Thursday, 2 October 2014

Fiji Bulletin

Arriving on a Friday evening in Savu Savu, we inevitably got stung for overtime rates when dealing with immigration, customs ,health and biosecurity.
Fortunately Mike in" Tashidelek "tipped us off that we needed to be sitting on a quarantine anchorage outside the river, so we moved quickly off the mooring and looked correct when the authorities turned up on Saturday morning. Apparently if you get it wrong or go ashore prematurely its a very large fine. The last offender got stung for $ 26,000. They were very pleasant but sprayed the boat thoroughly as there is some mosquito in Tonga they're not to keen on in Fiji.
Savu Savu at sunset

Ashore Savu Savu is a great town. The Indians run all the businesses and you can eat out as cheaply as it costs to cook. Lots of cruising boats end up here on a semi permanent basis and a New Zealander called Curley runs an entertaining radio net where you get the weather, local news of what's on, details of local businesses and even World News. You can ask questions and Nick the Irish lepricorn (another semi long term resident) rummaged around in his old boat and found me a piece of perspex to fit over a broken hatch cover. Who needs the internet when you've got Curley for half an hour in the morning!
Curley holding Court

Our visit happened to coincide with the Fiji general election. The situation is potentially volatile. The Indians were brought here  here as indentured labour by the British who thought they would not get a lot of work out of the native Fijiians .The Indians have been highly successful business people and their numbers at one point swelled to 52% of the population. The Fijians who own the land got worried, and when an Indian prime minister was elected, the army staged a bloodless coup by disarming the police force(largely Indian) at the point of a gun and taking over. Life got awkward for the Indians many of whom emigrated when they were kicked off the land they had leased and the economy took a nose dive. They now number only 40℅ of the population.
Since then there was a further coup by the present prime minister who recently resigned from the army and is standing for election as a democratic candidate. He's a bit of a thug and nearly beat up a New Zealand reporter who asked him whether he would stage another coup if he didn't like the result.
However despite censoring the press, he has the support of the Indian population as he has declared that all Fijian's are to be treated equally. He  has clamped down on crime and improved education. There is a Fijian party opposing him as they think he is going to do a land grab on their clan lands over which local chiefs have authority. He has already taken some for the government saying if you don't develop it you will lose it.
Democracy in action!

Anyway the ex general was widely expected to win , he did by a large majority despite the number of votes counted being much larger than the eligible voting population( shome mistake surely).The international observers declared everything to be free and fair and most people are happy because there won't be another coup, Fiji is going to be back in the Commonwealth and there should be a fairly stable climate for investment. Land prices are expected to rocket!
We hired an Indian lady at very reasonable rates, who gave the inside of the boat a good clean and also ran a curry making morning for myself and Penny Bates from " Esprit de la mer" on Kika. It was good fun but making a Dhal seemed a very laborious process and we had plenty of time to chat. Mala was a nice lady who had a tough married life. Like most Indians she spoke Hindi and English but virtually no Fijiian despite being at least the third generation born in Fiji. She had no idea where her family came from originally in India. It makes a big contrast with the Fijians who all know where their ancestral home village is even if neither they or their parents have been there.
We went to a cruisers seminar run as an income generator by Curley on his houseboat. Fiji is notorious for its reefs. Of the 300 or so cruising boats that come here around 12 a year sink after hitting reefs. One of the boats on our cruisers radio net "Amiable " has already sunk after hitting a reef in French Polynesia. The charter company "Mooring's" tried to run an operation here but gave up because the attrition rate was so high, sacking all their staff. The islands were originally surveyed by the Admiralty in the 19th century and GPS plotters largely rely on those charts. Sometimes on approaching a pass into a reef there can be an error of 200-300 metres. Unlike French Polynesia there are no buoys marking the passes. So there is absolutely no replacement for that ancient navigating instrument the mark one eyeball in sailing these waters.
We are sailing inside the reef going round the North side of the main island "Vita Levu". To avoid a nasty crunch, we need to day sail arriving before 3 pm when the sun is high in the sky and you can see the reefs which look either light blue or brown depending on the depth of water. My friend Clive( alias the gismo kid)  is probably laughing as I was too tight to invest in forward facing underwater sonar which would have been very useful.
Before we left  Savu Savu, Colin and Sally went on several dives ,one at 30 metres depth with hammer head sharks. I joined them on the last one where we went 20 miles out in the dive boat to an offshore reef near Nemena Island. We dived some pillar reefs , which are huge underwater mountains of coral. You circle round and round seeing sharks, huge numbers of brightly coloured fish darting in and out of the coral and complicated and beautiful underwater ferns branching out from the multicoloured coral bed. These reefs are apparently the best in the world but sadly you have to go offshore because pollution and water run off have depleted the reefs near the main islands.
We also had a day on the buses to a town Labasa some 3 hours away. The bus left town at 7.30 in the morning and took us from the bay around Savu Savu up into the mountains where there were some spectacular views across relatively untouched tropical rain forest.
On the road to Labasa

 On the Labasa side of the mountains , a lot of the rain forest trees had been replaced by plantations of fast growing larch trees. Virtually nothing grew on the floor of the larch forests as opposed to the rich undergrowth and animal life of the tropical forest. There are large numbers of sawmills all over Fiji.
The coastal land near Labassa was dominated by sugar cane plantations. One sugar beet plant can be cut 7 or 8 times before you have to replant. The land is then burnt off and ploughed before replanting. The soil ( originally volcanic) looked good. Everywhere there were Massey Ferguson 165 Tractors beautifully painted up ,some modified with sun canopies used both for ploughing and transporting trailerloads of sugar cane to the sugar mills. There were also trucks on narrow gauge railways built by the British similarly loaded up with bundles of cane.
Sugar cane on the move

and in the field

Labasa town was one large Indian market place with sales assistants everywhere trying to help you to buy, which we eventually did. The 3 hour bus trip back was trying as everyone was going home to vote in the elections, so we were packed in standing just like the London Underground , the difference being everybody talked to you.
We dinghied up the river to see our friend Irish Nick , who has a major project on renovating his old steel boat. He took us into the nearby village of Yaroi to perform the traditional ceremony of Sevu Sevu.
On most of rural Fiji and the islands the land is run by the chiefs on behalf of the clan. When you visit it is very important you bring some Kava root properly wrapped up in newspaper and ribbon. You give it to the village headman who then brings you to see the chief, where you sit cross legged on the floor with the soles of your feet facing away from the chief. We were also kitted out in Sulus ( traditional male skirts) as a mark of respect. The head man then says a few words in Fijian explaining to the chief where you have come from and offers the chief the Kava. At this point you need to keep your head down. If the chief likes the cut of your jib he will clap his hands and accept the Kava. After that you engage in a bit of small talk and you are accepted as a member of the village. Until then you are a non person. Once you are a member of the village you can come and go as you please and get shown around.
We spent the afternoon with James and Mosessa going to see their vegetables on the hill at the back of the village. Their young cousin climbed a 70 foot swaying palm tree bare footed to dislodge multiple coconuts. No climbing crampons for these boys! Armed with these, large bunches of bananas and chillies, we repaired to their front lawn ,dehusked the coconuts and drank the milk before eating the white part of the coconut. You never go hungry or thirsty round here.
Coconut hunter

on his way to the top

We left Savu Savu on the 23 rd of September in company with our Dutch friends Freda and Ernest in a big Catamaran called Tara. A lot of American boats were delaying their departure because it was rough, but Kika coped easily with just one reef in the mainin 20-25 knots of wind. We could lay a course for Nemena reef some 20 miles off on a fine reach and were interested to hear from Ernest that he had to use his engine. Catamarans are not brilliant to windward. Once we got to the reef it was significant to note that our two chart plotter systems were 200 metres out on the location of the pass into the reef. You definitely need good light to get in here!
Breakers over the reef on a calm day

Picking up a mooring, we went snorkelling on the coral beds and were treated to an evening chorus from all the birds roosting in nests on the trees on the island. At a lower level there were blue faced boobies, and tropical birds of paradise with their long white tails. Higher up Frigate birds which look a bit like Pterodactyls soared on the hill lift from the island. Apparently on the other  side of the island there's a luxury hotel where you can experience the remote tropical island experience for £2000 a night. The Hotel only has about 10 guests. I think we would have got a frosty reception if we had turned up and asked where the showers were.
From Nemena we had a lovely sail the next day to Makogai Island.

 The anchorage was off a mariculture research station. After going through the sevu sevu  ceremony we were shown round. In the old days this island had been the Leprosarium for the whole of the South Pacific. It had around 4,000 residents most of whom died here. The cemetery under the trees was a spooky place with gravestones at all angles undermined by termite action.
The cemetery covered a large area, only part of which had been cleared.

The patients had lived in groups of huts together with their compatriots from their own islands. The layout showed the Europeans to have the best site with the most generous spacing. The colony had everything including a courthouse, two cell jail, and a large cinema where men and women sat on separate sides with the police in the middle. Contact between the sexes was forbidden for lepers.
Standing in front of the cinema projection room..

..and looking past the seating area towards the remains of the screen

In the 1960s with the advent of drugs like Dapsone the last lepers left, fortunately cured and the place became an Agricultural research station where they had introduced the Australian easy care sheep to Fiji. We saw a few in the fields on the main island of Vita Levu. It molts its own wool, looks a bit like a goat, baas like a lamb, and most importantly survives in the tropics.
The centres last reincarnation was as a mariculture research centre. Not much seems to go on, but they have got a few Hawksbill turtles they are growing in tanks for release. There was another tank where they were growing giant clams. These get placed on the sea bed along with the old iron hospital beds which are supposed to encourage coral .  We snorkelled down to them and had an underwater lie down on the hospital beds. Inside the clams lies an evil looking suction tube. Once the jaws of the clam close, a stray fish has got no chance gripped in its vice like jaws; if you stuck your arm in you would lose it!
Big enough to swallow your arm!

The clam tank

Our next overnight stop was at Naingani Island where we didn't see a soul. We then went gingerly inside the main reef off Vitu
Levu and picked our way into a beautiful anchorage deep in Vitu Levu Bay opposite a small village.
We got ferried ashore by a local boat and jumped on a local bus to go shopping in the nearby town of Raki Raki a one hour bus ride away. I got talking to a local farmer from the village called Makogai, and we had lunch together in town. He was 32 with a four year old daughter. He farmed on the clan lands in his village and sold his vegetables at the market in Raki. Makogai reckoned his family could survive quite well on 60 Fiji dollars a week(£20). He had no rent to pay, no heating or electricity bills, most of the families food came from their village supplemented by purchasing a large sack of rice and Gerry can of cooking oil. Health and education were free but clothing and transport were major items of expenditure and he was not planning to have more than 2 children. He supplemented his farming income sometimes by cutting and gathering sugar cane, back breaking work under a hot sun. Even small farmers like Makogai use quite large quantities of Nitrogen based fertiliser on their land, so the sugar beet boys use even more. No wonder the run off from the rivers is destroying the coral reefs.
Loading the narrow gauge railway wagons in the mid-day sun

The trusty tractor

We drank some Kava together with a nearby cruising boat from Hawii that evening ,presided over by two local lads who played flanker and second row forward in the village rugby team. Kava root is mixed with water and strained through a sieve into a Kava bowl . There is a routine of clapping and saying "bula" before you drain the coconut cup in one go. It tastes like mud and leaves your mouth and lips a bit numb. It is a social lubricant and relaxant and you do get a hangover from drinking too much. Somehow I don't think the drink is going to catch on outside Fiji.
Before leaving Vita Levu bay , Colin and I went ashore to pay our respects to the chief and do Sevu Sevu .
The village

 The village was beautiful and well established. Its water supply came from bore holes in the hills above the village ,which provided clean water even in dry weather. Electricity was coming to the village next year. It was Sunday morning , so we said bula(hello) to a handsomely scrubbed up group of kids attending Sunday school in their beautiful church before the service. The war memorial recorded men from the village who had fought and died with the British army in France in the First World War and in Malaya in the second. The head man and chief were charming. They pointed out an old nag grazing on a tether and joked they were going to send it to princess Anne as a present. They were very pleased that Fiji was going to be back in the Commonwealth and they seemed to regard their ties with Britain with genuine affection.
The chief!

The village..

and the children at Sunday School in their Sunday best

As we left the village there was a large sign saying "datum post "left by a Chinese mineral extraction company called Tengy. The chief said that the company had wanted to buy the mineral rights, but he had changed his mind and was going to say no. They seem to be waking up to what the Chinese are up to.
We left Vitu Levy bay on Sunday 28 September to make a passage through the reef to Tomba Lamonia Bay. The sea is calm inside the reef and we glided along with a following wind in lovely sunshine. It was rather like being on the Norfolk Broads on a sunny day, apart from the fact that there were no other boats, and rather than sliding into mud if you ran aground, the consequences of hitting a reef are serious. Although the inside passage was quite tortuous at times the chart plotter was accurate and you could see the reefs clearly. Anchoring in the middle of the vast bay was lovely as you eat dinner under the stars surrounded by a wide expanse of water with just a zephyr of a breeze preventing your gin and tonic from warming up too much.
On Monday 23 we passed through the last of the reefs ,just as the weather changed, the rain came down and we punched our way through a south westerly breeze to Vuda Point Marina. Its like a transit camp for cruisers, where all the boats are like swallows on a telegraph line discussing passage plans for Australia, New Zealand,Vanu Atu and back to the States. Unless you're dug in on a cyclone mooring everybody has to leave soon. Kika is looking for a weather window to cross the notorious Tasman sea.
Sunset at Vuda Point Marina