1 Australian Dollar = 1.56 Fijian Dollar
What It Cost
Sydney – The Royal Exhibition Hotel $99
Nadi – Bamboo Backpackers $48
Nadi – Horizons Backpackers $35
Suva – The South Seas Private Hotel $34
Nadi – Horizons Backpackers $70
Barefoot Manta Island 2 nights $775
Food, drinks, snorkeling $200
Ratu Kini Backpackers 2 nights $532
Food, drinks $84
Hot Springs $90
Thursday 16th July, 2015
Newcastle to Sydney
Mark and Lauren are at work today and Abi has been vomiting in the night so she’s having a day off preschool. The weather is cool but sunny so the dollies and I spend a lot of time up on the top verandah in the sun. Josh picks them up at 3.30pm then Lauren drives us to Hamilton Station.
We watch a movie called ‘Taken’ – shit! – on Mark’s laptop to pass the time then pull into Central Station at seven o’clock. We always stay with Jillian the night before our flights but she’s in France at the moment so we’ve booked into an old favourite in Surry Hills, the Royal Exhibition. We’ve spent many nights here in the past but it’s been years – since Jillian moved to Sydney really.
Outside is dark and really cold so I think we’ll just eat at the pub and have an early night. Our room is huge and so is the bathroom plus we have a television and air-conditioning – only $99 for the night and super-cheap for Sydney city.
After schnitzels and a couple of drinks downstairs we’re in bed by 9pm.
Friday 17th July, 2015
Sydney to Nadi
With a 10am flight we set the alarm for five o’clock, shower, last minute pack and walk to Central half an hour later. The pavements are wet but it’s not raining at the moment. The airport train has just pulled in which means we don’t have to hang out on the cold platform.
At the airport we book our bags in quickly and proceed straight through immigration where Australian Border Security is filming. The usually nice terminal is a mess with extensive renovations underway. We do manage to find McDonalds though and have our usual pre-flight breakfast where we Facetime the girls – oh, this is hard!
Because we’re flying cheapskate with Jetstar, the boarding lounge is in a downstairs mangy bit. We’re crammed in with hundreds of passengers most of them sitting on the floor. After a while I decide to go back upstairs to buy more food but apparently the lift is broken and there aren’t any stairs. And there’s only one escalator and that’s coming down, not up – is this a fire hazard?
Anyway I see a couple of young girls run up the escalator stairs and I decide to take it on as well. This would probably be one of the most stupid things I’ve ever done in my life. Let me say that going up a downward escalator throws all perspective out the window and I’m coming back down faster than I’m going up. I trip and hurt my knees but I’ve committed and too embarrassed to go back anyway. I finally make it to the top where an airport guy is looking at me in disbelief. He casually leans down to press a button which makes the escalator go the opposite way. Why didn’t he do that earlier?
So after buying a couple of muffins, we’re called to board which is a complete shemozzle and we all run for the bus in the pouring rain. The plane finally takes off at ten o’clock – one hour late with a window seat for Mark and me in the middle. Because it’s only a four hour flight we’re not bothered with trying to wangle a spare seat in between.
We watch a few episodes of Canada’s Amazing Race on Mark’s laptop which makes the flight go faster as well as drowning out the screaming kids just near us. Below us is cloud most of the way across the Pacific till we make our descent to sunny Fiji on the west coast of Viti Levu which is the largest of the country’s two major islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. At 4.15 we land at Nadi International Airport, the principal port of entry for international flights despite being on the opposite side of the island from the capital, Suva.
It’s also the gateway to the Mamanucas and Yasawa island groups as well as having the best weather throughout Fiji. We do have some plans but mainly we’ll be winging it as usual.
Walking across the tarmac into the terminal, where we’re greeted by a band playing joyful island music. A poor local man collapses in the immigration line but he seems okay after a while. Mark buys a pie and an ice-cream while we wait for the Bamboo Backpackers car to pick us up. We’d decided to reserve ahead as it’s often full and we don’t want to miss out. It sounds exactly what we like.
Of course the car doesn’t turn up so I give them a call. ‘You get a taxi’ the happy lady says on the end of the phone – ‘we will give you the money’.
Leaving the airport we’re slowed down by roadwork but then it’s open country the rest of the way. Pineapple fields, coconut palms and distant mountains – a lovely first impression.
And we like the look of Bamboo as well. It sits on the sandy stretch of Wailoaloa Beach within a cluster of other backpacker hostels and cheap hotels – this is Nadi’s backpacker area so we made a good choice.
The ladies on the desk are Selena and Eleanor – ‘welcome to Bamboo. You have been up-graded’. Wow, this is excellent! ‘Please follow the driver.’ What? Yes, our ‘up-grade’ means that we’re not staying in a cute bure on the beach, but in a shithole hotel further up the hill. Eleanor comes with us and I finally get it out of her that they’d double booked. She’s really sweet so we don’t complain.
The Jetset Hotel is not only ugly but it’s run by Indians. It was also probably built by Indians with the weirdest layout. toilet window opens onto the foyer which means we can hear the staff and they can probably hear us. It does bring back memories of similar situations on our India travels.
Anyway, we quickly change then hightail back to Bamboo with Eleanor. The bar/restaurant is right on the beach so we sit on the sand drinking beer and cocktails while the sun sets in a pretty pink sky. Bamboo is obviously popular with the young backpacker set so it’s a good atmosphere and good people watching. The bar staff are very watchable as well – handsome Fijians, including a very flamboyant gay, wearing colourful flowery shirts, sulus and a red hibiscus behind one ear.
Like everyone else around here they all say ‘bula’ which sort of means ‘hello’ or ‘welcome’. It’s Fiji’s national greeting – a nice all-purpose, well-meaning word that you can just roll out on any occasion really so we say ‘bula’ back to you, lovely people.
Under a thatched roof a few locals and travellers are sitting on the floor in a circle having a kava ceremony. We had a kava experience in Vanuatu where we became totally trashed – legless and lots of vomiting. A Fijian guy grinds up the kava root which he strains with water in to a large wooden communal bowl. They all take a sip which, we know from experience, tastes like shit. They’ll all end up with a numb mouth and tongue but with a nice chilled-out feeling. We’ll have a go later in the trip – too hungry just now.
Dinner is excellent – a chicken quesadilla for me and a Fijian spicy fish curry for Mark. We can hear music coming from the Aquarius Hotel next door so I wander over to the fence for a look. Polynesian dancers are performing around the pool so we make a quick dash in case they’re about to finish. It reminds us of some of the dances we saw in Samoa years ago and I get up with about ten other people.
The island music is so beautiful and I love every minute of the dancing. Fire twirlers are also part of the act – very talented with a five year old boy the star.
The walk back to the hotel is peaceful under a clear, starry sky in the warm night air. The houses are typical of a lot of island homes with glass louvers for windows to allow the breeze through and thick gardens of flowering hibiscus, heavily scented frangipani, climbing bougainvillea and pandanas palms – lovely!.
Our hotel room is another story, though. It turns out to be even worse than we first thought, with the toilet seat crashing to the floor, the television useless and the guys on the desk talking and laughing all night. Lucky we’re leaving in the morning.
Saturday 18th July, 2015
Nadi to Yasawas
By six o’clock we’ve packed and showered and heading down to Bamboo in the taxi that they amazingly remembered to send us. We’ve booked a ferry for the Yasawas this morning which will leave from Denarau Island on the other side of Nadi. To get we’ll catch the bus that does a circuit of all the backpacker hostels to pick up passengers for the ferry terminal.
But first we have time for a very non-Fijian breakfast of bacon, eggs, tea and coffee. It’s good to see clear blue skies and not a breath of wind. We wander down to the water where dragon boats are pulled up on shore and a guy rides past on a horse. ‘Bula, bula, enjoy your morning’, he says.
Back at Bamboo we greeted with more ‘bula, bulas’ as a police van drives past with the guys locked up in the back calling out and waving to us, obviously after a very big night.
We wait with a group of other people on the footpath and chat to an interesting lady from Finland – she says Fiji feels like paradise. Some couples have little ones and we wish Lauren and our dollies were with us. The bus is on time and we’re soon heading for Nadi.
The scenery is rural with more pineapple fields and groves of coconut palms until we reach Viseisei village then the town’s centre which isn’t very big at all. With its large Indo-Fijian population, Nadi is a centre for Hinduism and Islam in Fiji. The downtown area is defined by the Nadi River on the west side, and the Sri Siva Subramaniya Temple on the east.
About five kilometres after the temple we turn right along a straight tree-lined road to Denarau Island. This is a small private island less that tree square kilometers but fringed with upmarket hotels and resorts with an 18-hole golf course as its centrepiece. Crossing a short causeway which links the island to Viti Levu, the rest of the island is obviously where the wealthy ex-pats live in double-storey homes all surrounded by tall fences. It seems very shut off from the real Fiji and we hate it – can just imagine the fuckwits who live here.
At Port Denarau we do like the Marina which is hot and sunny, bustling with locals and colourful holiday makers waiting for ferries to the outlying islands. Three men play guitars and sing island songs on the pier as we book in our big packs for Barefoot Manta Island Resort. While I race off for a kabumbah, Mark lines up at the ticket office. We’ve already booked but everyone still has to go through the process.
At the counter he’s told that we’ll be on the Ocean Dreaming ferry instead of the Yasawa Flyer which is down for some reason. They’re exactly the same really so it doesn’t matter. But he’s also told that our 2-Coconut room has been down-graded to a 1-Coconut dorm – yes, they’ve overbooked! Whatever – we don’t care and they say we’ll get a refund anyway.
So far, this booking ahead thing, which we never usually do, has been a waste of time. Two bookings and two ‘sorry, double–booked’. Anyway we booked this Barefoot Manta package because we really, really want to swim with the manta rays. It’s not cheap, though. For the ferry there and back, two nights in a dorm and our meals it’s costing us $775 – fucking hell, but that’s the cheapest available anywhere on these islands!
The ferry leaves at 8.30am so we have half an hour to wander around the cafes and restaurants. This must be where all the tourists hang out instead of going into Nadi except as a day-trip in an air-conditioned coach. Not our thing but good for families I suppose.
We sit at a table right on the water and chat with two Aussie couples from Melbourne – they’re all a wrinkly dark brown and having a ball.
Boarding on time, we pull out of sunny Danarau aboard the huge white catamaran. I can’t help thinking how lucky we are. We find seats with a table inside the air-conditioned cabin – will sit outside later. Mark buys cups of tea while I check out the passengers. It’s a mixed group of locals, young groups of teenagers, honeymooners and families.
After half an hour the boat stops off the shore of South Sea Island, the first of the Mamanucas chain of twenty small islands. About ten people jump onto a waiting launch which takes them to the island itself. This is the protocol for all the islands – Bounty, Treasure, Beachcomber and Vomo – all tiny with only room for one resort. They look amazing, little round dots of palm trees fringed with white sand in a bright blue ocean.
Climbing to the top of the boat we watch passengers disembarking for these little specs of paradise. In every direction more islands jut out of the water which is especially calm today – just how we like it. Mark had done this trip on his first honeymoon during a raging storm and everyone, including the blushing bride, spent most of the time throwing up – ha ha.
Two hours after leaving Denarau we reach the Yasawa Islands. Actually, the first European to sight them was William Bligh in 1789, after the infamous mutiny on the HMS Bounty.
The first of the Yasawas is Kuata Island where, in the distance, a bare-chested guy in a grass skirt in dancing and waving a club above his head on a high rocky outcrop just off the island – is looks unreal!
An hour later, it’s time for us to get off for Barefoot Manta on Drawaqa Island. We climb on board a small boat with six other tourists and three locals while our luggage is loaded onto another boat. The ferry leaves heading north to more islands in the Yasawas while we hand over parcels to a family who’ve come out in a village boat. They all have smiles from ear to ear and wave as we speed away towards the northern end of the island.
Our driver explains that because the resort is built on this northern tip, there is Sunrise Beach, Sunset Beach and Manta Beach which has a fast running channel between it and tiny Nanuya Balavu Island opposite. This is where the manta rays come to feed and the reason we’ve come all this way – to swim with manta rays!!
Anyway, pulling into Manta Beach we jump out into the shallow water and wade ashore while the guys carry our bags – this is a luxury we’re not used to. On the sand is a small band, all wearing white shorts and blue shirts. They play us a welcome song then Li, the singer, walks us around the resort.
‘Resort’ usually means an expensive, upmarket wank but we knew that wouldn’t be the case here. It’s appealingly simple with flashpacker bures amongst the trees and the cheaper dorms right on the sand. The superior bures are safari tent style with a full opening wall and deck toward the beach and an ensuite bathroom with outside shower.
Only a hundred metres separate Sunset from Sunrise Beach with a large communal thatched place in the centre. Dotted around the grounds are outdoor sinks, showers, toilets which we’ll be using since we’ve been down-graded to a dorm. White sandy paths wind between coconut trees and flowering gardens lined with coconut shells.
Our companions are Barbara from Italy and friends Nadya and Anna from Germany. We all sit on cane chairs outside the communal breakfast room while Li gives us the rundown. He tells us that the resort’s new owners are very committed to the environment. Their background is in diving and they’ve undertaken a lot of research and conservation work in Fiji and Australia. A marine biologist is here full-time as well as an experienced dive team, all studying the surrounding water most of which has been declared a Marine Reserve. I think we’ve found a very special place here.
Our bures still aren’t ready after the talk so we follow him to the Sunset Café for lunch. All our meals are included in the price of the package and they’re all fixed. Lunch is fish cakes with a salad and garlic bread – simple but nice.
But what’s extra nice is the setting. The cafe is built on a tiny point on the northern end of the narrow bay of Sunset Beach. Just now the tide is out so the water is shallow and a pale turquoise with a few swimmers and people floating around on old tyres. The only surf is a small break out on the reef a hundred metres off-shore.
Back to meet Li, we’re given a bure right on the sand with hammocks hung between coconut trees. The hut has a tall roof with woven bamboo walls and little windows propped open with a stick. It’s cooler in here with the open windows letting the air flow through.
We’re sharing with Barbara and Nadya while Anna has been put a few bures along – we don’t know why she can’t be with us but we’ll sort it out later. Mark has a single bed across the back of the hut while I take the bottom level of a double bunk. The girls take the other bunk and we all find spots for our backpacks – no problem at all.
Mark and I change into our swimmers then walk over to Sunrise Beach where it’s deeper for a swim. It’s amazing to be here in this beautiful hot weather while it’s cold and rainy at home.
On the way back, we wash off the sand and salt in one of the outdoor showers then Mark ‘hangs’ out in the hammock reading one of the travel books we always bring with us. I can hear music coming from the communal hut and race over for a look. The whole staff is clapping and singing farewell songs to a couple of people who will be leaving on the two o’clock ferry. I stay for the whole thing.
Later I wander over to the café where I join Li and a young Brazilian woman in a coconut jewellery making class. She’s working here as a volunteer and she tells me her interesting story as we make coconut bangles.
Now I’m tired so we both sleep for half an hour under mozzie nets then walk over to the dive shop for our three o’clock meeting. We’d asked earlier about the manta rays and, yes, there’s a good chance we can see them in the morning. They pass through nearly every day from May to October on the change of tide to feed on the plankton.
An English guy called Steve gives us the safety rules. He’s been here three times to study and photograph the rays. He stays for up to six months each time and his goal is take a picture of a baby manta being born. After getting fitted for flippers and masks, we sign a form to say we’ve had the safety talk and we’re done.
We buy ice-creams and coke then watch about thirty young USA volunteers having a language lesson from one of the local ladies. Later they play a very noisy game of beach volleyball and we hope they’re not going to be too noisy tonight.
So far, we haven’t been able to get phone coverage but we’ve been told to walk up to the rise near Manta Beach where we’re finally able to reach Lauren. She and Abi are good but little Elkie has a cold – oh, bubba.
On sunset we sit on the sand with Barbara to watch the sun disappear in a golden sky which fades into a deep purple – gorgeous! The three of us have dinner together at the Sunset Café which is even better at night under the stars. The meal is coconut chicken, potatoes, spinach and carrots followed by chocolate cake, custard and fruit
A couple of locals play guitars and sing while we get to know Barbara. I soon have a girl crush and Mark is in love as well, I’m sure. She’s funny and interesting with a gentle nature and beautiful to look at – oh, and then there’s the Italian accent. Her only fault is that she doesn’t drink while Mark and I get slowly pissed on beer and Bacardi.
After dinner Barbara and I sit on the deck floor with a few others for a kava ceremony. Li seems to do everything around here and here he is preparing the kava. After filling the tanua bowl, he shows us the ritual – clap hands, say ‘bula, bula’, hold the tanua with two hands, drink the kava in one gritty swig then smile. It’s just as disgusting as I remember and everyone else pulls a face after their turn as well – lots of fun.
Toilet then to bed under mosquito nets listening to the soft lapping of the water. A great day and hopefully a better one tomorrow if the manta rays turn up.
Sunday 19th July, 2015
Mark has woken early to see the sun come up at Sunrise Beach then wakes me for breakfast. A buffet table is set up in the communal hut with baked beans, scrambled eggs, toast, pancakes with maple syrup, watermelon, pineapple and tea and coffee. We eat it all sitting outside under a shady tree.
Just before breakfast, we’d see Steve, the dive guy, heading out in a small boat to look for manta rays in the lagoon and now two staff guys are running through the resort beating drums and calling out ‘mantas, mantas’! This means we only have a few minutes to race back to our bure to change into our swimmers and grab our flippers and snorkels.
Mark helps me and Barbara into one of the two boats waiting to take about twenty of us around to Manta Beach. Barbara is scared of drowning so she wears a life vest. In charge is Sammy, a handsome Fijian man, while Bill is introduced as our driver. We head out of Sunset Beach’s small bay around the point to the channel where Steve is keeping his eyes on the mantas. They basically stay in the same area while they feed so there’s a good chance we’ll see them.
After cutting the engine we all get kitted up in our snorkeling gear while Sammy gives us the safety rules – hold our right arm straight if we see a ray, never swim below them and wave if we want to get back on the boat.
Jumping in we see a manta almost immediately – it’s huuuge!!. Sammy yells out that her name is Lady Grey because of her pale grey colour. She glides gracefully with her huge mouth open as she feeds on the plankton. It’s one of the most amazing things to see let alone be here in the water with her. The mantas don’t mind swimmers so we’re not doing anything unethical.
Soon we see two more together and I’m starting to tire as we need to swim against the tide to stay above them. I head back to the boat and ask for a life-jacket like Barbara. She’s been floundering around – definitely not a swimmer – but now has Sammy looking after her.
We stay for an hour watching the rays turn and glide below us then, back on the boat, we see two sailing past us right on the surface! This is a bucket-list adventure that we’ll never forget. Everyone else is just as pumped but, even better, I think Barbara and Sammy are in love!
Back at Sunset, we shower then grab a couple of the giant sized tyres and float around near the shore. Later we snorkel out near the point where we see bright blue starfish and schools of huge round fish. Then to continue with the water sports theme, Mark hires a kayak which we paddle out to the reef. Mark tells me when to paddle hard and we actually surf the waves! I’ve never done anything like this in my life!
Of course, it doesn’t take my arms long to start hurting so we head back for the beach where Mark swaps the double kayak for a single and goes back out for another half hour.
Meanwhile I wash my hair and my undies then we both actually have a thirty minute snooze – it’s not even midday! At lunchtime we meet up with Barbara who’s been posing on the beach having her photo taken. Today they serve chicken and mushroom curry with rice and salad plus pineapple juice.
For the next few hours – it’s so hot now – we just lie around in hammocks reading and sleeping then ring Lauren again from Mantaray Point – Elkie is better!
Meanwhile, the volunteers – they’ve been here all day since it’s Sunday and their day off – are playing volleyball and other team-building games – been screaming for hours. Last night, though, we didn’t hear a sound.
Back at our bure Nadya is moving in with Anna so now it’s only us and Barbara. All of us watch sunset together then Mark and I walk over to the restaurant for drinks before dinner. Barbara turns up for pea soup, bread rolls, an Indian beef curry with rice and papadams then a fruit salad in a mango sauce.
Li sits with us after the meal and says that there are a lot of men here whose name starts with M – Mark, Mike, Matt. Apparently, no Fijian names start with M. Li says he’ll just call them all Mr. M. so Mark says, ‘okay Mr. L’. He likes that.
Later we all sit on the stairs while Sammy shows us slides while he talks about coral and preserving the reefs. Barbara is here and they’re definitely flirting. Mark and I stay for another drink while she and Sammy go for a ‘walk’.
Before going back to our bure we do wee-wees on the sand then have a noisy bonk against a coconut tree – ha ha.
Barbara sneaks in about two o’clock – a very long ‘walk’!
Monday 20th July, 2015
Yasawas to Nadi
Anna comes in to wake us all at six o’clock to watch sunrise at Sunrise Beach – nice but not as spectacular as the sunsets. At seven o’clock we head straight for breakfast – same as yesterday and all good.
It’s quieter today with the volunteers off to another island to do whatever they do. We see a boat coming in with the dive guys then the drums start beating and ‘manta ray’ is being called throughout the camp. Anna races off to get her gear but Nadya is too scared to go for some reason.
The girls had walked up to the viewpoint yesterday so Mark and I decide to go this morning before it becomes too hot. At 8am we set off along a shady track with small roughly built houses set amongst the trees. This must be where the staff live – it’s nice.
The trees soon disappear as we start a steady climb to the top of the island. It’s very hot with barely any shade at all – just scrubby shrubs and dry grasses. These western islands receive very little rain which means less greenery but almost constant sunshine.
Herds of wild goats roam the island and we see them darting along the track and into the bushes making those funny little ‘baa’ noises. The first view-point looks out to another small island and five luxury cruisers are anchored in a calm bay way below us. This is where the ferries drop and pick up and where we’ll be again this afternoon. The climb to the second viewpoint is much harder but at least there are trees up here for shade.
All we want to do now, though, is get into the water so we head back to camp and grab our snorkeling gear. The first thing we see is a giant clam then much the same as yesterday. The best snorkelling would be out at the reef but it’s too far out so we walk over to Sunrise Beach where the reef is only about twenty metres off the shore. We see nimos, schools of coloured fish and weird coral formations. Mark holds my hand because the water is a bit choppy – my darling.
We don’t stay long and get back to our calm Sunset Beach as quick as we can. Mark wants to kayak out on the reef but there’s no swell today. Dumping our snorkeling stuff we have a shower together again then hang out with Barbara and the girls. They’re all leaving this morning for further Yasawa islands. Anna and Nadya have only a few days but Barbara is staying at another place for a week.
We stay with them for the farewell song in the communal hut then have big cuddles with Barbara – she even has a tear in her eye. As Li plays another song, wave them off on the beach as the launch takes them to meet the ferry. We’ve only know them for less than two days but we’ve become friends already. I’ll miss Barbara especially and keep her as one of my lovely travel memories.
At breakfast Li had announced that he’ll be giving a sulu tying demonstration at eleven o’clock but he doesn’t turn up – ‘Fiji time’.
Then after unsuccessfully trying to get into the hammock together – too hot – I write up my diary in the shade near the main bure before we wander over to Sunset Café for lunch. Today is vegetable lasagna, garlic bread and salad. Mark is given seconds for free.
We’re leaving on the 3.30pm ferry which means we need to be packed and have our bags at the pick-up point by two o’clock. To fill in the time we upload photos onto Facebook and see pictures of the dollies at the Reptile Park.
At 2.30 the staff sings us the goodbye song then the ladies give us big cuddles. They do this twice a day, every day but it still feels heartfelt – lovely people. Now we follow the boat guys over to Manta Beach where about eight of us hop into the launch. Again Li sings from the shore as we all wave goodbye. This little place has been unexpectedly special and we’re truly sorry to leave.
Off-shore the South Seas ferry is waiting and we’re soon aboard and heading back to Nadi. I try to sleep on a raised thing at the front but without much success. We watch another lovely sunset then it’s dark by the time we reach Denarau at 6.30pm.
The taxi back to Wailoaloa Beach is a hefty $25FJ but we want to stay in the same little backpacker area where we’ll find the cheapest hotels. We hope to get accommodation at Horizons and they luckily have a good room for $48FJ.
As we unpack Mark realizes he’s lost his mobile phone. We search outside where we were dropped off and the lady on the travel desk rings the marina to see if it was left on the boat. No way are we going to get it back – so, bad luck.
For dinner we walk down to Bamboo which is packed tonight. Mark has fish and chips while I order a burger. I start to feel sick with a swollen gland in my neck and an ear ache – hopefully I’ll be better in the morning. Bed at 9pm.
Tuesday 21st July, 2015
Nadi to Suva
Our plan today is to catch a local bus to Navua about half way across the island. From here we hope to go upriver to the Navua River Lodge but last night the travel lady tried to call them and couldn’t get sense out of anyone. They only speak Fijian so we’d have no hope. Anyway we’ll give it another try today. If it doesn’t happen we’ll just continue on to Suva.
We want to catch an early bus so we’re up at 6.30am. The sun is just peeping above the palm trees through our louvred glass windows and it looks like another perfect day ahead.
After a snuggle and showers, we have breakfast which is served around the pool – fruit, juice, toast with jam and tea and coffee. As we pay our bill at the reception desk the lady asks, ‘where you going?’ When we tell her Suva she looks skeptical and says ‘good luck with the weather’. Oh fuck, what is she saying!
We wait outside Horizons for the bus into Nadi which is actually just a beat up van which we like better anyway. Open windows keep us cool for the half hour drive. We’re dropped off at the bus station which is busy with loads of school kids arriving in buses playing loud island music. Mark buys the tickets to Navua – $25FJ for the two of us – and I seek out a toilet – more kabumbahs.
It’s nice waiting in the sun watching the local people coming and going. Our bus arrives half an hour later and we set off along the Queens Road. The highway circling the island is actually divided into two sections: Queens Road, which covers the southern coast, and Kings Road which covers the northern coast. We plan to do this circle-island thing as there are a couple of places at the top of the island that we want to visit.
The scenery along this southern coastal road is nice – cows, wild horses, sugar cane plantations, pine tree plantations and small villages – but the clouds have come over already and a few sprinkles splash the windows.
In this weather the beaches along the Coral Coast look very unappealing and we hate the whole place really. Horrible resorts line the coast and we thank God we’re not staying here.
The weather looks even worse by now with heavy dark clouds in every direction. One thing, though, is that the countryside is very green. Apparently, the island lies in the path of the prevailing trade winds, bringing heavy rain over the windward slopes of the east, and leaving the countryside to the west generally sun-drenched and dry. This means that Nadi is hot and dry while Suva is cold and wet – awesome!!
After a couple of hours we pull into Sigatoka. Despite its attractive location on the winding Sigatoka River just before it meets the sea, the town is a bustling hub of ugly shops and traffic. The market looks interesting, though, but we’re not staying here long enough for a visit.
Later we cross lots of creeks and see tall orange-flowered trees shading roadside stalls selling hot corn on the cob. More roadside stalls sell pineapples, bananas, pumpkins, cabbages and all sorts of other vegetables.
Reaching Navua at 11.30am is good timing because Mark is having a hypo. We quickly buy potato chips, coke and an ice cream and he feels a lot better. It usually takes a lot out of him, though. The shops around here are all run by Indians who, for some reason, aren’t very friendly.
From the bus station, we catch a taxi to the Tourist Centre. ‘Hellooo, anyone there?’ The gate is locked – wtf? – but our driver, Sunil, finally calls someone to let us in – Fiji time? Anyway, the guy is really nice and introduces himself as Scott. He tries to call the Navua River Lodge but they tell him ‘we come yesterday. Not come today’.
Okay, let’s forget it and just go straight to Suva. We could catch a bus but decide to take the taxi for the half hour drive. On the way in we see Christian churches, Hindu and Sikh temples, Muslim mosques and even an abandoned Jewish cemetery. The capital is a true melting pot of Fijians, Indians, Chinese, Tongans, Samoans, Solomon Islanders, Micronesians, Europeans and `fruit salad’ as they’re locally called—those of mixed race.
The city is built on a hilly peninsula between Laucala Bay and Suva Harbour. In a good day it probably looks pretty but today all is grey and bland. It’s said that its biggest drawback is the weather because the mountains north and west catch the southeast trade winds, producing moist conditions year round. The lady at Horizons wasn’t wrong!
The city centre is a mix of modern ugliness and colonial grandeur which we plan to check out this afternoon. But first we hope to find a room at the South Seas Hotel on the other side of town. From the photos on Tripadvisor, it’s every Pacific romantic’s dream. The exterior is a blinding white with blue canvas sun blinds at the windows and over the entrance. I wait in the car while Mark runs in to see about a room. He comes out smiling – yes, so lucky!
Inside we pay only $50FJ for a double with shared bathroom. The happy lady on the desk shows us our room which is sparse but very clean. The sweeping interior verandah, though, is full of character. Almost like being on a 1920’s ocean liner clad in a sea of polished timber with floral retro-chairs, potted plants and louvred windows. I sit for a while but my head is aching and my throat is thick so I take a few pills and sleep while Mark reads.
I wake at three feeling a bit better and go in search of the toilets. The hallways are wide enough to sail through with polished boards, ship-lapped timber walls painted white and super high ceilings. The ladies loo is a big bare room with showers as well but I’ll wait till later. We want to get into town.
Before leaving we find the funny old lounge room with its stuffed, faded armchairs, pictures of the Queen on the walls and an old tellie. It would be nice to spend a few days here and just hang out but I think the weather is going to drive us out of here real fast.
Heading downhill to the water we walk along Victoria Parade dotted with lovely old colonial buildings – the Law Court, government buildings and Carnegie Library. There’s also some interesting restaurants but they aren’t open yet. We’re starving so we can’t be ashamed of having chips and milkshakes at McDonalds.
To make up for it we spend time wandering around the fruit and vegetable market then the craft market with lots of woven hats and carry bags made from Pandanas leaves. From here we follow a sign pointing upwards – ‘Grog Upstairs’. This isn’t grog as we know it – it’s all kava! Kava in all shapes, sizes and in various packaging styles – some very elaborate as you’d give as a gift, like sticking a rosette on a bottle of champagne at home. A friendly young woman explains about the kava then tells us about her home on another island.
Back on the main street, I buy a bottle of shampoo with the funny subtitle ‘Stop Hair Falling Out’. Now we catch a taxi to the Grand Pacific Hotel which has been an icon of the South Pacific for over a century. Known as ‘the grand old lady’ of the Pacific, it was built in 1914 then underwent a gradual decline in the 1980’s finally closing its doors in 1992. Fortunately restoration started four years ago and reopened in May 2014 on the hundredth anniversary of its original opening.
Royalty and movie starts have even stayed here – King Edward VIII, King George VI, Sir Donald Bradman, James A. Michener and Burt Lancaster to name just a few.
We’ve managed to seek out these old colonial hotels wherever we travel. We can’t afford a room but we always have a happy hour drink.
Pulling up at the grand entrance, the whole hotel is painted a dazzling white with arches, columns, louvred shutters, deep verandahs, white wicker furniture and potted palms.
The foyer has a double storey vaulted ceiling and flanked by more archways leading to dining and function rooms. A bridal party is having photos taken on the upper floor but we head straight for the bar. Mark orders a fancy beer while I have to have a Fiji Colada. Really good but I’m starting to feel really bad by now so we take a taxi back to the hotel.
While I head straight for bed, Mark walks into town for Chinese take-away. Later we chat with another guest called Eppy who lives on Ovalau Island which is where we plan to go tomorrow. He says it could be wet there as it’s on this rainy side of Vitu Levu so we’ll see what the weather looks like in the morning. I start taking anti-biotics that we’ve brought with us then have an early night in our hard bed.
Wednesday 22nd July, 2015
Suva to Nadi
Waking at 7.30am the sky is still overcast, the wind is up and it’s cold – let’s get the hell out of here!! We ask the lady on the desk about bus times to Nadi and call a taxi. Even though we haven’t been here long, it’s been a good experience especially having found this funny little hotel – a real “South Pacific” atmosphere, which someone has described as being ‘reminiscent of the days when travel meant adventure rather than a package tour.’ I love that!
At the bus station, Mark buys pies, sausage rolls and chips for breakfast – nothing else available – then we grab the front seat for the best views on the 220km trip to Nadi. The latest ‘Batman’ movie is playing on a tele above us but I’d rather watch the scenery. At Navua we drop off and pick up local passengers then have a fifteen minute stop in Sigatoka which means we have time to walk through the local market.
This whole area is called the ‘Salad Bowl of Fiji’ so the market is vibrant and alive with local vendors selling their fresh fruit and veggies. An Indian man soon latches onto us, ‘I show you kava at my friend’s shop’ he gushes. Mark has to use the toilet so I jump back on the bus to escape the Indian guy.
It’s good to see the weather improve the closer we get to the west coast. We pass trucks laden with logs and sugarcane plus a poor dead horse on the side of the road. As we near Nadi we call Horizons Backpackers to see if we can get a room for tonight. They only have one left – much more expensive than we paid two days ago at $120FJ but my head cold is becoming worse so we say we’ll take is.
At Nadi’s little bus station we catch a taxi to Horizons where they kindly give us a discount to $100FJ. The room is much bigger with our own deck and private bathroom. But all I want to do is get into bed.
While I sleep for five hours, Mark works through his emails, has a long walk on the beach and watches Game of Thrones on our hard-drive. At seven o’clock I’m feeling a bit better totally dosed up on medications – don’t want to miss going out.
Next door is Smugglers Cove which is packed with people having dinner and drinking. We share a seafood pizza each while Mark drinks Fiji Gold and me, my usual Bacardi.
A Samoan dance show starts with six men and three women then we head home at nine o’clock. I’m asleep in minutes while Mark watches more Game of Thrones – he’s obsessed!
Thursday 23rd July, 2015
Nadi to Mana Island, Mamanucas
Guess what? I’m feeling heaps better – the antibiotics must have kicked in already! Having breakfast by the pool we decide to get to the Mamanuca Islands some time today. At the tourist desk we book three days at Ratu Kini Dive Resort on Mana Island but we only have half an hour before the van leaves. We throw everything into our bags and are downstairs in fifteen minutes ready to go. I call the Marina about Mark’s lost phone but no luck even getting someone to know what the hell we’re talking about.
Mark books a room here for Sunday night when we return from Mana then has enough time to race up to the supermarket to stock up on potato chips and water. Meanwhile I chat with a very old lady called Beverly who’s off to Mana Island as well but staying at a different backpacker place – might see her there anyway.
The van arrives with eight other people already jammed inside. After fifteen minutes we veer off onto the sand taking a short-cut along the beach and end up back on another road till we reach a canal. Fijian guys are loading supplies onto a small boat which it seems is our transport to the island – it’s obviously not too far away.
While we wait we chat with Joy, a Slovenian woman, and a young Swiss girl called Sylvana. The others are three Fijians, an English couple and four Chinese lesbians who giggle and cuddle the whole way. We drop the English guys off at Treasure Island then pass the tiny party islands of Bounty and Beachcomber – all looking everyone’s idea of paradise.
Despite a very bumpy ride, the Fijians are all dozing then, after an hour, the driver points out Mana just ahead. At 11am we pull into shore to jump out into the water. There does happen to be a wharf just a bit further along the beach but it’s obviously only for the resort guests – rather do this anyway.
As usual we have a welcoming party of guitars, singing and dancing then we’re all handed a welcome drink. Patrick introduces himself then tells us about the island. Mana is sheltered from the prevailing winds with an enclosed lagoon and is small enough to walk around in 3 hours – forget that.
There are two luxury resorts, two backpacker resorts – including Ratu Kini – a school and a church. The school and the church belong to the village which owns Ratu Kini and is just behind the huts. This is exactly what we’d hoped for!
All sounds good till Patrick also tells us that we can’t snorkel out front because of the village boats coming and going, we can’t snorkel on North Beach or South Beach because they belong to the posh resorts so if we want go to Dream Beach they’ll have to take us in a boat because it’s private land – what!?
Anyway we’ll sort that out later. Right now we check in at the desk which takes half an hour – Fiji time. The two ladies behind the counter seem to be in slow-motion. We can see that this is village-run resort is going to be very different to Barefoot Manta – god love them!
Booking in, it seems that Sylvana is staying in a twelve person dorm but Joy can afford her own bungalow. Mark and I have opted for a five person dorm after our good experience at Barefoot. It’s a yellow coloured bure with a roomy bedroom, a bathroom and another room attached with nothing in it. A funny lady called Arko is still cleaning the bedroom so we hang out on the beach which is only a few metres away. She calls out when she’s done then Mark pushes two beds together. No-one else has turned up so far but a boat could come in at any time.
We like the look of Ratu Kini already – lots of little buildings painted bright yellow or blue and shaded by trees and coconut palms. White sand paths link all the buildings which are built along the water with most of the bures just behind. A group of village ladies have set up a little market with hand-made bracelets, necklaces, paintings and lots of other awful things that I don’t want but will be buying for sure. They’re so lovely and I say ‘we’ll come back later’.
A massage hut is next to the market but at $60FJ we’ll have to think twice about it – still getting our head around why things are so expensive on these Pacific Islands.
We’d planned to meet Sylvana and Joy in the restaurant at twelve as Patrick told us to be exactly on time for meals but, of course, we don’t get served till 12.30pm – must be Fiji time again – getting accustomed to this by now.
Later we head back to our bure passing the market ladies and pay $70 for a handful of junk that we’d probably pay $5 for in Asia but then Andi steals my heart. She’s a pretty young woman with a shy smile. She has a cute baby girl and a ten year old son called Si who’s helping her now – he’ll make a good salesman one day. The funny thing, though, is that the ladies don’t try the hard sell at all. They just sit quietly waiting for people to come to them but then they’re too hard to resist and people buy anyway.
The wind has come up a bit so the rest of the afternoon is very lazy – sleeping, reading and watching shows on the laptop. By dinner time we’re still the only ones here so it looks like we’ll be on our own tonight at least.
At six o’clock we meet Joy and Sylvana for dinner – chicken, octopus, fish, salad, spinach and sago. It’s the same deal here with fixed meals as part of the package. It’s a lot cheaper than Barefoot at $532 for three nights but then we still have to add our drinks which always come to a lot – drunks!
After dinner two local men wearing sulus and floral shirts play guitars and sing while we really get to know the girls. Joy had worked in a high-powered job in Europe but threw it in to travel the world for a year. It must have been a highly paid job as well as she seems to have lots of money. She’s very confident – a strong, independent woman – I like her despite it – ha ha.
Sylvana is a young uni student who’s also traveling on her own and very independent for a twenty year old. They both have lots of good travel stories and we want to hear more in the next couple of days.
Friday 24th July, 2015
Mana Island, Mamanucas
Wake to a warm sunny day with no breeze at all so we start with a walk along the white sand. Next is breakfast with the girls – tea, coffee, toast, pineapple, watermelon, bananas and cake.
Outside, two tiny boys are practicing fire twirling with sticks from the trees. Mark takes a video then plays it back to them – huge white smiles. Lots of little ones from the village are playing on the sand and they look so cute with their fuzzy mops of hair.
Earlier Mark had seen a sign for $30FJ massages at Mana Lagoon Backpackers which is only a hundred metres along the beach so we wander down for a look. Can’t believe it but we find Nadya and Anna from Barefoot Island and then old Beverly from Horizons. This backpackers is nowhere near as nice at Ratu Kini which is far from being a palace but this place looks seriously grotty.
We hang out with Beverly for a while – she tells us that for fifty years she’d traveled the world with her sister who died a few years ago. Now she travels the world with her sister’s ashes!
Mark asks a young village woman about the massages and we both have a full body oil one lying on raised wooden beds in an open-air thatched hut on the sand. This is paradise – looking out over the blue still waters to other small islands on this hot sunny day – very lucky.
Joy and Sylvana meet us again for lunch, this time for hamburgers and chips, then Mark and I grab our snorkeling gear. We ask the sleepy lady on the desk if we can be taken to Dream Beach but, of course, Patrick can’t be found so we decide to go anyway.
She tells us to walk through the village where we’ll find a path that leads up over the hill behind. Naturally we can’t find it so we ask a young girl who shows us the way. We give her a box of textas as a thank you. We’ve brought lots of pencils, pens and paper to donate to the school but it’s shut today because of a staff meeting. We’ll give it to the kids this afternoon instead. We really like the look of the village and plan to check it out later.
We find the track over the hill which is hot and dry at the top but with great views. We crawl through a fence that says Private Property and climb down the other side which is a sea of green palms and coconut trees. On the flat we walk through a canopy of trees till we reach Dream Beach. We’re the only ones here!
It’s a small bay of pure white sand and soft blue water near the shore then a deep turquoise out past the reef. Mark snorkels first then we both swim out together. Even though it’s supposed to be some idyllic dream to have a tropical beach all to ourselves, I find it a bit creepy and I’m scared someone will jump out of the bushes and hack us to death. A bit dramatic but I want to leave.
On the way back we run into Joy and Sylvana who stay for the whole afternoon – no crazed murderers around apparently.
We now have our regular afternoon nap then on dusk we walk through the village. Three little boys are pushing each other around on a home-made dinky while fires are being lit for the evening meals. The smell of wood smoke is lovely and goats wander around free. We give toy koalas to the kids, all barefoot like everyone else here.
Dinner is good again tonight and we sit up for ages with the girls as the local band serenades us once more.
Saturday 25th July, 2015
Mana Island, Mamanucas
Another perfect day with no wind again. At breakfast Joy talks the rest of us into booking lunch at Cloud 9 which is a restaurant out in the middle of the ocean – wow!! Mark thinks he might also find out about Cloudbreak which has been voted one of the ten best surf breaks in the world. He asks a guy who’s just come back if it’s okay today. ‘Yes, barreling this high’ as he holds his hands way above his head. That’s the end of that idea!
At 10.30am we all wade out to a small motor-boat for the half hour ride to Cloud 9 at Ro Ro Reef. We pass lovely little islands then pull up next to the amazing floating restaurant. A few people are lounging around on the top deck and others are sitting up at the bar. The water is a bright pale blue over the reef and will be a great spot to snorkel. But then someone calls out, ‘not today – already booked’!
Back we go to Mana to tell the idiots on the desk we want our money back – couldn’t they have checked? Too busy, I guess – Fiji time, remember. Anyway we had a really nice ride in the boat.
I go in search of Andi because she told us earlier that she can do massages too. Apparently the word is out that I had one at the other backpacker place yesterday. I follow her to a shady spot under palm trees right on the water where she’s already set up her massage gear. Mark goes off to read while I’m spoilt for the next hour.
Beverly comes over from Mana Lagoon Backpackers to have lunch with us then Mark and I wander over to the Seventh Day Adventist Church where we can hear people singing. I sneak in for a look then a lady down the front beckons me to sit with her. The preacher talks about how we should all treat each other then the men and boys stand up to sing a heartfelt hymn.
Back near our bure we watch a couple of guys practising fire twirling in preparation for tonight’s performance they tell us. Apparently there will be a special ‘Fijian Night’ on the beach after dinner – good timing for our last night on Mana Island.
Our meal is fish, beans, tomato and mashed potato and lots of drinks. It’s been decided to hold the dancing inside as it’s a bit breezy on the beach at the moment. They kick off with lovely Samoan dancing then fire twirling then more fire twirling outside. Joy and Sylvana head off to bed while I join in the communal dancing back inside – I’m an expert this time.
Mark and I are the last ones to go to bed – drunks again!
Sunday 26th July, 2015
Mana Island, Mamanucas to Nadi
Today we’re leaving for the mainland but we still have time for a few things this morning. After a stroll along the beach we have our last breakfast with the girls. Joy is coming back to Nadi with us but Sylvana is staying another couple of days. She’s booked a dive and suits up straight after breakfast. We wave her off as she won’t be back before we leave.
At 8.30am I have another massage with Andi. The sun is directly in my eyes so her sister, Tima, holds up a towel to block it out. I keep telling them it doesn’t matter but they insist. I give them extra money at the end. I also give Andi half my clothes plus shoes and sunglasses. She’s especially thrilled with a pair of floral pants which she’s keeping for best when she goes over to town – humbling.
As well as the clothes, Mark gives her the rest of the coloured pencils and textas to share with the other ladies but they’re quickly squirrelled away to her little house.
Now I wash off the oil in the shower and wash my hair. We pack and leave our bags near the desk then walk down to the posh resort. It’s pretty but not a patch on places we’ve seen in Bali.
The boat arrives at eleven o’clock and we’re soon speeding towards the mainland. Joy is with us as well as the lesbians, a Chinese family and a Japanese family. At Bounty Island we wait ages for people who never turn up so it’s midday by the time we get back.
We hug Joy goodbye then squash into a van with the others. We find a room at Horizons again then walk over to Smugglers for lunch. A lazy afternoon then up on dark for drinks at the Tropic of Capricorn next door. We call Lauren and talk to the dollies – one more sleep.
Bamboo has the best food around here so have an excellent dinner of fish and chips for me and a sizzler for Mark. We celebrate our last drinks in the cute little dining room at Horizons.
Monday 27th July, 2015
Nadi to Sydney
After breakfast next to the pool, we ask about transport to the Sabeto Hot Springs. It’ll be a perfect way to spend the morning before our flight home later this afternoon. For $100 FJ, we’ll be taken to the springs, back here to pick up our bags then dropped at the airport.
After packing and grabbing our swimmers, our driver, Ram, meets us at 10.30am. The springs are halfway between Nadi and Lautoka in the lush Sabeto Valley so after turning off the highway onto a dirt road we pass fields of sugar cane, tobacco and sorghum as well as plantations of paw paw and coconuts. A few kilometers later Ram points, ‘look, Beverly!’. And here she is limping along the road in the hot sun all by herself. Ram stops and helps her into the car. She’d caught the bus to the turnoff and cut her leg as she was getting out. Ram wants to drive her back to Horizons but she’s on her way to the Gardens of the Sleeping Giant and she won’t be talked out of it.
We drop her off at the entrance then a few kilometers later we pull up at the Sabeto Hot Springs and Mud Baths nestled at the base of the Sabeto Mountains. Ram parks under a tree and settles in for an hour or two while we pay the $18FJ entrance fee. The springs are run by a local village so it’s a friendly, rustic little place set amongst gardens with the mountains as a backdrop.
A friendly lady called Maria shows us where to change into our swimmers then grabs our camera and video camera to take photos of us through the whole process. First a big local man smears us from head to toe with black gooey mud which we leave on till it dries.
While we wait we walk around a little market then when our skin is stiff and tight Maria tells us to climb down into a deep pool thick with warm muddy water. It’s all a bit whiffy because the springs come from a volcanic source with the unmistakable smell of sulphur which is supposed to have some sort of healing properties.
A few other Aussie families are in here as well, having a riotous time. It’s the weirdest feeling with the water so thick with mud that it feels like walking through a forest of seaweed.
Now we cross to the first of three clear water thermal springs which vary in temperature from really hot to warm.
Back in the van we come across Beverly again and this time she accepts a lift. She comes to the airport with us before heading back to Horizons with Ram.
After eating in the Domestic Terminal we change into our plane clothes before checking in our bags. We have the best seats right at the front of the plane with lots of leg room and a spare seat in between us. A woman across the aisle is having a tantrum about her seat for some reason then demands to sit in our middle seat. Fuck off, weirdo!
Land about 8pm then hire a car instead of catching the train. Home to our girls!!