Sunday, 24 November 2013

Life's a beach - visiting the Fiji Islands

Bula everyone :)

I've just come back from the Fiji Islands yesterday and thought I'd keep you up to date with what has been happening. The idea behind this trip was to celebrate the end of the semester and spend some quality time relaxing and unwinding in sunny and warm weather, with good food and in great company. In review, I have to say this trip took a rather unexpected turn. As some of you might know, it has always been a dream of mine to visit Fiji - to be more precise: ever since I knew this country existed, I have been eager to go. So here we are, on November 17th which is when the trip began...

For the entire week, it had been raining cats and dogs in Sydney so that being able to escape this weather seemed rather fortunate. Exchanging 16°C / 61°F with 32°C / 90°F sounded like a pretty good deal. So after having had coffee with Didy, a classmate of mine who headed back home to Hong Kong around the same time, we were airborne - destination Fiji.

Inflight Entertainment à la Fiji Airways (onboard the brand new Airbus A330)
On final approach to Nadi Airport, Fiji
Nadi, Fiji - fresh off the plane
Upon arrival, those 32°C / 90°F literally hit us when we got off the plane. Even though the local time was already 7 pm, the humidity was at ridiculous levels, making us feel rather uncomfortable in our pants and long-sleeved shirts. When we finally arrived at our hostel - Smuggler's Cove - the ceiling fans couldn't do much about the heat but from my experience of arriving in Darwin, I thought it only took a little getting used to. The dinner was really nice and of course, we couldn't resist having a cocktail right on the beach - which was basically what we had come for. We also had fresh coconut - straight from the palm tree - which, however, was not as enjoyable. That same night, I met up with Raj, a friend from Fiji who I had skyped with previously but never actually met - all in all, a very good start to our holiday =)

Fiji local preparing coconuts for us
A shop owner from Newtown - who is originally Fijian - had advised us to visit the Coral Coast, which is where we headed the next day. The Coral Coast is part of the South Coast of Fiji's main island, Viti Levu ("Viti" meaning "Fiji" - and formerly "Feejee" - in Fijian). Overall, Fiji consists of more than 300 islands, out of which 110 are permanently inhabited. The total land mass amounts to about 18,000 square kilometres (or 7,000 square miles), making Fiji a little smaller than Slovenia. There are two major ethnic groups in Fiji - the "Fijians" (referring to indigenous Fiji Nationals) and the "Indo-Fijians" (citizens of Indian descent). Hence, three languages are considered the official languages of Fiji: English, Fijian and Fijian Hindi. While we were in Fiji, it was rather interesting to see that both major ethnic groups prefer to stay amongst themselves and that it was particularly Indo-Fijians that owned specialised businesses such as car repair workshops etc. (In fact, the tensions between these two groups have resulted in multiple political and military conflicts such as the coup d'état in 2006) 
These facts aside, we had to find a way to get to the Coral Coast from Nadi, which is in the west of the main island. The trip would take about 2 hours - and although advised by hotel staff to take the public bus to Suva (Fiji's capital) from Nadi town, we opted for a private transfer that drove us from our hostel directly to the Fiji Beach House - where we then stayed for two nights. The downside of this direct connection was that this mini van would stop everytime someone waved at the driver. To get off, simply knock on a window and the driver would drop you off literally in the middle of nowhere. When we reached Sigatoka, a small village (but the biggest village on the way), the driver decided to have a 5 minute break to grab coffee - which was then extended to 20 minutes. This was a phenomenon we would frequently encounter - the locals call it "Fiji Time". It generally means that no one is in a hurry and that you have to allow for at least double the time it would take to do something in Australia in order to get somewhere on time. So, in the end, it took us close to three hours to get to the Beach House. The place, however, was stunning:

One of the thatched huts among the coconut palms
The picture-perfect private beach with crystal-clear water
One of the many hammocks
View from the hammock
Try to spot the dog! =)
Spectacular sunset @ Fiji Beach House
The resort was situated in a small, secluded valley with its own private beach. It offers a complementary breakfast and afternoon tea (including scones and jam!) and a selection of mains for lunch and dinner. The drinks are extra - but there was certainly something for everyone's taste buds. As much as this small valley allowed for privacy, it meant a lot of mosquitoes (mozzies in Australian English). In combination with the free Wi-Fi that was only available at the restaurant and bar, this basically meant that everyone endured the torture of numerous mozzie bites to check their e-mail, facebook or skype with their families and friends. At this stage, my feet were pricked all over and the mozzies slowly started to go for my legs and arms. Why didn't I use insect repellent? Well, guess what: I did but Fijian mozzies don't give a damn. On top of that, both Laura and I were bitten by a dog - it was only a puppy but very persistent and convinced that moving feet were the best toys to bite into. The weather became more and more sweltry over the days, which, however, did not keep me from going horse riding. I know it had been a while since I last sat on horseback but I couldn't resist and Laura decided to come with. After a short ride over to the next beach, we went up into the hills and lush forests of the hinterland, passing palm trees on the way up to a lookout that had amazing views of the coastline. Even further up, we were suprised to find a villager waiting for us with freshly cut watermelon. Our guide then gave the rind to the horses... Back on the beach, he gave me a free rein to canter along the water's edge - which was a great feeling but I need to really get back into horse-riding, it's simply been too long. The shower we took when we got back to the resort was the most relieving feeling ever; realising that my entire face was burnt by the sun was not. Luckily, the resort offered Aloe Vera soothing gel... Oh yeah - and tons of new mozzie bites as well. Fun times.

The day we went back to Nadi, we were determined to take the official Nadi - Suva - Nadi bus, however, when we arrived at the bus stop, another one of those mini vans stopped and we decided to go back by mini van again. $13 for a 2.5 hour ride seemed reasonable, considering that it was Fijian dollars (equivalent to AU$7.50, 5€ or US$7). This time, we should have listened to the hostel's staff's warning that mini vans tend to have more accidents than the official buses... our van blew a tire with only about 20 minutes left to Nadi. It is important to know that these mini vans do not have air conditioning, the only thing that cools you down is the airflow of the moving vehicle, with all windows wide open. Instead, we pulled into this car repair shop and were kept in the dark about what had happened by the driver. The owner of the shop seemed to know the driver quite well - whatever that may imply - and made an effort to get us back on the road as soon as possible. After about 40 minutes and changing one of the front tires while all passengers remained on bord the vehicle, we were able to continue our journey back to Nadi, where we stay at Smuggler's Cove for another night before heading off to the Yasawa Islands - so much for the plan. Following some presumably out of date food, Laura had an upset stomach and cramps that forced her to stay in bed for a day - however, we were still able to board the "Yasawa Flyer" (a catamaran connecting Port Denarau with the Yasawa Islands) as planned.

Our transfer took us straight to the Marinas where we would board our vessel that would take us to Mantaray Island resort in about 3 hours, travelling at high speeds.

The Yasawa Flyer Ferry (photo taken from tripadvisor, no infringement intended)
 The night before we were to take this trip, the skies opened up and unbelievable amounts of water drowned the streets while one of the most intense thunderstorms I have ever witnessed illuminated the skies and tormented the ocean. Hence, it was no surprise that wind gusts and waves, 5 metres in height at least, rattled the boat to an extent that even locals had to make use of the seasickness bags provided by the crew. Shooting up the waves thanks to the powerful engines, we reached the peak of a wave every ten seconds and experienced a moment of zero gravity that pulled our stomachs down before plunging back down into the raging sea, hitting the next wave with such force that the whole boat started to shake. When we finally reached Mantaray Island Resort, we could fortunately disembark in a sheltered bay as none of the resorts have landing piers. Instead, we had to jump down into smaller boats that carried us to shore where we waded through the water to get to shore. To top off the day, my shorts ripped in a way that revealed my underwear so I was holding my water bottle in front of myself during the welcome ceremony at Mantaray.
The resort is actually quite beautiful with an amazing view over the bay and pristine beaches that (apparently) are great for snorkelling. However, with the rainfalls and the persisting heat, this became a trip to a tropical greenhouse without exits. The accommodation was basic - and up on the hill: 20 beds in one shed and a small fan for every four beds - the crowning moment of my hostel and dormitory experience. And as for the Fiji Beach House, we received an equally warm welcome by the mosquitoes.

The front porch
Kayaks on the beach
The pristine waters at Mantaray Island Resort
Panoramic view from the hill-top restaurant (click to enlarge)
The resort was so hilly and the weather was so hot and humid that some of the American guests had to start walking up to the hill-top restaurant 20 minutes before ordering their meal to make it in time. It was there and then that I decided I did not want to stay another night in the 20 bed dorm and on these islands since the heat and humidity became unbearable for me. In addition, the sun was so strong that a mere half hour in the sun or in the water, despite using sunscreen, would have incurred another severe sunburn. The decision was made: I took the ferry back to Nadi the next day.

When I arrived at Smuggler's Cove, the only accommodation that was available for three consecutive nights (before my regular flight out) was in a dorm. Contrarily to what I had been told on Mantaray Island, however, this was not a 6 bed dorm like the one I had stayed in previously but a 30 bed dorm - only this time with air conditioning. Now, imagine what it feels like to enter a room that sleeps 30 people who are sweating like pigs all through the day and through the night... exactly. By this time, I was a nervous wreck and the only thing I could think of was going back to Sydney as soon as possible. When I checked airfares online, I found a one-way flight back to Sydney on Jetstar that cost me the same as four more days in Fiji so I decided to leave the next day, November 23rd. Unfortunately, it seemed like an unmanageable task to the staff to print off my booking confirmation - "Fiji time" a.k.a. a lack of competency. That night was probably one of the worst nights I have ever had in my life - I must have slept for barely 4 hours before getting up and watching a beautiful sunrise in this elusory idyll. After breakfast and after sending out a few postcards, I had lunch with Andy, a German guy we had met on our first night at Smuggler's Cove. We had lunch together - chicken for me, lobster for Andy - before I headed off to the airport to fly back.

Andy and his lobster
The flight seemed endless with two children playing around in the row in front of me, dropping their toy cars between the seats, continuously asking me to hand them back to them. The comfort of Fiji Airways and the "simplicity" of Jetstar were poles apart but this was the only way to get back to more agreeable weather. In the end, the souvenir I took home from Fiji  and that will last me a while (at least until Jackie is here to savour the flavour of Fiji) was a local speciality: Bounty Rum.

Bounty Rum from Fiji - White and Dark =)
Cheers everyone!

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