Apr 27, 2008

Kayaking Kadavu

Writer: Bruce Davidson
For: Sunday Herald Sun (Aust.)
Date: May 21, 2000

It's the blue that gets to you. A blue like no other. A blue you can never replicate in photographs. A striking, luminescent, inviting blue.

A blue of dreams and of freedom. The blue of the tropical sea. And when you're skimming across this bright blue just centimetres from the surface, the effect is magical.

You see, we're in Fiji - and we're in a kayak. On an expedition that combines adventure, relaxation and traditional Fijian cultural experiences.

Believe me, this is no package trip to a resort hotel. This is something else, in every sense of the expression. We have joined a sea kayaking expedition at a little-visited Fijian island group - Kadavu - about an hour in a light plane from the mainland airport at Nadi.

For the next week transportation will be in two-person kayaks, journeying from small beach resorts to villages to dive spots, stopping at remote beaches along the way, all the time mesmerised by that amazing aqua.

The seven-day expeditions were started by a couple of young New Zealanders, calling themselves Tamarillo Tropical Expeditions. With experience leading kayak trips out of Wellington, they went looking for a tropical location for the winter - and discovered the delights of Kadavu.

Our group - 11 hardy souls ranging from a child as young as 3 to a retired teacher aged 65 - started the adventuring after landing at the quaint airstrip near the Kadavu "capital" of Vunisea.

It's probably the capital because it is the only town on Kadavu with roads; elsewhere transport is by boat or foot. And it is by motor boat that we travel next - an hour-and-a-half northwards to a small island called Ono, which sits inside the Great Astrolabe Reef, offering wonderful protection from the ocean to create calm and safe kayaking conditions.

Accommodation for the first two nights is at a resort called Jona's Paradise - and as they say, it was paradise by name, paradise by nature. Jona (yes, he does exist) and his family offer those ubiquitous bures (thatched huts for the uninitiated) on a coconut palm-lined beach and excellent Fijian fare.

The next day - after a spot of magnificent snorkelling off the beach at Jona's - we took to the kayaks for the first time.

Now, kayaks are known in the trade as "marriage testers". You've got to work together in these things: the one at the back steers and the one at the front sets the pace. You've got to be in harmony, riding the waves with balance and poise, developing a rhythm and teamwork. I opted to go with my daughter.

Before long, our group was sculling around the coral and rocky outcrops like old hands, ready to tackle the first real day of paddling from Jona's up the west coast of Ono.

Now, don't get me wrong: it's not totally idyllic in these plastic cocoons. It does take some effort to paddle the two or three hours required each day. And we experienced some windy conditions and choppy seas at times, making the going a little tougher. However, two support boats travel along behind, transporting the luggage and food - and there is always the option of a rest from the kayaks by jumping in the boat. A few of our group did so on one particularly windy day.

But there is nothing like gliding into a tiny tropical cove, gazing through crystalline waters at coral and fish, and then taking a refreshing dip to cool off after a session of paddling. Wonderful!

After such a day, including lunch on a beach with its lone inhabitant, a delightful old chap named Taito, we arrived at the village of Naqara.

Naqara is as close as to a traditional Fijian village that you'll get these days. The community lives a basic life, getting income from fishing and growing kava, the plant that is pounded into a ceremonial drink throughout Fiji, and increasingly sought by export markets for medical use because of its narcotic properties.

We were given a ceremonial welcome at Naqara, kava and all, and then treated to a Fijian feast - the lovo. This is where meat and vegetables are wrapped in leaves and placed in a pit of hot stones to steam for an hour or so. The result is combined with many and various other dishes, from whole baked fish, to beef wrapped in leaves with coconut milk, to all manner of vegetable specialities.
Afterwards, we sat around with the villagers, chatting about their simple life and contrasting an existence with few worldly possessions, no electricity and little communication outside the island.

Naqara has been a real find for Tamarillo. As one of the owners, Tony Norris, explained, they simply asked for "food and lodging" for the night. But due to the welcoming nature of the Fijians, the village now turns on a night of entertainment - performances in dance and song, and, of course, kava until you can't take it any more!

"We never know what they are going to do for us next," Tony said. "The village has decided off its own bat to do all this - they are incredibly giving and generous. We just asked for a bed for the night and a meal, and we pay for that. All this other stuff has developed because they appreciate the chance to share their culture with our groups. It has probably been the most rewarding thing about running the expeditions."

Back in the kayaks, we paddled out through the surf and around the top of the island. This was the windy day - and the hardest paddling on the trip. But once around the point, we had the wind at our backs and literally surfed down the east coast.

After a breather at Jona's, the gear, including the kayaks, were loaded into the boats for the trip across the channel to the main island again and on to a small resort called Albert's Place.

Now, if you knew you were about to meet a bloke named Bruce O'Connor, you'd probably form a typical Anglo-Saxon picture in your mind. But Bruce and his dad Albert are big, rugby-playing Fijians. They sport their nomenclature courtesy of a great-great-grandfather - a Scottish whaler who settled on the island and married a local. Photos of the generations on the walls at Albert's make a fascinating study.

Albert and family, well and truly Fijian these days, cater mainly for the scuba junkies who make pilgrimages to Kadavu for some of the world's best diving.

After a night at Albert's, we were back on the water, headed for Matava. This spot was positively upmarket after bures on the beaches and the occasional cold shower. Matava caters for those with the diving bug, and it was here we had the opportunity to delve into the deep blue ourselves.

It hardly seemed possible, but the next day's kayaking was through water even more colourful than before. We explored a series of lagoons among coral and rocky outcrops, the water ranging from rich sea green to a "powder-coated" aqua.

Lunch was at another local village, before abandoning the kayaks for a couple of hours and following a jungle path over a mountain range. Tropical rainforest, bird-life, views to die for.

We arrived at another small village, this one sited on a picturesque inlet and set off with the backdrop of a fabulous waterfall. Time for a freshwater swim before catching a motor boat back to Matava for our final night on Kadavu.

A final snorkel the next morning, and we were off through those lagoons again- this time in motor boats - for the trip to Vunisea and our light plane flight back to Nadi.

We stayed the last night in the luxury of a Nadi hotel, but somehow, it wasn't the same.

Where was the Fijian feast? The palm-frond sleeping mats? The lapping of the waves on the beach? The sense of freedom skimming across the water? The exhilaration of a day where you feel you've actually had an experience, not a holiday?

But there is one thing you can't escape, the imprint in your mind of that magnificent blue.

Bruce Davidson flew to Fiji courtesy of Air Pacific, but he paid for the kayaking expedition himself.