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So I have always wanted to see Fiji and the Pacific islands in general, a first for my travels. I heard it was the real natural tropics. Due to originally having only 2 days here, I decided to book Bounty Island since it’s the closest reasonably priced resort to Nadi, 35 minutes by the South Sea Cruises Catamaran. I booked a modest treehouse, £39 at the time in which is in the mid range accommodation, offering privacy and a private bathroom between cheaper priced dormitories or more expensive cement AC buildings. Mine only had a fan but it was fine. Since the whole island is owned by the resort there is no alternative place to eat on the island, therefore you must pay the mandatory 3 course meals with WIFI which cost around £35.
Upon arrival I was greeted by a small boat that picked me up from the big boat, the guys want to know your name, introduce themselves and upon arrival I was greeted by guitar playing staff singing a traditional Fijian welcoming song. Immediately I was excited, the majority of hotels I stay in might offer the juice and towel but not a singing welcome. At check-in you get an intro, all the staff introduce themselves sporadically and you suddenly feel like you are staying with a family. I am bad with names but they remembered mine throughout and constantly asked how I was doing, addressing me by name, it was the start of being welcomed into what I assume is unique Fijian hospitality.
The island itself is small; circumnavigating the shoreline takes no more than 20 minutes. There is a sort of jungle in the middle with plenty of spaces to loose yourself. Coming off a flight from LA as I always do from long haul flight – I felt bloated and fat, so I skipped lunch and went kayaking around the island for exercise, which is available at no cost. So popping my headphones on I listened to Lee Burridge’s Live @ Burning Man set, which fitted the mood for my journey around the island. It made me feel almost like a castaway; most of that side of the island you see no one, which is great. I noticed some guests on the beach far from the main entrance having their own peaceful time as I kayaked past occasionally looking down at the turquoise sea and coral below. It was hard see fish but some colourful formations were below me. The music and the surrounding had a sense of meditation, free of any thought, just absorbing the complete seclusion of paradise.
Once I got back I decided I needed to see the sea so I took the free snorkelling equipment. In all honesty there was quite a lot of damaged coral but plenty of fish, I had a 2-3 foot fish with a blue stripe on it’s back which swam with me for ten minutes. It was awesome. Fiji is the place where you can swim with Reef Sharks and manta rays – it’s the real deal. I tried to swim around the whole island, which went on for an hour. It was hard work against the current so I gave up and just lay on the beach in the sand. It was a real sense of freedom with the calm warm water just brushing against my head. I just wanted to stay here for a while in total relaxation; it was just so overwhelmingly blissful. There were moments though back at beach when the weather had started to look slightly unpredictable.
Back at the resort I started to engage more with the staff. I had an interest in trying kava kava, a traditional welcoming drink in Fiji which staff had invited me to join them in. It’s the national drink of Fiji that comes from a root of a plant – it is suppose to have a sedative effect to aid you in sleeping but also to relax your muscles – it was described to me as like weed without any paranoia high as such but just body relaxation – I was interested. At this point I had just learned that a Cyclone was headed for Fiji. I get confused with storms, Typhoon and Cyclone I assume are just bad weather so I didn’t realise the severity of what was happening. It wasn’t until later that I made the connection to a terminology more familiar to me: hurricane. So rather obliviously I just chatted away to the staff and we sat in a circular group in the corner of a bar as I was introduced to Kava. There is a ritual to drinking kava – they swell the powder around in a cloth in rain water in like large round bowl, constantly striving the magic formula, it is then handed to me, and I say “Bula!” (which means “wishing you happiness and good health”). I clap my hands before taking it and knock it back like a shot, it isn’t supposed to be sipped. The taste is unusual but not foul. It is kind of salty and spicy at the same time. My tongue tingled a bit, not unpleasantly so. To complete the ritual I handed it back and clapped three times and this is done by all as the drink is passed around our circle. A sort of tribal ceremony. The effect is not immediately obvious, but there was definitely a relaxing feeling slowly coming. Discussing with the staff, they said it helps with relaxing after work, the loneliness of not seeing their family for long periods and in general it aids to relaxing the muscles and helps you to sleep like a baby. Everyone smiles and everyone is very chilled out. I chatted amongst everyone and felt that I was in the company of friends that I had known for years. They offered me this, didn’t want anything back and I really felt this is so unique in today’s world. Fijian’s are known to be some of the happiest people worldwide, the combination of the island life, the natural peace of the surroundings and I’m sure the kava helps to contribute to this. This area was once full of rival families and to resolve conflict they would sit together and share kava before they discuss their issues. In most circumstances they resolved the situation, I was told. I thought why can’t the UN, EU and G8 all have this prior to their meetings. After about 10 drinks I decided to go for dinner and later returned where the staff were now outside. I brought some new travellers that I shared dinner table with; a Dutchman and German girl. She had tried it before, he hadn’t. Both seemed up for it as I said I would return.
I felt a real bond with the Fijian Staff as well a these travellers but not many others, there were three different crowds; the young on gap years staying in the dorms who partied at the bar like it was a musical chairs but without the chairs. The resort organised entertainment activities for them. There were people like me, happy to chill and hang out with the locals, some families too and a big group of Chinese of which only a young girl in the group that could actually speak English, they were having a great time in the swimming pool at night, all 8 of them. I liked the staff a lot, it wasn’t like your typical hotel customer service; it was personal, you are our friend, join us, do as you please and we don’t expect anything in return. They told me they just liked to talk to their guests. It kind of reminded me of working in hotels in Miami, I loved chatting to the guests but Miami was different, there was greed in Miami and all interactions had an undertone of a desire for being tipped well.
The second kava session seemed much stronger, my lips numbed for a short period and my body felt totally relaxed, myself and the Dutchman decided to play ping pong. We didn’t care about rules or anything, we just wanted to keep the ball flowing, and we went for it. We were definitely under the influence of the kava, there was no competitiveness we just keep the ball flowing between us and were having a lot of fun.One issue with Kava is it makes you feel really hot, it was now night time and even with the fresh sea air I was dripping in sweat and this was even prior to the ping-pong. After the ping-pong we all sat round the pool, the Dutchman cooled down in the pool and I chatted to the resort’s engineer. It was then that he strongly emphasised how serious this cyclone was, that it was category 5 and was headed for the island within 48 hours. He had a relaxed approach and explained his previous experience of a cyclone. He was a interesting fella, we talked in depth about Samoa, Vanuato, Tonga – he had positive and negative things to say but he was most proud of his Fiji. I am now really interested in this very secluded part of the world where it seems nature is untouched and the people are the happiest I have ever met.After a few more kavas around the pool, the talk was increasingly about the cyclone and what to do. Mostly it was the guests who had extended trips that were concerned, the locals just smiled and the atmosphere was warm and friendly. I almost wanted to give them all a hug but it may have come across as weird – at least that’s what my western sensibilities were telling me. The talk of a cyclone being category five didn’t really bother me, I was only here for one day but perhaps it was the kava that made me think it will be fine; I was actually excited, thinking that it could be an experience. There was a huge circle around the moon that I gazed at – it was beautiful, the fresh air and peace was mesmerising. Maybe at that point I had had a little too much kava. Overly kavaed up if there is such a word but I just felt purely at peace and in my element, not many places offer this – there was no pretentiousness no judgement and everyone was so polite doing their thing. I went to bed early at 10:00, I still really hadn’t slept from the LA flight from which I had landed from 15 hours prior. Back in my room the fan was fine and a small lizard joined me in bed, I didn’t really want him there but couldn’t be bothered to do anything so we just looked at each for a while before he’d had enough and jumped off. I guess I wasn’t it’s type.
The day of the Hurricane
“Everyone must be evacuated all islands, you will be taken by 12” was the welcome at the breakfast buffet. “Oh shit” I thought. I haven’t even seen the jungle yet or taken a walk around the island by foot. This was my priority; forget breakfast. So I put my headphones in, this time the Pig and Dan debut album which fitted the sunshine vibe great and I took a nice stroll. I came across a lady trying to explain to the Chinese man about the evacuation he didn’t speak any English but my “Ni hao” (hello to him in Chinese) made them assume I could speech the language, my quick attempt at sign language to say we must go, didn’t look well understood so I continued my walk. It was beautiful, the weather was cloudy but no real sign of a storm coming, the air was pure, the smell of the sea and palm trees on the small clean beach was just fresh as can be. I ventured into the jungle, which really was not that interesting. I found some pathways, which made the walk a little more interesting. The only real wildlife were birds, many beautiful ones, squawking and welcoming me to their home just like the Fijians, at least that is what I imagined in my high morning spirit.
Back at breakfast there was some degree of chaos, some were calling their parents, others embassies, the Dutch guy was told by the Dutch Embassy to drink plenty of beer! The staff explained that boats were on their way to take us all to safety. I booked the 9am ferry but it never came, there were two boats evacuating: a small one, I guess part of a package tour which unfortunately included a Australian family with very young children, which made everyone worry as the children were young. Another scheduled service, a large catamaran which I booked as well as the rest. Mine was suppose to come later but never came. The sky was grey and the view to the destination in the distance showed dark clouds, the air definitely started to feel like something bad was looming. The sea became progressively rougher. By now the cyclone had already struck the northern island of Vanua Levu, the smaller of the larger islands quite far north. I felt sorry for the resort; they had a map with the predicted path showing the eye of the storm will pass straight to the island. It was due in about 10 hours.
It took 3 hours before the first set of passenger were able to leave, the issue was that the boat to ferry passenger to a larger boat was just a small 10 seater. After loading all the luggage and passengers, it started filling up with water due to waves and the weight. Looking around people were becoming nervous as all the passengers had to get off while the boat sped off to offload the water. Everyone was begining to think ok, “so we are stuck” to brave the storm. Saying that the male staff had to stay so it seemed a little insensitive thing to think/say.
Anyway, as the sea starting getting very choppy, I talked to the Fijians for a while before having a chill out session just watching the turtles. The resort had a turtle pond to protect the new born for a year before they then free them, its because the government say they will become extinct since their survival rate in the wild is poor now when first born.
Overall the spirit got better but the current weather looked worse with sea waves getting higher. Certainly no longer safe for swimming. Much of the male staff were packing everything away, to avoid damage such as the food supplies, a few of us give them a hand. There was a community feeling and I felt like we owed it to them to help and at the same time the reality was that within 24 hours this island could be badly destructed, as shown by the path on the maps at reception. Unless the luck of the land was to make the cyclone change path.
At the back of my mind I worry about these new friends of mine. They show me their underground bunker, which should be safe. But what if the sea covers the island I was thinking? I mean it’s a category 5 – the king of damage. We all wait around the pool and restaurant – everyone has checked out but waiting for the boats to take them to the big island under the instructions of the Fijian government.
The younger dorm back packers are in high spirits, singing together to Celine Dion that is playing on the radio. Kind of annoying actually I was thinking at least keep the spirits high with something good like a Bob Marley classic. I see the news on the BBC website ‘Megastorm To Hit Fiji’ which gets posted straight on my Facebook to mixed reactions from my friends back home. We were told that the last remaining boat would have to leave the island by noon after which time the port authority will shut down the boats. It was 12:30pm. The sea was so choppy its now that I think it’s best to fully cling film my laptop and other essential electronics up and cover my bags with the help of the staff- whom do this with everyone using clear bin bags.
Eventually a Catamaran turns up at 1pm. But the small boats still need to get us to it, they think about it this time and only take a hand full of passengers 3 times to avoid getting water on board. It pretty full on ride but nowhere near as bad as what is coming. The staff still remain in very high spirits bless them.
On board the large Catamaran, We are told we need to go further north and pick up passengers from two more islands. The ride there and back to Nadi can only be described as hell. I have been through the worst turbulence and can deal with that, with over 1000 flights in the last 4 years it doesn’t generally worry me. Boats on the other hand I cannot deal with. I move to the middle after sitting at the side – the boat jumps, huge waves hit one side, it is quite terrifying and many people are vomiting. It’s almost like one of those pirate ships that you find at a theme park. Jumping up and down, the waves fully engulf it. I was just trying hard to hold down my food. Headphones in, I am now listening to dark drum and bass. It feel inappropriate but I think its making me trying to absorb the vibe. I was wondering if the boat was sturdy enough to take the constant battering of these big waves for a full 40 minutes. Fortunately all was okay and I was relieved to arrive in port. I said goodbye to my new friends the Dutchman and his German girlfriend who were a lovely couple and I wished them the best of luck through the impending doom.
I had a friend that I am involved with in a business capacity, pick me up, she shows me her town of Nadi which reminds me of a high-street in New Zealand but also has that South African feel to it with some of the designs of the buildings. Overall it’s small but this is the largest island and the biggest town where the international airport is located.
One thing I notice is that very few people have boarded up their windows. When I lived in Miami Beach, even the slightest mention of a hurricane, even a category 1, all shop windows and homes have wooden boards drilled in. In Nadi very little presence of this surprised me especially because so many places have full glass fronts. I even drive past a window shop which is on a 2nd floor, full glass windows. I wonder now as I write this what happened because it looked very vulnerable. I guess I will never know.
My contact recommends that I stock up on fruit and water so we visit a very interesting fruit market. It is now raining heavily. The Fijians goodbye, after buying my bananas is “happy Hurricane” with a barrel of laughter – I love it here. Even the prospect of one of the worst cyclones coming does not damage the spirit of the people.
I checked in to my hotel, The Toka Toka Resort, which is walking distance to the airport. Here I also learned that my flight was cancelled for at least 48 hours. The airline had moved all aircrafts off the island for safety. Once I checked in I asked the porter if he had any Kava as I was thinking how chilled I was the night before and with a night coming like this, I couldn’t think of anything better. With 5 hours to go, he came back and made it in the same way that they did on the island. We drank together and discussed the hurricane, he told me about his experiences in 2012. His house in his village was flooded, the water came up to over 7 foot causing his furniture to float – but he said he was right on the sea. I think about some of the fellow travellers that booked accommodation right next to the sea, and whether that was a good idea.
For me I assume I am okay as I am quite far inland now. Not much happens other than a few staff join me for a kava now, i gotta an open door policy until about 7 o’clock when I fall asleep. The wind is noticeably getting louder but not much to worry about. I talk with a security guard after I hear a huge bang, one of the palm tree branches had fallen on the roof, they are quite heavy you know. I then fall asleep. About 9pm, I can hear the wind inside my room. I opened my shutter windows and venture out of porch. It’s night but I have a powerful torch and shine on the leaning trees, a staff member comes and joins me for a kava. He explains the palm trees that surround my ground floor hut wont fall but some of the other trees will. He says they have been working all day cutting dangerous branches as so not to hit the multiple buildings, since the hotel is totally full due to flight disruptions.
Again I fall asleep, I suffer from nightmares, which are rare for me and must be connected to the general energy in the atmosphere. At 11pm I am woken from the sheer roar of the force of nature – it’s scary. This is it, Cyclone Winston is above me. The force of nature beats anything else. It’s the noise the ceiling drips with water but impressively the lights remain on thanks to the hotel generator. My bed is getting soaked from ceiling water, I now worry the ceiling is going to take off so everything goes into the wardrobe. I just lie on the bed. I don’t have much fear but strangely enjoy this unique experience. To be fair the one drink of kava turns into 15. It occurs to me that this should really go in my website as a blog entry- we here we are. I wonder what will happen if the roof takes off.
There is no local TV, no WIFI and the roar is unimaginable. It’s midnight – I open my shutters and although it’s dark, so much is going on outside that it’s hard to focus on anything, so much rain and wind that I recon is now almost 200mph. I also notice a huge puddle covering most of the floor of my room. I stop writing and I think about the new friends on Bounty Island, the guys that had to stay. I mean, I am on the main land but the island must be so devastated – I hope and pray that they are safe, I am not religious but I feel it’s the least I can do. I’ve drunk almost all the kava now and with the unrelenting wind blowing hard outside I fall asleep again.
About 3:30am I wake up, it seems all is calm now. There is no noise; nothing and I decide to go for a walk with my torch. Tree branches block the path leading behind my hut but there is another path that is clear, I see a few trees down but no damage to the multiple huts on the resort. Just fallen branches, mess everywhere and I notice a bird shaking on the grass – the poor animals I think, this must be like some kind of apocalypse to them. The place is messy as expected but not as much damage as anticipated, at least to the building but surely other places do have. Staff come and find me and tell me there is a curfew in effect and all guests must remain in their rooms since they expect a second wave – they escort me back to my room. There is no second wave just constant rain.
The next morning I can see the damage in full. All the guests are walking around. It seems that everyone is in good spirits and no damage affected anyone, most people just had water in their rooms like me. My door was slightly damaged as branches bashed against it in the wind. I couldn’t re-open it and needed assistance. One tree was down and that was it. It was not really that bad because it was the fastest moving Cyclone in the history of the south pacific had it stayed above for longer then the damage could have been much worse.
Flights resumed the next day and luckily I got out on the first flight to Hong Kong. I will never forget Fiji that is for sure, it is simply beautiful, natural and such a happy place to be. It is as much the surroundings as the people that make it this way. It’s a shame it is so far from anywhere but New Zealand and Australia. I must come back. I hear the island survived okay, apparently no rooms were damaged and the staff were fine. A few trees came down but thankfully that was all.
Here is the picture of the kind staff that made me feel so welcome. Bless them all.