Thursday, November 08, 2012

Day 287 - 293: Maqai Beach Resort, Qamea & Nanuku

Now, I'm not the fattest guy, nor am I a monk. As such, lying on a hard surface is not so much uncomfortable as painful. I may have had a few choice words about the sleeper buses in SE Asia, but at least they were padded. If I hadn't brought a travel pillow and earplugs along with me, I don't think I'd have got any sleep overnight on the Lomaiviti Princess. Gilly impressed me once again with her ability to lie down anywhere and go to sleep, despite us having three toddlers to our right and one toddler and a baby to our left, and without earplugs. Maybe I should pack some Valium next time.

The ferry arrived at Taveuni at 1pm. We didn't actually manage to get off the boat until 2pm. This was because the crew kept missing the drop point for the anchor, something you'd think that they would be able to do on a fairly regular basis given the number of journeys the ferry makes each week. On top of this, as it was a car ferry we also had to wait for all the vehicles to leave. When we finally got off the hulk, we were met by a guy from the Maqai office based in Tavenunnu Lodge, who drove us there (another hour in the car, with multiple stops whilst he did some errands), and we finally got to eat at the lodge around 3:30pm. After "lunch" and paying for our stay in Maqai, we were driven to the wharf (half an hour away), taken to a boat and left there for another 20 minutes before the two kids who operated the boat turned up and got us underway. It was supposed to be a 15-20 minute boat ride. We managed about 5 minutes, before the engine developed problems and meant that we couldn't go more than about 5 mph. I gave one of the kids my phone to call someone on, and as we got closer to the island another boat came along and we swapped over. You'd think that we'd go straight there, but no, we then took a detour to pick up someone who was out fishing and needed a ride to the island too. We finally got to Maqai Beach Resort on Qamea (GAM-EAR) at about 7pm, some 32 hours after we originally got on the ferry. We were starving.

We'd booked a 4-bed dorm on Paul and Fi's advice - it worked out, as we were lucky enough to get given a bure (basically a cross between a hut and a gazebo) with a double bed, two other single beds, and no other occupants.


After dumping our stuff and getting a cold shower, we went and had dinner - papaya stuffed with some sort of fish, served with sweet potato, cassava and other veg. Not being fans of papaya, we were both surprised how good it was.   

Dinner is always followed by kava. This is a bowl of water that has been filtered through a muslin cloth filled with powdered kava root, giving it the look of muddy water.



Kava is a big tradition in Fiji. It's the equivalent of alcohol to the natives, and makes them pretty relaxed after a few bowls. You have the option of low-tide (small bowl), high-tide (big bowl) and tsunami (massive bowl). Visitors generally get offered the choice, but the hardened natives normally all go for the daddy portion. The taste can be politely described as "different"; imagine if you crushed the juice from grass and mixed it with some soil, and then added a slightly numbing sensation at the end - you'd probably have a fair idea of what kava is like to drink. It isn't something I would willingly drink, but it is customary to have at least a small bowl after dinner. Fortunately the custom also dictates that you drink it all in one go so at least the ordeal is over pretty soon.

Maqai Beach Resort have a number of activities on throughout the day, should you wish to take part. Number one is "do nothing", which is high on my list. Alternatively you can learn to weave baskets from palm leaves, go snorkelling, fishing, kayaking, and so on. We tried our hand at basket weaving, with a lot of help from Bale who basically did most of the work for us as it turns out we aren't that good at making things from leaves. The end result was less a basket, and more of a handbag.


Despite it being the "dry season" and also one of the best times to visit Fiji, the weather was very temperamental. When the sun was out, it was fantastic. More often than not though, there would be patches of cloud and rain throughout any given day so we'd have to make the most of the good weather when we could.




One day we went crazy and crammed a few activities in. The first was a village trip to Naivivi, one of the neighbouring settlements which a few of the Maqai staff came from. This was only accessible by boat, but only took ten minutes to reach.

The American Iguana was released here by an American visitor who smuggled in 8 of the beasts and then let them go. Since each iguana can lay up to 72 eggs, they soon overran the island, eating crops and killing chickens. Consequently, there is a national "search and destroy" order on the lizards, and the American is biding his time in a prison somewhere for a significant amount of time.

We were taken around the village by Wilson, who showed us where the locals live. All of the huts are made from either wood and bamboo or corrugated iron sheets. There is very little in the way of luxury, as can be expected. Fijians spend the day working in the fields (men) or staying at home cooking and looking after the household and children (women). Traditional gender roles are alive and well here.



We met a brown dog, inexplicably called Blackie and a *very* friendly dog belonging to Bale called Blade. We were also introduced to the village parrot, a bedraggled thing which greeted us in Fijian. It had the unique name of "Polly".


Naivivi and two neighbouring settlements have a total population of about 500 people, 200 of which are children. The school caters for them all, and puts two year groups in the same room as there don't appear to be more than 4 or 5 teachers to cover all of the rooms.


There is also a kindergarten, and the children there put on a cute song and dance show where they pretended to be corn which grew in the sun and rain and then got cut down by the farmer.


After the tour, we shared some kava with one of the teachers and his family and I helped him out with some on-the-spot tech support as his laptop had a virus on it. I'm not quite sure how it got on there since they don't have internet access in the village; must be a new strain.

It tells you something about the resolve of the Fijian people that they can live with so little, yet be so happy. The friendliest people we've met on our travels have often been the poorest. Laotians and Fijians never stop smiling. In the capitalist, materialistic, image-obsessed western society of the 21st Century, it's somewhat refreshing to meet people that don't care what fragrance Britney Spears is currently marketing, or what new features the latest i-Gadget is using to try and manipulate you into parting from your money, or what awful cellulite has been spotted on some Z-list celebrity on holiday in the tropics. Put simply, Fiji gives you a unique perspective - it just doesn't matter. People do their own thing, pretty much when they like. There's no 9 to 5 office work on an island. Any entertainment is created by themselves. TV? You'll be lucky to find two in the entire village. It made me wonder how I would be affected on our return.

In the afternoon Wilson took us on a jungle trek into the forest behind the Maqai lodge. It took about an hour in total, and was surprisingly steep. There were some great views from the top though, and it was appreciated since we'd done precious little exercise since leaving New Zealand.




One of the main reasons we came to Maqai was for the opportunity to visit the island of Nanuku. Paul had described it as "the closest to a picture perfect island paradise I've ever been; as close to essential as I can imagine." With a recommendation like that, we were on to the staff from the beginning to make sure we were included in any possible excursion and it paid off on our 4th day when 6 of us (plus 5 staff) hopped into a small boat and took a trip across the sea in search of this fabled paradise.

Since we'd already paid for food and accommodation as part of Maqai, we only needed to pay for the transfer there and back which worked out at $120 FJD (£40) per person. To give you an indication of how much of a bargain this is, on the way there we passed the "Red Bull" island. This is a 7-star resort so exclusive that if you wanted to stay there you'd have to fork out anything from $15,000 (over £5,000) up to $70,000 (£25,000) *per night*. Yes, that's twenty-five grand just for the privilege of sleeping there. No food is included. We've heard reports of other ridiculous pricing there, such as $75 for a bottle of water - the kind of rumour you could quite easily believe given the nature of the place. The people who own Red Bull want to buy Nanuku from the owner of Maqai but he is turning down all sorts of crazy money in order to keep the island affordable to backpackers. I hope his willpower holds up; one less resort for people who can spend money like water would be welcomed by the independent traveller.

The boat ride to Nanuku is not the easiest. The water can be choppy, and the only comfort you can find is by sitting on a life jacket. Getting there takes the best part of an hour and a half, but once you arrive you immediately see why people rave about the place.



Imagine what you would expect to get from a remote tropical island, and you'll find it here. Crystal clear turquoise water, soft white sand, palm get the idea. It is, without a doubt, the nicest island I've ever been to. The facilities are basic, as you'd expect - the staff have to bring over the food on the boat to cook, the toilet is a hole in a room attached to the kitchen, and the "shower" is a rainwater barrel with a cup to use as a scoop - but when you have an entire island to yourself for a day and a night, these things are soon overlooked.


We went hunting for seashells after we arrived. The island is so small you can probably walk around it at a fair pace in about 15 minutes. We took our time and strolled around in an hour. Our shell collecting was thwarted most of the time by the occupants of most of the shells: hermit crabs.


I love hermit crabs. They just take the nearest lodging, and squash themselves into it. They also have a habit of picking the nicest shells, which meant we were left with a fairly bland selection to choose from. It's a bit like house-hunting in the Bristol rental market. There were a few which we came across who were in the process of moving house; they'd sidled up to a prospective new abode and were sizing up the best way of "shell-hopping". It seemed like quite a complicated process. There were also bigger crabs hanging around, and one of them took a liking to the strap on my camera case.


Then it was snorkelling time. We went out from the shore equipped with fins and snorkel masks, and I predictably struggled to get the most out of the experience due to my natural tendency to fill up my mask with water. What little I did see seemed exotic enough, with decent corals and colourful fishes. Adam - our guide - did some spear-fishing and caught a decent batch for dinner. This was served with some curried diced vegetables and chicken, and made an excellent meal.

There are no mountains near Nanuku, so most of the bad weather dissipates before it reaches the island. The lack of cloud makes the sunsets less spectacular than others we have seen, but impressive nonetheless.



In the evening, Adam and the other Maqai staff had built a fire on the beach, and we went hunting for crabs as replacements to marshmallows. Catching crabs in daylight is hard enough, but searching the beach by torchlight and chasing after them whilst trying not to smash your feet on rocks is quite the challenge. The four other tourists (3 Germans and an Australian) caught 10 soft-shell crabs between them, whilst I caught a huge rock crab who was sat in a small pool.


We decided not to eat it in the end as it turned out to be a female who was spawning, so we released her. I bet she'd have been tasty, though.

The heat from the fire was intense, so we sat a respectable distance back and shared some Bacardi between us, before I gave the rest to the Fijians to enjoy. They aren't allowed to drink whilst at Maqai; probably for the best, as a combination of alcohol and kava would probably knock them out for the day.


After calling it a night at about 11pm, we were up again at 5:30am to catch the sunrise. This was more atmospheric than the sunset, even if the hour was a lot more unsociable.



A couple more hours in bed and a small breakfast later, and the second snorkelling trip was underway; we'd opted to stay behind as the clouds were gathering and the boat was going further out that morning in the hope of seeing reef sharks. We'd had our fill of whitetips during our scuba adventures around the globe, so were happy to enjoy our remaining time on the beautiful island.



The less said about the return trip, the better. We'd seen a group arrive back the day after we got to Maqai, and they'd taken two hours to return in choppy seas which drenched them completely, as well as covering them in bruises as the boat bounced and slammed down on the waves. Our journey wasn't quite that bad, and only took an hour, but it wasn't exactly pain-free. I just closed my eyes and tried to doze for the most part, and it worked pretty well.

It was totally worth the trip. Nanuku was on a par, if not better than Whitehaven as my favourite beach of the trip. The remoteness and lack of other people possibly won out ultimately. If you are heading to Maqai Beach Resort, there is no fathomable reason not to visit.

After returning we wanted nothing more than a shower and a sleep, so by the evening we were ready for a lovo meal - similar to the Maori hangi, this is meat and veg wrapped in coconut and banana leaves and cooked on heated rocks. It was very tasty, and we were given far, far more than we could hope to eat.

We were treated to a fire show at night, performed by four of the Maqai staff.




They thought nothing of setting their hands or other body parts on fire in order to light their poles, nor of eating fire...I think they may have had a bit too much kava beforehand, but it was great fun.

The last full day on Maqai was spent doing very little other than reading and trying to sort out our remaining time on Fiji.  There is a phenomenon in Fiji known as "Fiji time". From what I can gather, this usually involves disregarding any notion of punctuality, and instead doing things as and when people can be bothered. In some respects this is nice, because you can just go with the flow, not worry too much about deadlines, and so on. In other respects, if you do happen to need to get somewhere on time or organise something, it's a complete pain in the arse. You can't give a Fijian more than one thing to concentrate on doing at a time, or they'll forget everything. We tried to sort out some shark diving when we first arrived for when we returned to the mainland, but it was fully booked. We then tried to contact Bluewater Lodge on the very limited internet on the island (our phone reception was zero) to book in a night at the hostel followed by a trip to the Yasawas the following day, but we didn't hear back from Mary there until our last full day; it turned out that we'd have to stay in Bluewater Lodge for two nights due to some paperwork needing to be signed for the Yasawa Flyer, then go to Barefoot Lodge in the Yasawas (another recommendation from Paul and Fi) on 1st August, return to Pacific Harbour on 9th August and dive on 10th August. Our flight from Fiji was on the 13th; fortunately I'd arranged transport, accommodation and a show in Vegas before we came to Maqai, so there was little left to do on that front.

On the last morning at Maqai Lodge we packed up and left just after lunch to catch a flight from Taveuni back to Suva. After our ferry journey to Taveuni from Suva we had vowed not to go through that experience again and whilst the flight was more expensive, we knew it would be over in an hour and a bit, saving us the best part of two days and another sleepless night.

When we got to the airport (read: small building with worryingly short runway at the back), we were expecting a small plane. What we weren't expecting was a plane almost as small as the one we jumped out of when skydiving.


It was a Twin Otter, 21-seater. You had to duck whilst inside, and we were sat right at the front behind the pilot's cockpit. The cockpit door was open. We could see the procedure for taking off and flying. At one point just before take-off, the co-pilot made the sign of the cross. That was a little concerning.


After we didn't die on take-off, the co-pilot switched on his sat-nav. Yes, pilots navigate using Garmin. Who knew? We didn't hear a stroppy English woman tell them to make a U-turn, so I can assume they kept to the correct course for the entire flight.


After a comfortable flight (compared to the ferry, anything was preferable), we got into a taxi to the minibus rank in Suva, jumped onto a minibus bound for Nadi, and almost managed it all the way there without any issues. Fiji transport being what it is though, the minibus started developing issues changing gear and stalling about 30 minutes from Nadi. The driver must have rung ahead, as there was another minibus waiting for us at the side of the road so we all changed over (at some point we will make a minibus journey in this country where we stay in the same vehicle) and got to Bluewater Lodge just before 11pm. Despite booking a 6-bed dorm, we were put in a 4-bed dorm with only one other person - excellent.

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