Island adventures in a Fijian archipelago that time and tourism are yet to spoil.
Halfway through an impulsive afternoon attempt to kayak around Drawaqa, one of the southern islands in Fiji’s Yasawa archipelago, it occurs to me that the craft I’m paddling mightn’t be fit for the mini-mission I’ve set myself. It’s a basic sit-on-top model – essentially a large, vaguely boat-shaped piece of plastic.
The ocean breeze has kicked up considerably since I rounded the island’s southern tip, as has the swell. This thing is unsinkable, and it would take a tidal wave to capsize it, so the movement of the water doesn’t worry me – but the kayak is about as manoeuvrable as a dead dugong and I’m concerned about the wind blowing me off course.
Even that wouldn’t be the end of the world. Sure, the waiting wife would be a bit miffed, but I’d end up next door on Nanuya Island, where there’s a 4-star resort and a great beach bar. As a worst-case scenario, it’s a lot better than the one faced by the first Englishman to negotiate these waters, who was also in command of a decidedly dodgy boat.
Captain Bligh was the first European to set eyes on the Yasawa Islands – or any other part of Fiji – but, despite being desperately short of supplies when he passed by in May 1789, the captain declined to pull in and collect coconuts from the palm-shaded beaches that fringe the archipelago’s isles.
Bligh was having a bad week. Mutineers had just booted him off the Bounty, and on the first island he pointed his small boat towards, Tofua, the locals attacked and killed one of the loyalists who’d been cast adrift with him. Tribes elsewhere in the Pacific had told tales of cannibalism in Fiji and Bligh wasn’t about to risk ending up on the menu, so he sailed past.
How things have changed. Now people flock to Fiji, which has become famous for the friendliness of its locals. In parts it’s gone too far the other way, with some islands verging on being a South Pacific Disneyworld. The Yasawa Islands, though, being a bit further flung, have thus far avoided being ruined by this tsunami of tourism, and they’re rich in adventure potential for anyone with an explorer’s eye.
Exploring the Dark Side
There’s nothing quite like exploring a tropical archipelago – hopping from one island to another and diving into a different set of adventures on each. My Yasawa yomp begins near the top of the chain, on Nacula.
This island boasts the Blue Lagoon – presumably given such a prosaic name because everyone was too busy enjoying its gin-clear waters and blonde bombshell beaches to think of anything more imaginative.
I join a boat one morning to explore some caves on the other side of the island where a series of limestone caverns are accessed by a staircase etched into the boulders. When the steps stop, we leap into a great green rock pool, our mid-air squeals bouncing off the walls while we plunge.
Swimming through the outer pools and caves, lit via natural chimney chinks in the rocky roof, there is plenty of banter, but when we reach what seems to be a dead-end, the excited chatter abruptly ceases with the utterance of five words: “Okay, who is going first?”
To get into the final cave we must duck dive and swim through a submerged tunnel. It’s not a long passageway, we’re told, but the cave we’re swimming into has no natural light, so there’s no way of knowing when you can safely surface. And even when you do, it’s into complete darkness.
I get the short straw and lead the way. I give it plenty and come up somewhere, I guess, well into the cave. The second person follows and soon we’re all in. One of the guides produces a light so we can explore. The cave has an elbow, and I follow a tunnel off to the right. It keeps going – to where be anyone’s guess, but the group begins swimming back through the tunnel and I have no great desire to get stuck in here on my own with no light, so I follow.
Having the Run of the Place
Island life is exactly as somnambulant as you’d expect in the South Pacific. Most visitors come here for the life aquatic and to laze in hammocks strung up outside beachside bures, and shoes often remain at the bottom of people’s packs for their entire trip. That was never going to happen to my runners, though, which I brought precisely because I had a hunch that trail running would be a good way to explore the little-visited island centres.
Like Australia in microcosm, almost everyone here sticks to the coast. This is understandable when the ocean laps at your feet right outside the beach hut door, but I’m curious to see what lays amid all the greenery inland too. Could be a whole lost world in there.
Well-formed trails lead up into the hills from all directions, so someone clearly does walk around the island. Setting out early, to beat the heat, I begin exploring these paths. Unfortunately I never run into a Conan Doyle-style forgotten land of dinosaurs, but I do discover a network of top-class trails linking lovely little villages, see the sun rise over some stunning Yasawa vistas and chance across a couple of new beaches.
On Naviti – the next island down – I find something even more exciting: subaquatic snorkelling trails between the beach and the reef. To prevent damage to fragile corals growing in the shallows, a pathway has been built along the seabed for snorkellers and divers, which protects the seascape and leads to the most kaleidoscopically colourful areas, teeming with wildlife.
One benefit of snorkelling is the lack of time restraints. Without watching your air or worrying about decompression stops, you can just keep exploring until you run out of energy or daylight.
In fact, on Barefoot Island – the more colloquial name for Drawaqa – even sunset doesn’t put an end to aquatic adventures. The dive company here runs both night dives and, more unusually, night-snorkelling sessions, which bring a whole new perspective to the underwater world. During the evening you can observe a complete changing of the sub-aquatic shift, as the day dwellers seek cover and the night stalkers come out to play. And hunt. And mate. It’s post watershed, adults-only stuff this night snorkelling.
If you rate adventure over luxury, Barefoot is the real treasure island of the group. As soon as the Yasawa Flyer drops you off here, you can see people abseiling down the cliffs. It’s the first thing I do on arrival and climbing the trail to the top of the crag offers a fantastic view of the island.
I can see there are three beaches – Sunrise, Sunset and Manta Beach – all of which are a mere coconut’s throw from my bure. Sunrise and Sunset are named for obvious reasons, and being directly opposite each other offer excellent options for snorkelling, no matter what the wind and tide are doing.
Manta Beach faces the Manta Channel, a narrow stretch of water between Barefoot and Naviti islands, which is a thoroughfare for massive manta rays. These extraordinary and elegant animals cruise through the channel like underwater space ships, effortlessly riding the currents and allowing snorkellers to hover around them at surprisingly close quarters.
Across the islands, the sound of the lali – a long wooden Fijian drum – usually indicates food has been served, but on Barefoot it can signify something different. Here the beating of the drum means the mantas are on the move, and when the rhythm rings out almost everyone on the island scrambles for their snorkelling gear and hits the water within minutes.
But if the snorkelling is sensational, the scuba diving is something else again. I’ve never experienced a place with such an abundance of dive sites as the Yasawa Islands, and the epicentre of underwater operations is on Barefoot, where there’s a well-manned dive school.
There’s a choice of scores of dive locations, including some with swim-through features as well as drift dives and shark spotting. There are rumours of a wrecked sea plane lying somewhere on the seabed nearby, and exploratory dives are being done all the time – I take part in two while I’m there, including an underwater circumnavigation of a small, unnamed island, a short boat ride from Barefoot.
The Good Fight
The diving here is not just recreational. Dan, the resident dive master, is a marine biologist and he heads up a voluntourism project from Barefoot that is run through an organisation called Vinaka Fiji.
Volunteers from all over the world come and stay on the island. Some teach in village schools and assist in mobile maternity clinics that visit remotes parts of the islands, while others take part in the diving program, which seeks to protect Fiji’s vulnerable reef from aggressive and destructive species, including humans.
A major thrust of the sub-aquatic conservation campaign is to rid the area of the reef-wrecking crown-of-thorns starfish, which has invaded Fijian waters. During the first dive I do with Dan, he spots a fully-grown crown-of-thorns in action and carefully drags the pretty but viciously armoured villain off the coral. Later he tosses it into the ‘starfish cemetery’ next to the dive shop. It’s an uphill battle. A female crown-of-thorns starfish can release 100 million eggs a year.
Unlikely looking frontline warriors in this war are giant clams. These massive molluscs filter thousands of litres of water as they feed, and with each inhalation they gobble millions of those rogue starfish eggs. However, although they can live for more than a century once they mature, juvenile clams are a bit helpless, so volunteer divers on
Barefoot spend a lot of time looking after beds of babies in the underwater clam nursery.
I spend a few hours helping out, kneeling on the seabed cleaning the little tykes with a toothbrush. It’s a unique diving experience, and the reward at the end is that you can still go off on an exploratory dive. The nursery is only a few metres down, so you don’t suck much air while working. Once I’ve finished brushing my allotment of clams, I go and visit their grownup siblings, which are based in a little sunken boat deeper out to sea.
Poachers and Paddlers
Returning from one dive, a faster boat speeds past. We wave, and they return the gesture, but their shirts are pulled up around their faces, concealing their identity.
“They’re illegally diving for sea cucumbers,” Kenny, my Fijian dive master, explains. “It’s a big problem here.” The cucumbers are destined for Asia, he says. Apparently a ship sits offshore with refrigeration facilities for the haul, supplying untrained divers with tanks and paying them big cash for cucumbers. Dan later tells me that he’s concerned the mantas are also at risk from poachers, as are those clams.
They may reside in paradise, but the average islander in Fiji also lives in poverty. and the cash rewards offered by this illegal supply chain are hard to resist – despite the dangers.
Kenny says he visits villages where men are giddy with the bends after spending too much time at depth, and he recently attended the funeral of a young lad killed by decompression sickness. Part of the volunteer program is to educate these guys about the risks, and the effect their actions have on the environment.
The next person we spot from the boat is a reminder of the subsistence existence of locals. From a distance it looks like the man is levitating just above the water, but as we get closer I realise he is paddling a homemade ‘boat’.
It’s a simple construction – he has taken a surfboard and somehow attached a kitchen chair to it – and on this craft he is paddling miles out into the ocean to fish for food for his family. Suddenly the plastic sit-on-top kayak I circumnavigated the island on the day before doesn’t seem so shabby.
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