On a wing and a prayer in Fiji

By Carole Jacobs

I hate small planes, ‘copters – any mode of travel where they strap you into a motorized tin can and up you go, with less separating you from the elements than the insulation in a ski jacket. Should an errant comet ever come hurling towards earth, you can have my seat on SpaceShipTwo – honest. I’m staying down here.

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Just last year, I was homeward bound, flying high above  California’s Mojave Desert on the last leg of journey during which I’d scaled 17,000-foot peaks without mishap, when the winds suddenly picked up, tossing the plane like a wind-up toy and then suddenly flipping it, leaving me hanging upside down in my seat for the most terrifying three seconds of my life.

“Ride ‘em, cowboy!” roared my three fellow passengers–all combat pilots returning home from Afghanistan. But I was not amused and vowed there and then to never again step foot in a miniscule aircraft. Alas, given the fact that flying in small planes is an occupational hazard in my line of work, the promise lasted two days, or until the Fijian government called to invite me to island-hop around their far-flung archipelago.

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The only way to get there is by tiny plane

‘So you’re saying it’s impossible, basically, to reach any of these islands by boat or ferry?” I asked the government official.

“Not impossible, Miss Jacobs,” he said, “but meanwhile may I email you a map so we can review this together?”

Ok, I got the picture: Not exactly impossible, but with 333 islands and 550 islets scattered across a 7,100-square-mile expanse of sea, highly impractical and extremely time-consuming, unless I wanted to spend the rest of my life on a boat or just visit the main island of Vitu Levi, home to both of Fiji’s international airports, 70 percent of its 600,000 inhabitants and for all intents and purpose, the only Fijian island you can reach without boarding a pint-size small plane.

“So how small are we talking about here?” I wondered. “The remainder of Fiji’s airports are much too small to accommodate jets, he said. The only way in was via small commercial 12-seaters orteensy-weensy4-6 seaters where I’d fly in with the mail, cassava and chickens.

I told him I wanted to visit resorts/places run by local Fijians rather than huge international conglomerates and that as a former Peace Corps volunteer who had lived in her share of thatched- roof huts, I wanted to visit native villages where I could talk to the chiefs, mingle with the kids, check out the schools and clinics and maybe even sit down with a family or two for a home-cooked meal of sweet potatoes, taro, fish curry or stew.

Before I had a chance to drum up more jitters, we’d sketched out a game plan wherein I’d get my feet wet with a visit to one of the country’ most authentically Fijian beach resort, nestled on Viti Levu’s “Adventure Coast and --  Eureka!--  reachable by bus! From there, I’d have to suck it up and board tiny planes bound for several distant isles floating in the vast northeastern and northwestern regions of Fiji’s archipelago.

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Spoiled rotten at Nanuku Auberge Resort Fiji

So what do you want to hear about first -- my thatched-roof bure with its ridiculously romantic poster bed with mosquito needing (and my darling hubby so far away --sigh), the private plunge pool and hot tub out front, the sugar-white beach a steps west with sapphire seas rippling to shore, or my personal “buddy” Pela, a member of the local village and assigned to me to do, well, pretty much anything my little heart. She had me at hello and before I could protest, had run me a fragrant coconut bubble bath with two frangipani blossoms floating in billowing suds, was ironing one of my saris (something none of my clothes had experienced for years) and wondered if she could fetch me tea and cookies to savor as I soaked.

That night, following a Torch Lighting Ceremony on the beach, a traditional Kava Ceremony during which the men of the village crushed kava kava roots into a large bowl, added water and passed around a murky beverage rumored to be mildly hypnotic for the guests to take. I’m a small fry down here at five feet and 82 pounds dripping wet, so suffice it to say that the multi-course bacchanalia which followed (tuna sushi, tempura eggplant, pork belly, snapper, coconut cream brulee) was mostly lost on me, although (blame it on the kava kava?)  I slept like the dead – and through two alarms.

The next morning, Pela awakened me with a plunge pot of just-brewed Fijian coffee and homemade carrot, coconut and pineapple muffins still warm from the oven, insisted on ironing my hiking pants and t-shirt as I showered and then escorted me over to the resort’s beachfront Kanavata Restaurant, where the local village choir serenaded me with Sunday morning hymns as I attempted, without much success, to make a dent in my leaning-tower-of Pisa stack of pancakes layered with lady fingers, bananas, vanilla bean pod ice cream and drizzled with Fijian honey.

As I was finishing breakfast, a member of the choir approached me to ask if I wanted to hike to the top of Beqa, a jungly isle steeped in local lore located just off shore, kayak the Deuba River through a tunnel of hushed mangrove forests or slip-slide down a muddy trail to a trio of lost waterfalls plunging from unseen heights in a nearby rainforest. We did it all, a lesson in every landscape and an hour left over for me to take a paddle boarding lesson. The emerald seas were asstill as glass and while I never got up, I did manage to work up a killer appetite for dinner.

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The private air limo to Yasawa Island Resort & Spa, Fiji

From the resort, it took nearly all day to reach Yasawa Island, Nanuku’s brooding rainforests a distant memory as we sailed high above a sun-bleachedFiji where scrubby mountain isles and grassy hillsides dotted with blooms looked more like Catalina Island than Fiji. And while the flight in the resort’s 4-seater plane had been initially terrifying -- the gentle Fijian pilot had insisted I sit up front with him so we could hold hands and talk the whole way – and despite my gasp as he began our descent, circling just for fun an volcanic crag that looked close enough to touch, by the time we landed on a vertical runway strung between two hillsides, I was beginning to believe I could get over all this and finally join the ranks of fearless flyers.

Even the resort itself reminded me of California, with its airy villas, palm-shaded cabanas, flower-ringed spaand sophisticated California-meets-Fijian style cuisine, as did the day trip to Sawa-I-Lau-Caves, where we swamacross the underground caves and caverns featured in Blue Lagoon, the 1980s movie starring Brooke Shields.

The indigenous Fijians comprise more than half of Fiji’s total population and own 80 percent of the land, none of which can ever be bought or sold. If a developer wants to build a resort on their land, he must first get permission from the village and then lease the land.

As at Nanuku, the entire resort is run by local villagers and one morning, we got permission from the chief to visit their village.  A complex of thatched roofed huts faced the sea, colorful laundry flapped and snapped in the brisk sea breeze and chickens and roosters pecked and squawked in the hard scrabble dirt. As a teacher in impoverished regions of the Caribbean, I had lived in many such villages during the ‘70s and it was all so achingly familiar. As one Fijian family after another invited me into their homes with their tidy swept dirt floors, kerosene lamps and neatly stacked canned goods, I had to fight back tears against the memories.

Before leaving, we dropped by the house of the village chief to pay our respects and thank him for allowing us to visit. He waved us in and he proved to be a well-educated and well-traveled man with one food in traditional Fiji and the other in the 21st century.

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So far away

One morning, the resort boated me to a remote island and dropped me off for the day. This was no Castaway experience: they had thoughtfully provided me with everything I’d need to sustain myself for the next six hours: a sumptuous picnic lunch, a beach umbrella and blanket, sunscreen, snorkeling gear and explicit instructions about when and where they pick me up, although the island was small enough to walk around in a hour so there wasn’t a remote chance I’d get lost or be stranded. That said, it was the first time during the jam-packed trip that I had had a chance to catch my breath and reflect on everything I had seen and experienced. As I gazed out overendless miles of turquoise sea, it suddenly dawned on me that I wasfurther away from home than I had ever been in my life, or 12, 182 miles from my log cabin abode on the Pacific Crest Trail in California’s wild andruggedEastern Sierra.

The mail run to Qamea Resort & Spa Fiji

Given its vast expanses, unusual geography and lack of inter-island flights, “You can’t there from here” is often the norm rather than the exception when it comes to traveling in Fiji. And while the island of Qamea is only 180 miles from Yasawa as the crow flies, the only way I could get there was to backtrack all the way to Vitu Levi and then catch another small plane to Taveuni, where a motorboat would be waiting to whisk me 10 miles across the sea to the island.

The 254-mile journey took all day and as we arrived, the sunset blazed pink, purple and purple before surrendering to a canopy of stars. The villagers had assembled on the beach to welcome me in song and as I stepped out the boat in the sea, one raced up to me to drape a beautiful homemade lei around my neck. My cozy beachfront bure came with a “Do Not Disturb” red coconut, but who were they kidding when just a few steps away were more ways to bond with the Great Outdoors than you could cram into a month-long visit: wind surfing, catamaran sailing, snorkeling, shark diving, and sea kayaking. A tiny spa tucked in the rainforest offered traditional Fijian treatments and every night at sunset, the conch horn sounded to beckon us to dinner followed by a traditional Fijian ceremony.

 One morning following a breakfast of just-picked tropical fruits, home-baked bread and omelets made from eggs still warm from the chickens, we boated back to Tavenui for a hike up into Bouma National Heritage Park. We followed a trail that coiled up past a thundering plunger, continued on up a vertical ladder trail and ended at a second cascade where we stood under the pounding spray and admired the rainbow mist.

On the flight back to Vitu Levi, another amusement park-sized aircraft where the mail, coconuts and sacks of rice and potatoes occupied the rear seats, I met a fellow traveler who was a more fearful flyer than I’d ever been.  She was white before the plane left the ground and proceeded to turn green as the plane lifted into the heavens, spending the next two hours crying, hiccupping and succumbing to yet another bout of air sickness. I felt her pain and was so concerned with her that I barely registered the plane ride as it soared over miles of turquoise sea, swooped over ranges of upholstered green mountains and made its final descent into the crowded shanty town city Of Nadi. By the time plane landed, I knew I was cured.

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