I wanted to visit Levuka, Fiji’s only UNESCO World Heritage site and former capital, but the complicated ferry systems wouldn’t allow me to figure out. Goundar Shipping sails most of the longer inter-island routes, but Ovalau trips are run by the Patterson Brothers, whose office I never found but an agent of theirs in Savusavu told me I’d better stick to the larger islands of Vanua Levu and Taveuni for island hopping. There was a cyclone last week and my flight back to the US next week got cancelled, so it seemed like a great idea.
The Goundar ferry I took from Suva to Savusavu took 12 hours, but we left 3 hours late. Wandering around their ‘new’ ferry (it was bought in November from British Columbia -there was even a Shoppers Drug Mart advertisement from Tsawassen still hanging inside) reminded me how consumptive we are in the first world – it was a perfectly good ferry, but clearly not good enough for Canadian safety standards anymore, so it must have been someone’s great idea to sell it to Fiji, so BC Ferries can have enough money to put towards a newer, shinier, bigger boat.
I continued onto Taveuni, an island renowned for its nature parks both above and below water. Bouma National Park is home to a rare, endemic species of flower, and one waterfall there falls directly into the sea. For divers, its one of the best places in the world to see soft coral, and just sitting at a restaurant drinking coffee, I saw a pod of 20+ dolphins swimming less than a kilometre from the shore.
I ‘camped’ there, which felt more like an impromptu homestay. Beverely Camping was a beachside hostel run by a couple who recently sold it to a dive center, but now you can stay with them up the hill in their garden, with all the chickens, dogs, horses and kids for company. If you’re lucky, you’ll be around when they start mixing kava, or ‘grog,’ and the powder/water mixture gets sent around until you say stop.
I camped further south on the island, where a woman who rarely leaves her home was hearing the news from me that Beverly camping had shut down more than a year ago, despite them being only half an hour apart.
The best part of camping in my hammock is being able to see the stars before I fall asleep. It gets a little distracting when every village dog has to come and sniff you out, but having a chicken fly into you is slightly more surprising.
Taveuni is special because its one of the only two places in the world where the 180 degree meridian makes landfall (the other location is in Siberia). So technically speaking, you can be standing with one foot in today and the other in yesterday. Or one foot in the now and one tomorrow, depending on which way you’re coming from.
Taveuni felt a bit like Wallis – calm and quiet. There’s no real city center or bus station, and even the ferry wharfs differ by the size of the ferry (and all of them were incomplete or broken to some extent). There is an airport, with a fence around it and a small hut to differentiate it from the road, but not even the once paved road makes it all the way around the island, since very few live on the south-east side of the island.
It’s nice to travel to those kinds of places when you’re a solo female, but a Sunday is always a bore, unless you’re willing to join in for some rejoyceful church worship. You could hear the hymns being sung from the next village, but I was busy trying to find a shop or restaurant open to feed myself.
Going back to Savusavu felt like returning to the real world, but still a tranquil, beautiful world. They called it the hidden paradise, a place where the explorer Cook spoke highly of, and Jacque Cousteau did much of his diving. His son has opened a 5-star resort where families come to let their children learn how to dive, and I couldn’t imagine a more beautiful place to first meet the underwater world.
The sunsets were the most memorable part of Savusavu, and the quaint little town offered a handful of exceptional shopping and dining. I met three French men who had been sailing from Tahiti, and watching them enjoy their first cold beer and red steak in weeks was nearly as much joy as they were experiencing.
I stayed in a dorm at a hotel called Hidden Paradise, and it was the third female who hosted me; it’s surprising how much more welcoming it is to enter a space protected by a woman. Taveuni and Vanua Levu were the first two islands in the Pacific where I noticed how well animals are treated – from stray cats to work horses, everything looked fed, fluffy and healthy. Dogs were never strays – many had collars or a home to protect, and the only unfortunate road kill I saw were a few frogs, which the chickens and rodents were quick to capitalize on.