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.