Highlights of Fiji

For many people this is the very image of paradise, Fiji-style.   Beachcomber Island is a self-proclaimed "party island" in the Mamanuca island group north of the main entry point to Fiji, Nadi.   The coconut palms and coral reefs might be exotic, but everything else is comfortingly familiar, though with a slight twist.   The local people speak very good English, but thanks to the early missionaries and their lexographical ideas, Fijian spelling is unusual, which explains why Mamanuca is pronounced Mamanutha, and Nadi is pronounced Nandi.

Navini is another resort island in the Mamanuca group, but smaller and quieter, offering relaxation in contrast to the frenetic activity of Beachcomber.   And relaxation is about all you can do on an island whose resort proudly proclaims "You can and will stroll around the island in 10 minutes".   I applaud those people who can enjoy such an environment, but a type A personality like myself needs a little more action and variety.

Treasure Island has more watersports but in a more adult atmosphere than Beachcomber, with canned culture in the form of a kava ceremony and "Polynesian" hula dancing and fire dancing - a slightly odd idea, since Fiji is really a Melanesian country.   In a bid to grab as many "eco-dollars" as possible, the resort has introduced various native animals such as crested iguanas and banded rails to the island, and operates its own captive breeding programme for green turtles.

Just in case it isn't already apparent to you, I decided I wasn't the "Mamanuca" type.   Instead, I took the ferry further north to Wayalailai, one of the nearest islands in the Yasawa group.   The Wayalailai Resort has much less of a packaged feel than those further south, since it's operated by the local Fijian village you see on the shoreline here.   There's no disco, banana boat or paragliding, but there's a nice dining area, with traditional feast done weekly, snorkelling on the reefs and hikes around the island.

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

Here's a view from the top of the hill, with Kuata island across the channel, and the mainland just visible on the horizon.   Kuata is one of the best places to go snorkelling around here, with sheltered areas no matter what direction the wind is coming from.

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

Wayalailai is a much better place to have real interactions with native Fijians than the sanitized resorts further south.   Here are some of the local kids enjoying themselves on the beach in front of the resort, which draws a mostly backpacker clientele.   I joined a couple of locals on a night snorkelling trip, at first I was surprised by one of them speaking very fast and very loud in Fijian as soon as we got in the water, then I realized he was praying!   Not too comforting when you consider how famous Fiji is for sharks, and when both of them were spear-fishing.   At the end of the trip I realized that the boat which dropped us off had departed to another village, together with my clothes!   One of the Fijians lent me a pair of his shorts to wear, and I spent the rest of the evening and that night in the village, before walking the short distance back to the resort in the morning.

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

With so much water in Fiji, it's no surprise that much of the play time for these kids involves swimming and diving; the ones above have learned to expertly time their jumps to coincide with the incoming waves, and this group below looks like an intrepid band of explorers!   Fiji is a slower-paced and simpler place than western countries are now, so the kids amuse themselves, often out of sight of parents, and use whatever is around for their enjoyment.

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format
click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

It's not just the young or native-born who enjoy playing in the water!

This French backpacker brought along an entire kiteboarding kit with him, and he made good use of the windy conditions, jumping high into the air, and even jumping over several boats full of surprised locals who happened to pass by.

I trekked across the island with a couple of kids from the village as guides.   I didn't see as much wildlife as I hoped, but it was still a great walk, with excellent views including Waya, the next island north.   The name Wayalailai actually means "little Waya", but Wayalailai also goes by the name Wayasewa.

Namara village is on the opposite side of the island from the backpackers' resort, and those who were interested were taken around by boat for a cultural display which everyone seemed to enjoy.   The display was also a reminder of how the Fijian people, now so friendly, were once very warlike.   Like almost all Pacific Ocean peoples, they were cannabilistic, and European visitors steered well clear for 150 years.   Even Captain Bligh of "mutiny on the Bounty" fame had to make a dash past Fiji with several local canoes in hot pursuit after he'd been cast adrift with 18 other men.

The visit to the village included a kava or "Yaqonga" ceremony.

Kava is a traditional root crop in the Pacific; a member of the pepper family, it's valued because of its mild narcotic qualities.

The taste isn't much to write home about, it tastes about as muddy as it looks, but it's said to create a euphoric feeling of well-being.   It's not addictive, there are no unpleasant after-effects, and unlike alcohol, kava doesn't cause belligerent behaviour.   There's even a theory that it can help against some forms of cancer!

Fiji has a lot of islands and a lot to offer.   Here's a photo taken from a "puddle jumper" from the main island Viti Levu to the next largest island Vanua Levu.   When I lived in New Zealand I knew a Fijian guy called Villiame Lomaloma who had been piloting one of these small inter-island aircraft for several years, but didn't know how to drive a car!

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

Here is Savusavu, the second largest town on Vanua Levu!   I'd been trying unsuccessfully to contact Silktail Lodge on the Tunuloa Peninsula for some time and when I got there I found out why it was so hard - there was no email, no telephone and no mains power.   By a sheer stroke of luck, though, I met the son of the family at the airport and got to the place that way.   I stayed a few nights and got several of the wildlife photos you will see later.

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

My island hopping didn't stop with Vanua Levu.   This is the shoreline of Taveuni, third largest island in Fiji, which forms the south-eastern side of the Somosomo Strait, whose fast flowing currents are world famous as a great place for divers to see sharks and soft corals.

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

For me, this sign and its bragging rights are just one of the reasons to visit Taveuni.

The eastern tip of Vanua Levu, the island of Rabi (pronounced Rambi) and Taveuni all straddle the 180th meridian.   As the sign says, that means that this is "where each day begins" and theoretically if you stand with one foot on the left of the line and one on the right then you're both in yesterday and today or, if you prefer, today and tomorrow.

Of course no mere mortal can be allowed to enjoy such a mind-boggling concept, so the official keepers of time decreed that the international date line should do a giant dog-leg to the east of Fiji, so that the whole country is in one day at any one time.

Those Who Must Be Obeyed also decreed that New Zealand's Chatham Islands is the spot in the world which first sees the light of each new day.   When the new millenium dawned on January 1st, 2000 (Yeah, yeah, I know that "officially" it happened on January 1st, 2001 - don't bother sending me your emails!) it was therefore New Zealand which got the honours, in spite of the efforts of a few Pacific island countries to unilaterally modify their timekeeping.

Now I'm a New Zealander, but even to me it feels like Fiji has much more claim to this prize than we did.   And given the choice, I'd far rather be drinking kava on both sides of the Taveuni dateline than freezing my butt off standing on some windswept hill on the barren and windswept Chatham Islands.

Unfortunately, in the end I wasn't able to indulge in either of those pleasures, since I was too busy freezing my butt off on December 31st, 1999 in New York's Time Square!

Taveuni has a lot more on show than a novelty billboard.   As well as the diving I mentioned, it's a good place to see the local culture and it has several good spots to find wildlife, including Bouma national park, which is where I took this photo.

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

Bouma is also a good place for scenery, including a series of three waterfalls.   This one is the lower Bouma falls and in case you're in any doubt about how high they are, just see how small the people are standing next to it!

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

Again it was the local kids performing dare-devil feats in the water.   There were also a few families having picnics near the waterfalls.

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

Here's one of the first animals I found at Bouma, right at the lower falls.   It's a rare Fijian ground frog, one of only two frog species in the country, the other being a tree frog.   You might think that Fiji with its forests and high rainfall would have lots of frogs, but in fact it's so far away from other large land masses that only a few species have been able to colonise.   And now the ground frog is in serious trouble because of ignorant westerners introducing rats, mongooses and the very large and voracious South American "cane toad", which likes nothing better than to eat the native wildlife of Fiji, Australia and other places where sugar cane farmers took it.

Here's another local, a variety of damselfly which doesn't have a common name, so it has to go by its scientific name Nesobasis erythrops.   I saw several different types during my two week stay, including some mating pairs.   The one shown here has a very unusual combination of colors with its orange body and eyes, and a blue tip to its tail.

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

Here's one of the damselfly's close relatives, a dragonfly which goes by the Latin moniker Agrionoptera insignis or, to its English-speaking friends, the red swampdragon.

This critter also has an unusual combination of colors.   You'll find many dragonflies which are red and many which are green, but this is the first red and green one which I had ever seen.   I only saw one red swampdragon in Fiji, on the island of Vanua Levu, but it was kind enough to let me get several photos from different angles.

Large animals have trouble crossing the vast stretches of ocean between Fiji and other countries, but a number of insects like dragonflies have made the journey, probably carried from island to island by storms until they get here.   That's why the red swampdragon can be found not only here, but also throughout Asia and down into Australia.

I found several types of dragonfly on Vanua Levu, but by far the best spot I came across for these attractive insects was the Koroyanitu National Heritage Park on Viti Levu.   I was able to put together a whole page of Fijian dragonflies and damselflies, and three of these photos were later used as models for a set of Fijian postage stamps!

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

Fiji doesn't have as many butterflies as other countries, but this male "blue moon" is one very attractive inhabitant.

This is another insect which is found in Asia and also in other parts of the Pacific, where it's usually known as the "common eggfly" or "great eggfly".   Personally I much prefer the name "blue moon".

All male blue moons look much like this one, but the females look quite different, and they even differ markedly from each other.   This happens because females in different parts of the world, all the way from Madagascar to Japan and New Zealand, mimic various different butterfly species which are toxic and therefore taste bad to predators like birds.

As is common with quite a few butterfly species, the male is territorial and will guard an area of ground against intruders.   However the blue moon females are unusual in that they apparently also guard the sites where they've laid eggs, a rare example of maternal care in the world of butterflies.

Where there are butterflies and moths there must also be caterpillars.   This attractive specimen is a variety of looper or inchworm, which means that it belongs to the very large family Geometridae, also known as "geometer" moths.   In keeping with the inchworm name, the Greek term geometer means "earth measurer".

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format
click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

Beetles are the most common type of insect on the planet, but I photographed very few during my stay.

This one is by far the most interesting, a jewel beetle called Paracupta sulcata.   Fiji has a variety of interesting jewel beetles, but it's very hard to find any information on them.   Since this is the first and only jewel beetle I've ever seen, I was pleased just to come across it while I was staying on Taveuni, but I was disappointed when it didn't stay long enough for me to get more than a few photos.

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

This stick insect (in America the term "walking stick" is used) was on Wayalailai.

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

This extraordinary little monster is a type of robber fly, a family found around the world whose members sit on a perch and dart rapidly out to catch other flying insects.

The robber fly jabs its strong pointed beak into the insect it catches and sucks the juices out.

Robber flies are very recognizable with their strong, spiny legs and thick moustache and beard.

The robber fly was in Bouma national park, as was this mighty hunter, a small skink which has caught an earwig.   The earwig's pincers were obviously of no use against such a formidable foe!

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

I ended up photographing about fifteen types of bird, including this jungle myna, a member of the starling family.

The jungle myna and its better known cousin the common myna were introduced from India, along with about 30 other birds from different parts of the world.   About 15 of these species became established.

There's a lot of ethnic tension between native Fijians and the indentured workers the British brought over from South Asia, who now make up almost half of the population.   Somewhat unkindly, the native people refer to these human immigrants as being like the mynas - loud, greedy, acquisitive, and damaging to the original inhabitants.

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format

A winged animal of another type, this time a Samoan flying fox, which is a type of fruit bat.

These were a common sight on Vanua Levu, flying around in the late afternoon and evening.

I was lucky enough to see this one flying past holding a pandanus fruit, and then land out of sight a short distance away.   I followed it and took several photos, but it didn't seem quite sure what to do with the cumbersome fruit, so in one shot the fruit is hanging incongruously in mid-air right next to the flying fox's head.

The fruit had of course slipped out of its grasp, and the next few shots feature a flying fox with a somewhat reproachful look on its face as it stares pointedly straight at me.

This Fiji trip was my first with a digital underwater camera, but there was quite a steep learning curve and I didn't have as many opportunities to free-dive as I wanted.   Quite a few photos were ruined by condensation on the inside of the housing, I figured out later that it pays to keep some silica gel inside in order to soak up excess moisture before hitting the relative cold of the water.   However I did get a few nice shots, including this crown of thorns starfish trashing coral on the reef around Kuata, leaving nothing but white skeletons in its wake.

click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format