Fabulous Fiji - Part III (September-October 2005)

Labasa (pronounced Lambasa)

If I'd realized how many times I was going to end up in Labasa, I might have skipped the 3 hour bus trip there from Savusavu. On second thought, the bus ride was probably the highlight of the outing. The scenery revealed that Fiji is just as beautiful inland as near the water. The rain-forest covered hills dominated the landscape for the first two-thirds of the journey. Toward Labasa, the hills diminished somewhat and the trees gave way to agricultural fields of sugar cane. We were pleasantly surprised to find John and Sue from Tamarack II on the bus. Also on the bus was a sign that didn't seem to hold any particular authority, saying that no more than 60 persons should be aboard. As more folks piled in, John tried to give his seat up. When he was told by a Fijian man to sit down, John said, “what about the ladies?” The Fijian answered, “they're tough ladies”. At one point there were 77 folks packed in. Belching black smoke, huffing and chuffing, the diesel engine struggled mightily up the many steep hills. Amazingly, we never did have to get out and push. On the return trip, the bus stopped across from a market and boys came running to the bus, hawking their wares. Lots of folks were handing coins out the window in exchange for little brown bags. Hey, if this is part of the bus riding experience, who am I to say no? The roasted peanuts were still warm, and shelling them provided some entertainment on the way home. The driver must have been on the last run of his shift because he was motivated to arrive. We whipped along as fast as the hills and the bumpy roads would allow: almost starting off again before passengers were fully disembarked. Nice to get back sooner than expected. Glad we arrived in one piece.

Labasa has been described as a small Bombay due to the influence of the large Indo-Fijian population; these are the descendants of the indentured labourers that the British brought in to work the sugarcane. The town is noisy and busy with hordes of people on the main street. There are a lot of shops selling dollar-store type stuff and plenty with reams of fabric, mostly in Indian-style patterns. We were looking for some tropical patterns but discovered this wasn't the right town for it. It was the right place if you wanted spices, though. Services are also cheap here: Bjarne's hair cut cost $3 and I got a zipper carriage replaced on my bum-bag for only $2. My $5 haircut must have been at a more upscale place. We were able to get our cruising permit renewed with minimal difficulties once we hunted down the correct fax and phone number and found a place to have a fax sent to us. I checked out the Fiji Women's Crisis Centre but the boss was away and the person I spoke with wasn't very talkative. We found a good Internet spot, sent out the first batch of emails and then found a spot in a rather dilapidated park on the river to work on replies to some of the newly arrived messages, and to feed the mosquitoes. While in the park a bright little girl came to chat with us. She was interested in the computer and I showed her some pictures of our travels. If you sit still in Fiji, and are a valagi (foreigner), there is a good chance someone will come and talk to you. Almost always, the person is being friendly and just wants to ask where you're from and welcome you to Fiji.

It is regretful that we didn't get a chance to tour the Labasa sugar mill. The first time we saw the mill it was shut down for repairs, and the line up of sugarcane-laden trucks was at least a half mile long. We were amused to see a pair of bare feet sticking out of one truck window. Ironically, we weren't able to find locally produced molasses for sale, despite the humongous (10 000 tonnes) molasses tank at the Fiji Sugar Company shipping yard; Bjarne wanted to take our empty 500 ml container and see if they'd fill it for us. Refined white sugar isn't available locally, but the light brown raw sugar seems to work just fine and is cheap. Bjarne, for whom sugar is a dietary necessity, reports that local sugar costs about $0.35/kg Canadian.

Rabi Island (pronounced Rambi)

From Viani Bay we had a nice sunny motorsail to Rabi Island, where were got to see the great little sailing canoes used by the locals. These canoes have a dug out, narrow, low-to-the-water hull with an outrigger on one side, and a small gaff rigged sail that is easy to deploy. The sails are often made with blue plastic tarps, but seem to get the job done. We don't know how well they last in the sun but the islanders are quite poor and presumably use what materials they can. The Rabi folks are not Fijians but are from Banaba (Ocean Island) in Kiribati. They were resettled here after they sold the phosphate mining rights (centuries of accumulated bird poop can be quite valuable) to Britain and then their island was gradually made uninhabitable. The Banabans received annual payments when the mining was still going on but once the resource was depleted payments stopped. Regretfully, we were unable to stay long enough to go ashore to this interesting island because of the time limit imposed by my dental appointment (see Medical Mishaps). Our one afternoon of snorkeling in Albert Cove was good and the anchorage well-protected. We've heard from others that the diving is excellent there and that the people are very friendly. The pretty sunset rounded the day out.

Also Island

Once again, we made an early departure from Rabi Island so as to arrive when the sun was still high enough to see the reefs. A pod of dolphins passed behind us but didn't come over to play. In the afternoon, the winds were just right for spinnaker. Sailors always think having the spinnaker up is fun, but being witnessed flying spinnaker is even better. Thus, when Jatimo sailed by and took our picture we were as pleased as punch. Sailors are a strange lot. Once we were spotted approaching Also Island there was a greeting on the radio, and a boat came out to drop off a local person to pilot us through the reefs. He did go a different way than we would have gone based on our charts, but we don't know if our way would have worked. It's amazing how the locals can navigate so well in murky water and without any charts. We had hardly finished straightening up after our sail when Peter, another cruiser, stopped by to bring us in for the daily 4:00 tea. We were introduced to Jim, 8 or 10 folks from the nearby Cawaro (pronounced Thawaro) village who work for Jim and Kyoko, and to a handful of cruisers. Tea, along with some cookies and crackers, was served on “The Deck of Knowledge”. This daily wrap up for the workers seems a nice way to end the day. The workers are also provided with lunch, which visiting cruisers are welcome to take part in for $3.

When Jim and Kyoko arrived at Carwaro a few years ago on their sail boat, the Also II, they were the first cruisers to come by in 8 years. They ended up staying to help repair the village boat. One thing led to another and, after a number of months, the people of Cawaro Village gifted Jim and Kyoko with use of an uninhabited 74 acre island. Both want to help out the village and put a lot of thought into how they could give back to this community; they have started a boat building business, through which they employ local folks and train those that are interested in boat building. The place is expanding rapidly and a number of other projects have been started or are talked about. The Lady K fishing boat tows villagers out in their own boats so they can fish further afield; the fish are sold to the Lady K, which has ice on board, and are brought into Labasa weekly. At the request of the locals, they now sell fuel and have started a small store. Since there is no road access to Cawaro, and Labasa is at least a 2.5 hr boat ride in a fast boat (6 hours by the Lady K, supplies are not easily accessible.

We did our bit for the education of Cawaro's children and went to visit the local school. The principal had told me that they like to have cruisers tell the children about other countries and especially about the importance of having goals and working towards them. We brought a chart showing most of the South Pacific and a sextant and told them about some of the preparations we had to do for the trip. It was hard to get the kids to interact with us; they could rarely be coaxed to answer or ask a question. They did seem interested in the chart and the sextant and liked to hear about the cold weather and snow. A few days later, we went to the kindergarten, which isn't part of the school system but is run more informally by the village. I believe the women running it are not trained as teachers. These kids were shy with us as well, but gradually warmed up, although getting them to smile for a camera was next to impossible. Bjarne and I brought newspaper to make hats, and some ribbons made from scrap rip-stop nylon for decoration. The hats fell apart very quickly however, with the strong wind coming through the community hall. That's OK: Lepsy, the teacher was happy to have something to read and the kids liked having the ribbons tied around their wrists. We got them to sing for us and we dug into the depths of our childhood memories for songs we knew. Action songs were especially popular and “Head and shoulders, knees and toes...” was a big hit, especially when we tried to sing it in Fijian. Sometimes the kids just sat and stared at us, perhaps waiting expectantly for a new song or strange word to come out of our mouths. It was a fun morning.

September 18th was Father's Day in Fiji. Jim and Kyoko picked the cruisers up and we all went to the village for the church service. We sat in the crowded and hot church listening to a sermon in Fijian. Bjarne entertained himself by noticing that one of the roof beams had a big crack in it (he figures it's held up by the grace of God), while I people-watched. We did enjoy the singing, especially when the kids from the school did a special Father's Day performance. At one point, while the minister was speaking with quite a lot of passion, certain words started popping out. It sounded like “blah, blah, blah democracy, blah, blah, human rights, blahbladeblahblah women's rights, children's rights....” I perked up and tried to figure out what he was saying, but of course the 10 Fijian words I know didn't fill in many of the blanks so I asked a few folks afterwards. The gist was that the government is imposing these rights and that God gave authority to the chiefs, not the government (democracy is fairly recent in Fiji), and that women shouldn't be leaving abusive husbands but should try to get along. It was hard to get many details out of people, but it did give me a chance to tell a couple of women a little bit about my work at home. A few days later, a teacher said she'd heard I did counselling and asked about my work. I was pleased when she wanted to know about ways she could tell if a child was being mistreated. It made me think there could be lots of opportunity here for some anti-violence education.

After the church service the whole village had lunch together, sort of. The men, and all of us foreigners, sat around the woven mats laid out in the community hall. The women, however, did not eat until everyone else was done, and just got the left-overs. The man beside me said on Mother's day the men do the cooking and the women eat first, giving me the mistaken impression that it was only on Father's Day that the women didn't eat with the men. Apparently, that is the standard way. I thought it was humourous when the women were cleaning up afterwards and one discovered a cake they had forgotten to put out. I suggested they not tell the men about it and eat it themselves, which gave them a laugh. Bjarne spent some time hanging out with the men and then took off with some children to play in the stream. He managed to acquire another two projects before we left the village. The women had been working all morning so were tired. I sat inside someone's home with a few kids and a couple of the women who work for Jim and Kyoko. We left just before the next church service started.

The next Sunday six of us (Jim, Kyoko, and Sea Eagle II's Ross and Pauline) went to church again, mainly because we'd been invited to have lunch afterwards with Tokasa, the chief's sister, and her family. Tokasa and her husband do the gardening for Jim and Kyoko. Lepsy, Tokasa's daughter, joined us for the meal but Tokasa stayed in the kitchen with her grandchildren and her husband, who had a bad cold. She had obviously worked hard at preparing an extensive meal for us. Although we enjoyed the food, it wasn't really a good visit because we hardly saw Tokasa. When I asked Lepsy what the sermon was about today, she said “God”. It seems hard to get Fijians to elaborate on things. We couldn't stay very long lest our transportation be left high and dry with the falling tide. Jim picked up Bob and Laurie from Shearwater and took us all on a little tour up the mangrove-lined river. Where to hide during a cyclone was a prevalent topic of conversation since mangroves are a great place to hide out because they are remarkably well attached to the earth. On the way back we were blasted by a squall, which passed quickly, but foretold the weather for the remainder of the day. We did some work around the boat and Bjarne spent some time on Sea Eagle II helping them out with their GPS and computer interface. The evening was relaxing, except for short moments of excitement when the wind would give an especially good blast and we'd dash out to the cockpit to read what the wind speed was.

The village Qarnivai, pronounced Garnyvie, is near Also Island but in a different district. Thus, when we stay at Also Island we are in Cawaro's waters and bring our sevusevu there. The folks of Qarnivai are wanting to have more involvement with the cruisers and invited us to come visit them. We ended up putting it off for a few days because the weather was very windy and rainy, and it looked to be a wet boat ride to that shore. The evening we finally arrived we were welcomed into a room full of men hanging around the grog bowl. After a little while some women arrived with tea, drinking coconuts and food for us. The women must have been busy as there was bread; deep fried dough balls (just needed a bit more sugar to qualify as Tim Bits); squares made from cassava, banana and sugar; and pink pancakes with jam. Things livened up when the women arrived, especially when they decided to dance and sing for us. A bamboo drum was brought in and we had a meke. We thought it was only fair to return the favour so Bjarne and I sang “Farewell to Nova Scotia”, thereby putting pressure on the rest of our party to sing something. Our contributions were well appreciated even if we didn't sound awesome. Amongst other songs, our group sang Danny Boy, the Old Lady Who Swallowed a Spider, and Home on the Range. My favourite dance was about a duck, complete with waddling. Dignity took a back seat to having fun and we had a great time.


Bjarne was busy here. He took a look at a generator in the village and checked the batteries at the school. Mary, the school's financial person asked Bjarne to explain what he was doing and to remind her just what she should look for so she could maintain the batteries properly. After a dark ride home in the Also V we donated a spare 12 volt spot light that we had found in a give-away pile. Bjarne wired it into the boat and we both worked on making a holder for it, using Jim's tools and materials. At one point we had two extra VHF radios and one large portable boom-box on board, none of which worked. Bjarne gradually worked his way through them, stealing a part from one radio to make the other work. We had to take the boom-box ashore because we didn't have a screw driver with a long enough handle to open it. Was I ever grateful about that when we opened the radio and saw a bunch of cockroaches crawling around inside. That expression about working out the bugs probably originated in the tropics.


One project that caught our interest is the use of coconut oil to make biodiesel, a clean-burning substitute for diesel made from a renewable resource. It is not a new concept but very few people are actually making the stuff. There is a place on the west coast of the U.S. that is making biodiesel from used french-fry oil, which apparently even smells like fries when you burn it. At this point, Jim thinks they'd have to sell the fuel for about $4.00 Fijian per litre. Jim believes he can pay the workers the same per husked coconut (about 4 cents) that they get now after the additional work of making it into copra. The husks would be left under the trees to decompose into fertilizer, and the nuts delivered to the pressing area. He would also have to hire workers to process the nuts into oil. After the nuts are split in half, the meat is ground out with a spinning burr while the coconut milk is saved for other uses. The meat is dried over a fire fueled by empty shells, and then it is packed into a long cylinder pierced with slits. The oil is extracted by pressing und undergoes some final processing involving sodium hydroxide before it can be used as bio-diesel. As you can see, pretty much all of the coconut is useful.

Jim figures there are a number of things that need to be in place before they can at least break even:

  1. the price of diesel has to continue rising [inevitable];
  2. he needs to get his coconut press (which is being built for him at cost and hence taking a while);
  3. more coconut palms must be planted (as weird as that sounds – since the decline of the copra industry fewer coconuts have been planted so many trees are now reaching “senility”and won't be able to produce much longer. Trees produce from about 4 years of age until about 100 years. Twelve nuts can make a litre of oil, and the pilot plant can process 300 coconuts/day;
  4. they must develop markets for the rest of the coconut – for example soaps from lower-grade oil, and chicken feed from spent coconut meat; and
  5. there are many cultural and sociological issues to sort out with respect to providing supervision and ensuring the oil is of a high quality.

It's an ambitious project and Jim and Kyoko already have a lot of things on the go. We would like to see it succeed and it is one of the reasons we began considering spending the cyclone season in Fiji.

Unfortunately, the anchorage at Also Island is rather murky due to the rivers running out to the sea. There is, however, a really great swimming hole nearby; the only catch is that you have a fairly steep hike followed by a careful walk down a slippery rock slope to get to the pool. We joined Ross, Pauline and Willy (who is a son of the Chief at Budd Reef) on the hike, and were guided by a local boy. The villagers' drinking water comes from the same stream, but farther up, and travels down the hillside in old decrepit pipes to communal taps outside the village. The taps are left running all of the time so that the pipes don't burst! We all had a grand old time splashing around, seeing who could squirt water farthest with their hands, and learning how to whistle by blowing air across cupped hands. There is nothing like being immersed in cool fresh water on a hot sunny day!

We ended up spending two weeks at Also Island, partly because the weather was uncooperative around the time we wanted to leave. We had really high winds coming from where we were planning to go, and a fair bit of rain. One morning we woke early to a loud thud; wind and waves had flipped our dinghy right over! Thank goodness we are in the habit of taking EvinRude off at night. Of course our delay was made easier by the village visits, getting to know a few of the local folks, involvement in projects, and socializing with other cruisers (we were excited when Cookie Cutter arrived two days before we left). All that, and we had begun discussing whether or not to spend the cyclone season in Fiji because it was just so darned interesting. In fact, when we left we said there was a 90% chance we would be back, which made the goodbyes easier.

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