Friday, 11 November 2016

Fiji Time

Manta Ray Island was a contrast to the previous islands that I'd visited.  This was certainly the most commercialised place I visited.  On arrival one of the first things we had to do was sign a two page disclaimer for all the things the resort wouldn't be liable for.  We were then shuffled into a huge dorm room that is divided into cubicles and reminded me of the sleeper carriage in a train.  It's a popular place though largely because of it's proximity to where the manta rays are known to be.  The resort organises trips to swim with the rays if they are spotted on the day.  I went for a hike to the other side of the island and missed the opportunity but I found a beautiful secluded beach and swam there instead.  I also found the best snorkelling of my trip on this island. 

Building a traditional Fijian 'bure'

The far islands of Nacula and Tavewa offer the opportunity to really adjust to 'Fiji time'.  This is the affectionate term given to how relaxed the lifestyle is.  Tavewa was perhaps my favourite resort because the staff were so friendly.  From this island I did a half day trip to the Blue Lagoon made famous by the movie starring Brooke Shields.  It's the celebrity of all the Yasawa beaches and attracts cruise boats, yachts and day visitors in small boats.  Although it's not too dissimilar to many other lagoons in the area, the white sand is soft and the water is beautifully lucent.  It's also sheltered from the prevailing trade winds which blow from the east.

Cruise ships anchored in the Blue Lagoon

One of the best parts about going to the islands is getting to the villages and meeting the people.  It was a great way to learn about the lifestyle and genuine Fijian culture.  I went to a little village on Waya Lailai and received an invitation for lunch.  They told me it wasn't quite ready yet but by the time I walked down to the shore to get my intended photo it would be.  As I was walking back through the village I received a second invitation for lunch.  I thanked them kindly but pointed out the home I was going back to.  'No problem' she said.  'That's my sister-in-law - c'mon lets go together!'  So we all shared fresh fish, cassava (a vegetable which tastes a bit like a parsnip) rice and a few laughs.  They really are delightful people.

Making new friends on Tavewa Island
I think beyond all that I've seen and done my enduring memories will be of the people I've met.  It's interesting to see how the distinct Fijian and Indian cultures live together as one.  When people knew I was from New Zealand, the conversation almost inevitably turned to rugby.  In Fiji, about half of the population are Christian while the others practise either Hinduism or Islam.  However the one religion that seems to unite the country beyond anything is rugby union.  Soccer, netball and volleyball are also popular but for many rugby is a passion.  So, I had many conversations about the Super rugby, the All Blacks and Fiji's national team.

'Fiji Time'
Fiji is a special place and I've love to be able to return one day.  The country is made up of 332 islands and I've only been to eight.  It's a place that offers its visitors the choice to be as active or as relaxed as they choose.  Either way, its beaches, coral reefs, ocean and mountains will offer you beautiful photos and the warmth of its people will remain in your heart forever.  

Friday, 4 November 2016

Yasawa Islands

The islands off the western coast of Viti Levu are broadly divided into the Mamanuca and Yasawa Groups.  I bought a 7-day boat pass for the Yasawa Flyer catamaran, chose six islands to visit and spent one night on each island.  The islands I selected were Bounty (which is actually in the Mamanuca group but a popular stopover enroute to the Yasawas), Waya, Waya Lailai (lailai means small and is the island just south of Waya), Manta Ray, Nacula and Tavewa.

The yellow Yasawa Flyer catamaran

I wondered if some of the natural Fijian culture and traditions would be lost in the stream of tourists visiting the islands but it was all there in the welcome at Bounty Island.  The Yasawa Flyer comes within a few hundred metres of each island at which point tourists are transferred onto a small boat.  As it nears the shore, the resort staff are all there with a song and big 'Bula!' to welcome everyone to the island.  We were then personally greeted with a smile and handshake and also farewelled in the same way when we left.

Traditional Fijian island welcome
I had the overall feeling that Fijians have a genuine appreciation for tourists and want to give them an optimum experience.  In most places the staff learned my name and would often use it.  It was a nice feeling to come out for breakfast in the morning and be greeted with 'Bula Dave'.  I was a little embarrassed on occasions when I couldn't remember their names in return but it was a nice touch on their behalf. 
The resort staff were proud of and happy to share their culture with us.  This involved things like basket weaving demonstrations, learning the Bula Dance (which is reminiscent of the Macarena and lots of fun to do!) and trying the traditional drink called kava.  Kava is the root of a type of pepper plant that has been dried and then crushed into a powder.  It's then mixed with water in a ratio of about one teaspoon to one cup.  The end result is a mildly narcotic drink that looks literally like muddy water.  Despite its unappealing look, it tastes okay and after a few cups it gives the tongue a slightly furry feeling.  We learned the etiquette which involves clapping once, saying 'Bula' (cheers) drinking the cup in one go and clapping three times in gratification.  All good fun...

Arriving at the tiny Bounty Island

Bounty Island sits just 10km from Nadi and is a 20 hectare piece of paradise.  It's lined with beach and surrounded by coral and tropical fish.  A walk around the island only takes about 20 minutes and paddling a kayak around took me about half an hour.  The Yasawa Flyer comes through at the same time each day which gave me 24 hours on each island which was perfect for what I wanted to do.  My days were spent swimming, snorkelling, kayaking and hiking.  If there was time left after that I could just relax on the beach or in a hammock strung between a couple of palm trees.  Most resorts organised beach volleyball later in the day when it wasn't so hot.

Tidal sandbar connecting Waya and Waya Lailai
Waya Lailai and Waya were the best islands for hiking.  They both had trails that led up to great view points where I could see other islands and the coral reefs under amazingly blue water.  The tracks weren't always entirely easy to find and follow but it was all part of the fun.  When we arrived at Waya, ten people disembarked and nine went to the resort on the southern point of the island.  I was the only one to get in the boat for the other resort.  When I arrived I found that I was the only one staying there!  It was peaceful with a whole bure (traditional Fijian building made from timber poles lashed together with coconut-fibre string with woven walls and a thatched roof) to myself.  There was running water but no power so they gave me a lantern when it got dark.


Friday, 28 October 2016

Levuka and the Coral Coast

I went over to the town of Levuka on island of Ovalau.  Levuka was the capital of Fiji until it was moved to Suva in 1882.  It's a delightful little place built on a flat area between the island's eastern coast and and the hills which form an imposing natural backdrop.  Many of the building are over 100 years old and built in a colonial style.  So the town has a unique character and is probably the most picturesque in the country.  I'd love to have stayed there longer than the couple of nights I did. 

Colonial buildings of Levuka

However, there was plenty more to see and do.  My next destination was a village called Korolevu on the Coral Coast of Viti Levu.  This is on the southern Queens Road which is the preferred route to traverse the island.  From Korolevu, I took a day to hike about 25km to another village called Korotogo.  It was a great day because the road follows the shore offering beautiful views of bays, beaches, coral reefs and mountains.  I stopped for my first swim along the way and even got the snorkel out.  Unfortunately a lot of the coral was dead in that area but there's always something to see under the surface.

View of Levuka from the hills of Ovalau
That morning I met a 14 year-old girl who had just caught a little octopus.  I had a chat to her on the road and she asked what I was doing.  When I told her she was surprised and told me it's such a long way.  She then invited me back to her home for a cup of tea and some fruit.  She was so sweet and I accepted the invitation.  She had two younger brothers and I would love to have left a gift for them.  But they were just happy with my company and we had a nice little time before I had to go.

Coral Coast of Viti Levu

From Korotogo I had another big day that eventually finished back in Lautoka.  Natadola Beach on the south-west corner of Viti Levu is the finest on the island.  To get there from the east you can either follow the road or take the sugar cane scenic tourist railway.  I took the third option of hiking 3 hours along the railway line.  It's a pleasant walk that passes through sugar cane fields, bush, small villages and some lovely shoreline.  The beach itself is nice and I had a swim as soon as I arrived. 

Sugar cane tourist train to Natadola Beach
It is fairly isolated however and I had to get a taxi out to Queens Road.  I then unwittingly picked up what must be the slowest and most indirect bus in the whole of Fiji.  It departed the main road and rumbled its way along unsealed roads, through villages picking up school children on the way.  My original plan for the day was to get to a small place called Abaca (pronounced Arm-bartha) to do some hiking in the highland areas.  I abandoned the plan because with no public transport going there, it was logistically too difficult and expensive to get to.
So I settled on relaxing in Lautoka for a day before starting my island hopping.  This is the Fiji we all imagine and see in the travel brochures.  Small islands in the Pacific with soft sandy beaches and turquoise colour water that is clear and warm to swim in.  There are coconut palm trees and because the islands are volcanic, many of them offer some excellent hiking.  The weather in the islands generally ranges somewhere between beautiful and perfect.  Even though I was going on a well trodden tourist path I was excited about the whole thing.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Nadi and Suva

Bula! Almost from the moment my flight touched down in Nadi airport, I realised that this greeting of Fiji is usually offered with a wide smile and warm handshake. It’s something that I’d enjoy time and again with the locals over the next 16 days.

As most international visitors do, I arrived in Nadi (pronounced Nan-di) on the main island of Viti Levu. Unfortunately for many tourists Nadi is little more than a transportation hub that they pass through twice whether they like it or not. It isn't an idyllic snapshot of Fiji and apart from the colourful Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami (say that ten times quickly) Temple, it's only really a place for souvenir shopping.

Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami Temple

I had the choice of staying in Nadi or going 30 km north to Lautoka which I decided was a better option. Lautoka is a bigger city but with a more relaxed feel to it.  According to legend, it derives its name from a battle cry that means 'spear-hit' but the people are friendly and the shopkeepers aren't constantly trying to get you in to 'just take a look'.
I stayed just a night there before taking the northern Kings Rd around the island to Suva.  Viti Levu has a dividing range of mountains and two distinct weather patterns.  In the drier western side there were a lot of sugar cane plantations and grassland areas but as we progressed east and over the mountains the scenery became dominated by lush rainforest.  There were some nice ocean views along the way, especially near Viti Levu Bay on the northern part of the island.

Fijian family on Viti Levu

When I arrived in Nadi it was pouring with rain but they assured me at the airport information desk it wouldn't last long.  Ten minutes later as I waited for my bus a rainbow stretched across the sky and sun broke through.  I was happy that it was a mostly dry day going to Suva because the middle part of the Kings Road is very much a work in progress.  I wondered as the bus rumbled up unsealed clay roads what it would like in heavy rain.  My guess is that it would become an impassable slope of mud.
The road took me through some pretty little villages and past a few schools.  The houses were all very modest and some areas didn't even appear to have electricity.  But I sensed that the local people took pride in the place they called home.  Lawns were neatly cut with plants and flowers in the garden.  Fijians are content and happy people even if they don't have a lot.  I realised as I continued my travels that they are happy to share whatever they do have and this was always very endearing.  

Government Buildings, Suva

The rain continued my first day in Suva and I was restricted to things like the museum and an internet cafe.  On my second day I met some children next door to where I was staying.  They had a rugby ball and were very happy when I started passing and kicking it around with them.  Before long we were all down at a local park playing a game of touch.  The field was muddy from the rain and in a small moment of madness I agreed to keep playing when they changed to full tackle rugby.  They loved it and every time I received the ball wanted to 'tackle the big guy!'
I was in a rather poor state when it was finished but it was a lot of fun seeing them running, laughing, scoring the occasional try and following it with high fives.  I loved the children there because I could relax with them.  They are always happy and it's not in their nature to ask for anything other than my name and where I'm from.  In fact, apart from a few exceptions in the cities it was the same whoever I talked to.  I never had to be too concerned about people subtly trying to sell me something.  They are just genuinely warm and friendly which made every day so enjoyable.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Bibbulmun Track

Another trip that I’ve done while living in Brisbane is back to the southwest of Australia to hike the Bibbulmun Track. This is one of the world's great long-distance walking trails, stretching nearly 1000km from the Kalamunda National Park near Perth down to Albany on the southern coast of WA. It is the equivalent of walking from Paris to Rome and completion of this epic hike earns induction into the prestigious "End to End" club. 

Day one at the Northern Terminus

As I started from Perth on a hot February day, I wondered what was ahead of me. It would take me 48 days but the answer was an amazing adventure that would take me through the heart of some of the most beautiful forests and across some of the finest beaches that Australia has to offer. It would test me both physically and mentally but give incredible rewards.

Typical campsite on the track

The Bibbulmun Track can be walked in either direction but it is like a well cut jewel that shines whichever way it is approached. The scenery through the northern section was characterised by forests of jarrah and marri trees, granite outcrops and various native bushes. Comfortable nights were spent at campsites with a wooden shelter, drinking water, fireplace and the all important bush toilet. 

Land of Giants - a huge karri tree

The huge karri trees of southwest Australia are a highlight of the track. I was in awe of their size and majesty. After 730km of hiking through forests, bush, mountains and valleys I finally arrived at the coast. The crashing waves of the Southern Ocean added a new dimension to my adventure although the superb coastal views were sometimes hard earned as I slogged through the sand dunes! 

Views of the Southern Ocean near Albany

I will never forget arriving at Albany. I had made it! Along the way I had enjoyed spectacular scenery and seen a variety of wildlife. For seven weeks I was blessed with a serenity that is virtually impossible in our busy lives. The beautiful environment let me to contemplate, reflect and dream. Just like Australia itself, the Bibbulmun Track was a unique and very special experience. 

Friday, 7 October 2016

Weekend in Bundaberg

On a weekend away from Brisbane, I went on a road trip with a friend to the city of Bundaberg. This old-fashioned country town is firmly on the east coast budget travel trail because of the abundant fruit-picking and farm work. On my travels I met many backpackers who were doing three months of harvest work to claim a second year on their working holiday visa. ‘Bundy’, as it is usually referred to, is a popular destination for this reason alone but its biggest claim to fame is the iconic Bundaberg rum that is made at the distillery here. 

War memorial and town clock

It was a leisurely journey so we only arrived late in the day. Enough time to visit the Botanic Gardens and take a stroll down the wide, palm-lined main street. What we really wanted to do though was get to the beach of Mon Repos, about 15km north of the city. There was no rush though because we were going to see the female loggerhead turtles that come ashore and lay their eggs in the dead of night. What we didn’t realise though is that advanced bookings are generally required. 

Bundaberg rum distillery

I thought we were going to miss out but the visitor centre staff were very obliging and included us in a group led by volunteers. We were grateful for being able to witness one of nature’s unique events so up close and personal. From the moment a turtle was spotted emerging from the ocean, we followed it at a respectful distance as she lumbered up the sand. At her chosen nesting site, we watched as she scooped a shallow hole in the sand with her flippers and laid nearly 100 eggs. Seemingly oblivious to the attention, she then covered them over before returning to the ocean.

Turtle at Mon Repos

We were told that about eight weeks later the turtle hatchlings will come out from the eggs and dig their way to the surface. Under the same cover of darkness that they were placed there, they then emerge en masse and scurry down the sand to the water as quickly their little flippers will carry them. In the ocean it’s a brave life or death struggle for survival and the few females that make it to maturity will eventually return to exactly the same beach to continue the cycle.

Friday, 30 September 2016

North Queensland

While I have been living in Brisbane, I took a job for several months in the town of Mackay on the Whitsunday Coast on central Queensland. It was a great opportunity because I was provided with flights home every two weeks, accommodation, food allowance and a rental car. The car enabled me to not only get around the city but also explore the surrounding beaches and hinterland. I also took a weekend to go up to Airlie Beach and get out on a boat into the Whitsunday Islands. 

The emerald beauty of Pioneer Valley

Mackay is essentially a town that caters for the agriculture and mining industries but it has some attractive art deco architecture and a pleasant setting beside the Pioneer River. The motel I stayed at was a relatively short walk from the pretty botanical gardens which has the river running through it. In the opposite direction near the city centre is the artificial Bluewater Lagoon which has lovely grassed picnic areas, fountains and a café. The town is a good base to do various day excursions from.

The best of these trips is a drive west through the beautiful Pioneer Valley. I did this trip a few times and made sure that I took time to explore the secluded and very picturesque Finch Hatton Gorge. There are a couple of relaxed rainforest walks here to waterfalls and refreshing swimming holes. The highlight of the valley though is the Eungella National Park. It contains the oldest and longest stretch of subtropical rainforest in Australia and is serenely beautiful.

Broken River- home of the platypus

Aside from the rainforest and amazing views back down the valley, the big attraction of the national park is the opportunity to spot the reclusive but very cute platypus. Broken River is one of the few places that you’ll ever see one in their natural habitat but it takes some patience and luck. After hiking a trail up the river, I returned to the viewing platform near the car park and joined a group of others who were silently waiting. Voices were in whispers but you could feel the anticipation. As dusk approached we were rewarded with the appearance of several platypuses.

I spent several happy weekends at the beaches just north of Mackay and also made it to the Cape Hillsborough National Park. South of the city I took a day to visit the town of Sarina which has a beach and sugar cane museum. Not far from Sarina is the Hay Point coal terminal. From the viewpoint, I could see huge stockpiles of coal ready to be loaded onto huge ships that were waiting patiently off shore.

On the beach at Cape Hillsborough

Together with my friend Jen, we drove up to Airlie Beach as soon as I finished work one Friday afternoon. This high-energy little town has a steady stream of backpackers and other tourists who use it as a stepping stone to the Whitsunday Islands. The following morning we made our way along the pleasant boardwalk to Abel Point Marina to catch the island ferry. Our chosen destination for the day would be Long Island because it has the best of everything. Aside from the beaches, there are also about 13km of walking tracks that lead to some fine lookouts.

Sheltered cove at Airlie Beach

Day trippers to the island can use the resort facilities so there was plenty for Jen to do while I went hiking. When I returned, we had a swim in the pool before getting the ferry back to the mainland. As the ferry arrived back into Airlie Bay I thought how I’d love to return to one day. The aqua blue ocean, secluded bays and white sand beaches make it the perfect playground and there are 74 islands that make up the stunning archipelago. Somehow, getting to just one of them doesn’t seem enough!