Escape Fiji!

Trip Start Jun 06, 2006
1
26
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Trip End Dec 01, 2006


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Flag of Fiji  ,
Monday, August 7, 2006

"Fiji is made up of over 300 islands. If you're not on a boat you're not in Fiji!"
- The new slogan of the EscapeFiji boat company. (www.escapefiji.com)



Fiji, mainland:-
We were sitting in an internet cafe in Nadi, searching for accommodation on the Yasawa islands, getting nowhere, and getting quite annoyed. I left to see if I could find anything else, or anyone to help, and met Mylie. Mylie is a French Canadian, running a tour agency in Nadi, (www.yourfijiholidays.com) and was just looking for people like us. She has a friend with a yacht who does six day tours around the yasawas group of islands. It costs 600 FJD per person and all meals and drinks are included. (Not alcoholic oones though!) You stay on the yacht rather than on the resorts, and you can travel around to all the most interesting places. Sounded good. I went back to Seema with the news, and we went back to Mylie. She showed us photos of the boat and previous trips, and we watched a video made on board. It was an Australian backpacker travel tv show, and they made an episode in Fiji, and did it all on the boat. We were sold!

Next day we went back to Nadi, caught up on some blogging, uploaded a bunch of photos - we could plug our shiny new mac into the network in the internet cafe, nice! Bought a few more supplies and went back to Smugglers again in time for sunset. Had a bottle of bubbly on the beach as the sun went down and then back to the place next door for dinner - the restaurant in our place was not nice at all, too loud and bright and all indoors. After dinner we got talking to three English people at the table next to us, and ended up playing cards and drinking with them until about midnight. Played a game called spoon that we learned in Peru, an Indian game called flash, some poker, and a game they knew called tai chi. Spoon is great fun but I really can't explain how it works, you have to see it to understand. In the end they decided to come on the cruise with us - we knew there was still room on the boat for a few more. Seema insisted on calling Mylie at 1am to confirm it, and we were all set.



Cruise, day 1:-
Met up with the english crowd next door and went to a hotel up the road to be taken to the yacht. Met the other people going on the cruise, and since we were all there, let me introduce you to everyone:
The three english people we met, from the south west, were, Barry, his sister Angela, and her boyfriend Tom. There was a girl from the Bavarian Alps in Germany called Simone, and two lads from Newcastle, North East England, Andrew and Nathan.

There was no sign of our shuttle bus for ages until and we eventually figured out that rather than waiting for it we were supposed to ask the hotel for their shuttle, it was only the price that had been arranged. Off we went in the van, eight of us, plus lots of luggage in seven seats. Nice and cosy. Had to make a stop at an ATM, and then at a supermarket for supplies. We'll be six days far from shops, so stocked up on rum, beer, soda, crisps, etc. All the essentials.

Got to the marina and met Mylie. She brought us to the boat, at this point all overloaded with bags and cases of beer. Met the skipper, Chris, and the cook, Joe.
"Get your sandals off, wash your feet, and climb aboard."
The sandals were put away and barely seen again. It felt a little odd to think we'd be barefoot for the next six days, but that's part of life on a boat. Then for something that was to become a big feature of the trip, getting stuck in and helping out. A few of us pulled up the lines, a little tug towed us from the berth, Chris started up the diesel engine and we headed out from the harbor. As soon as we got out we hauled up the 2 main sails. The wind wasn't really with us, but it helped. I enjoyed learning about how to do it, how to tighten them, tie them etc. After a couple of hours the wind was improving so we could cut the engine and use only the wind. Felt great to only use wind power.

Meanwhile Joe was making lunch. A little odd, it consisted of a fried egg sandwich with lettuce, tomato and cheese, on thick crusty bread. Joe had just finished when he developed a real bad pain in his stomach. It wasn't going away, and getting worse, looked like it could be appendicitis, so we had a problem. Chris managed to contact a boat going in the other direction that could take him back to the mainland quicker than we could, so instead of going back we just had to divert a little and transfer him. Goodbye Joe, hello kitchen. We would have to cook for ourselves until we could get a replacement cook. How bad, we're adventurous backpackers, not tourists looking to be spoon-fed and pampered. That's why we're on a little yacht and not a big cruise ship!

The waters were a bit choppy as we crossed the open stretch of sea before getting to the Yasawas and Seema became quite ill. I think she threw up 5 times. Chris told us this would be the worst of it, once we got to the islands it would be calmer, and we would be staying in sheltered areas. As we got near Waya, the main island in the Yasawas we caught a fish on Chris' rod. Tom, a fairly experienced fisherman - he even had his own rod in his rucksack - reeled him in, Chris speared him at the back of the boat and hauled him in, and Tom gutted him. This was the start of a new rule - if you catch it you clean it. The fish was a walu, the national fish of Fiji, and a good size, about 3ft. Easily enough to feed the 9 of us for dinner. We circled back in that area to see if we could get another but no more luck.

Arrived to Waya and pulled into a sheltered cove. Had to go ashore to visit the village. The custom is that when you land you have to go and give a gift, and sometimes a landing fee to the chief in the local village. Usually the gift is a bag of Kava roots which you present in what's called a SevuSevu cermony. Everyone goes and sits around the chief's house, the skipper gives him the kava, and he says some kind of prayer or blessing in Fijian, accompanied by bouts of clapping where we all join in.

Kava:- Kava is a root of a pepper plant, used by the native Fijians to make a drink. It's not alcaholic, it's technically a narcotic, but very mild. The village people sit around in the evening in a common hut and someone makes up a bowl of drink by taking the powdered kava - dry roots pounded to dust - and putting it in a muslin cloth and stirring it around in water. Then each person gets a boowl of the drink in turn, served in a half coconut shell. Then they tell stories and talk about the village life and what's been happening, and the old people, who are greatly respected teach the young about the best fishing grounds, and other important matters. The main effect of Kava seems to be to make people sleepy, and it numbs the mouth slightly.

Back to the boat when we were finished and had a few beers while making dinner. I made a salad, a few others made some ratatouille, someone put on a pot of rice, and Chris cooked our Walu in the oven. Lovely feed. Had a few more beers up on deck after dinner, looking out on a big cruiser parked in the same bay. It looked so boring compared to our setup, catching and cooking our own fish, and doing our own sail work.

Let me just tell you a little about the boats:-
The yacht is a 30 year old trimaran. Built with wood, and completely covered with fiberglass. It's got a main mast that operated the main sail, and the front sails, and a smaller one at the back. It also has a 50hp diesel engine. It has 4 double and one single berths for passengers, as well as one for the captain and one for the cook. Between the center hull and the 2 side ones at the front of the boat there are nets tied up which work as hammocks for a front row view while sailing. Our captain has owned the boat for 7 years, when he bought it it had just been fitted out with a new engine and was done up, so it's in good shape. The dingy used for getting ashore was a WWII veteran from when the Japanese arrived in Fiji. It was battered, slightly broken, leaking a bit, had sunk at least once, was lost a few times, but somehow had survived it all.



Cruise, day 2:-
Good morning, it's 7am, and you're on a boat. Before breakfast a few people dive in for a swim. Seema was a bit apprehensive about diving, but Simone dived with her so it was ok. We cleaned up a bit, made some coffee and had a bit of breakfast. Then time to move on so a few of us pulled up the anchor ( I should say it was usually Tom and myself doing the anchor/sail work, we didn't mind, in fact we were quite keen to be involved, and learn the ropes, as it were ). I lost bits of skin off 2 different fingers pulling on the rope. Oh, the joys of being an office worker! Here's how you pull up an anchor:- Take up the slack, drive forward so it's directly below, take in all remaining slack, lock it, drive forward to loosen it from the ground, then haul it in.

As we sailed away something bit on the fishing line again. I was nearby and went to reel it in. Wow, this must be a big fish! I had to wrestle with him for a while, the reel would only take so much pressure and then it would let him back out a bit so as not to snap the line. I had him in a long way a few times when it let him back out again. Eventually, with Chris maneuvering the boat closer to generate slack I got him to the back of the boat. Chris got the spear gun and nailed him and we hauled him in. It was a whole lot of fish. According to Chris it was a Giant Trevali, but not overly big for that species. Still, it was a good 10 kg, so for the first fish I've ever reeled in I was chuffed. It took him a good 20 mins to die, and then I had the job of cleaning him. Lovely. I'll spare you the details, but afterwards, and after scrubbing my hands, I still needed a shower to get rid of the smell. Then what to do? This fish ain't gonna fit in the oven. Let's go build a barbecue on the beach.

Arrived to the next island, Naviti, and sailed into the cove where we would spend the night, near Soso village. Went ashore with kava for the chief, and also a $5 landing fee per person, since we would be staying in the vicinity of this island for the next couple of days, and going snorkeling etc there. After the sevusevu we got a tour of the village. Went to the school and met Master Kumar, a Fijian Indian teacher. He was cooking because his wife, another teacher, was sick, but he showed us around anyhow. It was a primary school, classes 1-8, very nice, some new buildings, all very well maintained. Their main problem was water - it hadn't rained for a while, and they rely on rain water for drinking. They have a well, but it's too salty, so it's only ok for watering the vegetables. There was rugby practice happening in the front of the school - I think it's a permanent fixture. Fiji are the current world 7s rugby champions, and the national coach had been in Soso village for a few days recently with the Melbourne Cup. There was a local tournament on and he was the guest of honor, and he picked someone from Soso village to go join the national squad for the next training session. They were quite excited about it all.

Back to the yacht on our little dingy. Time to sort out this fish! A few people go off to a beach nearby to find wood and build a fire. After catching and cleaning the fish I want to cook it as well, so I do that while Simone prepares some vegetables and potatoes to bake, and Seema makes some coleslaw. I cut the head off the fish to make it a bit more manageable, and clean it some more, stuff it with garlic, onion, lemon and some leaves that I found in the pantry. Season with some salt and pepper and wrap the whole thing in lots of tin foil. The tin foil was really light so it took a whole roll before I had something I thought would survive being turned over a fire. It looked great all wrapped up with just the end of the tail sticking out. We pack up crockery, condiments, food, grill tray, torches etc and set off for the beach. We can see the others have the fire going, and they have taken the icebox with the beer so we're all set for out barbecue.

We make little walls to support the grill tray at the sides of the fire from some big burning logs, and keep all the embers in the middle. Put the grill on and put the fish on it. It takes up almost the entire tray. We fit the potatoes in somehow, some just sitting on timbers. Then it's time to sit back and watch it cook. Jonah, a local fisherman who had been out catching fish from the nearby rocks with just a line came over, admired our fish, had a beer and a bit of chat. We turned the potatoes and the fish, added the other vegetables and after about an hour and a quarter it all looked done. I took the fish off and opened it up. Damn, it looked great! 3 more locals show up while we're eating, they must have smelled it. Fortunately there's enough for everyone, and enough for seconds until we're all stuffed. The leaves that I used in the stuffing didn't work out so good, they were a bit bitter, but everything else was great.

It was dark by then, and the tide was gone out a lot. Chris was worried about making it back in the dingy so we packed up and left. The water was very shallow near the beach, so we had to walk out about 50 meters before we could climb in. There was a lot of bits of coral, so it was rough on our feet, ouch! The water is still very shallow so Chris had to go backwards so he can see the coral from the outboard motor. We made it through somehow to the deep water and safely back on the yacht. More beer please. Night night. ZZzzzzz.......

Ok, I realise I'm waffling and that this entry is too long. Sorry. Bear with me and I promise I'll keep it shorter the next few days, ok?



Cruise, day 3:-
Woke early to find dark grey skies. Then it got worse. Oh dear. Gotta get out of this bay and find better shelter somewhere. Were meant to go snorkel with manta rays and then head to the blue lagoon, but now we're caught in a tropical depression. Nuts. We battened down the hatches and set off. The seas were very rough, sometimes we would go up over the big swell and then fall down with a bang. After a while we lost the dingy - a knot joining 2 ropes came undone. We would have had to cut it loose anyhow, in such rough seas you have to keep it far back from the boat, and with such a long rope it could get tangled in the rudder, and that would have cost us the yacht. It took us 6 to 8 hours for a journey that would usually have taken less than 2, but we made it to good shelter. During the ride we got cold and very wet, and sometimes quite sick.

We hadn't managed to make much food during the day so in the evening Seema and I kept our promise to make Indian for everyone at some point. Made some ginger garlic chicken, and potato-tomato veggies. Everyone was very sleepy after eating, and the rough day at sea. Went to bed after a quick game of cards. Shithead. Sorry for the obscenity but it's a great card game, and very popular, and I just don't know any other name for it/ Does anyone have any ideas?



Cruise, day 4:
Weather not so bad, so we headed back to Manta Ray bay. Time to go snorkeling. Before we even got off the bay we met 2 manta rays heading off in search of breakfast. A few people jumped in quickly and headed off after them, but couldn't keep up. We continued to the narrow gap between 2 islands which is the best place to see them. It was all shallow water and reefs. I had had a bit of trouble taking water on with the snorkel pipe so decided on a lifejacket (me and deep water still don't get on well) with regular goggles and flippers. Seema however went for the full snorkel gear. None of us managed to see the manta rays out there and after a while Seema and I hitched a ride back to the yacht on someone else's dingy. When we got back there were 3 manta rays. Everyone dived in from the dingy, and the manta rays promptly went deep to avoid all the commotion. So, we ended up back on the yacht not having seen very much, but glad to be out of the water.

In the meantime we had picked up a new cook, Jim. He's not really a cook, more an entertainer. He sings and plays the guitar for a living on one of the resorts, as well as fire juggling and native dancing. He was quite hung over though, and it took him a while to develop his sea legs, so we were still cooking for ourselves.

Next stop was to go back and look for the dingy. It may have sunk, but there was a good chance it was just washed up on rocks, and Chris wanted to be able to at least salvage the connections for the fuel tank since we still had the outboard motor. We spotted it in a village not far from where we lost it so Chris and Nathan went ashore in a little fishing boat to try to get it back. They had to pay one chicken, a bunch of Kava and a drum of fuel to the village, and some money to the woman who found it on the rocks and salvaged it. The boat was in reasonable shape - just a few minor holes that could be patched up. The dingy refuses to die. It's now been lost a few times, and sunk at least once, but it keeps coming back.

Caught another big fish in the afternoon, but we were not sure what it was. We had to go ashore for another sevusevu that evening, so we gave the fish to the locals. It may have been poisonous, we didn't know, but them could figure it out. They have a system of cooking it with a coin inside and if the coin goes red or brown they don't eat it, unless it has been caught in their sacred waters. If it has they'll eat it regardless, since it's protected by the spirits. Found out later that it was ok, but we didn't mind - Jim proved his worth as a cook by making great barbecue style lamb chops. He also made this really weird sea grape salad. Sea grapes are a kind of seaweed that look like tiny bunches of green grapes. They're a bit slimy but quite nice. You soak them in coconut milk and a citrus juice, and mix them with some tomato and onion and a tin of tuna. Very good.

At the sevusevu that evening we arranged to have a lovo the next day, and afterwards a shell market was promptly set up in the village. It was supposed to be about the best one around, so Seema and I went a bit mad and bought a load of souvenirs.



Cruise, day 5:-
No sign of Jim this morning so I was back on cook duty making scrambled eggs for breakfast. Afterwards Chris needed to do some repairs to the dingy and we were going to snorkel to a WWII plane wreck. The wreck was just the other side of the island in front of us, so we went ashore and hiked to the other side. Along the way Jim showed us how to open a coconut using just a pointy stick, or even just with your teeth. The tooth method is a bit dodgy, but the pointy stick works a treat. You basically rip off the outer shell bit by bit, and then whack it hard in exactly the right place and it splits in two. Got a bit lost on the hike, but made it across the island after a while. Never did find the plane wreck. It is in about 2 or 3 meters of water in a lagoon between 2 islands but between all of us we couldn't find it. Got tired after a bit, and I got burnt. On the sunny days I was fine, but since it was cloudy I never put sunblock and got scalded. My shoulders ended up with blisters and they're itchy as hell now that they're peeling. When will I ever learn?

Went back to the shade of the trees and practiced our coconut opening technique. Then Jim climbed a tree, got a load of fresh green coconuts, and showed us how to open them without a pointy stick. You can break the husk on the tree trunk, rip it off, and then use a rock to open the top like a boiled egg and drink all the juice inside. The fresh ones are really good to eat. Had enough of eating coconut after a while and headed up along the beach. Met a local fisherman living in a hut on the beach and he told us where we were going wrong in the plane wreck search, and showed us the right path back to the other side. Went back and collected more shells and got back on the yacht.

That evening we had our lovo. A lovo is a traditional Fijian dinner, cooked in an oven in the ground. They dig a hole, light a fire in it and put rocks on top. Then when the fire dies down they make a rack over it with more sticks, and put all the food in and cover it with big leaves. The meat and fish goes at the bottom, and veggies on top. Dinner is served in a big communal hut with all of us sitting on the ground and big banana leaves spread out as a table cloth. The food was amazing. There was barbecued barracuda, fish boiled in coconut milk, pumpkins hollowed out and stuffed with fish coconut mixture and baked in the lovo, tapioca, cassava ( a type of yam ), breadfruit, sea grape salad, and probably the best of all - big spinach leaves wrapped around a fish and coconut milk mix and baked. Only when we had all eaten our fill did the family who organised it have their food.

Afterwards we got a bag of Kava and had some with the family. In a lot of villages they have a traditional hard wood bowl for making the mixture, but the wood is scarce so here they had an orange buoy with the top cut off to make a bowl. Not very traditional but quite effective. There's quite a bit of ceremony to drinking the kava. One of the men mixes it in the bowl and passes out drinks in a half coconut shell. The respected elder goes first, in our case this was the captain of the ship. When you receive the bowl you have to clap once and say 'Bula!'. Bula means hello, and cheers, and a few other things, it's used all the time. Then while you drink it everyone else claps 3 times. Then when you're finished you clap 3 more times and everyone says 'mava' meaning empty, basically well done for drinking it, and you say 'binaka' meaning thank you. Also, when it's your turn you can ask for a low tide or a high tide or a tsunami, a small or large shot or you drink from the main bowl. Good job it's not like drinking whiskey or everyone would forget the ritual after a few goes!

Back on the boat that night Jim got out his guitar and sang us a few songs from Eric Clapton, The Eagles, Roy Orbison, Bob Marley etc. We finished whatever drink we had left and slept well.



Cruise, day 6:-
The last day. Normally the lovo is the second last night, and you travel back some of the way on the second last day, but since we lost a day to the storm we had a long journey ahead of us, and the weather was getting bad again. For the first few hours we are going straight into the wind and the seas are quite rough again. Seema and a few others took the 'sea legs' tablets and sat up by the captain. Being below deck in the common area is a bit tougher in the rough seas. At least up above you can fix your eyes on the horizon and you see the waves coming, although you get a bit wet. There was no sign of Jim, our cook, all day, so we had to make out own food again. Had to hold a pot and the kettle on the stove to boil some eggs and water. Somehow managed to eat without spilling it everywhere. Fairly uneventful journey back, and by 6pm we were on solid ground. That night we were in a hotel with hot shower, air conditioning and a nice bed that didn't rock and it felt real good. Adventures at sea are great fun but it was great to be back to 'home comforts'!
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