Fiji is possibly one of THE friendliest places in the universe. Everywhere you go there is a big warm smile, a hearty ‘Bula!’ and a desire to sit around and shoot the breeze. It’s fabulous.
Also fabulous: the weather, the beaches, the diving and the serene ease of island living.
After ditching the tourist hole that is Nadi, and after weighing us as well as our baggage, we went on the tiniest plane imaginable to Taveuni, the ‘Garden Island’ and one of the more remote destinations in this large group of islands.
We spent a few days taking it easy and getting used to the fact that power for the island is only on between 6 and 9pm. The ‘town’ we stayed at was no more than a collection of houses (a surprising number American owned) and one or two shops and restaurants. This was fine by us – the only problem being that everyone is hardcore Christian so it all shuts down on a Sunday (the shutting down being the problem, not the fact that they were Christian – we’re fairly tolerant folks).
Around the East end of the island is the suitably dramatic Lavena coastal walk which has, as its culmination, an incredible waterfall. It was like a huge rock pot – the sides stretching up a good 10 metres all around except for the narrow passage that allowed the water out and which we had to swim down to gain entry – with two huge waterfalls like giant taps pouring gallons and gallons of water into the tiny space.
Of course, when there is a waterfall, there is the Waterfall Challenge. Swimming out and under these bad boys was, however, a harrowing (not to mention cold) experience at points. The two vast streams of water churned up the pool and created all sorts of crazy currents that were quite difficult to swim against but, being as there was nothing but water-slicked rocks on all sides, were also the only way out. Hurrah for water-related near-death experiences!
Also on Taveuni: the International Date Line. Much time was spent wandering between today and tomorrow, trying to figure out the complexities of having to map a linear time axis on a spherical body (we never did quite manage to figure it out and we are still sure that if you travelled fast enough around the globe you would never have to leave today. Science buffs: straighten us out, please!)
Dolphin Bay Diver’s Retreat, Vanua Levu
Time travelling is hard work, so we decided what we needed was some time to relax (cause, y’know, we haven’t done enough of THAT this year). Luckily for us, a short boat ride away was an isolated cove that had a resort with its own private beach AND it’s own dive shop. Perfect. Easy days were spent wandering along the deserted beach, eating tasty home-cooked food and looking at the pretty fishes and sharks and the crazy Nudibrachs under the waves. These tiny freaks of nature are like beautified slugs. They come in a variety of colours and shapes (the one we saw was purple and white and nobbly). There is such variety between individuals, in fact, that no two are alike. So, more snowflake than slug, really.
Returning to the world above water, we find ourselves in Levuka on a little island called Ovalau. This town is an old colonial-style town with a street that looks like it’s been ripped out of a Western, dipped in a paint factory and dumped on the waterfront. Like most places in Fiji, it is a nice, chilled out place where it’s easy to lose a few days doing not very much.
One thing we did manage to do that wasn’t wandering around feeling relaxed, was a trip with Epi, who was kind enough to take us up into the mountains to his village. There he told us stories of cannibals and colonies and how his tribe was the only tribe to hold out against the invaders until they were tricked by the whites (in collusion with other tribes) and became the only tribe in Fiji to be sold into slavery.
This was too depressing and some further beach therapy was needed, so we chartered a Jolly Little Boat to take us to Caqalai (pronounced ‘thang-a-lie’), where we were promised set meals at set times (thus reducing the stress of complex decisions such us ‘what shall we eat tonight’) and more. Our little motor boat skimmed across some of the most beautiful ocean blues that we had ever seen.
There is nothing so infinitely calming like sailing across gorgeous blue seas under a beautifully clear sky and a bright, shiny sun.
And there is nothing quite like arriving at an island and finding that it is surrounded by lush beaches and that it is small enough to walk around in fifteen minutes. We were greeted by musicians on arrival and shown to our quaint wooden huts.
It really didn’t take us long to let all our worries go. We were sharing the island with a few other guests, but no where near enough to fill up the beaches and we spent more leisurely days snorkelling and swimming and chilling out on the beach. In the evenings we were treated to live music – a mix of awesome ukulele-fuelled pacific pop and not-so-awesome covers of bad Western songs (seriously, ‘Lady in Red’ just isn’t a good song) by the house band followed by a huge kava drinking session.
Kava is a mildly narcotic drink made from the root of Piper methysticum that the locals absolutely love. Despite my best attempts, I failed to see the attraction. After drinking about two litres of the stuff all I had to show for it was a fuzzy tongue and, the next morning, a brain that felt like a brick. It’s a tranquilliser and it’s supposed to make you feel really relaxed so maybe the problem was that I couldn’t get any more relaxed. Whatever it is, there’s certainly somethin’ in that water cause the locals go nuts for.
Another week of beaches and island-hopping and it was time to head over to the Cook Islands for three weeks of…beaches and island-hopping. We love the tropics.
Rarotonga is the main island in the Cook Islands in that it is the seat of government for the islands and it has a police station and things but its main ‘city’ is no bigger than a very small town. The islands are pretty remote and pretty expensive as everything, from the diesel that powers the generators that power the islands to most of the food, is shipped in by boat from New Zealand.
However, the roads are good and, being as everything is well spread out, it’s perfect for riding motorbikes. Unfortunately, you have to pass a test to get a Cook Island’s driving license in order to be able to drive. Fortunately, the test is nothing more than a ride around the block. Unlike my UK driving test (failed twice), I managed to ace this one and we spent a nice few days zipping around on our little moped visiting beaches and restaurants and watching fabulous sunsets from gloriously decorated bars. Conclusion: motorbikes are awesome.
Deciding that Rarotonga was not isolated enough, though, we hopped on another tiny plane where we had a pilot’s eye view of the journey and headed over to Aitutaki. This place was, quite rightly, famed for its lagoon. It’s the first thing that hits you as you circle around to approach the runway – this huge, aquamarine blue encircled by the green and gold dots of the islands and atolls. It’s indescribably beautiful, so I won’t try: check out the photos.
We spent an easy week on the lagoon, taking an island cruise out to these impossibly beautifully and idyllically empty islands (though we weren’t allowed to go to two of them as they were filming the next series of ‘Shipwrecked’ there) where we wandered the beaches and swam in the gorgeous waters. The lagoon never stops being impressive, however many times you see it. It is the colour of the sea in the deserted island of your dreams.
If above water was impressive, then below water was equally so. In a fit of living poetry, on our first ever dive on the trip we saw a turtle and on our last dive of the trip we again saw a turtle. We love turtles and this one was huge and graceful and beautiful. We also got to see another shark, which is never disappointing.
But, still, it was too busy for us (meaning that there were at least thirty other tourists on the island), so we took another tiny plane to Atiu via Rarotonga.
Now, we only had an hour on Rarotonga before our plane left for Atiu, but we had been warned to bring food with us as this island was remote and, especially as vegetarians, we might struggle to eat. Unfortunately, the nearest supermarket to the airport was at least a half-hour walk away. Having tried and failed to secure a taxi to do the round trip, we resigned ourselves to the fact that we weren’t going to be able to stock up like we had hoped and headed to the nearest off license to see if we could get something. I don’t know if it was because we looked forlorn, or hungry, or what but, as we walked down the main road, a local pulled over and asked us where we were headed.
We explained about our situation and he offered to drop us at the supermarket. We thanked him, but said no as we needed to get back to the airport and couldn’t afford to rely on someone as equally as generous as he was to take us back. He smiled and said that he was happy to wait for us and to drive us back.
On the way we learned his name was Papa Ken (totally awesome name) and that he had worked in New Zealand, as a lot of the islanders had, before returning to retire on the island where he spent three days a week at the local hospital visiting the sick – spending time sitting with them and talking to them and generally being a bloody nice bloke. After filling up on supplies and taking us back, we insisted that he took the money that we were going to give the taxi driver but he just wouldn’t hear of it. He was an extraordinary fellow and one of the nicest guys we met on islands absolutely filled with nice people.
We made our connection and upon arrival at Atiu we were reliably informed by our host that there were only nine tourists in total on the island. Perfect.
On the drive to our hotel, he took us past some of the churches, including the largest church in the Cook Islands which could easily hold the island’s entire population of about 500 people. What’s interesting about these churches is that there are so many of them (we counted at least five) they keep getting larger every few years despite the fact that the population is declining (five years ago, there were 1500 people living there).
Aitu is unlike any of the other islands in the Cooks as it is actually rising out of the water while all of the others are gradually sinking. The reason for this is that it is on the edge of a tectonic plate and is gradually being forced out of the ocean as the pacific plate moves up and over another plate (I forget which). This activity has created one of the more unique environments that we have encountered on our trip: The island is covered in dense jungle, but the trees and the plant life are growing around and between these huge slabs of razor sharp rock that are, in fact, 200,000 year old chunks of coral. These chunks of coral used to be under the sea, but have been forced up from beneath the waves to take there place in the above-water world.
The locals call this the makatea, and it is incredibly interesting (and quite treacherous) to trek through. But we are intrepid, so trek through it we did, ably guided by Marshall (who was from England – seriously, you come to the other side of the world only to be shown around it by someone from the West Country). He took us to Anatakitaki Cave, which is a beautiful cave full of interesting and sparkly stalactites and stalagmites and a rare bird, the kopeka. Out in the daylight, this tiny bird sounds like most other birds. Get it into a cave, though, and it starts to emit this unique click sound which is its echo-location device, just like a bat. Awesome.
Down in this cave was also a unique pool where we and our fellow explorers were able to take an icy dip in the dark (well, the near dark – it was atmospherically lit by strategically placed candles) Had we had it to ourselves, it would have been wonderfully romantic. With a group of people, it was just plain fun.
Following our crazy cave adventure, we were taken to a local tumunu, which is where the locals get away from the Christians and their puritanical ways to go and get drunk on super-strong home brew. Really, it is nothing more than a shack in the forest where all the men sit around on tree stumps getting drunk and talking about the economic crisis (seriously).
A few days after THAT we visited the Rima Rau burial cave. This cave was also very awesome because it was full of SKULLS. Yes, death surrounded us as we were guided through tiny dark passages littered with the bones of the ancient dead and we were given stories about the island’s history and the significance of the caves.
Then it was back to civilisation. But before that, California.
Landing in LA was a serious culture shock. There is so many things and so much of each of these things and everything is huge and loud and busy. The contrast was just incredible and we found ourselves being paralysed by the number of choices we were presented with.
We picked up our ‘budget’ hire car, which turned out to be this huge tank of a car with leather seats and all of the technology (probably the nicest car I’ll drive, like, ever), and headed up the coast through the dramatic and amazing Big Sur. We took a wine tour at the Firestone vineyard, which was featured in the movie ‘Sideways’. It was fun trying all the different wines and pretending we knew what we were talking about (‘I’m getting hints of caramel-covered strawberries being served by an organic farmer standing by a river bank.’ ‘I agree, I’m also getting subtle overtones that suggests it’s a Thursday.’)
Boom! San Francisco. More precisely, the ever-amazing Jason had agreed, based on two weeks with us, to let us stay in his amazing apartment in San Francisco, despite him not being there for the duration of our stay. Jason, lest ye forget, was one of the Awesome Americans that we met in India. We’ll take a moment here to salute his awesomeness.
Dan who, unlike Jason, WAS around to take us out and about in San Francisco very kindly showed us one hell of a good time. We met some of the members of the band who composed possibly all of the songs featured on the Hit TV Show The OC. He took us, along with the delightful Rachel, to a White Trash party where everyone was dressed in wifebeaters, drank whiskey and talked like they were from the deep South. He showed us how much of a total goon Sarah Palin is and he got us on the guestlist for J-Boogie (we skipped the lines and the $20 cover charge – woo!) who is this absolutely incredible DJ that has all this live percussion and these live horns and crazy fun rappers play over his beats and we were dancing and it was hella fun,
Randomly at this crazy cool show we also bumped into Incredibly Nice American #3: Melinda, who proceeded to drag us out to Muir Woods the next day, despite huge hangovers all round. We spent a glorious afternoon chatting, walking under the amazing and huge redwoods and generally made us feel a lot better despite staying up till dawn drinking too much. She then cancelled all of her other evening commitments in order to spend as much time with us as possible which was totally awesome of her.
Also awesome in America: Mike and Gina. Gina is a damn fine chef who, despite being on her honeymoon, cooked the entire guesthouse where we were staying in the Cook Islands a fabulous Papaya curry. She whipped up an amazing lunch for us when we visited them in San Francisco, and Mike gave us an awesome walking tour around the city. We also enjoyed his amazing DJ set where he combined old Sci-fi spoken-word records with electronica. Crazy cool.
We love our new San Franciscan friends.
After a week of fun and partying (and of missing all the tourist sights like Alcatraz and the cable car ride – doh!), we headed over to New York. We spent three weeks checking out the city and catching up with my family who we hadn’t visited in over 10 years. We also met up with Jason and went out drinking and dining and ended up, at one point, in a crazy bar that had gold skulls all over the walls and charged $450 for a bottle of gin (it didn’t come by the glass). We drank cokes.
This time we managed to get some of the sights in – the view from the Top of the Rock(erfeller) is incredible and Central Park is a totally amazing thing to have in the centre of such a huge city.
Now, in case you haven’t noticed, there was an election happening in America. We had been half following it throughout our travels and we were very excited by Obama and his message of hope and change and so we volunteered for his campaign on election day. We spent the day phoning up folks in Florida reminding them to vote and then went to the Rockefeller Centre in the evening to watch the results. It was incredible.
We watched as a young, African-American – a son of a Kenyan immigrant – became the first black president in the history of the United States. We watched in awe as he not only did this by an absolutely huge margin, but he did it on a the basis of hope, with a lack of cynicism and the idea that things could be better. Watching the streets of New York turn into a huge carnival at the announcement that he had won was something that we’ll never forget, and it is a beautiful way to end our trip.
But end it must. It has been a long, strange trip, full of a plethora of ups and one or two downs. Along the way we have met an incredible number of awesome people, had so many new experiences and adventures, and learned a lot about the world, ourselves and what’s possible in the short time we are on this planet.