Party Island at the Edge of the World

Beachcomber

On the map, the Yasawa and Mamanuca group of islands lie like crumbs scattered around the remote cookie of Fiji. Off the prow of the Yasawa Flyer, however, we could see that some of these crumbs turned out to be substantial landmasses, with multiple villages and miles of coastline and imposing mountainous interiors. There were, however, crumbs of crumbs of earth that don’t appear on the big maps, and on the close up regional maps their printed names cover ten times as much area as the islands themselves. Beachcomber was a miniscule speck on the vast blue sea, just a few acres of improbable land in the middle of nowhere.

Topographically, Beachcomber is flat and featureless, the type of place that will likely not see the other side of rising sea levels. I don’t actually understand how it can exist at all, with the difference between above and below the surface measured in inches. The odds against reclamation by the South Pacific seems unbelievable, its bite-size jungle interior even more outrageous. This place is protected by ancient Polynesian magic from furious cyclones and geologic time.

It’s hard to tell how much of the plant and animal life was brought in by people, the term “invasive species” might not make a lot of sense on this small scale. The locals may have been visiting here for thousands of years (the first inhabitants of Fiji arrived as early as 3500 BCE by some estimates). This particular micro-island has probably been ignored the whole time. I can’t imagine anybody actually stayed here except to hide from their cannibal comrades for a while. It would be hard to scratch out a living here. The only part of these island’s existences that I can really grasp are the resorts, the self-conscious signifiers of paradise that drew me in from the global economy with the promise of feeling far outside of it.

Beachcomber I suppose doesn’t really pretend to deliver on this promise. Everything felt like a Burning Man theme camp, only with real trees and a real ocean to back up the simulation of “Tropical Island”. But it did offer the profound novelty of superlative smallness. I have been in homes with greater square footage. It only took 15 minutes to circumambulate the entire isle, though with a little determination and a good pair of flip flops I bet it could be done in a five minute all-out sprint.

The island fit exactly one resort, the eponymous Beachcomber. I suspect this island had no name at all before the first keg of Fiji Bitter was rolled ashore by Mr. Dan Costello and his beach bum buddies back in the 1950’s. Back then, it must have been true bohemian bliss, an unspoilt obscure beach on which to kick back beyond the reach of modern encroachment. Today, a mini-golf course threads its way through the mini-jungle. Other amenities include a dive shop, a snack bar, a gift shop, a boozer bar (two stories high with outdoor seating and a live band), a full restaurant with huge plasma screen TVs playing satellite sports channels, and a tour desk offering a host of activities and excursions to suit every taste, diving, boating, parasailing, fishing, everything. A couple of dormitories and a handful of bures (beach huts) for everyone on the island. You are guaranteed to be stumbling distance from your room. Just don’t walk the wrong way or you’re sunk.

In the surf were wee sharks, their wee dorsal fins occasionally jutting up out of the waters as they prowled the shallows for skittish fish that would occasionally leap out of the water to save their scales. I imagined an Alvin and the Chipmunks style rendition of the Jaws theme as the party-time lovers and frat douches strolled by unaware. It was easy to feel safe in such a familiar relaxed atmosphere, and hard to appreciate that we were surrounded by sharks and the endless blue sea.

– Eric

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Waylaid at Wayaleilei in Fiji

Two things I’ve had a difficult time with on this odyssey: humidity and boats. After the hours I spent heaving in the Galapagos, I was not exactly keen on spending long humid days aboard another small rocking boat. One look at the tiny islands of Fiji made it all worth it.

Sunset Hill in the Yasawas

We had booked the backpacker option of a ‘Bula Pass’, which allows you to travel freely between many islands in the Mamanucas and Yasawas. It also includes basic accommodations and three meals a day. We were told, however, that we may not book resorts in advance, and must speak to the travel desk on board the (packed and yawwing) ferry while on-route to book.

Eric then spent much of our ferry time at the travel desk, often hours, looking for any rooms available. But it’s high season and slim pickens. We were finally booked into single nights at several resorts, having to ferry each day. Not our favorite way to travel, but we saw a lot more of Fiji than most people!

Our third stop — Wayaleilei Resort left the biggest impression. From far out to sea you could see its dramatic cliffs rising high above the island. One of our oarsmen had red hair and freckles, but spoke Fijian. I wondered how an Irishman ended up being raised out here. We soon realized he was part of the Fijian family who ran the resort, but with a pigmentation condition. Eric noted very sweetly, “When I first saw him, I thought he was butt ugly, almost monstrous to be honest. And then it dawned on me. I think he has vitiligo. He is Fijian after all and I was judging his facial features off of a European norm. Now I think he’s beautiful, like a crazy leopard spotted fish in a coral reef.”

The beach at Wayaleilei was covered with giant piles of seashells. Gorgeous shells of all colors that you might find in a tiny mesh plastic bag at Pier One Imports for five dollars. Here they were stacked like maple leaves in a New England yard. Some of the shells were still moving — powered by a little hermit crab. I picked through the shells for at least an hour and displayed my favorites on a stone wall. Then it was dinner time.

Most resort dinners were just what my mom would serve us kids: spaghetti, green beans, garlic bread. Maybe fruit salad from a can. We made conversation with an Australian couple from Adelaide as the freckled boy serenades with “You Are My Sunshine.” The Aussie man was very excited that his favorite beer, VB, was available at Wayaleilei. The woman had seen too much of the Southern Hemisphere sun and was quite thin and leathery. She knew a lot about jewelry.

After dinner we headed to our room — situated in the back of the resort in a row of domiciles on a common porch. We were sandwiched between the rooms of elderly Fijian family members, who I assume were no longer of use as resort workers and so sat in rocking chairs all day in front of their respective room door. Our room had no power, no fan, and one window with no screen. We kept the window closed to keep out swarms of mosquitoes. Neither of us slept. At first, we both lay awake in terror for hours hearing a man shouting and groaning like he was trying to break in. Turned out to be a sleepwalking (possibly homocidal) geriatric next door. Later, I woke up several times in a sea of sweat and would take a cold shower and go back to bed soaking.

On waking from a sleepless night, of course we wanted to snorkel. We headed to the dive office after breakfast to ask about the advertised daily snorkel trip and shark feeding. The freckled guy said 10 minutes, so we go to pick over some shells. Ten minutes later we return and he says the trip had just left. I guess they couldn’t see us three yards away down the beach… But, he said, some people are going for a village visit later and the can take us snorkeling in that boat.

We get our masks and fins squared away and the Australian couple comes down ready for their village visit. They are in a large and lovely burre and look fresh and well-rested. The four of us get in the boat and the driver motors us out to open ocean; another island is barely visible in the distance. He says, “Reef starts here. Get out.” We both ask a few follow-up questions about which way to snorkel and would the boat ever return and when, maybe? The Australians promised they would make the boat return and had a fix on our position, so we donned our gear and jumped backwards into the sea.

Another world waited for us just below the surface. A towering coral reef of the vibrant colors rose from the sea floor to just under the water’s surface — like a three-story underwater building covered in life. The water was perfectly clear, showcasing all of Fiji’s marine life: clownfish in anenomes, sargaent majors up in your face, angelfish, schools of neon tetras.

We resurfaced, exhausted, and were in the open water. This is when it set in that we may have made our first big error. Soon enough, though, the boat came around and two guys pulled us forcefully out of the water. I flopped on deck like a fresh tuna as the Aussie couple laughed. (Later we saw a trailer for a movie about two divers who were left at sea and eaten by sharks. Once again dodged a bullet, I thought.)

After Wayaleilei, we snorkeled at many other larger and more poular resorts where the other guests were stunned and wowed. But we both thought the reefs looked grey and dead compared to the great reefs at Wayaleilei.

— Rachel