Getting a strong feeling our feet were slowly but surely sinking into the comfortable mud of the Savusavu creek, we decided the weather looked good enough and we needed to head off before we became citizens of Savusavu with its lovely people. Destination Fawn Harbour, a seven hour sail away to the east. Well, make that a seven hour motor as we were heading east and the prevailing winds here come from the south east or east.
Staying clear of the reef and its breaking waves, we eventually arrived at the pass that gets you into Fawn Harbour, which is actually a mangrove lined bay. We had downloaded Google satellite images and had a set of waypoints for entering the pass from Curly’s ‘Fiji navigation’ seminar back in Savusavu. Susie went up the ladder built into our shrouds, I called out what she should be seeing, and she called back what she could see and advised if our course was good. In such situations you ideally want the sun behind you so you can clearly see the reef and time your arrival to achieve this. When you’re doing dog leg turns as this pass required, it never works perfectly and you often see one side of the pass better than the other. The dreaded call comes “I can see the reef on starboard but must warn you I can’t see so well to port”. Fortunately, or not so fortunately, it was low tide; it helps you to see the reef more clearly but it also makes the pass feel a lot narrower! “That’s a good course, don’t move any closer to starboard”, “Roger that, we have 0.2 miles and then turn 15 degrees to port”, “OK. Ahead I can see a marker but the reef comes out about 10m beyond it”. You keep talking, you work at it. A boat who came in behind us admitted they were so nervous they just put their boat on autopilot to all the waypoints handed out by Curly. Ten minutes later we were in the bay with its muddy water – the mud is no bad thing as you know your anchor will hold firm.
Up on the hillside amongst the lush green vegetation we could see the village. Down at waterside we could see one or two tunnels disappearing into the mangrove swamps which we assumed ran to the village. But it was low tide and those channels were nothing but mud. We were certainly not rushing in to do our traditional Sevusevu to ask permission to stay!
A few hours later another boat arrived and with the water having risen we headed in together to seek out the chief. It took a bit of asking but we were eventually steered up the hill to find Arthur, chief of Bagasau. At this stage, tunes from Monty Python’s Holy Grail and King Arthur started naughtily to creep into my brain. We had read that Fawn Harbour was a nice soft landing for nervous yachties and their first Sevusevu. In fact Arthur took our yaqona with a thank you, lead us into the lounge where we sat on comfortable sofas looking out through a window with a magnificent view and offered us a cup of tea! Hang on, we’re all drilled to sit on the floor surrounded by elders, ask permission to swim, fish, anchor, take photographs, clap at the appropriate moments and drink mud water flavoured with pepper more commonly known as kava. Never mind, another day, nothing wrong with an afternoon cup of tea. Arthur Pickering was a lovely man and regaled us with tales about his village and family. We told him we wanted to visit the nearby hot springs and he said no problem, he’d arrange someone to guide us there in the morning.
Next morning we met Agnes and her little cousin Wayne, booming out ‘Bula!’ You’ve just got to love how everyone greets you ‘Bula – Bula, Bula!” They’d got some coconuts, out came Wayne’s machete and we got to drink sweet tasty coconut milk. Fiji wins first prize for its coconuts. Off we went, dogs and all, tramping through the bush to the hot spring. We worked out it was the first ‘bath’ we’d had in over a year. Lovely, we spent an hour or two soaking up the hot and cool freshwater pools. Agnes and Wayne then took us to see Wayne’s home and offered us tea and buttered bread. These were kids in their young teens, brimming with confidence, perfectly mannered, respectful and as friendly as can be. Totally refreshing.
But alas, while Adina dearly wanted to stay and spend more time in the village, time marches on, cyclone season approaches and we must move on. Next pit stop, Viani Bay, more reef, more talking. Sadly the bottom was sand and coral and it took eight attempts for us to feel we were secure. We’ve become pretty fussy at anchoring now; the hook needs to be well dug in for a good night’s sleep especially when on a lee shore (land behind you presenting a risk of dragging onto it). With stronger winds forecast the next day, we didn’t fancy being off the boat sightseeing so come morning we upped anchor and moved on again.
With more reef on the way, we sat down and used Google map satellite images to plot our route. It was clear our electronic charts were not accurate and could not be relied on. It worked well, although this time Susie was up the ladder for more of the day than she probably wished for. Not a harsh skipper, a cup of tea was provided when all was clear. We headed to Albert Cove on an island called Rambi. The path in looked tricky but in the end it was straightforward. Leaving is always easier as you can record your track on the way in and just follow it back out.
Albert Cove is a small bay, white beach, littered with coconut trees and lush green hills. Picture perfect. We’d also read a few local elders lived in huts and were welcoming and lovely. An exploration of land and we think the elders had perhaps got too elderly as the place was deserted. Swim, explore, and relax. Well, that and looking ahead to Tom’s father coming to visit us in Vanuatu. He has a 43kg luggage allowance and has kindly agreed to bring stuff out to us. It’s often very hard to convey to people how hard it is for us to get spares and how very expensive shipping is – and then often arrives late. So we are extremely grateful to guests who bring us spares. Tom’s father mailed to say his study is looking like an amazon store and how he and Tom’s mother have got to know all the couriers. Seems we’re using each and every kilo of that luggage. Much appreciated.
More exploring to do, we were on the move again. We were heading due east and rather than take a long route south or north we figured we could take a gap in a piece of reef and save ourselves 7 odd miles. It looked shallow but do-able and we knew another yacht had crossed it in the past. The winds were up and the sea soon choppy. We bounced along, hooked a big Mahi Mahi which swam furiously from side to side off the back of the boat, in it came, we lifted it up, too heavy, it snapped our line. That’s three Mahi Mahi we’ve lost recently and our excellent fishing record is now positively tarnished!
Gradually we weaved our way to our chosen gap in the reef. Conditions were not ideal, the sea was choppy. We eyed it up and decided to go for it. The depths shallowed fast – 15m, 10m, 5m. A horrible thought struck that in the next 5 minutes our adventure could be over. Susie could see the coral heads and shouted out “Left”, “Right”, “Depth?”, “3m”, “Straight”, “Depth?”, “2m”. Adina bounced up and down as I steered her sharply. It probably lasted less than 2 minutes but our hearts were in our throats and depth couldn’t come soon enough. Then and there we vowed never to do that again. Conditions needed to be perfect for that type of shortcut, we were getting ahead of ourselves and shouldn’t have done it. Punishment took the form of a long upwind slog in rough seas under motor. We’d get up to 4.5 knots and then crash into waves that would slow us to 2 knots. Beaten and a little chastised, we weaved our way into Naviivi Bay, a bay well up in some mangrove swamps, used as a cyclone hole, and peace descended.
We could just see the village above the mangroves backing up the hill. A boat load of chatting, laughing children returning from school confirmed our mangrove alley to head down to find the village and off we headed, again with our yaqona to do the formal Sevusevu. We were greeted by Dan, the chief’s son, who, after some shouting, found his father. We sat on a mat out in the open, cross legged. The chief turned the kava round and round muttering some words, a few hand claps and Dan turned to us and said “That’s it, thank you, you are now members of our village and most welcome”. No offering of kava again, it all seemed gloriously informal.
Dan then proudly showed us around his village which indeed was beautiful. Huts are spread out, the grass is green and well kept, papaya trees compete with palm trees and all manner of vegetables growing. Everyone waves and greets you with a ‘Bula!’ Kids watched fascinated before running off shouting and laughing, even the dogs are friendly.
Dan took us to a field where the village men were playing rugby. For those of you who don’t know, Fiji is one of the world’s top rugby sevens teams. And here it was at its grassroots. A field with bamboo rugby posts, thick with grass in places and men throwing a ball around playing touch sevens. And what a setting! Dan told us the men play from 4pm each day ‘til it gets dark. There seemed to be around 4 teams; when one team scored a try, the losing team swapped with another team. We headed off, Dan asked how long we would be staying and invited us back the next day when they laid on a bit of kava and sold handicrafts for tourists from a nearby resort.
Next day we arrived to find the villagers had all dressed up in their Bula shirts (colourful Hawaiian type shirts), with a guitar to welcome the resort guests. We guessed they were paying for it all but Dan simply included us. Finally we got to do a kava ceremony – well, the chief didn’t turn up and the kava was a little diluted for western palates. Much to our amazement the tourists were well versed in the ceremony; they told us the resort laid on quite a few kava drinking ceremonies. So we joined in. Once they departed Dan held us back and we discussed plans. Next day he was off to the neighbouring island Taveuni to get provisions for his village shop and we decided to join in!
For us it was chance to see real Fiji life. Forget all the grass skirts stuff, most wear western clothes (although modesty is still big) and only wear traditional clothes on Sundays and special occasions. With quite a few of Dan’s family in the boat we got chatting and shared stories. Education is seen as the way to the future and all children attend school until eighteen. As ever, they were polite, friendly and patient as we tried to learn some Fijian. We followed them around town and did our own shopping buying local vegetables and finally some treasured honey.
A quick side trip to stand on the 180 degrees meridian line entertained us as London sits opposite on the 0 degrees meridian line. Back we went, starting to feel like we were being adopted by the family. We’d told Dan we were keen to see the neighbouring island’s waterfalls and typical of a Fijian he agreed to take us, no problem.
Saturday he turned up with four of his children and off we set. There was Chino, Melle, Mika and Rosie. All initially shy, they soon warmed up. The sea was a bit rough and poor little Mika felt seasick. He bravely smiled, enduring the cups of seawater being poured over his head that his brother thought would help. Dan had set out to catch fish and we landed three on the way.
Arriving at the waterfalls the locals had got greedy and were now not only charging tourists but locals too. Susie and I had already we agreed we’d pay for the entire day for everyone, fuel and all. And off we set, the boys running ahead excited as they’d never seen waterfalls before.
At the back, Dan and Tom huffed and puffed their ageing bodies up the steep path. Then we could see the waterfalls. In all our time we shall never forget seeing the young boys bouncing up-and-down with pure excitement, shedding clothes and plunging in.
Dan took the lead and jumped off a rock. No fear factor with these boys, off they took. Out came the camera and poses were done as they jumped off. We all swam, enjoying it, children climbing over us, laughing, screaming. It was wonderfully refreshing. These children have no idea how lucky they are that iPads have not hit their lives. We found another waterfall, a bigger jump and even more excitement. Susie and Rosie went up; they agreed they were both scared and if they held hands they could do it together. The boys would do count downs singing “ONE-TWO-THREE…” and run and leap. By the end of the day we were firm friends, Dan’s family was our family.
Given all the hospitality freely given to us, and Dan saying he’d like to see the boat, we invited Dan and his wife to dinner. Come 5pm, they arrived and happily we saw had brought daughter Rosie with them. “Su-si, Tom – Bula!!!” They bought us little gifts and we entertained them as best we could, even if Rosie drank way too much coke and declared beetroot was not to her liking.
Fijians will always exceed you when it comes to hospitality so of course there was an invite to church with lunch afterwards the next day. I don’t think I will ever get use to wearing trousers in hot climes but church it was. Dan, hearing I was after a Bula shirt, had got one for me to wear to look the part.
Church over, it was time for the Sunday family lunch. Agni, Dan’s wife, had put on a real spread and Fijians always serve their guests first – you get all the good stuff which makes you feel a little awkward. After lunch, with full stomachs we relaxed. Susie had brought some spare bandages and plasters for Rosie who said she wanted to become a nurse so while Rosie got some first aid training, Chino provided Tom with some coconut opening lessons. It’s not as easy as it looks and you need a big solid blade!
Roll on one more day, we prepared the boat for our overnight passage to northern Lau and went in to the village to say our farewells. It was community day and all the men were out cutting the grass – once a week they all muck in and with a combination of machetes and weed cutters they cut all the village grass and the rugby pitch. Once the rugby pitch was done, rugby could start. Dan got on the field but was soon exhausted. Time wore on and I eventually put my hand up for a shot of by-gone days. Of course they guided me. We scored a try quite quickly. But then the opposition caught us napping. One flying Fijian and me the last line of defence! Now I’ve never exactly been a Jonny Wilkinson but surely these knee-operated legs could pull off something a little special against a 22 year old daily rugby playing Fijian. There was nothing more to do than a flying dive and ankle tackle him. They scored!
We bid our farewells and promised to be back. We’ve been to many lovely islands now, always considering, as many of our friends have wondered, whether we’d stop and settle. We both agree, Fiji is somewhere that holds an attraction. We’ll still complete our circumnavigation and head back to London to make a few more pennies. Who knows where our paths will then lead. But we do know we promised Dan we’d be back one day.