Travelogue Fiji 2004
8/27/04 – 9/2/04: Fiji
US$1 = FJ1.77; FJ1 = US$0.57
US$1 = AU$1.43; AU$1 = US$0.70
After spending three weeks in Australia, I flew from Sydney to Nadi, Fiji on Qantas (on a flight operated by Air Pacific.) At the airport check-in counter they were offering an upgrade to business class for AU$300. I jumped on it. I had asked about upgrades on the phone the day before, but was told that it would be AU$1600 to move up to business class. It turns out that Air Pacific always offers a pay-for-upgrade at the airport for any business class seats they have left over. Nice.
Due to weather, the airplane was late coming in from Fiji, so it was delayed an hour getting back out again. This was a bummer, since the drive to my resort was scheduled to take an hour and a half, which was going to make dinner a problem. From the Qantas lounge I called the resort to advise them of the delay and ask about the meal issue – they told me that dinner would be available for me.
Air Pacific flights don’t have a first class, so business class is where first would normally be (the nose of the plane on the first floor in this 747.) The seats were nicer than standard business class seats, but not as nice as first class on other carriers. The flight crew were pathetic (no doubt hired from Australian restaurants.) The main flight attendant for my area of the plane was not only ridiculously slow, but wore a constant scowl. So much for legendary Fijian hospitality. The food was OK but not memorable.
About half way through the flight the woman next to me started coughing. After a while I asked her about it and she told me that she had the flu, but “wasn’t contagious any more.” Oh god. Maybe upgrading to business class wasn’t such a good idea.
At the airport I was one of the first off the plane; I know how long it can take to work a whole 747 worth of people through passport control. At the end of the jetway a group of banjo players started strumming, dancing and singing as the disembarking passengers walked by. Nice touch.
The customs form had some unusual requirements for declaration, such as handicrafts made from wood and any rocks or stones, as well as the more normal fruits, vegetables, etc. It also required declaring if one had been in a forest, which is something I had never seen before. Usually only visits to farms are a concern. While on the plane there had been several announcements about the importance of accurately filling out the form and the huge fines for failure to declare a restricted item. Normally I would have skipped noting the fact that I had a wooden handicraft from Australia and a few rocks from the beach, but in this instance I decided to go ahead and check the three appropriate boxes. When I went to the “items to declare” line and described my contraband, the agent just looked bored and waved me through without a glance.
It turned out that I was mistaken about the drive to Wananavu Resort; it takes 2.5 hours, not the 1 hour I had been expecting. The driver told me that dinner would not be available when I arrived at 10pm, so we drove 15 minutes in the wrong direction to a McDonalds before heading to the resort. The roads were quite dark and most of the trip was through heavy downpour. Apparently it had been raining for days. The driver told me that the prior year at this time there had been a drought so serious that people couldn’t even take showers. Global environment change? Hmmmm.
I arrived at Wananavu Resort (http://www.kaivitidivers.com/accom_wananavu.html,) near the town of Raki Raki at 10pm, exhausted. I’ve never understood why is traveling so tiring; it mostly consists of sitting around and waiting. It must just be the stress of the process.
I was shown to a very nice “bure” (aka “palapa”, aka hut) right on the beach. It was attractive and pleasant, but the bed felt damp; in fact everything felt damp. This was supposed to be the dry season.
Saturday August 28, 2004
I was up at 8am local time, 6am Sydney time. I had an excellent omelet for breakfast (included in my room rate.) [Since resort is at the edge of nowhere, one really must eat all meals there – other than a tiny take away place in town, there are no other restaurants.]
As with the night before, it was overcast and rainy. I asked at the front desk if they thought it would rain all day or just in spurts. I was told “it shouldn’t be raining at all – we don’t know what it will do.” I found it ironic, since the prior February I had gone to Belize and been rained on during their dry season.
I hadn’t made any plans for my first day, and the weather was clearing a bit, so I arranged for a taxi to drive me into town for “market day.” There were interesting tubers and vegetables, but not much else. As advertised, people were very friendly. I went to the only internet place in town, where I paid FJ0.15 per minute for an insanely bad connection. I got about four minutes of useful time with 21 minutes waiting for connections to reset, pages to paint, and machines to reboot. They still charged me for 25 minutes. I wasn’t about to argue over US$2.00.
Just as I was getting back to my bure, I heard screaming from the beach. I looked out from the path to see a guy hopping up and down in the water yelling “help!” I had always imagined that when faced with such a situation I would immediately spring to action. In reality I stood there dumbfounded for several seconds before dropping my book and towel and running down the beach. I reached the guy just as he cleared the water and helped him to sit down in the sand, bleeding from his right foot; others arrived from different directions at about the same moment.
It turns out that the fellow had been windsurfing; when he was done he got off his board in about 4 feet of water and started walking towards the beach pulling his windsurfer behind him. At some point he stepped on a stingray that was buried in the sand. Normally docile, stingrays attack with a poisonous barb in their tail when they think they are being attacked. This man-fish misunderstanding ended badly for the man. The guy had been wearing heavy neoprene booties, but the barb went straight through like it was nothing.
Fortunately, stingray punctures are not fatal to humans, but I am told that being stung is one of the most painful things that can happen to you. The guy in question was a big, strong, New Zealander who looked like he was ready to take on anything. Watching this guy wracked with pain I developed a strong respect for stingrays. The man’s wife, friends, and crying children appeared on the beach and various onlookers were dispatched to get cars, taxis, cell-phones and groundskeepers. In the end the resort’s car was driven down onto the beach where we all helped to load the man up to be taken off to see the local doctor. I later heard that he was fine, but would be in pain for several days. Thankfully the experience wasn’t deadly, but it sure must have put a crimp in the holiday plans of the man and his entourage.
The excitement over, I returned to the Wananavu restaurant for a lunch of fish and chips.
With time on my hands I decided to try out the deep water fishing trip that was offered for the afternoon. Unfortunately the wind had picked up and clouds rolled in, making for a cold, drizzly afternoon in the small, open boat. There was myself, one other customer, and two Fijian guides. Between us we had lots of nibbles, but nothing was caught. We tried trawling on the way back to no avail. Basically it was a cold and miserable couple of hours on the sea.
We got back to the dock around 5pm. Exhausted, I went back to my room for a well deserved hot shower. I then discovered the real downside to staying in a place where there is only one place to eat. The fishing trip had left me hungry, but there turned out to be nothing to eat at Wananavu between lunch and dinner; no menu items, no bar snacks, no vending machine. You can drink yourself silly, but for food you have to wait until dinner is served.
Thus, I lounged around till I could dine on excellent dahl soup, fresh caught coral trout with spiced lemon sauce and mango and tomato salsa, and a mediocre crème brulée.
Sunday August 29, 2004
This morning was to be my first day of diving in Fiji. I was supposed to be up at 6:30am for the 8am trip. I had a very strange dream involving a battle with Star Trek characters. At some point in the battle I fell down. One of my dream compatriots bent over me yelling “Andrew, get up! Get up Andrew! Get up!” I opened my eyes to realize that though I had set my alarm for 6:30, I forgot to turn it on. Ooof, it was 7:15am. (In Hollywood this scene would have involved me waking up to find someone shaking me and saying “Andrew, get up.” In reality, there was no one there; it was just my subconscious taking care of me.) I rushed to get ready and made it out with just enough time for a super-fast and quite excellent omelet before heading down to the boat. (Clearly the breakfast chef learned to make omelets in France.)
The Kai Viti divers boat is excellent (a much, much, much nicer vessel than the resort’s Ra Divers boat.) In fact, I would say that it is the second best day-trip boat I have ever been on (first place still goes to the ridiculously over-the-top Perth Dive Academy yacht in Western Australia, which is so big and well laid out that it is even used for overnight trips.)
The first dive was at Black Magic Mountain - a beautiful bommie in Vati-i-Ra. It took about an hour to get there. The water was somewhat choppy, but the excellent boat smoothed things out well. Diving, the current was super strong, so we spent time hiding behind the bommie. We swam around and around the bommie though it was killer on the current side. Unfortunately, being the second person off the boat I ended up wasting a lot of air waiting for the rest of the group to enter.
There was black coral and lots of soft corals. The reefs were in excellent, almost pristine condition. However, visibility wasn't really great; the cloudy day provided little light. Also, the recent rain had stirred up silt which further decreased visibility. There were an amazing number of fish that I've never seen before, though nothing big at all. I don’t know the names of most of what I saw; among those I did know were unicorn fish, pipe fish, a blemy in a hole, and various shrimp.
Kai Viti Divers uses "short 80" tanks which weight 3lbs more than a normal tank. This was also my first dive with all my new equipment. Thus, it took a while to get used to everything and deal with my buoyancy, but in the end it all worked well.
The second dive was also in Vati-i-Ra at a site named “Pot Luck.” Pot Luck is a beautiful dive site, with pristine coral on the reef, and broken coral below. Again, there were lots of fish I wasn’t familiar with including purple fusiliers, a solid blue damsel of some kind, a cool starfish, several huge clams, and a wonderful peacock dragon nudibranch.
It was a great dive, but I got cold, so I ended the dive before I ran out of air.
We got back to shore a little after 2pm. A lamb sandwich for lunch was good, but not enough after the hunger-inducing dives and cool weather.
The afternoon was still overcast, but a little sun did show through here and there. Thankfully there was no wind. I took advantage of the less-than-inspiring conditions to take a long nap, then downloaded my dive data and photos into my computer, did some reading and writing, and waited for dinner.
For dinner I had eggplant soup (which was good but not great), a beautiful mango stuffed chicken breaded with panko, and a “pear torte” for desert. I’m fairly sure the pear torte was Sara Lee pound cake with sliced pears on top. Oh well, it still fill me up.
Monday August 30, 2004
I actually managed to get up this morning at 6:30am with my alarm clock. There was no need for weird dreams to wake me. It looked like the weather was improving. It was not clear enough for a sunrise, but almost.
I had excellent scrambled eggs, then headed down to the boat at 8am.
I really liked the Kai Viti boat and I liked the captain (who apparently does dive but wasn’t diving with us.) However, I didn’t care for either of the dive masters. They seemed to be diving on their own – if you could keep up with them, you could dive with them. On the surface they told us that we would stay together, and divvied us up into two groups; one to go with each of them. Then, under water, they would just swim off and never look back. Hi ho.
The water was much smoother this day, with no wind and some patches of blue sky. Yay.
The first dive of the day was at “Garden of Eden”. This was a drift dive - challenging but fun. The dive master took off, the group zoomed after him, and I never caught up. It was basically a solo dive for me. Occasionally I saw fins or bubbles up ahead, but I was never near anyone. I gave the boat captain an earful when I got up.
In spite of all that, it was a great dive. “Garden of Eden” is a fantastic site with terrific hard and soft corals. If there had been more sunlight it would have been amazing. Once I got over my anxiety about diving solo, it was a lot of fun drifting along. In addition to the corals there were some nice anemones, a moray eel, huge schools of small fish, beautiful blue and yellow angelfish, and a couple large groupers.
For our safety stop we anchored near a reef that was partially exposed at low tide. I snorkeled over to it and was amazed. It was like snorkeling in an aquarium. The density and variety of small reef fish was insane. I didn’t want to leave. It was far and away the best snorkeling experience of my life. I will never make fun of snorkelers again.
The second dive was “Mellow Yellow.” I’m sure this would be an unbelievable site if the sun were out. We had a slightly more cohesive group for this dive, but I still had no buddy, and it still was basically a solo dive. I made some technical errors towards the end of the dive while trying to use my reef hook to stay in the current; I kinda wore myself out and should have just stayed out of the current altogether.
There were hermit crabs, a dragon nudibranch, small fan corals and various soft and hard corals in excellent condition. The dive was terrific overall, but with no standout moments - no big fish, no sharks, no turtles.
The sun was out during ride back and I managed to get a slight sunburn sitting in the bow of the boat. Some time during the ride back my wetsuit hood flew off the back of the boat. When we got in to the dock, one of the passengers said “Oh, by the way, something flew off the back of the boat during the trip back.” Oh, thanks. Thanks for telling the captain to stop the boat – hoods are buoyant so we might have been able to retrieve it if someone had said something at the time. Geesh. My next stop on this trip was to be Tonga, where the water would be quite cool. I needed my hood. Hmmmm.
I found myself really missing live-aboard boats. Though the Kai Viti boat was a good, solid boat, the diving involved an hour trip out to the site, and an hour trip back. During the safety stop we would either kill time or snorkel. On a live-aboard one can go back to one’s cabin, take a shower, take a nap, have a snack, read a book, or whatever. On a live-aboard we would have gotten 4 or 5 dives a day. With a day-trip boat you get two tanks, period. Wananavu resort was nice, Kai Viti was good, and it is pleasant to be on solid ground each night, but, on the whole, live-aboard boats are better.
Back at Wananavu I had a lunch of fish and chips. Not on my diet, but what the heck; diets have no meaning on vacation.
At the front desk I had learned that cooking classes were available. Needless to say I signed up, but I it turned out that I was the only one. That was OK with me. I got to hang out in the kitchen for a while, sliced up some chicken, and chatted with the very underutilized staff. The actual “class” was really just a demonstration. The chef de cuisine, of Indian descent, set up a butane burner on one of the tables on the deck and did a demo of chicken curry, Indian style. Several other guests gathered around and asked how they had missed finding out about the cooking class! It was an OK way to pass some time, but hardly a class.
The restaurant had been virtually deserted at every meal, the cooking class was unattended, the whole place felt empty. I asked the restaurant staff about it. It turned out that the resort can hold 60 people, but there were only 25 guests. There was a wedding scheduled for the following week; the event was to fill up the whole place, so it was under occupied this week because anyone wanting to make a reservation would have been limited to just a few days.
A small Fijian band set up on the deck, offering music and Kava Kava for all to enjoy. Surprisingly, I was the only guest adventurous enough to try the Kava. It was OK - neither as nasty tasting nor as narcotic as I had been lead to believe. I suspect that it was brewed especially weak for foreigners.
I ordered lamb chops for dinner. They were quite good. I passed on an appetizer and desert as I had eaten most of the chicken curry earlier.
I had a very frustrating time getting my dive data downloaded from my ScubaPro Uwatec dive computer into my laptop. God knows what was going wrong. I tested the Irda port on my laptop, uninstalled and reinstalled the connection software, and re-downloaded over and over again. Just as I was finally about to give up, the transfer worked. Go figure.
Tuesday August 31, 2004
I was up again around 6am. On this morning I had a brekky of fried eggs, which were excellent.
The skies were beautiful and clear (yay!) but it was a bit windy. The wind had whipped up the waves, so heading back to the Vati-i-ra area wasn’t possible. As a result, we dove two of the closer in sites, which was fine with me; I wanted some variety and hadn’t been looking forward to another 1 hour boat ride. We headed out about 25 minutes, then did our dives at a site called “Dream Maker”; the first at the deep end of the site, followed by one at the shallow end.
Dream Maker at the deep end was an interesting site but the visibility was mediocre. There were fewer soft corals, and less healthy coral overall than the prior two day’s sites. However, the underwater topology was more interesting, and there was less current to fight. That, combined with the shorter boat ride, made this a more enjoyable dive for me, even though objectively the diving wasn’t as "good". I felt good; very relaxed.
On this dive I saw a detached starfish arm that was growing a tiny new starfish out of the end of it – it was fascinating, and I spent a considerable amount of time figuring out what it was; I’d never seen one before, so I was truly mystified. There was one very shy white tipped reef shark and a mature drum fish which I chased around. Drum fish are very cool in their mature state – I’d only recalled seeing juveniles in the past. I experienced my first “ghost coral” (a brown soft-coral that turns white when you touch it.) Once the dive master pointed it out, I couldn’t resist annoying every other one I came across. Otherwise, there were lots of cute little gobies, various hard and soft corals, the usual anemones and small reef fish.
Our second dive at the shallow end of Dream Maker provided great swim-throughs. The topology was neat, but the visibility was still very poor. The marine life was similar to the prior dive, but we also saw one large green moray and some very large sea fans in the swim throughs. There were nice whip corals and a bright yellow damsel fish that demanded to be photographed – it saw its reflection in my camera lens and put on quite a show. Embedded in the corals were some nice giant clams; we also found a couple of different nudibranchs and a cool white stonefish.
Back on shore I lay in a hammock listening to gardeners with weed whackers while looking at the overly pruned hedges and palm trees. The divers that I met on the boat commented that Wananavu feels like being on your own private island. To me it definitely did not feel like being on an island; it felt like being at a resort with over-zealous gardeners.
I spent the day laying around reading while trying not to get any more sun on my sunburn from the day before. Eventually I went in to the main lodge and made a series of unsuccessful phone calls trying to find a new dive hood to replace the one that flew off the boat.
Dinner was salad and sautéed pork. Filling but not memorable.
Wednesday September 1, 2004
It dawned a beautiful clear day, but with a strong wind and high surf. It was nice to finally see what sunrise looks like in Fiji. Unfortunately, I couldn’t dive since I was flying the next day. That was fine with me; with the wind few sites would be accessible anyway.
I breakfasted on a final Wananavu omelet, then made more calls to try to find a replacement diving hood. No luck. There wasn’t a dive hood to be had anywhere in or near Nadi. Finally I called the folks at Nai’a cruises – the company running the next phase of my trip. I wish I had called them first as Joeli at Nai’a was able to find me a hood in Suva, which he arranged to have picked up and sent over to Tonga with one of the Nai’a staff. Wow. That was easy!
Because my flight out the next morning was at 7am, and the airport was a 2+ hour drive away, I couldn’t reasonably stay at Wananavu. So, I packed up, had lunch and headed off to the Toka Toka resort in Nadi, across the street from the airport. The two and a half hour drive is a pain in the ass, but at least this time I could see the view. Fiji is indeed very beautiful.
I checked into the Toka Toka, dropped my bags in the room, and headed off to Nadi to see the sights. I walked around, shopped extensively for souvenirs (the selection was impressively poor), and tried to find a place for a cup of coffee. There’s not much in Nadi at all. At 5pm every store in town closed up tight except for restaurants and the odd entrepreneur who remained open till 6pm. Hi ho. When it became clear that I had seen all there was to see in Nadi, and things were pretty well closed, I took a taxi back to Toka Toka for FJ$7.00.
During the drive back we passed innumerable sugar cane fields and pickup trucks and small-gauge railroad cars piled high with cut cane. Given my interest in foods, I was very curious to try some cane – I hadn’t seen it for sale anywhere. I asked the taxi driver where I could buy some cane; he gave me a broad smile and the “goofy tourist” look, then offered to pull over so I could grab a cane off a railroad car. Somehow that didn’t seem right (aka theft) to me, so I told him to just drive on. Buying some cane was one thing; stealing it was another. Back at the hotel I asked the desk clerk about buying sugar cane. He laughed and told me to cross the street and cut as much as I wanted. However, I just wasn’t keen on the idea of getting arrested the day before my departure. After much hemming and hawing on my part, he told me to go to the gate at the back of the resort’s compound and ask the security guard there to get me some sugar cane.
The guard at the back gate was gay enough to host the Fijian edition of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, and was only too happy to leave his post, walk across the street, and break off a sugar cane for me. Clearly, though sugar is a mainstay of the Fijian economy, the value of an individual cane is effectively nil. Fijians spend so much of their life with sugar cane that they would hardly bother to pilfer it, and farmers are not out protecting their crops from loony tourists. The guard walked me back to the resort grounds, showed me how to actually eat a sugar cane, and took a photo for me demonstrating the technique. He had obviously taken quite a shine to me; asking all manner of questions about where I was from, how I liked Fiji, and on and on. Eventually I drew the conversation to a close as politely as I could, returning to my room with my prized sugar cane.
Back in my room I got my bags all nicely repacked for the next morning’s flight to Tonga. As I was finishing up, I was surprised by a knock on my door. It was the security guard. He said that he wanted to make sure that all was safe and secure in my room and that I had everything I needed. I assured him that, yes, indeed, all was well, and sent him disappointedly on his way. Fijian friendliness is legendary, but that was more friendship than I was looking for.
I dined at the resort on a rather pathetic plate of chicken curry while watching endless families eating, drinking, and riding the swimming pool’s water slide. My travel agent had told me that a lot of families from Australia and New Zealand come to Fiji, spend their whole vacation at Toka Toka across the street from the airport. I hadn’t believed her before, but now I do.
All the services at the Toka Toka are 24 hours, clearly catering to travelers. This made it very easy to deal with getting to the airport by 5am for my 7am flight to Tonga. My room at Toka Toka was large, pleasant, and reasonably quiet; while I couldn’t imagine spending my Fiji vacation there, it was more than sufficient for a final night before the flight out.
Fiji is very beautiful and the diving is terrific. I also really liked Wananavu, though the drive from the airport is a pain and the lack of dining options is a drag. All in all I would happily return to Fiji, both for more diving and to potentially explore more of their islands.