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Fiji

30/08/2012

When I decided to head to the Pacific – sometime in Vietnam – I wanted to go somewhere vaguely out of the way. Somewhere like Vanuatu, home of bungee jumping and with 100 languages among its 200,000 people. Or Tonga, where the largest island is under 100 sq mi. Or Nauru, whose economy moved from being almost entirely dependent on guano to one where 1% of the country was employed in a detention centre for foreign nationals looking for asylum in Australia. But in the end, more practical considerations decide the matter – the Pacific island with no malaria, the cheapest flights and the easiest connections is also the most touristy. Still, a few days in Fiji can’t be too bad!

Tourism is hugely important to Fiji, which is probably why, the moment we enter the airport building at Nadi (pronounced Nandi for some reason), we’re met by a singing Melanesian duo playing ukuleles while wearing flowers in their hair. Touristy it may be, but it doesn’t take away from the fact that everyone on Fiji seems ridiculously friendly. You don’t have to go far before a local will smile and greet you with a “Bula!”, the Fijian phrase of welcome. And with it being winter in Australasia, they’re not short of tourists to greet. It was 10 and rainy in Sydney; it’s 28 and sunny just a three hour flight away.

The hostel has sent a taxi to pick me up from the airport; the hostel itself is squeezed in between the airport and the beach. There, as elsewhere in Fiji, there’s not a huge amount to do. But then, that’s the point of going to Fiji. I ask about a trip to one of the islands, and am told they can book me on a trip to Mana Island – they’ll ring up and find out if there’s spaces left and exactly how much it costs. A short while later, the same staff member is on the dirt volleyball court enjoying a game, while I’ve got my feet up –

– and neither of us is particularly in a rush to sort the trip. It’ll happen; we’re just on Fiji time now.

It does get confirmed a couple of hours later, by which time I’ve joined the kava circle. Kava is a mildly intoxicating drink made from ground kava plant mixed with water –

Not surprisingly, it has the texture of liquid mud. It’s served in wooden bowls like the one in the basin in the photo, and you’re expected to knock it back in one go. The first bowl makes your lips tingle and go slightly numb. It’s supposed to act as a mild relaxant, and consumed in large enough quantities, can lead to fairly vivid dreams. “Large enough quantities” apparently means upwards of 15 bowls of the stuff, which doesn’t really seem worth it. However, once the sun goes down in the villages, it’s quite common for everyone to gather in a communal bure (hut) and drink the night away. If you visit a traditional village, you will be expected to sit down and share some kava with the chief before being accepted. In our bure, the staff have the guitars out and, all suitably relaxed, a sing-song session breaks out –

The hostel staff are, of course, keen to find out where everyone’s from. “Ah, Ireland! Bad result in rugby.” I can’t really deny that – the 60-0 mauling in New Zealand had been just a couple of days previously, and the local paper had a full-page report. (It also had a story about a Fijian who’d had two wives for 20 years, and even had children with both, without either wife ever finding out about the other until his children realised what was going on through facebook). I claim ignorance about rugby, and try and change sport, but, much to my disappointment, it turns out no-one’s ever heard of the Ó Hailpín brothers.

After a night devoid of vivid dreams, I head off for the beach in the morning for to catch the boat to Mana. As in Railay, the boat sits a few yards out to see, and walking out to it causes a shoal of small fish to scatter through the crystal clear waters. As we pull out, the mountainous interior of the main island, Viti Levu, fills the view –

Before getting to Mana, we’ve to stop off at Bounty Island (46 acres) and Beachcomber Island (so small that a complete lap takes four minutes to walk). Along with Mana Island, both are part of the Mamanuca island group; it’s common for tourists to island hop from one to the other all the way back to Viti Levu and relative civilisation. The islands are about as stereotypically Fijian as you can get –

At 300 acres, Mana is a relative giant of a place; it even has a hill. Again, we’re welcomed in traditional fashion –

– and given the lay of the land. The hostel rooms are out back, in the one local village on Mana, which boasts a small Seventh Day Adventist Church and a school. Activities are limited to diving, sitting on the beach doing nothing, going on tours to the island Tom Hanks filmed Cast Away on, or walking around the island; a lap takes 90 minutes. It’s quite a nice island –



– and the crowds are gone once you go a hundred yards from the main beach.

On the far side of the island is a sign warning of private property; it’s apparently a F$1,000 (E450) per night resort. My hostel is $66 per night with three meals included. I assume the main attraction is that riff-raff like myself are kept away, so I decide to head inland and climb up to Lookout Point rather than have security guards chasing me away. From the top, you can see across the whole island, which is pretty much entirely what I came to Fiji to do –

From the island, one of the Mamanucas’ stranger features can be seen. There are in and around 25 islands in the group; the number varies because of islands like this –

– which disappears entirely underwater during high tide. It looks small enough even now, but in fact, boats regularly stop at it to let people “explore” –

From Lookout Point, it’s down the other side of the exclusive resort and on around to Sunset Point, the western end of the island, which does pretty much as it says on the tin. It’s too cloudy for a proper sunset, and I also realise just in time that once the sun goes down, it’s going to be pitch dark and I’m still half an hour from the hostel. I start back around the wet rocks in the growing darkness, with crabs up to four inches across scuttling away in front of me. I end up at the top of the main beach, still ten minutes from the hostel but at least with a lit path, just as it goes pitch dark. Not something I’ll be trying again.

Evenings in Mana are similar to in Railay; all about tourist entertainment. There’s dancing –

– Melanesian, Polynesian and Micronesian, though they all look fairly similar to me. There’s fire juggling –

– and crab races. You can buy a crab for $5, and hope it’s able to understand that it’s supposed to run out of a ten-foot circle drawn on the floor (mine never leaves the inner circle marking the starting point). The first three make the final, which starts – as many international sporting events do – with the national anthems of each crab/person team. The New Zealand team – a father and two sons of about 8 to 10 – decide to show off and do the haka instead.

Six more New Zealanders arrive the next day – not unusual in itself as Fiji is a popular place to escape the winter, but this lot have sailed from New Zealand, taking 12 days to arrive (and neatly skipping customs in New Zealand and Fiji). They’ll be spending a few weeks here doing charity work; a tough life indeed. There’s also an Irish sailing instructor on the island, and I’ve discovered the joys of arguing with English people that England isn’t a real country. For anyone who hasn’t tried this, there are hours of fun to be had; it seems to really rile the English (it gets even better if you argue that technically, the Act of Union means England was absorbed into Scotland). My debate comes to an abrupt end when one of the English brings up the Scottish independence movement and has a sudden Zen moment. All this takes place on the balcony overlooking the beach and under the first properly starry night of the trip.

After two days doing nothing much on Mana, it’s time to head back to the mainland for another beach sunset –

– and another kava session, which ends with me singing Harry Belafonte with an Englishman who was the lead singer of an Irish rebel band which toured London pubs in the 1970s.

Heading to the airport the next day, I ask the driver about the coup d’etat in Fiji a few years ago (Fiji’s still suspended from the Commonwealth as a result). It seems so completely at odds with the relaxed country I’ve seen in the past few days, typified by the best bank note of the trip –

The taxi driver seems to take the view that the Government – who, in shades of Thailand, were looking to pardon those responsible for a coup in 2000 – needed to be gotten rid of, and once this was done, people could go back to enjoying themselves again. It really is an infectiously relaxed place.

I only came to Fiji for crystal clear water and an island so small I could walk around it, but there’s a lot more to the place, as is obvious as the plane takes off –

In the rainforests of Viti Levu, there’s hiking trails and mountain valleys and remote villages and pristine waterfalls… I think I’ll have to come back!

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