I stepped off the plane at 5am after a 13 hour, non-stop flight. Coming from Los Angeles, I had crossed the international date line and lost an entire day .
“That’s funny”, I thought, “I don’t feel any different” and concluded that Einstein’s Space- Time Continuum Theories must apply to something else.
I was, however, drained by the heat and humidity and would have to wait another hour before the sun started to light up the sky and make things hotter. Here I was – Fiji!
I bought a collapsible kayak with me on the plane in the hope of exploring Fijis tropical paradise. I really had no idea where to go or what to expect. I scanned my map of Fiji and poked my finger at a group of islands that were close together.
“There! That’s where I want to go” -Mamanuea-I-Cake and Yasawa Groups.
They weren’t far from where I had landed and the travel guide said a couple of good things about them (but, it was brief because it’s hard for tourists to get to most of the islands). Perfect! A remote tropical paradise -waiting to be paddled.
I spent the next couple of days in the city next to the airport (Nadi), searching for supplies with mixed results. I found food and white gas OK, but when I asked for nautical maps. I was directed to vague plots of Fiji for tourists and when I asked for a tide chart, I was handed a divers time-table. I had to go without these luxuries (I was told later that one can find these items in Lautoka)
Unable to learn more about the myself. I stumbled down to the islands from the locals, I decided to beach at 4am the next morning, load my kayak with camping gear battling the crabs for space to set and seven days wOIth of food and up the kayak and shoved off I had water to find out about them for to cover 20 miles the first day (in
The Yasawa Islands are beautiful. People have referred to this group as a “string of pearls”‘ because they line up from Northeast to Southwest. (The Mamanuca-I-Cake Islands are equally impressive, but more spread out) Those familiar with the movie ‘The Blue Lagoon’ (the most recent version with Brooke Shields) will see it’s setting on Turtle Island nestled in the middle of the Yasawas. There is also an exclusive resort there at which you can stay for a mere $1000 per night (start saving now!).
Paddling these islands, however. is more of a cultural experience. Villages ( and a few resorts ) populate all of the principal islands and some of the smaller ones So you won’t have this paradise all to yourself. This presents a delicate problem for kayakers in Fiji; every square inch of the islands (and, basically, all of Fiji) is spoken for. Villages own the land around them and any uninhabited islets closest to them This means you need to ask for permission to camp.
There is one chief for all of the islands in the Yasawa Group. Ideally, one would ask him for permission to camp on his islands however there are two problems with this. First, the chief lives in the village of Yasawairara located on the northern end of the Northern most island. If you’re paddling from the mainland (which is the logical route), you will have already camped on most of his islands in order to get there (however on the return trip it would be a good idea to ask). The second problem (and a little more important for the time being) is that the chief passed away three years ago and hasn’t been replaced -yet. The villagers say a new one will be appointed soon but that could take awhile in Fiji -so it is up to you to ask the villagers of each island (whenever possible), if you can stay on their land.
This may sound disheartening to seek permission after investing your life savings on plane tickets to Fiji, but being turned away isn’t the worry. The Fijians are incredibly friendly and hospitable. So much so, in fact, that they will request that you stay with them in their homes.
If you insist on camping, some villagers may even be offended, thinking that you feel their home is not good enough to stay in. Here lies the paradox for many kayakers who enjoy getting away from everyone and experiencing the wilderness on their own.
Staying in a Fijian bungalow (especially off the beaten track) is an opportunity that shouldn’t be ruled out. I stayed in villages twice and both times were extremely rewarding experiences. I could write a book on these brief interactions, but to sum it up in a few words. the Fijian villagers hospitality in their simple existence is overwhelming.
This ‘simple existence’, however, is another problem to be aware of. The villagers rely entirely on the land and sea for their food They grow small crops (no grains), gather fruits, fish and have pigs, chickens and goats (and an occasional cow or two) They trade some of their crops and fish at the mainland markets for money to buy grains, cloths, building supplies etc. In short, the villagers have enough to live on, but not much more. This doesn’t hamper their hospitality, however -they will feed their guests before they feed their family.
Compensating your host is definitely in order. The traditional gift of a guest is Kava roots (which can be purchased at a market in the mainland) Since most of the villagers grow this root as one of their crops (and sell it on the mainland) giving food that is harder to come by is also appreciated (like flour or rice).
Beware as tourists are stepping off the beaten path in Fiji, the villagers (mostly in the mainland -Viti Levu) are learning that visitors have money (a lot more than them). I talked to a few people that were requested to make a monetary donation to the village they stayed in.
Camping in the Yasawas -these picturesque, tropical islands – can be interesting. Despite all of the villages, I found beautiful sandy beaches (where I couldn’t find anyone to ask) and camped in peaceful solitude.
Take water with YOU. It is possible to refill at the villages (they all have plenty of well water) but the smaller uninhabited islands have none. Also, most villages have a little ‘store’ at which you can get noodles and canned fish.
Be sure to take a good first-aid kit with you. There are ‘nursing stations’ at some of the villages, but the nurses frequently visit neighbouring villages throughout the week so finding the nurse can be tricky. Even if you do find a nurse, I was told that you take your chances with the quality of the care received.
The best time to paddle is in the dry months -May to October. Storms will be less of a problem, however, the predominant winds will still blow. A villager told me, “the winds come only from the East, sometimes North or the South but never from the West. Only during the hurricanes do they come from the West!” I experienced exactly that (but no hurricane, fortunately) -everything from calm, glassy seas to 20 knot headwinds.
Bring snorkelling gear. The coral is excellent and the ocean is some of the clearest water you will find in the world.
If all of this sounds like too much hassle to explore on your own, there is a kayaking outfitter that runs trips in the Yasawa Islands. Twice a year, Southern Sea Ventures from Australia spends nine days casually moving through the island for around $1,000.
The outfitter takes a small boat out to Tavewa Island (next to Turtle Island) however anyone can do this because there are a couple of backpacker’s resorts on the island that shuttle people twice a week ($30 one way -and a little extra for a kayak).
These resorts are a good place to get a beer, a shower and some conversation with people from allover the world (well -first world!). If you have a tent it’s $12 to $14 a night (including three meals)
Tavewa Island is where I ended my Yasawa adventure. On day thirteen, I jumped on the shuttle boat to Lautoka and paddled the remaining 15 miles back to where I started.
I wanted to paddle all the way back, but a couple of problems deterred me; I had slashed my thumb open with a knife on day five and needed to see a doctor before too long (I couldn’t find the nurse!); I managed to completely wreck a piece of my kayak frame (the kayak still worked but needed attention) and my rudder was bent after a rough day at sea. I was somewhat of a crippled barge and was looking at another five or six days of paddling if I continued so with mixed emotions I headed back.
As I reflected on the previous two weeks, I considered myself fortunate to have located such a good spot to kayak. I concluded that there really wasn’t much more I could have asked for, except maybe, to have someone else to pay for everything.
Brian Roberts visited Australia (from USA) earlier this year on an around the world sea kayaking holiday. He will be paddling NZ this summer!