drink enough of it. To me, it looks and tastes like a puddle, but it’s extremely rude to refuse a cup or not to drain it completely.

Once the ceremony is performed, we are officially welcomed into the village and we are then free to do or go wherever we want, and we will be treated like family. Conversely, if you don’t do sevu sevu, in a figurative sense, you don’t exist.

We did our first ‘sevu sevu’ at Makogai. Being a little unsure of the protocol and not wanting to offend, we figured we’d go for safety in numbers and went ashore with our friends Steve and Michelle, from the only other yellow catamaran we know, Citrus Tart. The Chief wasn’t around, so an old guy with one tooth sat us down cross legged on the ground, closed his eyes and said a few words in Fijian, clapped three times, said ‘welcome’ and that was it. Then he took our bunches of grog and tossed them onto the verandah of the nearest building.

So much for tradition.

That didn’t mean the locals weren’t friendly or helpful, though. The old guy then proudly took us on a really interesting tour of the remaining buildings from the leper colony days. The  locals are slowly recovering the old graveyard from the tangle of vines that has engulfed it and are restoring some of the lovely old houses, churches, and other official buildings. We took a walk around the coastline and along the way, there were numerous buildings, now hidden deep in forest, in varying states of decay. The fascinating thing was that none of the buildings on the island were built as ‘temporary’ structures: the houses had lovely carved wooden details; there were the crumbling remains of a huge concrete structure that turned out to be a cinema; and we found the remains of a jail with around eight separate cells. The isolated island was more of a fully-fledged colonial outpost than anywhere else outside Suva!

We did the last hop to the big island of Fiji – Viti Levu – and worked our way around the north coast, inside the reef. This is the official shipping route, since the strong currents and winds funnelling through Bligh Water (the waterway between the two main islands of Fiji) make for treacherous conditions outside the reef. In fact, inside the reef is just the lesser of two evils: there are reefs and bommies strewn everywhere and, like just about everywhere else in Fiji, our charts (even the electronic ones) are so inaccurate as to be largely works of art rather than fact.

The first rule of navigation here is to only travel between 9 am and 4 pm, when the sun is high in the sky and, with someone stationed on the bow of the boat, you can spot the reefs. Thank the goddess for Google Earth! Apart from actually eyeballing the route from the bow, our main navigational aid has become a Russian computer app that allows us to see our position and track on Google Earth satellite images, which clearly – and accurately – show all the reefs and shallows.

Except when there was a cloud in the way on the day the Google Earth photo was taken…!

The inside passage is narrow, with lots of twists and turns and you have to be vigilant all the time. We have heard of so many boats hitting reefs that we are super careful and so far, so good. But that didn’t mean we couldn’t trail a line – and Damian hooked a fantastic Spanish Mackerel (my favourite fish to eat) which we reckon weighed around 15kg. We had sushi, ceviche, BBQ, fish burgers, another BBQ, Kokoda (raw fish in coconut milk), another BBQ… and still we have a freezer full!

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~


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