Days 151 – 159 (Oct 30th – Nov 7th) At sea and Fiji: Suva (Vitu Levu), Levuka (Ovalau), Savusavu (Vanua Levu) & Dravuni Island

At this stage of the trip, sea days have their own routine. Everyone seems to have the things they do, in the same order day after day as we all become a little more institutionalised. Good preparation for living in a care home perhaps? Luckily there were some things going on which added a little variety. The first was trivia of course, daily at 12. Our team was unbeaten since mid-September and certain members of other teams made their displeasure very clear. Worse still the host, John, made a couple of mistakes with answers which raised tensions yet further, so this was all good fun as, having won all the prizes twice over, we really didn’t want any more stuff clogging our room.

Secondly, the ventures team, tasked with running walks, snorkel and zodiac tours at certain destinations had been supplemented by a number of experts on birds, sea mammals, fish, navigation and a few other things and they started doing talks on a regular basis as well as holding daily observation sessions on the rear deck.

Halloween came and went during this period. Many guests decorated their room doors and there were parties for guests and the crew. We just went back and watched a film.

More exciting was crossing the International Dateline so overnight we gained an hour and lost a day as the 1st November simply didn’t happen. This put us just 2 hours ahead of Tali in Brisbane and 12 hours ahead of the UK, making timing calls that bit more convenient, or at least easier to calculate.

Finally, food was increasingly becoming an issue. There are 3 restaurants onboard plus a coffee place with sandwiches. The posh restaurant is our least favourite, it is slow and the food is no different to anywhere else plus the room is massive with small windows. The Colonnade is more casual, higher up on the ship, has much quicker service (or buffet on occasion) and has an external balcony so is much lighter. The Patio is down by the pool area and does a small selection of meals but is not so well organised and is limited in selection. There are a limited number of menus so we’ve now been through these several times and it’s getting to the stage where we never really want to go anywhere, except off the ship to eat!

Our first stop in Fiji was at Suva, the capital of Fiji on the island of Vitu Levu. A bustling and multicultural regional centre, Suva apparently has everything you’d expect from a large city, many buildings dating back to the colonial era and parks, gardens, museums, outdoor activities and a vibrant nightlife. Suva rose to prominence when the British moved their headquarters there and cleared the land. On disembarking, however, our destination was not the city but the Colo-i-Suva Forest Reserve, an area which is used by a lot of the locals as the stream which runs through the forest accumulates in several pools as it descends and these are used for swimming.

It is also a birders paradise and we were fortunate that the Birdlife International representative for Fiji, Mark O’Brien, is a friend of the birder on board our ship and he’d kindly agreed to escort us round the reserve. On arrival our group split into the elite birding team, lead by Mark, and the tourists who walked down the path and sat in the pools. Timing wasn’t perfect, it being early afternoon, but Mark teased out a number of birds by the calls and we managed to see a few as well, including the White-rumped swiftlet, a very localised species which breeds in caves and the local parrot, the Masked Shining Parrot, a large bird also known for being very smelly, a feature which has probably saved it from being caught and sold as a cage bird.

For reasons best known to themselves Seaborne had arranged a second gala evening that day, to follow on from the successful event that was held in Seattle. The ship was departing at 8ish so we were rushed onto 4 coaches not long after 5pm and these crawled through the traffic in the city, discharged us into the Grand Pacific Hotel, for what turned out to be a pretty mediocre buffet of Fijian food. This was followed by entertainment

Suva looked a really interesting place, with a massive market which was still going strong when we returned from the hotel, so it was a shame we didn’t have time to explore on foot. Returning to the ship we were greeted by the ships crew and staff who lined up and cheered as we walked through shouting “Welcome back”. Excruciatingly American!

Our next stop, the following day, was Levuka, Fiji’s former capital (until 1877) on the island of Ovalau, ceded to the British in 1874. The Main Street had old colonial buildings in disrepair partly due to its status as a stopover port for ocean ships crossing the Pacific Ocean coming to an end during the 1950s, threatening the settlement with economic extinction. However, in 1964 the PAFCO (Pacific Fishing Company) was established by a Japanese proprietorship, specialising in freezing and shipping canned tuna, mainly to markets in Canada and Europe. A cannery, joint PAFCO-government venture, opened in 1976. Currently, it is the largest private employer on Ovalau Island and tourism plays only a minor role in the island’s economy.

The town was very busy, with a street market

Local island school Canoe racing

The weather alternated between hot and humid and rain showers and we spent some time looking round the town, watched a rugby tournament

and tried the local cuisine..

The backdrop to the town, as in all these islands, is verdant forest, often clothing dramatic mountains. As we left port we sailed past the island of Naingani

Our 3rd stop was Savusavu on the island of Vanua Levu, Fiji’s second-largest island, and still largely immune to the outside world. The local economy is based on copra, and tall coconut palms are everywhere. Tourism is growing, though, with popular marine activities including snorkeling and diving in the clear seas, kayaking or stand-up paddling. The island is blessed with rivers and waterfalls that invite hiking, tubing or swimming. There are also hot springs and mineral mud baths. The port has a large yacht club and this may have helped add to the prosperity of Savusavu which seemed more affluent than our last stop.

Savusavu harbour

Our day was fully booked with 2 tours arranged by the Ventures team, kayaking & snorkelling in the morning followed by a zodiac tour and snorkelling in the afternoon

Firstly we had to be kitted out:

We took the zodiac over to the beach on a nearby island, towing the kayaks

before elegantly transferring to the 2 man kayaks..

and proceeding up the coast, attempting to assimilate both the instructions we’d received on board on how to kayak (it turns out we had it all wrong on previous kayaking trips) and avoiding an acrimonious divorce! Once we’d reached the snorkelling point we transferred back into the zodiacs and plunged into the clear waters to see the most amazing array of sea life, clustered round a large rock in the bay, it was fantastic.

That afternoon was similar except we had more time in the water, a really good day.

As we left harbour, we passed a local ferry, clearly one which had seen better days

Our one regret was not having time to go ashore to see the steam vents used for both cooking and thermal pools.

Our last stop in Fiji was at Dravuni Island, a tiny (less than one square mile) island set in the midst of the Great Astrolabe Reef in the South Pacific and a rare opportunity to see what life is like for many Fijians. The island is home to fewer than 200 friendly locals. The island has a volcanic core but is mostly made up of a coral atoll, surrounded by living reefs. Many of the locals offer a limited range of goods and services, from colourful wrap-around pareus to cold drinks and massages.

On landing the track leads off the shore, across the spectacular beach onto a single sand road which runs from one end of the island to the other. There are no vehicles here other than boats.

The local primary school is one of the island’s most imposing structures and we were encouraged to go inside and meet the boys and girls who range in age from 5 to 9. Older than that and they go to boarding school on a nearby island. A few of us went in, telling the children where we came from and in return they sang a few songs and danced. Just next to the school was a shelter under which many of the younger people sheltered from the sun and sang songs (sound up)

At one end of the island is a peak which is allegedly accessed via an easy path up to an altitude of 150 feet, which is a complete lie as the track is very steep and extremely high (note, one of our fellow travellers checked this on his navigation app and the height is actually well over 100 metres). It offers breath-taking views over all 4 corners of the island. The sensible one of us, didn’t wear walking shoes so was unable to make all of the ascent in 35c and 90% humidity!

From the top
Andy’s Kilimanjaro moment. He is there!

The island is very green

Prior to going ashore we went on another zodiac tour, this one a little more exciting than the previous day as local politics raised it’s ugly head and caused a few problems for the ventures team. As we were speeding over to one of the many islands in this part of Fiji, approval to land was withdrawn and a new plan was hastily drawn up, aiming to land on another island. Much zodiacing later we arrived at the prospective landing zone to find there was coral all the way to the beach save for a very narrow gap through which it was possible to pass, but only by walking or shuffling through the sand. We anchored and swam from the boat, some people going ashore but many didn’t as it was very difficult to avoid being cut by the coral.

Waiting for approval from the bridge to proceed

The snorkelling was really impressive and a good time was had by the vast majority. On return to the ship we heard our kayaking trip, scheduled for the afternoon, had been cancelled due to “poor weather” but we knew this was more to do with the problems encountered that morning. That night we received a full refund for the trip, presumably demanded by the one or two individuals who were less impressed than the rest of us. As the expedition leader said the next day, if trips like this are only allowed to proceed with zero risk then they become too sanitised and less of an expedition and more of a very boring geriatric day out.

This was our last day in Fiji, a fabulously unspoilt and largely tourist-free place with lovely people. As we were leaving the island the boat’s resident, if unofficial, photographer Bojan, papped us again, much to Helen’s dismay

The moon gave a good performance well after sunset, as we headed to our next destination, New Caledonia