Danger… Fiji-style

Some things in life define ‘counter-intuitive.’ Aqua-Trek’s Beqa Lagoon shark dive is one of those things. The brochure features a massive bull shark swimming atop a group of scuba divers. “Come and dive with seven different types of sharks… including tiger shark!” Sharks. They’ve been a constant fear, and I haven’t even seen Jaws. I remember being terrified of swimming in a freshwater cave in Bermuda, for fear of sharks. I remember rushing out of the water at Manly at the first siren of shark warning. And so I can’t believe the idea of diving with sharks appeals to me. But it does. I’ve developed a dangerous streak since being away.

The ‘danger’ begins even before I hit the water. To get to Pacific Harbour, where the shark dive takes place, I have to hitch a ride from the top of the Mango Bay driveway. Hitchhiking is one of those backpacking necessities I swore I would never do. Enough urban legends are firmly ingrained in my memory to frighten me off. But there I am, standing at the top of the road with my massive green backpack at my feet. The lady who dropped me at the top of the driveway gave me one word of advice: “Don’t mind the men walking past you with machetes.” Comforting. And the moment she pulls away, a group of young Fijian men corner the bend with huge long blades swinging in their hands. They smile and yell “Bula!” I tentatively wave back, trying to remember that they were on their way to work in the sugar cane plantations, not out murdering vulnerable backpackers. After a short interval (so easy!) I get picked up by an older Kiwi couple on vacation. We chat about the shark dive, and they drop me outside Pearl Resort, where Aqua-Trek is based. Hitchhiking box… check! I’m a real traveller now.

Eight of us are there for the dive, with four dive masters. The boat ride is short, maybe 15mins tops, and there is a very short briefing. So far, so good. Simple rules: don’t imitate the feeders, if a tiger shark comes, remain as a group. Nothing too hard to remember.

The first dive drops us down to 30m, the deepest I’ve been. We all grab hold of a rope strung along the ocean floor. Immediately there are sharks all around us. The predominant species is the tawny nurse shark, big 2 or 3 metre long monsters with small round mouths like the back of a hairdryer, more to crush than to rip and pull. They suck up the fish guts fed to them by the master feeder and press their flat noses against the big green rubbish bin carrying the carnage. They swarm all around each other, nine or ten of them crowding around. Silvertip sharks remain a little more aloof in the distance. And every so often, the shadow of a ‘big one,’ a bull shark, looms in the deep beyond.

It’s hard to look beyond when there is so much going on right in front. Apart from the nurse sharks, teems of huge groupers and scores of other fish circle and swirl in our faces. The water is thicker with fish than I’ve ever seen it. Suddenly, one of the dive masters calls me over. I swim over the rope tentatively, toward the group of nurse sharks. I am the first one. He gestures for me to touch one. I don’t even hesitate. I reach out and stroke it on top of the head. It feels like sandpaper and is looking at me like a puppy dog waiting for food. I smile and wave for the underwater camera. My shark experience caught on film! Another nurse shark comes at me from the side, almost bumping my hip. I stroke that one was well. Eventually I swim back, chuffed that I’ve swam and now touched the ocean’s most fearsome creatures (hardly!)

It’s been such an amazing experience that when it’s over and we swim over a massive ship wreck –something else I have never seen underwater – I hardly notice. There are reef sharks milling about the wreck. It looks like something out of an underwater horror movie, but I keep grinning.

The next dive, at 18m, is even more amazing, but how much more can I write about sharks? We don’t get pulled out of the line to touch them this time… but that’s because now there are three bull sharks around and they are swimming past us with terrifying proximity. They just look more menacing, with teeth sticking crudely out of their mouths like tiny spears. Someone needs to see a dentist! There are lemon sharks too, followed by gaggles of little yellow fish seeking protection. All kinds of reef sharks (silver tip, black tip, white tip). And nurse sharks too, of course. When we break the surface this time, everyone chatters about the sharks we’ve seen. No, there wasn’t a tiger shark this time… but it’s only an excuse to come back, I suppose!

It is the perfect way to end my week alone in Fiji. I’m now joined by Sarah and Isabel. We head out to Bounty Island. The beach is nice, but all in all it is a disappointment by way of islands. For the price, the facilities are bad, food is close to inedible and the customer service is awful. I say this as a warning; there are much better islands than this one. So we hightail it out of there and make our way back to Walu Beach, where I am somewhat of a local celeb – everyone recognizes me and asks after Lofty. We get upgraded and the hotel staff turn our somewhat sour Fiji experience upside down. The sun is shining, reflecting off the calm waters. Lying on a hammock, I smile a secret smile looking out at the ocean… only I know what’s lurking beneath those shimmering depths and I can safely say: I’m no longer afraid.


Raining and Pouring in Fiji

I wish there was more to report about my time in Mango Bay. I think bored stiff is the general consensus. It’s not the resort itself – I’m sure there’s nothing more frustrating for a hotel owner than to be blamed for bad weather. But to be fair, some board games might help, maybe a comfortable seating area… anything except movies. I have seen seven since arriving, ranging from good to weird to just plain awful.

There’s a good group of us here, and we have tried to make things more interesting. Last night there was the best Fiji dance display I have seen (but that’s not saying much). Every night they try to do something fun like a table tennis competition or killer pool. There can’t be bonfires on the beach because it’s too wet. The Feejee experience arrived last night, which about doubled the occupancy.

Just looked at the activities board. Again it is raining. The ordinary night time program has been replaced. Instead? Movie night. I think I might go to bed early!


Bula Fiji!

Fiji. Just the word conjures up images of heaven. It’s a place that always seemed so exotic, a mystery on the other side of the planet. Somewhere I thought I’d never go, except maybe on a honeymoon. But I’m here, and for three weeks. Plenty of time to explore and get to know the real country behind the perfect postcard.

The heat and humidity on arrival is a total shock after NZ’s end of summer weather. We are taken to Skylodge and explore the surrounding town. It reminds me in a lot of ways of the Caribbean, and also of Africa. Skylodge is nicely appointed but the $10 meal is ridiculously small. Alas, the first realization that budget tracvel might not be possible in Fiji.

We spend hours with the poor girl at the travel desk, trying to sort out our next move. The basics of what we want are simple: double accom, beach, cheap. The idea was maybe up the Yasawas – typical backpacker itinerary. But instead we settle on Mana Island and Malolo Island in the Mamanucas. They seem to fulfill most of our criteria.

Don’t Forget Mana Lagoon

We are warned about basic. The Mana Flyer unloads us on the beach and after a warm welcome singalong, we are shown to our room. Much bigger than I anticipate and not at all as bad. Definitely liveable after where I’ve slept in Africa. Lunch is served: an interesting mixture of daal, tuna sandwiches and baked bean pizza (exactly what it sounds like). Then we invade the Japanese super resort next door and sit on their loungers on the beach. Hey, when you’re a backpacker you have to compromise a little. Dinner is something or other curry served in the dark so I’m not quite sure.

The next day we take a walk over to Sunset Beach. Now this is a bit more like it… white sand beach and absolutely crystal clear waters. We are boiling after the half hour walk in the hot sun and there’s no respite like a dip in the ocean. We bake and get back in time for lunch. You guessed it, baked bean pizza.

After dark, we are treated to a grassroots South Pacific dance display, complete with some pretty impressive fire twirling.

One unwelcome Fijian reality are the mosquitos. I am thankfully spared most of the time. Others aren’t so lucky.

Unfortunately, I have to report that I met some people who did not enjoy Mana Lagoon so much. It turns out they don’t have a licence to run… and that they stole $400 out of the safe they use for guests. It is a police matter, rather than speculation. Just shows how careful you have to be.

I’ll give you Fish and Chips if you Shake your Hips
(typical Fijian song refrain)

The next morning, the Mana Flyer takes us to The Resort Walu Beach on Malolo. Walu Beach is a steal – beachfront bure with our own livingroom, bathroom and fridge. The view is stunning. We are right next to the ocean and only palm trees block the line of sight. That and our personal hammocks, of course. All this for the price of a regular double in the backpacker accom.

Food is included too and its a darn sight better than at Mana.

I think it’s best for me to write about our 5 nights in Walu as a whole. They are spent totally on Fiji time (shockingly similar to Africa time). Table tennis and swimming in the morning. Reading, lounging by the pool, kayaking to shipwrecks and private deserted islands or waterskiing (I suck!) fills the afternoon. At night, after live music, there’s scrabble and kava ceremonies and crab racing (my crab won). The resort is never crowded – although once or twice we lose out on loungers – so we have to move to hammocks, the hardship! The staff are lovely. All in all, the perfect holiday from a holiday.

Walu Beach also sees the last night I travel with Lofty – the amazing person whose brief appearances in my blogs aren’t nearly proportional to the 46 days we spent together. He’s off on the next stage of his travels: LA. The States might not hold a candle to NZ but I’m sure he’ll have a rockin’ trip.

After a couple of nights in Nadi, I’ve now moved to Mango Bay Resort on mainland Viti Levu. It’s fairly quiet here and it has rained all day. But after a few days here, I’ll be joined once again by the lovely Sarah and Isabel. It’s all moving rapidly toward the end now… just 2 months and a bit to go.


New Zealand: the Last Two Weeks

The past few weeks have passed by in a flurry. This is an exceedingly belated entry written by the poolside in Fiji. These are more notes to myself I suppose, notes so I don’t forget. I spent some of today reading the handwritten drafts that eventually become my blogs. It reminds me to get my ass back in gear and finish NZ – the blogs are always better when they’re fresh!

Lord of the Rings: Part Two

Of course my Middle-Earth adventure couldn’t end in the South Island.

It began with the Tongariro Crossing. The crossing slithers its way past three volcanoes – including Mount Doom itself. The hike took six and a half hours. Mount Doom loomed over most of the track, enough to fire up images of Frodo and Sam struggling to reach the fires of Mordor. I didn’t climb the mountain itself. Adding another 5 hours to the already grueling journey did not seem like fun! In truth, it was actually less difficult than I imagined (I thought another Livingstonia… see Malawi entries). The toughest part was the middle, where the aptly named “Devil’s Staircase” is, and an interesting downhill section which involved half-skiing, half-sliding down a rocky slope. But the rest was fine and the views spectacular, especially of the red crater and the emerald lakes. The arid, volcanic plains. Definitely worth the effort.

The Tongariro Crossing was our last major activity (except gumboot throwing) on the Stray Bus. The next day, we dropped Lofty’s friend Wendy off at the airport and headed back down to Rotorua.

But not before stopping in Matamata, aka Hobbiton. If you though LotR tourism must have died out so long after the movies were released, this place proves its alive and well. On a farm a few k’s out of town is the only set left standing in all NZ. The famous hobbit holes of Hobbiton, left there because a fluke rainstorm prevented their deconstruction. The countryside had a vague brown tint to it, a result of a long drought. As it was the last tour of the day, there were only five of us. One was an animation director straight out of a Hollywood stereotype.

The Hobbiton set was by far the most elaborate tour I’ve been on. Huge photoboards displayed stills from the movie, to aid visualization. The tour guide knew exactly what she was talking about and filled us in on the little details. You had to be under 5’4″ to be a hobbit. They chopped down and then rebuilt an entire oak tree from a neighbouring farm. The farmers who owned the property looked at the location scout and asked: “Lord of the what?”


It certainly filled my LotR quota!

My Birthday

I spent the weekend of my birthday in the beautiful 300 Lake Terrace Apartment complex in Taupo. The morning broke clear and bright over the lake. I was treated by Lofty to an awe-inspiring eight-piece fry-up, incorporating every fried breakfast food you could imagine. Pure decadence. Then Sarah arrived in time to drive out for our skydive – my third! A paltry 12000 ft this time, but who’s counting? Next time has got to be a solo jump… There’s no better way to turn 22 than to throw yourself out of a plane. Trust me on that! We capped off an awesome day with molten lava cake (my fave) and Canadian Club and L&P (NZ’s drink of choice – even I liked it, despite its fizziness!)

The next few days in Taupo were spent productively at Killer Prawn golf ( a hole in one challenge we were thisclose to making), the Honey Hive (where we gorged on free honey samples) and wandering around Taupo itself. A fun town, now forever associated with some pretty amazing memories.

Storming it up in NZ.

…but before the storm, the quiet. We headed up to stunning Hahei Beach in the Coromandel peninsular. The drive was particularly interesting; bad gravel roads made our journey much longer than we planned, but we did get to see a square kauri tree.

We spent the next day just lying on the beach, reading. Bliss.

The perfect way to prepare for the night of mayhem that was my birthday night out in Auckland – and a huge Oasis reunion to boot. My amazing friend Isabel came over from Oz (well from the UK, but recently from Oz) and it was great to see her. We hit up the bars along Auckland’s waterfront after cheap drinks at the hostel bar… we met celebrities (okay, Brandon from Strictly Come Dancing) and wore cowboy hats and after that it gets a bit hazy! Suffice to say it was a good time.

The Oasis reunion continued the next afternoon, when we met up with “Driver Stu” for a rugby match, Blues vs. Bulls. Stu’s sister was one of the cheerleaders and it was fun to watch her warm up the crowd. We had really good seats and the game picked up in the second half. By the end of it, I think I had a basic understanding of the game… at least I could cheer in all the right places!

The next day was our last in NZ. Hard to believe after all this time! We did some last minute shoping and said goodbye to people in Auckland, met up with my parent’s friends in Parnell and spent our last night at Mike’s house in Pukekohe. It was hard to say goodbye to Sunny, and to Castle II, and to the camping equipment that had become our lives. But as it always happens in this travelling game, we had to keep moving.

New Zealand is amazing. I loved every moment of it. I loved driving its twisted roads, over one lane bridges and through mountains. I loved sailing its fjords and its islands, swimming with its incredible aquatic life. It is a country with so much to offer, whose few inhabitants care so much for the land they live on. It is a backpacker’s haven. A place of drama. And of solitude. And of perfect starry nights – the best I’ve seen anywhere in the world!

I wouldn’t hesitate to go back in a second.

And now? It’s on to paradise…


Maori Madness

The only issue I have with Stray is the constant early mornings. At least with the car you can dictate when you want to get up… 7:30am every day when you are on holiday is not always the most fun. But Stray is all about getting you “out there” and that generally means longer drives and earlier starts.

En route to Raglan

We leave Hahei at a suitably early time for the long drive to Raglan. There are a couple of stops along the way, including in Hamilton (where we watched the cricket) and in Paeroa, home of NZ’s “world famous” Lemon&Paeroa (L&P) drink. It’s fizzy, so obviously I don’t like it, but apparently it goes great with Canadian Club. What doesn’t mix well with canucks, eh?

Raglan itself is a surfer’s haven. Even the main beach isn’t so much sand as a grassy hill overlooking great surfing waves. A few of the people on the bus head off to learn how to catch a wave, but I’ve fulfilled my surfing quota for this holiday. The hostel in Raglan is nestled up in the trees and hosting a wedding, so unfortunately we can’t take part in the free flying fox. And after our bottle of pesto sauce goes missing, Lofty and I improvise a pasta with ingredients from our giant orange cool bag and the ubiquitous ‘free shelf’. Turns out great!

Blackwater Rafting and Maori Dancing

Waitomo is glowworm central. I had my first glowworm experience in Dunedin, where a path from our campsite led to a small enclave filled with the little lights (we only got a little bit lost in the dark, thank god for head torches). Waitomo is also home to ‘black water rafting,’ something that sounds different and cool but in reality is quite tame, at least by my adrenaline standards. We get kitted out in thick black wetsuits, helmets and ‘gumboots’ (aka wellington boots). After hiking through the bush (not fun in a wetsuit) we crawl down a small hole to get to the caves. Then it is a glowworm experience, and I have to admit it is pretty cool. Glowworms in abundance. They form constellations in the dark, and it’s hard to remember that we are underground and not outside, under the stars. Glowworms are actually fly larvae (aka maggots) and the light they produce is their waste product. That casts a different light on the star analogy. When we turn our headlamps back on, we can see the dangling strings of web they hang to catch their food. Each worm drops between 20 and 30 lines. In the light, you can see the larvae wriggling along their web like translucent liquid through a straw.

The first tubing tunnel is fun. We jump into the tubes from a tall ledge and float through in the dark. The tunnel is called “aria alley” and we sing everything from love songs to ‘Happy Birthday.’ After that it is a matter of crawling over jagged rocks, avoiding stalagtites (and -mites) and trying to keep the frigid water out of our gumboots.

Uncle Boy’s Maori Spectacular

“Uncle boy” is the enigmatic owner of a Maori homestead in Maketu. Stray advertises this as the best night on tour and the excitement is high. Uncle Boy gives us all a big welcome speech and we perform the traditional Maori greeting of touching noses. Then… eats! It’s not a traditional hangi (where food is cooked in steamy ovens in the ground) but the food is yummy anyway. The best part by far is the dessert… a delicious pavlova.

After dinner, the fun really begins. A group of young people (between 5 and 23) from the area perform a traditional Maori welcome dance for us. It’s one of the most unwelcoming dances you can imagine, as they make some scary faces with wide eyes and poking-out tongues. But we are assured that it only means good things… I can’t imagine what the first Europeans to watch one of these dances must have thought. They probably believed they were about to be killed and steamed in the hangi! The girls all have a ball on a string (a ‘poy’) which they twirl around with incredible skill. The boys are slapping their thighs and shouting and hitting each other with force, performing the ‘haka’. It’s these last two dances that we are going to learn. We’re split up into boys vs girls and the boys go into another room to learn the haka. All the girls are given a poy to work with and we are taught a basic (but tricky!) routine with a fair bit of shouting and looking scary involved… but mostly spinning and shaking our hips to the music. After about 15 mins of practice we are joined again by the boys and they give a stunning rendition of the haka! Talk about scary – but in a good way – for sure! It makes our rendition of the poy right after look positively lame by comparison. We all sleep en commune for the night and wake up (early) again, to head to Rotorua and Taupo for St. Paddy’s Day! Yes, this entry is that out of date… I’m trying desperately to catch up but there just aren’t enough internet hours in the day!