Thursday, November 3 (Day 64)
Mango Bay – Suva – Navoti Landing - Levuka
Cash is king but with an absence of ATMs I’ve been maxing the debit card in Fiji. I’ve subsequently now got to face today’s bill for six nights’ accommodation, restaurant meals, an international phone call, internet and – worst dread of all – my six night bar tab. I guess I’ve covered about 30 quid in cash over this past week but I do pause before I look at my invoice fearing the worst:
My final bill for this wonderful week spent in paradise at Mango Bay comes to a grand total of just 313 Fijian Dollars. Even making allowances for the low currency value of the Pathetic Pound, my bill for all of the above comes in at just 110 pounds – around 20 quid per day full board, alcohol and a few extras. Apparently, as I stayed a fifth night I got the sixth night free (the same deal as when you stay for a third night). I bloody love this place.
I say my goodbyes to the staff and those few friends that still remain, struggling to leave the front gate and get a lift down to the main road in search of Suva-bound buses.
But once I’m a couple of kilometres away from Mango Bay, passing attractive Fijian villages and the wind rushing against my face inside the van, a great sense of freedom consumes me. It is good to be back on the road. It was definitely time to leave.
It is two hours (3 quid) or so to the Fijian capital, Suva, described to me by Scunny Mark as ‘Coventry by the sea with palm trees’. Mark’s description filled me with dread but upon arriving in Suva I feel taken in by the vibe, the people, even the low key bustle. There’s just time for a quick wander around and an Indian curry at a little place in the food court. This is the best curry I have had in a couple of years. Two quid gets me a deliciously spicy eggplant, potato and chickpea curry, two roti, rice, dhal, 2 samosas and a calming mug of masala tea. It does though rather bring out the inner sweat and I’m relieved to dive into the Patterson’s Shipping office to resuscitate in their ice cold air con while my bus and ferry tickets to Lomaiviti Island are organised for me.
Once out of Suva, eastern and north eastern Viti Levu feels and looks completely different from the Fiji I have so far encountered. There isn’t a single sign of development; not a single holiday resort out on this side of the main island. I just can’t get over how many different kinds of birds there are swooping around, and the omnipresent canopy of red flowers that are currently blooming above around half of the region’s trees give this rural part of Fiji a real sense of natural perfection.
We pick up a group of 32 Fijians en route to the ferry crossing at Natovi Landing. One of their number, a very smartly dressed gentleman who’s probably got about five years on me, tells me they have an uncle’s funeral to attend in one of the villages near Levuka. Out of respect, the whole of the family on Viti Levu have upped sticks and left for Lomaiviti for three days.
The one hour crossing takes us to Lomaiviti, where the first sight that greets us is the rusting carcass of an abandoned fishing vessel, run aground close to the landing. From here it is a 45 minute bus journey around the unsealed tracks of this; well I will describe it thus: bonkers little island. Poison ivy seems to slowly be engulfing the whole place. This tiny island is about as untouched as you will find anywhere with habitation on this increasingly overpopulated world. Wild rivers cut through small plantations; bizarrely shaped mountains soaring into the heavens and thick mangroves marking the point at which land and sea meet.
Levuka is unreal. It is a Wild West town but the atmosphere is one of peaceful serenity. Most of this dates to the 1880s and is as authentic a place as I’ve seen anywhere in this regard. Original shop fronts hark back to the nineteenth century when the British administered this country from the peaceful solitude of this small island outpost. If you ever wanted an authentic looking film set for a cowboy movie, this most certainly is your place. I book into the Royal Hotel, the oldest hotel in Fiji, which dates back to 1860. I am astounded by this place. Of all of the world’s still existing colonial hotels, and I’m thinking of the likes of Raffles in Singapore, and the colonial gems in Yangon, Burma and Baalbek, Lebanon, this time trap of a place is certainly amongst the most authentic I’ve come across on my travels. There’s an original pool hall, a wonderfully atmospheric bar and dining area full of original furniture and fittings, and a creaking wooden staircase leads to my bedroom, which although not exactly luxurious, exudes history and character. I feel like laughing aloud when the hotel manager tells me it is going to cost me just 25 Fijian Dollars (9 pathetic pounds) to stay here for the night.
Prince Charles apparently stayed just down the road from here when he handed over Fiji from the British in 1970 and it became an independent country. Close by there is also a rather sinister looking Masonic Lodge(1875), which was set ablaze during the 2000 coup when local Methodists claimed the Masons were working with the devil. Fair play to the local Levukans. I suspect there are plenty of Masons who are in league with Satan or at the very least the fascist Neo-liberals. Better off without that particular secretive society plotting, rolling up their trouser legs and God knows what else behind closed doors in the middle of your community. The walls of the building remain as does the ever sinister Masons’ symbol above the entrance.
Time trap Levuka’s main street is a collection of wooden storefronts, ageing pool halls, cosy restaurants, dilapidated churches and boisterous bars. The Morris Hedstrom trading store dates back to 1868, the gorgeous Sacred Heart Church, framed by the soaring mountain peaks behind it, was built in 1858, and the tiny original white wooden police station also harks back to 1874. Strolling around this Wild West street, being greeted with Bula by every person I meet, and observing the yachts moored offshore bobbing up and down on the crystal clear waters, leaves me with goose bumps and muttering to myself Amazing, Amazing.
Another wonderful curry, this time at Whale’s Tale, where I’m the only diner, I return to the hotel and enjoy a rum and coke with the hotel’s only two other guests, an Australian couple in their fifties who base themselves in Tasmania but increasingly call Fiji home. They adore this country (and I don’t blame them) and are thinking about making a permanent move here. As we pause to take a sip from our various brews, I listen to the grandfather clock tick tocking, the floorboards creaking and briefly slip into a fantasy involving me sitting here in a tweed jacket, discussing the latest matters of Empire and drinking a pot of tea with my fellow British naval officers. The year is 1888.