Fiji - low on birds but big on crabs

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Flag of New Zealand  , North Island,
Saturday, March 30, 2013

Fiji 27th February - 28th March

Bula, as they say in Fiji. (Welcome/hello)

Sorry I keep changing from present to past tense in the blog but I passed time when it was raining by writing in situ so was describing what was happening around me. 


We flew into the capital Nadi (pronounced Nandy) and were collected at the airport by a Bamboo Hostel staff member who put us in a taxi to the hostel with another guest, as a few people had arrived on the same flight, so the journey was quick and easy. Bamboo provided a twin room but only shared bathrooms. The facilities were such that despite being a very friendly and relaxed place, we would only stay there 1 night.




It was lovo night, a traditional meal cooked in the ground so we put our names down. I did not go round the back to view the meal being put in the pit as I was hungry and wanted to be able to eat it. What you don't see doesn't worry you. It was delicious – chicken, kokoda, (fish marinaded in spicy sauce), and 4 veg. I could identify taro and something similar to spinach, (which I later found out was rou-rou, the leaves of the taro plant). The other 2 I had eaten before I thought to ask the name.




Next morning we started our complicated sounding journey north and east to our “resort” of Nananu-i-ra. First step, the 8.30 ish (which actually arrived on the dot much to everyones surprise), bus into the town bus station, there to change to another bus to Lautoka, for a 90 minutes journey. At Lautoka bus station we had to find the 3rd and final bus of the day, an express, to Rakiraki which took over 2 hours. People were polite but not very communicative until we left the last town before Rakiraki. Then suddenly our neighbours started talking, pointing out landmarks and asking where we were going etc. We could only think that once they knew we were going to their town they wanted to talk.




The plan was to do some food shopping in Rakiraki before taking a taxi to Ellington Wharf and then telephoning to Macdonalds (our accommodation) to ask them to send a boat across to take us to the island. As our phone probably wouldn't work this might have proved tricky. We had to call before 5.30pm or the boat would not come as it would be getting too dark. However as soon as we stepped off the bus a taxi driver spotted us, asked where we were going, said he knew Maxine Macdonald and would call and ask her to send the boat when we were ready. He pointed out the New World supermarket and even offered to collect us with the shopping at the door. We declined as it was easier to leave Jim sitting with the luggage whilst I shopped. That proved a brief exercise as there was little in the shop but I gathered up a few items, then the taxi driver suggested collecting fruit and veg from the market (including a hand of 15 small bananas for 50 pence), and a few minutes later we were being driven to the wharf – a grand sounding place but consisting of a hut and a tiny jetty. The boat arrived a couple of minutes later and after a quarter of an hour we reached Macdonalds beach, to be met by Maxine.




How can I describe the island? It is beautiful with the mandatory beaches, palms etc., but it is also quirky. In fact I often feel that I have dropped down the rabbit hole like Alice. (There are lots of holes in the lawn but they are home to crabs rather than rabbits). Macdonalds is a collection of insubstantial looking structures, either detached 'cottages' or semi-detached studios, about 8 in all, to the left of the jetty. Adjacent and to the right is an almost mirror image of Macdonalds, called Bethams. Same size, same layout. It is owned by a relative of Maxine's as the land has been subdivided from the plot first owned by her great grandmother. Electricity is provided by a generator which operates from 9am – 3pm and 5-10pm, approximately. Half an hour difference here or there doesn't matter much. There is something very soothing about retiring to bed and a few minutes later the lights go out. If it sounds early I should say we wake up before 6.30am with the sun, if it is not raining.




Water comes from a butt attached to each cottage, where rainwater is collected from the roof. There is a bucket and jug in the kitchen to collect and store the water. Jim is surprised that the tap on most butts is too low to put a bucket under. There is no hot water, not even a pretend tap, sink and shower have only a cold tap. Surprisingly, because of the temperature the lack of a hot shower is not a great loss.




We had booked a studio but because a severe weather low was expected to produce heavy rain Maxine 'upgraded' us to a cottage. She knew what was coming – 4 days of torrential (and for 2 days non-stop) rain. It was wonderful – I love tropical rain. The large windows are all glass louvres covered on the outside by insect screens so to help manage the heat the windows can be open all the time. Because of this all the external sounds are heard inside. It is like sleeping outside. The disadvantage is that, when it isn't raining, it is possible to hear rustles, snuffles, squeaks and squawks as the wildlife goes about its nightly business of hunting and survival. When the rain squall comes it starts like a gentle sigh, increases to a whisper, suddenly it sounds as if thousands of people are whispering and it continues to get louder until it is deafening and the noise of the drumming on the roof blocks out everything else. Despite the continuous rain it never became cold.




The reason we wanted to bring food from Rakiraki is that although Macdonalds provide full board or individual meals, their accommodation is also self catering and they suggest that you cook for yourself. So, when we feel like a tea/coffee, I make it and we take it and sit in the restaurant/bar area. None of this, 'You can only eat/drink what you buy on the premises' nonsense here!




In fact, the bar only sells beer and then only if you are quick and manage to catch Mary or Liva between 5 and 6pm. It is a challenge to acquire 2 drinks in one night. They close up when we have had one. And if Jim does catch Mary in time to ask for a second drink she giggles conspiratorially as if he is doing something truly outrageous.




Maxine (about our age) has a bungalow towards the back of the plot with a little private path edged with shells and coconut husks. She has an extremely regal persona, without fail emerging to walk to the jetty, 30 feet away, to welcome new guests out of the boat and bid farewell to those departing. The rest of the time she rules from her retreat. She is regularly heard calling across the lawn with a commanding high pitched tone, for example summoning one of her staff, “Mary”, and Mary scurries across. Sometimes it is an instruction called to the kitchen but it is easy to imagine her calling 'off with his head', and it seems she nearly did so with a local chef who would not stop smoking and coughing while he prepared meals but she finally resorted to the more refined strategy of dismissal instead.




When our food ran out we had a evening meal in the restaurant. This has to be ordered by noon on the day to ensure it is prepared. After noon you are dependant upon your own culinary skills until the next day. We had fish and chips! Well, more specifically, Walu (Spanish mackerel) steak and tapioca chips with rou-rou. It was superb, especially the tapioca chips. My only previous experience of tapioca was that disgusting pudding that they made us eat at school. How they made delicious chips from that is a miracle – just wished they had shared the secret with our dinner ladies.




2 days after our evening meal supplies ran out (still had Weet-bix for breakfast and cheese/tuna, fruit and crisp breads for lunch) Maxine said she was sending someone to Rakiraki for supplies and to make a list. I did and the food was duly delivered, including milk, yoghourt, meat etc. Seemed weird that they would do this – I don't think they like cooking much! The only problem was that the food had been collected and ferried across (2 hours in the heat) and then 'sorted' into different orders which took another 2 hours so by the time we received fresh milk for tea, - it wasn't!




We have spotted a couple of mongooses wandering around. They are common here but not indigenous. The bird and wildlife is limited but there is an abundance of insects, and most seem to bite. Insect repellent is essential at all times – in fact in the shower it is necessary to do a sort of rain dance to keep them away. This is particularly demanding when trying to wash hair at the same time then it is a race between human and insects to see how many can make a meal of you before you are able to dry and spray. And then there are the cockroaches. I am much better than I used to be as I have worked on 'reframing' my perception of cockroaches so I can appreciate them as wildlife rather than something horribly unpleasant. I still have some way to go as I realised when the generator went off 30 minutes early one evening and I wasn't ready for bed. I had to clean my teeth etc with a weak wind up torch and try to jump into bed before I heard any cockroaches around. If I don't see them I can ignore them. The reason the generator went off early is that it is the duty of one of the elderly locals to close it down and often he falls asleep before 10pm so the lights stay on until Maxine wakes him up. That had happened 3 nights running so I think he decided it was safer to switch off before he nodded off.




So far, a maximum of 6 people have eaten dinner at one time, 2 of these are neighbours. They come every night, an elderly American couple (he is 87, she 85) who own some land, bought from Maxine's brother and spend 6 months of the year here. Everyone visiting calls him the Magician because, in addition to a successful career in corporate law, he was once Chief Magician (don't know the correct title) of the International Brotherhood of Magicians (equivalent to the Magic Circle in UK) Circle and has performed all over the world, including Eastbourne, and on cruise ships. He did a trick for me because it was my birthday.




He tells the same stories to new visitors every night and his wife loyally sits beside him uncomplaining. Interestingly, he is also involved with a company of rain makers. They seed clouds to produce rain for governments and large organisations. I was disappointed to hear his scientific explanation of the process as I had already imagined him with divining rod in hand, chanting secret spells, in full magician's outfit. After that, seeding clouds from an aeroplane with silver iodide sounds mundane but he did claim that in China (not sure over how big an area) they increased the rainfall by 16%. He also gave evidence (during the Reagan administration) to a Senate Committee about the action being taken by the then Soviet Union (distribution of carbon over huge areas of land ) supposedly to move the Jet Stream and change the weather pattern over the States. Is this why the UK is having such bad winters?




Very few 'tourists' came to MacDonalds while we were there although it is the wet season. We had a visit from Maxine's parent's old parish priest, Father Malone, accompanied by a couple of young female missionaries, friends and family of Maxine, a group from the Peace Corps based in Suva (who were noisy and upset the tranquility of the island but thankfully only stayed 2 nights), and a young woman from a charity dealing with Conflict Resolution in troubled areas. She was taking a couple of days out before starting work.




Eventually we were the only ones left and as our food supplies had run out again we placed our evening meal order with Mary who came back a little later to say there was no lasagne (our order) as we were to eat with Maxine that night. So for 2 nights by royal command we ate at 'high table', just the 3 of us. The food was good and even better was Maxine's personal supply of really good wine. It was interesting to hear about her upbringing on the island (her family started out running a copra plantation) and her thoughts about life nowadays.




Eventually it was time to move on and we chose to aim for Levuka, the old capital, on the island of Overlau. Again, the journey seemed complex. The boat took us back to the wharf, then a taxi driver briefed by Maxine collected us, took us to Rakiraki to a shop where the owner is an agent for the Ferry company, Pattersons. He booked our ferry tickets, and then the taxi took us to the bus station for a bus to a town about 15 k from the ferry, Korovou. We arrived in Korovou, had some lunch and then waited for the ferry bus to collect us. The ticket said 1.30pm but did not say what time the ferry left. By 2pm we were beginning to fidget. Then a bus with the correct name raced right past us and headed down the road. A young man who knew we were waiting for that bus told us to run and he helped by carrying one of the bags. We reached the bus and the driver told us to put our bags on board, then locked up and went off for his lunch. Unfortunately we could not understand what he was saying. Anyway, after much confusion, at 3pm he returned, after 2 other identical buses had gathered at the same spot. It seems they collect from different areas, meet up in Korovou and then drive to the landing point for the ferry together. Unfortunately the run had aggravated Jim's knee problem.




Once on the bus the driver (through the intermediary of someone we could understand) asked when we were due to return on the ferry. We explained that we had not booked yet. Then he told us that the ferry was going in for repair/inspection tomorrow and would not be running for a week. Ok, we said, we will stay a week! One poor guy on the ferry had to return on the same boat as it left at midnight before going out of service and as his onward flight was in a couple of days he could not risk being stranded. There is a small plane which flies out of the other side of the island but that seems rather random too.




Also, when we landed it wasn't where we had been told. Our ticket (and instructions from Maxine and the agent) said we would land on the east of the island and then be driven across the island to Levuka. The crossing was much longer than we expected, but provided a beautiful trip around the island and then we landed in Levuka itself.




Levuka 16th March - 22nd March (If there is a ferry!)




We are staying at the Royal Hotel, the oldest hotel in Fiji and oldest operational hotel in the Pacific. It doesn't just have character, it is like stepping back in time. Apart from being in the wrong ocean Long John Silver would not look out of place here. It is a wooden structure with private enclosed wrap around verandahs, original furniture, and such sloping floors that it feels like being on a boat in a rough sea. It is very run-down and worn but worth it for the ambiance and at 21 per night including breakfast, a bargain.




Levuka, despite its notorious past, (52 hotels along the sea front at its heyday, a refuge for criminals, people who jumped ship etc) it is now a peaceful and friendly place where everyone acknowledges us. It is roughly the size of Alfriston. We have eaten in all 3 of the restaurants here and the food so far has been excellent. The buildings are all dilapidated but certainly take one back in time and the shops don't seem to have changed since the mid 1800s apart from some of the goods on sale. Most items are still sold in sacks and it is difficult to walk in the shop for stacks of goods. It really is a frontier town feel more than I have experienced anywhere else.




The original Morris Hedstrom shop is now a community centre housing a small museum, the library (7,000 + books and 587 members) and kindergarten. Almost every building is a church or school and on Sunday the sound of church music (sometimes very lively) echoed around us the whole day. The nearest church a couple of buildings away is a Pentecostal church and the preacher there is of the fire and brimstone variety. We could hear him loudly castigating his flock for a couple of hours at least and then exhorting them on to better things. He must have been exhausted by his efforts, I know we were!




One day we were wandering along the road by the sea, near the hospital when a helicopter suddenly appeared. It scared me as I could see he was coming down but I couldn't work out where as there seemed no suitable space between the sea, road, overhead cables and trees. He landed, perched on a tiny patch of grass, then an ambulance ferried a patient from the hospital to the helicopter and it took off again. A moment of excitement. By the time he took off quite a crowd had gathered with the children at an adjacent school peering out, and even the firemen came out of their station, which incidently seemed very well equipped.




Our last 2 days were very exciting as the regional school sports contest was held in the field by our room and as we were upstairs we had grand stand views from our verandah. The opening ceremony included a march with school band and banners, an hour of speeches and the welcoming of a Minister responsible for Sport. The second day was busier as many families arrived with picnics to sit and watch the activities. Someone told us proudly that it was like the Olympics, the winners go forward to the Fiji National Championships. People waved to us as they passed our corner verandah.




One day we went up into Lovoni, a village built in an extinct volcanic crater in the hills behind Levuka. Epi, our guide, showed us around the village, explained the very troubled history, and identified plants as well as explaining their medicinal uses. I finished off with a swim in the river, alongside numerous large frogs and tadpoles. It was deliciously refreshing in the hot and humid crater. Interestingly, Epi is married to a woman from Sunderland whom he met in Levuka and as a result if you visit the Discovery Museum in Newcastle you can hear a recording of Epi telling his stories.




When it was time to move on we learned that we could leave the island by a route other than the ferry. We had asked to go snorkelling to an island called Caqalie (pronounced Thangalie) and were told we could then carry on in the same boat to the mainland and pick up a bus to our next stop, Raintree Lodge near Suva. At one time we had thought of staying a few days in Caqalie but thank goodness we didn't, it was too basic even for us, a few thatched shacks on the beach, hardly any water and no electricity at all. But the snorkelling was good and I did see my first Crown of Thorns which is amazing to look at but very destructive to the reef.




After a very simple lunch on Caqalie we travelled for about 90 minutes in the very small boat (about 4 metres) across the ocean past more deserted islands and then up into a river. We didn't see a sign of life all the way and it was the only time that it occurred to me that if something happened to us no-one would know where we were. Finally we saw a road bridge over the river, we scrambled up the bank and a taxi was waiting there so in a couple of minutes we were on the way to Raintree.




Raintree is in the hills adjacent to a forestry park so a good place to see birds. The Lodge was quiet and peaceful until the next day when a cruise ship docked in Suva. There was a constant flow of people delivered by taxi, and greeted by 'warriors' in plastic grass skirts, (the only time we saw such attire in our month of travelling). The visitors were quite intrusive as the Lodge is small and they milled around taking photographs, flowing through the restaurant to view the lake like sea eddies of an incoming tide. It was a relief when the tide went out and they disappeared.




Our final stay was in Tambua Sands on the Coral Coast. A little more upmarket than our previous accommodation, again it was a bure on the beach and provided a chance to relax after our journey. The snorkelling was reasonable but then I discovered that along the coast was a shark feeding programme. Although I don't approve of feeding wild animals my desire to see the sharks overcame my principals I am sorry to say, and I booked in for 2 dives. I can only describe it as truly awesome. Six different types of shark came to feed, white tips, black tips, silver tips, nurse, lemon and bull sharks. The bull sharks were up to 3 metres long and very wide. Although I have seen black tips before I had never been close enough to appreciate the beautiful colouring, a cream and brown line edging the black tips. The 2 Dive Schools involved have built up small walls about 18” to 2 feet high and we knelt or laid down behind this to view the feeding. The man feeding them great big fish heads, who wore a fine chain mail gauntlet was about 10 feet away and he would swing the fish head around as they came for it so the shark swam right in front of us or over our heads, sometimes as close as a couple of feet. Seeing the eyes and teeth of the sharks at such close quarters was an amazing experience. I hope that someone who was on the dive with me is going to send some photographs and if he does I shall put them in the next blog.




So we came to the end of our Fiji experience. We were surprised by the lack of tourist services (but we did not visit Denerau which is meant to be more developed) throughout the country but it was a welcome surprise. We chose to go to more remote areas where facilities were limited but that meant we saw more of the Fiji culture, particularly the village life. The people are a mix of Fijian, Chinese, Indian, with a few Europeans ,Kiwis and Aussies, but from what we saw, they seem to integrate well although the Fijians tend to live within their own villages, and the Indian group seem more dominant in business. The villages own the land and the seas around their coast. They are very welcoming people and made us feel that they looked after us because they wanted to, not just to make money.




Despite visiting during the rainy season we really enjoyed our stay and would be very happy to return, assuming the political situation does not deteriorate.
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