Fiji – Paradise Found

We all have preconceived ideas of certain people, places or things. As scuba divers we can remember before we were certified, the idea of drifting effortlessly in the water surrounded by fish and reefs. We dreamed of water that was an impossible blue and land with palm trees right down to the sand. Once we start diving we learn sometimes the water isn’t that blue, sometimes there aren’t that many fish, sometimes there are condos on the beach instead of palm trees. But sometimes perception becomes reality. There are very few things that live up to the hype, Fiji was one of them.

This started off as an interesting trip in a few different ways. First, we had never taken this many people (24) on a trip before, second, we had 7 people from out of state, and lastly and most importantly, Fiji is a long way from the Caribbean. From the 10 hour flight to the remoteness of Kadavu, we were certainly not in Kansas anymore.

Greg Adams from our Ogden shop has been to the islands of Fiji almost 20 times. Fiji is made up of over 700 islands, many of which have resorts and diving. He had been all over Fiji from Bequ to Taveuni and now he had found “the place”. He had been telling me for over 3 years that we needed to go to the island of Kadavu and the Matana Beach Resort and Dive Kadavu. The plans starting take place over 2 years before we left. At 12 months we had a list of 40 people who had expressed interest. At 9 months we had the trip filled before it ever even hit our webpage. Needless to say expectations were high.

Finally it was the end of June and we were ready to head to the South Pacific. We left Salt Lake City on a Thursday afternoon and had a few hours to kill in Los Angeles. Luckily with this extra time we found some bags that were supposed to be checked all the way to Fiji but weren’t. Unfortunately Sandra’s bags were not among them (more on this later.) Finally we boarded at about 11:30pm. It was to be a 10 hour flight from LA to Nadi, the gateway city on Fiji’s main island. It was my first time on a flight this long. They feed you twice and you get your own little Direct TV type monitor on the back of the seat in front of you so it shouldn’t have been that bad. Except my TV didn’t work and at 6’4”, when the seat in front of you is reclined, you don’t get that much space. People had told me to try and stay awake for a few hours and that helped. I most likely got maybe 5 hours of sleep. We were scheduled to land at 5am. Since we crossed the International Dateline that was 5am on Saturday. We had lost Friday!

FijiOnce we landed, got our bags and cleared customs, we had more time to kill. Matana Beach is a small resort that only holds 24 people max. Since there were already people there, we needed to hang out a bit at the airport. At around 11am, they loaded us onto some small puddle-jumpers and off we flew to Kadavu. Kadavu is the 4th largest island in Fiji and located about 1 hour south. The views of the main island, Viti Levu were gorgeous. Since it was July and in the southern hemisphere, that means it was winter. The hills and mountains we flew over still had a lot of green but I can imagine what it would look like in full bloom. Then we flew over water, that’s the impossible blue water I talked about before. Finally Kadavu came into view. If you have flown into small, tropic airports before, you know the feeling. Puddle-jumpers always have the cabin door open so you can look down the aisle and see what the captain sees. Your first thought is always, that’s it? It’s a tiny little strip, usually bordered by jungle or water. Your second thought is, when is he going to straighten out? Due to winds they come in with the nose at an angle and straighten it out at the last second. Once we landed, we taxied to the “gate area”. Kadavu International is a modest affair with a small building, a wind sock and a few baggage carts. The two doors into the building are labeled “Arrival Gate” and “Departure Gate”. And yes, I saw an airline employee tell someone they went through the wrong door.

We were met by Bob, our host for the week. Bob and his wife Rena are from Australia and have been at Kadavu for over 15 years. He and a few of the staff from the resort gathered up our bags, crossed the dirt road to the water and loaded us up for the 10 minute boat ride to our new home for the week. Remember what I said earlier about the water color and the beach? This was the place.

A few quick notes about Kadavu. It is the fourth largest island in Fiji and the farthest south. That makes it pretty remote. The island has about 50 villages on it and each village is made up of maybe 20 or so huts/houses, a church and a school. There aren’t any real towns to speak of and not much in the way of roads. Water is the best way to get around. The island is not flat but rises up into steep hills straight from the beach. Palm trees shade the beaches and give way to pine trees as you climb higher.

After our short boat ride, we pulled up onto the beach in front of the Matana Beach Resort. There are 10 bures (guest houses) set back about 200 feet from the beach among the palm trees parallel to the shore. Rena warned us about the dangers of falling coconuts and assured us that more people are killed by them each year worldwide then by lightening. (That’s the way I want to go, sitting on a beach, just napping and minding my own business and then BAM, coconut to the head!) Each bure had a nice little porch with an open air dive locker and fresh water shower to rinse and store your gear. The rooms were adequate, no phones, no TV’s but who cares. My only compliant was that in our bure (and in some, though not all of the others) the partition separating the bathroom area only went up half way. I could never get quite comfortable with Tee wanting to carry on a conversation while I was indisposed. All the walls were screened in with shutters to keep help your privacy. It was neat to hear the breeze and the ocean at night, though we awoke many times expecting to see huge waves due to all the noise we had heard all night long only to see tiny ripples. In the middle of the bures, a little closer to the beach was the beach bar and the lorry (more on these later) and behind that was the stairs that lead up to the main house. The main house was set higher up on the hill with a wonderful covered porch that looked just over the trees. There was an incredible view as we could look out over the water and further down the island to the highest spot on the island, the volcano or Kong. Inside another screened in area was a sitting room surrounded by their library, offices, another bar, a dining area and the kitchen. Meals were served both inside and on the porch. One of my favorite memories was sitting on the porch one afternoon during a rain storm, sipping some hot chocolate and wishing the rain would never stop.

Now that the stage is set, here are some of the best parts. The diving was naturally very good. The soft corals that we saw on every dive were incredible. This being my first time to Fiji and Fiji being the soft coral capital of the world, this is what I was looking forward to. Some of the best parts of the dives were the shallow parts of the coral heads. We would see more life in 15 feet of water than anywhere else. 2 of the more interesting dives were Evil Trench and Crazy Maze. Evil Trench can best be described as a gash in the bottom of the ocean. The bottom around the Trench is pretty deep to begin with (right about 100 feet) then all of a sudden you come across a jagged slit that is about 40 feet across and another 75 feet deep. Needless to say we did not explore it all the way to the bottom. Crazy Maze is the mother of all swim-throughs. There are about 9 different ones and none of them are really straight forward. They are all more like drive-throughs, plenty of room but they twist, up and down and back and forth. On my favorite one, half the group had gone around a corner and Brian, George and I were bringing up the rear. The closer you got to the corner, the harder you had to swim against a current. Once you could see around the angle, I wondered why I couldn’t see the rest of the group. As soon as we made the turn I learned why. Suddenly the current was at our backs and with one small kick we were spit out the rest of the way.. Joeli, Sureli, Sam and Jolami were our main divemasters for our 2 boats. After our first dives the boats would meet back up and our surface intervals were spent on a deserted beach. The sand was made up crushed shells and the water made a delightful little sound as it washed up and down the beach. This coupled with everyone going out to waist deep water to relive themselves lead to George dubbing it “Tinkle Beach.” Since it was July and the Fijian winter, the divemasters would bring out tea, coffee, hot chocolate and cakes for our surface interval. We would lie about on the beach or look for shells. One day we pitted a group from boat against each other in a game similar to horseshoes but played with coconuts. It was quite a nice way to spend your time between dives.

Greg from our Ogden shop had also told me about the Manta Ray dive. Dive Kadavu offers a day trip to the front side of the island to dive the famous and pristine Astrolabe Reef. We motor back down near the airport, hop in a truck for a 5 minute ride to the other side of the island (the island is very narrow at this spot) and board another boat to go diving. Josepha is one of the divemasters who leads the dives on the other side of the island. The boat on the front side is a small open sided boat with just a canopy roof to protect you from the elements. You ride out until you are just inside the reef and gear up and get ready. When everyone is ready, they bring the boat out through a cut in the reef and you get to feels the swells coming in from the ocean. The swells were small, made 2-3 feet but they sure felt like more. Once we get to our spot, we hit the water and descend as a group. The reef here was INCREDIBLE! It was one long, continuous reef without any breaks in the corals. It was wall to wall sea life! It was the best dive for seeing coral I have ever been on. In addition we had some good surge created by the swells above. Surge in some places that pushed us about 15 feet back and forth! That was a fun ride. We did 3 dives that day with surface intervals taken in the calm back inside of the reef. After the second dive we headed to a small island that we had passed on the way out. Walter and his family lived here and that was where we had lunch. Since we were some many and the boat so small, we divided up into 3 groups and made this journey 3 times. Luckily I went on the second one. The guys in the first group didn’t bring warm enough clothes for between dives and so got a little cold. The last group got rained out of 1 of their dives. (Remember my wishing the rain wouldn’t stop while drinking my hot chocolate? That was the day they were out.) A quick story from one of the dives-I was checking out one of the bigger anemones with its resident clownfish when one of the little buggers came up and bit me on the arm!! Naturally I motioned to Brian, who was behind me taking pictures. He comes up, gets ready to take a picture and the same fish goes after him. Imagine a diver trying to shoo a fly away and that’s what it looked like. Unfortunately the fish had developed a taste for diver and got a little taste of Brian’s hand.

We had plenty of fun on land as well. There is a trail behind the resort that leads up into the hills. It goes up to a little point high above the resort up near the pine trees. The view from up there was incredible. You could look out to the reefs where we did our daily dives and see the wonderful blue I keep going on about. On the last day, ½ our group headed out to a waterfall hike while the other half went into the village to visit the school. The waterfall group traveled by boat to another village and then hiked about 20 minutes. The water fall wasn’t huge. Maybe 15 feet high, but big enough for some of the group to jump off on into the water below. The school visit was nice as well with the children singing a song for their guests.

The biggest bummer of the week happened before we ever got to Fiji. Sandra’s bags didn’t get checked to Fiji. We got there and no bags. Luckily she wasn’t diving so it was only clothes that were missing. Everyone pitched in and set her up with clothes for the week. I hope everyone is as calm about missing bags as Sandra was. She never once got mad about it. Her bag made it back to Salt Lake about 2 weeks after we had come home by way of New Zealand!

One of my favorite pastimes was hanging around the beach bar. This was the focal point of activity from 4-7pm each day. Seru, one of the staff, would open up the bar around 4ish and everyone would gather to play cards, play dominos, download dives, fill out log books and just talk. They had also set up a clip on string that was hanging from a tree and you had to swing it and try to catch it on one of 4 different hooks on the tree. This lead to all sorts of competitions and debates about which hook was easier and which throwing technique was best. I still plan to set up one of these in my backyard. Next to the bar was the lolley. This is a hollowed out log set up on legs housed in its own little bure. It is also the meal bell. When each meals was ready, 2 of the kitchen staff would come and play the lolley like a drum and we would know if was time to eat. I have asked Tee to play some drums when dinner is ready at home but apparently we are still waiting for pigs to fly.

At the end of the week, we had a nice cultural experience. It started with the mixing of the kava and went from there. Kava is a traditional drink made from crushed ginger root. Basically it looks and tastes like dirty water. It has a mild narcotic affect that made some us really mellow. Most everyone had at least one small bowl full. We got to get our grove on when the local band showed up. Bob called them the Up2U band since how good they sounded depends on how much kava you had drank. Actually they were very good with a guitar, ukulele, drum and string box bass. They proceeded to play the Fijian Top 40 and we got to learn the traditional dance. Basically you put your arm around your partner’s waist and you walk up and down a line in time to the music. If you have Fred Astair type skills, you could add multiple partners and right angles to your steps. After a few rounds of kava and some tunes, we headed behind the resort where the lovo had been cooking. Lovo is a traditional celebratory meal with fish, meat and veggies wrapped up in palm leaves then cooked with hot rocks under ground. The meal is served on palm leaves with no silverware. The band followed us up to the dining area and we were serenaded as the night went by.

All too soon, our week was up and it was time to head home. Thanks to the wonders of the dateline, we left Nadi at 11pm Saturday night and arrived in Los Angeles at 1:30pm earlier that afternoon. Vinaka (thank you) to all for helping make it a wonderful trip.

Let’s go diving!
Fall 2006