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The Two Captains



2C Update #141 - To Tonga via Fiji (May 18-23, 2006)

We made much better choices on our return journey to the boat than the ones we made coming to the US, although the routing was identical. You may ask why we traveled again through Fiji, why we didn’t just route ourselves straight to Vava’u? The answer, of course, is “$”. Since we intend to come back from Fiji this year, booking a round trip flight to Nadi with a one-way connector to Tonga was cheaper than the three-point option with the missing leg we’d do by boat. Of course, it is never cheap to fly this far ad stay this long, especially these days with the escalating price of fuel. But with that perspective, having a return ticket locked in may actually save us money.

The better choices had to do with how we spent our layovers. In LA, for example, instead of passing the layover hanging around the airport like we did in December, this time we rented a car and drove to nearby Marina de Rey for a nice meal, some last minute shopping and a matinee showing of Mission Impossible III, our heavy carry-ons safely stowed in the trunk!

On the principle of what was good for LA would be good for Fiji, we had also booked a rental car for our time there. Even though our flight landed at 3:00AM and we appeared to be the only customer, the Avis gal was there to give us our keys. We had also made an Internet reservation back at Stoney Creek, and, thanks to our stopover last year, we knew our way there well enough to find it in the dark. The night watchman had the key to our bure (cottage), and we fell into the cool white sheets feeling almost as though we’d come home!

Stoney Creek

We were only in Fiji three days last December, but it’s amazing how that ounce of familiarity changes the whole picture. The staff at Stoney Creek either remembered us or acted like they did, and we remembered them (although I still don’t have the petite Indian gal’s name!). The faces of the other guests had changed, of course, but just as before they were interesting travelers: a single girl from Israel, a Welsh couple now living in New Zealand.

Having the car proved a major convenience. Where last year we had to finagle with taxis, this time we just popped in our own vehicle and followed the Queens Road north to the turnoff for Vuda Point, drawn like lemmings back to this node of the cruising world. We expected our friend Denis of Bobulona to be there as we’d been in touch with him by email and had brought him boat parts, so we were pretty surprised to find him gone! However another couple we were hoping to see – Dave and Kathy of Sunflower – were there, and they happily broke off whatever they were doing to visit, which in the way of cruisers, started with coffee, ran on into lunch, and continued through the afternoon into supper at the “yacht club” after Denis and Bobulona came motoring back in.

We had first met Dave and Kathy last August in Niuatoputapu, one of those fleeting cruising encounters that leave you thinking, “oh, well, these are simpatico folks, but they’re going the other direction.” After our whale encounter there (See Update #131), Dave had made us a copy of some great photographs he’d had taken in Vava’u when whales had swum in among boats in an anchorage. Since we were both intending to end up at Vuda Point, they had also pressed on us their Sailingbird Guide to Tonga, which is by far the best guidebook to Tongan waters, but which at $50 we had avoided buying. This kindness we had totally abused, not only by using the book until it had begun to fall apart, but by NOT getting to Fiji in the fall to return it to them. My solution was to buy two new copies from Amazon (save about 30%!) and replace theirs.

Over the course of day, our sense of connecting with simpatico people strengthened, and by nightfall we had concocted a plan to go in our car to Suva the next day. We knew it would be a long drive – at 120 miles, we figured at least three hours each way, but Dave and Kathy had not stopped there with the boat, and we did not plan to. It seemed a shame to miss the capital, where there was said to be interesting architecture and a great museum, plus I figured, ever mindful of provisioning, that while we were there, we could at least scout the Fiji Cost-U-Less.

So much for rest and relaxation in our nice little mountain resort! Back at Stoney Creek, however, over a few Fiji Bitters around the nightly firepit with Michelle the owner, we were persuaded that we wouldn’t likely manage the trip in one day, especially, since, she pointed out, that the next day was Sunday! She recommended that we drive over, stay the night in a nice little resort above the city, pursue our missions Monday morning, and then make our way back. Since our flight to Tonga was early Tuesday morning, there was not much wiggle room in the plan!

We got a bit of a slow start out of Vuda Point the next morning while I helped Dave with his satellite phone, and then we immediately started with a detour out to Denereau Marina, where Dave hoped to track down some boat parts. Although it was interesting to see this resort development, it did not produce any useful stores, so by about noon we were finally on our way. Within a short time we’d passed through downtown Nadi and were spewed forth into the countryside. The drive led through cane fields before crossing through piney foothills, before settling down along Viti Levu’s south coast., where, of course, there seemed to be no roadside restaurants.

We finally pulled off in a coastal village at something that looks like a resort, only there was no sign of life. We were about to leave having concluded it was deserted when a man came out to beckon us in. With little expectation of a fast turnaround on a meal, we ordered the regional standard : fish and chips. To our surprise the meal came quickly and was good, and the trickling of the water garden relaxed us enough that we even took a few minutes to check out their little museum of Fijian crafts.

Valley Vista on a Wrong Turn!

Lunch Stop

Fijian Crafts

We arrived in the outskirts of Suva around 4pm. Our first stop was the Royal Suva Yacht club where our friends Bud and Nita were due in a matter of days. We’d brought along a watermaker part they’d requested and left it in care of the doorman. The place was cavernous and busy with some kind of member picnic, but no one paid us any attention. Just as well, we had an agenda. Dave and Kathy were hoping to locate the Papua New Guinea embassy to stop at the next morning to apply for their PNG visas (their plan at that point was to bypass Australia!). We never could locate it in Suva’s snarl of streets, even though the streets were devoid of traffic on Sunday.

Even with a map, it was not so easy to find our way out of town to Prince’s Road which would take us up into the hills to the Rain Tree Lodge, billed as being in the rainforest. Until the last minute we weren’t sure we were going the right way, as we climbed the unsigned road through rustic “suburbs”. Then we saw the sign for the Colo-i-Suva Park which we knew to be across the street. The lodge and its sign were tucked away in roadside greenery, and sure enough, when we made the turn, it was like instant rainforest!

The Rain Tree Lodge, like many resorts in this part of the world, offers several grades of accommodations, from backpacker dormitories to up-market bure. The Lodge is built on the site of an old round quarry, around which the forest presses close. A main lodge building has a bar and dining room, while the dormitory and bure are scattered about. Had we known both the Lodge and Dave and Kathy better, the four of us could easily have made do with one bure. Unlike Stoney Creek, where things were snug, the Rain Tree’s bure had a queen-sized bed under a mosquito net plus two single beds doing double duty as couches. There was a coffee table with chairs plus a deck which was wasted on us as night settled abruptly. Dave and Kathy had brought wine and we had a bottle of duty free rum, so we enjoyed a nice little happy hour before descending to the Lodge for dinner. The Lonely Planet positively gushes about both the Lodge’s cuisine and its service, but I fear none of us experienced anything out of the ordinary.

Only three days out of Florida time (a time change of seven hours!), Don and I found ourselves wide awake at 4am! We got up and read until sunrise, whereupon we discovered that any view from our deck was utterly obstructed by foliage. Too hungry to wait for our pals, we walked down to the lodge for breakfast. The sun was out, and a few intrepid souls were swimming in the dark, leaf-strewn waters of the quarry which came right to the breakfast deck. Dave and Kathy joined us, and then Kathy set to calling around about the visas, only to learn it can all be done by Internet!

Raintree Lodge

Now free of that obligation, we decided to head directly to the museum. Well, relatively directly. Downtown Suva had been completely transformed by choking traffic! Now, a wrong turn meant at least fifteen minutes wasted trying to work back los ground, and we made more than one. By the time we reached the museum, we weren’t liking Suva so much anymore!

The museum, however, was good. The collections were arranged to delineate the similarities and differences between the Fijian, Samoan and Tongan cultures, and answered a questions I’d had about why, when the three cultures had basically grown out of the same eastward expansion of the Lapita people from SE Asia, only the Fijians were Melanesian in physique while the other two were Polynesian. The answer is that the group settling in Fiji had had a second migration follow them in from the Solomons, darkening the essentially Polynesian culture, a migration that apparently did not carry farther eastward. Another interesting fact we absorbed was that the tattooing we had seen in Samoa – of the region between the thigh and the waist – had in Fiji traditionally only been applied only to women! Fijian men instead spent copious time on elaborate hairdos and daily body paint! As expected there were long displays of nasty looking Fijian war clubs, kava bowls, and cannibal forks! These cultural artifacts, coupled with Fiji’s tricky reefs, delayed the arrival of western influence here until the early 19th century, far later than in other Pacific island groups. The museum’s next three rooms focused on those influences, first European, then the European-introduced Indian migration, and lastly the Chinese.

Fijian Traditional life as captured in the Museum

From the museum we went in search of Fiji’s Cost-U-Less, which given the confusing road network and lack of signage took us some while. We found it outside of my Lonely Planet’s coverage area near the University of the South Pacific. Fresh from the US, and not yet desperate perhaps, I felt the Suva Cost-U-Less compared poorly with the one in American Samoa, with Don being particularly disappointed by the lack of the hot dog vendor. Kathy, however, managed to completely fill the trunk of the car, impressive since shopping hadn’t been something she’d planned on.

Meanwhile, Dave had a small list of items that he was hoping to find in Suva, and at every stop we made on his behalf, he would emerge with directions to two other places that might have what he looked for. In Suva’s maze of streets, this proved to be a recipe for nightmarish wandering, especially as we soon deduced that Fijians, like many islanders, never want to tell you they don’t know. We finally gave up, filled the car with gas and headed out of town…only to stumble over a real chandlery near the Yacht Club. After the hour spent there, Don and I felt the day was really starting to slip away from us. Not only did we have the four hour drive back to Vuda point to drop these guys off, but we had the 20 minute drive back to Stoney Creek, from where we would be departing at four in the morning!

For this reason we rushed out of Suva, failing to remember that there were no roadside restaurants outside the cities! It was 3:30 before we finally pulled of the road at an inauspicious-looking roadside block painted Coca-Cola red. With low expectations we all ordered the stirfry listed for F$3.50 (about US$2). It was terrific! With moods much improved we climbed back in the car for the last leg of the drive.

Michelle had warned us about the afternoon sun, that is that driving westbound into it on the two-lane highway with local traffic and domestic animals wandering across could become obnoxious, but we had little choice but to squint and bear it. Dark had already fallen as we found ourselves on an unfamiliar roadway inland from the one we’d taken outbound. Who knew they had another road! We stopped at a big service station, permeated by smoke from burning cane fields, and topped up the rental car’s tank, and then popped out with relief at a rotary near the Nadi airport! It took us about another hour to drop Dave and Kathy off at Vuda Point and backtrack to Stoney Creek’s dirt road. When Don finally shut off the car engine in the quiet of the mountain, we both felt we’d had enough of driving for a long while. We had a few more beers around the bonfire, a bowl of tomato-basil soup with garlic bread, and descended to our cool little bure where all our luggage awaited us.

Where just yesterday we were wide awake at 4:00am, this morning it was a struggle to get our eyes open. I don’t know what it is about Stoney Creek, but we sure do sleep well there. A half hour later, we were on the road to the airport, and by 5am the car was turned in and we were standing at the check-in counters where there wasn’t a soul in sight! It turned out our flight was at eight not seven, and the counters didn’t open until 5:30!

Once they did open, we managed to get all our bags checked to Tongatapu. At security, Don had to turn back and check his carry-on thanks to the cutlass bearing we’d stashed there in Tampa when the agent wanted to lighten a suitcase!

Thanks to the clear skies, we had a great view of the route we’d driven to Suva and back. Southern Viti Levu’s huge expanse of folded hills and valleys is served primarily by the one two-lane highway we’d driven known as the Queens Road (with the King’s Road, said to be in less good condition, closing the circle around the islands north coast). There were surprisingly few turn-offs into the interior . It would have been fun to go all the way around. Maybe next time without the constraints of a tight schedule.

Unlike our flight out last December, inbound we were not forced to spend a night on Tongatapu, but we did have a several hour layover. Somehow, we managed to walk through customs unscathed, but then we got scalped by the taxi driver we needed to get the mile from the “International Airport” to the domestic one. I am quite sure I have never been anywhere with less frills in their airport….either one! No posters, not even any signs! Not even any identifiable ticket counters. However, we managed to get checked in, paying US$70 for the 70 kilos we were overweight, and that AFTER Don persuaded them to up our allowances from the normal 10 kilos per person to 20 kilos.

Tonga’s airlines are its Achilles heel in the tourism business. The Prince, who owns the main one, doesn’t always pay his bills, and planes come and go as they are repo’d. The pilot in Don was all excited when a DC3 landed, because he’d never actually flown on one, but then we learned it was out of commission because the paperwork hadn’t yet cleared on its last airworthiness certification. Instead we flew north, about two hours late, on a 16-pax Otter-type plane, on which, fortunately for our luggage, there were only six passengers.

Upon arriving around 5:00pm at Vava’u’s airport, which you may recall lies about 12 kilometers from town, we were dismayed to find no taxis and no working pay phone to call one. The six other passengers disappeared into their rides, and the meager staff required to land the plane was doing the same! With visions of being marooned, we waylaid the last airport worker we saw and begged him to give us a ride into town. We squashed our luggage (probably more stuff than he had in his whole house) into his rickety sedan, and he kindly took us past his own village and into Neiafu to the Backpacker’s, a hostel for budget travelers. With the sun heading toward the western horizon, we debated just crashing there a night, especially when the gal at the desk could not find a driver willing to take us out to the Tapana anchorage! However on a whim, we called Aquarium, where our friend Ben jumped in his van to collect us! He and Lisa carried us the 20 minute ride to Ano Beach, where Larry and Sherry, the couple who had been watching Tackless collected us by dinghy.

The sun set as we climbed aboard and rain spit. Dinner was a 6-month old package of ramen noodles cooked in one of the two small bottles of water Don had had the presence of mind to grab in town (the other, being earmarked for morning coffee) and we slept on sheets that had been clean the night before we left. six months before.

But, by golly, we were home!.



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Published at Burlington, VT