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Finding Fiji: Highlights of Harlequin’s Cruise 2019 - Part I

Henk and Lisa Benckhuysen

Harlequin
Express 37 Sloop
October 22nd, 2019

Harlequin left Sidney, BC in August 2016 and has since cruised Mexico’s Pacific Coast, French Polynesia, Suwarrow, American Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand. From May to October we were in Fiji. I have been impressed by the dramatic geography, the turquoise waters filled with marine life and the warm-hearted people, who are struggling to protect their threatened resources. We used Navionics on our chartplotter and also had iNavx and Ovital on our iPads. We leaned heavily on information from a new downloadable guide called SailFiji, as well as the free sites maintained by SoggyPaws and noonsite. Here are some of the highlights of our season in this beautiful Island nation.

Suva

After an eight day passage from New Zealand via Minerva Reef, we sailed back and forth outside the entrance to Suva’s harbour, waiting for the dawn. Once anchored, we found that check in was reasonably quick and straightforward. There were three government offices to locate, but they were all close to the anchorage. Most yachts check in at Port Denarau on the west coast, or Savusavu on the east side. Suva is a major port and the anchorage has some obstacles. Glad we did it in daylight! We anchored near the Royal Suva Yacht Club, which has recycling and garbage drop-off, laundry service, a cafe and a bar. It’s a 15 minute walk into downtown along the waterfront. I was impressed by the numerous tall men I saw, all dressed in bright orange, standing atop the hill overlooking the harbour, until I realized I was passing the national prison.

Wandering around Suva, I was approached politely several times by Fijians. They wanted to know my name, where I was from, how long I would be in Fiji, how many children I have. The funny thing is that they were not trying to sell me anything, evangelize or scam me. They were simply being friendly. As a fairly extroverted sort, I like talking to strangers, and had some delightful conversations. In one waterfront street eatery I sat, with my scone and bowl of tepid milky tea , next to a big, strapping young fellow carrying a cute pink backpack that contrasted oddly with his tattoos. He was eating a whole, staring triggerfish and some fiddleheads. He started chatting and I learned he had just resigned from his job in the port as he had some kind of foot injury. “It’s OK,” he said. “In some places I would be in trouble because I have a wife and three small daughters. But in Fiji we can always farm. My family has some land.”

Another conversation happened in a government office. When we checked in to the port, one of the officials had forgotten her receipt book, but I paid her anyway, thinking I did not need the receipt. Turns out I did need it, but said official was out of the office when I tracked her down the next day. The supervisor took me into her office and we had an hour’s pleasant chat while I waited for my receipt to arrive. I learned all about various social and health programs in Fiji. Most interesting. Wouldn’t have missed it for all the receipts in the book.

Sevusevu ceremony with the Lady Chief (far left).

I talked with lots of people and all were friendly. Many of them blessed me when we parted – rather nice: the missionaries have had a hand in the history of this country, as in many parts of the South Pacific. There is a large display about cannibalism in the national museum. One that sticks out in my mind is the fellow that crossed the road to strike up a conversation and asked if I needed anything. This guy was probably getting a cut from the souvenir store he led me to. Fair enough. I was looking for a kava bowl and I got a nice one at a good price. I never once felt unsafe here.

On my way back from the museum in Suva, I saw the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, who was here for the Climate Action Pacific Partnership conference. An orderly crowd of uniformed schoolchildren was waiting for him on the rugby pitch opposite the Grand Pacific Hotel. They held signs, slogans and artwork asking for action on Climate Change. When he finally appeared, Guterres walked among the students, chatting with them, reading their work. It was quite low key, but still impressive to see all those kids, and their teachers and parents, waiting for hours to make their point. I wasn’t looking for a study in grassroots conservation, but that is what I got later on in Viani Bay.

Kadavu

We made a quick trip to Kadavu and the Astrolabe Reef just south of Suva. We did one short snorkel on a reef off Dravuni Island and were quite impressed- healthy corals, and lots of reef fish. We had a mixed bag of weather here with threatening skies, rainbows and more waves than we expected in a lagoon. When we moved south to anchor in the lee of Ono Island, we were asked to leave as someone was shooting a film and we were “in the shot”. On moving away in the dusk, we struck a reef! Fortunately we were moving slowly. We anchored off the next beach and checked the damage the next morning. Nothing serious, luckily, but when the film security crew showed up again and told us to leave, we had had enough and moved up to Beqa, where the forecast looked milder. We learned later that there is meant to be a site somewhere online telling cruisers what locations are being used for filming, but I did not manage to find it online.

Beqa

Again we were pushed by weather here. We could see a big depression coming down on Predict Wind and weren’t sure where it would pass. As a result we only spent two nights in Vaga Bay. The snorkeling on the reef was good and we visited the village also. We saw the pigpens and the church and we hiked over the hill to the school. Our guide in the village was a 14 year old boy, Vemi, who was off school with what looked like a nasty eye infection.  His little sister had it too, but the family said they had medicine for them. In our travels, we have found that most places in Fiji do have access to a medical clinic. However, one of the biggest health problems here is diabetes: many Fijians eat too much sugar! Same -****– different pile. We did not get to the northern anchorage and did not see the famous Beqa firewalkers or do the shark dive.

Clownfish and anemone.

Nadi Waters

We had to take our crew up to Nadi to catch a plane, so we decided to move over to the west side of Fiji. There are several nice spots to stop along Vanua Levu’s south coast, but instead we sailed overnight under a full moon with 20 knots behind the beam. It was a fabulous sail! At 02ooh we came through the pass. I stayed up past my shift and had a good lesson in why I should not skip sleep. I could not figure out which red lights were which: leading lights, lighthouses, port hand light… fortunately our crew, Alan, was lucid and brought us safely through. In any case, they drive freighters through that pass and we did have a full moon and we could see the waves breaking on the reef…still, I am not as smart as I think I am at two in the morning. Humbling.

Inside Passage

With 10 weeks to ourselves, Henk and I made our way north through the Yasawas and then over the top of Viti Levu via the inside passage. We found nice anchorages and protected motoring in the inside passage. The passage was well charted by Navionics and we could also see the reefs quite clearly. We did need to have someone on deck watching at all times. After crossing an area of reefs, we reached the north side of Naigani Island and found a small deserted anchorage. The white sand beach is backed by coconut palms and a shear wall of black volcanic rock festooned with flowering vines. We dived into the clear turquoise water and enjoyed some nice snorkeling on the two arms of reef that define the bay. Lots of Christmas tree spiral worms! It was quite windy, but we were completely shielded by the Island and enjoyed a really calm night.

Makogai

Another day sail to weather brought us east to Makogai Island. Again, our Navionics charts were very accurate and brought us through some narrow passages in the reefs. Anchoring at the northwest end of the Island, we were able to visit the turtle hatchery on shore. This government run facility was wiped out by Hurricane Winston in 2016, but is in operation again now. I had a brief tour of the place: a dozen cement ponds with batches of sea turtles of various ages. When the turtles are a year old, the caretakers release them into the ocean.

Collared kingfisher.

Seabirds prey on newborn baby turtles, so most of them would not normally reach the ocean. Similarly, giant clams of different ages are raised in the facility at Makogai. The clams will be placed out in the ocean also. We found excellent snorkeling on the bommie in the middle of the bay, as well as on the little island on the west side of the anchorage. We did see sea turtles and giant clams in the bay.

Savusavu

In Savusavu we met up with a contingent of folks we have travelled with off and on for a couple of years, so it felt like a homecoming. Now we were within striking distance of two fabled destinations: Rainbow Reef and the Lau Group, so we could make plans to go to both. Savusavu gave us a nice social break. There are several nice restaurants, a decent grocery store, a big market for fruit and veggies. I thoroughly enjoyed being tied up at a dock for several days, walking for hours on the shore road, eating out (cheaply!) every evening and socializing nonstop. We even danced in the garden under the colored lights.

Viani Bay

This is perhaps the most important and memorable of our stops, because the line between villagers and tourists was blurry here and the snorkeling was wonderful!  We got to know the owners and staff of the Dive Academy Fiji (DAF) resort, as well as one of the teachers at the Ucunivatu Primary School.

Coral planting at Viani Bay.

Jone Waitaiti and Marina Walser own the small boutique DAF dive resort that shares Viani Bay beach with Ucunivatu village. The resort employs several villagers, some of whom are related to Waitaiti. Marina goes regularly to the village school, teaching marine biology and conservation. Jone leads the Cleanup Taveuni: once a month the community hits the road with tongs and picks up litter. They have removed over 70 tons of rubbish from the beaches, roads and waterways of Taveuni. Cleanup Taveuni started with 40 children and 10 youth who responded to Jone’s Facebook post, “This is the dirtiest beach on Taveuni. This is not the garden island. This is the GARBAGE island,” and his subsequent invitation to help clean it up. Jone and Marina have also led cleanups at Viani Bay. Check out the Facebook page Cleanup Taveuni for inspiration!

DAF has also started a coral planting program. Local and international volunteers and guests plant heat resistant corals in the new nursery at Tivi Island. Within 6-10 months, the corals can be transplanted out to damaged areas of the reef. The hope is to offset in some small way the damage from destructive fishing practices, overfishing, hurricanes and rising temperatures. You can find more information on this type of program on their website. There is also a coral planting program pioneered by Victor Bonito at Reef Explorer, in Votua on Viti Levu.

Jone is lobbying the local chiefs for a Marine Protected Area (MPA) to preserve the spectacular diving and snorkeling on Rainbow Reef in Somosomo Strait. So far there is one new MPA protecting 1.4 kilometers at Tivi Island in Viani Bay. The goal is to protect all 22 dive sites, but that will take the agreement of 14 chiefs.

Reef community at Nuku on Rainbow Reef, including some soft corals.

Rainbow Reef was some of the best snorkeling we did in Fiji. We saw several sea turtles, reef sharks, clouds of colorful reef fish, vivid soft corals and healthy hard corals, some of them over five hundred years old. Visibility was excellent and the weather was good. We did a couple of short hikes here also and heard the barking pigeons for the first time. These big chestnut colored birds sound a bit like a grouse crossed with a Labrador retriever.

There was a fabulous party on the Fourth of July. I had to admire our American cruising buddies for their nostalgia around this event. We had a big potluck, did the Fiji Baby Duck and Super Lizard dances, and rounded it all off with cake and firing off our outdated flares. The staff from the resort joined in with guitar, ukulele and kava. Unforgettable. I would go back in a heartbeat.

Saiki Tucava and the kindergarten class at Ucunivatu Primary School.

I went in to the Ucunivatu kindergarten class several times to sing songs with the kids. The teacher, Saiki Tucava, is a tall strong lady with an iron handshake and a gentle smile. With a class of 5, she has the task of teaching them English, just as I taught French to anglophone kids in Canada. Saiki is the one who taught me the baby duck dance. I saw her several times outside of school hours and she always had a crowd of small children with her. “They follow me everywhere,” she laughed, sinking into the cool water of the bay. I asked if I could take a photo and publish it. “Sure,” she said.”It will give them a way to show off a bit.”


Stay tuned for Part II of Harlequin’s adventure, as they continue to explore the Fijian island nation, coming up next month!

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  1. Avatar Don Craigmyle says:

    Thank you Lisa for a great article. Brought back memories of the short six weeks I spent in Fiji. I’ll write more in an email.
    Don

  2. Avatar Stan Homer says:

    Glad you enjoy Fiji. WEedid too back in 1988 with our kids including a week in Ono. No film crews then! Homers Odyssey II

  3. Avatar Shawn Wright, SV Callisto says:

    Great article! I’m interested in how you’ve found long distance cruising in the Express 37, which seems a bit smaller and lighter than many boats these days? We’d eventually like to head south, but are not sure if our C&C 35 is the right boat for extended cruising. We’re planning a trip to Haida Gwai in the spring, which should help with the decision.

    1. Avatar Lisa says:

      That sounds like a good shakedown cruise. We think the Express is great. Its easy to handle and works for us but of course it is a personal choice. We have cruised with lots of boats around 37-50 ft and a handful of smaller boats. We do look for, and sail well in, lighter winds. A big part of the equation is choosing the weather window for passages. We use the services of Chris Parker and recommend him highly.