Saturday, October 22 (Day 52)
Drawaqa & Naviti islands
A juvenile hammer head shark flaps around, blood oozing from its mouth, as it tries to get free from the fishing line. It’s a truly beautiful creature. With each second that passes, its chances of survival are diminishing as the blood continues to flow and it is starved of oxygen.
“Let it go back in the sea. You can’t kill it” is the collective response from half a dozen or so of the Castaways on board the Spirit of the Pacific. With the hook safely removed from its mouth, the hammerhead is released back into the ocean where, after splashing around for a second or two, it confidently swims off into the distance. It’s funny really. I received a couple of well-meaning frowns when I said I wouldn’t join in the fishing because I’m vegetarian. But they’re just fish. Yeah, wait until you pull out some beast of a creature and see how you feel about killing it, I told them. And, sure enough, somebody catches a shark and a couple of the girls are virtually in tears at the cruelty of the spectacle.
As well as fishing and sunbathing on the open seas, we snorkel off a coral reef and visit another village (where the islanders put on a song and dance show for us), before returning to our island for our final evening together as Castaways. And it really does feel like that; particularly when a drum is banged to tell us when dinner and breakfast are ready.
After participating in an ‘international show’ in the main bure we stroll out across the sand in the pitch dark towards the sea. On Sunset Beach a bonfire is lit, the crew sing songs for us to the accompaniment of guitars, and copious amounts of Kava are downed as large spiders abseil down from the coconut trees above, their torsos occasionally lit up by the flames of the fire.
It’s my mum’s birthday today but I didn’t manage to get a Fijian Sim before I headed out to the Yasawas. Thankfully, Annika has come to the rescue and although I can’t get any mobile coverage from this isolated corner of the world, I do at least manage to successfully send her a text to tell her I am thinking of her. Like a postcard you are never really sure when it will be delivered, but hopefully she will get it some time today.
Happy birthday mum x
Friday, October 21 (Day 51)
Barefoot Lodge, Drawaqa Island
I look up at the night sky and a flaming fireball breaks up in the atmosphere, sending half a dozen individual pieces of the meteor hurtling towards the ocean in as many different directions. It is terrifying but at the same time a truly mind blowing sight. I don’t know whether I should run for the interior of the island in case this fallen space debris causes a tsunami to rush in from the south and drive a huge wall of water across this island.
Suddenly, I can hear noise coming from the right of me and, just like that, a pack of six snarling dogs are attacking me, biting at my wrists. They are driving me back into the water. Maybe I should try to swim away from shore. Shit, this is mental.
Uuuuuuuhhhhhh. I wake up and find myself sat bolt upright in my beachside bure with the pre-dawn horizon painted with a Walt Disney cartoon blood red and orange glow, straight in front of my open window. My God, that was some dream, and this view from my bed is off the scale.
I get up to snap a quick image and trip over the bottle of urine I carelessly left by the door last night. It took me hours to get to sleep with the whirring noise of my fan, the crashing waves, rustling palm trees, incessant gecko noises and a tree branch banging against my bure. (I’m certainly not complaining by the way). Next thing, I badly needed the toilet but with no electricity and no mobile or torch to guide me I wasn’t going to try and find my way through the jungle undergrowth to the communal toilet (where I was sure a spider the size of a plate was bound to be waiting for me anyhow). And I wasn’t about to take a leak outside in the bushes either, in case one of the villagers came by and I inadvertently insulted them by urinating on their land. So, the only other option was to gulp down the remainder of my water bottle and to pee into that. Well, it is never easy at the best of times to pee into a bottle. I’m not saying I do this often but I could well be into double figures over the course of the past 15 years. The added problem in this particular Pacific island paradise is no light to see what you are doing during the hours of darkness and large open windows through which anybody can see in. So I stood naked in my bure peeing into this bottle, trying my utmost not to let any urine spill onto the floor, and suddenly two of the ship’s crew come past shining torches that light up the huts and cast shadows over anything in their path. Clown that I am, naked, I hid behind the frame of my front door, trying for the life of me not to pee on the floor.
After snoozing again and falling into a deep sleep I wake for a second time with a start. Damn, I’ve probably overslept, missed breakfast and the trip to the local Fiji island community. I throw on last night’s clothes and leg it to the communal bure. Steph and Jamie are sat there alone.
“What time is it?”
“Quarter past six.”
“You look all over the shop!”
“Yeah, I’m a bit disoriented. Did you get caught short in the night?”
“Oh yeah, I weren’t about to try’n find the bogs so I pissed behind the hut.”
Last night, chief guide Lee told me the chief of this community wanted to have a chat with me this morning. God, how I hate authority. My mind has been ticking over since last night as to what I might have done wrong. I reckon I am probably the most culturally sensitive person out of our whole group. I even offered to wear a Sulu (surrong) instead of my jeans last night in consideration of local customs.
Jay slowly strolls over with a coffee and cigarette and sits down on what seems to be a special chatting bench, looking quite stern.
“Morning, Justin. Did you sleep well?”
Oh, shite, they saw me peeing in the bottle last night.
“The thing is that the others have paid full price to come on this trip and you are doing the special with the free ride here. They should have told you when you booked that you need to pay 50 dollars extra for today’s trip.”
Money. Why was I getting all worked up, wondering what I might have done to insult the locals when, as usual, it’s just about money?
I like the fact though that Jay won’t be bribed off by me or knocked down on his asking price. He knows that if the other Fijians find out he will lose respect, and that’s not something he’s willing to risk. And that’s a good principle in my view. What the hell. I know I’ve got a very good deal with this trip. I agree to pay the fifty (18 quid), especially as Annika is complaining that she’s lost her dance partner when I tell her I’m not coming on the trip.
We get the support boat out to the Pride of the Pacific and set sail for the small island community.
There’s no goat or three-legged dog to greet us here. We enjoy a quick walk around the village (population 300), and visit the Pentecostal church which looks exactly how a decaying missionary church on a far flung Pacific or Caribbean island should look. Then it’s the kava ceremony with the village chief, his ‘spokesman’ and ‘bodyguard’. They are covered in what look like dried grass and palms. And this doesn’t feel like a tourist show. Part of me wants to burst out laughing at the intense feeling of the surreal; part of me is in awe of this ritual and the genuine importance with which it is held by the locals. It is something from the long distant past so untypical of our world today. Pagan, if I might use that word.
Our American chief has taken to his high ranking post like a duck to water. It seems to have mellowed him and made him cut out his ex-military sternness. I am wearing my Fidel Castro Cuba t-shirt today just to test his military discipline and he’s been fine with me. Him and I knock back 3 bowls and, let me tell you, this stuff is about twice as pungent as what I had last night. Even my bottom lip gives off a small 3.4 tremor.
The entertainment has been cancelled as the villagers have some important social function today. I bling up with South Pacific props such as a shark’s tooth necklace, buy some Christmas presents for my family, take a few photos, including one of a beautiful kid and a particularly photogenic washing line, and we jump in our speed boat back to the tall ship. Bloody hell, the sea is rough today. The boat rides a couple of big waves and tumbles down the other side, sending sea water over all of us. I nearly throw up on the way back. Five cups of coffee, three bowls of kava and a rough sea really don’t mix.
Back at my bure I rest on my bed admiring the view out my windows. Even here, where time has little consequence – Fiji time, as they call it – the hours are flying by. I want the hands of the clock to slow down. More teeeeeek toooooook than tick tock, if you like. May I never return to the world of 20 days annual leave ever again.
Thursday, October 20 (Day 50) (continued)
Lee, the chief guide, takes us to the main bure (basically a large thatched meeting room) and gives us a lowdown on the island.
“The beach where we just arrived is called Sunrise Beach, because from there you will see the beautiful sunrise each day from your bure. If you walk through the palm trees fifty metres you will come to our other beach. It is called Sunset Beach.”
Steve, the American (and most senior male member of the castaways), is appointed our chief. Lance, the very affable Australian, is appointed as our chief’s ‘spokesman & bodyguard’. This might seem like some tourist nonsense to anybody reading this, but this is the local custom in such a situation.
After dropping our bags at our beachside bure, I play volleyball with the ship’s crew before we all reconvene for dinner in the main bure, followed by my first kava ceremony.
Kava is a root vegetable. It is an anti-depressant, muscle relaxant (it contains 14 anaesthetics) and has similar affects to low toxicity marijuana. They take the kava ceremony and ritual very seriously. The kava root is reduced to a mush, water added and then it is filtered. The drink is then scooped into a small coconut shaped bowl/cup. Before it is passed to you, clap once then, upon receiving the bowl, shout bula. Then down the contents in one, give a big smile and then clap slowly three times. It is considered an insult if you don’t take the first bowl offered to you. The initial taste, as you might expect, could be described as ‘earthy’. But the kava almost instantaneously numbs your tongue and the inside of your mouth. This is because the saliva in your mouth immediately triggers the plant’s ingredients. So your second bowl is far more palatable. English Jamie, Jan and I make it 3 bowls each early doors to buy favour with the local lads.
I am going to throw some vodka into the mix and see what that makes me feel like.
Next the crew sing some beautiful Fijian melodies to us and we all dance. And I feel sort of numb all over in a nice way. I like one of the German girls and when Lee tells us to grab a partner she jumps towards me and offers out the two palms of her hands. I haven’t met anybody at all since my breakup. I don’t suppose I am about to when I cared about somebody enough that I wanted to marry them. If that feeling is real it’s not about to just disappear. So when Annika asks me to dance with her and holds my hand gently it sends an almost forgotten surge of positive chemicals and a faster heartbeat through my body. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not ready to be with anybody new and, for all I know, Annika has a boyfriend, but it’s just a lovely feeling to know that somebody likes you (perhaps) and you like them. And I only tell this story in the context of me struggling with a depression and no longer being able to recall what it feels like to even have my hand held by a woman who cares for me.
The kava and vodka have clearly worked because during a discussion about football songs I feel the urge to sing the words to Three Lions to Jan and the girls:
Four lions on the shirt. Jules Rimet still gleaming. (Sang with a slight slur.)
“Four lions! But, surely, there are just three Justin?!”
After spending the night with my six new German friends (although, truthfully, it’s four as the couple from straight-laced Bavaria aren’t what you’d describe as talkative) drinking Fiji Gold and vodka, and swatting insects that have crawled down the back of my T-shirt, Jan manages to light a fire on the beach just in front of our bure.
And there Jan and I plus the three girls from Hannover sit under the stars with no other light pollution aside from the flames of the fire. Twenty minutes of this and our eyes are dark adapted to see just about anything that is visible and Jupiter is now so large and bright that it begins to trick our senses (or is that the kava?) and make us think it is the light of a helicopter descending towards us. A shooting star then blazes across the sky; one of those very special meteors that looks like a small airplane burning up in the atmosphere rather than just a streak of light.
The waves are crashing so loudly and the palm trees are rustling with such intensity in the wind that I can barely hear Jan telling one of his jokes and, suddenly, I find him and the girls fading from my consciousness and I drift away. For a moment or two, negative thoughts attack me about not sharing these moments with a certain someone and what would otherwise be my second moment of near bliss in one day is ruined…
…but I muster up the strength of mind to remind myself that, just now, I am one of the luckiest people on this planet, sat cross-legged on the fine white sand of this remote Pacific island beach, and another one of those all-coming-together-at-the-same-time moments of bliss consumes me and leaves my arms and neck covered in goose bumps.
Struggling to find internet anywhere on the remote Yasawa islands in Fiji and it isn't possible to upload photos. Normal service will resume when I return to the Fiji mainland. Please be patient. Got some gorgeous photos of the Yasawa islands and many good tales. There isn't much internet in paradise...and i guess that is how it should be...
Thursday, October 20 (Day 50)
Nadi Bay – Denarau – Drawaqa island
Breakfast at 6.45 and it must be 24 degrees. You’d never get me up at this ungodly hour at home, but here I do it with pleasure. The morning bird song chorus is an absolute joy to experience.
Today should be very special. I’ve found my way to Denarau Port, just north of the capital, where I’m joining the Tall ship, Spirit of the Pacific, for a three-night Captain Cook Tours cruise to the Yasawa islands archipelago. There are only 18 of us booked on this sailing and everybody, I believe, with the exception of myself and one German lad, Jan, booked this tour from abroad at great expense many months ago. I struck gold yesterday when I discovered that during October it is possible to jump on this beautiful ship and enjoy three days of tall ship cruising free-of-charge if I book three nights’ accommodation at the resort of choice. The package comes in at 375 Fijian dollars (around 140 pounds), and also includes three days of full board meals and my own beach-side bure once we get to the island.
I can’t help it, but this feels like an episode of Survivor or Castaway, or one of those other numerous reality TV shows which involve being marooned on islands or cast out to sea on a ship.
There are eight crew and 2 Yanks (elderly couple), 3 British (me plus a young honeymoon couple), 3 Aussies (a couple plus the sheila’s sister), 10 Germans (2 couples, 1 lad, 6 girls).
The journey through the Yasawas takes six hours, including a thirty-minute snorkel off a reef that we pass. I spot a huge school of colourful Clownfish. When the trade winds die we have no choice but to cut the motor and sit and wait for the winds to return. This gives this experience a very special authenticity. When the winds return several of the lads, including myself, help the crew hoist the huge sails.
Six hours of sailing behind us the ship manoeuvres its way around a peninsula and drops anchor close to our final destination. My god, not only does this ship look like my imaginings of HMS Bounty, but this could quite easily pass as Botany Bay or some far flung corner of Polynesia.
Very occasionally, when I am travelling, I experience something I’ve always called ‘one-of-those-all-coming-together-at-the-same-time-moment’ feelings. It’s almost as if time stops, the universe stops turning and I am consumed by a rush of euphoria; goose bumps breaking out all over my arms and necks. For a moment or two it’s like I’ve been transported to a higher place. This is one of those moments.
The castaways alight onto the support vessel and we motor our way into shore. The water is as warm as a bath; as clear as crystal. The song Postcards from Heaven slips into my head and I begin to very quietly sing the words to myself. And as if this perfect, this one-of-those-all-coming-together-at-the-same -moment feelings, couldn’t get any better, we are greeted on the shoreline of this paradise by what appears to be the Bremen Stadt Musikants. Get this: our welcoming party is a three-legged dog, a pet baby goat, a bloke in a surrong strumming a guitar, and a Fijian lady, who places a beaded necklace over each and every one of our necks. Surreal wouldn’t do justice as a word. It is like the goat and the dog are cartoon characters, who can talk. I half expect them to shake paws with us.
Somebody is sending me postcards from heaven.
Wednesday, October 19 (Day 48)
Nadi Bay, Fiji
I haven’t got a clue what time it is. I get up to investigate and leaving the darkened dorm I’m greeted by the sight of bright sunlight and the sound of countless different kinds of birds participating in a beautiful morning chorus. It is like, after months of winter and early spring in South America and New Zealand, somebody has finally decided to turn the lights on and put the music on. There’s a touch of paradise about proceedings. Best of all, it’s only 7am.
I take as long as possible to enjoy my cooked breakfast, knock back a half pint of fresh juice and a jug of coffee and have a quick stroll on the beach. How lucky am I to be here? And joy! Back to bed to indulge an air conditioned snooze at 8am.
I get my very smelly clothes washed, dried and ironed for 4 quid, catch up with my blogs, read some more Eat Pray Love and splash on the factor 40 for a two-hour sunbathe. How can this be topped off? A full-body massage on a bed next to the beach shortly before sunset.
No sign of the two Aussie birds, dressed in colourful Tesco supermarket bags, there’s a gorgeous Italian girl sat all alone at Smugglers. I wait thirty minutes to see if anybody joins her and then ask if I can sit with her.
“No, sorry”. What a shocking knock back. There’s nowhere for me to hide. And just when I think the embarrassment can’t get worse, oh great, her fiancé has just turned up.
I best get myself home then. Half a pint of Fiji Gold goes down my neck in two seconds flat.
Tuesday, October 18 (Day 47)
Auckland, New Zealand – Nadi, Fiji – Nadi Bay
My Air Pacific flight lands in Fiji in the middle of a crazy storm. It has taken three hours to get here from New Zealand; three hours to transport you to a totally different world. Who needs space travel. Four men dressed in sarongs greet our arrival with guitars, euchalilies and a welcoming song.
Customs and immigration all seems very casual, although I do need to prove I have an outbound flight from here to Samoa before they will issue me with a free one-month tourist visa. The thought of 17 nights in Fiji brings a broad smile to my face. A very broad smile.
The storm has brought everything to a complete standstill. I had no idea it rained with this intensity it Fiji. I’m not sure I can remember too many times when I’ve seen the skies open and dump that much rain in the space of fifteen minutes anywhere in fact.
By the time my ride arrives, the storm is already moving offshore. Craggy mountain tops appear out of the lifting gloom to the east; the light playing tricks gives the mist a rather strange blue glow as it rises from the fields below.
Previously on Lost.
On first appearances –which is something I’m always keen to remember before I become assimilated to a new country and no longer see it with fresh, innocent eyes – Fiji looks like a cross between the Caribbean and Indonesia. As we drive along the flooded, potholed road towards the capital, Nadi (pronounced ‘Namdee’), the ethnicity of many locals gives the urban scene an Indian subcontinent feel. I think around 40 per cent of the population are of Indian descent, many fifth or sixth generation, originally brought here by the British as indentured labourers when this was part of the empire. The indigenous Fijians have completely different facial features from their fellow Indo-Fijian country folk with those typical high-skulled Polynesian heads and flat noses.
There are dogs everywhere, some of them swimming(!) in the road, which is knee deep with flood water. “I have never seen the roads flood as quickly as that in twenty years,” the driver tells me as we reach our final destination. That’s not a bad shout for my first hour in Fiji.
By the time I haul my bag to the hotel, the storm is passing out to sea and the sun is giving the storm clouds a psychedelic afterglow. Aquarius is a boutique hotel with a couple of dorm rooms for those on a tighter budget. This is impressive. For 31 Fiji dollars (11 quid) you get an air conditioned dorm (with sheets so beautifully clean and fresh that I can only assume my mum must have been here), a cooked breakfast with coffee and juice and a wonderful view of the sea and, in my case, the dramatic storm passing out to sea. Still drunk from the plane, when I tried to consume as much free Grants as was humanly possible, I find myself congratulating myself aloud for being here (and scolding someone who isn’t) as I lean up against a palm tree on the beach, beer in hand, admiring the view out to sea.
“Is there anything we can do for you Justin?” Lozo, a corteous member of the staff, keeps enquiring. Nice.
Next door at Smugglers Cove I am feeling like a spare part sat all alone on a vacuous wooden bench and ask to join two Aussie girls. After initially acting all cool and arsey with me (as Anglo-Saxon birds of a certain age tend to do), they cut out the high and mighty crap and we have a decent chat. Bloody Aussies though. They have this uncouthed tendency to say inappropriate things. One of said birds makes a joke about me not having much hair. I mean, she’s known me for 15 minutes. Why would you do that? I just don’t get it. The thing is, these two girls are aged 22 and are both carrying around 85-90 kilos in weight, squashed into tight-fitting size 14 dresses. Each of them looks like someone has taken the entire contents of their supermarket trolley and squashed it all into one huge plastic bag, which instantly begins splitting at the sides. I mean, what should I say if I want to be all Aussie? Perhaps: “Gees luv, you look like you’ve swallowed a vat of margarine. How can you be twenty two and possibly that grossly overweight? And what the hell are you doing trying to squeeze all that lard into that pretty little dress? You need to get yourself to fact camp darling.”
But, of course, I don’t. I just thank them for their company and stroll home.
“Hi Justin! How was your night? Is there anything we can do for you?” the manager asks me upon my return.
The view from my 10 quid a night hotel with the storm passing out to sea, shortly after I arrive in the country...
Monday, October 17 (Day 46)
It’s a day of goodbyes. George-Michael are headed off up north, whilst I fly to Fiji tomorrow. They’ve been great company. I think I would have been a tad lonely these past few days had I not been knocking around with them in Rotorua, Raglan and Auckland. I might yet see Michael in Samoa in three weeks’ time.
Scottish Amber calls to say her goodbyes as she won’t be back in Auckland till after I leave. She’s one of the few women I’ve met in my life with whom I’ve enjoyed a quality plutonic relationship. I hope we will stay in contact.
Argie Alex is also back in town. I will meet him later but first I’m going to treat myself to an evening at the cinema for the first time in 6 months. I know why they call this film ‘Abduction’, because that is what you feel like when you are trapped in the cinema watching this drivel. I mean, this really is one of the worst films I have seen in my entire life. It’s teenage nonsense dressed up as an adult drama movie. Consider this for a line from the film’s baddie: “First I will kill your friends and then I will find and kill all your friends on Facebook”.
Please, please, I’m warning anybody reading this: Do not allow yourself to be abducted for two hours of your life watching this nonsense.
I feel rather melancholy as I stroll down Queen Street after my abduction experience. I am really looking forward to Fiji tomorrow but I can feel a sadness that my 2011 rugby world cup experience is drawing to a close. Aside from the sausage fest factor, I’ve had a fantastic time here. I have been extremely privileged to attend a world cup here in the country most associated with the sport. It might be 30 years before the world cup is hosted here again. I will always be able to say I was here in New Zealand, and that feeling gives me a positive buzz as I walk through downtown Auckland in the pouring rain and say my goodbyes to Argie Alex, the first person I met in New Zealand, almost seven weeks ago, when we booked into the same airport motel. Alex is another person I am sad to say goodbye to, and most certainly hope I will stay in contact with.