The Lau Islands in eastern Fiji are rumoured to be a blast to the past, a group of islands where traditions are still upheld and the modern world is shunned. Sailors coming from the east, as we did, have to sail right past them when arriving in Fiji as customs have no check-in points in the Lau. So annoyingly you have to wait for some calm weather to head back there as it involves sailing upwind in open, lumpy seas.
We chose to visit the northern Lau and specifically the island of Vanua Balavu. Supply ships call once or twice a month. In fact, they are that far off the beaten track that the area was last surveyed in 1875 so charts are not surprisingly a little lacking in accuracy. So, as we had done for north-east Fiji, we sat with satellite images and planned our routes. For sailors wanting to know how to do this, I’ll do an article to go on our sailing notes page in the near future. Key was entering the pass in the reef surrounding the island; we did our usual routine of Susie going up the ladder built into our shrouds while I called out what we should see and she responded with what she could see. The charts were indeed well out and at times we were apparently sailing over land. Always be well prepared when sailing in Fiji!
We headed into the local village to do the traditional Sevusevu ceremony, presenting kava and asking the chief permission to stay, fish, and take photographs. The village clearly sees a few yachties and asks for a 30 Fiji Dollar donation per person. It’s a little controversial as no-one else does and a villager further down the line called it ‘money for no sweat’. That said, they do keep a formal record of all money received and put it towards projects in the village. Susie and I were in the mood for some island time on our own and had no specific plans to linger in the village. They then informed us that the government education department was visiting and there would be a feast that night and we were invited. Of course declining would just be plain rude and it’s not often you get the chance to see the real thing.
We always make a point of contributing so Susie cooked some gingerbread to take to the feast. Back we went in the evening to join the gathering in the local town hall. This was a small building where the locals had come together, listening to the senior government official and his team talking about their plans to develop the village school with money donated by Australia Aid. Once finished, we were ushered in.
Maybe it’s our English background but we’ve always tried to stay in the background, observe and make no fuss, in fact declining any fuss. But it doesn’t work that way in Fiji – you’re treated as an honoured guest and you have to accept that. So I was promptly lead to the front to sit between the chief and the senior government official. Not that it’s all formal, far from it. Everyone sits on the floor, the chief at the head, elderly men nearby and people then strewn out all over the place. Youngsters even sit in groups quietly playing guitars – Fijians love guitars. Susie was sat with the women folk to chat with them.
John, the senior government official, was clearly well travelled and very articulate. In fact it was clear he had seen a lot of these ceremonies in his time and was happy to chat about what we were doing and he filled me in on the Fijian government’s education plans. Every now and then he would stop me and say he had to pay attention as someone would stand up and make a speech. Finally we were getting the real kava experience with a big bowl of kava prepared. I nonchalantly did my traditional one clap before taking the bowl of kava, wolfed it down in one gulp, and clapped three times after drinking it. Little did they know this was only our second time at a kava ceremony and the first one had been laid on for tourists. In fact, it didn’t even taste that bad second time round; it tasted like fine quality mud water mixed with pepper! The kava bowls eventually made their way through the hall and Susie took her turn with the local ladies.
At the back of the hall was a table piled high with food. John invited us to join him to eat. This is where it gets plain embarrassing, sat at the head of the table, you don’t know Arthur from Martha and the table is a real feast, the village ladies had done themselves proud. It was good, indeed the land crabs were excellent. A bottle of Margaux and we would have been in heaven. We joined in for some more kava to try to fit in a bit more. Stuffed, we gave our thanks and headed home in the dark, dodging coral outcrops in the dinghy, before sleeping deeply.
The next few days were spent exploring the idyllic small islands known as The Bay of Islands and losing fishing lures. We moved around at a fair pace wanting to see as much as possible. Navigation as ever required real concentration with reef everywhere. But it was beautiful and we enjoyed a week of exploring. Finally we anchored in a hideaway hole near the pass, waiting for good weather to leave. Summer and cyclone season have arrived and when it rains, it throws it down. One night the wind blew hard as it poured with rain and we were thankful we had dug our anchor in nice and firm.
It takes two days to cross from east to west Fiji and while the weather wasn’t perfect we went for it fearing we’d be stuck for weeks if we didn’t. We were bounced around, got wet, and had a bit of a tough passage but we survived.
West Fiji is a popular tourist destination with the lovely Yasawa islands and lots of beautiful coral for diving and snorkelling. Saying that, 8 Fiji dollars in the east of Fiji will buy you a meal, in west Fiji you’re lucky to get a can of coke for that! We headed for the famed Musket Cove. Not having seen another yacht for three weeks it came as a bit of a culture shock seeing so many yachts together. We caught up with friends Don and Lesley on their yacht ‘True Blue’ and to be fair Musket Cove does a good job of giving cruisers some downtime and spoiling them. The so-called ‘Sand Bar’ built just for sailors was positively lovely. We only had two days but we lapped it up – we went for a day cruise around the islands letting the locals do the navigating, indulged in massage and had a fine meal. Cruisers need holidays too sometimes!
After that we headed for Vuda Point Marina to prepare Adina for her crossing to Vanuatu and to get some maintenance work done. It’s the end of the sailing season now and most sailors head to Australia or New Zealand for the cyclone season. We’ve opted to stay in the tropics and base ourselves in Vanuatu until next April when the weather becomes favourable again. Reasons being first up we’ve travelled to Australia and New Zealand so somewhere different appealed to us. Secondly, a friend James and his wife Carolyn live in Vanuatu with their children and they are hooked into local life so we hope they can hook us into it too.
But it’s sad to see our sailing friends go; our ‘moving village’ that we have been part of since leaving Panama in February is coming to an end. We have met so many wonderful people, people from all walks of life, people with adventure in their blood, people who give and give; it’s been a real highlight. We headed off to meet with Mark and Sarah on their boat Field Trip who we met over the radio sailing from Panama to Galapagos. We’ve always clicked with them and a last evening was in order. Typical of all sailors, they are positive, outgoing people, beautiful children, good sense of humour and always up for a sundowner; we had a great final evening together. Next season we will have a head start on most people being based further north in Vanuatu but we really hope that we do see more of them and keep in touch with the many great friends we’ve met. Special times, special people, all of them.