© Copyright 2002 by Laura Bennett
I’d imagined that my stop-off in this South Pacific island paradise would provide little more in the way of personal challenges than deciding on which part of the beach to spend the day enjoying the sun. I couldn’t have been more wrong, thanks to some unexpected foes lurking in the shadows....
For a Londoner like myself, a visit to this particular corner of the South Pacific is just about as far from home as it’s possible to get. Fiji sits near the International Date Line - exactly half way around the globe from Greenwich, which is just up the road from my London home.
To be honest, Fiji had never really been at the top of my list of dream holiday destinations. My ignorance about the country was total. I vaguely remembered having heard a brief news snippet about an attempted coup in the late 1990s, but that was about all I could recall. I was even unaware that Fiji is made up of over 300 islands, and is not a one-island nation as I’d previously thought. Otherwise, the image it conjured up in my mind was that of a "too good to be true" paradise island, like those often seen in TV commercials. That was about as far as it went.
All this soon changed when I started planning a trip to Australia and New Zealand. Of course I knew that such a journey would involve plenty of time spent in an aeroplane cabin, but a 24 hour flight time from Auckland (NZ) to London, plus a possible 6 hour overlay in Los Angeles, definitely did not appeal. My travel agent suggested breaking the journey in the South Pacific, and advised me that Fiji would fit easily into my plans. She described clear blue seas, palm trees and sandy beaches. It didn’t take much to persuade me that a week of sun-seeking relaxation would fit into my undemanding schedule very nicely. It suited me just fine.
Later that day, I stopped to look up Fiji in my atlas. On finding that it seemed to be little more than a few tiny dots in the Pacific Ocean, I returned the atlas to the bookshelf, and went on to plan other parts of my trip. In passing, I hoped that the pilot’s navigational equipment would be up to pinpointing this minute speck of land amidst such a vast expanse of water.
Eventually, with my Fijian stopover fast approaching, it seemed like a good time to find out a little more about what to see and do there. I had just a week to scratch the surface of the country, and on discovering that Fiji was larger than I’d thought, I swiftly decided that confining myself to one area would be more sensible than struggling to see it all. Friends in Australia recommended spending my first and last nights near the airport at Nadi, on the main island of Viti Levu. They then suggested I head out to explore the Yasawa group, a chain of 20 ancient volcanic islands off the north west corner of Viti Levu. The Yasawas are well within reach, they explained, and are home to stunning beaches and coral reefs, perfect for snorkelling amongst colourful fish. It sounded idyllic.
I continued my research with the aid of a guidebook, which seemed to prove that the Yasawas are indeed unspoilt, but still tourist friendly. There are lots of different resorts and hotels to choose from, most of which fall into two distinct categories - luxury and budget. Travelling alone and with limited funds, I had to admit that the US$500 a night (minimum 6 night stay!) Turtle Island Resort, popular with Hollywood celebrities such as Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman, was slightly beyond my reach. Thankfully there were plenty of more reasonable alternatives. On the advice of my trusty guidebook, I made a three night booking at Octopus Resort on Waya Island. It seemed like a well organised, friendly place with regular boat transfers to the mainland. Waya Island is sparsely populated, and although there were some organised activities on offer at the resort, it seemed the perfect place to relax, sunbathe and catch up on some reading.
A few days later I arrived in Nadi and spent the night in a hotel nearby. I was to be picked up the following morning at 8.30 to be taken to the port where I would board the boat for Octopus. Next morning I was ready and waiting, only to be given an abrupt introduction to the concept of "Fiji time". Nothing much happens in a rush in Fiji, no-one really works to a schedule, people come and go as they please. Eventually, Dan "The Man with the Van" arrived. He was a cheerful, friendly guy who was very curious to know whether I had seen his photograph on the Octopus website when making my reservation. We stopped off at some other hotels to pick up more visitors bound for Waya, then made our way into the nearby town of Lautoka. Our final stop was at the local bakery, where we picked up the resort’s weekly supply of bread which would accompany us out to the island.
After collecting the bread, we headed down to the boat, only to fall victim to "Fiji time" once again. Anxious not to be rushed, the crew of two kept us waiting another 45 minutes before allowing us to board. It wasn’t an altogether unwelcome delay, it gave my fellow passengers and I the opportunity to get to know each other in the early morning Fijian sunshine. Eventually, cash was handed over and we all climbed aboard, it was a tight squeeze with the supplies. The journey took almost two hours. The fuel smell was almost stifling and the small boat crashed into some choppy waves at gut-wrenching angles, sending salt water splashing into our faces. The look-out boy appeared unperturbed and sat on the bow of the boat throughout, whilst the captain ploughed on towards the Yasawas.
In the end, no-one was struck down with sea-sickness, and the welcome we were given at Octopus Resort soon dispelled the memories of our turbulent journey. As we approached the shore, a band of islanders wearing flower garlands struck up a traditional Fijian Bula song of welcome. As our boat beached on the shore, they rushed down to help us drag our bags over the sand.
We were led up to the communal area amongst the brilliant red hibiscus flowers. The official welcome was made and we were each directed towards our traditional Fijian thatched bure or hut. In an effort to save some money and meet some interesting people, I’d opted to stay in the dorm bure, sharing with four others. Our bure was basic, but functional, with an attached shower and toilet just outside. There was no electricity to provide hot water on the island, but temperatures were warm enough for cold showers to be refreshingly welcome.
I began to unpack my things onto the remaining empty bed, which had been decorated with flowers in anticipation of my arrival. The beds were shaded by elaborate net canopies hanging from the ceiling of the hut. One of my room-mates came in and we introduced ourselves and made small talk. She had arrived a couple of days ago and already seemed to have fallen in love with the island. Having heard stories about vicious Fijian mosquitoes from those who had been bitten to within an inch of their lives, I asked whether the extensive netting was evidence of a plague of mosquitoes on Waya.
It seemed like an innocent question, but the reply was to affect the rest of my stay at the resort. Apparently the mosquitoes were not the problem, the nets had been erected to combat giant spiders. I froze. I have been terrified of spiders for almost as long as I can remember, since finding one under my quilt at bedtime as a small child. As an adult I have been forced to overcome some of my fear. I can cope perfectly well with spiders in the outdoors, but whenever they invade my living space, particularly the bedroom, the sight of even a common house spider is enough to unsettle me for days.
I asked a few more questions, hoping that the "problem" would turn out to be limited to one or two reasonably small offenders. All hope faded fast, however, as my room- mate held up her hand to demonstrate that we were sharing our bure with spiders roughly the same size in diameter as the distance between her thumb and pinkie. A number had been spotted on the walls at night, although the lack of electricity and limit of one oil lamp per bure meant that much of the room lay dark and unexplored. My fellow guest’s protestations that, despite appearances, the spiders were harmless, did little to reassure me. I had, of course, realised that creatures with which I was unfamiliar would abound in the tropics, but hadn’t expected to have to confront my fears quite so brutally. Apparently the spiders lived in the traditional palm tree leaf thatching from which the ceiling and walls of our bure were constructed. Because I had chosen to stay in the cheaper dorm hut, the thatched ceiling had not been lined, something which would not have cured the problem, but may have alleviated it. I briefly considered dipping into my savings and splashing out on a private bure, but on realising that I would then be entirely on my own, safety in numbers seemed like a better option, and I decided to stay put.
I spent that afternoon sunbathing on the beach and trying to relax. I came to terms with spending as little time as possible in the hut during the day, but night-time would be a different prospect. I chatted with an Irish girl who had arrived on my boat that morning. She too was severely arachnophobic, but was staying in a private bure with her boyfriend, and hoped that he would be able to deal swiftly with any intruders they might encounter.
Octopus Resort was everything I had hoped it would be in every other way. The sand was very soft, and peppered with brightly coloured stones and shells, in which hundreds of little hermit crabs had made their homes. The clear blue sea lapped over the coral at the bottom of the beach, whilst bright green palm trees laden with coconuts fringed the top. The islanders who worked at the resort were brimming with that famous Fijian friendliness, and would shout a greeting of "Bula!" whenever you crossed their path.
That evening there was to be a show, or meke, of Fijian singing and dancing. Lamps and torches were lit at sundown as we made our way down to a clearing amongst the palm trees. The islanders kept us entertained for nearly an hour, as their voices echoed out around the island. Soon the dancing started and we were all invited to get up and join in. Great fun was had by all, I even managed to temporarily forget the advancing hour and the ordeal that awaited. After the show the new arrivals were invited to take part in a traditional kava ceremony, to welcome us to the island. Kava is the ground root of a type of pepper plant, and has a great importance in Fijian culture. It is mixed with water to create a ceremonial drink, which apparently has mild narcotic qualities. We were each presented with a bowl of kava and instructed to clap three times and say "Bula!" before drinking, in accordance with local custom. It was a fascinating insight into a culture that has been around for hundreds of years, and although personally I found the kava to be an acquired taste, I was honoured to have taken part.
After a dinner of local fish with coconut milk and breadfruit, most of the resort’s 30 or so guests took to chatting or idly playing cards. The restaurant and bar area was powered by a generator so we had plenty of light. Eventually the time came to ignite our oil lamps, switch on our flashlights and make our way back to our bures to turn in. I approached the hut with fear and trepidation, grateful that I had had the foresight to fit the base of my net canopy under the mattress earlier that day, ensuring that nothing would be lying in wait for me.
Taking a "what you don’t know won’t hurt you" approach, I busied myself with getting ready for bed, without holding the lamp light up to the thatching around me. I got into bed. One of my room-mates kindly checked that the netting was tightly tucked in the whole way round. She assured me that I was a "human cocoon" which went some way to allaying my fears of an ambush during the night.
I may have given into sleep at some point that night, most likely in the early hours of the morning when I had no strength left to feed my vivid imagination. I tossed and turned for hours as my skin twitched and itched every few minutes, convinced I could feel something crawling over me. When morning eventually came I may have been more exhausted than the night before, but was also elated at having survived unscathed. One night down, two to go!
The following two days on Waya were spent in much the same way as the first. I passed the time lying in the sun, reading plenty of novels and cooling off in the gentle waves. The weather held out flawlessly for the whole of my stay, the only rain came after dark, by which time we were all safely sheltered by the corrugated roof of the restaurant area, arguing over the variations in the rules of certain card games.
Night-time was still difficult, but luckily the relaxed nature of the resort did not demand much from me during the day, so lack of sleep was not a pressing concern. I kept the net well tucked under my mattress at all times, which turned out to be a fairly successful plan of attack. On my final evening at Octopus, I returned to my bure in the darkness, with a friend I had made who was staying in the same hut. As she placed the oil lamp in the centre of the room, to give as much light as possible, the dull glow caught a crab-like shadow on the wall. Even though my friend had earlier assured me that she wasn’t particularly afraid of spiders, I heard her gasp as I began to calculate how far the spider was from my bed. Thankfully, it was on the opposite side of the room, so I took some deep breaths and got into bed.
My last night on Waya Island passed uneventfully although, again, I was granted very little sleep. As the next morning dawned, I felt a mixture of relief at having made it through, and pride at having faced my fears so directly. Although I would have previously doubted that I was strong enough to overcome such a personally tough situation, when given no alternative, I’d proved I was made of sterner stuff.
Later that day, I said goodbye to the beautiful island and to the friends I’d made there. After one last look through my bags to check there were no unwanted stow- aways, I boarded the boat which would take me to my next destination, the equally stunning Nacula Island at the top of the Yasawa chain. It may sound too perfect to be true, but as the boat sped away from Octopus Resort and out to sea, two dolphins came along with us, surfing the waves at the bow of the boat and playfully leaping in and out of the water.
My trip to Fiji was eye-opening in many ways. It is an exceptionally beautiful place, which at times defies belief. It is also best approached with large helpings of patience, and a willingness to adapt to the local customs and pace of life. I learned that somewhere so far from home, both geographically and culturally, can throw up unexpected challenges which, although it may not feel like it at the time, only served to make my visit more memorable. As I continued on my journey back to the more familiar side of the world, memories of my stay on Waya Island often resurfaced. Both good and bad, my experiences there will remain with me for a long time to come.
After returning from a 4 month trip around the world, travelling on my own, I have been well and truly bitten by the bug. Thanks to a lack of capital, my immediate travel plans are confined to Europe, but if I can succeed in combining my love of travel with my love of writing, hopefully a more ambitious expedition isn’t too far off. Currently living in London I’m working temporary jobs to make ends meet before my next adventure. I hope this story inspires lots of other people to visit Fiji - just not all at the same time!
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