The Lau Group, Lomiviti, Ovalau
"Operation English" - August 2000
Service the engine and generator, repair broken throttle cable, fill up with 120 gallons of fuel and 200 gallons of drinking water, check the charts and pilotage information, provision the boat with as much meat and fresh vegetables and dry stores as possible, buy fresh kava, load up the beer, resolve the Lau permit political problems, get cash, were the preparatory jobs and these all took over a week - but at last Meniscus and I were as ready as we could be.
Woody and Lynn arrived from Colorado, Sue was delayed by a canceled BA flight which was very frustrating for us all, especially Sue. At last she arrived and as soon as her feet touched the deck we were off anxious to make the most of every day available. Woody Lynn and Sue made up the crew who were going to make operation "English" happen.
Operation "English" is the name we gave to our expedition designed to deliver English literacy books to Primary Schools in the remote Lau Group of islands, far out to the east of Fiji. This was all made possible by a number of generous donations which had enabled me to purchase books from the Fiji Ministry of Education's approved list. I had been fortunate to discover the publisher of an excellent program in New Zealand. This program, designed specifically for Pacific Islanders would take a child right from the emergent stage right through to fluency.
We set off clockwise around Viti Levu (Big Fiji) for the Lau Group except that. The permit for our trip there had just been withdrawn because of the military coup. After numerous daily phone calls it eventually transpired that the reason for this was that the ex President who normally approved the permits was out of the country, in Hawaii. The various officials that I spoke to seemed to think that I should just deliver the books to the Ministry of Education and let them take care of the distribution. However, I explained probably less than diplomatically that the whole purpose of the exercise was that I had promised to deliver these books to people who had a specific need - ostensibly the Lau Islanders. In other words no permit no books!
The dilemma now facing me was: - what do I actually do with the books? It seemed to me that I should make an effort to do whatever I could to fulfill my original promises to those who had donated, so with this in mind we set of for other remote Islands in the Lomiviti Group to see if they had a similar need. This group of islands are also east of Viti Levu but between the mainland and the Lau Group. Most of them are well of the beaten tourist track, have retained much of their traditional culture and are just as unspoiled as more distant outlying islands.
Passage to the East
The first three days took us around the North side of Fiji motoring against the unusual north easterly wind in very cloudy conditions between the shore and the off lying reefs. The going was slow and extremely hazardous in the adverse conditions prevailing. The thick gray cloud cover blocked the sunlight and stopped us being able to see the treacherous reefs around us. We managed 30 miles the first day, just five the next and 25 on the third to get us to Nananui Thake where we anchored off a sandy palm fringed beach. These passages were only made possible by constant monitoring of Meniscus' phased array, forward looking, sonar. On numerous occasions we identified submerged reef ahead and turned the boat to pass around it without ever seeing it from the surface. Without this equipment we could not have made these passages.
On the fourth day the weather improved just enough for us to make the 60 mile sail to Levuka the old colonial capital on Ovalau. We anchored in the harbour just opposite the cannery in a haze of steamed fish and a thick crusty oily scum of discharged fish oil, which stuck to our waterline. The town had obviously seen better days but retained its old world charm. A recent modification as a result of the coup was the burnt out skeleton of the Masonic temple where the graffiti bore witness to the dangers of being less than open. Some of the locals had obviously interpreted the secrecy attached to being "on the square" as a form of devil worship. We met some of the colourful locals in the Levuka club, the Ovalau Club, Whales Tales and the Royal Hotel. We even managed to get onto email in Mr. Galabdas little store and Lynn and Sue took the opportunity to shop for Sulus.
Our next port of call was Makogai. As we reached 20 miles North East in a pleasant breeze and sunny sky we passed through a huge pod of pilot whales. They were slowly gliding southwards and were blowing around the boat for a least half an hour as we passed through them. As we relaxed and took delight in our sail we could see a ship ahead on the horizon. Drawing closer the ship seemed to loom higher and higher out of the water until it looked exceedingly top heavy. We were within 2 miles of it when we realised that it was high and dry on the reef. Sailing as close as we could we looked it over through binoculars until we were but a few hundred yards away and then 4 Fijians appeared and started waving. As we passed by reading the vessels name, "Sun 7" we could see the distress flags "Charlie" "November". Promptly dropping our sails we turned back and sailed within 50 yards of the ship where the coral reef rose from the ocean floor like a cliff from over a mile to deep to just a few feet in no distance at all. Just within hailing distance me managed to ascertain that they were OK but wanted cigarettes. Well we had no cigarettes and I was not about to risk sinking ourselves by getting any closer so we waved fair well and headed another mile or so to the pass through the reef into Makongai's lagoon.
Sailing for the northern tip of the island we discovered a delightful little bay with a sandy beach lined by a coconut plantation and a huddle of wooden buildings. Going ashore we found an abandoned leper colony now converted by the government into a turtle rehabilitation center as well as a clam-breeding program. Watsoni Waqa was in charge of the center and as we sat over a few bowls of Kava (the national drink of Fiji, Kava is a mildly narcotic infusion from Piper methysticum pepper plant) we learnt all about the center as well as the local village and the wrecked fishing boat. Apparently Sun 7 had been on the reef for 3 weeks and the crew onboard were care taking it in the hope that it could be pulled off at the next major high tide. Due to the recent strong winds they had not been able to get out with drinking water for a few days, so we volunteered to take Waqa out the next day, anchor close by and then ferry the water to them in his long boat. The next morning we set off with Waqa and his four children, anchoring some 200 yards away but inside the reef in about 20 meters of water. Waqa Lynn and I jumped into the long boat, he started his outboard and we cast off, and the engine died. As Meniscus receded into the distance we tried restarted the engine and eventually it fired just before we finally drifted out of the lagoon into the open sea. With great relief we raced back outside the reef making our first pass under the castaways stern. Much yelling in Fijian as we passed back and forth in steep breaking surf cutting as close as possible to ship but keeping moving into the waves breaking in the shallow water around. With one of their crew hanging from a rope and tyre slung over the stern we made our final run at high speed cutting under the stern it was my job to drop the water at the crucial moment as we passed. We could not slow down or we would be dashed by the waves into the hulk and become a wreck ourselves. A yell from Waqa and I stood upright in the careering skiff and launched 3 jerry cans of water across the gap to the waiting crewman hanging in mid air. We held our breath as it sailed, splashed, disappeared, bobbed again and was caught. YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS! Mission accomplished we headed back to Meniscus and back ashore.
Later we dived in the crystal clear waters in the bay and found some of the most spectacular reef I have ever seen. The bay is protected and no fishing or spearing is allowed which means that there are a profusion of fish, lobsters and giant clams and they were not afraid as we snorkeled amongst them. There was a village on the Southern side of the island but we learnt that it was not large and although there was a school it only had 30 students. In this respect it seemed rather small to benefit fully from the books that we hoped to donate and we decided to save them for a better cause.
After 2 days we made the short 10 mile trip back past the ship wreck to Wakaya where we anchored close to the shore an the Northern side but we did not even bother to go ashore here. Looking through the binoculars we could see a golf course, several million dollar houses, a resort and some very bored wealthy looking European types. Nothing for us here! Gau The next Island was Gau, a further 30 miles, into the wind in very lumpy seas, it took us 10 hours to get there, only just getting through the reef with enough light to see by and only enough time to anchor in Matubura Bay for the night.
Sailing again the next morning we anchored off the wharf at Waikama. This was our first true visit to a remote and traditional village and we prepared ourselves in our Sulu's (traditional wrap around skirt for both men and women). On our arrival in the village we asked to be taken to the Toranga ni Koro (the village Major). He would then take us to the Chief and present our sevusevu as our representative. The sevusevu is a gift of Kava root (about ½ Kg.) The Toranga ni Koro starts the ritual by making a speech to the Chief, telling him who we are, where we come from, why we are there and asks for permission for us to visit on our behalf. The Chief accepts the gift and grants permission for our visit and in so doing takes us under his protection for the duration of our visit. In this instance neither the Toranga ni Koro or the Chief were available but our gifts were accepted by their deputies in the village hall and we sat and drank several bowls of the infused pounded Kava root with the men.
The next morning we were invited to bathe in a pool heated by a hot spring and we readily accepted having now been several days away from a hot shower. I also took this opportunity to visit the local school close by and make arrangements to visit the children and discuss the books. Early next morning we arrived at the school and were met by Ilaisa the head master. Each of us talked to the children about the place and ourselves we originated from. The children's eyes growing wider and wider as we talked about roads, traffic jams, tall buildings, long and short days, opposite seasons, cold and snow. Nawaikama District School has four teachers, 95 students and the books for teaching English were extremely limited, old and dog-eared. We had found a deserving recipient. The staff were extremely pleased to receive The Pacific Literacy Program comprising of 30 books and its accompanying teachers resource book. There were a further 20 story books as well. It was very touching to be there and see their looks of gratitude and hear their words of appreciation and it is all but impossible to convey their thanks or the depth of their feelings to those of you who were kind enough to make donations and make this all possible. All I can do, however inadequately is pass on their heart felt thanks to you, hoping that when you see pictures of the event you will be able to get a feel for their appreciation.
There was a team of workers building a new reservoir for the village. The government had supplied some men to supervise the scheme and the rest of the village helped in any way possible. All the able bodied men were involved in the actual labour while the women took it in turns to prepare the food for those men who would not be fed by their own families. We were generously invited to join a lunch for the men and sample a traditional Fijian meal at Aporasa and Kele's house. A team of women started preparing the meal the day before and it seemed that some of them, at least, had stayed up all night to complete the preparations. We sat cross-legged at cloths laid along the floor to a veritable feast with around 20 of the workers who came and went in sittings. We ate with our fingers and some of the dishes were stewed pork, river prawns with fern leaf, palisami (taro leaves with fish), fried walu steaks, barracuda in coconut juice, cassava and dalo. "Mmmmmm cana maleka!" - the food was delicious! Well our turn to reciprocate came the next day and we were able to take Kele and Vicki round to the neighbouring village of Somosomo and pick up one of their relatives to go fishing out on the reef. We spent several hours on Meniscus catching grouper, coral trout, barracuda and snapper and at the end of the day we must have caught over 60 fish.
Our next visit took us to Nairai which was an especially beautiful island surrounded by very perilous reefs. The water was crystal clear and we were able to dive on the barrier reef on the way in to our anchorage off the village of Tovulailai. Here we met Joseva (the Toranga ni Koro) who told us that the school was not actually in the village and we would have to anchor a mile or 2 further up the coast.
Accordingly we visited Davetarua Village School and met the head teacher Maciu (Matthew). Unfortunately the children were enjoying an unscheduled holiday due to the disruption caused by the coup. The school has 69 pupils and again their resources for teaching English were very limited. That evening we presented our sevusevu to Joseva and the chief's brother and also presented the books to Maciu as we sat drinking bowls of kava. On this occasion our presentation was made to the villagers as well as the school and it was obvious that they were very grateful for the books, which would ordinarily be funded by the individual families of the village. The teachers and school manager normally raise funds by assessing what the school needs and then sets the sum required by each family. Funds on these remote islands are limited and money can only be raised from selling such things as copra, beche de mer, and handy crafts. Our visit to Nairai was all too brief and we spent a day relaxing on a tiny volcanic island, swimming from its white sandy beach and diving on its surrounding reef before setting off to sail overnight for Kandavu.
The passage was approximately 100 miles and would take us around 15 hours. We left Nairai at around 16.00 hours in order to pass safely outside the reef in daylight. This passage should have presented an opportunity for an exhilarating night sail and we should have been reaching across the prevailing trade winds. Well, we were, as usual disappointed but instead had to motor across an almost mirror calm sea underneath a canopy of stars. The next morning the wind did get up as we sailed through Usborne pass into the Great Astrolabe reef. Passing the smaller islands we anchored off Buliya for lunch and then made for Vabea Village where we found a safe anchorage in a small lagoon. After some time away from civilization the crew opted for a little more luxury and we visited Jonas Paradise Resort by dinghy just around the headland. The resort although not as grand as its name was in a beautiful spot, its native bures (huts) catered mainly for backpackers.
Somewhat refreshed we headed to on to Kavala Bay and found that there were 2 villagers there as well as some institutions around the bay. There was a post office with a phone, a clinic, a shop, a wharf as well as primary and secondary schools. The primary school has 87 pupils although they were also on their unscheduled holiday. Usaia the headmaster showed us around the school building and showed as the books that they were using. They were using a graded reading system similar to our program so I was at first very reluctant to leave our books with them and offered a variety of story books instead. However, Usaia put up a very convincing justification for running the two sets based on the fact that our program is specifically for Pacific children whereas the other was really developed for Europeans. The obvious differences are that the pictures and stories in ours where mainly about native people, indigenous species and familiar places whereas the other depicted white skinned people, in situations hard to imagine for remote island children so I eventually agreed on the promise that he would compare the two systems and tell me how they compared. Back to the Mainland By now everyone onboard was showing signs of tiredness and our schedule had been very demanding so we set off to return to the mainland with plenty of time for the crew to rest and do some shopping before their flights home.
We had around 90 miles to get to the nearest port of refuge so we again departed in the late afternoon to sail overnight. We had hope for a good run downwind as we headed north West but again were foiled. Surprisingly there was again no wind and although disappointed not to be sailing we enjoyed another flat calm night on a moon light sea. Our passage time was excellent and with a following current beneath us we actually passed through the reef into Nadi Waters again by mid morning. It has to be said that after a month away it was good to quaff an ice-cold beer, have a meal or two ashore and use the showers.
The four of us had sailed around 600 miles, in a month, to visit 8 islands through some very trying and difficult conditions. The weather conditions were remarkably poor and I have never before experienced such a sustained period of cloudy windy weather in these latitudes. We had been as far off the beaten track as possible in the time available and left what we call civilisation far behind. Our schedule was a stretching one. Sue, Lynn and Woody deserve credit for having the courage to come and take part in an expedition which would involve some sacrifice and take them away from their familiar comfort zones; away from shops, supermarkets, restaurants, telephones, television, unlimited water supplies, a hot shower, take away pizzas, that favourite cereal and so on. Keeping up with a fairly fast moving schedule in a strange environment with strange people around produces its own stresses and strains from time to time.
However, as the above account shows, a considerable amount was achieved and the following sums up the main points: - Our visits to 3 schools. An insight into another culture that is almost the antithesis to our own, one where the family unit is paramount, and where caring, sharing, generosity and hospitality are second nature. Improving and honing sailing and navigational skills. Learning about our strengths and weaknesses as well as getting on with our fellows. All in all our trip was a true adventure and it certainly holds many happy memories for the future. My personal thanks to all of those who donated and made it possible to buy the schoolbooks. A special thank you to Sue, Lynn and Woody who came and made it all possible. Also my thanks to Mary Crowley and her team at Ocean Voyagers for their superb support.
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