Thursday 2 July 2009

Tui Tai Diaries 15th -22nd June 2009

Joined today by Rick & Jenny from the UK, Kevin & Betsy from the USA, and repeat visitors Steve & Tracy from Australia. Cloudy skies didn't dampen the spirits of the new arrivals and, as we steamed up through Natewa Bay, there was an air of excitement for the day's activities.

After refreshments and a bite to eat, we arrived outside a small river community on Vanua Levu's coast. Reaching the beach was tricky at low tide, and deckhand Saku did an expert job finding deeper channels in the reef. Stepping ashore some of us lost a sandal in the thick squelchy mud! But locals came running over to the rescue, digging our shoes out of the mud. The villagers were so welcoming and Kevin enjoyed some good banter with the elders.

A relaxing kayak usptream led by Liga was a great way to ease everyone into the physical activities on offer throughout the week.

The late afternoon offered good diving conditions and a perfect way for Steve, Rick and Jenny to re-familiarise themselves with their equipment. Meanwhile Tracy, Betsy and Kevin went snorkeling.
Our Tui Tai chef Mickey, an expert in Fijian cuisine, blew away the guests with an exceptional evening meal that was well deserved after the day's exertions.

Rabi island is unique in Fiji with it's distinctive Micronesian culture. Starting the day with mountain biking along its gently-sloping coastline we would shout “Maori” to passers by. Different to “Bula” this greeting, along with other parts of their original language, still remain in use.

We squeezed in a snorkel session before lunch and a few were diving down holding their breath for a closer look.

The divemasters on Tui Tai are constantly pioneering new dive sites in this part of Fiji, and we went in at 'Saku's Coral Patch' – dived just once before. Visibility was much better than in Natewa Bay, so it also provided great snorkeling conditions.
With possible dolphin sightings in Dolphin Bay, Betsy and company kept their eyes glued on the water throughout lunch.

We were in for a real treat before dinner as we headed to shore to witness a traditional Micronesian dance. A downpour of rain only added to an electric atmospheric as guests and villagers gathered undercover to watch the young performers backed by a roaring choir of children.
Guests on Tui Tai are welcome to bring gifts for when visiting these remote island villages and on this occasion the items went down a storm – particularly the soccer ball! In thanks the guests were invited up to dance, and Rick was leading the way busting all kinds of shapes and even twirling the island beauties. Keen photographers Kevin and Betsy entertained everyone with their Polaroid camera and the instant photo prints created a frenzy of excitement.

Whilst a traditional ground oven 'lovo' dinner was being cooked on the beach, Tui Tai guests were given a pre-dinner presentation on marine biology and fish identification by onboard zoologist Tim.

Dorsal fins break the surface, probably about six of them, coming straight at the dinghy...
Dive leader Isoa dispels any fear of an attack by a gang of fierce sharks, identifying the animals as pilot whales! They pass right beneath the boat and we stick our heads under for a closer look. They move with effortless power and grace and swim off into the distance. Pretty exciting for 7am!

Continuing in the same vein we motored on to our dive spot – the Great White Wall. Its name doesn't come from the shark, with that species not living in the warm waters of Fiji, but instead it comes from spectacular white soft corals that are unique to this spot. They should not be mistaken for bleached corals elsewhere that have expelled their zooxanthellae and lost their colour due to global-warming-related sea temperature rise.
In the gin clear water descending down through stunning swim-throughs to the wall drop-off was truly memorable, and we encountered inquisitive white tip reef sharks, stalking barracuda and even a friendly hawksbill turtle! Coming up from the dive, Rick and Jenny exclaimed “How can this day get any better?!!” Bear in mind it's not even 8am yet!

Our good luck continued on our way back to the Tui Tai through the Somosomo Strait as we came across the same pilot whales again!! All our heads in the water watching the spectacle, we managed to get a few photos.

With tales of whales told through breakfast, Betsy and Tracy (who had been doing yoga class earlier on) went out in the dinghy for a look. The others went cycling on Taveuni in the now scorching sunshine. Posing for photos either side of the '180-degree meridian', we then went down to the botanical gardens and watched a young boy trying to spear fish in the shallows. Returning north we stopped at the magnificent Wairiki Catholic Mission that towers over the playing fields with views out onto the Somosomo Strait.

During lunch we steamed west to the island of Kioa, where its super sheltered waters were irresistible for the snorkelers. We came across numerous jellyfish, all of which were known to be non-stinging before we got in. Jellyfish will always be jellyfish for some people, but ever-intrepid Betsy bravely went for a real hands-on approach.

Back on the Tui Tai and time to relax before dinner while Liga made a presentation on Fijian history and culture.

Kioa is a stunning place, and tonight it would come alive in the village as we went ashore for a cultural visit. We were first spoken to the by Chief and the elders who explained much of their history. The people here came down from Vaitupu island in Tuvalu, and brought with them their Polynesian culture.
In the colourful village hall we were treated to something special – grass skirts, fast rhythmic dancing, and powerful penetrating music and singing. Tracy, Steve, Kevin, Betsy, Rick and Jenny were all up and dancing by the end in the mass-sweat-inducing humidity. Good times.
We later had the chance to purchase some of the Kioan woven crafts that are so famous in Fiji.

Far east of Rabi island, and north east of Taveuni, lies Cobia (pronounced thom-bee-a). Located in the Ringgold Islands, it is a subsiding volcano such that much of the crater is underwater but is sometimes almost cut off from the sea by the reef at low tide. It is an untouched spectacular setting, only visited by Tui Tai Expeditions, and will be the base for today's activities!

A morning dive at Kokoda Point included sharks and a turtle, whilst those on the boat were really getting to grips with Liga's yoga routine.

Hiking to the summit of Cobia we came across varied flora and fauna – cyclads, banyan trees, termites, and goats that had been introduced to the island in the past. Liga pointed out some pottery thought to be from the Lapita people who first colonised the Pacific.
Views from the top looking down into the crater were breathtaking for all, and before long we were ourselves kayaking through the crater.

With Tracy and Betsy relaxing with spa treatment on Tui Tai, the rest of us went for a dive at 'Wall Street'. Kevin, who isn't certified but had dived before elsewhere, undertook a 'Discover Scuba' session which allowed him to join us on our shallow dive. Talk about a first dive!! - as soon as we put our masks in the water we could see white tip reef sharks circling below.

Relaxation, massage, and afternoon tea were the order while we steamed northern Taveuni in late afternoon. Liga shared more of his wealth of knowledge on Fiji history, and the guests were whisked to shore for a lantern-lit dinner on the beach. Honeymooners Rick and Jenny enjoyed a romantic private dinner.

A morning dive at Qamea provided a new experience for the PADI Open Water certified divers, with strong currents dictating the dive plan. Isoa, a true expert in these waters, planned the drift dive perfectly – and we witnessed barracuda and colourful soft corals as we glided effortlessly over the reef with a real sensation of flying.

A challenging bike ride down eastern Taveuni proved well worth the effort upon reaching the waterfalls at Bouma. We explored the various levels of the falls and some chose to have a massage.

Before dinner we visited Wiwi village to experience indigenous Fijian Melanesian culture through song, dance and a kava ceremony. The kava, or yaqona (pronounced yan-go-na), comes from a pepper plant that is dried in the sun and then ground into powder. The ceremony we witnessed was very traditional, with Liga seeking the Chief's blessing and the yaqona being worked into the bowl using original techniques and natural materials.

One cupped clap “Bula”, drink, three claps. The formality of the welcome is followed by a shift to a party mood with dance known as 'meke'.
This visit completed our cultural exploration in this Micronesian-Polynesian-Melanesian triangle in northeastern Fiji.

With some rough seas in the morning Tui Tai stayed in a protected spot in the north, whilst divers motored around to a spot called 'Three sisters'. Banded sea snake and huge humphead parrotfish were particular highlights.

Due to the weather sea kayaking was replaced by a scenic drive through rainforest-piercing dirt road. We arrived at Lavena for a coastal walk with a local guide, who showed us all kinds of tricks along the way such as how to open a coconut! The scenery is lush and the hike takes us along both beach and jungle path. This part of Fiji is remote and has a genuine isolated feel despite the tourist path. The Wainibau Falls are a real paradise, and Rick and Kevin dare the natural water slide at the smaller falls. Our guide threw himself off the highest falls after clambering up a don't-try-this-at-home rock-face.

In the fiberglass boat, driven by our eccentric guide, we made our way off the beach only to be hit by a freak wave. Everyone managed to keep their belongings dry but with the boat slowly filling with water we had to turn back to shore that was just a matter of metres away. Nothing like a bit of adventure!

Dinner and a presentation from Tim was a great way to end a busy day on the 'Garden island'.

Today at Albert Cove (Rabi Island) was a day to take things slower. Yoga and diving offered as normal in the morning.

A visit to the small beach village community gave us all insights to a different way of life – from the thatched 'bure' accommodations to the women preparing a massive conch for lunch.
Kayaking from the beach along the bay we passed stingray and colourful corals.

The afternoon provided changeable weather – sunny one minute, raining the next. Rick and Jenny braved jumping from the top deck. We then spotted dorsal fins off the port side – but were unsure whether we'd seen dolphins or pilot whales.

With Kevin, Betsy, Rick, Jenny, Steve and Tracy all leaving tomorrow it proved to be an emotional evening. Thanks were said to the Captain and crew, and a photo slideshow session allowed some reminiscing of the awesome week gone by.

Some tears were shed this morning as the crew sang their farewell song to the guests, and Kevin & Betsy almost ended up staying on board!

Best wishes Rick & Jenny with your onward travels in Kadavu and Tonga.

Steve & Tracy, thanks again, it's been a pleasure having you guys on board again, and all the best with your relocation within Australia.

Betsy & Kevin, enjoy your few days in western Fiji, and best of luck with your business and the photography.

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