Visions of Paradise- Part 2 (1986)
by Elaine Weeks
We disembarked at Rukuruku which didn’t seem very interesting at all, but we reasoned, once we arrived at Ovalau Holiday Resort round the other side of the island, we’d be more inspired. But first, one more dusty bus ride into Levuka where, with two other travellers, we hired a taxi to take us the rest of the way to the resort.
Though it was dark when we finally arrived after 10 long, hard hours of travel, Chris and I were cautiously optimistic we'd finally made the right move, especially when we discovered the Bula Bar where we plunked our dirt encrusted bodies down for a well deserved beer and dinner.
After pitching our dome tent in the dark, careful to avoid giant cane toads hopping languidly around the grounds, we somehow found the energy to participate in our first Kava ceremony. We’d read how these rituals were a very important social facet of Fijian life so were curious to experience one first hand. The ceremony was hosted by our camping neighbours, Americans Carl and Linda in front of their tent, and conducted by Poso, an elderly Fijian who served as the resort’s resident handyman and overseer.
“Kava, or grog, we call it also,” Poso explained patiently, “is from yangona root, pepper plant. We pick, dry in sun and then pound for many hours.”
During our stay in the islands, Chris and I become used to the nightly rhythm of yangona being pounded by Fijians, which was the signal that grog time was near.
“We mix yangona with water like so,” Poso continued, “and then squeeze through cloth.” Using a bright red bandanna for this purpose Poso spent several minutes powerfully squeezing every last drop of liquid into a plastic bowl. Traditionally, the Fijians use a carved wooden sacred bowl, but these days, we learned, it is usually strained into a plastic vessel.
When Poso was satisfied he had enough Kava for the five of us, he produced a polished coconut shell and handed it to Carl.
“When you like some Kava clap once and take with both hands. If you want big drink say ‘High tide’, if only a little, say ‘Low tide’. Drink all at once.”
Carl clapped and extended the shell with both hands saying, “Low tide,” and with a smile, Poso poured him a sample. Knocking it back, Carl wiped his mouth and shuddered.
“Now clap three times and say, ‘Mathaaah!,” Poso instructed. “That means ‘empty’.”
“Malaaah!” Carl intoned in a choked voice.
Poso laughed. “Not ‘Malaaah!’, ‘Mathaaah!”
“Malaaah!” Karl repeated.
What that meant in Fijian we never did find out.
“Okay, who next?” Poso asked cheerfully. After Carl’s rather unenthusiastic review, there was a pause before Chris decided to clap and then received his ‘Low tide’.
“Mathaaah!” he said grimacing. “Oh man, that’s some foul shit!”
Linda was next and exhibited a similar reaction; then, it was my turn.
“Low tide.” I pronounced nervously. Cupping the bowl gingerly with both hands, I took a deep breath and drank. “Mathaaah!” I croaked; the stuff tasted like liquid mud! My lips immediately grew numb and my stomach felt queasy.
Only Chris and Carl continued to clap for another round of the wretched brew, claiming it really wasn’t bad once you got used to it. Kava supposedly has a mild narcotic effect though the guys professed not to notice. However, they both sported splendid headaches the next day.
I was glad I had stopped after the first drink of the vile brew.
DODGE CITY REVIVAL
I realize I hadn't described what Levuka was like so let me back up a little.
Stepping into this tiny seaside village was like taking a trip back in time. It had been the capital of Fiji until 1882, when, after determining that the steep hills behind the town limited needed expansion, the site of the capitol was changed to Suva.
In 1986, Levuka appeared to have changed little since then.
Formerly a bustling whaling port, a Japanese-owned tuna factory was the only industry along the town pier excepting tourism. At the Ovalau Club, a British Empire throwback, one could quaff ice-cold pitchers of draft beer for a mere $1.90, all the while enjoying games of snooker on a classic Brunswick table. The snooker fee was a mere ten cents, which provided 15 minutes of light in order to see the balls.
Tourism on Ovalau was minimal, and, to our way of thinking, added to the island’s allure. Walking along Beach Street in Levuka, it wasn’t hard to imagine the days when men stood before the mast, of wooden schooners and whaling vessels dominating the port.
David Stanley, author of The South Pacific Handbook, noted there was so much drinking in Levuka,
“with over 50 hotels and taverns along Beach Street … it was said a ship could find the reef passage into Levuka by following the empty gin bottles floating out on the tide.”
Lined with charming wooden storefronts, there were few cars to be seen, and we realized that Levuka reminded us of Dodge City of the Old American West. We could picture horses tied up to hitching posts in front of the shops (still there), lonesome cowboys strutting up to the saloon, hollering, “Water for the horse, and a whiskey for me, barkeep!”
Our days in Ovalau quickly settled into a peaceful rhythm. Unfortunately, it rained the entire 16 days, so while it didn’t quite feel like paradise, the pace on Ovalau infected, subdued and finally, completely relaxed us.
We were, we reminded each other time and again, on our honeymoon after all, albeit an extended one. We hoped not to fall into the trap racing to every possible destination along the way, as many harried travellers we’d meet down the road (better said than done).
Days were generally occupied with typical backpacker activities: reading, washing clothes, talking, playing cards or backgammon with other travellers, cooking in the communal kitchen with our new mates, eating and drinking beer, and waiting for the sun. In town (about a five km walk), we’d purchase Indian sweets, freshwater crayfish for dinner ($5 a kilo!) or try to rustle up scarce postcards and souvenirs. And a stop at The Ovalau Club for beer and pool.
As the rains mercifully let up, nine of us decided to attempt a 15-mile cross-island trek over a volcano from Rukuruku to Levuka. Described as "not overly challenging yet extremely rewarding," we decided to give it a shot.
Our start was somewhat delayed due to the logistics required to transport this group (subdued by inactivity due to the continued deluges of rain) organized and ready to go. With packed lunches and cameras in tow, we were driven to the head of the trail in a 4-wheel drive pick-up by Jan, a British expat married to an island son. We bounced along the rugged and seldom used north coast road, bewitched by the sight of blue sea stretching from the cliffs of Ovalau towards small offshore islands, poking their green backs out of the sea, as if giant submerged turtles.
Disembarking at Rukuruku, we were introduced to Junior, our eleven-year-old trail guide.
Surprised, Chris surreptitiously inquired of Jan, “Um.... isn’t he a bit young?”
“Don’t worry,” she assured us with a smile, “Junior knows this trail like the back of his hand.”
Junior, however, remained silent, perhaps a bit intimidated by this motley crew of Westerners. His fee for guiding the entire group of nine was the princely sum of $5!
Astutely surmising we were probably fairly ignorant regarding the history of the trail, Jan provided us with a quick history lesson.
“In the days of the coming empire, before the islanders conceded to the British, the natives posted lookouts along the coast. If a ship was spotted, they ran 8 miles straight up the trail to Lovoni, located in a volcanic crater in the middle of the island.”
Noting our looks of amazement she smiled and continued. “The volcano is extinct. Alerted villagers then rolled giant boulders down the mountain onto the unsuspecting British colonists. Because of their tenacity, Ovalau was one of the last Fijian Islands to fall into British hands.”
We never did verify this to be true, but it certainly made the hike much more interesting.
After 15 minutes huffing and puffing up the first knoll, we marvelled at the fitness of these lookouts. Four days of uninterrupted rain had turned the trail quite slick. Jackie had been quite unprepared for the trail; as she’d worn sandals, so the poor girl struggled more than anyone.
We took turns slipping and falling however, and at one point, Andrew, a British robotics designer recently of Germany, lost an expensive Rolex wrist-watch. By the time he discovered it gone, we were well past where he had slipped and thought it might have fallen off. We backtracked and tried to locate it in the underbrush but gave up after a fruitless 15 minutes.
Andrew surprisingly took his loss in stride. “Oh well,” he sighed, “Maybe some lucky native will find it and become the envy of his mates."
While it’s possible Andrew’s watch was a knock-off like ones we spotted later on the streets of Bangkok, it was likely a Real McCoy. In which case, some Fijian could soon be sporting a small fortune on his wrist!
Uncomfortably humid under the sunbaked canopy of tropical plants and trees, we cheered when Junior led us to a crystal clear waterfall and pool. Everyone stripped down to their bathing suits and plunged in. (Well, almost everyone; Jackie was again unprepared and kicked herself for not bringing hers along.)
How wonderful to wash off trail grime. Upstream we discovered a small series of rapids and ppols. Lying beneath the soothing torrents of the rushing water was positively hedonistic.
Chris sighed, “If this isn’t quite Paradise, it's pretty close! Let’s face it, it’s a hard life, being a tourist!”
INTO THE VOLCANO
We had 10 miles to cover before dark (which falls early in the tropics) so we couldn’t linger at the pools. A quick lunch (Junior would only shyly accept a cookie even though we had been advised to pack him a meal), then we pressed on. Nobody knew much about the flora and fauna we passed, and we felt like Willie Maugham in The Gentleman in the Parlour:
“I wish, as many writers do, I could give distinction to these pages by the enumeration of the birds and flowers that I saw as I ambled along on my little Shan pony. It has a scientific air and though the reader skips the passage, it gives him a slight thrill of self-esteem to know that he is reading a book with solid fact in it.”
We came into a clearing, which turned out to be the extinct volcano, and we carried on into Lovoni, noting various aspects of village life playing out before us. Women washed clothes on the bank of a small river while upstream, children industriously fetched water.
We determined the chief’s hut to be on a beautifully landscaped knoll, its lofty position undoubtedly signifying his respected status in the village. It also provided a good vantage point to keep a sharp eye on his people. Well-kept mbures (thatched huts) were situated at some distance from each other, as there was ample room in the giant ancient crater, which acted as the village boundary. Ample crops grew in neatly kept plots, an air of self-sufficiency about the place.
We could not dally, unfortunately. Normally, protocol requires visitors to present the chief with a kilo or two of Kava, then participate in a lengthy drinking ceremony; the villagers did not seem to mind our brief intrusion. Greetings of “Bula!” (hello) were met with broad smiles from every direction.
As we departed the settlement we found it necessary to ford the river, which veered in a wide arc around the town. There we encountered a small boy who solemnly waved goodbye with one hand while skillfully poling his bamboo raft with the other.
The lip of the volcano revealed itself; we soon ascertained we were required to scale its lip to climb down to the coast ... easier said than done!
The air around us was suddenly alive with the sound of a hundred fluttering wings. We ducked as giant bats swooped just over our heads, and then careened down the valley.
“Wow — what are those things?” asked someone.
“I think they’re fruit bats.” said Andrew. “Look, you can see them in the trees getting ready to take off!”
We watched as over a dozen slowly unfurled themselves from their upside down perches, then begin a helter-skelter descent towards the valley floor.
“We’d better get a move on,” declared Andrew. “If those critters are about, it’s sure to get dark soon.”
We slogged, slipped, slid and even crawled up the volcano's steep face. When we reached the crest, we were afforded a magnificent view of Levuka, its dock, coral reefs shining in the multi-hued sea. Negotiating the long slippery decent into town, we managed to reach bottom just as darkness fell.
“Who’s for a celebratory drink at the Club?” Andrew yelled.
“Right on!” announced Chris and nine brave adventurers made a bee-line to the bar.
When the British had relinquished the island to the Fijians in the early twentieth century, the locals kept remnants of their occupation. As previously noted, downtown Levuka was remarkably preserved. The Ovalau Club, while somewhat run-down, retained a tattered semblance of a British gentlemen’s private club: hurricane windows, clapboards, which sealed the building shut, were slightly ajar, giving the place a cottage-like atmosphere.
The fine old mahogany bar was the main fixture; glasses and pitchers appeared to be original. Colonial furniture seemed to be missing however; our uncomfortable wooden benches would never have been tolerated by the particular Brits.
Our boisterous invasion of the club likely caused locals to wonder if the British had ever departed. Young Fijian men approached with guitars and to our delight, joined us and sang island tunes. We agreed the Ovalau Club was the kind of bar Somerset Maugham would have enjoyed and wondered if he ever had dropped in during one of his global adventures.
Back at the Ovalau Beach Resort dorm, days were still dictated by poor weather. Fortunately, good company prevented us from going stir-crazy. Chris and I were tenting so the rain and wind usually drove us indoors not long after rising in the morning.
Except for a little English girl who was travelling with her mom and would announce, “You don’t live here!” in a loud shrill voice whenever she saw us come in, the dorm was a warm and welcoming place.
And we certainly weren’t starving! For several days, we had been cooking for a highly appreciative Andrew, a self-proclaimed klutz in the kitchen. We then began pooling our culinary talents with Pierre, a Quebequois, who was a designated chef of that group. Together, we created simple yet memorable meals for up to ten people at times, utilizing local seafood, poultry, New Zealand mutton and vegetables.
While this collaboration of talents and resources allowed us to save money (always a plus), it was comforting to share mealtimes with pleasant companions, as Paradise sojourns tend to be only as fun as the people one encounters. These delicious meals, the spirited games of backgammon, plus the occasional yack session with some of the more colourful dorm residents, remain among our fondest memories of our travels in Fiji.
During our 16 days at the resort, many travellers came and went. The arrival of Cheryl, a bleached-blonde Canadian, prone to wearing skin-tight jeans and tops, certainly livened things up for a time. Reports from Andrew, who bunked in the same room as her, were exceedingly juicy.
Cheryl had quickly accessed the talent to determine available men: she spotted Steve, who literally had his bags packed to leave that same day. Not only did Steve change his mind and unpack, but according to Andrew, he also came "to know Cheryl in a more religious sense." In fact, Andrew was having a devil of a time getting sleep as their nocturnal activities were exceedingly tumultuous. Despite Andrew’s pointed remarks in the mornings, the amorous couple could not (or would not) express their affection for each other in a more subdued manner.
“They’re driving me bloody nuts!” moaned Andrew, “and there aren’t any free bunks so I can shift!”
It then became common knowledge that Cheryl had the clap (she admitted it one evening at the Bula Bar in Steve’s absence!); we found Andrew’s reports even more astonishing.
“Steve’s got to know by now,” Chris exclaimed. “If he doesn’t, he must be pretty stupid and if he does, he’s must be really horny!”
“I dare you to ask him,” challenged Pierre.
After a moment’s hesitation, Chris agreed to approach Steve: he encountered Steve alone (a rare event) and posed the burning question.
“Yeah, I know she’s got it,” Steve admitted, “but I’ve decided to travel with her to Australia. I’ve heard medication is cheap there.”
When Chris reported this amazing news, we all howled with laughter.
“Anything for love!” cracked Andrew.
Next Stop: Taveuni, Fiji