New Zealand to Australia via the islands

Fiji second time around

For this leg of my journey around the world I was taking on David my eldest son and Mel Page who applied to join the boat through crew seekers for a period of four months. David will be with me for nine months, having taken a year off work. Our journey plan was New Zealand to Fiji, a distance of 1100 miles where we would spend a month exploring the islands before heading to Port Vila in Vanuatu and then sailing up these islands to the Solomons where Mel would leave us to fly home. David and I will sail onto Papua New Guinea and then down to Australia, an overall distance of 4000 miles.

David and Mel leaving a chilly NZ

The forecast after cyclone Donna for our sail from Opua to Levuka in Fiji showed a reasonable window so we set off on the 18th March in glorious sunshine but no wind. However it soon picked up and over the nine days our crossing took, we experienced every kind of weather and wind from every direction. We had flat calms, 45 knot gales, head winds, torrential rain, and glorious sunshine. The new crew coped with it all, learning to cook at 45 degrees in a bouncing, rolling kitchen, trying to sleep while leaving the mattress every couple of minutes and dealing with the frustration of complete calms and gently flapping sails. Possibly the worst thing was running out of gas. We had put a new gas cylinder on in NZ but the new regulator leaked. Fortunately it’s situated in the anchor locker and drained overboard but it meant we had to be very imaginative in coming up with cold meals for 5 days which involved a lot of cabbage, tuna and beans.

David and Mel took to blue water cruising like a couple of old hands, although both had sailed before living on a yacht at sea is a very different experience. They proved to be proactive sailors and good company. 

David returning from lashing down fuel cans

We saw an amazing sight one afternoon when a flying fish broke out of the face of a wave followed a foot behind by a tuna looking for lunch. Other than that and a sighting of dolphins on our second day out and a few seabirds there wasn’t much else to see just endless blue sea.

People who don’t cruise often ask what we do on longer voyages and that depends much on weather. When it’s rough it’s difficult to sleep, so grabbing every bit you can tends to be the priority. Then there are meals to prepare, the boat to maintain, weather forecasts to download and check, sails to change or adjust and we complete a log every three hours in case we lose our electronic navigation and at night we operate 4 hour watches on a rotating basis.. The rest of the time and particularly in good weather we do a lot of reading, listening to music, playing games, suduko and crossword puzzles and mending clothes which all helps to pass the time.

A sailors work is never done – this time its sewing!

The excitement of our first sighting of land was palpable and at around 8.00am on a beautiful morning we motored through the passage in the reef into Levuka harbour on the island of Ovalau off the main island of Viti Levu. Levuka is predominantly a fishing port with a large canning plant on shore and we failed to get used to the overwhelming smell of ripe fish everywhere we went. Here we planned to check in to Fiji through customs, quarantine, immigration, port control, bio security but first we had to pass the assessment by the health officer before anyone was allowed on board. Mystifyingly the authorities had no boat so I had to ferry each of these back and forth in our new dinghy and outboard. Some of these guys were huge and I wondered if we’d get them back to the boat without sinking in the choppy harbour. Clearing in was no easy process, taking most of the morning but finally we made it ashore for lunch and met up with Leslie and Andrew the young crew off Sonrisa, a US flagged boat, the only other boat checking in. Next morning we wanted to leave early but needed our cruising permits from the town hall. This took three trips along a hot dusty road before they got it right. At one point the form had Andrew as captain, the boat as Romano sailing under a US flag. Andrew had me as captain of his boat Sonrisa sailing under a British flag. Eventually we got it all sorted out and we were cleared to explore the islands of Fiji.

Our first island was Mokagai, where they farm giant clams and which used to be a leper colony. I visited here last year while the clam farm was being constructed, now it was finished and fully operational. Our guide was 10 year old Meli and his band of young helpers, when we asked Meli a question his answers were limited to yes and no or a sideways glance if he didn’t want to answer. He took us to meet his father and we duly delivered our kava roots which were accepted with little grace. Meli’s father explained he was ill and he had been sleeping so we said farewell and went back to the boat.

Meli our guide far right with some of his family

Meli’s sister showing off a giant clam shell

David and Mel went snorkelling to see the giant clams which are about a metre twenty across. We stayed at anchor for the night and the following morning Andrew and Leslie motored into the bay as we left to head for Savusavu on the south side of Vanua Levu. We arrived in time for lunch at the Waipu Marina after a good sail making 6-7 knots. The following day we met Jolene who remembered me from last year and who was pleased to see Gill’s article on our visit the year before to Naquaravutu had been published in the Fiji 2017 cruising guide.

Here we were able to replenish our stores, however we all suffered from the combined heat and humidity and hadn’t acclimatised yet from relatively chilly New Zealand. Carrying heavy bags back from town necessitated a beer stop at the marina bar for some big Fiji Golds followed by an excellent fish and chip lunch.

We decided to revisit Naquaravutu on the Thursday of that week and asked if we could have a lovo while we were there. They agreed and so we shopped for frozen chicken and lamb we could take on the bus with us and of course some Kava root for our hosts. The bus trip took the 3 hours on dusty roads, travelling north east to this far flung village. Fortunately the bus is open sided and a good breeze blew through to cool us down. When we arrived the village was having a party but we were met by Wylene and his wife Salote who were to be our hosts during our two day stay. We were also greeted by Simeon and Dorica our hosts from last year and given garlands and medallions of flowers before being taken to our rooms. David and I had to sleep in a double bed which, while looking like a bed, had no mattress or springs, with an ensuite cold shower and toilet and Mel had a mat on the floor in a room across the veranda, no luxury here. The party we soon learned was a post marriage wedding gift celebration at which the grooms village invited the bride and her family to receive gifts to set up her new home here in Naquaravutu, including live animals, mats, pots, tools etc needed to set up home and the village builds a new house for them. We were invited to join the Kava ceremony which goes on at all big celebrations and for David and Mel this was there first taste of the traditional drink. Its made by young men pounding the root of the Kava or Pepper tree in a metal urn, it looks like muddy ditch water and tastes vaguely like eucalyptus, not something likely to catch on back home. So we sipped Kava from the communal bowl and watched the dancing from the shade of the huge rain tree, sitting on crushed coral which overlooked a central grassy area. In the evening the young guys of the village play a form of touch rugby here, they asked David and I if we wanted to join in but we declined gracefully, they were a third of my age and half David’s. 

David participating in the Kava ceremony under the village rain tree

The young children in the house really took to Mel, they loved being round her singing songs, drawing and looking at books. In the evening, dinner was served on our veranda and each meal was prepared by a different family. For our first meal we ate fish with noodles and prawns on top, yams and taro for vegetables. That evening David and I went to the dancing and Kava drinking for an hour or so and then went to bed early. With no light you either partied or tried to sleep with loud music booming round the village and some very noisy guys suffering from too much home brew rushing around shouting.

Mel and Salote’s two children on the veranda of our house

The next morning we were awakened at 6.00 by the noises of a rousing village, barking dogs, crowing cockerels and the general noise of people washing and cooking. Simeone had our day organised, first we climbed up through the forest to view the ancestors bones in the cave, then on to the waterfall, back to the beach for a snorkel on the recovering reef and then to build the lovo which we had asked to be party to. First a hole was dug and a fire built from fallen logs, when this was hot enough small rocks were loaded onto the embers and the fire banked up again for an hour to heat the stones. The embers were then removed and the prepared food was laid on the hot stones and then covered with huge taro leaves to retain heat and moisture. We had been shown how to wrap a chicken in palm leaves to hold it together and plait a tail to pull it out with. 

Simeone showing David how to plat a chicken with palm fronds

Me getting lots of advice from the children

Yams, chicken, taro and lamb being loaded onto the hot lovo stones

After two hours we all sit down to a scrumptious feast

Our hosts and Simeone and his wife were the organisers together with around 16 children who were drawn to the prospect of a feast. We swam with them, showed them how to skim stones and chatted until it was time to open the lovo. The food had cooked for a couple of hours, the steaming taro leaves were removed and the feast spread out on rugs and mats. The children picked large leaves from the trees to serve as plates, our hosts had brought crockery and cutlery for us to eat with while the locals just used their fingers. Everything was beautifully cooked, tasty, juicy and tender and we all tucked in, it was a unique experience to share in their culture without the falsehood of tourist events.

Returning from Naqauravutu we decided to set sail for the Yasawa Islands, we had hoped to get to the remote Lau Islands to the east but unfortunately the wind stayed steadfastly against us so we went with the flow. We had three days of good wind and we covered the 120 miles day sailing with ease and arriving in good time to enjoy each day’s anchorage. We arrived in Sawei- i Lau mid afternoon and snorkelled and explored in the kayak.

Exploring in the Yasawas

The following morning we tendered our Kava to the village chief as is the custom and asked if he had a village nurse who might be interested in some of the copious quantities of medical supplies given to me by David (retired doctor) and Gitta of Aros Mear before they left Whangarei to retire to Scotland from sailing. I had promised to distribute these supplies in the villages around Fiji. We were directed to the nurse who was delighted, the chief from another nearby village was visiting and he asked for some too. We took the supplies over in the dinghy to the famous limestone caves and handed them over to the nurse and the chief’s son before climbing down to the cave. We dived into the inner caves through a small underwater passage to be met by a guide with a big torch.

In the limestone caves in Sau i Lau, Yasawas.

Our next stop on the Yasawas was Malakati Village with its gorgeous beach where we dispensed more kava and medical supplies and bought fresh fruit and vegetables. The following day was Sunday so we went to church in the morning to listen to the Fijian service and the superb choir singing in beautiful unaccompanied harmony and then spent the rest of the day relaxing on the boat. Fijians are quite strict about Sunday’s and even children are not allowed out to play so the village was very quiet apart from the drum calling people to church in the morning and evening.

David doing his washing at the village tap

Man working keeps village women amused

 After a couple of nights at Malakati we sailed 10 miles down to Blue Lagoon through a tortuous reef strewn passage, where the film of the same name starring Brooke Shields was filmed. There is a resort here we visited last year which has a shop and spa among its other amenities so we anchored off and stocked up the boat with fresh fruit vegetables grown in the resort garden and Mel disappeared for a day of pampering to the spa. In the evening we had a very nice meal of lobster for Mel and I and a big juicy steak for David, washed down with some good wines, bliss! Small cruise ships come in here tie up to a private beach and a mooring buoy half a mile down the island from the resort and disgorge 60 or so passengers directly on shore. Barbecues, snorkelling and other entertainment is organised ashore with all the provisions, kayaks, beach games etc coming off the ship. The passengers then go back on board to sleep and the ship stays there for another day of fun on this private beach. The resort customers fly in by sea plane which lands in the anchorage several times a day so it’s a busy place but with few yachties as we were there early in the season.
The nice thing about the Yasawas group of islands is the opportunity to day sail from place to place, its all very relaxed and with lovely anchorages, good snorkelling and further south the resorts for a bit of spoiling when needed. The down side is lots of reef to look out for.

A Google Earth image showing up the many reefs.

In Somosomo Bay, our next stop, we decided to try to find the wreck of a WWII plane on the other side of the island in shallow water and set off early in the morning equipped with masks and fins, gps, and water for our trek through the jungle. We found a path which came to an end at an area of 2m high grass. Mel forged on ahead and was soon lost in the oohthefakaway grass. We shouted for a few minutes but no reply so David and I forged on trying to pick up her track and eventually reaching impenetrable mangroves in a swamp. There was no way through so we moved to higher ground and reached the other side of the island where we could see the beach but here there was no way through the dense undergrowth. We even tried crawling through but to no avail. 

This is where we turned back – no way through

What was worrying was that I was carrying Mel’s water and David and I had drunk most of ours. So we decided to head back to the start and see if Mel had done the same. We arrived back at the dinghy about 12.30, four hours after setting off but no sign of Mel. We returned to the boat filled our backpacks with water bottles, picked up the machete, put on some better footwear and set off again. This time we got to the beach on the other side by a deserted village. There we found footprints which could have been Mel’s but no Mel. There was nothing for it but to go back to the boat and seek help although it wasn’t clear how you would find anyone in this thick jungle. We arrived back at the dinghy and there in the distance was a figure coming down the beach, it was a very tired and bedraggled, Mel. We gave her water and she bathed her badly cut legs in the sea and we took her back to the boat where she slept for a few hours, after tending her cuts.

Our own Lovo being built at Somosomo Bay

David cutting palm fronds for our Lovo

The next day we all agreed we’d had enough of jungle for a while and gave up the idea of reaching the wrecked plane so off we sailed down to Natuvalo Bay for 2 nights, scene of our near disaster last year, the staff remembered the boat and that fateful night. It was my birthday so in the evening we went ashore to the Korovuo Eco resort for drinks and a meal and a show of fire dancing, we struggled getting back to the boat as the tide goes a long way out making it difficult to get back in dinghy. A small puppy dog from the restaurant who adopted David tried to come with us and he had to carry him back to the beach to a safe pair of hands

Lovo Dinner at the Korovuo Resort Hotel with some backpackers

Traditional fire dancing at Korovuo

Next we wanted to visit Manta Ray Bay to drift snorkel in an attempt to see the Manta rays that use this 1/2 mile passage between islands. Each of us tied to the dinghy while the tide took us through the pass. Unfortunately we didn’t see any mantas but it was a spectacular sight, lots of coral and fish and well worthwhile.. In the afternoon we set off for the island of Waya at the southern end of the Yasawas the wind shifted in the night so we had a rolly time at anchor.

Fresh mint being delivered for Mel’s Mojitos

We left Waya early the following morning to head for Musket Cove. On the way the boat, on auto pilot suddenly veered to starboard so we hand steered the rest of the way. That afternoon we anchored off the marina and went ashore to replenish stores and have a beer. That night the wind got up to 40 knots and we let out more chain but we’re too close to an American boat whose skipper got very agitated. We kept an anchor watch through the night and we didn’t move closer as we swung to and fro. At our nearest the two boats were only 15 feet apart, nail biting stuff but there was no way we could re-anchor in those winds in such a crowded anchorage surrounded by reefs. At first light the wind eased so we anchored further away but the wind shifted and as the other boat had 200 feet of chain down the boat swung down on top of us back to our 15 feet apart. Nothing for it we hoisted the anchor in driving rain and strong winds to anchor further out on the edge of the anchorage where we could put down 50m of chain. During the night the wind eased and in the morning we set sail for the marina 15 miles away at Vuda Point where we would clear out of Fiji.

The autopilot worked fine until we were just off Vuda Point and then stopped working altogether  Just as well it wasn’t mid ocean.

Cleaning out the water tank after taking contaminated water in Fiji

We found an electronics man who advised the clutch had burned out and we would need another. This meant a week’s stay in the marina while we waited for the part to arrive from New Zealand. I also took the opportunity to order Duogen spares from the UK, both of which came in a few days.

Staff at Vuda Point singing Isla Lei the Fijian song of farewell to us as we were leaving

We were pleased to leave Vuda Point nice though it is, its stifling heat and no breeze and a lack of anything to do meant we were glad to be back to sea. The marina staff sang Isa Lei the Fijian song of farewell to us from the dock which was a lovely send off for our 500 mile trip to Port Vila in Vanuatu.