Taveuni & Vanua Levu

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.

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I think I may have rode this ferry in BC 15 years ago!

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.

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there’s a pot of gold in Taveuni, and only one road to get there

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.

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camp, with a partial view to the sky

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.

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there was no shortage of beautiful beaches or blue pools in the north of Taveuni

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.

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Which side of the date line am I?

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.

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the smaller ferry between Taveuni and Vanua Levu puts down a fishing line for the crossing

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.

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table for 1, and a stump

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.

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the quiet bay of Savusavu

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.

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the Jean-Michel Cousteau resort in Vanua Levu, where kids prepare for their diving lesson

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.

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these sunsets never get old

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.

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Lilongwe to South Luangwa National Park

After more than a week bouncing around the shores of Lake Malawi, we headed to Lilongwe from Kande Beach. Some will tell you it takes 4 hours, others 6, but really it takes about 10 if traveling by local buses. These ‘matolas,’ small 14 seater buses, will actually squeeze in more than 20 people, and stop to drop off and pick up people as long as there’s space to sell one more passenger in, including whatever cargo they may have with them (ie. live chickens, 25kg corn flour sacks, or smelly dried sardines). They’ll tell you they’re going to Lilongwe, but really they’re just going to the next big town where they can buy you into their buddy’s bus, which goes to the next town, and 3 bus exchanges later (if you’re lucky), you’ll actually get to Lilongwe.

Goodbye Lake Malawi

In Lilongwe we stayed at Mabuya, a backpacker friendly hostel and camp site, but with the early arrival of the rainy season, decided that sleeping outside in our hammocks was a bad idea. We were short on kwacha, but they accepted visa once in a while, and this was one of those nights. It poured from the moment we arrived until we went to sleep, so the $12 splurge on a dorm bed was well worth it, although we missed out on enjoying the swimming pool.

A warm welcome to Zambia

The next morning we left at 6:30, and took a local bus to the bus station. From there, we found a bus to Machinji ‘border,’ which doesn’t go to the border, but takes you to Mchinji town (2000 kwacha, 2 hours). Another 1000 kwacha in a shared taxi took us the last few kilometers to the border, which we walked across, and bought a single-entry Zambian visa for $50US (NB: the coop $30 Zambia/Zimbabwe visa is not available at this border).

Our first sunrise in Mfwue, just seconds after the baboon perched on our picnic table ran away

From there, it was another shared taxi to the next town, Chipata 30km away. The atm at the border didn’t work, no one exchanged shillings or pounds, and after our unexpected visa fees we had no extra dollars. But the shared taxi took us to a Barclays in Chipata, where we had to wait in a long line to use the atm (it was down for the first 15 minutes) or get special permission from the manager to change pounds. I’ve heard Zimbabwe is bad, but this was still worse than I expected. It may have been because it was the first of the month and a Friday, but it was still surprising how difficult it took for us to get local kwachas.

Zebra crossing on the way to South Luangwa

Now it was 12:30, and the taxi had waited an hour for us, but he still only charged us 50 Zambian Kwacha and then dropped us off to the Chipata bus station, where we could get a bus to Mfuwe. We had heard shared taxi’s also do the route, for the same price and a lot faster, so after talking to a few drunkards and some taxi drivers, we finally found out they were waiting somewhere else 3 km away.

Even a lying down giraffe is tall

We were off by 13:30 in a shared taxi, for another 50 kwacha where they say they only take 4 passengers, but a 5th one was always rotating in and out during the 133km journey to Mfwue. We arrived at the doors of Croc Valley, 2 km outside of South Luangwa Park’s gates, just before 4. We checked in for a 2 night, 2 safari, 4 meal deal and slept in our hammocks the first night.

Lazy cat

Even though Croc valley isn’t technically in the park, there are no gates or fences, so the shallow Luangwa river didn’t stop hippos from coming up on our side. After asking permission to sleep in hammocks, and being assured it was safe, we were told there was a small chance some grazing hippos might show up in the middle of the night, and we had to just stay calm and quiet. Sure enough, around 3 am, a large, chomping, snorting hippo decided to nearly graze me he was grazing so close.

Sunrise from Croc Valley

The next morning, after a game drive, the manager of Croc Valley told us we weren’t allowed to sleep in hammocks, since crocodiles also roamed around freely, and “a hyena might come and bite your face off.” So after that kind of warning, we moved into the canvas tents, especially after seeing the size of some of the spiders and avoiding a snake as we took down camp.

Bushbuck antelope are loving the new greenery after the first rains

The place was seething with insects as soon as nightfall came. All sizes and shapes of insects I’ve never seen, and a lovely bunch of mosquitos, plus thieving baboons and monkeys to avoid. A gecko pooped on me while doing yoga on the patio, and the swimming pool had a warning sign advising “please make sure there are no hippos, snakes or crocodiles before swimming.” We managed to eat our meals in peace, since the waiters carried slingshots to threaten any monkeys away, and took a sunset safari in the park to see pukus and zebras who truly have only white and black stripes (that carry on all the way under their bellies). After running into a few more grazing hippos on our way home after dark just outside of camp, we were relieved to sleep in our bush tent, especially once the thunder and lightning started up.

Mauritius, country #200

I came up with the goal to try and visit 200 countries before I turned 30. I arrived in Mauritius, country #200, 3 days before my birthday, and 9 other friends from around the world. Without sharing too much incriminating evidence, here are a few pictures and stories from the best birthday week I’ve ever had.

one of those lazy beach days

Most of my friends are from Europe or North America, so I had originally chosen Laos as a more ‘central’ meeting point. But my best friend Ursula from Washington D.C. said there had to be a beach, and booked her flight to Mauritius even before I did. She knew it was a new country for me, and thought it would increase the number of people coming, despite it being much further away in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

La Cambuse beach

There were supposed to be twelve of us, but one friend from Australia who is a pilot for Qantas couldn’t use his standby tickets because of some schedule changes. My best friend from Canada, who recently married an American, got scheduled an immigration interview for a date exactly in the middle of her already booked vacation, so since Green cards don’t last forever and Donald Trump exists, she had to cancel.

But, there was the Lebanese entertainer from Paris, the German horse-back rider from Munich, the Belarussian couple from Minsk, my study abroad roommate from Washington DC, a couchsurfer I met in Italy from Pennsylvania, an emergency doctor from New York, a professional dancer from LA, and Iceland’s best chef. We were 4 girls, 6 guys, half of us couchsurfers, and nearly no one had met eachother before.

the 4 ladies of the group

The week went flawlessly. I could never imagine putting a group of 10 strangers together, traveling and staying together in a foreign country without any hiccups, but it was perfect. Everyone got along, the rum was never-ending, and the beaches and sunsets stayed beautiful no matter where we were on the island.

sunset at Flic en Flac

We spent our first 4 days in Blue Bay, 3 days in Flic en Flac, and 2 days in Trou aux Biches, near Grande Baie. Our only errands every day were to refill the ice bags and fill them with wine, then walk to the beach and work on our tans, or burns, in some cases. In Le Morne we swam with wild dolphins in the open sea, and our personal taxi-van carried us from A to B and showed us some of the touristic sites on the island. We passed towns with the names of Suriname and Yemen, and saw endless fields of sugar cane backdropped by Jurrasic park-like mountains.

Tea party at the Bois Cherie tea plantation

We visited a rum distillery, a tea plantation, a Hindu temple, and some waterfalls and park areas, but the beaches were by far the most memorable. The water was always warm, and even under dark and stormy skies stayed bright and crystal blue. We had a few rain showers, but went to the beach anyway, and missed the cyclone that hit after we left. We danced at some live music bars, drank with some locals who were friends of friends of friends, ate brunches with bottomless mamosas and cooked dinners together at the various airbnb’s we stayed at. It’s a miracle no one got hurt or lost or left out or too claustrophobic, but this group of people made my 30th birthday a most unforgettable party. I’ve also never traveled in such a big group, but after visiting 200 countries and experiencing Mauritius the way I did, I kind of wish some of those people would carry on traveling with me.