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Onward to the Yasawas (Fiji 4)

Leaving Vanua Levu (SavuSavu) after only a week was like saying goodbye to an old friend, we already felt part of the scenery. We bought our kava for the villages we intended to visit, stocked up our provisions, renewed our gas supplies and headed towards the Yasawa Islands.

The Yasawa islands stretch in a chain from north to south along the Western edge of the main island of Fiji, Viti Levu, and we intended to follow the islands south towards the Mamachuk islands and eventually check out at our final port of call, Vuda Point on Viti Levu.

Into a Leper Colony

When we entered the small bay at the island of Mokogai we were expecting to see remnants of the ex-leper colony as well as a modern village. There was very little activity in evidence except for some construction on the foreshore. Armed with our predictable newspaper-wrapped packet of kava and our sulus (long skirts or wraps) we kayaked to the beach. It soon became obvious that we were witnessing a work in progress, two new round concrete pools were being tested for their imminent use as clam and turtle hatcheries – another eco project in the offing.

After a very perfunctory sevusevu (kava ceremony) with gabbled murmurings over the kitchen table by the boss of the construction work, we were led along paths to witness and hear about the historical leper colony which finally closed in 1969 after a cure had been found. The remains of the village showed it to have been an extensive and comprehensive stone-built settlement (housing, schools, cemetery, prison, even an open-aired cinema) which had held 400 inhabitants from many countries of the South Pacific.

Graves in the leper colony disrupted by Cyclone Winston

We were urged to swim and see a number of giant clams which had survived the last cyclone and had been returned to the seabed, the beginning, they hoped, of a new colony. The clams were, indeed, amazing and as Mike said, reminded him of “daring-do” and “Boys’ Own” stories in his childhood – no trapped arms or legs today though!

At our next anchorage north of the main island of Viti Levu we witnessed a little more of the ferocity of the storm and damage caused by Cyclone Winston earlier this year. We could hardly miss the upturned catamaran hull just off the beach and the pretty little yacht perched drunkenly on a pile of rocks on the tiny offshore resort. We even found an abandoned kayak in perfect condition on the beach but we couldn’t think how we could realistically get it to our friends in Naqaravutu Village – such a waste.

Beached yacht courtesy of Cyclone Winston

Sailing out of this anchorage after dark following our entry track was an eery feeling knowing there was treacherous reef on either side but seeing nothing. Again we needed a slowish night passage to arrive in good light in the morning. So much of our sailing is a leap of faith, trusting to the electronic charts and during the day to eyeball navigatio and as has often been proved, the eyes can be more reliable than the charts!

The beautiful Yasawas

As planned, we arrived at our next destination Sawa i Lau on the northern most island of the Yasawas early in the morning and entered another beautiful, islet-sprinkled lagoon enclosed by towering cliffs and edged by sparkling sandy beaches.

Sawi i Lau cove

Following the normal protocol, we wasted no time in kayaking to the nearby village with our offering of kava for the local chief. We had forgotten that it was Sunday, one day seems very like another to us, and it was only after the chief hurriedly dealt with us and our questions and sped through the necessary ceremony that we heard the singing from the nearby church and realised that he must have been summoned from his devotions to deal with us.

We slipped into the side entrance to witness the service and as usual immediately became objects of interest, especially to the children. In our scruffy t-shirts and shorts we felt very underdressed compared to the congregation, ladies in pretty flowered dresses, the children immaculate in their Sunday best and some of the men even sporting jackets, collars and ties to complement their sulus. This was a Methodist church and all seemed very much more serious than my last experience at the tiny wooden, rush-floored church in Naqaravutu. The children wandered around the aisles, paying little attention to the service and made their escape through the rear door when possible, surrounding us to practise their English when we emerged.

We had heard that the snorkelling here was good and after exploring the pretty anchorage with its weathered and rugged claim-encrusted rocks and picturesque sandy bays by kayak as the tide went down and left us high and dry, we set off along the reef. As usual our swim followed the drop off of the shore reef where the fish are most prolific. We were concerned to find several very large Crowns of Thorns – a variety of poisonous sea stars (reef predators) – which can in a very short time decimate huge areas of coral. Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do about this creature – in Vava’u in Tonga, protectors of the reef were asking for reports on their presence in an effort to control the pests, but in Fiji we didn’t know of such an organisation.

We continued our sail south, visiting a number of anchorages and more idyllic islands en route. With our kava in hand, we stopped off once more to pay our respects to the chief of yet another pretty island. The chief was, we were informed by his wife, Mila, who was lounging in the mid-day sun along with her women friends on a platform under the village meeting tree, away on the mainland at the moment. She accepted the kava from us and told us to return later when they had had their rest.

Mila’s island and the meeting tree

Mila expressed interest in my sunglasses and requested a pair! I had no spare sunglasses to offer but I promised that maybe I might find a pair of reading glasses for her. Having read somewhere that specs might be an acceptable and worthwhile present in the Pacific, I had armed myself with a bagful of varying strengths from Poundland, most of which I had given away in SavuSavu. When we returned the following day with one of my remaining pairs of plastic floral-rimmed lenses Mila was overjoyed and exclaimed with delight as she pulled out a tattered magazine, “it’s really clear now” – one happy customer and I shall always be sure of a welcome on that island!

Mila with her new glasses

A visit to the Blue Lagoon 

We had agreed to meet up with Jessie and Neil and their visiting American friends in the justly famous and beautiful setting of the Blue Lagoon film, now more commercial than all those years ago with a new resort or two but nonetheless still picturesque. We climbed to the top of the island, meeting aboard his mechanical digger, the owner and entrepreneur of the two year old resort, a hard working, “rough and ready” Aussie ex-trucker, who had worked tirelessly to get the place up and running and was still very much hands on (up at 4am and bed at mid-night!). We admired his enterprise and hard work, but what an undertaking where everything has to be brought in from the “mainland”. And to think that Mike was indignant that they asked 50c per litre for tap water when he enquired to buy some!

Blue Lagoon in the afternoon sun

Jessie and Neil had arranged to dine at a nearby island and attend a sevusevu ceremony there and we couldn’t miss out on this experience. The fine dining was a “feast” laid on for a dozen of us by a village lady in her home. With the help of mud crabs and fish caught by Neil that morning, seated on the rush-covered floor, we tucked into a selection of local delicacies. They certainly eat simply but well here.

Fijian feast – mudcrabs, fish and good company

The kava ceremony on the raised outside area of another house was, we ladies were told, for men only. The men seated themselves in the usual circle whilst we ladies “reluctantly” seated ourselves in the stalls and talked to the few “rebel” men who accepted their bowls of kava and then turned to conversation with us (much more interesting!). In addition a couple of young girls sought our company and giggling shared their boyfriend problems – women of every age, everywhere talk about the same things!

We continued our sail south. We had heard of a submerged plane just offshore and this sounded like an opportunity for a more unusual snorkel. But, first we would have to cross the intervening strip of jungle from our anchorage to the other coast, only a short walk we were told (another of those myths) and on a ready made path. We should know by now, that hearsay should be taken with a hefty pinch of salt!

Firstly, the path, when we eventually found what seemed like an indefinite track, came and went as we fought our way through the coconut-strewn undergrowth, under, over and through trailing vines, fallen trees, grabbing thorns and fighting off sticky spiders’ webs until, inevitably, I stumbled along one half hidden path and Mike losing sight of me, launched himself down another semi-track. Waiting on the far side, overlooking an endless stretch of sandy beach and five or six offshore islands with no obvious signs of anything looking like a plane, it became apparent that we were looking for a needle in a haystack. When Mike eventually emerged from the jungle with his report that the plane was somewhere between us and one of the tiny islands, but which one was anyone’s guess, we decided to call it a day and retrace our steps (well almost but with a few more side tracks) back the way we had come – mission not accomplished!

Making our way further south and in the knowledge that there was a “low” on its way and expecting winds anywhere from the north through to the south-east we vacated what we considered to be an unprotected anchorage and made our way round the corner, skirting some hazardous reefs into the expected protection of a westerly-facing bay. But, weather hardly ever seems to do what it’s predictions foretell.

Caught on a Leeshore

We had sympathetically watched some drenched tourists being transported by motorboats with their luggage and umbrellas battling the driving rain to the waiting ferry (what a way to end your holiday) believing ourselves to be wet but safe. How wrong can you be!? Without warning the wind did a sudden shift and suddenly we were experiencing the full force of it, driving us onshore with such a ferocity that within minutes the sea suddenly increased with roaring waves and wind-driven spume causing a white-out as we tossed and strained at anchor. We let out all but the last few metres of chain, powered up the engine and prayed that we would hold. With a horrible crunching and grinding as the bow jerked and juddered at the end of its tether it became obvious that we had attached ourselves to, or around, a bommie. We never thought we would be grateful for the presence of a submerged rock, but this time, it saved us from being deposited on a leeshore.

For several hours whilst the storm raged, we listened to the straining chain, wondering if it would hold, would the bommie keep us safe or would we have to ditch the anchor and head out through the reefs to open water – not a welcome prospect.

With relief we recognised that the wind was gradually shifting back behind the protecting headland to the south and we could breath again. By midnight all was calm once more and we slept in peace, wondering what we would find in the light of day.

Mike kayaked to the beach to rescue a bucket and an empty fuel can which had blown ashore (being red it wasn’t difficult to track).  Then it was time to inspect the damage and see what surprises the bommies had in store for us. With Mike in the water directing operations and me on the helm we wove this way and that untangling the chain until we were once more free of the submerged rocks (turned out to be two of them involved!) and we hurriedly took in the chain and moved to open sea once more.

Under the force of the straining chain the bow roller and stainless steel anchor channel had splayed open – that was going to need a yard to re-fashion it. Apart from that and some chain scrapes along the bow we escaped unscathed, we were so lucky once again.

Still counting our blessings and on a clear, sunny day we motored out of the fateful bay and headed down the coast. It just goes to show that one’s concentration at sea cannot slip for a moment. Too close to the shore reef and having relaxed, the sudden rasping from the hull alerted us to the fact that we had, once again, ventured too close to shore – we had made contact with the reef and looking over the side were all too well aware of the coral ledge just beneath us. The rudder had jammed upon impact and as we hastily reversed off back into deep water, we experienced that “sinking” feeling once again – now what?! Mike went over the side and returned with a relieved grin, “I’ve given it (the rudder) a kick and it’s free again”! It appeared that we had been lucky yet again, only a few minor scratches on the keel and there appeared to be no damage to the rudder. How many lives do we have on this boat? We’ve surely used up more than nine!

The unsettled weather hadn’t finished with us yet and that night after more heavy rain and wind we were glad to make an unscheduled stop in near dark at the base of some surrounding high cliffs and at the mouth of a river (lots of lovely good-holding mud). Most of the time sailing is wonderful, but there are times when enough is enough and there comes a moment when you would like to be anywhere but on that boat – not often, I admit, but it happens!

Sad Farewells

We had agreed to catch up once again with Jessie and Neil to say our relectant farewells as they continued onwards to Vanuatu and Australia and we headed south to New Zealand. A couple of days in the busy tourist resort of Musket Cove was enough, tears were shed and hugs were exchanged before we headed for Vuda Point on Viti Levu to check out, leaving Jessie and Neil about to depart for their new life in Australia. We heard just before they left that Jessie had been offered a position in her field of Clinical Psychology at the University of Melbourne. We were so delighted for her, she and Neil were so desperate to start a new life in Australia and it seems that the door is now open to them – well done!

Our long journey of three years was coming to an end and we were preparing to say goodbye to Fabulous Fiji, hopefully to return another day. We entered the tiny circular marina at Vuda Point and were directed into our narrow spot, bow to the wall. We had been warned that getting on and off the boat, especially at low tide was going to be challenging. A small wooden platform juts out from the surrounding quay to one side of the bow and it’s a giant step up for anyone at low water, let alone a couple of OAPs. Once again our little folding ladder came into its own and resting over a fender suspended from the pulpit we had no difficulty in reaching the platform at any angle.

Vuda Marina on the west coast of Viti Levu is one of the few places to check out of Fiji and a favourite for all those heading west or south. Our couple of days there gave us a chance to assess the weather for our passage to New Zealand as well as provision for the ten day trip. This passage had long been at the back of our minds with plenty of stories of dreadful weather and rough seas and we wanted to make sure, or as sure as we could be, that we weren’t going to run into one of the Tasman Sea specials. There were others waiting to leave and we agreed that the coming Thursday, 21st October, was the Day to go, so fuelled up, water tanks full, fresh food for the passage, immigration formalities completed and we were on our way to the Land of the Long White Cloud.

A Taste of New Zealand

Back in New Zealand

Since arriving back in New Zealand in mid-February and enjoying warm summer (for the most part) temperatures and blue skies, I’ve been adjusting to living on the water again.

Back on the water in the Bay of Islands

I joined a new yacht, a Catalina 42′ for those in the know, a comfortable, spacious and well-equipped and maintained American-made boat and her skipper, Pieter, a Dutch Australian of my vintage. The idea was to explore the coastline of New Zealand for two to three months riding out the cyclone season before heading north for another dose of sunshine and tropical islands.

The boat, “Thumbs Up”, was in Opua in the Bay of Islands and after some hasty provisioning and a few days in the beautiful nearby islands (in reality more like hundreds of miles of multi-indented mainland coastline than islands), we headed south. I accustomed myself to my new home and the intricacies of new equipment. I gingerly lowered myself into the none-too-warm local waters and admired spectacular vistas of emerald, tea-tree-clad islets both from the sea and summits.

A beautiful vista in the Bay of Islands

Fish for dinner

It was time to explore further afield, but not before landing a large and welcome Kingfish, enough to give us a number of succulent dinners. Having despatched it, Pieter left it securely tied and trailing in the boat’s wake, insides cleaning out nicely. We remembered our catch sometime later after we had anchored and rushed to whisk the fish out of the water just before two circling sharks deprived us of our dinner. Yes, sharks in New Zealand!! And not little ones either, these were a good 8′ long although we weren’t able to identify the species. Apparently sharks are not uncommon in New Zealand’s waters but these definitely weren’t Great Whites and they were nowhere to be seen when I later ventured a quick dip.

A happy fisherman with a good catch

What weather!

We had originally discussed circumnavigating New Zealand to explore far south Stewart Island and the multitude of finger-like fiords on the south-west coast. In my ignorance I imagined that we would, in no time, be able to potter serenely south along the east coast taking in a few places of interest as we went. Not so.  Firstly New Zealand is a country of weather – and what weather! I thought the UK was bad, but the daily variations in temperature and conditions here have to be experienced to be believed. One minute you can accept the claim to be in the sub-tropics with the surrounding profusion of colourful hibiscus and warm sun on your face and the next you are fleeing below to grab a warm jacket and escape the icy southerly winds blowing straight up from the Antarctic. I have learned, that however benign the day at its start, to stow everything as if expecting a tropical storm – conditions can and do change rapidly. And the winds blow from every direction and change rapidly from one quadrant to another.

As we headed south towards Auckland anchoring in some ruggedly beautiful bays empty but for the thousands of swooping, screeching seabirds and light habitation – mostly holiday homes – realisation dawned on us both that the outer limits of the South Island with their unpredictable storms and uncomfortable closeness to the Roaring Forties, were probably somewhat unrealistic, or if not unrealistic, just that bit too much like hard work, not to mention, the cold! We are not after all hardy sea farers but cruisers grown soft in the balmy middle latitudes! We opted to remain in the not so stressful area of the Coromandel and the many and varied eastern offshore islands of the Hauraki Gulf.

After taking shelter in a marina in Auckland for an unexpected extended period of a week, during which the heavens opened and the city experienced one of its heaviest deluges in recent times, we headed out to the Coromandel, but not before fuelling up in a strong off-jetty wind. Leaping ashore as Pieter manoeuvred Thumbs Up alongside gave me just enough time to secure the bow line over a cleat but not long enough to race to the other end of the jetty and haul in the stern line loosely attached by a halfway-helpful guy. As Thumbs Up nosed the backend of the motorboat in front and swung her stern out to the extent of the attached rope, no amount of pulling persuaded her to come alongside. Pieter eventually winched in the stern line and all was well. I had time to reflect that at moments like that bow thrusters would have been very welcome.

Thumbs Up in Auckland with the Sky Tower in the background

Along the Coromandel Peninsula

The Coromandel coast was spectacular, empty and wild with plenty of soaring mountains, protected inlets, lovely shell-strewn beaches and even a few sheep bleating an indignant retreat at our approach. I am in awe of the early settlers who conquered this terrain and appreciate how hard and insular their lives must have been before the introduction of roads and modern communications. Even now, the sheep stations are often few and far between with sheep roaming hundreds of craggy impenetrable miles. Collecting them must be a real test of ingenuity.

Whilst picking our way over razor sharp oyster-covered rocks along the edge of one bay and stumbling through the millions of empty shells bedecking the beach, we noticed the tips of mussels surreptitiously withdrawing into the sand as the tide retreated. What a find – dozens of green-lipped mussels, fresh and for the taking. Along with a haul of cockles we gleefully returned to the boat – most of the cockles were just shells full of sand, but the mussels stretched to two good dinners, all the better for being free.

Collecting green lipped mussels in the Coromandel

Whilst in Auckland and after the excitement of landing a second large Kingfish, Pieter had been persuaded on his visit to the chandlers to invest in an all-singing, all-dancing new rod – well it certainly looks the part! So far, his disappointment hasn’t overcome his enthusiasm, but as yet the rod has still to be blooded and stubbornly refuses to cooperate – maybe it’s got something to do with the mangling the line received as it wrapped itself around the prop when reversing – and to add insult to injury sending his best lure to the depths. Never mind, I’m sure the day will come when some unwary Tuna, Mahi-Mahi or Marlin (let’s be optimistic) will jump on the line! In the meantime, Snapper caught with the small rod and unrealistic wriggly plastic pink lures have graced the table on a number of welcome occasions.

Great Barrier Island

This easterly and fourth largest of New Zealand’s islands proved to be an undiscovered paradise. Dozens of hidden and protected bays offering anchorages for every wind direction but few signs of habitation. I was looking forward to exploring the capital of Port Fitzroy and to replenishing our dwindling provisions, but upon arrival at the little wharf, I was quickly disillusioned – one tiny general store, library (closed), information shack (closed) and clinic (closed). The general store run by a couple who had decided to return to the mainland after 20 years of frustrations, was fortunately expecting its weekly delivery by ferry that day and for a small fortune we topped up some basics. The whole island has fewer than 800 permanent inhabitants and we encountered just a handful around this sleepy hollow.

The island is one of New Zealand’s tourist spots and many locals come here in the summer months to trek the well-kept mountain paths which cross-cross the island and to camp and enjoy coastal pursuits. We thought too it was time to don our walking shoes and try out some of the easier and shorter routes, alongside waterfalls and up river valleys. By far the hardest track was one misleadingly entitled “The Old Lady’s Track”. As we struggled and puffed and pulled ourselves up a rough and brutally steep path tripping on tree roots and slipping on moss and mud, we muttered that she must have been quite some old lady. But the view far out over the bay and beyond from the rocky outcrop at the summit was worth the palpitations and we rested long enough to soak up some sunshine and lower the heart rate before tackling the equally difficult and precarious passage downhill.

Made it to the top of the Old Lady’s Track – worth it for the view!

From the Mokohinaus to Whangarei

With settled weather we chanced an overnight stop in the Mokohinaus, more a group of large rocks than islands, but nevertheless on a day with clear blue skies and calm seas, the colours were spectacular and the clarity of the water was incredible. I swam without a mask and was amazed to see the fish below me as through a window. Pieter had donned a wetsuit expecting it to be very cold but the islands must lie within the warm current which flows from north to south. We have never seen so many large shoals of fish (or seabirds) – the water was boiling – unfortunately none of them ended up on our table.

The rugged grandeur of the Mokohinaus

A straight run across the bay brought us to Bream Head and into the long tidal Whangarei river. With the tides running at 2-3 knots it’s preferable to enter or leave with the current. It takes two to three hours with a high tide from the coast to Whangarei itself to reach the town basin, so good timing is essential. We spent a few days visiting the convenient supermarket, hiding from the rain and having the boat hauled for a quick antifoul job – in and out in three days was very good going especially keeping the paint dry in between the storms. The waters of New Zealand are certainly very high in nutrients if the amount and size of barnacles are anything to go by – Pieter said he had never seen so many in such a short time!

Trekking and exploring

Exploring the coastline and trekking across tiny islands has given us the opportunity to appreciate the flora and birdlife of this lovely part of the world with no fear of unexpected underfoot nasties. Each little island has its fair share of well-maintained and signposted tracks, together with a board of rules – no dogs or cats and no rats! New Zealand has worked hard to rid itself of its unwanted and foreign species and is determined to keep it that way. The birdlife is prolific and everywhere the plaintive and unusual cry of the native Tuis (large black birds with flashes of bright blue plumage and fluffy white puffballs beneath their beaks) echoes throughout the woodland. Smaller and less colourful Fantails jealously guard their territory, flitting and chirping, tail spread, from tree to tree around you until you move on.

Tea trees with their dainty white flowers and the familiar pungent aroma cover the thickly wooded slopes reminiscent from a distance of knobbly broccoli heads supported on long, white, spindly stalks. Giant Pohutukawas (so called Christmas trees because of their profusion of red flowers at this season) fringe the shorelines of much of the coast, clinging precariously with a massive tangle of roots to rocky slopes or support their mighty weight on twisted branches buried in the beach below.

A Pohutukawa tree making its way down the beach

Goodbye to New Zealand

It’s been a thrill and a privilege to explore some of this lovely coastline with some exciting sailing along the way but the days are growing shorter and cooler and the tropics are calling. So with just a week or so left, final provisioning still to do, with a good weather window we look forward to heading for Fiji for more adventures and warm sunshine. Fiji here we come.

Cambodia – Kingdom of Wats

Christmas and celebrations in Chiang Mai 

Christmas and the New Year came and went in the usual flurry of pre-festive activities – school concerts, shopping, school boot sale, frantic present wrapping, etc and then as always Christmas Day was upon us in a blur of presents with the excitement of Santa’s obvious visit and a belt-straining Christmas Dinner. 

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Father Christmas has been, see, sleigh and boot marks!

Despite the late King’s death a few months ago and the sombreness of any public entertainment, the expat community entered the spirit of the season with its usual pizzazz and party followed party – pre-Christmas and afterwards, culminating in a riotous family evening on New Year’s Eve in the community.  The garden looked a little the worse for wear the following day and so did those of us who stayed until 5.0am!

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Sarah and I and a welcome to 2017

Off to Cambodia

With only a day left on my visa in Thailand I flew to neighbouring Cambodia to spend a week exploring the sights of Phnom Penh and the 6 hours bus journey north to the city of Siem Reap and its beautiful and world-famous temples.  With good old AirBnB accommodation was arranged in the less salubrious outskirts of Phnom Penh with a local family living in a “shop house” and in Siem Reap with a professional Ukrainian guide and his partner, I was set to go.

Chariya and her husband, Putkosal, arranged for me to be picked up by tuk-tuk from the airport and a smiling Kim Leung was there to whisk me through the chaotic traffic to my accommodation.  Chariya and her smiling, talkative toddler and baby greeted me warmly and I was ushered into a basically furnished but spotlessly clean kitchen and plied with drinks and sticky banana rice.  Chariya and Putkosal, who had returned by motorbike from his long day at a distant warehouse, both spoke good English and had realised the importance of teaching their children the language.  Asa, the two year old, spoke and understood English very well and was as quick and eager as her parents to learn new words.

Kim Leung and my chariot

I hadn’t expected to be fed but I was included at the tiny kitchen table and embarrassingly my plate was heaped with the lion’s share  – tasty soup and a chicken rice dish.  We chatted as we ate and they were happy and eager to share their culture and history, openly voicing their disaffection with the corrupt government but knowing that they were powerless to change it.  They, as everyone I met, had their stories of the appalling Pol Pot regime, before their time but still vivid in their parents’ memories.  

Phnom Penh, Pearl of Asia

Phnom Penh a sprawling flood-plain city of something in the region of two million people is situated at the confluence of the Tonle Sap River and the mighty Mekong which flows alongside the city and then meanders on its way south and onward into Vietnam to its extensive delta.  Phnom Penh has been the the off/on capital of Cambodia since 1432 and an important centre during the days of the Khmer Empire which extended over much of present day Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and even north into Myanmar.  

The busy Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh

The city which was first established in the fourteenth century reputedly took its name from the 27 metre artificial hill (Phnom) and Penh, a lady of the time called Penh who having found some religeous relics floating in the river transported them to the western bank, constructed the hill and built a shrine to house the artefacts.  This is now known as Wat Phnom (Hill Temple) and has become a major tourist attraction.

Wat Phnom

The centre of the city is modern, sprinkled with parks and imposing memorial statues, good roads and elaborate new buildings alongside the older elaborate colonial architecture, all interspersed with narrow, shabby streets packed with commercial enterprises trading in everything from beautiful heavy wooden furniture to carved stone buddhas, tiny unprepossessing eateries and motorbike repair workshops operating right on the pavement.  From the 1920s during the French colonialist era Phnom Penh was deservedly known as the “Pearl of Asia”.

Stone Buddhas for sale

Motorbikes everywhere

Motorbikes, scooters and tuk-tuks proliferate on the busy city roads as they weave in and out of the heavy traffic on all sides.  They race laden with passengers, as many as seven on a bike, although the legal limit is three, cross-crossing the busy interchanges in a chaotic fashion.  Dad at the helm might be wearing the obligatory helmet but mum and kids squashed in behind are exposed to luck and good judgement.  Small children jostle with their scooters, transporting their classmates to school, babies feed from their mothers in transit and bulky goods are transported piled high on the pillion.  

Furniture removals in Phnom Penh!

Motorbikes seem to be the primary form of transport and their uses vary from the norm to adaptations for mobile mini-markets, to lengthy and unwieldy construction “lorries” and furniture removal vehicles.  The colourful and ubiquitous tuks-tuks are themselves motorbikes turned into pulling machines of their convenient and comfortable little carriages.

Sights of the City

My first day was to be an exhausting tramp through the city from sight to sight, starting with the climb to the top of Wat Phnom to admire the marvels within along with the teaming tourists.  Judging from the kneeling supplicants with their incense sticks and proferred dollars which are eagerly collected by temple workers there must be many more Buddhist followers in the West than I would have imagined!  Outside the flower sellers arranged the budding flowers which they painstakingly open one by one to expose the petals and tiny birds flutter in the confines of small cages waiting to be paid for and liberated to please Buddha.  I was told they dutifully return later to repeat the cycle!

Birds for sale to earn you a place in heaven!

As I walked south through the city I couldn’t fail to find the huge Central Market, an Aladdin’s Cave of goodies with its huge high domed central hall, crammed with glass-covered counters displaying gold and silver jewellery, antique coins,, clocks and watches of all sizes and designs.  Jewellers work in rudimentary little booths in the side alleys and stalls stacked high with garments (Cambodia’s primary industry), food and household goods fill the cramped spaces.

Jewellery making in the Central Market

It took me a little longer with map in hand to negotiate my way to the National Museum but the history, ancient statues and tranquility of the picturesque, enclosed courtyard more than compensated for the walk.  A brief interlude exchanging ideas and impressions with three young Japanese visitors over a cool drink was enlightening, although sadly they had not wished to expose themselves to the history of Pol Pot’s regime (they said they were “too scared” to see the Genocide Museum).

The inner courtyard at the National Museum

The Royal Palace within its sculpted gardens is a wonder of typical local architecture but was closed by the time I reached the entrance so I joined the thousands of locals and colourful saffron-clad swathes of monks, young and old, on the Sisowath.  This promenade runs alongside the river and on a Sunday afternoon attracts walkers, picnickers, flower sellers, bird sellers, food sellers and people just relaxing and watching river life.

The Royal Palace

A Gruesome History

My visit to Phnom Penh wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to the notorious Genocide Museum (Tuol Sleng or S21 Prison) and the Killing Fields, 15 kilometres outside the city.  I spent a harrowing morning with earphones listening to the sickening history of the Pol Pot revolution from 1975-79, witnessing the converted school to torture centre where 20,000 doomed Cambodians were brought, tortured and mercilessly killed for being “too white, having soft hands, being educated”.  And this was just one of the 300 such centres scattered around a country which murdered 3 million of its 8 million population during those few short years.

Tuol Sleng (S21 Prison)

The Killing Fields was, prior to the atrocities, a Chinese cemetery at Choeung Ek, but it became the mass burial grounds for those condemned to die in Tuol Sleng (only a handful survived as a result of being useful to the regime) and they were transported in their lorryloads to be brutally murdered, in barbarous fashion.  Bullets were in short supply so indescribable methods were used, such as the razor sharp branches of the sugar palm to behead and babies were beaten against a tree and thrown into the nearby pit to join the bodies of their mothers.  Seeing hundreds of mutilated skulls in the memorial building was a sobering experience which left everyone shocked and silent, horrified at the inhumanity of mankind.

The gruesome Killing Fields memorial – one of 17 levels

An uneventful 6 hour bus journey to Siem Reap passed through little villages with their wooden, stilted single-storey houses, some with terracotta tiled and decorated roofs, others with simple, corrugated iron but nearly all with pretty carved staircases.  In front of many homes grazed one or two bony, white cows looking in need of a good feed.  The villages were surrounded by acres of emerald green padi fields, many sporting white nets for the catching of insects at night, such as grasshoppers, which are prized for their nutritional value!

Typical stilted wayside houses

The temples of Siem Reap

A long day exploring the temples of Siem Reap, including of course, the most famous – Angkor Wat – left me with aching joints and fit to drop.  I don’t think I’ve ever climbed so many stairs (some of them close to perpendicular) in one day in the pursuit of examining intricate carvings, lengthy walls telling stories and depicting mythical and Buddhist history through the bas relief carvings and ancient and beautiful architecture.  The Ta Prohm temple with majestic trees intertwined amongst its still beautiful doorways, carvings and ruins is justly famous with its atmosphere reminiscent of “Lord of the Rings”.  Unfortunately, here I had to dodge the bus loads of Chinese tourists who were more interested in taking selfies than admiring the grandeur around them and at one point, I begged a break in proceedings to allow me to photograph without a Chinese addition!

Trees wrapped around the ruins

I was recommended to spend a day exploring Phnom Kulen in the National Park to the north of Siem Reap and was happy to rest my weary knees during the 40 miles drive.  The temple at Preay Ang Thom, like the others, was disappointing in its commercialism with monks at the ready to relieve eager tourists of their money and local people flanking the steps to the temple (yes, more steps) with a tradition of expectation.  The 8 metre reclining Buddha carved into its huge supporting boulder was indeed impressive, the decorations were colourful, the monks waved their batons with vigour but maybe I was just templed out.  A peaceful and unspoilt spot on the nearby river was more to my taste – the valley of a thousand lingas!  I wasn’t able to count them but in the shallow water, the well etched, square carvings stood out clearly and formed an unusual riverbed.  

Reclining Buddha – 8 metres long

 Back in Phnom Penh I spent the last afternoon exploring the Royal Palace with its beautiful Emerald Buddha, elaborate buildings and upturned roofs, State costumes and manicured grounds before returning for my last night with Chariya and Putkosal and enjoyed another speciality of the house.  As I said a sad goodbye to my new friends and Cambodia, I look forward to returning to see more of this lovely country.

 

New friends in Cambodia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From the UK to Thailand

Despite what I’m often told, I claim to be an optimist.  As I continue to travel, the reality and outcome are never quite as anticipated.  Things never go as expected.  Here I am, my brief sojourn in the UK has come and gone – a month seemed like a very long time when I booked my ticket and more than enough time to catch up with the family and friends and do the odd bit of shopping, etc but not with numerous problems stealing my precious time.

Oh those banking problems!

Unknown and unexpected factors always arise which are frustratingly out of my control.  Banking problems for instance which one would expect to be sorted in a very short time don’t bear out my optimism.  I returned to a prime example and have sworn to change my 50+ years old bank account with the mighty HSBC.  It’s taken me more than four months to resolve an issue after using a “secure and convenient” bank transfer to a travel company in New Zealand, causing me to be £1,500 out of pocket during that time.  Grrrr!!!  Finally, in desperation after every department, including Customer Services (huh) ignored my pleas I wrote to the CEO and eureka, they found my money!  Naturally, it still took another few weeks for the money to reach my account!

Sporting events and birthday

I spent a hectic month in the UK in November firstly with Rachel and family in Norwich, enjoying the dubious privilege of shivering at the edge of a damp and muddy rugby field with frozen feet which had long since lost any feeling and ears glowing like red beacons.  I watched and cheered grandson Sam and a rugby team of ten year old boys mauling each other, wresting the ball and racing up the pitch, but I can’t say it really grabbed my enthusiasm.  Watching Sam, Ella and Paul perform on their respective hockey fields with infinitely more comfortable AstroTurf beneath the feet, in the weak November sun, was somewhat more enjoyable.  Sam’s indoor cricket coaching practice was, by comparison, a pleasure especially as it paid off with the ultimate achievement of being picked to join the Norfolk County squad as one of their up and coming youngsters.  Rachel and Paul will be forfeiting most of their weekends next summer to transport Sam from fixture to fixture around the country but with Sam’s contagious enthusiasm for the game there will be plenty of family support.

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Sam making a dash for it

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Ella on the ball

My visit coincided with Rachel’s birthday on 15th November and she celebrated in style with a deluge of presents and flowers and an impressive iced carrot cake made by Paul – his first ever.  We enjoyed a delicious lunch in a favourite Norwich eatery finishing with a mountain of meringue, cream and berries, returning home to cut and demolish a weight-watcher’s nightmare, the sumptuous carrot cake – all in all an enjoyable high calorie day!

Birthday lunch
Birthday lunch

Visiting friends and the joys of driving

Rachel generously lent me her car for a week to tour the south of England and catch up with friends and family.  On a wet and miserable November morning I set forth for Worcestershire in the knowledge that my transport was equipped not only with a cheering seat warmer to which I eventually found the off button but not before shedding clothing whilst underway and cooling down from puce to normal, but also the comforting Satnav.  After insistently directing me to leave the straight-forward route on the motorway, I was plunged into the depths of rural England, down narrow, winding country roads often submerged by heavy rainfall and into thick fog.  I couldn’t turn back, without a map I was lost so I cursed and continued until I eventually and surprisingly arrived in time for lunch to a roaring fire and a warm welcome by Carole, my oldest (in time) friend in a quaint country pub.  Then it was on to Gloucestershire to stay for a few days with Anna, another long-suffering friend of my youth – she (bless her) traipsed with me through the pre-Christmas crowds around the Cheltenham shops in the rain searching out a couple of party dresses for Christmas in Thailand.  

Making my way to coastal Sussex to stay with my ex-brother-in-law, Jim and his partner Mo, the car was determined to take control of my itinerary, directing me to go cross-country at every exit along the M4, M25 and M23 with me responding defiantly to the robot.  Strolling along the prom in Seaford on a glorious bright, crisp day with the gentle waves lapping the pebbles and the sun glistening on the sea brought home the pleasures of England when the sun does shine but made me nostalgic for life on the ocean wave. 

My car problems were not just with the Satnav.   As I was coming towards the end of my long cross-country drive, the engine revs without warning plummeted and recovered on several occasions until I crawled up the final hill with a long queue in my bunny-hopping wake.  As it turned out it was set to fuel-saving around town mode – not for long distance motoring.

Twenty-five years ago we lived in the tiny village of Warfield in Berkshire and it had long been on my mind to re-visit to catch up with long lost friends.  With a car and time the opportunity was one I couldn’t ignore,  Rae and John, our nearest ex-neighbours in their beautiful Moat House, were at home and after jaw-dropping surprise to see me, we spent a great couple of hours reminiscing and catching up on family news.  I’m so glad to have made the effort to see them especially as they have made the decision to sell up and return to their native New Zealand.  Silvana and Mike knew I was coming and it was another nostalgic trip down memory lane with Silvana and I chatting late into the night.  

Excess luggage and how to make it weigh less!

The last few days flew by as I anxiously watched the parcels roll in from Amazon and packed and repacked my cases with Sarah’s growing mountain of Christmas goodies.  “It’ll be fine” she blithely cooed.  “You know you can talk your way through it”!  I packed the books, presents, food stuffs and crossed my fingers in the knowledge that I was over the already generous allowance of thirty kilos.  

Was it an omen when the handle fell off the heaviest case before I even reached the bus station for my overnight bus to the airport?! I leapt from the bus in the terminal to grab the one remaining trolley, forced in the coin and yanked it from its restraining chain with desperation, to discover that there were only three wheels on my wagon – the fourth was broken and useless.  Nevertheless, three were better than none and piled high with cases and heavy rucksack I pulled, pushed shoved and dragged the unwieldy beast to the next trolley bay.

Now just to brave check-in!   My cheerful good morning elicited a steely response – “you’re 6 kilos over, that will be £254 in excess”.  What!!!  After weighing my hand luggage and pronouncing it on the limit, it was then suggested that I go away and re-pack.  So with books and heavy trays (with inscriptions aimed at stroppy teenagers), I packed a second rucksack and lumbered through departures with my now well overweight hand luggage.  I asked myself how does transferring the luggage from one place to another make it lighter on the plane?!

Bangkok to Chiang Mai

In the airport the following morning I set about re-packing once more and lightening my hand luggage.  Now I needed a taxi to take me into the centre of Bangkok.  I repeated the name of the station several times with no comprehension and only after I enacted “the wheels on the train” with accompanying sounds and whistles did the taxi driver finally say “ah you want Hua Lamphong.  Isn’t that what I said?!”

Hua Lamphong Station
Hua Lamphong Station

 

Once my luggage was safely stowed in the somewhat chaotic left luggage facility, I was lightly free to go exploring the area.  Chinatown was nearby with its famous golden Buddha statue so that was an obvious choice.  This Buddha when found was covered in white plaster to disguise and protect it from marauders and it was only later realised that beneath the thin covering was a priceless artefact.  It is claimed that this is the most valuable single object in the world.

The Golden Buddha
The Golden Buddha

Having climbed to the top of the temple and viewed the wonderful sights within, fatigue and heat drove me back to the relative cool of the spacious, domed station where I relaxed with tea and company – two Malaysian families travelling on the same train shared my table and their experiences and aspirations.  At 6pm it was time to reclaim my bags and board the new Chinese-built train for Chiang Mai.  Despite all reservations, the train was excellent, my first class double compartment shared with a German woman was superb with comfortable sleeping berths and all mod cons.  This was a great way to travel and we arrived on time thirteen hours later to be met by Sarah In Chiang Mai, what more could I ask for?!

 

 

 

 

 

                    

 

New Zealand – end of an Odyssey

It was with more than a little fear and trepidation that we set out from Fiji and headed south. The reputation of this piece of ocean is deserved, with storm after storm sweeping from the Tasman Sea over the islands of New Zealand. We had been warned by New Zealanders that it would be very unlikely that we would make the journey without at least one “big blow”. “There’s one a week” we were warned and it was going to take us at least nine or ten days at best.

During our first four days we made good progress with brisk winds but then as the winds died totally we had no option but to start the engine. Little did we know at that point that we would be chugging along for the next four days under motor as the winds stubbornly refused to return and then only in the wrong direction. In other circumstances we would probably have wallowed the time away but with the threat of a low looming we didn’t dare take the risk. We had never before motored for such a long period, but there was nothing for it but to keep going.

Eventually, a favourable wind returned briefly and we thankfully turned off the engine and hoisted the sails once again, but not for long. As we sighted New Zealand we were once more under engine with the wind on the nose, anxiously watching the fuel gauge and trying to anticipate whether we would have enough diesel to see us into port.

Arrival in New Zealand

We ignored our misgivings over entering Opua, our check-in port, at night and as the sun set we entered the long lead in between the rocky outcrops and islands. By the time we arrived at the Quarantine jetty it was pitch dark and a strong tide was beginning to run against us, but we had thankfully made it without incident and on time.

At 8.0 am the following morning, the Immigration & Customs official was on board asking all the usual searching questions before stamping our papers. He was closely followed by the officer from Biodiversity, a stickler for “doing it by the book”. He foraged through every food cupboard and examined and disposed of bags of frozen and chilled items not allowed into NZ. We were allowed to keep three of our remaining five packets of lentils, but no beans or other dried pulses! I had hurriedly turned the remaining large bags of raisins and walnuts into a supply of cakes – they were permitted. He threatened to take our one remaining orange if it wasn’t eaten before he closed his sack – he only got the peel!

A Whiskered Stowaway

Now for the major problem. A minor diversion during our passage in the guise of an unwelcome stowaway – a rat. We had, it seems, picked up a little hitchhiker whilst in Vuda Point and it had been making itself at home on board. The first clue was the large hole in a heavy-weight plastic box containing the bread flour and the liberal sprinkling of flour spread around the cupboard. It can’t have been a very nutritious diet but the rat had tried more than one variety of flour – with a preference for multi-grain it seems!

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I’m having that cheese even if I do get a headache!

Mike decided to declare our extra crew member with the consequences that the yacht remained in quarantine and we were banished out to anchor until a body, dead or alive, was produced rather than being allowed into the marina. We were allowed ashore by dinghy. Firstly though, the second battalion was brought in – the two sniffer dogs, labrador and beagle, with their little bootees, were lifted on board and taken down below to seek out the rat. They could smell him, but the rat had plenty of tiny escape channels too small for any dog to follow and he just removed himself to another part of the boat as the dogs sniffed frantically around the cupboards.

A number of solutions were suggested – traps, poison, gas.  We started with a trap – the rat was a clever rat though and the trap was sprung a number of times but the cheese and peanut butter disappeared and the enticing boxes of poison were ignored. A second super-rat trap was set and this time the rat must have become complacent. It was badly injured, judging by the blood left behind. The last I heard the rat was no more but maybe the smell has yet to rise from the bilges.

Eventually, the Biodiversity officer agreed that he couldn’t keep us in Opua indefinitely waiting for a body and he signed the clearance papers. We hurriedly left Opua before he changed his mind and continued our sail down the coast of New Zealand to the final destination in the riverside town of Whangarei.

The end of the Line

Arriving in Whangarei in rain and a very chilly southerly wind was a shock to a system more used to tropical warmth and balmy breezes, but this is still spring and summer is just around the corner.

After three years of sailing; from the Canary Islands to the Cape Verde’s, crossing the Atlantic, exploring the Caribbean and cruising from island to island in the South Pacific, my crewing days on Romano finally came to an end in Whangarei. On 8th  November I took the bus to Auckland and flew back to the UK. This was the end of an exciting, sometimes frightening, often challenging adventure with many ups and downs, good and bad times but few that I would have missed.

I haven’t finished yet, next year’s itinerary – different boat, different skipper – is in the pipeline, so please keep watching the blog!

A Stay in an Eco-Village (Fiji 3)

We heard by chance of an eco-village project at Naqaravutu, a tiny remote coastal village three hours east of SavuSavu.  The local people offered accommodation in their midst and an insight into living in an authentic village undertaking an international birdlife initiative.

Along the dusty Road

Much of the journey was on an unsealed, dusty road, so no smart express coach this time – our bus was one of the battered vintage kind with no windows and plastic bench seats which had seen better days. We were inevitably objects of interest – why were two white people on the bus, where were we going? We were interrogated from the seat behind us and as one person vacated another moved in for the next grilling session, all done in good humour and genuine interest.

As we proceeded further and further into the back of beyond we wondered if we were expected and where was this tiny village! We needn’t have worried, the passengers made sure we got off at the small cluster of houses by the sea and we were led to the village’s meeting place, under a huge Raintree where we were plied with slices of papaya and green coconut milk.

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The magnificent Raintree and village meeting place 

It was explained to us by the enthusiastic young manager of the project, Simione that we would be taken to meet the chief to present our ceremonial gift of kava to him after he finished working on his bamboo raft. We had been forewarned about the kava which is a strange root crop from which they make their mildly alcoholic and muddy-looking beverage and we were advised to take a packet as our introduction to the village. We had bought it in the market wrapped in newspaper, wound in ribbon, looking like a ufo antenna.

The meeting with the chief was our initiation into the village and after the formal presentation, clapping and words of welcome, we were told we were now officially a part of the village and welcome to go wherever we wished.

An Eco Project in the making

When the village agreed to participate in the project, three years ago, it was a huge decision for the tiny, poor community to agree to stop logging in and around their village to allow the forest to regenerate and to protect the endangered bird population, in particular the Silkbird or Sisi which is only found here.  Additionally, there is now a self-imposed tabu area of reef where fishing no longer takes place to allow regeneration.

We were told that it is now a crime to light fires to burn off undergrowth or even rubbish, ensuring that the land is protected from accidental fires.  They have embraced the ideas of conservation with enthusiasm and are now beginning to see the results of their efforts. As well as refraining from cutting down the existing forest, they are planting new trees, such as Sandalwood which will be a substantial cash crop in years to come.  Amongst their participating sister-villages, bee keeping has become an initiative as well as a bakery and pig-rearing.

Simione led us up through the forest backing the village, pointing out trees and ancestral places of interest as we climbed. We passed waterfalls and crossed the river boundary ending our trek in front of a sheer rockface where Simione knelt reverently in front of a pile of bones guarding the entrance to a cave. These, we were told, were the sacred bones of ancestors long gone – just lying there for anyone to pick up! He was unable to tell us much about the bones and we suggested that maybe he should get them dated – there is a good university in Fiji which serves the South Pacific and we suggested that he might start with them.

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Simione explaining the ancestral bones

He was apologetic that now we had seen it all and he had nothing else to show or tell us. Marketing is not something which has yet arrived in the village and we suggested to him that there was plenty which would be of interest. We questioned him about the trees and shrubs along the way and the medicinal plants which they use.

Our ideas seemed to appeal to him and when I was talking to Torica, his wife, the following day she was quick to point out plants to cure various ailments as we wandered and chatted – the thin bamboo to be boiled for diarrhoea, the papaya leaves squeezed and drunk for women’s menstrual pains and so on. They have much to offer but haven’t yet realised how much.

Kava Ceremonies

On our way back from our expedition into the forest we stopped off in the next village to witness the preparation of kava;  chopping, grinding, cleaning.  We were introduced to the drink out of a plastic washing-up bowl. The group of men laughed at my face and my reluctance to continue imbibing after the first sip. As a mere woman I was permitted to sit on the sidelines listening to the banter and watching the ceremony, but Mike was forced to “grin and bear it”! I have to admit that it’s one time I’ve been glad that women are still considered to be “second class citizens” – why would anyone want to drink muddy water with powdered roots squeezed through a sock!?

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The kava preparation shed

Mike wasn’t going to get off that lightly and that evening we joined the whole village in a fund-raising evening sitting cross-legged on rush mats at the local hall where we watched and tried to decipher what was happening – something to do with offering money for your opposition/competition in the village to down yet another round of kava with much clapping, shouting, raucous laughter and loud music. It seemed that women power was in charge that evening as they were there in force, out-numbering the men and in good voice, as well as knocking back their fair share of the kava (so much for it being the drink of the men) and smoking the thinnest, longest homemade cigarettes in newspaper wrappers we had ever seen. Amazingly they raised $600 in a very short time and this in a village which boasts no mod cons, not even a mobile phone.

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Our personal kava ceremony with Simione and Torica

Although we had expected to be housed with a family, our accommodation was a purpose-built hut on the edge of the village, sumptuous in comparison to our neighbours – we had a table and chairs and thin mattresses (albeit on the floor).  We had our very own “butler”, a delightful ex-teacher called Ravu who oversaw our every need and made sure our meals, prepared by ladies of the village taking turns to cater, arrived on time.

The variety was astounding, we suspected a certain amount of competition existed to produce the excellent dishes of breadfruit, taro, aubergine, tomatoes, etc that they proudly placed before us. No meat, but we enjoyed and were honoured to be given a little fish soup after three ladies spent the night afloat on their bamboo raft. We certainly didn’t go hungry.

Electricity and water are something we take for granted and we were able to cope without tears when the water came and went, came and went.  A bath in the river pool was chilly but refreshing and the one solar-lit light bulb allowed us to find our way from one side of the room to the other! Apparently the Government have been promising to send someone to fix the electricity since last Christmas and hopefully – believe it when it happens – Christmas this year might be a time of lights!

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Bath and shampoo time in the river pool

To say that we were treated like royalty is an understatement. The warm hospitality and friendship we received from everyone was overwhelming. Our hands were shaken, we were embraced with bear hugs accompanied by wide grins, the children greeted us on every occasion and not one person passed us without a happy “bula bula” (hello). The little children raced to welcome us and soon learned to say hello in English in answer to our bula bula.

Sunday in Naqaravutu

The village, as everywhere, has one church – Naqaravutu’s is catholic and it’s attended by the whole village. Mike accompanied by Simione returned to the reef to take photos of the coral with Mike’s camera, and, on this occasion, Simione had been given dispensation from the priest to skip the Sunday service. I went with to the church with Ravu who, armed with palm fan, box of tissues, bible in English for my use and ever solicitous of my welfare and creaking bones, took a plastic chair and stationed me strategically in one of the back corners.  Every other person present from baby to granny sat cross-legged on the woven matting.

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Ravu on his way to church

I was greeted on all sides by smiles, the children turned and waved to me and the atmosphere was one of a big happy, interdependent family. Halfway through the service of prayers, readings by the young and wonderful melodic singing, the little children were allowed to leave which they did without fuss or noise. Although not religious, I can fully understand the unity created by this weekly service.

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Awaiting church service

As always being the sea creatures we are, one of the highlights for us was a snorkel over the reef they are protecting and what a treat that was.  There was some of the best coral we have seen in the Pacific. The variety, colour and abundance was phenomenal; plate, staghorn, star, brain, finger, hard and soft corals, deep pinks and soft lilacs, bright blues, sparkling yellows and greens in profusion, one variety overlapping and merging into the next.

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The regenerated coral reef

 Coral at its best

We swam far out for a couple of hours with Simione and Torica and we assumed that the big black rubber ring he took with us was for our security if we should need it. It turned out that this was for Torica (not originally from the coast) as it was her first big swim.  She didn’t need it even at the end swimming against a strong current back to shore. Once safely beached again, we were met by our “butler”, Ravu, who had trudged half a mile down a dusty track in the heat of the day armed with bowls of fresh fruit salad and coconut cream – what a way to end our swim – I bet the Hilton doesn’t do that for its guests!

We left the village with sadness and more hugs and kisses. In just a short time we had become part of the scene and we left wanting to support these wonderful people where individuals matter more than the size of your purse, your race or background. We are both now trying to do our bit, Mike took underwater photos of the coral for their next brochure and I’m delighted that I’ve had an article accepted for next year’s cruisers booklet which has been our bible during our stay in Fiji. Hopefully this will increase the interest in the village and help to swell their meagre incomes.

 

Second Largest Island – Vanua Levu (Fiji 2)

The island of Vanua Levu is lush and mountainous and with a good local bus service we took the opportunity to cross the island and see some of the interior and the main town of the island, Labasa. As we climbed away from the coast, the views back over the sweeping bay of SavuSavu were spectacular and as we crossed to the drier northern side of the island, the scenery changed from lush green vegetation to mile after mile of sugar cane plantations. Surprisingly there were still labourers in the fields cutting the cane by hand and we passed truck after truck laden with neatly stacked cane.

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A view back over SavuSavu

Labasa was just a larger, dustier and hotter version of SavuSavu and without any maps available we had wrongly expected it to be on the coast.  Still, a bit more shopping for Mike’s wardrobe didn’t go amiss.  Lunch in a scruffy Chinese restaurant (A la Indian) with the most enormous Chow Mein was followed by a visit to the market for bananas – Cyclone Winston earlier in the year had put paid to most of the banana trees on the south coast.  Some first of the season mangoes, spices and chats with the smallholders and it was time to catch the bus back to SavuSavu.  

Spice-buying in Labasa market

When the bus stopped unexpectedly mid-journey on the verge and many of the passengers as well as the driver alighted, we followed and discovered that it was merely a chance to fill water bottles from a small waterfall issuing out of the rockface.  The young Indian driver chatted to us taking time to relax on this 2 hour journey – he told us that he worked 16 hours a day driving the route – no tachometers here!!  He obligingly stopped on the return journey whilst we took photos of the scenery as the other passengers chatted to us and patiently looked on.  Fabulous Fiji!  We love it.

Water from the rock spring