Friday, March 13, 2020

March 13th – Observing the Changes in Port Vila

Vanuatu’s pretty capital, Port Vila is recognised as one of the most pleasant urban environments in the South Pacific, so we had a lovely day exploring this relaxed little city.

Vila always used to appear like it was locked in a time warp, but it’s obvious that the modern world is encroaching on even this remote spot. The roads in town are crowded with minivans cruising around touting for business, the high street is now full of Duty Free Shops with signs offering “cheap booze”, and it seems like the Chinese are getting increasingly influential here. 

In fact, the whole town has now become almost totally modern-looking – the rebuilding required after the devastating effects of Cyclone Pam in 2015 has seen to that. But, the biggest change to the skyline is the dominating cylindrical shape of the huge National Convention Centre, “kindly” built by the Chinese in 2016. The c.$25million dollar construction costs (of course, employing mainly Chinese workers) were funded by a development grant from the Chinese government. However, they didn’t provide funding for the maintenance costs of this mammoth building which has been a constant drain on the Vanuatu government’s meagre finances ever since. Plus, many have questioned why they would build a convention centre capable of handling 1,000 delegates when there aren’t nearly enough hotel rooms in Vila to accommodate that number. We went in to have a look around, and it was totally empty but still being well-cared for, so hopefully it won’t turn into a white elephant.

The place where you can get to experience the atmosphere of old-time Vila best, is at its lively market, where many of the Afro-haired ladies still wear the traditional “Mother Hubbard” dresses introduced by the western missionaries. Everyone was incredibly friendly, and the sheer array of tropical fruits (including enormous avocados and super-size papayas) made you realise what a fertile island this must be.

On a hot day, we tried to soak up whatever breezes were blowing in from the sea along Vila’s attractive waterfront, stopping for a coffee, and to admire the signs in the endearing pidgin English local language, Bislama – it’s great fun trying to work out what’s been said in this simple but expressive language. 

In a place that receives a fair amount of Australian tourists, it’s interesting to see the mix of traditional and western influences in town. The choice of restaurants was much better than you’d expect of a remote place like this, but it still seemed a fairly harmonious place without a great sense of “them and us” between locals and foreigners.

Vanuatu is changing, but it still remains a really charming and friendly place.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

March 11th – School Visit in Lautoka

For many people, the highlight of a visit to Fiji is its wonderfully warm and friendly people – today confirmed why.

On a morning of rainstorms of biblical proportions, we visited a small village to learn more about village life and to visit a school. Somehow the incessant deluge didn’t detract from what was a really enjoyable day. 

We first went to a kava ceremony in the village hall, which started off with the atmosphere  a solemn ceremony, and soon turned into the atmosphere of a jolly drink up, as our hosts plied us with gulps of muddy-looking kava. Kava is a mild narcotic that the locals say relaxes them – our guide said if you have 10 or 15 cups you’ll be in a stupor, but after only two my tongue was already beginning to feel numb.

We were meant to be doing a walking tour of the village, but seeing as Noah was assembling animals two-by-two, we decided to turn it into a driving tour. As this wasn’t going to be very exciting, I persuaded the guide to invite a group of 6 ladies onto the coach to get them to sing to us. It was brilliant! The women were so joyful as the belted out some songs from the back of the bus – it turned out that it was the first time that they’d been on a posh air-conditioned coach, and every time they passed one of their friends peering out from their verandas they went crazy. Their happiness and joy was more infectious than coronavirus.

Then we went to the rain-sodden school. The plan had been for the whole school to come out to sing to us, but we had to make do with just Year 8 squeezed onto a porch. The kids started out shy at first but as they sang their songs and interacted with us they came out of their shells and as curious about us as we were curious about them. It was heart-warming to be a part of, and it was lovely of Silversea to donate two boxes of supplies to the school. If all Fiji’s children are as intelligent, engaged and polite as these kids, then the country has a very bright future.

In the afternoon, the rain finally lifted and we went into Lautoka – Fiji’s second largest city. Being a mainly modern home to a huge sugar mill and a large flour mill didn’t make for the most exciting of urban environments, but it was a pleasant enough place. Like Suva, the people were really friendly and the colourful market was the main sight, but the main difference to Suva was that Indians (or Indo-Fijians) made up a much higher proportion of the population. In Fiji as a whole, Indians tend to dominate the retail trade, but there were more Indo-Fijians out on the street, in what seemed like a fairly harmonious place.

Our three days in Fiji have been really enjoyable – not just because this was one of the few Pacific countries to welcome us in, but because it’s a beautiful country inhabited by some lovely people.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

March 10th – Chasing Waterfalls in Savusavu

After the urban jungle of Suva yesterday, it was time to get into the real jungle (or at least the rainforest) of rural Fiji in the little town of Savusavu on Vanua Levu. If Suva is the modern face of Fiji, then Savusavu is like going back in time to Fiji as it used to be. The town is small, home-spun and a little shabby, but it’s a friendly place that’s now beginning to get more westernised now that a few (mainly upscale) resorts have opened up in the surrounding area.

We joined a tour that got us out into the unspoilt green countryside out of town, where we did a fun trek up to a lovely waterfall. The hills were incredibly lush as we trekked our way through the dense undergrowth, dripping with moisture. Actually, it was so humid that we were all dripping by the time that we’d stumbled our way up to the waterfall, so it was a real relief to cool down in its cold, crashing waters. The water plummeted down from a height of 15 metres, and as I swam into the cascade it was completely disorienting – it was deafening, I couldn’t see anything and I was struggling against the power of the water. 

Suitably refreshed, I skipped down the rough path like a mountain gazelle (ok like an unstable rhino), and we had some lovely tropical fruits while a few locals sang some lovely songs – a very nice tour.

On the way back, the heavens opened and it rained almost as hard as it had in Suva the day before. As ever, that trusted tourist’s tactic of dealing with downpours was the perfect solution – we found a hospitable bar to sit out the deluge. With the rain clearing, we had a quick lunch (although not in the curry restaurant I had chosen, because apparently it “looked dodgy”), and then we explored the town. Seeing as Savusavu basically consists of one main high street, that didn’t take long, but the market was friendly and the shops were probably more plush than you’d expect for a little place like this.

Another place that we hadn’t been scheduled to visit, but another very pleasant stay.

Monday, March 9, 2020

March 9th – An Unexpected Visit to Suva

Suva (Fiji’s capital city) is a place that often gets a bad press. It gets criticised for being too urban (this is by far the largest city of the South Pacific islands), people accuse it of being too dirty (admittedly it is a bit scruffy around the edges), and it mainly suffers from comparison with all the idyllic beaches that Fiji is famous for (there isn’t a beach to be found in Suva).

However, when you’ve been already turned away from the Cook Islands and Tonga, and you’ve spent 4 days at sea wondering if we would be allowed in anywhere (plus we lost a day of our lives after we crossed the International Date Line), then everyone onboard was extremely glad to be calling in here. And, whether or not they were just relieved to be setting foot on land at last, most people really enjoyed their time in Suva.

Actually, Suva seems to have smartened up its act over the last decade – there are quite a few relatively smart malls in town, everything was fairly neat and tidy, and there seemed to be quite a few large developments under construction. Plus, the great advantage that Suva has always had, is its wonderful people – everywhere we walked, we were greeted with wide smiles and enthusiastic shouts of “Bula” (a cross-between hello and welcome) – it really was heart-warming.

Just across from the port is the town’s wonderful market, which was an immediate introduction to its friendly people, and also to Fiji’s incredible fertility. There was a huge variety of fragrant fruit and colourful vegetables in there, plus of course the Kava roots on sale that provide the mildly narcotic drink that keeps these gentle giants so mellow.

We explored central Suva’s streets, which were a sometimes jarring mix of interesting colonial buildings, worn-out concrete constructions, and shiny modern developments. The atmosphere was lively and colourful (not too dissimilar from a Caribbean capital), and the shopping was pretty good for a Pacific Island and often surprisingly cheap.

We headed over to the National Museum, which was interesting in a low-tech, shabby chic way, and luckily enough, we just about missed out on some of the heaviest rain that I’ve ever experienced – the rain was really ricocheting off the pavement. In between showers, we sheltered in the refined surroundings of the Grand Pacific Hotel, a stately colonial institution which is a great place to have a drink and feel like Royalty (Harry and Meghan were recent guests, so maybe ex-Royalty then).

We then meandered along the waterfront, watched a bit of rugby training in Albert Park, and just enjoyed the mellow atmosphere of a place where people really seemed happy to see you – it made for a refreshing contrast with the indolence of Papeete.

With stops at a couple more Fijian ports to come, where people will hopefully have the chance to see the beaches, blue seas and unspoilt landscapes that this country is more famous for, our experience of Fiji will only get better. However, I have to admit, that it was a pretty good start.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

March 4th – Exploring Bora Bora’s Blue Lagoon

Without doubt, Bora Bora’s spectacular lagoon is this holiday island’s greatest feature. There are many ways to explore it – by boat, jetski, parasail, or even, as Tracy did, by Aquabike (a kind of underwater moped where you don’t even get your hair wet, as you move about the floor of the sea like a slow-motion James Bond).

I opted for the more practical way of getting about the lagoon – by a good old-fashioned boat. I’ve done these trips a few times, but I always love getting in amongst the sharks and rays that throng the shallow waters, looking out for some food from the boat operators. The first time that I did it (a few years ago), my heart was beating out of my chest as the circling sharks got ever closer. This time I was almost blasé about coming face-to-face with a dead eyed shark about 1 metre away (the photo might look like I’m calmly checking Facebook with 2 sharks about to pounce, but I’m actually setting up the camera on my phone – as it turns out, almost all my photos were terrible anyway).

The sharks and stingrays might look frightening, but the most dangerous creature down there were some very irritated trigger fish, who were obviously threatened by our presence. They waggled around angrily in front of us, and if we didn’t go the opposite direction they were more than happy to bite – 2 people were actually cut by their bites, while I was only bitten on my shoe, so they didn’t break my skin.

We then moved onto the coral garden just inside the reef. It was in pretty good shape, and as I snorkelled around, it was like I was in another world – a magically peaceful environment of swaying shoals and colourful coral. It was easy to drift off as I explored, only to find I was a bit too far from the boat for comfort. Out in the coral garden I’d occasionally come across a shark – suddenly it seemed a lot more scary with only me there and away from the artificially created shark gathering earlier on.

As ever, Bora Bora’s lagoon didn’t disappoint.


Tuesday, March 3, 2020

March 3rd – (Not) Spotting Dolphins in Moorea

Today the rain finally relented so we got to see French Polynesia (and for me, it’s most attractive island) at its best.

We joined a “Dolphin Spotting” Tour that promised to take us to see some of the 160 or so resident spinner dolphin that spend their day inside Moorea’s lagoon. The dolphins go out into the ocean at night to feed, but we were reliably informed by Dr Poole (the island’s resident dolphin expert) that they were out there somewhere. He told us that 95% of his dolphin spotting trips get to see them in the lagoon, and seeing as an earlier trip hadn’t got to see them, then our chances had to be pretty high. Wrong….

As we zoomed around Moorea’s beautiful lagoon, try as we might, we just couldn’t find them. We stopped at all the passes between ocean and lagoon where they like to hang out, but they weren’t playing ball. We saw a turtle, plenty of floating coconuts that were mistaken by our eager eyes for dolphins, and Tracy did spot a leaping fish – but no dolphins.

Dr Poole gave us lots of fascinating information about the island and about its ecology, but he seemed to get slightly tetchy at the lack of actual dolphins. However, the sheer gorgeousness of the lagoon, with the seas in all shades of turquoises and blues just about made up for the absence of flipper and his friends.

If you were desperate to see dolphins, this trip would have been a slight disappointment; but if you took it as a way to see some stunning landscapes and enjoy some great views of the island from all angles, then Moorea has scarcely looked better.