We ended up in Fiji almost by accident. When we were arranging our flights with our travel agent at STA Maeve had joked “well, if we’re going all the way to New Zealand, we may as well have a break in Fiji”. He had laughed, we all had. But then when he looked at the flights it turned out that the only way to get from Japan to New Zealand actually was with a layover in Fiji. Initially we were due to be there for 8 hours, but we both felt that if we were landing on the island we may as well make the most of being there. So we extended our layover to two weeks, so that we could have an actual restful holiday in the midst of our travels.
We knew when we left the UK that we would be arriving in Fiji at the start of typhoon season but even so we were a little downhearted when we checked the weather forecast before leaving Japan. Torrential rain and winds were due everyday! Luckily we’d already had a bit of a beach holiday in Vietnam, so we didn’t lament the weather too much, just planned to have lots of downtime and catch up on blogging.
We were amazed and delighted to land at Nadi, not to clouds and rain, but to mostly blue skies and sunshine. The bright sun picked out the innumerable shades of green from the exceptionally verdant landscape, which was almost too much to take in after the golds and reds of Japan.
Due to the vast overspending that we had done in Japan we unfortunately had to cancel our all-inclusive week in a beach hut at a village homestay on one of Fiji’s remote Islands. However, we were quite content to spend our two weeks relaxing in the sun and catching up after the frenzied non-stop travelling we’d done in Japan.
We took the bus to a homestay along the southern coast of the main island of Viti Levu. Our accommodation was just a couple of minutes walk from a huge inlet, which at high tide provided a vast warm area of shallow water. The wide bay was protected by a coral reef about 300m out to sea, where the waves broke, leaving the inlet full of calm clear water, perfect for swimming and snorkeling.
The owner of our homestay kindly provided us with fresh chillies from his garden and some basic veg, so we were delighted to be able to do some proper cooking for the first time in ages. He even gave Jay a few curry lessons, as although he was raised in the West, he was born on Fiji in an Indian-Fijian family. A large proportion of Fiji’s population of just over 900,000 are of Indian descent: under British rule, thousands of Indian slaves were brought to Fiji to work in sugarcane plantations in the late 1800s. They were called ‘indentured servants’, but of course they had no real choices: they were told that after 5 years they would be able to return to India, but had to save up to pay their fares by working a further 5 years. At the end of their 10 years on Fiji it had become home for many and so they opted to stay. Now Fiji is roughly half native Fijian and around 40% Indian-Fijian (this has declined from approximately 50/50 ten years ago for various reasons, including racism), and the national languages include Fijian, Hindi and English. English is spoken by almost everyone on the main islands, and the owner of our homestay said this was because Indians didn’t want to learn Fijian and Fijians didn’t want to learn Hindi, so English was the way the two populations communicated with each other.
While we did relatively little of the main tourist activities during our visit to Fiji, we did take a trip to the Sigatoka Sand Dunes along with a couple of other folks who were staying at the same homestay. The dunes are on the UNESCO World Heritage Centre’s ‘tentative’ list, and were Fiji’s first National Park. They are absolutely stunning. In the scouring sand-blasted winds it was reminiscent of being in the North Indian desert of Rajasthan, except that there was a sparkling blue sea just beyond.
The dunes are enormous: between 20-60m high, having been formed slowly over the past 2000 years. The Fijian national rugby team practice there, running up and down the dunes carrying each other, and we were lucky to spot a little bit of training going on for a local team at the base of one of the massive dunes.
On another day out, we took a couple of local buses to visit the Garden of the Sleeping Giant, named after a famous range of hills that the botanic garden sits at the foot of. The gardens and surrounding jungle are gorgeous, with beautiful diverse plant life and many interesting creatures. There are lots of benches and even hammocks thoughtfully dotted about the place so you can enjoy your surroundings whilst having a rest from the blazing heat. We spotted a sign for a lookout and of course had to go and investigate. The path took us up a very short climb to the top of a ridge for the stunning view out over the sea. Despite only walking uphill for about 15 minutes we were both exhausted and incredibly sweaty. This was actually quite vindicating as we had been dithering all week about whether to attempt a hike up one of the bigger hills, but it’s clear that that would be completely impossible for us in Fiji’s climate.
After the first homestay we treated ourselves to two nights at a beachfront resort, where we were able to spend a couple of days mooching around snorkeling and taking advantage of the free breakfast including Babakau buns (which are incredible and taste like donuts, and yes we pocketed a couple for later!).
It was lovely to relax by the pool, looking out over the waves crashing on the reef, and to sleep in a bure where we could hear the sea and the chittering of myna birds.
Next stop was another homestay, back near the large town of Nadi. We left the resort, aiming to catch local buses (as by then we knew that we had massively overpaid for the A/C tourist bus on our first day). As soon as we stepped out onto the main road that circles the island, a car pulled up. The guy said he was going to Nadi, did we want a lift all the way there? Absolutely. We eventually established that he did want paying for the gesture, but charged us the ‘locals rate’, which worked out less than the bus fare and was far quicker.
Our new friend talked a lot about the climate in the region, and how Fijians were worried about climate change. Mostly he felt people were concerned for the smaller islands which are expected to vanish beneath rising sea levels. He blamed industry and pollution for this, and was quite surprised when we talked about carbon emissions from air travel, something which he was completely unaware of. Fiji is in a horrible bind here, since the economy is so dependent on tourism: it contributes about 20% of GDP and employs 5% of the population. As our driver noted, it would be hard to go back to farming now when tourism had provided work for two generations and lots of those traditional skills had vanished. He personally had worked in hotels in various roles for 20 years, and now provided private tours to the sites around the main island. But for tourists to actually get to Fiji, they have to come by plane, so any reduction in air travel will definitely affect local incomes.
Our friend felt that the climate had already changed significantly in the past 5-10 years, and told us that the warm and sunny weather we were enjoying was a new development in that time. Before, the islands would be being lashed by cyclones in November, and the rainy season would be well underway. He told us about a conversation he’d had with his grandfather about the cyclones. He had started to think that it was nice having better weather, but his grandfather told him that for the forests to thrive, they needed the annual cyclones to clean them of detritus, and to bring salt from the ocean to the hills for the soil. Without that he said the forests would die, and indeed our friend had noticed substantial changes in the flora of the interior. When cyclones do occur now they are much more destructive and lead to more devastation and deaths than in the past. The idea that the tourism which his entire income depended on could be part of the issue fueling this decline was a shock to him.
Our next homestay was inland, and we had two nights there to just enjoy the peace and quiet. The family were also Indian-Fijians, and each morning and evening we were treated to the most incredibly tasty and spicy curries and chutneys we’ve had since we were in India. The food was very similar to what we’d had in southern India, making good use of coconuts and tamarind, but with a few slight differences in spices and vegetables, based on what was locally available. There were a lot of different chillies growing in the area and we thoroughly enjoyed their addition to our meals, after the less spicy (although flavoursome) food of Japan.
From interacting with our homestay hosts, taxi drivers, hotel staff and other folks we met, we found that racism between Indians and Fijians is commonplace. Both groups told us to be careful of the other; usually saying that they were lazy, that they’d pretend to be friendly but were only interested in money, or something similar. Yet when questioned about relations between the groups, everyone said it was mostly fine, bar a minority on each side. But our experience in walking around town and in shops was that the two populations rarely seem to interact. They are segregated on religious lines and in schools, with Christianity being the dominant religion (60%) and Christian schools largely catering to Fijians, compared with Indian-Fijians who were largely Hindu (30% of total population) or Muslim (6%) and have their own religious schools. We saw no mixed groups of children playing together and no interracial couples. The influence of Christianity on Fiji was widespread, and the impact of Christian schooling was never more apparent than when a Fijian staff member at the resort asked us if we thought dinosaurs were real.
Many Fijian nationals live in villages and towns in single-storey houses constructed of mud and corrugated iron. Although those we stayed with in homestays were slowly building concrete structures with air conditioning for their guests as the money came in, the owners were still living in basic conditions. This is a public health concern and the health impact of this type of housing has been widely condemned by the UN. In contrast, the majority of tourists visiting the islands are wealthy even by UK standards. The main resort areas had rooms going for between £120-300 per night, a figure that must be ludicrous for the Fijian staff working there who earn around £1.00-£2.50 per hour. The minimum wage in hotels is usually double what it is elsewhere so tourism still provides some of the most attractive employment on the main island.
Food in Fiji was some of the most expensive we’ve come across on our travels, rivalling even Japan for the cost of even basic supermarket supplies. The cheaper options were the ubiquitous MSG- and sugar-filled ready noodles, but a tin of beans cost around £2 and fresh vegetables were very expensive in the supermarkets. Many Fijians grow vegetables in their gardens rather than pay the supermarket prices, and daily markets were full of people selling their excess veg. As a consequence of the high food costs, eating out was prohibitively expensive for us, let alone for someone on a standard Fijian wage.
Perhaps because of the relative poverty, crime is a common issue on Fiji, although fortunately we weren’t affected. On multiple occasions we were told by locals to be more careful, especially when we had drunkenly gone for a paddle in the sea one night, and when we’d taken a morning stroll away from the tourist area on the beach. Robberies and muggings are commonplace, along with petty theft and pick-pocketing. Women are at particular risk of sexual assault, much higher risk than in the UK, and tourists who stray from the resorts at night have been a target. The beaches especially seem to be an area of high risk and we were lucky not to have gotten into any difficulties. However despite the warnings and the FCO advice, we never felt particularly threatened.
One of the real joys for us was Fiji’s environment and nature. We were often entertained by flocks of squabbling shouty myna birds (an import from India) and bulbuls, as well as the tiny and stunningly beautiful parrot-finch, with its shimmering green body and bright red cap. Lizards abounded, especially the leopard gecko which we’ve seen in every country we’ve visited. Across the beaches and inland too, crabs were everywhere in their burrows, occasionally throwing out clods of earth or a shower of sand.
At night it seemed that you couldn’t walk anywhere without having to do a kind of dance to avoid the multitude of toads and frogs that seemed to materialise from nowhere.
In the sea we found abundant wildlife, from the lethal stone fish to brittle starfish. We also found a ‘Crown of Thorns’ starfish which genuinely looks like some kind of demonic dinnerplate-sized embodiment of evil.
Fruit grows everywhere in Fiji: mangoes, bananas, coconuts. Jay got a lesson on how to get into a coconut after someone took pity on our prolonged attempts to break through the tough husk. Something we’re shocked to find we didn’t know is that pineapples don’t grow on trees! Nope. They grow in the centre of a giant succulent on the ground!
As Fiji is a tropical country there were also a lot of insects and pests. Ants were everywhere and you just had to put up with a few in your bed, and make sure you left no crumbs. Cockroaches made an appearance too, and there was evidence of rodents almost everywhere (one ran across the beam over our head one night in the beachfront bure). The worst pests were mosquitos though. We had repellent but the bastards still found ways to bite us, and we were frequently unable to stop scratching, especially when one of them got the bottoms of our feet, or an elbow! No matter what we did we couldn’t get away from them, and we really tried given that Fiji has both dengue and zika viruses.
During our time in Fiji we did relatively little compared to the other countries we’ve visited. In total we walked and hiked 59km across the 14 days we were there, which worked out at just over 4km a day, the lowest amount of walking we’ve done anywhere, even back at home!
But best of all, Fiji treated us to some of the most spectacular sunrises and sunsets of our time away so far. We never tired of watching the sun dip below the horizon in an epic display of pinks and reds, and then rise again the next morning equally as splendid in its atmospheric finery. We didn’t get far enough away from light pollution to really enjoy the night sky, but on one night we saw a stunning reflection of light from Jupiter streaking on the surface of the black sea (sadly our camera is not up to capturing such sights!) We were so lucky to have just been able to be there, to sit in a hammock and drink a beer, and watch it all unfold with the sound of the waves around us. Utter. Bliss.