My friends Trevor and Mel arrived at oh-dark-hundred on Sunday morning. I was sound asleep and Moonshadow was tied to the marina at Port Denerau. Their three-hour flight from Auckland had been delayed by about sixteen hours but it didn’t seem to dampen their enthusiasm to get underway later that that morning on our cruise to Savusavu.
Savusavu is the second largest town and only port of entry on the second largest Fijian island of Vanua Levu. Situated about 140 miles as the seagull flies from Port Denerau, the actual track around islands and steering clear of the massive network of reefs, roughly doubles the distance. We had also planned to stop off and spend a week at the beautiful and remote island of Yadua (pronounced Yan-doo-ah).
Victualled and fuelled up, we tossed off the lines and motored out of Port Denerau right after coffee and breakfast. It was a crisp clear morning, with nary a breath of wind and sea state that would have most water skiers drooling. And so it stayed for the entire day as we motored all of the sixty miles of our first leg around the north side of Viti Levu, the main island, with the mainland on our starboard side and a massive labyrinth of reef to our port side between Bligh Water and us.
Bligh Water is named after the tyrannical captain of the H.M.S. Bounty, whose first mate led a mutiny that left him and a small group of loyal crew to fend for themselves in a small open sailing boat. I wonder if this body of water is so named because he safely navigated through the area on his miraculous voyage back to civilization, or if it is because it is arguably one of the nastiest and foulest pieces of ocean on the entire planet.
We arrived at a small island called Nananu-i-ra, just before sunset and anchored in a pleasant little bight on its west side. We had a sundowner and a nice dinner at one of the two small resorts on the island, while a string band (C for quality, A for effort) serenaded us. Trevor, having lived in Fiji for two years and knowing some of the songs even “sat in” with the band, playing the one string bass and singing.
The next morning, as soon as we had good light, we headed north out of Nananu Passage, which opened up to 26 miles of deep and mostly obstruction-free water between Yadua and us. The southeast trades were in perfect form so we had a spirited sail with about fifteen knots just abaft our starboard beam until we sailed into the lee of Yadua Tamba, a small islet just off the southwest corner of Yadua. Along the way, the Sea Gods sent a 15-pound mahi-mahi to join us for dinner.
We slipped through the pass into Thukuvou Harbour about mid-afternoon and anchored in the wide-open bay. We celebrated a “good-as-it-gets” day of cruising with sundowners and mahi-mahi on the barbeque while taking in the dramatic landscape of volcanic rock, lush tropical vegetation and white sand beaches.
We spent thee days there on the west side of Yadua, snorkelling on the beautiful reefs, fishing, reading, relaxing and socializing with a friendly Freysian ( a region of Holland) couple named Janneke and Jouke (pronounced Yan-a-ka and Yu-ka) who had cruised all the way from home on their Catalina 42.
We were visited twice by Chief John, from the only village, located on the opposite side of the island. It seems that a few villagers, who are wealthy enough to own boats, use this side of the island as a fishing ground and/or as a getaway from the hustle and bustle of life in a remote Fijian village. Chief John gave us a nice trevally that he had caught and then asked us for enough gasoline so that he could get back home on the other side of the island with his outboard powered longboat.
Our keel was getting a bit itchy, so we decided to do a bit more exploring around the island. The trade winds had become reinforced by a huge high- pressure system to our south, so anchoring on the south side of the island would have been untenable in the big southeast swells. We decided to check out a couple of anchorages on the north side.
The first and prettiest anchorage we came to, which was not named on our chart or cruising guide, was quite small. There was a motor yacht anchored right in the middle of the bight. We attempted anchoring to one side, but with “bullets” (strong shifty wind gusts) swinging us about, I was uncomfortable that we might kiss one of the surrounding reefs or bommies. We hauled up the anchor and moved on down the coast a few miles to a larger, but less attractive anchorage called Watering Bay.
Watering Bay is so named because of a fresh water spring running out of one of the steep hills bordering the bay. The local fishing boats come in to take on fresh water and the crew head ashore to have a bath. We shared the anchorage with a Labassa-based beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) boat working in the area. Beche-de-mer fetches about Fijian $50 per kilogram or about US $12 per pound and is sold to the Chinese who believe it to be a powerful aphrodisiac. This is big money in a country where the average wage is F $1.75 per hour (half that for US $). The Fijian divers collect these animals in 120 to 150 feet of water using SCUBA tanks or hookah rigs (long air hoses). Unfortunately, they are not always fully aware of decompression sickness, and we had heard that two divers had perished from it in just the last month .
We had a nice visit with the captain and the crew of the “ss Love Potion,” who told us all about their trade. During the night, the wind backed around to the northeast so we returned to the better-protected and much prettier Thukuvou Harbor the next morning. That evening we had sundowners on the beach, joined by Janneke and Jouke, as well as fellow Ponsonby ralliers Charles and Glennis from “Racundra” who had just arrived that day to Yadua.
The next morning, we made our way to the west side of the island to Navilaca Bay, this time going around the south side of the island. This side, being more exposed to the moisture carried in the trade winds, was lush and green, as opposed to the north side of Yadua, which is dryer, rockier and scrubbier, more reminiscent of the Kona Coast of Hawaii.
The entrance into Navilaca Bay is quite narrow, just a slit in the reef, but opens up to a large but bommie-riddled lagoon. We found good anchorage with plenty of swing room at the north end of the bay, off of a small palm tree-lined beach set against a backdrop of jagged rocks.
The next day at high tide, we negotiated our way through the reef, around the point to the village of Ndenimanu, generally known as Yadua Village. We went primarily to make sevusevu, which is the Fijian custom of offering a gift of some yaqona root (kava) to the village chief for the privilege of anchoring near and/or visiting the village. We found the villagers to be cheerful and extremely friendly. The village of about 200 people was very tidy, with many traditional thatched bures giving it a very romantic, South Pacific flavor.
After making our Sevusevu with a village elder (Chief John was away), we were seated on a mat under the shade of a frangipani tree and served tea and biscuits in the company of a couple of the village ladies. After tea, one of the ladies gave us a tour. In typical fashion, we were taken first to the church, next to the school, where the headmaster showed us all four classrooms, and finally to the government-operated clinic, before walking amongst some of the homes. Also in typical fashion, we were greeted with a friendly bula! (hello) and warm smiles by all that we encountered. We said our farewells and negotiated our way through the thick reef back to Moonshadow while the sun was still well above the yardarm.
The reinforced trade winds had blown themselves out, so we decided to put in a bit more easting while the conditions were in our favor. We lifted the anchor, set the mainsail and motor-sailed toward the island of Vanua Levu dodging reefs to port and starboard, passing though Yadua Passage into the protected waterway along the southwest coast of Fiji’s second largest island. Once inside the outer reef, the seas calmed and the (mostly present) navigational marks were easily visible to either side of the wide channel, making for easy navigation along the mangroved shoreline.
We passed the day just watching the verdant, mountainous landscape move along our port side, occasionally checking out a village or other landmark with the spynoculars. We reached the notorious Nasonisoni Passage late in the afternoon. Nasnonisoni Passage itself is quite well marked and easily negotiated, but in a strong trade wind situation, the eastern exit into the Koro Sea is the final resting place of waves that have had hundreds, if not thousands of miles to be whipped up by the winds into a constant barrage of direct frontal attacks on one’s yacht. Conditions being benign at that moment, we decided to put Nasnonisoni Passage behind us and then anchor in Navatu Bay, a snug little harbor just on the other side, for the evening.
With a couple of days up our sleeve before we needed to be in Savusavu, and the trade winds still nowhere to be seen, we decided to hop down to the lovely Island of Koro, about 30 miles to the southeast. We started the day motor sailing in light air and finished it bashing into a fresh southwesterly, brought to us thanks to a small disturbance to our south. We were able to take protected anchorage on the northwest side of the island in Dere Bay.
Hoping for a long-overdue meal out, we headed ashore to the Dere Bay Resort, which we visited when it had “opened” two years ago. No luck as they were still not really in operation. The boys had to suffer through my cooking again!
We decided to do a bit of exploring the next morning so put on our walking shoes, headed ashore and hit the road. In the area surrounding the resort, there are blocks of land being sold to persons wanting an “island getaway” or perhaps an escapist lifestyle. So far, at least a dozen homes have been built, some quite posh, and others pretty basic.
Koro is far from a weekend retreat, in fact, it is far from everything. We stopped to chat with one American couple from Denver who were finishing their home, which was perched on top of the highest hill in the development. They were happy to take a break from sawing and nailing to describe to us what it was like to live on Koro.
The “roads” are mostly unpaved and turn into slip-n-slides whenever it rains, which is often. There are NO utilities. Each home is self-contained. Electricity comes from solar panels and/or a generator. It is stored in golf cart batteries, much like on a cruising yacht. Water comes from the heavens and is captured on the roof and channelled from the rain gutters into a cistern. If there is a drought, then you must drive to a spring and fill jugs. To make a phone call, one must go to the post office in the nearest village and wait in line. Most of the island’s population have never seen a computer or heard of the Internet.
There is no grocery store on Koro, only 15 small villages whose people survive by fishing and subsistence farming of fruits, veggies and root crops. The couple we met told us that they did their shopping at the grocery store in Suva once a month. This involves a nine-hour ferry ride, each way, and an overnight stay. The ferries don’t run when they break down or if the weather is bad. In the odd event that the ferry is on schedule, it arrives at Koro at 2 am. By the time they get everything home and put away, it is 5 am. If they need to borrow a cup of sugar, their closest neighbor is a half-mile down the road. The closest Starbucks is 1100 miles away. Koro is one of the few final frontiers on this planet, a beautiful tropical island surrounded by deep blue water where one can still come and own a slice of paradise, light years away from reality. It’s the kind of place that is (and has been) the setting for one of those trendy “Survivor” type TV shows.
We set sail on Thursday for Savusavu, 35 miles to the north. Along the way, the southerlies faltered, so we ended up motor sailing about half the way. Returning to “civilization,” we all enjoyed being tied to the Copra Shed Marina, plugging into shore power, having a long shower, a drink at the Savusavu Yacht Club, a meal out and some concrete under our feet again.
Savusavu is a busy little town that has it roots in the copra (coconut) trade. Since that has waned a bit, like many parts of Fiji, it is slowly shifting to tourism. In the case of Savusavu, it’s eco-tourism. This is great hopping off spot that’s close to remote islands, world class SCUBA diving, jungle hiking and a host of other “eco” activities. Savusavu has a small marina complex, an airstrip, one decent grocery store, three banks (one even has an ATM inside), a farmer’s market, a few cafes, a dozen churches and an assortment of other small retail businesses. The social center for the local expats is the Planter’s Club and for the yachties it’s the Savusavu Yacht Club.
The big event of the week is the local dance on Friday nights at the Hot Springs Hotel. Everybody that’s anybody in town shows up. The cover charge is $5, the drinks are expensive and weak, the DJ is hopeless, but its “people watching” at its best. And just like at a hockey game, every now and then a fight breaks out.
Savusavu seems to attract a lot of expats as the area offers about 80% of the freehold (outsiders can buy and own free and clear) land available in Fiji. The expats generally fall into two categories; people wanted by someone, and people not wanted by anyone. Hang out here for a week and you can generally figure out which are which. This seems to be a place where retired marijuana farmers, tax dodgers and those running from a business deal gone bad, come to disappear and live in peace. Some call themselves “real estate brokers.” It’s places like this that make cruising interesting.