09/25/2010, Mamanuca Islands, Fiji
It's late afternoon and we've just returned from a delightful snorkel on a reef surrounding a small sandpile of an island north of Malolo Island in the Mamanucas. This was our best snorkel yet, rich with color and variety, lots of new fish, and warm, clear water.
We "discovered" this little island a few days ago on our way north to Monoriki Island, where the movie "Castaway" with Tom Hanks was filmed. We saw the pristine pile of white sand, devoid of people, trees, or any evidence of mankind at all, made a detour, and claimed it for ourselves. But just as we rounded the corner to the little anchorage we noticed a small boat from one of the many, many, MANY tourist resorts in the area that had beat us to the punch, with a few snorkelers splashing about in the clear water. We swam ashore and roamed around, squinting without sunglasses in the brilliant white light of the sandy blob, trying to pose for man-on-the-moon pictures and still keep our eyes open, despite the pain. A bit of snorkeling and then we were back aboard, showering on the deck as the other boat packed up and left. Not 10 minutes later, another arrived, deposited a couple on the isle, set up a big striped umbrella and a little table for two, and left them to a private lunch ashore. We decided it was time to go, not sure whether it was a marriage proposal or an anniversary or just a little getaway, but surely we were not a necessary component to their moment.
And now, a few days later we have returned to "our" island for another go at the little reef. We had the place all to ourselves for about a minute, and then, sure enough, the resort fleet arrived, offloading 3 groups of people, 5 umbrellas and various piles of beach paraphernalia. We confined ourselves to the reef, which was beautiful, unspoiled and undamaged. Mark and Pam are getting quite comfy in the water, and as with all dives, we all love to excitedly share the things we saw and look them up in the fish book. Our new Lumix camera is also proving to be a great asset and Allan has taken some wonderful underwater photos.
So far our time with Mark and Pam has included a few nights in Musket Cove, and a few nights anchored in front of the posh Likuliku Resort on the north end of Malolo. Musket Cove is a crowded anchorage with moorings, restaurants, resorts, a small marina, fuel, and all sorts of other amenities, although we didn't partake of any of them except the trash bins and the well-stocked store. We used Musket Cove more for a staging area, a jumping-off point to local snorkeling spots, including a gorgeous day anchored near the outer reef between Tavarua and Nomotu Islands, both surfing resorts.
Our two nights off the Likuliku Resort were peaceful. Pam and I took the dinghy to another little uninhabited island, offloaded our beach chairs, books, masks and snorkels, and some snacks and had a nice few hours to ourselves, searching for shells and relaxing. Meanwhile, Allan gave his brother Mark his first dive lesson, ultimately getting him into the water in scuba gear and down to 50 feet for awhile. Mark took to it as easily as his fish-like brother and will no doubt have no trouble getting scuba certified. Pam is next, Allan hopes to find a good spot to work with her tomorrow.
This morning we resumed our attempt to see Monoriki Island which we circumnavigated, taking loads of photos and trying to decide which scene in "Castaway" was filmed where. The island is rugged and uninhabited, although tour boats make daily treks and let people off to clamber around. We were not able to stop because it was too deep for us to anchor, but we thoroughly enjoyed the view.
Tonight we're headed once again to Musket Cove for one more day on the fringing reef by the surf islands, and then back to Vuda Point Monday to do a little shopping in Lautoka before Mark and Pam leave Tuesday evening.
09/21/2010, Musket Cove, Mamanuca Islands, Fiji
We have just arrived at Musket Cove, Malolo Lailai Island, off the west coast of Nadi. We are joined by Mark and Pam, Allan's brother and his wife, who arrived this morning at 5:10am, and are by some miracle still awake despite a long 25-hour trek from Houston, Texas.
Allan and I left Savu Savu last Friday after a quick overnight in town and headed around the corner, past Wainunu Bay to Nambouwalu near Vuya Point on the southern tip of Vanua Levu. Or, if you're into the numbers: 16 59'50"S 178 41'00"E. The hill above Vuya Point was adorned with modern tiki's in the form of wind generators, cell towers, and satellite dishes, and not surprisingly, the village of Nambouwalu was lit up like a Christmas tree at night, an unusual sight in most villages, where power is rare and most homes operate by lantern after dark, or occasionally by sparse electric lights powered by noisy generators. A church service of some sort was going on, and a loudspeaker blasted harmonious gospel music and a sermon in Fijian across the tranquil bay. The area was lovely, with some rather large homes on the hill, and we wondered about it all -- the wind generators, the electric lights, the large homes. Curious.
We left in the morning for a perfect sail across the Bligh Water, which was not the least bit dramatic or scary or anything, much to my disappointment. Fly Aweigh was on her favorite point of sail, a broad reach in 15 - 20 knot winds. Daylight waned in time for us to drop anchor by the Vatia Wharf in a very uninteresting, windy anchorage surrounded by dry, featureless hills and murky water, but it was a good home for the night, with a beautiful sunset that we enjoyed from our "back porch." In the morning we continued our westbound trek, feeling much like we were sailing over Highway 1 near San Luis Obispo, California in the heat of summer. We are definitely on the dry side of the Fiji Islands, and it's all reminiscent of our own Channel Islands off the coast of Oxnard.
Our destination was Vuda Point (pronounced "Vunda"), a new marina north of the airport town of Nadi, where we hoped to find a berth for a few days, hose off the boat, do some laundry and all that civilized stuff. The only problem was, we couldn't find the marina. A solid mindset is a definite liability in us humans, and we were victims of an erroneous idea that had us looking for a large opening to an obvious marina, neither of which describes Vuda Point. After a bit of searching, which included checking the lat/long position on the marina's website (not enough numbers -- they didn't include the seconds, so we were still searching a fairly large area) we turned around, and it was then we spotted an innocuous series of poles in the water with little flag-like arrows pointing through a narrow channel cut into the reef, which led to the tiny marina around the corner. As we motored through the small channel we saw Joseph and Marcy from Horizon on the deck at the restaurant, who waved hello and joked about our apparent lack of situational awareness.
After a short wait on the mooring ball in the center of the circular marina, we were wedged between two sailboats just steps from the laundry (fluffy towels!), the showers (unlimited water that comes from from a thing that doesn't require you to hold down a button continuously!), and a faucet for our hose (clean boat! Unstuck scupper drains!) So all was well with the world. We had a delicious pizza in the restaurant on the edge of the marina with a superb sunset view, and caught a good nights' sleep.
The next day our new friend and personal taxi driver, Mohammed, drove us and Joseph and Marcy to the Customs office at the Port of Lautoka, where we checked in, updated our cruising permit for the Nadi area to include the offshore islands, and added Mark and Pam to the crew list for a week. A bit of shopping at the big MH grocery store and the huge produce market in town, and then Mohammed picked us up and drove us back to the boat. We had one casualty in the big city: we lost my cell phone, which had a Fiji sim card so we could keep in touch locally with our personal taxi driver Mohammed, and my mom, who also has a Fiji phone. Don't know if the phone was pick-pocketed, or just lost, but it was unrecovered so we bought another sim card and thankfully have another old phone on board to use.
Another nice pizza with a view, joined by Marcy and Joseph, who are headed for Vanuatu. We had a great time patting ourselves on the back for being smart, or courageous or perhaps foolish enough to be out here on sailboats and seeing the world in such a fun way.
And now, Mark and Pam have arrived. As I write this sentence, they've finally given in to exhaustion and are peacefully napping while the wind howls in the rigging at 20 knots, the boat dances this way and that on the mooring, and Fijian fishing boats zoom by noisily. We're hoping for a calmer evening and a day or two to explore what Musket Cove has to offer, and then we'll head to our next destination: somewhere else beautiful in the Mamanuca chain, maybe the island they filmed "Castaway" on, which is just up the way.
09/16/2010, Enroute to Savu Savu
Our way-too-short stay at Kubulau has ended, as I write we are enroute to Savu Savu again for a quick restock, email, blurb posting, and check-in/check-out with Customs (a tedious requirement here in Fiji every time you arrive and leave a place with a Customs office, 4 places in Fiji.) We leave tomorrow as soon as the aforementioned tasks are complete, westbound for the Nadi area to meet Allan's brother Mark and his wife Pam for a week of playing in the Mamanuca Group of the Fiji Islands.
Our stay at Kubulau was perfect, we had just a taste of so many things, enough for Allan to get a sample of what we've loved about the place over so many years, and for me to be reminded. In fact, this visit really filled in some gaps for me, rounded some corners, polished some edges.
Last night, to cap off our visit, we received a regular Fijian send-off, which was a bit of a surprise. Our guests came from Koroko Village, courtesy of their local transport, a big truck with canvas sides. Mica, his wife Seni and their two youngest children arrived with a pile of masi (tapa cloth) as going away gifts, as did our old friends Seriana and her husband Elesio. Our caretakers, Sala and Kalusi also gifted us with a masi, so we have quite a collection. All the women brought food for the table, which was beautifully set with local foods: crab cooked in lolo, fried dalo leaf with corned beef (I'll admit, I fed the corned beef to the dog, but the dalo was delicious), boiled casava and tapioca root, as well as some cross-cultural dishes supplies by the palangi women (Melodie and I) -- homemade pizza and fruit salad.
While Allan, Melodie and I played Scrabble, assisted by Seni and her kids, the guys sat around the yagona (kava) bowl and played guitars and sang in their gorgeous voices, harmonizing on songs we all grew up on, barely recognizable when sung at a slower pace with their beautiful accents. Fijians adore love songs, and pretty much know them all. I understand this originated when one of the 2 radio stations back in the 80's had a love songs hour in the evenings, so a lot of popular English songs were learned around the yagona bowl on old and borrowed guitars by the locals and passed down. Often, they don't know the words and sing what they hear, which is partly why it's sometimes hard to recognize the songs.
Everyone knew we had to get to bed early for a daybreak departure, so at 9pm everyone -- men, women, and children -- sang a beautiful rendition of Isa Lei, the traditional song of farewell. It was so beautiful that we decided to stay another half hour, when they sang it again. This time, Seni translated the words so that we could know that it was a customized version, with lines such as "leaving in the morning on the waves to Savu Savu" and "always remember Kubulau forever."
We gave hugs and thanks all around, were sent off with some fresh lolo from Sala (coconut milk made from the meat of the coconut, used in cooking) and walked down to the beach with Kalusi, my mom and Melodie. One last trip on our little shore boat to the "yacht" at Kubulau, our send-off party blinking their flashlights at us as we motored the short distance to Fly Aweigh.
The morning departure was very hard for me, I was not ready to go. My mom and Melodie were standing on the beach at 6am, watching as we pulled the anchor. Allan brought the boat as close to the beach as the reef would allow and we hollered "moce!" (goodbye) and waved furiously, while they all waved back, Sala and any number of hangers-on from last night's party flapping white cloths in the air from the front porch. I cried as we pulled away, but at the same time I'm still amazed it all happened at all. The fact that we sailed a jillion miles to ultimately arrive in Fiji, met my mom and our dear friend and business partner Melodie on the very day they arrived, were able to navigate the tricky and poorly charted reefs to get to a spot right in front of our house and anchor with good holding for 5 days: all a miracle. The weather was great, the mosquitos were minimal, the company extraordinary, and the chance to share this place with Allan a genuine treat.
And so on to the next wonderful family reunion with Mark and Pam, who arrive Tuesday. We plan a liesurely, day-travel-only trip to Lautoka, near Nadi Airport on the big island of Viti Levu. And I, for one, am looking forward to sailing through a small area of ocean called "Blighwater" which just sounds all too spooky and dramatic for words.
New photo gallery: Vanua Levu
09/14/2010, Vanua Levu, Fiji
Reef Report: The corals on the reef in front of Kubulau Plantation are alive and well. There was some damage from Hurricane Thomas that hit this area about 6 months ago, but the soft corals are thriving and many of the hard corals are alive with fresh color. The question is: where are all the fish? There are very few, and the ones swimming about are generally small. We wonder if the area has been over fished?
We've spent some time on 3 different areas of the reefs between Rabi Island and our land on the Natewa Peninsula, and have some beautiful photos. Much of the color and diversity in the corals is in the top 10 - 15 feet, so it's easy snorkeling. Allan and I did a dive on the reef farther out yesterday, because our friend Mica from Koroko Village took us out in his big fiberglass fishing boat. It was a beautiful dive, but again, most of the life is in the top 25 feet. Below that, dead coral lies in bleak, dusty-looking piles.
Our meals continue to be interesting, although our fish soup the first night is still the highlight. Night-before-last Melodie made her favorite: Fiji Bitter Chicken, made with whole chickens chopped up in that chaotic third-world style, simmered with onions, garlic, spices, potatoes, and beer, served over rice. Last night I brought Eggplant Parmesan ashore, with a nice green salad with avocado oil and balsamic dressing. That was rather un-Fijian, and our Fijian friends, Mica, Sala and Calusi were quite complimentary. Tonight, something with lamb sausages.
We have a bit of a communication problem here from ship to shore: seems the phone chip we got for our phone from Digicel doesn't work with the Vodaphone cell tower on the hill here. So Melodie, a Vodaphone customer, can't call us on our Digicel phone and we can't call her. We could leave our hand-held VHF radio with them, and keep our ships' radio on, but the hand-held would die in half a day and there is no way to recharge ashore. Ditto our walkie-talkies. So we have left it that we'll be ashore when we go ashore.
We've had some nice time with Mica from Koroko Village. He was previously employed at the Cousteau Resort in Savu Savu, and speaks very good English. 2 years ago he was elected by the villagers to a 4-year position as liaison between the village and the various agencies that provide services and aid to locals. I believe there is more to the position, as well -- I think he's basically second to the Chief, and also has the task of enforcing various village by-laws and trying to motivate the villagers to be good citizens, to drink less yagona (kava) and work harder for their families, to contribute to the common good of the village, and other such time-worn community issues. He is also working very hard to blend the long-held traditions of Fiji into a fast-changing world, a challenge faced by many cultures on our globe today. How do you deal with the onslaught of the Communication Age? Many homes don't have running water, toilets, or electricity (some families have generators), but they have cell phones, DVD players, Internet access in many places, and sometimes satellite TV, linking them to a wild and crazy world, with little guidance on how to interpret it. I'm sure it's driving the church leaders and the village Chiefs crazy. So crazy, in fact, that a recent village law has just been enacted Fiji-wide that any girl not wearing proper clothing in the village can be caned. We asked Mika about that, and he said in Karoko, they would just "talk to the girl."
Mica is also coping right now with some complex issues having to do with Habitat for Humanity, who are planning to help rebuild the many homes lost in Hurricane Thomas, and have shipped all the materials to Fiji, but are having difficulty getting final permission from the Fijian government to send workers. There is a political edge to all this, but I will not comment here, since I'm not really clear on the fine details. Suffice it to say, it's difficult for Mica to see so many families without homes, and know that help awaits, but can't get there from here. Or here from there. Mica is a good man, working very hard for his village, and has been invaluable help to my mother and Melodie over the last few years.
Calusi and Sala are our other fine assets here at Kubulau. As the caretakers of the property for the last few years, they are gentle, dependable, thoughtful and intelligent, and have proven their worth time and again. I am very glad to meet them. I just wish my Fijian were something better than "Good morning" and "See you tomorrow" since their English is about as bad, and I would love to have a decent conversation with them.
Not much else going on, it's a mellow existence out here for us -- naps, swimming, reading, playing the guitar, opening and closing hatches as the rain comes and goes, writing in journals, watching the sunset and eating. Nice.
09/11/2010, Vanua Levu, Fiji
Dinner at Kubulau: octopus, moray eel, ray, squirrel fish, and crab soup. Yum!
I have no idea how much edible food I left in the "discard" bowl as I was cleaning all the fish Calusi had caught and Sala had cooked, but I painstakingly sifted through each mushy piece trying to filter out bones, guts, sinewy things from the ray, and crab shell for our fish stew tonight. As it turned out, it was really delicious, and I only missed a few bones. Melodie made some whole wheat bread dough and Sala rolled it out flat and pan fried it, a perfect accompaniment to the soup. Other than the crab, Allan said it was the first time he had eaten any of those critters.
We left Savu Savu before 6am Friday to give us enough time to get to Viani Bay off Rainbow Reef, roughly 7 hours. Cruiser Guides like the ones we've become spoiled by in Mexico and French Polynesia don't exist here; we have a few bits and bots of out-of-print cruiser stuff with out-of date information and a bunch of charts that don't agree with one another, so it's challenging finding a way through the many reefs that are tossed about Fiji's islands. We had a paper chart, our SeaMap electronic chart on the laptop, and our Navionics chart on our E-120 Chart Plotter thingy. North of Viani Bay the Sea Map was off by a lot in some places, and our Navionics chart may have been pretty good but we couldn't see it on a close-up scale without losing all relevant detail, an odd glitch having to do with being too near the meridian or something. We managed to thread our way through a gap in Rainbow Reef and find a spot to anchor just on the inside. My mom was suited up with her fins on and mask around her neck before we had even shut the motor off, that's my mom. She's more of a fish than Allan is.
The reef was spectacular. Rich and gorgeous, healthy, colorful, and, where we were, shallow -- so snorkeling was easy. It's so great when a dive or snorkel yields new fish and critter sightings, and this one did not disappoint. Unfortunately, we had to cut our swim short because of a nasty looking storm coming our way, so we dinghied back to Fly Aweigh and motored her to safety deep inside Viani Bay, which we had all to ourselves. We spent a quiet, calm evening star-gazing and writing in journals, as well as perusing email and Internet thanks to the extensive cell phone system here. Kind of weird, really, but we were able to get some important things handled and still be in a remote, beautiful place.
The morning was, unfortunately, spent trying to resolve an issue Bank of America via SatPhone, which gobbled up our time to visit the reef for a second dive. We needed to leave by 10am to make it to Kubulau and navigate that complex reef structure while the sun was still high enough in the sky to see. So we cooked up a nice whole wheat flax pancake and egg breakfast, extracted the anchor from the rocky bottom and headed for Kubulau.
As we rounded the corner from Viani Bay the SeaMap chart failed us, placing reefs 1/2 mile off from their actual position. The Navionics was still devoid of detail at close range, so we spent most of the time dodging bombies and reefs while I plotted on the paper chart to give us a good cross-reference to the other two sources. Allan is a master at seeing stuff in the water before I do; not sure if he has better Polaroids or just better eyes, but with his expertise we avoided disaster numerous times, making our successful arrival in front of our house at Kubulau that much more meaningful. The wind is blowing briskly out of the east, not being tempered much by nearby Rabi Island, and we're bobbing around in a less-than-protected spot off our beach, but the anchor is well-set and we're holding position beautifully.
Allan caught a fish on the way over (a small bonito) (Yay!!!) so we took a little time for him to hack it into edible chunks while my mom packed and I picked up after the sail. We took quick showers and headed for the beach where we were met by Calusi, our caretaker at Kubulau, his little nephew who brought a wheelbarrow to collect our things, and Melodie. Once inside, I met Sala, Calusi's wife, and said hello again to Mika from Karoko Village, who is visiting for a few days. We exchanged greetings, offered our sevu sevu, which is a gift to the host, or chief -- most often a gift of kava (called yagona in Fiji.) We also had a Fly Aweigh T-shirt for Calusi and a Tahitian pareo for Sala.
Following tradition, Calusi took the dried yagona and smashed it into a powder while my mom, Allan and I took a walk and explored a bit of the property. Things look terrific -- better than I've seen them in the visits I've had over the last 15 years. The yard is manicured and trimmed (to Fijian standards, not Brentwood standards) and things look healthy, except for the drought-affected fresh water spring that's way down and a bit murky. This property seems to weather hurricanes amazingly well: while the villages of Napuka and Karoko on either side of us are suffering homelessness and food shortage issues form Hurricane Thomas last spring, this place looks pretty good.
By the time we'd returned from our walk Calusi had rendered the yagona root into a powder and subsequently into the muddy liquid often referred to as "grog," and we had a proper sevu sevu ceremony, accompanied by Fiji Bitter beer. Meanwhile, Sala was rendering all the sea creatures Calusi had caught into cooked chunks of bone and meat and teeth. I joined her and Melodie in the kitchen and somehow volunteered to pick the fish off the bones for the soup. I have never seen a ray cooked, it's quite strange. And the eel was all there -- skin to bones, teeth to tail, in 3 inch chunks. I did what I could to collect a bowl of fish parts, assisted by Sala and Calusi's son, who broke the crab into pieces and extracted the meat. Dinner was ready by sundown, and we had a nice visit with everyone until the mosquitos discovered our ankles and we decided it was time to retire to the boat and set up the anchor alarm for the evening.
In the morning we all plan to trudge up to Napuka for church, then hit the reef.
As I had hoped, being anchored off our land, gazing back at our funky house with it's unique roof line, huge lawn, and sweeping beach is fantastic. Being in the kitchen brings back a feeling I can't even identify: it's visceral, it's deep. The kitchen still smells like it did when I was 14. Sweet, warm, and like coconut. Sala and Calusi are delightful, despite their limitations in English and ours in Fijian. The house looks so much like it always has, with the addition of a large front porch that has become the center of social activity, even in the rain.
We have 5 days here before we have to return to Savu Savu and then on to Lautoka on Viti Levu. I know the days will be very full, and very amazing.
09/08/2010, Savu Savu, Vanua Levu, Fiji
Being in Fiji again has been really nice for me, especially being here on the boat. I got such a kick this morning out of standing next to the fresh produce market, where we've been buying produce for decades, gazing out at the boats in the harbor, as I've done so many times before, and realizing -- one of them is ours! We SAILED here!
I spent the morning with my mom, Margy, and Melodie, roaming the small town looking for this and that, and bumping into friends they've made over the years. We saw the Priest from Koroko Village, who has recently been transferred to Suva, Fiji's capital city on Viti Levu. We saw Mika, who used to work for the Cousteau Resort here in town, and is now the second-in-command below the Chief in Koroko. We saw folks I met the last time I was here, years ago. Much has changed in this little town in the last 5 years, but much is still the same as it was 35 years ago. The main thing I notice is technology -- everyone has cell phones, and Digicel signs are everywhere.
Allan spent the morning dealing with the things my mom brought us -- installing a joker valve in the toilet, and attempting to adapt the new cockpit speakers to the existing waterproof housings, which didn't work because they turned out to be the wrong speakers. So he made numerous calls to West Marine in Houston, TX, hoping to find the right ones to have his brother bring when we meet him in Nadi in a few weeks.
We splurged on a lavish lunch at the new Surf and Turf restaurant on the waterfront, a delicious meal of Kokodu (Fijian ceviche), avocado salad with red pepper dressing, a delicious tuna burger, and for dessert -- banana, cardamom, and ginger ice creams. A splendorous meal for a pittance, the prices here are so good.
We're planning our sail up to Kubulau (koom-boo-lau) our property at the end of the Natewa Peninsula, which is tricky because there aren't really any good sailing guides or marked anchorages, as we've been lucky enough to have for the last many months, and it's a maze of coral reefs. But today we found a very good close-up map, and together with our radar, depth sounder, E-120 Nav Thingy, Max Sea charts on the computer, and a few other things to augment our knowledge, we're pretty comfortable. We plan to leave Friday morning and make the trip in 2 days, stopping at Rainbow Reef along the way. Rainbow Reef is one of the top dive spots in Fiji, and we're looking forward to checking it out, probably with a short snorkeling trip with my mom on Friday afternoon, and then with tanks later in the month.
I feel like I'm back home in so many ways, the history runs so deep here. The short time we have on this island will go by quickly, there are so many things we want to do: sail over to Rabi Island, the tiny island a stones-throw from our property that is home to the Banaban people, resettled in the mid 1940's from the Gilbert Islands after their island was taken over by greedy phosphate miners. We want to visit the two main villages nearby Kubulau -- Napuka and Koroko. We want to dive our reef, and Rainbow Reef, and the other reef between us and Rabi Island, and snorkel, and kayak, and hike.
Meanwhile, the winds are still blowing a bit, just enough to keep the boat moving about on the mooring and a fresh, cool breeze moving through the cabin. Melodie is going up to Kubulau tomorrow to get things organized, and my mom will join us on the sail. By Friday the weather should be perfect, so we're looking forward to a great trip for my mom, who loves sailing and snorkeling, and especially loves Fiji.