At the start and end of each day, our long-haired, whippet thin guide Elijah would announce it was time for a “Map Chat” and we’d gather around to learn where we had paddled or where we going to paddle as we wended our way around a couple of the northern-most Yasawa Islands. If you don’t know where they are, you’re not alone. I had no idea, either. Somewhere near Fiji, I was told. Possibly near the Equator. The inhabitants were no longer cannibals, apparently. Blue Lagoon was mentioned but by then it was too late to pull out.
Tested on arrival in Nadi and declared plague-free, we ferried for five hours away from Viti Levu, regularly shedding layers of Tasmanian clothes as the tropics did their meteorological thing and unlike a certain prince (ex-prince?) we sweated. It was all very picturesque but also somewhat alarming as we left more and more of the trappings of civilisation behind. At least on the highest peak of each island, regardless of how small, a reassuring telephone tower offered some hope.
Whereas my wife had done some sea-kayaking on the Gippsland Lakes, I had prepared for the Odyssey by steadfastly ignoring it except for the occasional swim in the local pool. I figured that skill might come in handy. It’s not that I was panicking but as the departure date loomed increasingly large I did visit my daughter, son-in-law and grandsons, and was hard-pressed not mention how I wanted my ashes scattered or, in case of sharks, what songs I wanted played at the memorial. I am, I knew full-well, too old for this kind of thing.
When we arrived at ‘Base Camp’ on Tavewa Island, there were eight paddlers and two guides. Alongside Elijah we met Sione, a native Fijian guide. Joining my wife and I was a delightful young couple from Canberra, youngsters who had other things on their minds, and four ladies from the Southern Highlands of NSW who had horses. Three of them were also excellent paddlers who had previously taken to the sea with Elijah in Tasmania. It seemed that everyone but me had prepared.
Who knew that a sea-kayak has a rudder? Everyone but me, apparently. As my wife and I were going to share a double, one of us had to steer the thing. Leaving aside the machismo, it was obvious that she should take the reins, which meant that she sat in the back and that meant that the weight distribution was askew, she being lithe and lean and me being, well, not lithe and lean. As we carried our own bits and pieces as well as thermos flasks and food bags for the whole group. These were stowed in the middle compartment of our kayak, which meant that there were times when the rudder barely touched the water because of the aforementioned incorrect weight distribution. Mostly, it was fine. And anyway, I’d swum a couple of laps of the local pool.
On Day 1 after setting up our tents, we had a practice run to nearby Rocky Bay, to make sure none of us were complete bozos on the water. Two points became immediately obvious. First, there is no such thing as a short paddle. Everywhere you go in a kayak is miles and miles away from anywhere else and the time it takes to get there stretches out as the destination actually gets further and further away. Second, the “ladies who ride” block were sensational paddlers who probably could circumnavigate the world without breaking into a sweat. There were some other discoveries too, like kayaks are always jiggling about, you don’t get a moment’s peace and cheap plastic boat shoes from K-Mart are detrimental to feet health when mixed with sand and salt water. Not to mention that the skipper of your boat gets quite annoyed when you shout at her to turn left, especially when you mean right and she yells that it’s not a bloody car!
The most important learning outcome was that Elijah’s enthusiasm for open water kayaking only slightly exceeded his enormous skill at actually doing it. Watching him bob about without a care in the world made it look easy, a misconception shattered the moment I tried to emulate him. It’s constant hard work and you have to do it properly to make the kayak move and to prevent your wife yelling at you to “stop rowing!!” I mean, what’s the diff? Elijah’s ebullience meant that every trip involved “zooming”, “scooting”, “racing” or “zipping” over various bits of the Pacific Ocean as if it were a doddle, which it probably was for him.
The day was redeemed by champagne and nibbles on the beach to watch the sunset, followed by the first of a progression of excellent meals. which was absolutely delicious. From the off, it was apparent we weren’t going to starve or, worse, have to eat micro-biotic hippy food. For our meal that evening we were treated to a Lovo, (a mountain of food cooked underground in a pit) prepared by Sione and Sami, one of the local men. Washed down with several bottles of wine, the tender meat and vegetables restored the spirits and lulled us into a false sense of comfort. Time to retire for the night and digest.
The next day was started far too early by various animals making various noises, none of which were welcome. It had been only minutes earlier that I’d drifted off to sleep on my paper-thin thermo-rest mattress but needs must and some bladders needed to be emptied while others needed to be filled. Apparently we’d have to carry our own water, food and anything else we might need. By 8.00 am (ish) we were off to circumnavigate Matacawalevu Island, some twenty plus kilometers or knots or whatever nautical measurement we were dealing in. It was a graded entry into the world of panic-fuelled sea-kayaking with three stops including morning tea and lunch breaks, for snorkeling. Again, the food and coffee were excellent. Fortunately for me, during the trip I received plenty of advice on how to paddle from the Skipper and even more fortunately for me, the sea breeze carried my responses away before she could hear them. Seeing she was in control of where we were going, it seemed best.
Despite my fears, we made it back to camp and surprisingly suffered no ill effects, muscular or psychological. To rectify that, Sione tipped me out of the kayak near shore, to the great amusement of all. This could not go unavenged! I mean, sure, the man could do anything on, above or under the water, and he had a heart bigger than Phar Lap’s and he was ever attentive and kind but tipping out the senior statesman of the group for a giggle without considering the insult to my dignity? Okay, there isn’t a lot of that and he did help me back up but still. He’d better have eyes in the back of his head from here on in….
The following day, shit got real. We struck camp, packed everything into the kayaks and headed for Nacula island, Sione’s home and about a million miles away. To make it even more interesting, Elijah decided we’d go up the northern side of the island, “whip around” the furthest point and “sail” to Navotua village where, if we survived, we’d set the tents back up and rip into the kava to make us forget the horror of it all, island-style. Luckily discretion was the better part of valour and when we made it to the last beach on that side of the island, we abandoned the kayaks, which were loaded Tetris-style onto a boat, and we strolled across the head of the island into the village where thanks to the strength and skill of the local men, the kayaks were waiting on the shore.
On the hike across, the views were glorious, the vegetation was impressive, the conversation was interesting, and my feet were hurting as the hard plastic of my cheap crocs sawed into the flesh. Stoically, I gritted my teeth and with an exaggerated limp, hobbled my way to the campsite, bitterly disappointed that no one paid me any mind at all. I’d have to suffer in silence, alone….
Sione’s village doesn’t see many tourists and it has no infrastructure to accommodate them beyond one “guest-house” for intrepid travellers. It does however have a shower, a flushing toilet, a composting toilet and a dining buré for the kayakers. And to ensure we’d enjoy our stay, it put on a song-and-dance welcome, including a performance by Rex, a local man we’d met that afternoon, who was handsome enough in his shorts and T-shirt, but bare-chested and in a grass skirt, was stunningly beautiful and not a little suggestive in his dancing (and well aware of it!). To calm everyone down again, the show was followed by kava, a local slightly narcotic drink. I’ve had kava before, so after the obligatory first sip, I bowed out but the youngsters of the group, the “lovebirds”, forgot about canoodling for a while and “bula-ed” their way through about half a bucket each. We left at about 9.00 that evening, just as the men’s circle was kicking off. By 1.00 in the morning when I got up for a wee, they’d settled in. Those fellas are impressive!
One of the local dogs decided she’d protect our tent from intruders and parked herself just outside, growling at anyone who came near and crunching loudly on a bone of some sort when no one was around. Just before dawn, as sleep finally came to claim me, she decided to have a fight with another dog. That dispute settled, some piglets wandered too near and the barking chased the squealing around the campsite. Next, we had duelling roosters, cockle-doodle-doing in stereo.
I gave up and with the bleariest of eyes, hunched my way out of the tent, underpanted with toothbrush in hand, to be confronted by a toddler standing silently, staring at this giant, freakazoidal thing emerging from its cocoon. For a moment neither of us could speak but a “Bula!” set everything right. He smiled, white teeth, wide eyes and replied, “Bula” before running off, giggling. The islanders, all ages, all genders, are genuinely friendly, lovely, warmly responsive people and I was almost ready to forgive Sione for the bath. Almost…
The day’s program said we’d paddle 6 to 8 kilometres to Sawa-I-Lau. Ha! A doddle for us experienced, hardened sea paddlers, surely! What the program didn’t say was that this stretch was unpredictable, choppy, subject to tides, swell, wind and anything else that could make it dangerous. Sione shared a double with the lovely Tina, possibly the least confident paddler, Tig and Jane, both Amazons, shared another double, Rose, the third of the experienced trio in a single, the lovebirds in a double, Elijah in a single and we in the lighter, easier-to-paddle-in-calm-waters-but-too-light-for-big-swells double. I should have known things were going to get hairy when Elijah told us that if the waves got up, lean into them and keep paddling!
“Just make sure we stay together. And if you do capsize, don’t worry, there’s plenty of room.” What? I didn’t know what that even meant. If we capsized we’d die. Why would we need room? But before I could voice my concerns, we were off. Within a frighteningly short space of time, the swell did get up! Estimates range from 2 and ½ meters (Elijah, talking it down) to 4 meters (everyone else) to 7 meters and rising (me). And, within minutes of departure Sione and the Amazons were miles ahead of us, disappearing in troughs and Elijah and the kids were miles behind us, not that we were looking backwards. We were a) too scared and b) determined to lean into waves and keep bloody paddling. You have no idea how time slowed down, how the destination kept getting further and further away, how fear can propel you to keep going. But we do, now.
Finally we made it to calmer waters where Jane and Tig, Sione and Tina were idling, waiting. It was a genuine relief to join them and wait for Elijah to escort the lovebirds to safe harbour. And Elijah looked pale. I knew it! It had been a perilous undertaking, like Bligh in that dingy thing, or Thor Heyerdahl on his raft, or Armstrong to the moon. We were all petrified.
“That was great!” said Jane. “I really enjoyed that” said Tig. Rose smiled, unconcerned, as if she’d just been for a walk with the dog. “I didn’t have to do much with Sione,” said Tina. “It was good!”
Well, just me, then. I learned that this was type 2 fun. The fun that comes from doing something challenging. Challenging? I’ll tell you what ‘s challenging. We’ll have to go back across that strait as well. That’s bloody challenging!
We had lunch, prepared by Elijah and Sione, and afterwards, Elijah had a snooze on the beach. He still looked pale and snoozing was his usual behaviour. In the afternoon we went to a sea cave, swam around in the dark waters, admired Sione as he retrieved a snorkel from the bottom on a single lungful of air, admired Sione as he climbed up the wall and leapt down from a great height, admired Sione as he made booming noises on the water with his arms.
Then came time to duck dive, swim through a channel under a stone ledge into another cave. Elijah was at this end, ready to push you through, Sione at the other end, inside the second cave, ready to pull you out. Two or three seconds at most. I’m not a fan of caves, I’ve done the under-the-ledge thing before, so I declined. Tina and Rose did too. Mila, the ‘she’ of the LBs had difficulty getting herself underwater but with some pushing and pulling got herself through to the other side. The rest went and everyone had a great time by all accounts.
Later in the day, I sat chatting with Sione. When he’d come out of the caves, he ‘d shivered. “I like the sun on my skin,” he said and smiled.
“You didn’t like going into cave, did you?” I asked.
“I like to help everybody have a good time,” he replied quietly.
“Mate, between you and Elijah, no one could ask for better!”
I was almost prepared to forgive him for that bath. Almost but not quite.
Elijah still looked pale and we had to make the crossing back to Nacula Island. This time we managed to stay within sight of each other and I managed to get into a rhythm of leaning into the waves, keeping on paddling, maintaining focus on sweeping with my paddle rather than rowing and managed to excrete slightly less adrenalin into my already hyper-charged body. Perhaps I’d simply run out. In any case we made back and everyone was forgiven. Except Sione.
In a cunning bit subterfuge, Jane had decanted a litre of duty-free Cointreau into a plastic Fiji Water bottle but then given the game away by writing NOT WATER on it. There is no shop of any kind on Navotua and it’s a no-alcohol zone (except for the kayakers), so there were no mixers to be had. Extensive experimentation discovered that Cointreau and mint tea is palatable….
I ducked into the buré for a cup of tea to find Elijah sitting hunched over a bowl and not looking at all well. He’d already taken some electrolytes and analgesics, so we gave him the immune system boosters we’d brought. I wanted him well again soon because dinner time was fast approaching and I’d become used to his excellent meals. Yeah, nah, he wasn’t going to be doing any cooking anytime soon. Off you go to bed, son, we’ll look after ourselves. Rose and Sione took charge of the gas cooker, the rest of us pitched in and dinner was a success, quite possibly due to the Cointreau and Mint Tea.
… there was another issue, one involving the LBs, Mishka and Mila. Months before, Mishka had asked Elijah to arrange a special place and time for him to ask Mila to marry him. All that canoodling had had a purpose after all! Elijah had concocted a story to convince Mila to accompany Mishka on a boat to nearby Honeymoon Island where a bottle of champagne had been stashed, and Mishka would pop the question, romantically on the pristine white sands of the beach. It was ll very romantic and no one was allowed to breathe a word of the plans to Mila. So as we were scuttling about preparing the meal, and as dusk fell with the usual tropical thump, they were ferried away, and we kept asking, “Are they back yet?” and speculating how awkward things would get if she said no.
Luckily for everyone, when they returned, the engagement ring Mishka had been carrying in an ear-plug case twinkled brightly, if loosely on Mila’s finger and we all congratulated them on a job well done.
After another night of nocturnal noises (no, not the LBs!), we strolled over to the school – one room for grades 1, 2 and 3; one room for the kindergarten – and were entertained by the children singing songs in English. After grade 3, the village kids had to walk to another village to complete the rest of primary school before relocating to Viti Levu for secondary schooling. One or two parents accompany them and stay with them on the big island until they finish and return to Navotua. The system seems to work well for them. It’s interesting that although the vast majority of people on the Yasawa Islands are Methodist, Navotua is Catholic. Indeed, Sione is the local catechist. Apparently an earlier village chief married a catholic woman and thereby immediately converted the whole village.
Navotua village is a collection of ramshackle, glass-less buildings made from flotsam and jetsam, with little electricity or running water but everyone has a cell phone. During the pandemic, the island became, out of necessity, entirely self-sufficient, as it had been before the advent of Europeans and Indians, but now carefully selecting which bits of modernity it wants to adopt and adapt. There is, for example, no TV. On the other hand, the amount of plastic rubbish is jarring.
It was time to head back to base camp. We’d met Sione’s wife and son, had seen the islanders’ seafaring skills first-hand and bula-ed every person in the village. Elijah had returned to the land of the living and with everything packed and stowed, we set off. When our glorious leader promised that the trip back would be a breeze, I knew better than to believe him. It would be the Pacific’s last chance to try to drown me.
But the gods took pity and the waters remained calm. With a breeze at our aft/stern/back all the kayaks sidled together and the two guides rigged a sail held up by paddles and we were caressed by a zephyr all the way home. Despite me getting everyone to join in a four part round of ‘Row, row, row your boat’ it was a very pleasant way to end our adventure. Oh, yes, I much prefer type 1 fun! We set up camp again, more sunset cocktails (rum and fresh cocoanut water), another slap-dinner and a final night under campus.
On the last day we packed up, washed the kayaks, and went for walk to the top the highest peak on Tavewa Island for some stunning views and a 3D map-chat showing where we had been. Despite my feet now looking and feeling like I’d run a marathon over broken glass, with more bandages and bandaids than on a supermarket shelf, I managed not to stumble or fall and to groan only with every second step. Again, sympathy from the other Argonauts was remarkably absent.
And that was that. We tendered to the Fiji Flyer, said genuine, heartfelt thanks and fond goodbyes first to Elijah and Sione, brilliant guides, beautiful human beings; then to the LBs who were heading off to a honeymoon rehearsal; and finally to the Amazons who were heading further afield for more paddling. Of course they were! We, on the other hand, were on our way to swim with Manta Rays at the appropriately named Barefoot Manta Resort. I was looking forward to resorting both to being barefooted and to swimming with waves of mantas. But as Rabbie Burns so eloquently put it: ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley” and that turned into yet another different, wholly unexpected adventure, and a story for another day.
I’m glad I had the opportunity to go sea-kayaking, especially together with my wonderful wife but I doubt that I will ever do it again. Type 2 fun doesn’t appeal so much to me anymore. Type 1 fun, on the other hand, does and I expect we’ll try our hand at river kayaking. Nonetheless, I’d heartily recommend it if you’re physically and mentally fit enough to lean into the waves and keep paddling. And if you do decide to give it a crack, I’d recommend Elijah and Sione as heartily as is humanly possible. I don’t do product placement but I am happy to provide details on request.
There is a joy in being with a group of people, coalescing tentatively into an intra-dependent whole, rejoicing in each other’s achievements as much as your own, sharing experiences and laughter, relying on each other, coming to like each other and then dissipating again. So, vinaka to the ‘ladies who ride’, to the ‘lovebirds’, to the fabulous guides and to the lovely people of the Yasawa Islands. You’ve enriched our lives and we are grateful.