By Jill March
|Sunset on Vawa|
I love Fiji. I love the nature of the place and the graciousness of the people. I stayed there for only one month but the experience has left an indelible mark in my mind that will never fade.
Nine days of my Fijian stay were spent kayaking amongst the Yasawas, a stunning chain of sixteen volcanic islands, spreading over 80km northwest of Viti Levu. The Yasawas are in the lee of Fiji’s largest island, consequently the weather is almost always dry and warm and the waters are calm and crystal clear.
Toby, Simon and Aporosa were our guides, sharing their expertise, knowledge and senses of humour – all of which added to the total enjoyment of the experience. The ecofriendly philosophy of the tour operators, Southern Sea Ventures, made this tour a privilege to be part of. Their motto is ‘to take only photographs and leave only footprints’ and this was thoroughly respected, as I feel it always should be.
Paul and I, Johnny and Kate, Nigel and Nikki, Karen, Cedric, Kate, Tommy and Rene – that was the team, together with the guides. We all got on, there was no fuss, we all recognised each other as valuable individuals and we were all joined together by the same goal; to kayak the Yasawas and absorb as much as we could on the way.
We had journeyed by boat, roughly 70km to Tavewa Island, where, after becoming familiarised with our kit and practising capsize drills, we were treated to the most delicious feast. Our Fijian hosts on Tavewa prepared a lovo; a traditional Fijian meal, cooked underground. We all gathered round as the earth was shovelled off and the banana leaves peeled away from the feast that lay beneath. I believe every single person was salivating as the aromas cascaded from the underground oven. The most tender pork, tasty fish and fresh vegetables filled our plates and bellies in preparation for a good night’s sleep under canvas and for the next day’s paddle.
We all sat together being ever so polite in the early stages of getting to know each other. English, Australian, Hawaiian and Fijian. An interesting mix of age, experience, and stories, all prepared to listen to each other. A little banter about the recent Ashes tournament broke the ice and instigated great debate about the rules and regulations of the game for those who did not know. Then on the fourth night we played a game of ‘truth, truth, lie.’ We had to each think of three things to tell our companions about ourselves, one of which had to be a lie. We laughed and shared the stress of trying to think of two interesting things about ourselves! So who had danced with Walter Cronkite? Been married at fifty? Worked on every continent? Dated Portia De Rossi? Skydived? Made headline news? Was related to Hans Christiansen Anderson? Or puked down a lady’s cleavage in a swimming pool? Yes, that last one was me, but I was only five.
The village of Navotua, on Nathula Island, was a 15km paddle from Tavewa. It was a very special place and worth the paddle even when the tide seemed to take you back and your destination didn’t seem to get any closer for a very long time. Navotua is Aporosa’s village. It is his home. Traditional bures line the beach, looking out to the Koro Sea and the limestone peaks of Sawa-l-lau, six kilometres in the distance. Simon and Toby were considered old friends by all of the villagers and their welcome and hospitality was filled with kindness and sincerity.
Learning, appreciation and adventure were in store for us all on Navotua. Aporosa asked the gang if anyone would be interested in a night snorkel. Paul and I were, along with Johnny and Kate (another pair of newlyweds) and Rene and Tommy, a beautiful Hawaiian couple with a keen sense of adventure and fun. They were both experienced kayakers; one of Tommy’s truths was that he had kayaked 50 miles in one day, for that reason he was dubbed ‘High Tide Tommy.’
|2 Our Fijian feast, cooked in an underground oven|
As I nervously put on my mask and fins and entered the water in pitch-blackness, Tommy turned to Paul, Kate, Johnny and I and said ‘The thing with night snorkelling is… You never quite know what is behind you.’ I gave a timorous laugh and we all looked at each other in the pale beams of our torches and gulped. The darkness closed in on each one of us and our torches shone narrow beams of light that illuminated the strange and obscure marine world; squid, octopus, box fish and many other odd-looking wide-eyed nocturnal fish. My breathing quickened as I realised Aporosa had speared a lobster and we made our way buffeted by the waves, down the stretch of the coast. As soon as the reef disappeared there really was just nothing, just blackness and flashes of each others’ legs in the dim torch light, kicking wildly. I felt blinded by the darkness and totally disoriented. We had to look up frequently to guide ourselves back to the faint lights of the village. We arrived home exhilarated and the daredevils of the group.
Aporosa spoke of his village plainly and with eloquence. They were poor, but the connection with Southern Sea Ventures helped a lot. One hundred and fifty years ago visitors to this island may have ended up in the cooking pot, Aporosa said with a grin. In his opinion the church had saved his people. Aporosa was proud to share his home with us.
We visited the infant school and caused chaos for the teacher in their morning class. We played together and the digital cameras fascinated the children, looking in disbelief at instant images of themselves. Beautiful children, peaceable and the respect they held for each other, as friends and family was strong.
We bought souvenirs from the ladies of the village who laid out their traditional arts and crafts in the village square. We played tag with the children and were later treated to a Meke, in which a group from the village performed songs and dances to a captivated audience, placing delicate and fragrant frangipani garlands around our necks. There was a lot of audience participation and laughter. Then it was Kava time. Tommy leaned over to me again and said ominously, ‘Last time I drank this, I couldn’t feel my ears.’ I kept hold of mine all night, while we danced and chatted with our hosts.
The saltwater caves on Sawa-l-Lau, just a six kilometre paddle away, were stunning. Deep inside the jagged tooth-like limestone peak we explored the caves that featured in the 1980 film ‘The Blue Lagoon’ starring Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins. On watching the film since leaving Fiji, I was struck by the permanence and secrecy of these caves. A short and easy swim underwater transported us all to a cathedral-like chamber. Faces similar to my own surrounded me. I was awestruck that we had left the sunshine and glory of the beach and were now in such a surreal and mysterious place. A shaft of light from up above cut through the darkness and we all clambered onto rocks to marvel together and have a group photo. Toby, as a regular to these caves, took the chance to climb barefoot at least 12m up the rocks before leaping into the cave’s deep pool.
We said our goodbyes and left Navotua and Sawa-l-Lau for the uninhabited island of Vawa. Our dream paradise. A steady paddle, the group were strong, spread across and slicing through the turquoise waters. The kayaks were stable and fit for the beginner or expert. As the week went on the kayaks got a little faster as we had less food to transport. Maybe they were also getting faster as we were getting better. Paul and I definitely developed our synchrony.
We pulled our kayaks up on to the white sand of Vawa. The gentle lapping of the waves caressed the perfect beach. We pitched our tents along the beach and had a day to relax and explore this deserted land. There was not one other soul, not even a mosquito, as there was no natural water supply. We had carried all the water we needed.
A leisurely snorkel and swim were rewarded with spotting a reef shark and a host of exquisite reef fish. At sunset we watched a thousand shades of red and gold touch the sky and clouds. As the sun dipped beyond the horizon we gathered and saw the ‘emerald flash’ of light refracting in the atmosphere.
Paul had never built a fire on a beach. He wanted to, as did all the boys. They collected some firewood and built an impressive fire in which flames danced for hours. We collected our sleeping rolls and lay by the fire watching every star in the universe shine on Vawa. As the moon rose and the clarity of the night caused a little chill, we returned to our tents and slept until pineapple pancakes were served by Toby the next morning.
|Kayaking some of the 80km|
On our return to Tavewa I completed a gentle climb to the island’s peak to be rewarded with awesome views of our paddling route through the Yasawas. An array of aqua shades intensified the green of the land encircled by pristine white edges. The kayaking had been fun, we paddled around 80km in total, in which time a strong sense of camaraderie and friendship had developed. The Fijian lives we had visited as guests were very special, intrinsically linked to each other, their families and the glorious natural world that they are surrounded by. The beauty of the Yasawas charged my senses and humbled my being. Such a beautiful and intrinsically simple place enabled me to realise the inherent connection between man and the natural world that should always be treasured and respected.