September 17, 2011

Our First Look at Fiji

We departed Futuna at 3:00 on the 29th for the short 160 mile sail to the NW shore of Vanua Levu.  We experienced much calmer seas and winds of just 20 knots to deal with this trip, much better than the last passage!  We did not see any other boats all night and go figure around 1:00 in the afternoon Daria and I were watching a movie and I got up to take a look around and we had a 100 foot fishing boat 500 yards off our port bow!! 

We enter through a pass in the Great Sea Reef and motored our way SW to a small anchorage just south of Mali Island that the locals call “Boro Boro”.   The inside passage kept us on a close lookout the whole time we traveled through it, we never quite trusted the charts and luckily never ran aground during the 100 or so miles we traveled inside the reef.  The charts here like a lot of other places are old and not very accurate and we would not recommend traveling these waters at night.

The next morning we loaded our bags with toys and things to give away and set off for a trip up the Labasa River that would take us to the small town of Labasa some 5 miles upriver.  The shoreline of the rivers mouth was covered with mangroves and it was hard for us to find the main outlet to the river.  We stopped and asked a local fishing boat “Four Sisters” which was actually being driven by four brothers for directions as we gave them all a Downtime hat.  They offered to show us the way and told us to follow them through the shallow delta to the mouth of the river.  Many thanks guys!! Good luck fishing!!

This is our 5th river that we have taken SD up and river adventures never get old.  This river was one of the larger waterways we have navigated  and the calm water was murky green and up to 20 feet deep in places.  The river wound its way through the low-lying tree covered swamps.  The wildlife was scarce and I think most the fish were all caught decades ago but the trees along the shores were amazing.  We almost felt like we were deep in the Amazon or some tropical jungle and the only people on earth.  Then back to reality we would round another bend and a few fishermen heading down would motor by and all give us a friendly wave and smile. 
 After several miles the trees thinned out along the shore and you could see farm ground in the clearings.  Most of the faming is of sugar cane, cassava root, yucca root and taro root.  The cassava and yucca are a starchy root that they use to make cakes with the ground cassava and a potato like side dishes from baked or boiled yucca. Either of them well cooked is hard to tell from a potato in my opinion.

The river took us right to through the center of the town but first we motored by a busy lumber mill and sugar cane fields.  Along the way kids came running and waving to the banks out their small homes along the shore and we pulled up close and gave those gifts and candy.  This is one of the poorest countries we have been to but you could not tell from the attitude of the people, everyone seemed to be happy and content with life.  At one home there were even saw pigs living an a pen over the water, I don’t think the kids would swim there though?

In the middle of town there is a two lane bridge crossing the river along with a well worn sugar cane railway bridge that had been worn into a unusable state years ago with rotting timbers and twisted tracks.  Now they haul the cane on small tractor pulled trailers and old two ton trucks to the mill miles down the bumpy road at the edge of the bay at Malau. It would be hard to imagine harvesting crops this way back in the states but here manual labor is still available and it is all cut and loaded by hand?  Every piece of cane is hand chopped with a machete and loaded onto the wagons and trucks for the ½ day trip to the sugar mill.  Nobody is in a hurry and the work slowly gets finished.  I could only imagine the hours of hard labor it takes to load a 400ft ship full of raw sugar! 

At the turn of the century as the sugar industry was developing Fiji imported over 60,000 workers from India to work the fields.  The islands population is now about 50 % Indian and the rest consist of Fijian’s and Some European descendants.   Virtually all Fijians are Christian and only about 12% are Catholic.  The Indians here are mostly Hindu with some Muslim.  There have been several coo’s in the last decade when the Indians tried to take over the government but failed, but the Fijians will not throw them out of the country because it would cause economic meltdown since the Indians like most places run most the small businesses.

Further up the river lay a fleet of fishing boats that look like they have not worked in quite a while.  Here in Fiji like many other places in the world they are experiencing fewer and fewer fish every year.  And with the price of fuel raising it makes it harder and harder to justify going out to catch them.   The fishermen we do see catch whatever they can and keeping everything that gets caught in their modern nets.  It is not hard to see what is happening….There are so few mature fish left to repopulate the rising demands…that soon they will disappear altogether.

We enjoyed our trip up the river and on our way back to Downtime we stopped by the village on Mali Island.  As we pulled up to the village all the kids came running to greet us.  Wow there were a lot of kids!!  There had to be around 30 and our bag of goodies did not last long.  One of the women of the village greeted us and offered to give us a tour.  We gladly accepted and were followed by a group of happy kids that had the candy wrappers flying!   The kids here are so much different than back home.  Most never even have seen a gamboy or play station and are happy running around swinging a stick and drawing in the sand.

The village had 30 or something homes and was located 2 miles off the mainland.  They had two or three small boats to fish and go to town with. There is no electricity and the water comes from a small spring up the hill.  There was a central place to shower which was no more than a little shack with a hose.  Other sources of water in the small village are provided by water faucets scattered throughout the homes.  The homes are simple structures, 4 walls and a tin roof with a few dividing walls.  The cooking area is built off the back of the home and the food is cooked outside over wood fires. Looking inside the homes the first thing I noticed was the lack of furniture.  I do not think there was a chair in the whole village and most are content sitting cross-legged on the ground on woven mats.  The floors are covered in woven mats that soften up the hard concrete floors.  The windows if there are any are “always” open with colorful curtains blowing in the wind and most have the doors wide open. 

This is was a small village and the Chief has a traditional built Thatched grass home in the center. We asked permission to meet the Chief and when we went inside his home he was laying on his back reading the Bible.  He invited us to sit down and our guide translated for us.  We gave him a Downtime tee shirt and a card with a picture of the boat on it and were able to tell him about our travels and he seemed happy that we stopped by and visited his village. 

The inside The Chief’s home was amazingly simple.  The all natural structure was build with traditional expertise I am sure with the skills that have been passed down for generations. Large wood beams lashed together with cords and palm leaves woven to make the walls and the roof.   The home was just 15 feet by 25 feet with two mattress beds (most likely the only mattresses in the village) on the far wall. There were three opening on the end we entered into that provided ventilation and natural light to the building.  The floors were covered in finely woven mats and were quite comfortable to sit on since there were several layers of them.  The chief had some really old pictures of family on the walls and the place felt like a home. 

 We left the Chief to reading his Bible and hiked up the hill to visit the village’s church.  The view from the top of the hill was something off a postcard and I wish we had been here on a Sunday to worship with them.

Back down to the main gathering area we sat down and talk with several of the other women in the village,  They told us living here was one big family and everyone knew everything about everyone, much like we had experienced from visiting other villages much larger.  Again I found myself wondering how all this works?  How do you sustain life on a island?

We thanked them for their hospitality and they gave us a few coconuts for the road.

The west coast of Vanua Levu is semi arid and reminded me of the central California coastline. The rolling hills had scattered green trees with patches of brown dry grass.  The mountains are ancient volcanoes that that once spewed their jet black lava but now lie dormant.

 These are the first islands that we saw the color brown on; the others were all lush green.  The valleys were planted in sugar cane and mangroves grew along the coastline. 

As we zigzagged our way through the reefs inside the passage we would pass the occasional fishing boat and on one reef we saw an entire family scouring the ground for any crustaceans they could find.  I don’t know exactly what they are searching for but they were spread out for miles along the reef as the tide receded.  We covered some 25 miles that afternoon and later just before the sun set we dropped the hook just of the small island of Nakuei, As we settled in another family was finishing up fishing the reef just off this small island and just before dark they past close by and said hello before heading off into the sunset to their own island to the west.  

We woke to a drizzling cloudy morning and to a sky with a thousand shades of grey.  The hills were cloaked in clouds and the smoke from the many fires burning in the sugarcane fields.  The smoke and clouds gave the mountains a ominous eerie feeling like they were coming back alive and the volcanoes of the past had awakened as the orange glow of the sun rose through them.  The unsettled weather had produced a sky of many colors with high rippled sand like clouds that were partially hidden by the puffy storm clouds that rolled off the mountain tops.  The gloomy sky turned the water a dark shade of grey-green but we felt the world coming alive for another day as the sun rose over the mountain tops creating even more spectacular colors as it traveled across the sky.

The weather had cooled off since we left Tahiti and now we found ourselves looking for sweatshirts in the morning.  It seems strange weather is occurring all over the world this year.  We heard they had snow in New Zealand for the first time in decades and it has been hot a blazes in Kansas causing terrible drought.. 

We continued our way south and by mid afternoon had cleared the SW point of Vanua and set our course for Yadua Island 15 miles to the south.  As we crossed the channel I saw a few bait fish jumping and decided to give fishing a go and two hours later we landed a nice Skipjack Tuna.  The winds were blowing from 15 to 25 and we made good time and cleared the tricky pass just before 5 in the afternoon


The next morning we lowered SD and went ashore to the small camp that was on the beach.  There were 25 or so people living in makeshift shelters and tents set up along the shore.  We were greeted by the man in charge, Peter who explained that he worked for the Fiji Environmental Agency and was monitoring the iguanas that live on a island close by.  The island is closed to all visitors without permission and home to 3 species of iguana.  The local iguanas are small 8 to 12 inch long and change color from tan to green depending on their environment.  The other iguanas are much larger that someone introduced some time ago and now are threatening to take over the island.  He explained that they just came out here a few weeks at a time to monitor the iguana population and to keep people of the island. I told him if it got out iguana taste like chicken that would solve the overpopulation problem….

After our short visit with Peter we loaded SD and set sail for the main southern island of Fiji just 35 miles to the SE.  We made our way through the pass and anchored of Nananu-I-Ra Island next to another catamaran Endless a Catana 50.  The boat turned out to be owned by Peter, a guy from Germany that Daria had met in Hamburg 2 years ago when she applied for a crew position on Endless.  Later while we were on the internet Daria found another friend she had sailed with was heading our way and when we woke Super Mario was anchored on the other side of us.  Paolo who owns Super Mario a swan 53 is from Italy and was the first boat Daria had sailed within the ABC Islands and later in Los Roques, Venezuela.  Sometimes the sailing world gets so small when you meet people you know, but two boats in one remote anchorage is amazing….

We would have loved to spend some more time catching up but we had a deadline to be in Suva by Tuesday to get my passport renewed and Daria a visa for New Zealand.  We set our course east to Oualau Island off the NW point of Fiji some 35 miles away.  The winds were light and we still had cloudy skies as we motored inside the reef passage.  At one point instinct told me to change course and moments later I saw a giant coral head pass by the side of the boat just a few feet below the surface, it left me wondering how many other near misses we have had in the last few miles inside this passage?

Lavuka is one of 4 ports where you can clear into Fiji and is located on the north shore of the island of Ovalau.  The harbor is just a concrete pier that jets out into the bay and there is little to no protection from the trade winds.  We rode out gusty 20 knot squalls in the rolling anchorage all night and in the morning launched SD and set off to clear in.  We were the only boat in the anchorage but to clear in and it took all morning as we waited for one department after another to complete the process.  Everyone wanted to go to the boat to do the paperwork and after two trips of hauling officials back and forth to Downtime and filling out at least 10 pages of forms we were finished and by noon ready go to Suva but not entirely cleared for Fiji for some reason?

Our next adventure will be Suva the capitol of Fiji

Until then live your dreams!

Peace!!!  Capt. Pedro and Daria