The weather is crappy at the moment. It is windy, overcast and rainy so diving and hiking are out. It’s either clean the bottom of the boat or do some writing. OK, I guess the bottom isn’t THAT dirty.
Yes, the political situation in Fiji is still dicey. So far, it has not affected us too much, but we have been avoiding populated areas and maintaining a readiness to head directly west to Vanuatu if the situation warrants. We keep a close ear to the short wave radio, listening to the latest news from the BBC and the local Fiji radio station which is called, believe it or not, “Bula 100.” Thanks also to Cate’s brother, Matthew, who regularly emails us reports on the crisis from the fijilive.com website. We feel very bad for the Fijians. The racial, power and money struggle between a very few here will set back the already fragile economy by at least ten years. The good news is that George Speight and his band of hooligan supporters are “detained” on an isolated prison island so it looks as if the military can finally begin to reestablish peace and order to the country. We remain bound and determined not to let that #!*&$@! screw up our Fijian cruising plans!
We ended up hanging out in the little backwater town Savusavu for a couple of weeks after our arrival. Being the only boat from the Auckland to Savusavu Race fleet to actually make it to Fiji, we were treated well by everyone around the Copra Shed Marina and Savusavu Yacht Club. We even received a write-up in the “Fiji Sun” newspaper, as the “only yacht to complete the race.” I guess it made a better story than “Stupid Yank yachties keep sailing, hard to weather, right into a banana republic in the middle of a hostile coup d’etat.”
It was nice to have some meals ashore (no cooking or dishes!), and to catch up on our rest and boat maintenance. MooCrew Amy, Eric and Todd all hung out to enjoy a bit of R & R in Fiji before returning to the real world. Nick’s wife Karen joined him and shifted boats to hang out with our buddy boaters Tim and Cindy on “Total Devotion.” For Cort, it was back to the States the day after we arrived due to family and work obligations. I guess for some it’s not the destination, but the journey that matters. A big thanks to all of them for a safe and fun passage, in spite of the less than favorable sailing conditions and questionable destination.
The Saturday after we arrived, the Savusavu Yacht Club sponsored a fun race to the lovely little island of Koro, about 30 miles south, so of course we joined the fleet. It was a bash, beating into fresh southeast tradewinds the entire way, but due to some great trimming and helming by the crack crew, and catching a favorable wind shift near the end, we placed second in the fleet and won a gift certificate to our favorite restaurant in town. The only resort on the island of Koro hosted a party for the entire fleet that night. The bar and buffet were open and free the entire evening, and there was even a live band playing dance music afterwards. NO COOKING, NO DISHES and NO BILL!!
The “Total Devotion” crew joined us for a hike to a remote waterfall the following day. The locals told us “Follow this road for 20 minutes and head downstream when you come to the creek. You can walk along the beach to return to the cove.” Well, the first part was fine. We all enjoyed a nice walk on the high road overlooking the ocean, and a short trek down the lazy creek teeming with freshwater prawns. Of course, the waterfall was dramatic and we all had a refreshing swim in the cool water under the falls. We assumed that the creek ran to the sea, as most creeks eventually do. Wrong! It ran toward the sea, into a mangrove swamp and more or less disappeared into dense undergrowth. After a half hour of bushwhacking, we finally found the beach. Ah, no worries, now just follow this nice beach to the cove. Wrong again! It was about four miles of hiking and wading along the water on everything from soft sand beach, to bush trail, to rocky cliffs, to get back to the cove. Those of us who made it all the way summoned boats to collect the tired, sore and blistered scattered along the way.
We had a quick and pleasant downwind sail back to Savusavu a couple days later, where Cate and I said good-bye to all the remaining MooCrew and began provisioning up for some cruising. After waiting out some reinforced trade winds for a few days, we headed east to Viani Bay, one of the cruiser’s favorite destinations, and met up with our Auckland marina neighbors Rita and David from “Bossanova.” I think that Bossanova is Brazilian for “let’s PARTY!”
We were welcomed to Viani Bay by Jack Fisher, whose family owns much of the land around this large and well protected anchorage. Jack, a perfect example of Fijian friendliness and hospitality, gave us permission to walk on shore, fish and dive in the waters of the bay and offered to help us in any way he could. He provided moorings, fresh coconuts, arranged for laundry to be washed, hosted a couple of killer beach bar-b-ques, ferried provisions from Somosomo, the nearest village, to some of the fleet and acted as our personal dive guide.
Viani Bay opens up to the Rainbow Reef, known to divers worldwide for its spectacular diving. Jack took us on a number of dives to sites there like the “Fish Factory” and the “White Wall,” both very aptly named. The Fish Factory had some pretty wicked currents that split up our little group of divers and took us in a figure 8 pattern over a small sea mount, but there were enough fish to restock the public aquariums in every major city in the world. At the White Wall, we jumped into forty feet of water and descended into a near vertical coral cave to about eighty or ninety feet where we popped out along a vertical wall, covered in delicate white soft corals. It looked like snow patches clinging to crevices on the side of a mountain. The visibility was easily 100+ feet and a number of large pelagic fish, such as reef sharks, tuna and napoleon wrasse were spotted by our group. Jack hovered above with our dingies and picked us up when we surfaced.
After a week or so, it was time to move on, so we sailed to Matagi Island, another 25 miles or so east. The winds were nearly out of the north, so we anchored on the protected south side of the island off a little honeymoon resort. It was nice to do some hiking on the paths around the lush, green island and have a few meals ashore, while socializing with some of the vacationing Yanks. On one hike, Cate and I got in a torrential downpour. We sought shelter under a rock overhang near the beach. After an hour of carefully studying the habits of coconut crabs, with no respite in sight, we tossed in the towel and sloshed back to “Moonshadow,” which by then had a thorough fresh water rinse-down.
The winds shifted back to the southeast, so we moved around to the north side of Matagi to a spectacular little horseshoe shaped bay. The surrounding steep basaltic cliffs, with their clinging greenery was evidence that the bay was old, blown out volcanic cone, who’s summit was barely poking out of the surface of the sea. It was nice to spend a couple of peaceful days in an idyllic little tropical island anchorage that seemed to be light years from civilization. Cate and I went snorkeling just outside of the horseshoe bay one morning. We swam among the reef fish, rousted a lazy little blacktip reef shark sleeping under a bommie, and spotted a shy sea turtle. While exploring one bommie, a remora came up and attempted to attach itself to my ankle. A remora is fish that typically attaches itself to sharks and manta rays, feeding off of food scraps and parasites attached to their hosts in a sort of symbiotic relationship. They are harmless fish and this little guy’s antics gave us a chuckle.
Ready to do some serious SCUBA diving, the Total Devotions, long time cruising friends Tom and Pam on “Imagine” and we sailed further east to Wailangilala Island. Wailangilala is a tiny “Gilligan” type island with a rusty old lighthouse planted in its center and inhabited only by huge (3-5 foot wing span) fruit bats, hermit crabs and a variety of insects. The reef protecting the island has a deep, wide, fairly well marked pass that appears to have been blasted through it, allowing easy passage into the lagoon and the nice sandy anchorage just off the island. We happened to visit during a period of “king tides” so it was a bit rolly and lumpy at high water when the sea swell rolled over the top of the barrier reef, but drift diving through the pass and wall diving on the outer reef was fantastic. The vis was good, and the coral reef was healthy and colorful. There were plenty of sharks, turtles and big fish sharing the water with us, but no lobster. We had some nice walks around the little island, picked some fresh pawpaw (papaya) from some the many trees, and our little fleet had a nice beach bar-b-que and bonfire one evening.
Since the rest of the eastern islands, known as the Lau Group, are pretty much off limits to cruisers, we headed back west to Budd Reef in search of more diving. The weather sucked, and the anchorage was rolly and uncomfortable so we skipped out the next day and made the white knuckle trip to the island of Rabi, and the well protected Albert Cove. I say white knuckle because the rather short cruise (20 odd miles) took us out of one poorly charted reef pass, into another shallow and narrow pass awash in current, across its coral bommie infested reaches, out another pass and finally into yet another pass leading to the cove. The light was good so we managed to dodge all the bullets, but travel in these waters requires good light, precise navigation, a reliable engine, good communication between the bow lookout and helm, constant vigilance, and big cajones. All three yachts made the journeys safely.
The Rabi Islanders are Melanesian transplants, so their habits and customs and habits vary significantly from the Fijians. As we approached the island, we could see quite a few of the natives out fishing in their small dugout outrigger boats with sails made from that blue tarp material that we all know and have probably used at one time or another. They nimbly navigate these tiny, primitive vessels through the reef-strewn waters whipped by wind and currents while they troll for fish at the same time. They carry no VHF radios, no GPS’s, no charts and no life vests. These guys are truly “seat of the pants” navigators. Albert Cove was all that was promised, picturesque and well protected, with clear water and a consummate Fijian palm tree lined beach. There were a few native families, subsistence farmers and fishermen, living in a rough, primitive settlement of thatched palm burres or huts. We visited with them on shore. They were quite friendly and we all enjoyed a chat while the ladies showed us how they weaved mats and baskets from palm fronds. The men took us to some caves where the villagers would go to escape the winds and waves of occasional tropical cyclones. As we left, they gave us pawpaw, limes and coconuts and some other unidentifiable fruit in little baskets that they had crafted. The next day they asked to borrow our snorkel gear and dive lights so they could look for lobster that night. The Imagines and we loaned the men our gear. The following day they returned it to us along with two lobster for each boat. They kept none for themselves, so we gave them some fishing line, hooks, batteries and a spare snorkel.
We completely enjoyed the eastern island groups, but we found ourselves running low on diesel, fresh veggies and rum, so we began to make wakes for Savusavu for a dose of civilization and some reprovisioning. It had been over a month since we had seen a fuel dock or a grocery store. We wove our way in and out of the Rainbow Reef back to Viani Bay. We spent a couple of nice evenings over at the small and exclusive Rainbow Reef Resort with owners Kari and Richard. We enjoyed a couple of nice meals out and partook in a kava ceremony, wondering afterwards what all the fuss is about. Richard is quite a jazz aficionado, but since the nearest Tower Records is at least 2000 miles away, he was starved for some new music. On the second night I brought him a sampler of a dozen or so of my recent CD’s. He spent the entire night recording them and sent his boat boy to return them the next morning before we departed. We weighed anchor, slipped out the pass and made the easy passage west to Savusavu.
All seemed quiet and normal in Savusavu, but we had heard of unrest in Labassa, one of the larger cities on the east island of Vanua Levu. We went about the task of reprovisioning. Making a list, checking it twice, and hoping that you can find what you want and need in a third world outpost. In a big city like Auckland it is a big job to shop for four to six weeks of life in the middle of nowhere, but in a place like Savusavu it is more like the scavenger hunt from hell. It was nice to have some meals out, watch a bit of TV and get some news at the Savusavu Yacht Club and catch up with some cruising friends who were hanging out there. After three days, we were provisioned up to cruise for at least another month or so. Just as we were finishing, we got a report that the Savusavu airport had been taken over by rebel supporters of coup leader George Speight. OK, we’re outta here! SEEEEEYA. We immediately weighed anchor and spent the night well outside of town in Savusavu Bay, anchored off the Cousteau Resort.