|Bula Bula !
This newsletter takes us from the dry, sunshine drenched, reef encircled Yasawa islands on the western edge of the Fiji Islands to the heart of the second biggest island of Fiji, Vanua Levu, a volcano-formed steep island covered in rainforest and slower in pace, mixter in race, and visited often by rain.
Why would we leave such a spectacular cruising ground, where few boats had yet discovered this season, and venture into the soggy crowds of Vanua Levu? What attracted us was what has attracted boats for a long time, for generations, since time immemorial. The lore of the Pacific included Savusavu. Situated in a U shaped indentation formed by an island on the north coast of a large fiord like bay on the south side of Vanua Levu, Savusavu is the main port of entry for yachts moving westward with the Tradewinds across the Pacific, and the Copra Shed Marina is a remnant from the days when copra was the main export. For a hundred years, sailing downwind from Borneo, the Marshall Islands, and French Polynesia, yachties expect a warm welcome and a place they can call home for awhile, taking on water, food, fuel, and good times, and preparing for a continued westerly passage to New Caledonia or Vanuatu or hopping backwards and southwards to the remote Lau group of islands. Pacific Islanders have been sailing here for thousands of years.
The reputation of Savusavu has lured us since the beginning of our journey. Arriving there, we thought, was arriving to a remote place of laid back, gentler times, where goods are traded in the market and exotic and rarefied artefacts can be found. Out of the way even for Fiji, and a launch pad to moving eastward to the Fiji’s fabled ‘jewel in the crown’, the remote Lau Island group, internet-less, market-less, service-less, you bring food, fuel and water with you and in fact for the islanders, too, as gifts.
There are several ways and several opinions of the best way to get from where we were to Savusavu, but all ways are logistically difficult, against the normal flow of weather, through reef strewn passages incorrectly marked on charts, with few protected anchorages along the way.
We took all this advice, sifted and weighed it, traced our own way across the map, and set off for three days of passage making. The first day was straightforward; the winds were kind, and we either sailed or motored with one engine until the Tradewinds found their way around the island and hit us on our nose at 20-25 knots at the end of the day. The first night we anchored in a muddy mangrove in the middle of nowhere, while katabatibc winds buffeted us from 3pm in the afternoon to midnight. I wrote a poem about it, which I rather like, simple as it is. You can find it here on our passage map.
The second day of passage making was a continuous motor against those same strong winds along what is affectionately called ‘the gutter’ – a sometimes wide and sometimes very narrow passage through the reefs encircling the mainland. Again, we had 20 – 25 knot winds against us for the journey and that, plus our boat speed, made for a very windy passage to the very northern tip of the main island which, we found out, was exactly where the Tradewinds accelerate.
Although theorectically we had a choice of a couple of anchorages when we arrived, none but one provided any protection from the angle of the winds on that day. We found a spot just inside the gust line, and outside the reef, on the small island called Nananu-i-Ra. We set our anchor in 18 m of water on a sand bottom, laying 70 m of chain down, and perused this windswept and spectacular bay.
After lunch we took our dinghy ashore, winding our way carefully through the coral heads of the reef, noting where frepes held the local boats, and pulled up onto the beach to explore. Nothing stirred but the wind. We found a path through the two-house wide island to the windward side. There the sand was powder sugar soft, blown and packed hard by the wind, and, with the sun beginning to descend in the west, mottled with the shade from coconut trees. We walked for a couple of hours on this sand highway, listening to the palms rasping their palm language to each other as they tossed their heads in the wind.
Modest resorts disappeared in the trees, boarded up against the wind, cyclones and covid; the beach culminated in a fish trap built of black volcanic stones.
As we backtracked to the leeward side of the island where our boat was moored, we heard the familiar sound of whippersnippers. Fijians have a love affair with whippersnappers; there are even special displays in hardware stores just for whippersnapper repairs. Whippersnipping means life and activity in Fiji.
Two locals waved and shouted a warm Bula! Bula! Friendly and keen for a chat, happy for a break from their work, and curious as to our origins, we stopped and exchanged pleasantries. Our new friends were surprised we didn’t kitesurf, because the winds blew kitesurfers here from around the world, with its fine bay and big consistent winds. Known as a kite surfing heaven, they said it frequently reached 50 plus knots, and wind socks on the ridge of the peninsula confirmed they knew exactly how many knots blew at any one time. But now, they said, only one resort was operating, and only one couple staying there. Because of covid times were tough.
We walked awhile with them, chatting and winding our way through the island’s boarded up resorts and houses, whippersnipped to perfection. The path got a little rough so I excused myself to walk on the softer sand of the beach.
Our friends stopped and looked at my feet.
‘Ah you don’t have shoes’, they nodded in commiseration, looking down at their own shoes.
I looked at their shoes, too, and noticed that although his younger friend had matching shoes, the elder did not. On his left foot was a thong and his right foot a rubber clog.
‘Ah, you see, you need to get some shoes like me’, he suggested. ‘No need to waste money on buying them, when they just wash up on the beach!’
And then he laughed heartily.
‘You see they’re Fiji shoes!’
Brilliant! Yet another example of Fijian ingenuity, humour and just pure fun.
|After wandering through this remote paradise, we hoped the winds would abate for our long passage the following day. Yachties who have been sailing for years in the Pacific concur that Fijian waters are the some of the most dangerous in the world. They are reef strewn and charts can be completely inaccurate. Many boats have come to grief getting anchors tangled in the coral reefs, or misjudging where they are and the reefs damaging their hulls and rudders. Tomorrow, we had an 80 mile passage through these reefs and had to negotiate a tricky exit at slack tide.
It’s hard to believe Bligh floated through here without becoming stranded on one of them. Having been mutineered in 1789, he sailed through here without stopping, too frightened to go ashore; he did not want to be eaten. Fiji islanders, who now go out of their way to be friendly and helpful, until even as late as the 19th century practiced ritualised cannibalism and Fiji was known as the Cannibal Isles. Some practices were even more imaginatively sadistic, including getting vanquished soldiers to hold up piers of their chiefs’ houses while they filled the sand in around them and buried them alive. Cannibalism was practiced widely until missionaries arrived. (And by the way the last recorded instance of cannibalism was of an overzealous missionary, Reverend Baker, and an official sorry was held for his descendants in 2003.) The missionaries, with the help of the already converted Tongans, convinced the locals to cease their practice. The local handicraft market, however, abounds with mass produced (but still very interesting) ‘cannibal forks’ and ‘belly slicers’, with lovely carvings in their handles and intricate copra bindings.
For this passage, there had been a number of yachts in the Yasawa Islands trying to get to Savusavu and this weather window would be one of the few to take for awhile. Why were we the only boat here, in this windy paradise? Was this a good or bad sign?Here is a section of the navigational chart we had to negotiate, from southwest to northeast on the chart.
It turned out we had very fortunate weather, in fact better than predicted. We negotiated the pass and exited the reef at 2pm in the afternoon, after which it was a bumpy but straightforward sail into Savusavu. By the time we puttered into the U-shaped bay where the Copra Shed Marina was situated, the champagne was chilled, and hard fought rewards of this captivating place – images of wooden wharves, sea tales, buildings worn to pastel by the sun, gracefully aged with soft sea air – filled our heads. We were giddy with anticipation.
‘I’m going out to paint every single day’, I called down to Paul as he was putting the glasses on ice.
‘I’m going out to eat every day!’ Paul said. ‘I can just imagine the curries, the seafood, the lovely mix of cuisines!’
To be very sure, we called the marina twice during the day to confirm our berth and ETA, even though they had written an email to confirm our reservation three days ago.
‘Just call us on VHF channel 16 when you arrive and we will point you to your berth’, they said.
We motored closer to the marina and town centre. We were surprised to be greeted with the sound of Jackhammers ringing out across the water, and dust filled the air. A highway ran right past the marina, and workers huddled together with shovels and high vis vests, alternating between resting and resurfacing the road. It was late in the day, the sun was beating horizontally into the marina, it was sweltering hot, and the smell of tar wafted through the air. The sound of jackhammers was only dampened by the concrete row of buildings on high street jumbled together in between wooden shacks. Painted in brilliant colours, it must be admitted, but definitely having seen better days. Not quite the welcome we expected.
We passed yachts on moorings from Denmark, Switzerland, Ireland, New Zealand, France, USA – flags flew like it was the United Nations – until we came upon the marina, which we called, as instructed, on VHF channel 16. No one answered. We called again, not once, not twice, but three times, and still no answer.
|We could see by now the dock was overwhelmed by giant Oysters. Not the kind you eat, but a type of luxury crafted single hulled boat built in the UK, lusted after by many a yachtsman, all 60 plus feet long, which is a size that is too big for a shorthanded crew like us, and typically skippered by professional skippers. (Australians fill these spots around the world.) These Oysters were on a Rally which rounds the world in a year and a half, never spending too much time anywhere and letting the skippers handle the boat on long passages.
The higgledy piggeldy marina was overwhelmed by these giant, elegant creatures, each taking more space on either side of them than more modest yachts, and we could not see where we were going to fit amongst the gleaming white and navy hulls.
We tried another tack and called the marina office on a regular phone (due to the lack of response on VHF). A brief ‘hello, who are you’ was followed by some muffled chatter offline, when a voice came back online, and said, ‘Just a minute please’, and hung up. We motored back and forth, waiting.
A woman emerged from the building, blinked her eyes in the sun as if she hadn’t left her airconditioned office in some time, and put her hands on her hips. She squinted her eyes, scrutinising the overfull dock, pursed her lips and shook her head. Things didn’t look so good.
A longboat came alongside with CSM stamped on the front end – Copra Shed Marina we deduced – being driven by some one with a look of chagrin.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘As you can see, there are no spaces for you.’
I was tired, overwhelmed by the noise and heat and smell, and not in love with Savusavu at that moment.
‘But we have the email we received two days ago confirming our reservation’, I insisted, as politely but CLEARLY as I could. ‘And we phoned twice today to give our ETA. And each time there was clearly no problem.’
He smiled and shrugged his shoulders, looked a little sheepish, and raised his eyebrows in apology, a well-rehearsed gesture, I later was to discover.
‘It seems the office didn’t communicate with us working on the dock.’
The woman on the dock then tried to wave us into a two metre space left between a 67 foot Oyster and a 65 foot Oyster. The crews of the two boats rushed up on deck, looked worriedly at us and each other, and began placing huge fenders on their bows and topsides.
It was clear we would never fit.
‘Are there any moorings available?’ I asked hopefully.
‘No, we are completely full up’, he said.
The sun was starting to set and rain looked imminent.
‘I guess we will have to anchor.’
‘I’m sorry you cannot anchor among the moorings, either.’ We looked around and noticed the moorings took up the whole anchorage.
As a last resort, they wanted us to try to squeeze between a long white 65 foot Oyster on one side and a splintered protruding dock on the other, with about half a foot of leeway on either side.
I am proud of Paul for many things, and one of them, on that day, was his boat manoeuvring skills. Moving a boat in a small marina with winds buffeting you amongst other boats is not an easy task. But not only did Paul keep his cool, and suggested the crews of the Oysters do the same, but he backed Amaranth into the berth perfectly, giving instructions to me in a measured voice; everything I did was in synch with him. It is not always like this. Mostly it is quite frenetic under circumstances like that, but today, with professional crews, yachts and marina staff alike watching us in fascination, we backed into our spot perfectly, leaving exactly half a foot free on either side, securing lines without throwing them in anyone’s face, and stepped off of Amaranth as if we do this every single day.
Everyone breathed a sigh of relief, especially us. And now all we wanted was to clean the salt off the boat, and ourselves, and rest.
‘Electricity is extra’, the manager said, ‘and so is water.’ It was not an inexpensive marina, and this would have been a bit cheeky if there were any electricity or water. We turned the tap on at our berth but nothing came out. Nothing came out of all the taps along the marina. We noticed a hose at the end of the dock lying limply across the walkway, connected somewhat haphazardly to another hose which ran down the dock up the gangplank and attached to the last remaining tap. The crew from the Oyster beside us informed us that although water did come out, the two hoses had burst apart no one at the marina nor the hardware store had any connectors.
As for electricity, the only electricity available was from a long extension cord hung out of a window of what we were to later discover was the laundry, laying across the wet dock and plugged into the only boat lucky enough to be within its reach.
We eventually got the two water hoses to work together, rinsed the salt off our boat and ourselves, and got organised to go into the office.
The woman on the dock was back in her air conditioned office and greeted us with a perfectly satisfied smile. ‘I’m sorry about all that in the beginning. But it all worked out in the end. And it’s good you are in now.’
We got keys to the marina, secured a map of the surrounds, and got told how to get beyond the soot and noise of the road running through town. I reminisced over the simple beauty of the Yasawas. Gone the distant roar of Yamaha Enduro engines in the morning that woke even the birds. Gone the locals who sell papaya and taro root from the their gardens off the back of their long boats. We were just one more yacht in a bustling busy town.
‘Can we at least dingy across to the palm fringed island on the other side of the marina and go for a walk?’
‘No, I’m sorry’, the office manager said. ‘That island is private. That is where the new marina is being built.’
Heaven help Copra Shed Marina and heaven help us all.
How will anyone be able to write a funny newsletter about a well run marina that has running water AND electricity, not to mention a space for you when you reserve it?!
And so here we found ourselves, after our three day passage. If you ignored the grime and noise and heat and rain and smell, Savusavu did have some saving graces. The food was exceptional. The markets were full of fresh garden produce and a masala of restaurants lined the streets, which were unusually tasty, so tasty, in fact, we ate out every night but one.
|Grace and charm may have eluded Savusavu, but it was full of colour, and I was inspired to do a few pastels.
Eventually I found the famous Sharon of Navaria Heights Lodge and went on a steep jungle hike with her in the hills above town, where she taught me all about the local plants. We munched on gotukova which tasted like parsley and is a natural serotonin; she showed me how to tie myself up with a vine whose leaves exude a coagulant and antiseptic should I be slashed in some remote part of the jungle. The heavens opened, and I came back a drowned rat, a happy exhausted bedraggled drowned rat, shivering from the downpour and winds, for once cold in Fiji, happy strange Fiji drugs pouring through my veins.
After a week of rain, and waiting for our autohelm to arrive, we left the marina and motored three miles down the coast to anchor off Jean Michel Cousteau’s resort at the end of the peninsula to get a good start on yet another windward passage to the Garden Island of Taveuni.
Twice we tried to sail away and twice we had to turn around and come back due to the atrocious weather. So we stayed put in this little anchorage at the end of the peninsula. And there it was we discovered paradise.
We found a coral bommie called Split Rock rising steeply from deep cavernous blue green water, absorbing the sunshine and warming the water above it, then dropping off to rise steeply once again, forming a split in the middle and a swim through below. Soft corals fanned out from the sides and spiky corals rose up in pointed purple branches at the top. Finger long electric cobalt blue fish flashed in unison as we swam over them, and purple pink triangle shaped fish languidly changed direction. Fish coloured a dull yellow swam amongst their yellow green coral surroundings on the top of the rock while others camouflaged into the shadows with olive and dark purple marks. Egg yolk yellow fish fanned their fins and tails, and turquoise and golden striped coral trout nibbled on coral and spit it out. My favourite fish was covered in a velvet olive brown which reflected copper facets when it twisted and turned in the refracted sun, and my least favourite the school of black and white striped fish which kept biting me, expecting to be fed.
We chatted with a local diver who came alongside in his longboat and he said that it is indeed paradise here, but it is hidden. Savu means waterfall, and to have a waterfall you need a lot of water. The fact that one day is rain, then the next half day sun, one day rain, then half day sun means the paradise is often hidden. You have to look to find it, he said, raising his eyebrows for emphasis.
Our hidden paradise continued to reveal itself when we found Kokomana, an organic, sustainable, permaculture cacao farm with tiger cats that ate Polynesian rats, and a master chocolate maker. Joe, the farm manager and agriculturist, passionately guided us through the cacao farm, where the cacao plants were interspersed with vanilla, taro, bananas, ginger, chili, and cardamon, all tumbling over one another. We tasted chocolate made only from cacao beans and Fijian sugar tempered by Sam, including one with a masala of spices. It was sensational. Maybe just maybe we will have some left at Christmas, but I am not sure.