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Fiji 2008

FIJI 2008

By Bill

We were looking for an opportunity to see colorful soft corals and manta rays.  A trip to two islands in Fiji provided this and more.

A flight from Minneapolis to Las Vegas and then a quick flight to Los Angeles enabled my wife and I to meet up with our traveling partners.  Having to pay US Air $25 for a second bag for one of us and then pay $50 on top of that for having another bag over the weight limit reminded us that flying has changed a lot over the past year.  Having been through LAX previously helped us to navigate from the domestic terminal to the international terminal.  We got into line with our luggage and finally were ready to hand our bags over to the TSA agents for screening just as a half dozen flight crews approached to have their bags screened.  Our excitement of the impending Pacific flight caused us to get antsy as we waited for over 20 minutes as these flight crews walked to the front of the line to go through security.  I was surprised to see several of the pilot’s bags received a hand search and they were given the opportunity to remove several liquor bottles.

The 11-hour flight from Los Angeles to Nadi, Fiji, seemed to go fast as spent the time eating, sleeping, and watching movies.  After getting our baggage and walking over to the domestic terminal in Nadi, we were able to repack our bags to avoid any further additional baggage charges.  We were soon ready to board our 18-seat puddle jumper for a 90-minute flight to the island of Taveuni.  But before boarding, each of us needed to stand on the luggage scale to be weighed so weight could be distributed throughout the plane.  Thank goodness we were required to hold our carryons and the weight was displayed for all onlookers in kilograms.  I did see one husband get a swat from his wife as he attempted to toe the scale in order for her weight to be shown heavier than it actually was. 

The famous Ribbon Reefs of the Somosomo Strait between Vanau Levu and Taveuni were evident during our flight.  As the waves broke over the exposed coral reefs, a white ribbon-like line was drawn along the reef almost like a ribbon fluttering in the wind.  We were met by representatives of the Garden Island Resort at the landing strip and were soon traveling down the road on our 30-minute ride to the resort.  The lush green foliage was typical of what we saw throughout our stay in Fiji.  We were soon checked into our rooms and ready to enjoy the stay.

We arrived on a Saturday and the sale of the resort to new owners had been completed the precious Thursday.  We saw a lot of daily cleaning and the preparation for the renovation the new owners planned for the resort.  Each room is air-conditioned and offers a double bed with a daybed/couch, an area to hang clothes, space for luggage to be stored, and a bathroom with a good supply of hot water for the shower. 

We learned that there is a rainy season and a less rainy season in Fiji.  We had arrived during the less rainy season but we still found time to use the hammocks and lounge chairs next to the ocean.  We spent a lot of time dodging the raindrops by moving tables to a section under the roof of the open-air restaurant. 

Getting off the resort was a great way to learn about the Fijian people.  Getting your picture taken straddling the International Dateline is a must-do activity for travelers.  Worshipping at the Catholic Church at the mission on Sunday morning service was a delight.  The beautiful singing during the service featured the voices of the children educated at the mission school.  There were no pews in the church so people left their footwear at the door and sat cross-legged on the tile floor in rows.  A trip to a nearby village was educational.  Members of the village demonstrated making traditional foods and baskets.  We drank coconut juice and ate white coconut meat from coconuts that were opened with a machete.  We watched a coconut being husked so the coconut meat could be used for a meal and shredded for use in making coconut milk for cooking.  The food we sampled met with varying degrees approval by our group.  We enjoyed a kava ceremony before the end of our visit.  We were told they mixed the kava weaker for us but it didn’t seem to stop village men from wandering over to sit on the hand-woven mats to drink, sing, and dance in the middle of the day.  There were many “low tides” drank by our group of four while quite a few “high tides” and “tsunamis” were drank by the villagers.

Our diving with Aqua-Trek diveshop on Tavenui was done on a very spacious foot boat; well, it seemed spacious with just 3 4 divers along with a boat captain and diver master on the boat each day.  Our first dive of the trip was to the Great White Wall.  The strength of the current took us by surprise but it prepared us for the current we experienced for the rest of the week.  Nudibranchs ranging in size from one inch long chromodorid to a two-foot wide Spanish Dancer were seen on each dive.  Seeing black immature ribbon eels and blue ribbon eels as well as larger eels was a treat.  Reef shark were sighted on most of our dives.  We were introduced to the blushing coral that changed colors when it was touched.  I was not used to the dive masters touching the reef creatures as much as they did.  Having a reef hook was helpful since we were instructed to hold onto the reef for several of our safety stops.  We had cloudy weather for most of the week but the colors of the soft coral were still vibrant enough to be the highlight of the week’s diving. 

Our stay ended and we returned to the Taveuni airport.  We knew the drill this time and stepped up to the scale with our carryons after our checked luggage was handled.  The flight was on time and we were soon at the Nadi airport.  We followed the same routine for checking in and were soon in the puddle jumper for our 45-minute flight to Kadavu.  The highlight of our weeklong stay at the Mantana Beach Resort in Kadavu was supposed to be the manta rays we’d see.  Diving with the mantas was definitely memorable but many of our strongest memories were of the island and the resort itself.

We flew into the landing strip on Kadavu, which was between two of the island's mountains.  Once we had our luggage, a worker from the resort told us to take out luggage “over there.”  There was a dirt road in the direction he pointed.  I thought I had misunderstood where he wanted us to take the luggage so I waited for him to tell someone else in our group.  I heard it right the first time.  We needed to pull our luggage across the landing strip’s dirt parking area and then 200 yards down a dirt road that was pocked with water filled ruts.  The tide was out so once we got close to the boat sent from the resort we carried our luggage over the huge boulders that guarded the shoreline and down onto the exposed sand.  We took our footwear off so we could walk across the wet sand and into knee-high water where the boat was waiting.  Little did we know that that was the last time we’d be wearing anything on our feet until we returned to the landing strip.

The Mantana Beach Resort was owned by a German woman who leased the land from the village next to the resort.  The caretakers, Mary and David, greeted us after the 10-minute boat ride to the resort.  Mary grew up in Fiji and met her husband, David, in Australia.  Mary was a delightful lady whose charm was perfect for working with villagers and guests alike.  Her chain-smoking husband, who had previously been an accountant, seemed to tend more to the details of resort grounds. 

We were provided information about the resort and then led to our bures, which were just a few feet from the beach.  The bures contained a double bed, a ceiling fan (no air conditioning), and space for hanging our clothing.  A bathroom area was sectioned off by swinging doors for privacy.  We had plenty of hot water but the small water heater in our bure was used only if the spring water heated by the solar heater on the roof of the bure wasn’t working.  Other than electricity for reading lights and a light in the bathroom, electricity was provided to each bure only from 7:00-9:30 in the morning and from 5:30-9:00 at night.  We opened the louvered wooden slats during the day for additional light.  We were told not to drink the water in the bathroom but use the filtered spring water they provided free in used water bottles.  We were told there was no guarantee that the water would be okay for us but it was used at our meals and during the surface intervals between our dives.  The water looked a little on the brown side so many of us chose to buy bottled water from the resort.

Early on, we learned to appreciate the simplicity of the resort and the pace of our day slowed down considerably.  Soft sand covered the paths.  The slats were opened at night and we fell asleep to the sounds of the waves.  There was no television and no radio in our bures.  The only phone in the resort was in the office area of to the lodge and the newest newspaper was, at best, a month old. 

The gathering places for the resort were the lodge where the food was served and the beach bar where Fijian beer and Australian wines were consumed and stories were shared as we watched the sun go down over the water.  It would difficult for someone who was physically disabled to stay at the resort.  We climbed three sets of stairs to get to the lodge where we ate.  Our breakfasts featured eggs prepared in various ways, juice, toast, and coffee.  Before we left breakfast, we ordered our food for the rest of the day.  Food like sandwiches, chicken, fish, and spaghetti were provided for our lunch meals on the veranda.  We had a soup or salad along with fish, chicken, and beef prepared island style and a dessert to finish the dinner meal.

The long sandy beach was a perfect place to position our chaise lounges for sunning.  We were able to snorkel by the small coral head a few yards off the beach.  The beach also provided us an opportunity to view the daily life of the villagers from the beach.  We were told that family clans combined to create the two nearby villages.  We watched the older women of the village as they netted small fish along the shoreline for used as bait by village fisherman.  Villagers fished as the sun came up and throughout the day.  Some young villagers baited their hooks and swung the line over their heads in an effort to cast it out into the water.  Birds gathered beyond the reef to do their own fishing and mirrors were used to signal the location of the fish to the fisherman in the boats.  Soon after a flash of a mirror, a village boat would move to that location on the reef.  Villagers grew taro, mango, papaya, bananas and kava to sell.  Later in the morning, village men walked down the beach to get to access to their hillside fields.  Just before sunset, we saw the village farmers use the baskets similar to what we saw made in Tavenui carry the harvest back to the village. 

We were able to attend a Methodist church with Mary and visit the primary school during our week on Kadavu.  I was struck by the passion of the singers at both the church and the school.  The dog, which adopted our resort, walked right into the church and lay on the floor behind our pew.  We were told the dog lay on the floor next to the pulpit when Mary was preaching the Sunday before we arrived.  The villagers sang loud and with conviction during the service.  Our groups’ visit to the school was the reason for an assembly.  The student’s pride shown on their faces as they sang for us.  Many boys played rugby and girls played basketball during the recess that followed the assembly.

Diving with Dive Kadavu that was based out of our resort, we saw colorful nudibranchs, a sea snake, leaf scorpionfish, and typical small tropical fish on the coral bommies in front of our resort.  We suspected the lack of larger fish was most likely due to the fishing done by the villagers.  There was some colorful soft coral on a few dive sites but nothing like the Ribbon Reefs up north.  We made a special trip to the other side of the island to see manta rays and the mantas we saw were the highlight of our diving on Kadavu.  We traveled by boat to get to the dirt road and then carried our gear across the wet sand, up the boulders, and to a waiting truck which traveled over pocked dirt roads.  It was an experience it itself as we crawled over some steep, wet rocks to get onto another boat for our three dives.  There were reef sharks and turtles to keep our attention as we were looking for the mantas.  We were stumped on our first dive but saw 3 mantas on the second dive and 2 mantas on the third dive.  Seeing an 8-foot manta ray swim several loops within arms reach of a diver in our group will be fresh in my memory for a long time.  The consensus of our group was that the diving in Kadavu, with the exception of the manta dives, lacked excitement. 

The people we met during our two-weeks were very gracious and the sights were beautiful.  The two resorts and the style of diving were totally different producing two distinctive vacations.  A trip to Fiji is an experience that I’d recommend for any and all!