May 5, 2008

Prime paddling

Writer: Sarah Daniell
For: NZ Sunday Star Times
Date: 5 Sept, 2004

I'm sitting cross-legged in a village meeting house and before me, on a woven mat, is a plate of cake and a jug of lemon tea.

" Kana vaka levu, eat plenty," says Iokimi, an old Fijian guy next to me. "We don't like it when tourists come here and just pick at the food.

"It is not so much an invitation to eat, but an order and I'm not going to argue. We are, after all, in Kadavu (kan-da-vu),which comes from two words: Kana, to eat, and davu, to lie down. Eat and lie down. It could be a philosophy for life.

The genteel afternoon tea party seems oddly juxtaposed with this traditional village scene at Waisomo, in Ono Island in Kadavu, Fiji's southernmost island group. But as we discover over the next five days, it is as much a part of the welcome ritual as drinking kava.

The cakes are cooked, like everything here, over fire. Not for these gastronomes the agony of whether to go for fan or conventional bake. And for five days the food is (with the possible exception of the sea slug cooked in coconut cream) magnificent. In fact, Tamarillo Tropical Expeditions, our hosts, could easily change its name toTamarillo Culinary Adventures.

Anthony Norris, a peripatetic New Zealand adventure guide, discovered Kadavu in 1996 while on a reconnaissance for sea kayaking tours. He set up Tamarillo Tropical Expeditions - the only kayaking business in the area - and was later joined by Marina Mantovani of Italy, and Ratu Joseva, a paramount chief in Kadavu.

Tamarillo has been providing adventures for people of all ages and abilities since 1998. On one trip, the eldest guest was 75 years old while the youngest was 3.

Martinis-by-the-McResort-pool it is not. Kadavu is the real deal. This is largely due to the locals' staunch adherence to traditions and culture. Tamarillo has valiantly risen to the occasion with their sympathetically-designed and well-paced tours and Norris, who explored Fiji's other islands before settling on this quintessential paradise, chose well.

Kadavu is surrounded by the Great Astrolabe Reef was named by explorer Dumont d'Urville who sailed by in 1834 in his boat, the Astrolabe.

The reef, the third largest in the world, protects the white-coral beaches (and kayakers) from the pounding Pacific swells, and its biological diversity makes it a top scuba diving and snorkelling destination. There are whales, reef sharks, sea turtles and magnificent coral.

Kadavu has rainforests, spectacular beaches, mangroves, lagoons, islets, waterfalls, and lovely people. There is one airstrip, transport is by boat, there is no electricity (but there are generators) and - joy of joys -very few telephones.

Despite the best efforts of a wildly gusting south-east wind, our 15-seater plane touches down safely at Vunisea, the "capital" of Kadavu. We then clamber into a boat and motor for nearly two hours to Jona's Paradise on Ono Island, where we will stay for two nights.

Our bure (with ensuite) is beachfront and that night, after feasting and drinking vodka with freshly made lemonade, we fall asleep to the perennial lullaby of the waves.
We are in a state of blissful acclimatisation at Jona's Resort, reading, trekking to the top of the island for a panoramic view of the primordial landscape and the sunset, eating and lying down.

We have our first taste of village life at Waisomo, then on day three we head for the water like baby turtles thrown to the elements, alone in the big blue.

Except we're not alone, of course. There are eight in our group plus four Fijian guides - Petero, Ephrami, Qase (pronounced Gus) and Katherine; one New Zealand guide, Jacqui Pryor; plus Norris and Ratu in the support boat, which carries our luggage, fresh coffee and food so that we may eat and lie down.

My kayaking guide is Petero, which is fortunate for me, less so for him. He steers, I set the pace - or so the theory goes. You don't need the Iron Man gene to be able to kayak successfully, but a basic level of fitness is helpful. We stick close to the shore, gliding between rocks and a spectacular frigate bird soars overhead.

The first leg augurs well. We paddle over glittering water in 20 shades of blue and flying fish skid across the bow of my kayak. It's about 40 minutes to our morning tea stop where we have a snorkel. Petero, ever the gentleman, spears a fish for lunch - a ritual he repeats each day, afterwards cooking the fish over fire on the beach.

We lie around on mats and do the Fijian slap dance (whacking mosquitoes) before beginning the next leg of the trip to the beach owned by Taito, a Fijian with tales of omens and butterflies.

Taito lives in nearby Naqara village but frequently retreats to his bachelor pad beach-cave - surely the most romantic piece of beach-side real-estate in the Pacific.

The day Taito met Norris back in 1998 started out as any other day. He awoke, did his chores and caught a fish for lunch. Suddenly, a swarm of butterflies materialised and swooped in, covering his arms and dancing around him. Butterflies symbolise good fortune, says Taito and it was a sign that he would meet someone special that day. So he set two extra places for lunch. As you do.

Meanwhile, Norris, who was on a kayaking recce with a friend when he rounded the west side of Ono, saw the idyllic beach and Taito waving them in. When they landed on the chalky white sand, Taito said, "I've been expecting you." They've have been friends ever since.

That night we are guests at Naqara, where village protocol is observed reverentially. First there are speeches and a gift of kava root is presented from Tamarillo. There is cake, tea, followed by kava (it is polite to accept two cups) and a mind-boggling spread of local delicacies including stuffed land crab, shrimps, fresh fish,eggplant, rice and salad.

We are all tired, but it's a fitful sleep to the sound of what must be a hundred barking dogs, followed by a pre-dawn chorus of crazed roosters. Throughout the night and into the morning I entertain not very pretty fantasies involving slug-guns, sling shots and neck-wringing.

In the morning, the villagers farewell us from the beach and we head off to confront a bitching head wind. The waves have picked up and we engage in a little involuntary surfing. It's fun and certainly challenging, but just when I think I might bail out and holler for the support boat, our next stop appears up ahead. Timing is everything.

Joe Nalewabau owns a beachfront property and 46 acres of tropical gardens and forest called, appropriately, Somewhere Special. His prescient legacy is more like the Garden of Eden.

Nalewabau is a bespectacled, elegant man, who spends 12 to 16 hours a day toiling in the tropical heat of his sanctuary(so much for eating and lying down) and likes to talk philosophy. He proudly shows me his orchards, vegetable gardens, frangipani trees, avocado trees, coconuts and mangoes.

We wash off the salt under a cold outside shower and have lunch before bidding Nalewabau farewell and starting the day's final run. We must have been as fair a sight as any a vessel under sail: six double kayaks rafted up, with sarongs and a tarpaulin to catch the wind. And better still: no paddling required.

Just 40 minutes later, we make Jona's Paradise before crossing the channel to Albert's Place in the support boat.

The food at Albert's is cooked in the traditional lovo which is similar to a hangi. Just when you think the food can't get any better, it does. There is also a magnificent chicken curry, fresh whole fish, vegetables and rice. We drink bizarre Duty Free concoctions and dance and sing before collapsing under our mosquito nets.

We are grateful for a leisurely kayaking pace the next day, but manage a snorkel. Exhaustion and hang-overs give way to a sense of childish wonderment at the "Nemo" land of coral gardens and coloured fish. Afterwards we have stuffed roti and bhuja on the beach before setting sail for Matava Resort.

Matava should be spelt with an "aah" at the end, because on first seeing this place, with its beachfront bures, exotic gardens and sense of relaxed and unpretentious luxury, you can't help but sigh. There are hot showers, a small library, an outside dining room and more importantly, a bar selling cold Fiji Bitter.

The day we arrived, someone caught a yellow fin tuna and that night dinner is sashimi and a smorgasbord. The food at Matava Resort is legendary, as is the maitre d' - Maggie who is elegant, entertaining and hilarious. Our last two nights here are the ideal finale to a fascinating and challenging week.

We've travelled for a week and never once got in a car; there have been no ringing telephones, no newspapers, no six o'clock news. In the summer months in Kadavu, says Petero, the mango trees drip with fruit. It sounds like the perfect time to return, to eat and lie down.