The town of Levuka, on Ovalau Island, was once the capital of Fiji. As the major port for all kinds of rascally mariners it had a rather rowdy reputation in the 1800's. Now it seems a quiet town, although a few years ago the Masonic Temple was intentionally burned down. Rumour has it that some local religious leaders, who viewed the Masons as evil, took advantage of the excitement during one of the government coups and incited folks into flaming the historic building. Levuka has kept up a number of buildings from the 1800's and early 1900's when the town was the hub of government activity. Most of the structures look like the store fronts in an old Western movie, but with more colour. The business section of town lines the waterfront and the shop exteriors are attractive. The main street itself, however, is very stark, with cracked cement sidewalks and little vegetation. The road goes almost right beside the shoreline, which is littered with plastic bottles, wrappers and other testaments to modern consumerism. The exposed anchorage, and the need to carry our dinghy over a pile of garbage, left us with a poor first impression. The town itself, however, is placed most spectacularly against a beautiful backdrop of dark-green mountains. Once we walked away from the main street, we encountered tidy homes and yards along the slopes, nestled in amongst the lush vegetation. Footpaths provided the only access to many of the houses. The lack of roads and driveways to scar the landscape enhanced the charm.
Inevitably, there is administrative stuff to accomplish while in town, and often there are obstacles. We arrived on Friday afternoon and didn't quite make it to Customs before they closed for the weekend, meaning we had to wait here until Monday, which wasn't the original plan. We then tried to use the Internet. At neither of the two places could we hook up the laptop directly and we'd neglected to bring a floppy disk. When we tried simply to check our email we were unable to get a connection, although we were still charged our $0.20 per minute for trying. Communication difficulties are some of the more annoying things about this cruising life, and almost make me think we should have gotten a satellite phone. [for sure! ed.]
In our wandering that Friday evening we noticed a cinema in town. It looked newly painted but there were no posters or signs saying when the show was on. I was excited by the prospect of seeing a movie, but alas, the cinema had been closed for two years. The town had been keeping the paint fresh though, for appearances' sake. Instead we had dinner at a cozy old restaurant called the Whale's Tale. The food was very good and our meal included a choice of desserts – mmm, banana splits!
Since we had to wait in town, we decided to go on a commercial dive trip. The dive boat picked us up from Freya and went to a spot only a few minutes drive away (by power boat). This site was very beat up, with lots of old line and anchors and not much colour. We saw a shark and a moray and a few nice bits of colourful coral growing on some of the discarded line. One wanker grabbed a sea snake by its tail and held on for at least a couple of minutes. I was half hoping the snake would bite him, but since that could be fatal, I suppose it would have interfered with our second dive. Back at the dive shop we were provided with lunch and, especially appreciated, hot drinks. The water at Levuka was chilly, although the dive master's description that it was “freezing” was definitely an exaggeration. Try Lake Huron, near Tobermory, if you want freezing! The second dive had much more attractive coral, although the cloudy day dulled the colour. The large lumps of coral had pancake-like layers, creating many crevices that one could peer into. We were somewhat disappointed in the dive as we'd been hoping to see some of the spectacular colour that Fiji is famous for. Clearly we are getting too fussy. Happily, Bjarne was able to get a free used-snorkel to replace his lost one. It just needed a mouthpiece, which we had. We were also pleased to make use of the dive shop's fresh water to rinse all of our gear and fill our jerry jugs.
That evening we had dinner with some of the other divers, most of whom were traveling for extended periods of time, although not by sailboat. The company was good and we had a fun evening. One young woman, Leiv, who was a film student had spent some of her growing up years in a kibbutz before her family moved to Holland. Another fellow, Pete, had some interesting stories to tell about traveling in Africa. We spent a couple evenings with the diver/backpackers and Leiv and Pete came out to visit Freya. Pete was especially interested in what it was like to travel by sail boat. He was headed back to England to resume a working life but I wouldn't be surprised if he starts buying cruising magazines.
We had hoped to join the backpackers on a tour of the area one morning but the van was too full so we wandered around town without a specific goal. It was hot and sunny, an improvement over the last couple of days. As we sat on a hillside bench, overlooking the harbour, a friendly person asked if we were going to the local swimming hole. We hadn't heard of it but, sure, why not? We followed the footpath upward, enjoying the landscape and colourful plants. Along the way a boy started following us. Vincent, it turns out, was also heading for the swimming pool so we got a tour guide. The pool was quite small but the cool water was refreshing on the feet. Another boy, Perse, came along and I wished my camera was out when the two started having a splashing fight. Vincent tried to teach us Fijian by rattling off numerous English words with their Fijian equivalents. We had no hope of keeping up, but we did learn the word for goodbye (moce – pronounced moe-thay). The boys then took us a little further uphill, past the sign that said Do Not Enter, to a cement dam that was about 5 feet high and a foot and a half thick; in addition to creating the reservoir, it made for a good spot to sit or walk upon. Vincent and Perse, along with a few other kids, happily jumped into the water, splashing around and looking for prawns. We had passed a small treatment plant on the way up so I suppose it was okay that they were swimming in the town's drinking water.
At the break of dawn (Tues Aug 16) we hauled up our anchor; we hadn't decided yet where to go, but it was time to leave Levuka. Plan A was to head for Namena Island, where we hoped to do some diving. However, we'd learned that friends on Freebird were probably still hanging out at Nananu-I-Ra, about 50 miles away. We'd sent email on Monday afternoon telling them to come up on the Rag of the Air radio program Tuesday morning at 0700h to verify that they were still in the same place. (We can't check email on-board but they can, and we can't transmit on marine SSB but we listen ['lurk'].) We figured this would be the last chance to see them but didn't want to detour if Freebird had already flown the coop. We listened eagerly for a message, to no avail. I think Bjarne especially had been feeling a bit down and maybe a little homesick. Thus, the chance to see friends had some extra appeal. The first part of the journey was the same for either destination but by 0800h we needed to make a decision. A few minutes were spent sailing around in circles while we hemmed and hawed. What the heck, what's a little detour? The route was not especially well-marked and followed a channel through quite a lot of reefs. However, the bright sunny day (reveals the coral), and the GPS waypoints from another yacht, allowed us to make the pleasant downwind trip without difficulty. Our gamble paid off – we spotted a large catamaran through the binoculars as we approached Nananu-I-Ra and were able to hail Judy on the VHF. Yippee!
We had a lot of fun seeing Dave and Judy again, and meeting some folks from other boats in the neighbourhood. Ice cream was available and there was a good beach on the windward side of the island, where kite-surfing and board-sailing were popular activities. Woweeee! Those kite surfers move! The anchorage itself was not awesome: we had to let out a great deal of chain because the water was so deep, which means pulling up the same amount of chain later on. The murky water and the three days of heavy rain put a damper on snorkeling attempts. The highlight was definitely the company and the chance to play Rummikub TM again.
It was at Nananu-I-Ra that Evinrude, our little outboard, became not-so-affectionately known as EvinRUDE when he refused to start. Bjarne spent quite a few hours over the course of three days disassembling and assembling old EvinRUDE to no avail. Well, he teased us once by pretending to run. We were convinced enough to load our snorkeling gear into the dinghy and head toward a distant reef -- 300 m away from Freya we were pulling out the oars and saying bad words. EVILrude was put away until we reached Savusavu.
Once again our plans changed, mid-passage. Leaving Nananu-I-Ra, our intention was to head for Namena. However, the day was so lovely after all that rain, we decided to stop sooner. The little island of Naigani was pretty and peaceful. The only folks on shore were a family at a fishing camp; they sold their catch to a resort a few miles away. I hopped in for a swim and snorkel – the late afternoon sun created small wavering rainbows on the coral, and the fish were especially active. Walking along the rocky beach, we entertained ourselves by discovering “fossils” of rare and hitherto unknown creatures.
We left early the next morning, still not heading for Namena. It was shorter to go to Makogai and we wanted to spend the afternoon snorkeling instead of sailing. In addition to a nice sail on this beautiful sunny day, we had a little excitement. Bjarne was up at the bow when the fishing line started pulling; I stopped the reel from unwinding easily with a touch on the line, and reported to BJ (the official fisher) that we had a bite. Because there wasn't much pull, but mostly (I think) because we'd had poor luck in this regard, Bjarne didn't actually believe there was a fish so he didn't come back to reel it in. He figured we'd snagged a coconut or something. I continued to steer us through the pass at Makogai but started wondering. There was some extra resistance on the line and then I noticed we were dragging something. Bjarne reeled it in, expecting little more than an old shoe. Well, whaddaya know? We caught ourselves some supper. That was a good welcome to the island and we had a superb afternoon of snorkeling, followed by a peaceful night of stargazing.
Finally, after setting out for it three times, we made it to Namena, where there is a bird sanctuary and a marine reserve. We were greeted by the ever-curious boobies who nest on the island. Apparently, the less common red-footed booby nests here, but we couldn't see their feet. Our reason for going to Namena was because the diving is said to be spectacular; ironically, because EvinRUDE was on the fritz, we weren't able to get to the dive spots. We also didn't snorkel because there was a $20/person charge to go in the water. To be fair, this fee covered you for the whole calendar year, but for one afternoon, and no diving, it was a little steep for us. Going ashore to the sanctuary would have cost $50/person, which is probably as good a way as any to protect the habitat.
Another early departure and another change of destination, en route. Plan A was to reach the town of Savusavu. However, plan B was adopted after we heard friends on Endless and Ascension, whom we'd met in New Zealand, chatting on the VHF radio. It just so happened we'd be sailing right by them so we planned to stop a little early, just inside the entrance to Savusavu Harbour. That was a terrific surprise as we thought we wouldn't see them again until they return to Victoria in 2007, after circumnavigating.
It was a day for pleasant surprises: on the way we saw two whales leaping out of the water in the distance. The completely flat, gray sea made for great viewing. We watched excitedly as they swam our way, allowing us to see the tall straight dorsal fins. Those fins looked familiar and sure enough, our reference book confirmed that our two large guests were orcas. They didn't linger (probably didn't like our engine noise any more than we do), but we were happy to have had even a short visit.
We had a fun afternoon snorkeling with the folks from Endless and Ascension. At one spot we were swarmed by Sergeant Majors, who are used to being fed by tourists from the nearby resort. These fish were quite cheeky. I entertained myself by trying to catch one by the tail, but didn't try too hard in case I actually succeeded. The resort is owned by Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of Jacques. Start saving now as it costs about $2,000 per night. That doesn't even include diving!
The day in the water was followed by dinner on Endless. One discussion was about the best way to make roti, with a key point of contention being how much ghee should be used. Ghee is clarified butter and is sold in large quantities here. I think it's supposed to burn less easily than butter and so be better for frying stuff in. We are having a hard time finding canned butter here in Fiji (should've bought more in Tonga) and are wondering how ghee will taste on that all important boat staple: popcorn. Speaking of popcorn, if I may digress, we are only able to buy kernels in packages no larger than 200g. I guess it isn't very pop-ular :-)
The weather went downhill. Early the next morning our friends left in the drizzle, heading the direction we just came from and we made our way back up Nakama Creek to the small town of Savusavu. The steady, heavy rain made for some predictable conversations, especially by the fourth day. Much to our dismay, the weather caused the cancellation of the Wine Tasting party. Our disappointment was only because it was a fund raiser for a noble cause - the local kids' sailing school; it had nothing to do with missing the wine :-)
EvinRUDE went into the shop for a few days, where Curly was heard to comment on more than one occasion that he'd never worked on such an old motor. [Our reply is that we've never had anyone that old work on the engine.] Evinrude has only just reached drinking age so we don't know what the fuss was about. Maybe engine years are like dog years. We were moored at the far end of the bay and made sure each day we mournfully paddled past Curly's houseboat in the rain, just in case he had our engine as a low priority. Our ploy worked well enough that Curly lent us an outboard. One of the required repairs was to replace a torn head gasket, but no such part was readily available here. Thomas on Wet Spot kindly provided us with enough material for Bjarne to carefully cut out a new gasket. The day after we got Evinrude back it made a horrible screeching metallic noise. I cringe just remembering it. I rowed back to Freya, dreading that something really bad (and expensive) had happened. Turns out the starter-cord rewind spring (a metal coil) had unsprung; it was probably worn out from all the unsuccessful starts before EVILrude was fixed. Amazingly, this was a simple job and we were soon back in action.
There is a good-sized market in Savusavu, where plenty of fresh produce is available. It is no doubt healthier, at times tastes better, and is quite a bit cheaper to use fresh ingredients, but we are of the frozen vegetables and jarred spaghetti sauce culture, so this is all a new experience for us. We can definitely notice the difference between the old jars of spices and herb we brought from home, and fresh ones from the market; with the Indo-fijian population spices are readily available. I have discovered that I love the smell of fresh cilantro, and of course fresh ginger is a big hit with Bjarne. The vendors often sell items in quantities that can be challenging for the two of us to get through, thus, our meals are sometimes a rather odd mix of whatever is about to go bad. The couple of seminars that we went to gave a few new cooking ideas to try out; the egg curry on roti turned out to be pretty good, and for the first time ever we've cooked with eggplant, which is abundant down here. In case anyone was worried, we aren't starving down here.
Savusavu is a congregation point for cruisers, and therefore, one can do a lot of socializing if so inclined. We met new folks and reacquainted ourselves with some we'd met elsewhere. Our international dance card had us spending time with Yankees, Canucks, Kiwis, a Swede, and some folks from France. One of the best things about the cruising lifestyle is the flexibility with our time that permits impromptu gatherings and allows us to meet lots of interesting folks. At home bookings are done weeks in advance to coordinate schedules with friends.
We traveled east from Savusavu, to the large and lovely Viani Bay, where we had such a good time we stayed for over a week. The neighbouring bays' names translate as "Liver" and "Kidney"; we aren't sure what Viani means, but many boats stop here. There is a local couple, Jack and Sophie, who live in this area and “look after” the cruisers. Jack takes people out in their own boats and shows them where to anchor safely. If diving is the goal, we all pile into a dinghy, towing Jack's rowboat, and then go where he tells us. He follows our bubbles in his row boat and is waiting for us when we surface. He is very safety conscious in general, and uses the row boat so no one is worried about rising up into a running motor. Sophie, a small wiry woman, takes cruisers hiking, setting a brisk pace up the hills. Jack and Sophie invited us to their home looking out over the bay to share some grog. Afterwards they gave us some already-cooked prawns and cassava to take back to the boat for our supper. The prawns tasted okay once you got over the fact that your dinner was staring at you. We felt truly welcomed to this bay by Jack and Sophie.
We spend a lot of time on other people's boats. In fact, we were on Key of D so much that we joked about having our own cups when we came over. A catamaran is a great dive/snorkeling boat, and we also joined them to go to Taveuni for a day trip as well. The luxury of a fresh water shower after immersion in salty water, thanks to their watermaker, was a treat for us. Steve, Truus, and Sue also expanded our games repertoire to include Mexican Trains, a dominoes game with the fun rule that you must sing a Mexican song when you are down to your last tile. The standards for the songs were pretty loose: any mention of Mexico, margaritas, or tequila sufficed. We also had the pleasure of meeting and diving with the folks on Convergence. For those who are into reading the West Marine catalogue, the name may sound familiar. Randy is the founder and chair of West Marine and there was an article about Convergence in the 2005 catalogue. As one may expect, the boat is lovely. Sally-Christine and Randy welcomed a slew of people onto their boat and provided generous use of their dive compressor. Kent-Harris, their son, entertained us with his ideas for a joke candy shop in the Harry Potter world. After spending most of the week on larger, fancier boats we were getting down-right spoiled, and beginning to want luxury items like ice-cubes and space.
The actual diving ranged between good and awesome. By diving from other people's boats most of the time, we lost some autonomy so the day didn't always go quite as we had envisioned. Overall though, it was more fun to be with a group for these activities and, as mentioned above, a real treat to be on these other vessels. At the Purple Wall we were greeted with large purple and burgundy sea fans and sponges; even some of the fish were purple. The bright purple was juxtaposed with some dark green sponges creating a spectacular contrast. I hadn't realized how important water current is in bringing out the vibrant colours of the soft corals. At the Small White Wall we saw an amazing array of life. The large moustache trigger-fish merrily chomping away on the coral was a new sight for us, and we were especially excited to see a large hawksbill (we think) turtle. We've spotted turtles a few other times but this was a much better view of one.
Just to make sure we didn't become too waterlogged, we spent one day hiking with Truus, Sue, and Sophie. It began easily along the beach. We stopped at the local school, which had been started in part by Jack and Sophie. Jack relayed to us how, when he was a boy, he and his siblings had to stay at boarding schools, even for the early grades. It was quite hard on them to be away from home so much, so as an adult, Jack got his neighbours together and they managed to get a primary school going. It seems to be doing all right. The head teacher had just come back from a training course so he could use the one computer the school had recently acquired. Bjarne spent 15 minutes helping him change the settings on the sound card. Truus had brought some balloons and we watched as one teacher used them as reinforcement for questions answered correctly. The kids sang a song for us before they adjourned for their lunch break. From the school we walked up a short steep path to get a good view of the bay, and of course our lovely boats. Yachties never tire of looking at their babies. Our path took us back down through a small village on the waterfront and then began ascending in earnest through the woods. At the top of the ridge and down the other side the vegetation changed from trees to long sun-scorched grass. From here there was a stunning seaward view of a different bay and two large islands, and a landward view of green-clad hills and valleys. Our companions decided they'd had enough of tramping in the heat but Bjarne and I were game for more. You know what they say about mad dogs and Englishmen. We continued down the long slope, through some woods, along a mangrove inlet, past some orange trees, and over to the next bay. A glass of juice, courtesy of Sophie's relative who helps run a Christian school for American youth, refreshed us for the walk back. I was plenty tuckered by the time we returned, but it felt great to have a good workout, along with wonderful scenery.
We congregated on Key of D for an early morning trip to Taveuni. We scrambled ashore to catch a bus in Waiyevo; Jack kept an eye on Key of D while we spent the day on the “Garden Island”. The bus was brand new, with bright red vinyl seats, and yellow vinyl window covers which are rolled down only when the rain and wind become unpleasant. Otherwise, the glassless windows provide plenty of ventilation and great visibility. The island is what we all think a tropical island should look like, with vibrantly coloured plants and flowers and sandy beaches along the coast. Of course, that beautiful vegetation isn't free – Taveuni is often rainy. The bus mainly followed a coastal road for the hour and 45 minute trip, providing delightful scenery as compensation for a bumpy ride over the potholes and gravel. The small towns along the way were not overbuilt and they blended nicely with the scenery, although apparently there is some growing concern about loss of forested areas on Taveuni. On the way back, we had to get off the bus partway and switch to a different one which the bus driver pointed out to us. After about 5 minutes sitting on the unmoving bus, the person behind us told us we had the wrong bus. Off we got, not feeling 100% sure we were on the right track. When the bus we did get on took a different route we started to worry, so asked another passenger if the bus went to Waiyevo. Her answer was less than reassuring: she said, “maybe”. It was simply a detour to pick up some students from the high school but we had a few moments of wondering just where we'd end up.
Bouma Park, funded by New Zealand, is a nature reserve with three waterfalls. The first falls are reached after a short walk along a wide, well-groomed path, lined with tropical bushes. These 25 m falls are viewed from a pretty bridge with a nice bench. You can hop in the water here for a swim, or, if sure-footed, make your way along some slippery rocks to the area behind the falls. The second falls (about 20 m high and less wide than the first ones) required much uphill walking, although there were lots of benches along the way. The path was narrower and a bit more rugged, with brilliantly coloured leaves and flowers growing along the way. Our favourite was a vibrant red flower, which we learned was a type of ginger plant. The walls of the cliff were more closed in at these falls, creating a cozy atmosphere. There were other folks there as well, many swimming. We all happily jumped into that lovely, cool, fresh water, and entertained ourselves by trying to swim near the cascade. We estimated the force of the wind generated by the falling water to be about 40 kts. [Sailors are always thinking of the wind :] The third falls were inaccessible because of recent rains. Apparently, this path is quite a bit more challenging to get up, and the falls are said to be much less impressive than the lower ones. We had to hustle to catch the last bus anyway. What a beautiful island; Taveuni would be well worth returning to for further exploration.