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Viti Levu

Fiji photos

My insatiable passion for travelling actually started in the South Pacific. My first quasi-international trip was in 1998 with Peter, Mum and adolescent Sean to Norfolk Island, where my 7 year old mind was utterly blown away by the magical underwater world of coral reefs. Further trips to eclectic destinations in the South Pacific (Tonga, 2005 and Samoa, 2008) with an eclectic tour group (Mother Teresa, Aunty Jo and Cousin Max) entrenched my desire to see the whole world, famed or otherwise. Yet despite gallivanting around the globe several times over since then, I neglected to return to the tropical islands of the South Pacific in adulthood. This needed to change. Like many office workers in Australia, I decide to exploit the quirk of ANZAC Day falling close to Easter and take a 16 day break at the expense of just 7 days leave. A perfect duration for a trip to the South Pacific. With a dozen island countries to choose from, I eventually settled on Fiji, the most accessible from Melbourne. And what a brilliant destination for a short break! However, as I write this on my final afternoon in Fiji, I could easily spend twice as long in the country hopping between the islands and exploring different reef systems. Perpetually hot weather (the forecasted fortnight of thunderstorms never eventuated), beautiful palm fringed beaches, warm waters with lovely coral reefs, exceptionally friendly locals and delicious Fijian and Indo-Fijian cuisines; what more could you want?!

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Fiji’s international airport is located in the small town of Nadi on the west coast of Viti Levu, strangely 4 hours from the capital, Suva. Nadi isn’t a particularly interesting town, but tourists are essentially required to spent their first and last night in Fiji there to access the airport. The strip of backpacker hostels is located at Wailoaloa Beach on Nadi Bay. The sand is firm and dark brown, the water murky and the palm trees few and far between, creating fairly unexceptional first impressions of Fiji. Wailoaloa Beach is irritatingly isolated from Nadi Town, a 20 minute bus ride away. Nadi Town was the only urban centre I briefly explored in Fiji; I would have liked a little more time (perhaps with a visit to Suva) to better appreciate Fijian society. The central market is definitely the highlight, full of Fijian women with their tightly cropped curly hair and colourful, floral garb selling myriad tropical produce. Bananas of innumerable varieties and kava roots were particularly prevalent. The people of the South Pacific concoct a ceremonial drink out of kava root, which they grind into a powder and mix with water. A kava ceremony will often precede a meal and involve participants sharing a half coconut shell to drink the kava from. It usually takes a few swigs to feel any sensation (a little relaxed – Fijian kava is apparently weaker than neighbouring countries; or at least that’s what they give to the tourists!). Nadi Town is also full of Indian vendors and a large Dravidian Hindu temple, owing to the large population of Indo-Fijians on the west coast.

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Fiji is very much a multi-cultural society, with nearly 60% of the population Fijian and 40% of Indian descent. Ethnic Fijians are believed to be descendants of both Polynesian and Melanesian migrants that settled on the islands in waves between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. Consequently, Fiji occupies the crossroads between the two cultural spheres of the South Pacific. Pre-colonial society in Fiji entirely revolved around village life, with political power controlled by the hereditary village chiefs. Village life and the influence of the chiefs remains integral to ethnic Fijians, even while the country increasingly urbanises (ethnic Fijians will usually return to their traditional villages for major celebrations). Early European arrivals in the 18th century brought Christianity, international commerce and a form of slavery called blackbirding (basically kidnapping locals from Fiji or nearby islands to work on sugar cane plantations) to the islands. Ethnic Fijians remain devoutly religious, with meals and meetings usually preceded by a prayer and weekly church services attracting capacity crowds. Fiji was absorbed into the British Empire in 1873, ostensibly to end the rampant blackbirding. But plantation owners demand for cheap labour resulted in the British instituting an indenture system where Indians migrated to the islands with the obligation of working for 5 years. The Indian labourers were then granted the option of returning to India or staying. Hundreds of thousands opted to stay, resulting in Fiji’s contemporary demographics. Indo-Fijians are unable to own property in Fiji as land ownership is the domain exclusively of the ethnic Fijian villages (collective group ownership). Consequently, the Indo-Fijian population have focused on commerce in the urban areas and now dominate the country’s economy. This reality has caused significant social tensions between Fijians and Indo-Fijians since independence was achieved in 1970. However, after decades of political upheaval and a series of military coups, Fijian society now enjoys relative stability under the questionably democratic leadership of Frank Bainimarama.

The Coral Coast in the south of Viti Levu is renowned for having the best beaches on the main island and accessibility to its jungly interior. The coast is roughly equidistant to Nadi and Suva on the scenic highway that circumnavigates the island. I caught a local bus from Nadi to my first destination, the Beachhouse, passing numerous villages and lush forested slopes en route. The Beachhouse seems to have a reputation as an obligatory stop for backpackers in Fiji, although in retrospect I think it’s a little unwarranted. The beach itself isn’t particularly spectacular, at least not in comparison to the beaches of Fiji’s smaller islands. The snorkelling is hardly riveting with mainly just seagrass to see, and the surf isn’t really safe to access without a board. Nevertheless, the tropical gardens and open-air communal areas are tranquil and pleasant to hang-out in; it’s the perfect setting for backpackers that have a primary objective of socialising (I prefer that to be a subsidiary benefit). Immediately after arriving at the Beachhouse, I met Canadians Rhea and Julianna, who introduced me to a rather excellent card game Rhea’s family invented (I think), replete with a travel-sized board. My highlight at the Beachhouse though was going for an early morning run through the neighbouring village, where many schoolchildren and locals waved gleefully and called out, “BULA!!!” (welcome / hello / cheers / many other uses in Fijian).

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I next travelled further east to Pacific Harbour, just shy of Fiji’s capital of Suva. Pacific Harbour is a town that sprawls along the highway; its not unpleasant, but it also lacks a soul. I stayed in a cavernous but very amiable dormitory in a beachside resort. In Fiji, many of the resorts consists of a dormitory targeted at backpackers. I thought this was rather sound business practice to cater for different travel markets and to increase expenditure at the restaurant and bar. While I mostly ate at the restaurant and enjoyed the innocent voices of “The Serenades” as entertainment, I did venture to a smaller burger restaurant nearby that reminded me of previous trips to the South Pacific. The small-scale enterprise, with only a few menu items, occupies an airy Californian bungalow, with verandahs overlooking spacious lawns and a tropical garden. The quirky owner, very enthusiastic about her burgers, is a grandmother and oozing with Fijian hospitality. The palm fringed, golden sand beach of Pacific Harbour was the forum for many of my forays into holiday exercise, with timed swims (cut short due to the murkiness of the water) runs (cut short due to the boringness of the endeavour), kayaking (cut short due to real or imagined lower back pain) and bodyweight exercises during a thunderstorm, Tarzan-like (cut short due to, well, not being Tarzan).

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Undoubtedly the highlight experience of my trip to Fiji was the Shark Encounter in Beqa Lagoon, one of the most famous sites in the world to dive with man-eating predators cage free. Admittedly, the experience is somewhat controversial because the sharks are fed, which ultimately affects their behaviour in the long-term as they become dependent on effort-free food. The diving company argues that the revenue from the Shark Encounter, which has operated for tourism since the 1990s, has effectively created a marine reserve in an area that would have otherwise been decimated by fisheries. In Fiji, the waters near a coast are owned by the closest village, and they determine how reefs are used and obtain any associated fees. Revenue from the tourist trade easily exceeds fishing permits, thus incentivising preservation. Sufficiently justified morally, I happily signed up for the two-tank tour to placate my burning desire for a rush of adrenaline.

About 15 minutes boat ride off-shore, we descended immediately to the seabed (19m) and knelt along a purpose built stone wall. With considerable time elapsing since my last dive, I failed to implement the appropriate techniques to equalise, eventually resulting in blood noses after both dives. Despite this unpleasantness, both dives were absolutely incredible. Eight different species of sharks regularly appear at the dive site and apparently all were present for the feeding frenzies. But with hundreds of sharks in the water, my attention was reserved for the big fish: lemon sharks (about 2-3m long with a flat head, exposed teeth and yellowish complexion to camouflage in shallow waters), bull sharks (third most dangerous shark species in the world) and the tiger shark (second most dangerous). Dozens of lemon and bull sharks circled the feeding area, with the bulkier bulls passing right in front of us (just an arm’s length away): it was similar to being in an aquarium. The entrance of the tiger shark named Joyce was truly breathtaking. Tiger sharks are solitary predators that roam from reef to reef, as their prey would simply disappear if they loitered in the same location too long. As such, a tiger shark doesn’t always appear, although Joyce is a reliable customer every 6 weeks. When the 3.5m shark glided into the area, the other sharks made way; sharks have a clear hierarchical system based on size. On our second dive, Joyce came over to check us out. She swam less than a metre above our heads, as the 20 of us were protected only by metal rods used by the 4 guides to push her away. Joyce definitely showed more than a passing curiosity for us, and since I wasn’t expecting this type of interaction, I was beginning to wonder if this was the dive it would all go wrong for Shark Encounter. Back at the surface though, I discovered this was merely a routine inspection; the guides were surprised she didn’t go for us on the first dive too!

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Fiji, somewhat surprisingly, can absolutely be treated as a foodie destination, so long as travellers avoid the temptation of plunging head first into the Western dishes at the resort buffets. Two cuisines dominate the culinary scene in Fiji: Fijian and Indo-Fijian. The ingredients that define the Fijian kitchen are, predictably, fish, coconut, root vegetables and spinach. Moca is classic Fijian soup that celebrates the local variety of spinach. A vivid dark green puree is flavoured coconut milk, lemon juice and spices to create a decadent starter. Fish (usually firm, white fillets) is served in many guises including grilled, deep fried in spiced batter and shallow fried in coconut crumbs. Accompanying the fish is usually coconut sauce, a pile of thickly cut chips of varying roots, such as potatoes (boring), taros or cassavas, and occasionally grilled eggplant (the skinny, light purple eggplants are very popular). The national dish is undoubtedly kokoda, which consists of cubes of cooked or raw fish marinated in lemon juice, coconut milk, sliced onions and spices (similar to ceviche). The best dish I ate in Fiji was also my last, a gargantuan plate of rourou balls (balls of taro leaves, onion and spices) in a buttery coconut cream sauce with grilled fish, cassava chips and miti, a thin local coconut sauce. With migrants to Fiji coming from throughout the Subcontinent, Indo-Fijian is inspired by the cooking traditions from numerous Indian states, though tropical ingredients are often employed. Dahl soups, roti wraps (fleshy protein with salad) and thali sets (fish or meat curry with dhal, vegetable curry, rice, roti, pickles and pappadums) are probably the most common dishes. I thought the thali meals I ate at Indo-Fijian restaurants would have been satisfying even in India, mostly because they were very generous with the fish portions. Tropical fruits are of course abundantly available in Fiji. When I visited, bananas, pineapples, papayas and watermelons were in season.

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I spent the first 6 nights of my trip to Fiji on Viti Levu. Although I would have liked to have visited Suva, the north coast and hiked in the hinterland (the weather wasn’t conducive), I also desperately wanted to experience the proper island paradise we all envisage when dreaming of the South Pacific. So I next travelled off the west coast of Viti Levu to the alluring Yasawa Islands.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Fiji photos

Posted by Liamps 22:15 Archived in Fiji

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