Three years after my trip to Samoa, the itch to go back to the South Pacific became too strong. I was living in damp and cloudy London, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the blue skies, the emerald seas and the romanticism of going (literally) to the other side of the world again. I wanted to go as far as possible to escape my current life. This time I had two very close friends living in Australia, Melly and Tatiana, so selecting the island became a matter of which flight connections allowed them to join me for just 3-4 days.
Despite my best efforts to avoid touristic places, it soon became obvious that Fiji was the most convenient option. I had the (wrong) image of Fiji as solely a backpackers and honeymoon destination, the South Pacific made easy. I was dying to see my friends, so I resigned myself to this perspective. Soon I would find out that there is much more to Fiji than the touristic hotspots, and the eternal ‘Which South Pacific island?’ question became ‘Which Fiji island?’.
After lots of sleepless nights and research later (I do seem to enjoy planning logistically complicated holidays), we chose Vanua Levu, the second largest island in Fiji, as our destination. It is beautiful, not too popular with tourists, well connected and – very importantly – its waters host a healthy population of hammerhead sharks. Hammerheads had (have) been on my list of sharks to dive with for a while and kept (keep) eluding me, so this definitely swung the balance in favour of Vanua Levu.
Part 1 – Vanua Levu
I arrive to Vanua Levu’s capital, Savusavu, in the early hours of the evening. I am absolutely destroyed. For some strange reason, I thought it would be a good idea to do 3 overnight flights in a row in order to catch up with friends along the route. I have flown from London to Dubai to Singapore to Fiji, and somewhere above Papua New Guinea I realise I have pushed this a bit too far. I find Singapore such a great flight hub that, in my head, I keep minimising any travel time as long as there is a direct flight from there. Singapore to Nadi, home to Fiji’s main airport, takes almost 11 hours, and I have had to wait another 5 hours for my internal flight to Savusavu. This flight takes place in a very exciting tiny plane, so small that they have to weigh you at check in and allocate seats according to your weight. It is one of the most beautiful journeys by plane I have ever done, as you are able to admire the volcanic beauty of Fiji for the whole route.
Once in Savusavu, you feel like you have just been dropped in the middle of the South Pacific. Its bay is exactly what all the dreams of the South Seas should be about – a wild, green, volcanic, mountain ridge. Its vegetation is dense and close to the sea its mostly palm trees. The sea is dark blue and emerald. It’s stunning. Unfortunately, when I arrive, a volcano in nearby Vanuatu has just erupted, and there is a dense cloud of smoke which covers a bit of the beauty, but it is still magnificent.
My first accommodation is at Korovesi Sunshine Villas, a lodge run by a Russian couple, with fantastic views over the bay and quite close to town. I have booked my first dive for the following morning (yes, after travelling across the world for 3 days), so I go to sleep early and cross my fingers that this time I will see the hammerheads. Earlier on the year, I went to Bimini, in the Bahamas, just for that. Bimini is a very small island with not much to do for tourists other than run around in golf carts, so booking myself there for a week was solely driven by my objective to dive with hammerhead sharks, which are seen there on an almost daily basis during the peak season. As soon as I arrived, I was told there was too much wind to dive so I spent the week walking back and forth the island, really enjoying some quiet time, but quite disappointed with the lack of diving.
The next morning I am picked up by Colin from Koro Sun Dive. He drives me and other divers to the dive centre, through a road that crosses dense tropical vegetation and then surfaces in a beautiful coast. It is actually here that the main resorts in the island are located. Most of the island is made of copra and sugarcane plantations, and small, quiet villages. It is a shame that we only have a few days in the island as I would love to see more of rural Fiji.
We go for our first dive to ‘Dream house’, a dive spot where seeing hammerhead sharks is almost guaranteed. The boat ride is a bit bumpy, but all I can think about is the sharks. I actually really enjoy diving alone (part of a bigger group), as it gives me lots of time to think and reflect, but I also miss my friend Mike, the ultimate dive buddy. I love how we can talk about the sharks we have seen for hours after we have resurfaced, and I feel very safe knowing I have a friend nearby who is checking on me. We get to the dive spot and jump right in. I have warned the dive guide that I tend to have equalisation issues when I haven’t dived for a few months (when your ears hurt if you try to descend too quickly), and as soon as I start descending I feel the pain. I have to descend very slowly and stay a few meters above the rest of the divers. The dive guide makes the hammerhead sign with his hands (fists on both sides of his head) and everyone follows him. I am so frustrated as I have to stay behind, but if I ignore the pain I could have a much bigger health issue and I would be unable to dive for a long time. It seems that being inside the stale, cold air of so many planes has left my breathing system super congested and it takes me a long time to be able to catch up with the rest.
By the time I am close to the group, the big group of hammerheads has disappeared. I find out later that there were dozens of them. I am very sad but I am not giving up, and spend the rest of the dive scanning the blue, looking for sharks. Suddenly, I see a lone, big hammerhead swimming just underneath me. He swims away but I have enough time to see it. It is one of the most beautiful, magical creatures I have ever seen. Still, to this day, I have its image crystal clear in my head – also because to this day, and despite diving often in hammerhead waters, I haven’t seen them again. I am so entranced by the hammerhead, that when I see quite a few reef sharks in the next dives, I dismiss them as ‘too common’.
Back in my accommodation, I take time to enjoy my room. It is actually huge, with Fijian decoration, and magnificent views of the bay. Today the volcano ash has cleared out a bit and I am able to admire the bay of Savusavu. I have an epic, long nap, the type of nap that only diving can induce, and start feeling recovered from the journey here. I am in the South Pacific! The excitement starts to build, especially as I discover that I am actually very close to Rabi island. This island is famous for sad reasons, but I cannot believe I am so close to such an important piece of history of the South Seas.
Rabi Island is home to the displaced Banabans, who had to leave Ocean Island in Kiribati between 1940s and 1980s. The island was covered in petrified guano (from the droppings of seabirds), which made it an ideal source of phosphate mining. The British mined it for over 80 years, leaving most of the island inhabitable and devoid of trees and soil. To allow the Banabans to survive, a new home had to be found for them. The Fijian government relocated the original inhabitants of Rabi Island to the nearby island of Taveuni (so they are also displaced people), and the Banabans moved to Rabi. They are still there, waiting for justice to be done, and call themselves ‘the forgotten people of the Pacific’. I first came across their story after reading ‘A pattern of islands’ by Sir Arthur Grimble, a fascinating account of Sir Arthur’s life in the Gilbert and Ellis Islands (of which modern day Kiribati was part of) as a British civil servant in the early 1900s. I also read about the tragedy of the Banabans in ‘Atlas of remote islands’ by Judith Schalansky, a beautiful, rare book about remote, less known islands around the world.
The next morning, I go diving again, and unfortunately we don’t see any hammerheads. We see a few black tip sharks, but the hammerheads remain elusive. Never mind, I am beyond excited as by the time I head back to the hotel, Tatiana will be there waiting for me. She used to cover the Pacific region when she was working for the World Bank, and has travelled to all the islands I am dying to go to. She knows the South Pacific quite well, and since she hasn’t been back in a few years, this trip is quite meaningful to her.
It is always a surreal, happy moment, when you see your close friends in a completely different setting, new for both of you. By the time I get to our room, Tatiana has already engaged the Russian owner in conversation (she is Russian herself) and knows all about their story in Fiji. We sit by the pool with beers and chat for hours, with the South Seas in the background. We go for dinner at the Captain’s Table, a popular spot in Savusavu, that has tables by the sea and offers fish of the day.
The next day Melly arrives, and it is yet another amazing, surreal moment. Melly is my pillar. I talk to her on an almost daily basis, despite the fact that we are always living in different continents, so seeing her surrounded by the volcanic bay of Savusavu is quite special. Given now it’s three of us, we move to Fiji Lodge Vosa Ni Ua, a family owned lodge overlooking the ocean, near where my diving took place. The hotel is run by a New Zealand family that has lived in Fiji for generations, working in the copra business. The owner warns us not be ‘alarmed’, and we spend the next days wondering what he meant and waiting for something awful to happen.
We have a large room for ourselves, and are short walk away from the beach. We sit beneath the palm trees drinking rum and discussing our lives, as all of us are at crossroads. There is not much else to do, other than snorkel and nap, and we embrace the idleness. It is not often that you can have such a relaxed holiday. The owner offers to organise a massage with a local masseuse, and we quickly agree. She is known to have ‘healing hands’, and somehow convinces the girls to buy her all sorts of trinkets, and worries me about how tense my whole body is.
For dinner, the owner suggests we go for pizza to nearby Coconuts Bar and Grill, a short walk away. The restaurant has a few picnic tables full of local families. It is very interesting to observe the differences between family members, as there is quite a mix between indigenous Fijians and descendants of Scottish people who came to the islands to work in the plantations. I reflect on the ability of humans to make their home a place in the other side of the world, especially during times when you couldn’t go back to your place of origin often or communicate with my family. As much as I like living abroad, it is all made possible because I can talk and visit my family regularly, but these planters were completely cut off from Scotland for decades. Did they feel as alien as I sometimes feel living in a new place? Did they feel at home? How long did it take them?
Our next stop in the island is Koro Sun Resort & Rainforest Spa, a more upscale accommodation that has breezy bungalows with its own pool and a private beach. In between sugary cocktails at the beach bar, we kayak and snorkel, in my case trying to find sharks, in the case of Tatiana and Melly, trying to avoid them. We are surrounded by honeymoon couples, and in the evening we seem to be the only table not having a romantic dinner.
Part 2 – Nadi and Yasawa Islands
Unfortunately it is time for the girls to go back to Australia, so we take the little plane once again, and I say goodbye to them at Nadi airport. I have an extra day to spare before leaving for Singapore, and I decide to give a go to the touristic side of the islands. I stay in Wailoaloa, the backpackers district, where I am greeted by a subpar accommodation at a very high price. This is not the nice face of the South Pacific. For dinner, I wander to one of the nearby bars, where I am surrounded by backpackers during their gap year, and I feel quite out of place. It is also interesting to observe that I see many more Indo-Fijians than in Vanua Levu. They have been in Fiji since the British brought indentured labourers from India in the late 1800s, to work in the sugarcane plantations, and many chose to stay once their contract ended. In recent years, a large percentage of those remaining have left Fiji, due to subsequent coup d’états, that resulted in interracial violence between Indo-Fijians and Fijian Melanesians.
The next day I try a day trip with Captain Cook Cruises to Tivua Island, part of the Yasawas, the most visited part of Fiji. The cruise is well organised (they even pick me up at my hotel), the staff is friendly and I am surrounded by couples that are on the trip of a lifetime. As we cross pretty islands that belong in a tourist brochure, a German couple tells me this is their dreamed honeymoon, the grand trip that they do once in their lives. This makes me reflect that as much as it has taken me a while to get here, for me this is a week detour to see my friends. There is literally no part of me that doubts that I will come back to the South Pacific quite a few times during my life, and I am almost taking everything a bit for granted. We drop our anchor in Tivua, where we will be spending the day, and I take these reflections with me as I find the best place to tan. I snorkel in the reef, and I realise I might be travelling too fast and pushing myself too much. I look around me, and realise I could be anywhere in South East Asia or the Caribbean. I look without seeing and I don’t appreciate the differences. This is not what travelling should be about, each destination deserves to be savoured and enjoyed for what it is.
As we head back to the Denarau port, I feel this day has served an important purpose. I have not really enjoyed my stay in Nadi, I feel I have wasted my money both in the hotel and the cruise, but I have made a huge realisation that will influence the trips to come. I have dinner at Grace Road Kitchen, where a very friendly Korean staff serves me a really nice bibimbap. A few months later I learn the restaurant chain is part of a church and has been accused of being a cult and keeping people captive, and I am mildly shocked. I did find the staff suspiciously happy.
I leave Fiji feeling slightly unsatisfied – I feel like I haven’t seen nearly enough of this country, and I would have loved to stay longer in the region – ‘Vanuatu seems only a short flight away…’. I buy a big bottle of noni juice at the airport, which apparently will be good for my digestion (I am easily persuaded when it comes to exotic ingredients) and another one of tiare oil. To this day, tiare has to be one of my favourite scents in the world, always reminding me of the South Seas, making me feel that I am part of a well-kept secret (outside the South Pacific, I buy tiare oil from Hei Poa or Monoï Tiki Haiti). As I wait for my plane to board, many people around me seem surprisingly familiar – Indonesians, that is. My assumption is right as they all continue flying onwards to Jakarta in the same plane as me, following our stopover in Singapore. I assume they are working in the plantations. As I start the second leg of my holiday in Indonesia, feeling quite at home in the pollution of Jakarta, Fiji feels like a distant dream. Was I really in the South Pacific a couple days ago?
Arranging the trip:
- Books to read (about South Pacific as a whole)
- In search of Tusitala: Travels in the Pacific after Robert Louis Stevenson, Gavin Bell
- The happy isles of Oceania, Paul Theroux
- Transit of Venus: Travels in the Pacific, Julian Evans
- South Sea Tales, RL Stevenson
- Journeys to the other side of the world: Further adventures of a young David Attenborough, Sir David Attenborough
- Sea people: The puzzle of Polynesia, Christina Thompson
- Solomon time, Will Randall
- The sex lives of cannibals, J. Maarten Troost
- The last whalers: Three years in the far Pacific with a courageous tribe and a vanishing way of life, Doug Bock Clark
- Blue latitudes: Boldly going where Captain Cook has gone before, Tony Horwitz
Beyond the Coral Sea: Travels in the old empires of the south-west Pacific, Michael Moran
- Films to watch (about South Pacific as a whole)
- Tanna, Martin Butler, Bentley Dean
- Kon-Tiki, Espen Sandberg, Joachim Rønning
- Women travellers
- I felt very safe and comfortable at all times, both when I was alone and when I was with my friends
- I would just recommend exercising caution with your belongings when hanging around the backpackers area in Nadi – and have an idea of the price of local taxis, especially when you take them from the airport, you might have to bargain
- Rainy season in Vanua Levu is from November to March
- Visibility for diving is best in July and September (although I was there in August and it was pretty good)