Desert Island and Plantation Walk

A glowing golden orb woke us this morning – lo and below, the sun! We’d decided to take a boat trip should the day be good and, yes, it was good. After our usual great breakfast, Ty and I walked with our snorkelling gear to the wharf to wait for the boat to the small island of Caqalai, south west of Ovalua. This island is owned by the Methodist Church and the one budget accommodation here (can’t call it a resort – it’s very rough) is run by local villagers. (Ty told me to avoid the bathroom at all costs …)

While we were waiting for our boat, we watched a boatload of old village ladies row one man out to the reef to fish for the day. Our boat was an 18 foot aluminum deep water skiff with a large outboard motor onto which the captain brought several cans of gas. After we headed away from the dock, Ty made a joke about smoking around gas cans and, sure enough, our captain lit one up right next to many gallons of gasoline. Needless to say, I was unhappy about it, having visions of explosions and wondering whether I’d be able to jump overboard in time, should the boat blow up. It didn’t happen.

The boatman snaked his way through barely visible channels between coral outcroppings, heading for a break in the reef and deep water. Once we were out beyond the reef and into the open ocean deep swells rocked the boat as we jetted our way along. The first brief stop was Motoriki Island, where a woman came out of what looked to be uninhabited jungle to pick up a few bags of groceries from the boat. On our way we also passed Snake Island, a tiny mushroom shaped bit of land with one palm tree, the quintessential cartoon desert island.

We were deposited on the golden sand of Caqalai (pronounced something like Thungalai) where we snorkelled, walked the beach, swam, read, and had lunch with the two people currently in residence at the “resort”. While snorkelling, Ty was followed by a large fish with whom he swam for a bit (not a shark, although there are reef sharks here and tiger sharks somewhere in Fijian waters). As the afternoon progressed, dark clouds rolled in and on our way back again, the heavens opened and we were absolutely soaked with torrential (luckily warm) rain.

See more pics here.

Wed Sept 28

We’d decided that, if Wednesday was sunny, we’d go with Nox on his plantation tour; it did look good in the morning, so after breakfast, we headed out down the road towards the cemetery. Climbing the stairs to the top of the graveyard, we walked towards the mountain, passing a small plantation of cassava (tapioca) and corn on the way.

Each of these small planted areas belongs to a single person, and the produce from each plot is shared with the village and, sometimes, sold at the market in Levuka. On the far side of the cemetery a work gang of youth from the Methodist church were looking after a plantation; these folks come to town for a week and spend a day working on each of several plantations in the area. We could hear them laughing and singing across the grave stones.

We followed a small goat track up and up the mountain, passing small planted plots of cassava, cava, cabbage, tomatoes, taro, plantain and bananas, as well as gigantic mango, breadfruit and popo (papaya) trees laden with fruit.

Resting for a bit under a mango tree, we chatted with two men carrying machetes heading barefoot up to their own plantations higher in the hills. Nox explained that at age four boys begin to work on their own plantations and are given plots close to the village to make it easy for them and encourage them to work hard. They begin with small machetes and work up to the full size scythes carried by village men.

Along with food crops, Nox also pointed out medicinal herbs and plants; for example, a vine called mile-a-minute is used, when crushed, for diarrhea.

This vine, quite similar to morning glory, grows amazingly quickly and can be seen covering almost every tree and plant in the forest. We also came across wild pineapple and two different varieties of chilli, as well as a red-flowered plant whose small round seeds are used for children’s games.

After a walk of about two hours we came to Nox’ uncle’s camping cabin at the top of one hill, next to a peak called Gorilla Mountain. Here, rather than go back and forth to the plantation each day, family members camp out for a week at a time to get serious work done sowing and planting. This day seven members of Nox’ family were hanging out at the cabin while his cousin Mary prepared food for them over an open fire in the very rough cabin kitchen. After spending some time there sampling some of the produce, we headed back down the mountain and through Nox’ village back to the Homestay. On our way down the hill, cane toads and lizards hopped and slithered out of our path back into the bushes with every step.

As an aside, cane toads are an invasive species, first introduced into Australia to eat some kind of beetle in the sugar cane fields and then spread throughout the South Pacific. As is often the case with these well-meaning ideas, this one back-fired big time; cane toads can grow to enormous size, have poisonous glands on the backs of their necks, and are voracious consumers of all the small local fauna – big pests.

See more pictures here.

Touring the town with Nox

Monday Sept 26

Last night we sampled the food at Kim’s White Gold Dragon Wine and Dine upstairs on the main road, and found ourselves the only guests there for dinner. We ordered the Kim’s special chow mein, fried rice and chili chicken, all of which was good (although too much for us). The décor inside was an intriguing blend of Chinese watercolours, pencil drawings of Fijians in traditional garb, an old 70s silver disco ball, a large red and gold chandelier, and wooden tables from the 40s – quite surreal.

Today dawned nice, with a high overcast cloud cover, just perfect weather for an extended town walk with Nox, the Homestay’s gardener. Nox has lived in Levuka his entire life (and has not gone anywhere other than the capital Suva) and knows everyone in this town. To begin, we walked with him to the Cession Stone, the area commemorating the cession of Fiji to Great Britain in 1874 and Fiji’s independence in 1970. According to John, the Fijians love Britain’s Royal Family, attributing all the good things that have happened in the country in the last hundred years to the Queen.

Nearby the cession stone are government buildings, formerly for receiving visitors to the island, now the residences of managers and other dignitaries of the Bumble Bee tuna packing company. From there, we walked back through town with a stop at the Queen’s Wharf, the current home of the former Queen of Prince Rupert, where Fiji’s first post office is still in business.

Strolling past the shops, we headed up past the convent primary school, one of the secondary schools (Fiji’s first school dating from the late 1890s, I think), the police station, the court house (both in small wooden buildings), the Town Hall, the Ovalau Social Club, and the burnt-out hulk of the Masonic Lodge.

Apparently, some of the locals considered the Masons to be evil and fulminations against them were preached in the pulpits of the local churches. One day in 2000, when visitors from another village were displeased with activities at the wharf and wanted to cause trouble, instead of burning down the wharf (which would have sent them to jail), they set fire to the Lodge, causing a great conflagration watched by hundreds, and were allowed to get away with it.

We continued up the hill, climbing a long string of stone steps up one of the peaks ringing the town, past several corrugated tin homes

and a pig sty to a flat cleared dirt area at the top, now used by school kids for rugby games, with a panoramic view of the islands beyond.

Coming down the other side we passed through the Methodist boarding school and teachers’ residences, by the hospital, a 49 bed structure near the shoreline, and St James Anglican Church,

on our way through the village of Levuka in which the grand chief of the area lives. Each of us were required to remove our hats and sunglasses in deference to the chief. Past this small village is another area of houses along the water, many owned by foreigners; this section of town reminds me of Birch Bay with its beach side summer homes.

The last house on the strip is owned by Sandy, a New Zealand ship’s captain, who is fixing up what was thought to be a tear-down. We had a look around at what he’s done and then headed back, stopping for a glass of juice with Mike, a former North Vancouver bus driver now living in Fiji with a young wife from the local village and three sons.

Our final stop on the tour was the World War One Monument with its plaque commemorating the Fijian dead.

See more pictures here.

Other bits and pieces we have discovered:

The inmates at the prison here are responsible for looking after the cemetery (the jail can hold up to 20 people) and, after a mourning period of 100 days, the mounds of local people are “cemented”; a blank white box of cement is put over the entire mound. The cement pagoda which we presumed to be disused is actually the site for large funeral pyres.

Village life is very strong and continues much the same way it has for hundreds of years. The social and political structure of village life is hierarchical: each village has a chief who runs the show and in turn reports to a higher chief. Villagers have hereditary rights to land, even if they move to the city. In general, villagers do not work at outside jobs; as in Samoa, they grow their own food and fish for their dinner.

If a married couple is unable to have children, family members with children will give the couple one of their own so that they will have someone to look after them when they’re old. This practice is very accepted. There are no “old folks homes” here.


Laid Back Levuka

After having stored our excess pounds of luggage at the Beachouse for later return, Ty and I were off on the local minibus (like a collectivo in Mexico or dolmus in Turkey) to the Novotel Lami Bay just outside the capital Suva for one night on our way to the former capital of Fiji, Levuka, on the island of Ovalau, just off the north-east coast of Viti Levu. Unfortunately, it was raining so our planned boat trip around Lami Bay didn’t materialise; but Saturday dawned sunny and clear (of course) for our 12 minute ride over to Ovalau on a tiny eight seater plane. We landed on the very short airstrip seemingly in the midst of the jungle where a taxi was there to whisk us away around the island to the Levuka Homestay.

This place is the home of John and Marilyn, Australians who have lived in Levuka for 12 years. They have four guest rooms but at the moment, it’s only us in residence, along with four cats and a beautiful parrot named Bula. Our room has a cathedral ceiling with ensuite bathroom and an outside seating area on the deck from which we can feast our eyes on the gorgeous greenery in the garden, including crab claw flowers, frangipani, red bananas, birds of paradise, lilies, and other tropical delights.

Breakfast is taken in the main house upstairs and was it ever good: many different kinds of butters and spreads, salsas, tropical fruit, banana and pineapple pancakes and French toast, as well as homemade muesli and bacon and eggs.

Yesterday we walked around town, checking out the main drag, Beach Street (but no beach to be seen), along which are a few blocks of colonial buildings from the eighteen hundreds when Levuka was the bustling capital of Fiji and a hub for shipping, including yachts and pirates, and a diverse company of persons, including “foreign traders, merchants, missionaries, shipwrights, vagabonds, shipwrecked sailors, respected businessmen and speculators”. The shops include a few supermarkets, a hair saloon, two pool halls, a couple of variety stores, and four restaurants, all of which are crying out for a coat of paint – no coffeeshops, no pubs, no cinemas.

The one entertainment centre seems to have shut down. Since we’d had almost nothing to eat, we stopped at the Whale’s Tale, the town’s best restaurant, for lunch (it was very good) and returned again for supper, which was excellent. The only restaurant open on Sunday is Kim’s White Dragon Chinese, so we’re saving that for tonight’s dinner!

Geographically, the setting is gorgeous but my first impressions of the town are that it’s very poor and in an economic slump at the moment, a downturn from which it may or may not emerge. It reminds us of places like Ocean Falls or Barkerville – the same sort of architecture and feel about the place. The main industry in town is the tuna canning plant and it has been shut down for the past 2 months because of a change in regulations originating elsewhere. Tourism is not really a factor here, especially now with the global economic situation, although a few people do make the effort to visit Levuka and there is one company which offers a couple of tours around Ovalau and to the nearby islands. The Levuka Homestay’s gardener Nox offers several walking tours, a couple of which we intend to take advantage of while we’re here for the week. The townspeople are very friendly and, since there are only three tourists in town, everyone knew that we’d arrived by plane that day.

After breakfast today we walked back along the one unpaved road out of town to the hillside cemetery to check out the graves, passing by the remains of a burned out Masonic Lodge in the process. Interestingly, although this ruin is right “downtown”, it has not been pulled down; given the strength of the Methodist Church in Fiji, perhaps its arson-destroyed shell is left standing as some kind of warning and reminder …

The cemetery occupies a beautiful hillside site with a wonderful view out across the ocean to the small islands beyond. Several different sections of the cemetery could be discerned from the style of grave. The topmost area holds the tombs of the early European settlers, including the Archdeacon of the Catholic Church in Fiji, whose grave occupies the prime spot on a promontory overlooking the ocean.

Further back, nearest the mountain, are the graves of the Chinese community while lower down, closer to the water are the graves of the indigenous Fijians. The most recent of these are quite different in style than the European ones, being mounds of dirt, surrounded by rocks, covered by fabric, and having canopies of cloth held in place with bamboo sticks. Around the hillside, bits of fabric from older canopies which had disintegrated with the elements dotted the grass. A small disused crematorium occupies one corner of the site, along with a run-down cement pagoda. Things wear down quickly in the tropics and this cemetery is no exception; most of the headstones, with their inscriptions, can no longer be read.

An interesting side note: The former BC Ferry the Queen of Prince Rupert, decommissioned in 2009, is now plying the waters of the Fijian Islands, with a home base in Levuka. Now renamed the Lomaiviti Princess, she has been operating here since Sept 15. We saw this advertising notice for her pasted onto one of the buildings downtown. Here’s more from Wkikpedia:

“M/V Queen of Prince Rupert was a RORO ferry operated by BC Ferries that provided the main surface transport link between the Queen Charlotte Islands and mainland British Columbia, connecting Skidegate with Prince Rupert across the Hecate Strait (thus linking two segments of Highway 16). The vessel also ran on the Prince Rupert-Port Hardy Inside Passage route during the low season.

Built in 1966, the Queen of Prince Rupert was decommissioned on April 20, 2009 following the launch of the Northern Expedition and was replaced by the Northern Adventure on the Prince Rupert-Skidegate Route.

On May 4, 2011 the official registration of the Queen of Prince Rupert was closed. The vessel was sold to Goundar Shipping Company of Fiji and renamed the M.V. Lomaiviti Princess. The vessel departed B.C. waters bound for Fiji on August 5, 2011.”

More information about the Levuka Homestay here.

More pictures here.