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.


Fire Eating and Swimming with Sharks… Life on the African Edge

It’s not every day that you get to arrive at a party on a boat. But a full moon party was happening on the other side of the island, and we organized a dhow to take us so we could arrive in traditional style. We pulled up at a beach lit by bonfires and flaming torches, and waded through the knee-deep water.

The main spectacle was a group of acrobats called the Jambo Brothers, similar to the acrobats we saw at the Bomas of Nairobi. They performed to much wild applause. But the most excitement accompanied the fire eater. He ran the fire over his arms and legs, then put a flaming torch in his mouth and ate the fire. Then he pulled me and about 8 other people up onto the stage. We sat in a long line, and the fire eater sat in the middle of us. A plate of three flaming cotton balls was brought out on a little plate. The fire eater picked up one of the balls, tossed it around in his hands, then put it down. He gestured to me, as I was sitting at the end of the line, to go ahead a pick up one of the flames. I looked to the girl sitting next to me, one of the oasis crew as well. We smiled nervously to each other, then picked up the cotton. It was HOT! But you could keep it in the palm of your hand without it burning, pass it from palm to palm and then put it on the plate, no harm done. Everyone laughed and we passed the plate along the line for everyone else to try.

Then the fire eater picked up one of the balls and balanced it on his tongue. Then he took it out, put it back on the plate and passed it down to me again. The girl beside me chickened out. I was close to but how many opportunities do you get to eat fire? This was a dorothy moment: I certainly wasn’t in North America any more! I was the first one to go. I picked it up, unable to carry it between my fingers for too long, so I tossed it slowly from palm to palm. Then, I popped it on my tongue.


No, it didn’t hurt, but I was so scared that I spat it out onto the plate right away. But I got a big round of applause and passed the plate onto the next girl (also from oasis – we had a bit of a monopoly going) who was able to keep it on her tongue for a long time. When everyone who wanted to (about four out of the eight of us) had had a go, we all stood up and bowed. It was a great start to what ended up being a fantastic night.

Underwater Safari

My time on Zanzibar has been consumed with scuba diving, and so I haven’t had time to relax on the beach. I am fitting a four day Open Water PADI course into three days, along with Sarah and another girl. Unfortunately, Sarah learned on the second day that she is unable to equalize her ears to the pressure when she descends into deep water. The other girl had an unfortunate bout of sea sickness which meant that she was also unable to continue.

Another dhow took Sarah (who was to snorkel) and I out to Mnemba, an island off of Zanzibar with a huge reef surrounding it. The reef is a marine park (an underwater national park, almost) and is known to be home to sharks, turtles, and a wide variety of marine life. Sarah attempted our first dive there, but was again unable to equalize, and so continued her Mnemba adventure on the surface. I descended to 18metres underwater with the instructor, and continued on to have one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

The Mnemba scuba dive was like an underwater safari. Being underwater is a world unto itself, as cliche as that sounds. By this time I had already completed two dives, and was able to concentrate on just enjoying and wondering at the scenery beneath me. A moray eel poked his head out of his hole, gaping at us as if we had disturbed his sleep. A giant Napoleon fish loomed in the distance, his enormous form just a dark shadow in the water until we swam closer, peeked at his deformed face and he disappeared. A pair of bannerfish, which look like giant angel fish, floated past us, close to my arm. And what looked like a shark – but turned out to be a cobi fish – swam overhead. I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t in an aquarium – that all I was seeing was real.

We surfaced for a mandatory interval, before diving again in another spot, this time a place well known for sea turtles. We weren’t disappointed. One enormous sea turtle sheltered itself underneath the reef and we swam around for a closer look. Large green turtles have enormous eyes that look like amber gemstones underwater. We spotted another one gently paddling away, so graceful for its size. When we surfaced again, I knew I was hooked. And now, as a certified diver, I am free to go and continue diving throughout my trip.