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

Henk and Lisa Benckhuysen

Harlequin
Express 37 Sloop
November 12th, 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 they were in Fiji. Part I of their story told their adventures as they explored Suva, Kadavo, Beqa, Nadi, the Yasawas, Makugai, Savusavu and Viani Bay, where they learned about some great conservation initiatives being speerheaded by local diving companies. As we follow their adventures in Part II of their story, Lisa continues to share the highlights of this beautiful island nation.


Rabi

Moving north to Rabi, we ventured down to the pass south of Katherine Bay to look for mantas. The water was choppy and there was also quite a strong current, so Henk manned the dinghy while we dropped in to snorkel with the giants. Between 3 and 4 meters across, the majestic mantas glide effortlessly in the current and do loopdeloops to maximise their feeding. We also spent a few days at Albert Cove on the northwest tip of Rabi. Snorkeling was good here, and there is a gorgeous white sand beach. We failed to find the trail over to the other side of the island.

Weather Window to the Lau Group

We got a weather window, three days of calm weather, that allowed us to get southeast to Vanua Balavu in the Northern Lau Group. This area of Fiji has only been open to cruisers for a decade and it still has an aura of mystery and freshness for cruisers. We went via Qamea where there is an excellent anchorage. We had a memorable day here, exploring the mangrove maze by kayak and sighting the elusive and endemic orange fruit dove. Again the moon was full and we were gently serenaded by a small group of voices drifting over the water to us from the village. We left Qamea at “oh-dark-thirty”, 0400h, motoring through the dawn over a flat calm sea and reaching Dalicone at 1400h.

Vanua Balavu-Northern Lau

Dalicone village did a formal Sevusevu with about 10 crews. We were invited to donate to the current village project, which is completing the road between the village and the school. Then there was a tour to the school and village shop. I visited the school the next day and asked to go into the K or grade 1 class, but instead I got the entire school, immediately, which was about 24 kids between 6 and 13. Great fun for an hour! These kids can really sing and they learn rhythms fast.

School’s out!

Anchoring in Ship Sound, or Bay of Islands as the Kiwis call it, we explored the maze of mushroom-shaped limestone islets. There are several caves and a couple of bommies in shallow water, with the most spectacular soft corals and sea fans we, as snorkelers not scuba divers, saw anywhere, ever.  We were able to look down over Ship Sound anchorage, when we hiked up from Mbavatu anchorage on the eastern side of the island. Nice to get ashore and walk uphill through the tropical forest. Here, as elsewhere in Fiji, I saw numerous collared kingfishers.

We carried on south, making stops at Long Bay, Mavana and Lomolomo. Mavana village is the birthplace of Fiji’s former leader. It was interesting to hear the villagers’ views on Fijian politics. The chief left his farm plot to come and welcome us with a Sevesevu ceremony. We were able to pick up some staples at the store and some of the group stayed for lunch in the home of our guide, Tui. We celebrated Geerts’s birthday with a BBQ on the beach.

Barbecue on the beach.

Susui village at the southeast corner of Vanua Balavu lagoon was a really nice stop. Not only is it a good anchorage, but the village is very welcoming. I took in a church service and found myself invited home for lunch by Regina, the head teacher.  I spent most of the afternoon with her family and got a huge lunch as well as a window into their life in this remote village. The village put on a feast complete with kava and full Sevusevu ceremony and invited all the cruisers. This was my third time tasting kava and it still tasted like Benzocaine in soapy dishwater. Some folks wax poetic about kava and we are told it is good for relieving everything from anxiety to diabetes. This may be due to the fact that traditionally one cannot go back to the kava bowl after eating, so maybe kava drinkers eat later and less? There were 60 visitors altogether and the money from the feast went towards the purchase of a new motor for the village launch. I had a great time doing clapping games with a the kids and went back to spend an hour in the school the next day. Since I already knew the students from the party the night before, we had a lot of fun and I learned a Fijian song from them. We also did a beach cleanup with the kids here.

Fulaga-Southern Lau

We got lucky and had another calm day to get south to Fulaga. With only ten days until our adult children would arrive on the other side of Fiji, we took the opportunity to visit this very remote Island. The geography was stunning- the impossibly blue lagoon is studded with limestone islets topped with palm trees. We did several drift dives of the pass into Fulaga lagoon and it was rather like a ride in an amusement park. There were turtles, reef sharks and lovely corals in crystal clear water. We got diverted down a side channel and had to swim back against the current over the reef with the bright hues of the corals right under our noses.

Monacake village in Fulaga.

We visited Monacake village and were charged $50 per boat, as well as the traditional gift of kava. We were each assigned a host family, who provided lunch and any help or information we might need. In some cases this led to a real friendship, but as is always the case, one has to invest time in any real relationship and we only had a few days. I visited the school and learned another song from Ngele, Ba and Salote. Chatting with these ladies of my own age really made me think about how our lives are so often defined by where we are born! I am sure there is a novel just waiting to be written about this village.

Yasawas-Fiji West

We sailed nonstop to Port Denarau from Fulanga, in 36 hours, with the southeast tradewind coming over the port quarter. After being at the mercy of the weather for so many weeks, it was a relief to get over to the west coast, which is often protected from the tradewinds and gets less rainfall than the rest of the country. The other advantage is the proximity to Nadi Airport and the marina at Port Denarau. Guests can use the Malolo catamaran ferries or the Southseas Cruises Yasawa Flier to get to various resorts and anchorages in the Mamanucca and Yasawa islands.  We spent two months here with various guests, so I will just summarize our favorite spots.

Blue Lagoon

This is a 360 anchorage and has lots of activities.There is good walking over the hills and along the white sand beaches. We found clownfish and pink and orange anemones on the bommies, as well as nice snorkeling off the point and in the pass. The resort at Nanuya does a traditional Fijian buffet as well as an a la carte dinner, and has three different shows featuring local musical talent. We saw the dances and legends of the local islands, listened to the church choir and watched an impressive dance and fire dance show. The owner put on a movie night for the cruisers: Blue Lagoon with Brooke Shields, of course! He also allowed us to do a cruiser jam night on the deck in front of the bar. We dinghied up into a mangrove to buy vegetables from a local jungle farm.

South of Blue Lagoon, Waya Island has good anchorages with a choice of anchoring off a village or a resort, depending on whether you want to do the kava routine or not. There are nice hikes and walks here and good snorkeling.

Harlequin at anchor, Kuata Island, Yasawa Group in Fiji

Friends of ours raved about the massage at Octopus resort from the lady with the green toenails…I visited the village and somehow attracted a following of a dozen kids. One of them attached herself to my hand and chattered away nonstop in Fijian, while I walked a half kilometer to my beached kayak. On reaching it, this six-year old pixie shouted “One! Two! Three!” The posse of kids hefted the kayak up on their skinny shoulders and marched it down to the water.

Manta Ray Pass

(Tokatokanu Passage between Drawaqa and Naviti Islands)

If I were to visit only one place for marine life in the Yasawas, this would be it. There are several options for anchoring close to the Pass. We went six times and swam with up to 5 mantas at a time in clear, calm waters. They did not seem bothered by us, circling round us us lazily and returning to pass close by us time and time again. There is excellent snorkeling on the north and east sides of Drawaqa Island and also a small resort that makes great pizza and smoothies on the north end of Nanuya Balavu.

Downwind run to Manta Ray Pass.

Mamanuccas

There are any number of stops here. We enjoyed great snorkeling and beach walking at uninhabited  Navadra, in calm weather only, as swell comes in from the southwest even when the wind is from elsewhere. We visited Monriki, where parts of Castaway were filmed and also neighboring Yandra Island. Both had some lovely beaches and short walks.

For us, the center of the Mamanuccas was Musket Cove. We enjoyed a week of activities during the Musket Cove Annual Regatta. There were over a hundred boats and the Bay was like a downtown skyline at night. We did some fun racing, made new friends and reunited with old buddies. There is lots of good snorkeling here on the bommies in the pass and on the reefs. No soft corals, but we did see small rays, turtles and sharks, as well as the reef fish we have come to take for granted in Fiji.

If I were to do this trip again, I would not want to miss a single place, but I would definitely want to revisit Rainbow Reef, Fulaga and Manta Ray Pass. I would also visit the north coast of Vanua Levu, which is really off the beaten track and gets few visiting yachts. All in all I have thoroughly enjoyed this beautiful  Island nation, with its rich marine diversity and generous people. I am watching with interest to see what becomes of Rainbow Reef and I am inspired by the impact that one or two people can have by mobilizing a community for a conservation effort. I am beginning to understand why many cruisers come back to Fiji year after year.

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  1. Avatar Jeff Meacham says:

    Glad to reconnect with you two and hear you are still on your adventure around the world. Safe travels. Cherie and I enjoy reading your posts.