Diary: Fiji – Diving off the beaten sites

It already feels a lifetime ago since we visited this remote collection of islands in the South Pacific. Known to us Europeans as an exotic honeymoon destination it’s only a few hours flight away from the east coast of Australia or New Zealand respectively.

Nevertheless, it has managed to preserve it’s idyllic ‘paradise’ status featuring isolated resorts and empty beaches as many Aussies and Kiwis instead flock to the considerably cheaper Bali, our equivalent of Spain.

Our journey around Fiji began in Nadi in a rather shabby hostel on the outskirts of town. Our room was very basic by western standards, but after living in a tiny campervan for 3 months it felt like a palace. Suddenly we had space. We had our own bathroom. In our room. Amazing!

The next day we made our way to Pacific Harbour ‘like the locals’ and took the 5h public bus. The bus is cheap, rickety and extremely cosy. In an effort to increase the output of the service the Fijians have simply reduced the seat size and increased the seat amount. The aisle is a jumble of legs which we gingerly pick our way through to seat ourselves between a couple of rugby player sized passengers.  

At our destination a special treat was waiting for us. Our villa, or bure as the locals call them was positively luxurious featuring a massive bedroom, modern living room, big veranda and even and an in- and outdoor shower (just in case). Of course I booked it so I shouldn’t have been surprised but with all the various reservations you simply forget. 

We now felt we truly arrived in paradise.

We spent a welcome day chilling out, re-charging our internet-deprived souls and planning our underwater-activities. After diving in the perceived ice-cold waters at New Zealand’s Poor Knight islands we looked forward to the cosy warm waters of Fiji. We booked a snorkel and dive trip and, as Alex’s 40th birthday was soon upon us, I’d booked us on a special shark-dive too. Initially, I felt apprehensive of the close shark encounter without any protective cages but at the last minute I rationalised that it can’t be that dangerous or news of eaten tourists would simply ruin their business-model.

Having done it and survived unharmed I can say it was probably one of the best dives we’ll ever have done. Despite the huge numbers of sharks (lemon sickle-fin shark, white-tip reef shark, bull shark and nurse-sharks) and surprisingly also other fish (damsels, banner fish, snappers, anthias, etc.) I felt at no point any panic, fear or even nervousness. Once in the water the calming dive-reflex takes over and envelopes you. 

The shark feeding itself was surprisingly orderly – nothing like hand-feeding a bunch of hungry dogs where one must be prepared to lose an unfortunately placed finger at any time. There’s a clear hierarchy (big > small) which all fish know and strictly follow so as not to end up as shark food themselves. Most of the sharks get no food but that doesn’t seem to stop them attending. The feeding itself was over in about 20 minutes after which we explored a nearby wreck. During our surface interval we’re educated about the different types of shark at Beqa Lagoon and how the feeding benefits the local village and reef alike.  

Despite this being a completely artificial experience and one is normally reminded not to feed fish (or any other wild animals for that matter) the newly attracted sharks and prohibited fishing at Beqa Lagoon have also attracted other fish and protected these reefs. The village receives a nominal fee per diver and can thus fund schools, college loans and other such widely accepted investments, or so we are told. 

After the morning’s excitement I surprised Alex with this massive birthday cake and your special birthday wishes. Thanks again for all of you who contributed and sent me a video over – he was absolutely thrilled!

Alex with his massive birthday cake

Our final evening in Pacific Harbour ‘town’ was spent celebrating Alex’s big day with a few cocktails and a plate of ribs. The next few days we tried to find the ‘hidden gems’ of Fiji’s capital, Suva, but they remained rather well hidden indeed. It’s a shame guidebooks try ‘auf Teufel komm raus’, desperate to find anything that may appeal to the very enthusiastic traveller instead of just telling the truth – “This place is a hole. Don’t bother.” How many needless hours of walking through unappealing, dirty streets in the sweat-dripping-heat could have be saved with just a few well placed words? 

Needless to say, we soon returned to our accommodation and spent most of our time there, partly due to the lack of nearby attractions and partly due to the rainstorm that arrived and decided to stay for the remainder of our time making a visit to the rainforest impossible.

A short flight and rather adventurous taxi ride later – our taxi was almost certainly held together by gaffer tape – we arrived to our apartment in Savusavu. Located on the top of a steep hill it offered beautiful views but meant that any trip to/from town required a 4×4. There we met a couple of co-travellers and, as it turned out, co-divers as we all booked on to the same dive trip the next day. 

The Australian dive guide, Colin, reaffirmed the stereotype of the politically-incorrect Aussie guy within 10 seconds of us being picked-up. Having changed the subject we duly learnt a lot about the history of the dive operators on the island and the damaging effects of cyclone Winston which wreaked havoc on the nearby islands. After a bumpy boat ride on the rough sea I was glad to get underwater being already completely soaked anyway.

The diving was beautiful and, for me, much more enjoyable once I dropped a few too many kg that were pulling me down like a sack of potatoes. The waters were clear and fish life was definitely a notch up from Pacific Harbour. On our second dive day we even spotted schooling hammer-head sharks which was incredible. Diving at 37m depth in the deep blue the hammer-heads must’ve been a good 20m deeper still but we felt extremely privileged to have seen these majestic creatures cruising through the ocean.

Our guide book’s glowing description of Savusavu town inspired high expectations which couldn’t quite be met by the reality. Nevertheless, we found some amazing eateries tucked away behind the tired shopfronts of the main street. A firm favourite was ‘Raj’s Delight’ where an amazing curry dish costs less than a Starbucks coffee.

At the end of our one-week stay we boarded a local bus again and enjoyed the views of inner Fiji’s countryside as we made our way to our next destination, a small jetty at the end of the rural bus route where we’d been assured a boat would pick us up. I must admit to feeling sceptical as we got off the bus in the middle of nowhere and hunted for anything resembling a jetty, watching our only link with civilisation trundle off into the distance. Our scepticism was of course misplaced as not 10 minutes later we caught sight of a small boat and our transfer to the secluded Sau Bay retreat where we’d spend the next week speeding towards us. 

Our daily routine for that week didn’t alter much from the following:

Wake-up

Have breakfast – we were treated to delicious home-made bread, pastries and pineapple jam as well as brewed coffee (the latter appears to be somewhat of a rarity as most people tend to use instant coffee).

Go diving 

Surface interval & 2nd breakfast 

2nd dive

Get back to hotel and shower

Have lunch

Chill-out, write dive log book and identify Fish, edit photos, watch series or read

Have dinner

Sleep

Start again.

Needless to say, it was pretty amazing. Truly a piece of paradise.

The small resort has only capacity for 10 guests and for most of our stay it was only us and a nice American couple. We had the dive boat to ourselves and the dive master Carl was excellent. The diving was some of the best we have experienced so far with colourful radiant corals, fish everywhere and great visibility (15-25m).  Overall our stay was perfect and very special.

Sadly, all things have to come to an end eventually so after a week we depart Sau Bay to board a tiny aircraft at the tiny Taveuni airport to fly us back to Viti Levu, Fiji’s ‘main’ island. After my initial impression, dubious, suspicious and slightly worried, I soon appreciated the advantages of the slimed-down ‘security procedures’ which usually take up half your time at the airport. From our seats we even got a decent view at the cockpit and the various instruments within. Our fellow passengers enjoyed it particularly and tried to get as many videos and selfies in as they could manage during our 1 hour flight. 

After a few more hours in a taxi we arrived at our hotel in Rakiraki from where the famous Bligh Waters can be dived. Our daily routine had not changed much as we continued to eat-dive-eat-sleep and repeat, however, the magical touch and fond memories of Sau Bay couldn’t quite be matched. The larger hotel meant a less personal touch and elbowing each other on a crammed dive boat, which lead to literally being on top of each other when diving. The visibility and fish life disappointed in comparison to the Rainbow Reef, however, the corals were still fantastic. I know, all very much first-world-traveller problems. I’m sure your heart is bleeding for us.

My concluding thoughts on Fiji? It’s a beautiful country full of friendly and helpful people who live a much more humble but perhaps happier life than many of us Westerners do. It’s a long way off but I can only recommend to go and experience it for yourselves if you ever get a chance (just give Suva a miss).

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