Finding an old fishing buddy in Fiji
July 13, 2014
I first traveled to Fiji back in 2004, when life in Chicago had grown stale and I needed a healthy dose of adventure. It has since colored my dreams and given me an internal sanctuary in which to recharge my batteries. I simply need to close my eyes and recall the Trade Winds blowing down the beach, as nature's canvas unfolds and pastel hues appear by the will of the Fijian shark-god, Dakuwaqa.
That's the magic of travel. Once you give yourself to a place, it becomes part of you — a permanent respite, in which you are transported thousands of miles from the doldrums of the work week to a tropical island paradise.
Fiji has long been a place I've felt an affinity for, dating back to my earliest memories. I'm not sure when I first heard of the South Pacific country, but I often would say that when I got married, it would be "barefoot on a beach in Fiji."
And while I made my vows in a beautiful meadow near Aspen with shoes on, I knew that our honeymoon would surely be spent barefoot, relaxing in the remote Yasawa Islands.
The most common departure point in the U.S. for Fiji is Los Angeles. The flight — 5,525 miles — takes a little more than 11 hours. Most flights leave out late at night, so people tend to sleep away half of the journey. Time travel is involved, thanks to the international date line, as departing travelers will land two days after take off. This is a good thing to remember when you book your lodging.
Upon arrival in Nadi, which is on the western side of the main island of Viti Levu, we exchanged our dollars for vibrant Fijian currency. I've found that you get the best exchange rate by simply pulling cash out of an ATM and an ANZ bank ATM is in the airport terminal.
We booked the next leg of our journey on the "Yellow Boat," formally known as the Yasawa Flyer. The Flyer is a massive, high-speed catamaran that departs daily from Denarau Harbor, which is about 25 minutes from Nadi. The Flyer offers backpackers the perfect mode of transportation to explore the far-off Yasawas. Travelers can choose to relax in an air-conditioned lounge or join the party on the open-air deck while the ship cruises from one destination to the next. The Bula Pass allows adventurers to travel between multiple islands for a pre-determined amount of days.
On the day of our voyage, the winds were excessively strong so not many people were socializing on the upper deck. The Flyer chugged along, stopping at the first few islands — Bounty, Treasure, and Beachcomber, which are all in the Mamanuca Island chain, swayed gently past on the port side while travelers departed or boarded, in search of further adventure.
After about 5 hours and several ice cold Fiji Bitters, we reached our destination, Nanuya Lailai.
A small fishing boat pulled up to the Flyer, which made its stop within the lagoon, and the affable crew from Nanuya Island Resort helped us aboard.
After introductions, I inquired about Seaspray, the backpacker I stayed at on the island in 2004. Sadly, I learned that it's no longer in business and the small bures (huts) I loved were destroyed by Cyclone Evan in December of 2012.
I asked if my old friend Dan Vuti was still on the island and was thrilled to find out that he was and one of the guys on the boat, Vilise, was Dan's son.
Dan and I went fishing several times in 2004 and I'd been hoping we could get some time on the water again.
My decision to lug along my saltwater fishing gear was vindicated.
BACK ON THE BEACH
The beach on the western side of the island is simply flawless and the salt air and lush scenery assail your senses. Golden sand is tattooed with a plethora of multi-colored shells, bits of coral and sand dollars the size of your palm. The beach is framed between the crystal-clear waters of the lagoon and the emerald green foliage of the inner island. Nanuya Lailai is a place of amazing growth, with dense forests of mango and palm trees interspersed with banana, papaya and guava plants. Small gardens of cassava also dot the landscape.
It was a surreal experience returning to the island after so many years. We were promptly handed welcome drinks and shown to our bure. Traditional bures are very simple, thatch structures with little amenities beyond the insect-crunching geckos and a window or two. But when staying at a Fijian resort, the term is more indicative of a bungalow, complete with insect netting (we didn't need it), solar-heated showers, flush toilet and a mini-fridge. However, when in the Yasawas, a resort is still pretty rustic when compared to the lavish complexes of the Caribbean. Remember, there are no roads on these islands and the only vehicle on Nanuya Lailai is used to drive fuel up a dirt path to the generator, which is far from the resort itself.
Our bags were waiting for us at the bure and we quickly changed into our snorkeling gear and headed for the beach.
The waters were cool and refreshing. I immediately began following a small school of yellow-striped goatfish as they shuffled through the sand in pursuit of crab for an afternoon snack. We swam deeper our to the edge of the reef, which on its far side drops down to about 35 feet deep. Here the ocean opened it chest of treasures as fish of every shape and color gently swam about in search of another morsel of food. Moorish idols, clownfish, wrasses, grouper, bluebarred parrotfish, teardrop and threadfin butterflyfish, squirrelfish, triggerfish and a multitude of angelfish resided at the reef's edge.
After an hour or so on the water, fatigue set in from our long journey and we went back to our bure and relaxed with a cocktail while the Trade Winds whispered lightly in our ears, singing us into deep Fijian slumber.
TAKING A STROLL
The next morning, we decided to take a stroll around the island. Nanuya Lailai is surrounded by beach at low tide, making it one of the few places in the Yasawas that offers the chance to circumnavigate the entire island.
We walked across wet sand, ancient reef and volcanic rock, as dozens of small crabs fled in our wake. Random islanders approached offering a friendly handshake and exuberant "bula!"
Nanuya Lailai is as vibrant as it is inviting.
Nearing the opposite side of the island, memories came rushing back like the returning of the tide. This was the beach I had stayed on so many years ago. In fact, I had never truly left, as I often close my eyes and revisit its splendor in daydream.
The village looked somehow greener than I remembered as if life had grown stronger here, despite the ravages of the recent cyclone.
I looked out near a small fishing boat and saw a familiar face approaching. I was amazed, Dan hadn't aged a day. And though he didn't recognize me, he offered a firm handshake and introduced himself.
I told him that I had stayed at Seaspray a decade earlier, and we had gone out fishing together several times.
We were immediately invited into his home, and sat in the same place where I had eaten dinner and drank kava late into the night a decade ago.
We talked for awhile and he filled me in on the details of Seaspray's demise.
"Maybe I'll get her going again someday," he said, adding that it was very hard work keeping the business going.
We made plans to go fishing in a few days and he walked us up to the trail leading across the island and back to the resort.
Jolene and I wandered down the path toward our bure and marveled at the dynamic landscape, which was teeming with life. Emerald and ruby Fiji parrotfinches crisscrossed our path as rainbow-hued butterflies fluttered by erratically in the gusting Trade Winds. The trees radiated a gilded glow as the sun began it's descent toward the distant horizon.
That night we ate fresh walu (a type of mackerel) and drank icy cocktails under the stars. The remoteness of the Yasawa Islands — and the almost total lack of light pollution — makes it a perfect place to stargaze. After some time in one of the many hammocks, we went back to the bure. We had booked a deep-sea fishing voyage early the next morning and wanted to be well-rested for the endeavor.
FUN ON AND IN THE WATER
Fiji is a fisherman's paradise. Its shallows are home to the bluefin and giant trevally, both of which are extremely powerful and will test the skill of the most-seasoned angler. Trevally are also fantastic when cooked up for shore lunch. Lurking a bit farther from shore are the more well-known sportfish including sailfish, marlin, tuna, wahoo, mahi mahi and mackerel.
The winds had died down as we set out in search of pelagics. The resort's bartender and fishing guide Jiorgie picked us up around 6:30 a.m. and we were leaving the lagoon as the sun was emerging from over the top of the island. The waters were relatively calm and we rocked lazily in the passing swells. About 20 minutes after casting our lines out my drag began to scream. I set the hook and cranked as fast as possible. There are a lot of sharks around Fiji and I didn't want our dinner to become minced chum. About 10 minutes later, a nice kingfish came into view and Jiorgie quickly gaffed it and brought it aboard. The lines were recast and we trolled around the island some more, eventually hooking into another king and doubling our catch. We then shifted gears and headed into the lagoon and gave the trevally a shot. We trolled out past the world-famous Turtle Island Resort, which only allows 14 couples at any given time.
Why 14? Because Turtle Island has 14 beaches and couples are guaranteed to have their own beach to themselves.
The fish were no longer cooperating and the winds started to pick up so we decided to call it a day. I gave one fish to Jiorgie for his dinner and the other came back to the resort and was cooked up for our feast later that night. We enjoyed cocktails with Kevin and Elizabeth, a very nice New Zealand couple who have been coming to the island for years, and Lance, the resort's owner, and they filled us in on the shark dive that is offered by the local dive shop Reef Safari, which is located at Coralview Island Resort on Tavewa Island.
The dive, which takes place twice per week, offers a chance to get up, close, and personal with the fearsome bull shark as well as grey reef, lemon, and black tip sharks. Divers are set behind a rope, while several divemasters secure the area, ensuring that the sharks don't circle around behind the roped-off spectators. Then the feeding begins … huge shadows appear from out of the deep blue as the toothy predators roll their eyes back, chomping blissfully on the day's fishy fare. These aren't small sharks either, with a couple of the bulls measuring in at around 13 feet long.
Fiji has fantastic underwater visibility, and is world famous for its soft coral, plentiful aquatic life and chance encounters with manta rays and whale sharks.
FISHING WITH AN OLD FRIEND
I woke early the next morning, grabbed my fishing gear, and set out across the island.
This morning's sunrise was as bright as the smiles of the island's inhabitants. Each Fijian day offers the hope of discovery — a new South Pacific flower in bloom, another emerald-green or sapphire-scaled lizard crossing your path, or the chance to be serenaded by a bird that was hatched from the same dream that gave life to island's golden sunsets.
I loped across the lush expanse and found Dan sitting with his family.
After introductions were made, we headed to the beach and dug up some ghost crabs for bait. We then headed out about a mile from shore and dropped anchor. I began to cast a Rapala, while Dan fished with his handline. We were quiet, focused on the task at hand, but I wasn't seeing any fish chasing my flashy lure. I sat down to take a sip of water and heard a splash from behind me. Peering into the bucket, I found that Dan had already landed four fish, quickly and without boast. I looked at him incredulously, "You've already caught four!?" I said. He just smiled and told me I should switch to bait.
Knowing that he was right, I tied on a bait rig, tossed it out, and immediately snagged the reef. This cycle continued for the next hour or so: Dan catches fish, I snag reef. I was frustrated, but happy reliving the good times I spent on the water in 2004. The ocean was calm, sun bright, and winds light. My focus again shifted to how beautiful the island looked when framed with the clear, blue ocean — a priceless emerald surrounded by a living azure border.
By now the bait had run out and we decided to head back in. "You should troll," Dan suggested. I re-tied and cast my Rapala back behind the boat. About 100 yards from shore my rod bent over and line began to peel. I stood up and tried to reel, but felt that I must have the reef again. We backed up, but the line was still tugging — it was a fish. I cranked the reel and soon saw a beautiful grouper swim clear of the reef below. I pulled the fish into the boat and marveled at its beauty — black and grey with bluish spots that seemed to glow with an electric intensity.
We pulled into shore with a nice haul of fish for dinner and Dan invited me in for a traditional Fijian lunch of steamed crab with coconut cream and cassava. The food was delicious and we ate with wide smiles and talked about the day. I even attempted to eat another boro, an extremely hot pepper, which I first tried in 2004.
Dan's brother Vilise, whom the younger Vilise is named after, stopped in for a bite, as did Bau, Dan's niece who worked at Seaspray when I was here last.
With lunch over, and my face on fire from the boro, I said my goodbyes and headed back over the island to find Jolene. The smile on my face couldn't be wiped away as I reflected on the graciousness of my Fijian friends.
The good people of Nanuya Lailai genuinely want to know your name, hear about where you're from and listen to your tale. They are some of the purest souls I've had the pleasure to meet in all of my travels.
KAVA, ISLAND MUSIC AND LEAVING
Walking back to the resort on my last night at Nanuya Lailai, I spotted Dan talking to some friends and showed him a photo of the trevally I had just caught off the point at the far end of the beach. I was stalking fish in the shallows when and a local, Rem (who was Jiorgie's cousin), came up and offered to take me out in his boat to the other side of the reef. I hooked the trevally — the first one of my life — on the first cast.
Dan and I chatted for a few hours and, eventually, some local musicians showed up to play a few tunes and kick back a few cold ones. The sun faded below the horizon and we drank ice-cold Fiji Bitter and sang songs. Later, the tanoa, which is a carved wooden bowl that kava is prepared in, was brought out and an informal ceremony began. Kava (Piper methysticum) is a powdered root that when mixed with water, creates a drink that acts as a sedative. If enough is drank the effect is fantastic — you feel more relaxed than any time in your life. The mixing and drinking of kava, also known as yaqona, is a tradition celebrated throughout the South Pacific.
At one point, while listening to a rather sorrowful-sounding song, a tear or two was shed knowing I'd be leaving in the morning. I've felt so welcome in Fiji, as if in another life I lived in the Yasawas. I smiled thinking that sometimes you have to travel 6,000 miles to find home.
As 3 a.m. passed by, I walked back to my bure while toads the size of beer cans crashed about through the underbrush in search of crunchy, insect meals. I fell into the deepest (kava-induced) sleep I've had in years.
The next morning, the crew at Nanuya Island Resort brought out their instruments and songbird-like voices to sing farewell to us. Their melodious song resonated as we floated away from Nanuya Lailai and back to a yellow boat bound for the island of Naukacuva and further adventure.
— Collin Szewczyk is outdoors editor for the Post Independent. He can still hear the singing of his Fijian friends. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.