Sunday, 19 October 2003

"Happenings" Number 9 - 2003

More Landfalls in Paradise - 2003

‘Envy’ didn’t leave Samoa for Fiji “in a few day’s time”, as per our assumption in concluding ‘H-7’; indeed, we stayed a further 2 ½ weeks, principally researching Bruce’s Samoan ancestry, and what a revealing and exciting pastime for us that turned out to be. As brief as possible, here is the story.

With no intention of being pretentious, some of you may be unaware that Bruce’s paternal great-grandfather, Australian explorer and pioneer of Cape York and Somerset, Frank Jardine, met and married there, in 1872, a Samoan Princess, Sana Solia Sofala, niece of Malietoa the ruling Suzerain of Samoa from around that time.

Those details have long been historically documented, but not much was known concerning her family and background, so our visit to Samoa provided the opportunity for genealogical research. As the result of a frustrating morning pouring over complicated and confusing mid-eighteenth century local historical records at the Apia library, I decided the best approach was to go public, so contacted the major ‘Samoan Observer’ newspaper, who thought it newsworthy enough to initially run a full page story with photos, then followed that up with a further four articles over the ensuing two weeks, which got the telephones ringing, and an offer of research by a local consultancy agency free of charge. (They were newly established and wanted the associated press exposure and publicity).

Acting on a suggestion to contact an 80+ years old retired Minister who was writing the early history of The London Missionary Society in Samoa, he gave me, a few days later, a letter that his wife had since discovered in an old church magazine from an aging Sana Solia sent from Somerset in 1907 seeking news of her family in Samoa, with whom she’d had no contact for 37 years. It documented her family history, which I won’t bore you with, and that they came from Falelatai Village on Upolu, to which we have now visited twice. For us, it was a very interesting and exciting couple of weeks.

The harbour at Apia, Samoa’s capital, must be one of the busiest in the South Pacific, for frequency of shipping arrivals was one every other day, not to overlook the 30 yachts which were anchored all around the harbour there as well. The most interesting of the large ships was the up-market cruise liner “Tahitian Princess”, with almost as many crew as passengers (who oozed wealth), though a large Oil Tanker was the biggest by far, discharging its bulk fuel cargo through an underwater pipeline from the centre of the harbour.

We had intended to visit only the main Samoan island, Upolu, then sail down to Fiji, but somewhere along the way plans changed to include a visit to the tiny French possession of Wallis Island, so we stopped off for a few days at Samoa’s other major island, Savai’i (sar-vie-e), enroute. It has the reputation of being the most scenic of Samoa’s islands, and we spent six very pleasant days discovering Savai’i by bus, totally circumnavigating the island and passing through all its main villages.

Savai’i is very different to anything we’d seen; though volcanic like much of the South Pacific, it differed with its considerable areas of jet-black lava rock bare of any vegetation, including an extensive flat barren area running to precipitous cliffs on the north shore known as the Lava Fields. This coastline featured some stunning coastal cliffs and maritime scenery, plus picturesque sandy beaches with backpacker resorts. Asau Village on the northwestern end of Savai’i is a small, clean and pretty place with modest western style housing scattered throughout the undulating, hot, black lava rock terrain, skirted with sandy coves and turquoise waters. It has an excellent harbour with a large concrete wharf, and a small but modern all-weather airport, but neither ships nor aircraft call here any more. Such a waste of valuable resources in a country lacking in them both.

But it’s a South Pacific story of repeated regularity. With limited employment opportunities and little else to keep them there, Asau’s younger generation, as have many Samoans, gravitated to the cities and/or overseas, and we often heard the claim that there are more Samoans living abroad, principally in New Zealand, the USA, and Australia, than reside within their homeland.

Nevertheless, here as elsewhere, the locals were very friendly, and we had several children come aboard Envy for a drink of cordial, a biscuit and a ‘look-see’, which they absolutely love to do. They would hail us continuously from the shore until we went in to collect them in the dinghy, or if ignored, sometimes even swim out to the yacht.

We departed Asau Harbour late one afternoon with Envy scorching along at 8.6 knots (15km/hr), an exhilarating buzz from our usual 5 to 6 kts, having the benefit of a strong ocean current along the top of Savai’i Island, heading for Ile Uvea, the main island in the small Wallis Group, a tiny speck surrounded by its huge lagoon, lost in the middle of the Pacific. Its narrow entrance channel has large tidal ‘overfalls’ during mid-tide runs, so it must be negotiated at slack water, hence our late afternoon departure from Samoa, but that passage was quicker than anticipated and we found ourselves ‘hove-to’ for an hour at 4am about 20 miles offshore awaiting daylight and the tide to make our entry into the lagoon.

Wallis and Futuna Islands are a French possession lying west of Samoa and northeast of Fiji and, at 13 º south marked the northernmost extent of our cruising. The main island of Wallis, Ile Uvea, is only 12km long by 6km wide, peopled by French speaking Polynesians, and you’re hard pressed to find many who understand any English. The pace is pretty much laid back, with all shops and businesses closing at noon to re-open sometime after 2pm. Surprisingly, the island has no tourist industry at all, nor is tourism sought or encouraged. There is not one single Taxi on the island, nor any public transport whatsoever, though there is no shortage of motor vehicles. We hitchhiked or walked everywhere, and almost always got a ride with the first vehicle that came along and though everyone was friendly, communication was difficult since our French is sadly lacking.

We were fortunate to share Uvea’s only protected anchorage at Gahi (Nar-hee) with another ‘cruising yachtie’ from England who’d been there for 3 weeks and who spoke French fluently, so Chris Smith gave us a good introduction to the local scene and customs. We also met a few French expatriate professionals there on 2-year postings who informed us that Wallis Island has no domestic product or export income at all, being entirely dependent on French handouts of total aid and support. Medical, dental and hospital care are all free to the locals, and imported food lines are subsidised. Even so, the cost of everything in the provincial centre of Mata Utu except bread and some cheap French red wine was quite expensive, but the baguettes were the best bread we’ve tasted since leaving Australia.

After six wonderful days there soaking up the local culture, touring around and visiting some sights of interest including the little known but immaculately preserved ancient stone fort dating back many centuries, we departed this exciting landfall on the afternoon tide to clear the lagoon, with a nostalgic farewell to Polynesia, and commenced our 3 day passage to Fiji filled with exciting anticipation of what lay ahead.

Our destination there was Savusavu, on the southwestern corner of Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second large island, where we arrived 72 hours later after a pleasant passage, though we motor-sailed for part of it due to a lack of wind. Sometimes when the wind dies away in the ocean the sea swell continues to roll on through, resulting in a most unpleasant motion as the boat rolls from side to side with sails loudly slatting, so in these circumstances we run the engine and motor sail to ease the discomfort.

Our ‘clearing in’ at Savusavu reminded us of Fiji’s colonial heritage with the copious paperwork, all in loose carbon paper triplicate, of Customs, Health, Immigration and Quarantine requirements standing proudly as a legacy of old Britain, and far outdoing any other entry experience. The annual cost of ink and paper must be staggering, but it no doubt benefits Fiji’s employment situation.

For us, Fiji is different again to the rest of the South Pacific of our travels, and in a nutshell, the following ‘thumbnails’ are our observations to date.

New Zealand is a developed cosmopolitan society and its Maori are Polynesian. Tonga is also Polynesian, comparatively poor and pretty much embraces a subsistence lifestyle; we found it mainly a ‘sailing experience’ of wonderful tropical island cruising. Samoa is Polynesian, bustling, clean and progressive with a higher standard of living, and for us, an excellent ‘on-land’ experience, somewhat determined by its relatively few suitable cruising destinations. Wallis Island was again mainly a ‘people and land’ thing; Polynesian, French, expensive, and ‘un-touristy’, yet so very interestingly different and unusual.

Fiji is pretty much a combination of it all; lying west of 180º longitude, it is Melanesian, but has an absorbing mix of ethnic Fijian and Indian Fijian cultures. Comprising over 300 islands (only 1/3 inhabited) it offers great inter-island cruising comparable to any, but is also very much a ‘land and people’ experience and, away from the main tourist areas, comparatively inexpensive.

Vanua Levu has never shared the glitzy tourist reputation of Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island, and this made it all the more appealing to us. Having only the two towns of Lambasa and Savusavu on the entire island, (but numerous villages), with a large Indian community, many sugar cane plantations, and a character reminiscent of ‘old Fiji’ in so many ways, we generally immersed ourselves in both ethnic and Indian experiences and enjoyed our ten days there immensely. The municipal market in Savusavu offered the best vegetables since NZ, cost of living ‘across the board’ was comparatively cheap, and the unpretentious Indian Curry Cafes served unbelievably good dishes at Aust$3.00 per meal. You couldn’t cook a similar meal any cheaper!

We took a local bus over the 80km of rough bitumen road, through farms of drought-stricken sugar cane, up to the main town of Lambasa with its majority Indian population, where we fortuitously arrived in time to witness a major annual religious procession down the main street, honouring a Hindu deity. About thirty men all clad in white physically towed a very ornate float garlanded with leis & flowers, and featuring a mural of an elephant-trunked female deity, no doubt the subject of this colourful celebration, which contained a very serious, young looking priest who was having a lovely time playing with fire and blowing flames everywhere. All this excitement, together with the crowds of women dressed in their bright multi-hued saris, made this a most memorable spectacle of colour and mystery indeed.

Departing Savusavu, Envy sailed west through narrow coral reef passes and boisterous Nasonisoni Passage with its mile-long 2 to 3 metre high standing tidal surge, for overnight stays at Nambouwalu and Mbau Bay before leaving Vanua Levu for Yandua Island. Now somewhat off the beaten track, our three days in this splendid anchorage offered the best reef snorkelling so far, and our digital camera, safe and dry in its underwater housing, worked overtime among the pretty tropical fish and the coral gardens. Most small tropical fish maintain a ‘comfort zone’ of a metre or more but here, with much less human contact, they inquisitively checked us out at a much closer range than that. The long hot climb up to the top of the narrow isthmus ridge behind the anchorage rewarded the hardy with some truly awesome views of either side of the island, a panorama of several idyllic coves whose multi-hued blues, turquoise and green waters lapped shallow coral giving way to palm lined beaches. Real postcard stuff, and very pretty.

It was time to see something of the main island, Viti Levu, so we sailed south into a 15/20 kt south-easterly averaging 6 knots for the thirty miles across notoriously rough and windy Bligh Water to the reef strewn entrance to small Nananu-I-Ra Island, where we anchored in a long sweeping bay that fronted a lovely sandy beach lined with several up-market homes, which we later learned were the property of international absentee landlords, and that foreign holiday home ownership is a growing trend in several areas of Fiji.

The entire northern coast of Viti Levu is fringed by almost continuous barrier reefs, as well as many more lying further offshore, and Envy cautiously picked her way in short day hops around the top of the island inside these reefs, to Lautoka, our home for the next five days, and where we had to again ‘clear in’ with Customs. So much bureaucracy!

Being now the sugar-harvesting season, each night in our anchorages around this coast we were treated to the spectacular vision of cane fires illuminating the night sky as nearby farmers burnt their fields preparatory to hand harvesting the next morning, but this spectacle was not without cost. Since all the mills were crushing daily and non-stop, our anchorage in Lautoka, Fiji’s ‘sugar capital’ and second largest town, for both Customs and sightseeing requirements, had all the yachts there clothed in a blanket of fine black ash, which floated down day and night and covered everything with soot.

But Lautoka was otherwise a great experience with its colourful busy street scenes with their mix of multi-cultures, the buzz of the large municipal market, the aromas of the cafes and fragrances of the Indian shops, and better still, perhaps even less expensive than Vanua Levu. The government’s Public Service Information Week and the Annual Sugar Festival added further appeal to our time there, as did our indulgence in their culinary delights plus the occasional ice cream or two. Here, as elsewhere, we almost always shared our visits ashore in the company of other cruising yachties.

We also took the one hour bus trip to Nadi (Nandi) for a look around this touristy gateway to the nation, and were pleasantly surprised to discover our visit coincided with day 1 of a four day ‘town-wide’ “sale”, in which most of the shops were participating, with much merchandise reduced to half price; what good fortune, for we had intended to shop anyway! That afternoon we visited the nearby up-market Denarau Island Resort and Marina, a 20-minute trip from Nadi, which in addition to its pristine maritime environment and beachfront, features superb resort accommodation, championship golf and tennis facilities, and two new residential estates. Having been shown around these facilities and the modern Marina, which are both still ongoing developments, we are very impressed and decided that we could quite easily live there, being only a 2 hour fight from Brisbane.

Finally, the bagasse ash from the sugar mill got the better of us so we moved a few miles down the coast for an overnighter at Saweni Bay, another popular anchorage, before moving on to refuel and take water at Vuda Point Marina, enroute to the well-known yachties haunt at Musket Cove Resort and Marina on Malolo Lailai Island, about 20 miles distant, where F$1 secures life membership of the Musket Cove Yacht Club, for whatever it’s worth. In order to qualify you must have sailed to or from a foreign port to Musket Cove, and by all accounts, it seems very few yachties do not sign up.

Envy is currently cruising Fiji’s highly regarded Yasawa Islands, having spent the past nine days visiting the islands of Navandra, Vanua Levu, Waya, Naviti, and Matacawa Levu and as we were writing this at anchor in The Blue Lagoon yesterday, snugly enclosed by four islands and famous for the film of the same name, we watched a film crew in action shooting another movie, much to the pride and delight of Var, Kara, Bill, Bei, and Semi, residents of this tiny island with its million dollar location and views across the lagoon. The night before Semi built us a fire on the beach for another memorable BBQ and sing-a-long with guitar and banjo accompaniment, with our Fijian friends joining in. Thanks again for the memories.

This morning we commenced our move twelve miles southwards down the chain as we slowly make our way back to Lautoka in preparation for our ultimate departure from Fiji later in October. Today finds us in a rolly anchorage at Naviti Island’s lovely ‘One Dollar Beach’, reputedly so named since it featured on the old Fijian one dollar note. On the way up here off Waya Island we were approached by some local fishermen in a small open boat offering us the two largest crayfish we’ve ever, ever seen for $45 each, which we reluctantly declined. This afternoon here in One Dollar Beach we purchased two large Crays for their asking price of $10 each, not quite as big as the others, from a boat full of young boys who just dive for fun. Yummy, yummy, guess what’s for dinner tonight!

Perhaps we’ve mentioned it previously, but one of our biggest surprises and laments has been the scarcity of marine life we’ve encountered during our cruising since leaving Australia. One whale, one sea snake, comparatively few ocean birds and not a single porpoise until a few days ago when a pod of around 12 of them put on a great show for our camera as we cruised along in the Yasawas.

It’s a couple of days later and Envy sits at rest back in Musket Cove as we plan our last few days here in Fiji before sailing off to New Caledonia next week. Tomorrow marks 1 year to the day since leaving Australia, so we’ll probably pop a celebratory bottle of Champers then.

The annual ‘Cyclone Season’ is fast approaching, so we must turn our thoughts towards home. Regrettably, we’ve run out of time to visit Vanuatu this season, but perhaps that is something to think about for next year. Nevertheless, we are looking forward to discovering French New Caledonia on our way back to Oz, and hope the weather favours a trip down to its spectacular cruising grounds in the Isle of Pines.

Malolo Lailai, Fiji. 12-Oct-03