Fiji... Yasawa Islands

Ocean Child spent about two months on the hardstand at Vuda Marina, between mid-May and mid-July 2015. I had thought that I could get a professional paint job done on the hull here, but costs proved to be excessive and quality doubtful. So after another patch-up job on the paintwork, Ocean Child set sail for the Yasawa Islands, to the northwest of Fiji's largest island, Vitu Levu. Anastasia Bondarenko (Ireland) was on board for her first ever sailing experience. I had thought that I would find it easy to get two crew for my idea of sailing to Tonga, but Anastasia was the only applicant, so I gave up the idea of Tonga in favour of local sailing in Fiji. Anastasia's mother was relieved.

Below... the Yasawa island chain disappears into the distance...

0.  A note about winds: the Yasawa chain of islands stretches in a southwest to northeast direction. The main settlements are villages and resorts, both tending to be small - partly due to difficulties in obtaining fresh water. We were expecting tradewinds blowing from the southeast, and these were predicted by the Fiji weather service, at about 20-25 knots. The winds we actually had were from the east, at about this strength. We did most of our upwind sailing with the main sail on its second reef, and the No.2 genoa not quite fully unfurled. This rig proved satisfactory for the conditions, although gusts over 25 k did cause the boat to heel to an uncomfortable angle. The coursemaster autopilot handled these conditions well. For downwind sailng, we used the third reef on the mail sail, and the No.2 genoa half unfurled. Both these rigs were very stable in the conditions, needing essentially no attention while under sail..

1.  Anastasia had perfect weather for her first ever day out sailing. We anchored on our first evening in Nalauwaki Bay, Waya Island. Many of the villagers here are employed by the Octopus Resort, situated about 15 minutes walk to the west. We visited this resort the following day. The beach shelved off steeply... we were the only people swimming, apart from those employed to swim drums of diesel fuel ashore. This gives an idea of the difficult logistics involved in operating a resort in these remote islands.

2.  The traditional sevusevu ceremony at Nalauwaki Village served to give us 'rights' to anchor in the bay and use the beach. We presented the village chief with 500g of dried yoqana roots, from which the kava drink is made. Afterwards we tried to buy bananas from the villagers but without success. We made a point of presenting our sevusevu offering in the mornings at all the villages we visited. Presenting in the late afternoon would (we understood) have meant that we would be expected to participate in a kava drinking session.

3.  Apparently there are four villages on this small island. There is a kindergarten and a small school, but no general store or medical service. Small village "stores" stock noodles, flour, sugar and canned food, but not much else. We asked about the population... it seems there are 300-400 amongst the four villages on this island. Casava, coconut, pawpaw, bananas and yams are planted. Protein from pigs, chickens, fish... and occasionally wild goat. The nearby reefs have been fished out... perhaps a long time ago. Most adults seem overweight. Friendly, especially the young children, but I suspect they get tired of travellers like us, visiting briefly then disappearing again.

4.  There are three prominent rocky peaks east of the village; in this photo the third one is obscured. There is a walking track, but these peaks belong to the village. We paid $20 for access, and we also found that we had to pay $40 for a guide, a young man from the village, Mala. The village boats are Fiji-made Bata Boats.. the Lautoka factory has apparently closed now, in spite of the boats' popularity around Fiji.

5.  Nalauwaki Bay has numerous shallow coral areas... in fact many reef areas in Fiji are not charted, or if they are charted their position is incorrect. The Octopus Resort is behind the ridge on the upper left.

6.  From the first peak, looking east. Although the climb was steep in places, the view from the peak was fabulous. The generally dry grassland landscape is broken by green where areas of moist soil support trees and shrubs.

7.  From the first peak, looking west. Another hour would have given us the second peak, but by the time we reached the first peak the sun was already high in the sky, and we were getting hot.  If you attempt this climb I suggest starting before 7am, and make sure your guide carries about 15m of rope; this will make the final climb to the top safer. Rock bolts have been fitted by the resort.

8.  North of Waya Island lie several small islands, including Drawaqa Island, home to the Barefoot Island resort... low key but still $FJ 460 per night for a two-person burre, or hut... with ensuite and all meals. One advantage of Barefoot Island is the narrow channel running east-west on the island's north shore... at certain times of the year and tide, mantas come through this channel feeding on plankton. Each day the resort provides manta viewing, for a small fee. As the channel is narrow and shallow, we could have found them ourselves if our outboard motor had not broken down... at any rate we were happy to pay the fee. The resort is friendly towards yachties, and has exceptional snorkelling right beside the resort. Click the manta photo to see the video... you will have to wait a few seconds for it to download. GoPro photo.

9.  Anastasia's third day sailing was more lively than the first... Ocean Child did a lot of leaning and splashing. By 3pm we were comfortably anchored in a sheltered bay on the west side of Nacula Island. Click the photo to see the video... you may have to wait a few seconds for the file to download. GoPro photo.

Dolphins accompanying Ocean Child.

10.  The next morning we were invited to have breakfast in the village. Tapioca, made from casava root (locally grown), sweet bread, deep fried sweet bread, and roti. And black tea. All with a fair bit of sugar (no doubt Fiji sugar).

11.  The traditional thatched huts are being replaced by simple rectangular dwellings made from concrete block bricks with a corrugated iron roof... rather less picturesque. See photo 3 above.

12.  Stone fish traps are being replaced by nets, thrown in shallow water by hand. When I visited Shark Bay in Western Australia in 1984, I noticed the remains of large fish trap stone walls (like those in the photo above but much bigger) submerged now, perhaps built before sea level reached it current position.

13.  I'm sure that long ago, Sawa-i-lau Island must have been held sacred. It is so different and so spectacular.  All the other islands of the Yasawa chain which we have seen are volcanic islands... Sawa-i-lau is limestone. It has high peaks and is skirted by undercut limestone in amazing shapes reminiscent of karst in Thailand or Palau.

On flat ground just above its beach (the coconut palm grove in photo 13 above) there are many ovals, made from carefully placed rock, each the size of a grave. Apparently many islanders died nearby in an epidemic after European diseases made their appearance. Shell middens, like the many middens found around the Australian coast, lie not far away. There are large mangrove trees growing amongst the lower karst. A beautiful and intriguing island.

14.  The main cave can be entered via a locked gate leading to concrete steps. We were told that a guide would be there to meet us, but no. The water, which I suppose is mainly sea water, is still and clear. Our guide book told us that there is an entrance, just under water, leading to another cave... this second cave apparently contains ancient rock art, which I was keen to see. Concentric circles and stick-figures, I believe, not unlike ancient rock art from Australia. However, we were unable to find the opening. Later, when we arrived at Yasawa Island, the most northerly of the Yasawa chain, a young Fijian (Jone) told us there were other caves on the island: the mirror cave... when a torch beam meets the far wall, the whole cave lights up... the pregnant cave, if you are pregnant you can enter the cave but not leave (that's scary!) and the wind cave... a hole in the mountain; if you throw your T-shirt in, it comes back out.

15.  Anastasia with our gift of dried yoqana, for the sevusevu ceremony at Yasawairara Village, at the exteme north of the Yasawa chain. Fiji's colours are just amazing... white sands,  blue sky, turquoise waters... all so bright they look as though they are back-lit. Here we have just rowed ashore from OC, our outboard motor having broken. Rowing an inflatable dinghy against a 20-knot wind is a slow process, but luckily we were able to anchor in 6m of water, not far from the beach. Anastasia's tank-top would not have been viewed favourably at Nacula Village, but Yasawairara seemed more relaxed about dress-code. Anastasia is wearing a sulu over her short shorts. GoPro photo.

16. We were greeted by Malaki, the chief's headman. Earlier Malaki's nephew, Jone (we would spell this John or Jonny) had paddled out to OC from the beach to welcome us. Here Malaki is returning to the village after collecting casava roots. Malaki later undertook the sevusevu ceremony on behalf of the chief... "don't worry about that, I will give your gift to the chief". Jone later mentioned that the village has not had a chief for three years. After the last chief died, his son, who would normally succeed to the position, refused, saying he did not want to return to the village from his home on the mainland (Viti Levu). The village is apparently seeking permission from the central government to elect a new chief, but this takes time.

17.  Many of the buildings at Yasawairara looked new, including an impressive Community Hall and a Nursing Centre. Apparently almost all of the buildings were damaged or destroyed by a cyclone in 2014. The central government sent in the army to do some of the re-building. There are many beautiful Casuarina trees around the village... that's one on the right of the photo. We have not noticed Casuarina elsewhere in the Yasawas. After the sevusevu ceremony we visited the village store, where we bought eggs and onions. We had a bundle of old National Geographic magazines, which we gave to one of Malaki's friends, asking him to pass them on to the school (which was in the next village south). Yasawairara is one of five villages on Yasawa Island, and is the site of a newly built jetty... actually quite impressive (maybe some overseas aid money here?). The jetty is at the start of an unsealed road, which runs the length of the long thin island, and connects the five villages and three resorts. How many cars are there on the island? ... one.

18.  South of the village lies a holiday house called Angel Beach, owned by Bradley, a Sydney business man (KFC). Men and women from Yasawairara are paid to care for the house in Bradley's absence. Electricity is supplied by a diesel generator, and water is pumped from a well to the east of the house. A beautiful and secluded location.

19.  Jon relaxing by the pool at Angel Beach. It almost looks as though the pool and the ocean join. Well done, Bradley.

20.  Lai is the daughter of Sam, brother of Malaki. At her house, with her fourth child, Suzanna. Her eldest child attends a boarding school in Lautoka. The ferry from Denarau costs $FJ160 one way... difficult for the family to afford, so the daughter returns to her family only twice a year. She lives with relatives.

21.  Lai baked us village bread: flour, yeast (flat teaspoon per cup of flour) sugar (teaspoonful per cup) and warm water. Here the bread is cooking in a large aluminium pot, with a kindling fire both underneath and above (the coconut husks above are burning). Anastasia left her sulu (sarong) with the family... Suzanna was pleased!

22.  On our way back to Viti Levu, we stopped at a bay between Waya and Wayasewa Islands, near the village of Naboro. As you can see above, the two islands are joined at low tide. I had previously thought that the wooded areas (dark green) were the result of differences in soil moisture, but this photo shows many elevated wooded zones. Another explanation may be fire... we certainly saw large fires, apparently lit by villagers. When we asked why, the answer was always a slight shake of the head...

At Naboro we rowed ashore to present sevusevu. We met a man, Joe, who said he was the chief, and would accept our gift. There was of course the usually chanting and clapping which we don't understand. The next day we met Jerry, who introduced himself as the major, apparently this is a higher rank than chief. We asked about Joe... "He is not the chief, we have no chief, but Joe is from the chief's family."

23.  Looking back... in the early morning light... August 4, our last view of the striking landscape of Waya Island, perhaps the most beautiful of the Yasawa island chain... Six hours later we arrived at Vuda Marina. Such a different world... noise, dust, people everywhere...