Wednesday, 30 November 2011


Rain was falling steadily as I landed at Nadi airport on Fiji's largest island, Viti Levu. We'd had beautiful, cloudless skies until our descent over this nation of islands but after all, we were heading to the start of the wet season. I was beginning to think that I should have put more thought into the weather when planning my trip (SE Asia in wet season, NZ in spring, North Australia in the heat and humidity of summer). I waited for my bags at the carousel and watched as the other passengers removed their damp luggage and went on their way. Suddenly the carousel stopped and about 10 of us looked around nervously. A fellow passenger went to make an enquiry. Apparently the rain had become heavy so the baggage handlers, not wanting to get soaked, decided not to go back to the plane to collect the remaining pieces of luggage. About 20 minutes later the rain calmed down, the carousel restarted and I finally got my bag. That was my first introduction to "Fiji time", the art of taking it easy.

I took a chance coming to Fiji a little unprepared. I hadn't booked any diving - I was still a bit tender from an ear infection - nor had I booked any accommodation. I'd heard that Nadi, being essentially a transport hub, is a bit rough around the edges, with the true beauty of Fiji being in the outer islands, so I hoped to stay in the hotel across the road from the airport and book a flight to a nearby island as soon as possible. Luckily I managed to get the last room in the hotel (a lot of passengers from my flight thought the same thing but managed to collect their luggage and get there before me), and found one of the last seats on an early morning flight to Savusavu on Fiji's second largest island, Vanua Levu.

In NZ I found it a little weird that their dollar coin looked exactly like a pound coin, Queen's head and everything, just half the value. In Fiji there was something odd about the currency. It took me a while to realise that my uneasiness arose from the fact that the Queen is looking directly at you and smiling. Not being an avid fan of the Queen's speech, or the royals in general, I don't think I've ever seen her face-on.

I walked to the airport the following morning (all of 5mins away), and checked in:
"Oh sorry, did you not get a call? The plane is delayed by 3 hours and we can't fly to Savusavu, we have to fly to Labasa and transfer by car from there."
Little did I know this was just the start of Fijian plane woes. Labasa airport was probably the smallest I've ever been to. We practically unloaded our luggage from the plane ourselves. From there it was a hastily organised shared taxi through to Savusavu on the other side of the island, which turned out to be a fun drive through tiny villages and tropical forests with an environmental scientist / spear fisherman (personally, I'd never heard of that combination before) who had to travel with wads of paper in his ears. Probably some horrific ear-drum popping accident from the fishing... I didn't ask as I would probably have been grossed out.

High Street, Savusavu
I think Savusavu is the biggest town on Vanua Levu but it was only one street with a few cafes, hotels, a market and a marina. As I was still waiting for my ear infection to fully clear up I had to stay above the water so I did some snorkelling around the reef, spent an inordinate amount of time chilling by the pool, drank Fijian milkshakes and ate great Indian food. The food portions are generally enormous, as are most of the people (I'm no expert on correlation - remember I got made redundant from correlation trading - but I think there's one here). There's a large Indo-Fijian community in Fiji as a whole, which has brought tons of great Indian food and a few fusion experiments.

Encouraged to come over from India to work on sugar cane plantations in the time of colonial rule, Indian workers settled. As they were generally more business savvy than the native Fijians, many became wealthy and this has created tensions, leading to several coups and leadership struggles since the late 80s. Generally the ethnic Fijians I spoke to were tolerant of this sizeable community (over a third of the population are of Indian origin; Divali is a national holiday in Fiji) but occasionally some shopkeepers in the larger towns were keen to point out that a product was made by ethnic Fijians in real Fijian villages, rather than by "the Indians".

I hopped on the ferry to Taveuni (Fiji's 3rd largest island), which happened to be the first really scratty transport that I'd taken in a long time - plenty of roaches and diesel fumes - but an incredibly scenic trip between the islands. I spent a week on the island, with two relaxed dives every day. The reef was only a 15 minute boat ride from the resort. The place itself was quite remote - I had to pre-order my meals in advance so they could get enough ingredients from the nearest town. The diving was fantastic, the most consistently good diving I've ever done. Here I saw my first shark (a fairly common whitetip reef shark) and would later see a Great Hammerhead and Bronze Whalers, numerous turtles and amazing walls of soft corals.

Aside from the underwater sights, Taveuni is famous for being a point of land that's crossed by the 180 degree meridian - an imaginary line where the international date line should be if it didn't formally weave its way around the island. The meridian was marked by a battered sign at the edge of an equally battered rugby pitch in the middle of nowhere. A very beautiful nowhere nonetheless.
The rather shabby 180 degree meridian marker
I flew back to Nadi on a small 19-seater plane and got some beautiful shots of the reef below. Sometimes it's easy to forget on the larger planes, but when you feel every bump slight change of direction on the small ones you're reminded that you're actually flying, doing something strange and unnatural.
Fringing reef between Vanua Levu and Taveuni
I checked in for my flight to Melbourne and sat on the plane. I was thinking how happy I was not to be flying with Qantas for a change, as this was in the middle of the industrial disputes, when captain comes over the radio to say there's electrical problems. We waited on the tarmac for an hour then headed back to the terminal. This was an evening flight so naturally nobody was around or motivated to fix it so I had to spend a night in a hotel opposite the airport (in fact the very same room in the same hotel I stayed in on my first night in Fiji.. very weird). When we finally boarded the rescheduled plane the following evening there was some relief... until the captain says there's a problem with one of the engines. Everyone sighs, but finally they fix it and we're on our way to Melbourne. I had no firm plans in Aus so a extra night in Fiji, fully paid, was a good thing, and there are certainly worse places to be stranded.
Diving in the Somosomo Strait, Taveuni

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