[100905; 0235 UTC, Naigani Island, Fiji; 17°34.25'S / 178°40.58'E]
We last wrote while in the Lau Group at the Bay of Islands. This place, like few others, defines for us what cruising is about. That is, having the opportunity to visit, and live in, if only for a short time, places we could never possibly go except aboard our own small yacht. There is no other easy way to get to here.
The Bay of Islands is somewhat difficult to describe. It is a deeply-indented, turquoise-colored bay about 2 square miles in area, defined by tall (hundreds-of-feet) jagged limestone cliffs of rock. The rock is impossible to climb since wind and waves have carved the bases concave, turning the smaller sea stacks into mushroom shapes. Within the bay's boundaries are dozens of islands and islets, immense boulders really, which form scores of tiny coves filled with coral bommies, perfect for exploration by dinghy or kayak. Clinging to the vertical, cave-studded limestone are trees that are reminiscent of bonsai, most varieties of which are alien to our northern temperate-climate experiences. Our days were rich; we listened to the "kee-kee-kee" call of a pair of falcons that apparently had a nest in a cave directly above Carina's anchorage. A local species of pigeon barked like a dog and the sound echoed eerily amongst the cliffs. After nightfall, we were enveloped in the cool, inky blackness of wintertime in the southern hemisphere. Without moonlight, an unbelievable number of stars appeared above and the Milky Way coursed its way across the sky. The silence was so complete that it seemed like white noise or perhaps it was just the strum of the stars wheeling through the universe. We slept deeply and woke early, rejuvenated.
We spent a week in our little isolated hole with only brief encounters with cruisers from other yachts, who were equally well hidden in their private coves. We put miles and miles on the dinghy, snapping photos and fishing (alas, without success.) We loved every minute. Finally, it was time to leave and we tore ourselves away and sailed off downwind, sedately for a change, back to Savusavu. Here, a shipment of new anchor chain, and a return to reality, awaited us. Since that time, we have once again set sail, this time towards western Fiji and a boatyard visit, making day trips under sail between island anchorages.
Leaving Savusavu, and after a spirited upwind sail of 30 miles into modest trade winds, our first stop was at Dere Bay, Koro Island. The mountains of Koro are draped with lush jungle vegetation and the island is noted for its rambunctious and colorful parrots and for its abundance of freehold land that is slowly being developed by eco-conscious individuals looking for a tropical ocean paradise in friendly Fiji. We expected to stay only one night but the place grew on us. Meaning to leave each subsequent day, we never even launched our dinghy so this is a place we hope to return to later in the season for more exploration.
From Koro we expected a downwind sail to Makogai but again enjoyed an exhilarating to-weather passage under reefed main, staysail and reefed genoa. Approaching Makogai, we spotting first the masts of the luxurious 198 foot cutter-ketch, Adele, popping up above the island's hills. As we rounded the northern tip of the island and headed south towards Makogai's western pass, winds became noserlies and, with an incoming tide to boot, we furled sail and bashed the last mile or two under power up to the Makogai channel.
On approach, looking forward through binoculars, we could see what appeared to be a red marker. This confused us briefly, as a buoy that had historically marked the southern boundary of the channel should have been green, not red. The red blot on the horizon slowly got larger and became the sails of a replica Polynesian sailing catamaran called the Ito Ni Yalo (meaning Heart of the Spirit in Fijian), one of seven built by a German billionaire that are currently plying the Pacific. As we turned and lined up for the pass, the Ito Ni Yalo surprised us by cutting inside a breaking reef and slipped into Makogai's pass just ahead of us. Since we were under auxiliary power, we slowed and did a quick 180 degree turn, ceding the right of way to the graceful sailing vessel.
Makogai's entrance is a narrow break in an otherwise impenetrable reef that is 2 miles from the island. Much of the reef is invisible until you are almost upon it. The entrance buoy and range markers which are noted on our charts are no longer in evidence. And, in what is beginning to be a trend for us, clouds slowly engulfed the sun making coral spotting difficult just as we approached the pass. Luckily, we were able to identify Vatu Vula (white rock), a reef always with breaking waves that is a prominent feature nearby to the pass. We had been following waypoints developed by another cruiser - a path that almost, though not quite followed the entrance line of the chart - until it became clear we were getting WAY too close to the northern reef. We made a quick correction into deeper, clear water, moving even farther south of the charted entrance line. This experience once again reminds us that charts (many drawn by contemporaries of Captain Bligh) as well as GPS waypoints are always suspect; keeping a sharp lookout is imperative.
Makogai is predominantly a marine preserve, though the southern part of the lagoon is open to subsistence fishing by villagers. Historically, thousands of victims of leprosy resided here in segregated leper colonies - one for ethnic Fijians and one for Indo-Fijians - separated by a few kilometers of jungle road. Today, much of the infrastructure, including the cement buildings and graded roads, have reverted to jungle-laden ruins. Seven families now live on the island and are employed by Fiji Fisheries in the cultivation and re-introduction of two species of giant clams. Even the cemetery is being encroached by the jungle, though the devout Christian Fijians have cut a neat path leading to it. The forlorn cemetery is sited deep in the jungle on a hillside; tripping vines and fallen tree trunks carpet the landscape. Many of the grave stones tilt at crazy angles and some of the cement crypts have caved in.
After a brief visit ashore, we learned that the village DID indeed have a chief and we were expected to present sevusevu. A few hours later, we returned with friends Rebecca and Patrick from Brick House for the brief ceremony. We sat on the floor of a great room in the chief's house. In the same room were all the village's children - on school holiday - who were watching a shoot-em-up, sci-fi movie, having taken advantage of a brief period when electricity was being generated to run seawater pumps to clam tanks. Competing with the noise, our group presented gifts of kava along with cookies and laundry soap to Wise, the chief's representative.
As it turns out, the chief, Carmeli, was high above us at an overlook attending to visiting scientists setting up for the first day of a month-long cetacean study. We met many of these scientists over the days, including Amanda (from Australia) and Sabrina (from Italy), plus representatives of Fiji Fisheries, and of the Wildlife Conservation Society. The scientists were quickly rewarded with sightings of (primarily) humpbacks and their calves, breaching, breeding, in mating rituals or just simply feeding within the lagoon. A chase boat was dispatched from the village with photography equipment aboard each time a whale was inside the lagoon, hoping to photograph dorsal fins or tails for identification of individuals for future study. Unfortunately, dive tour operators also showed up occasionally and, anxious to put their clients in the water with the giant mammals, began chasing them.
We spent another lovely week here at Makogai, hiking the length of the island, snorkeling and puttering around the lagoon in our dinghy. We saw, at close range, a giant clam "in the wild" on a bommie right in the anchorage. This animal was roughly four feet long and perhaps five feet in diameter. (If only we had an underwater camera!) We also watched as Fiji Fisheries tagged and released a green turtle, who was not at all amused by the proceedings. Green turtles nest on Makodroga, the small island within the lagoon, which is also home to a protected species of iguana that lives in its rare dry tropical jungle habitat. There are no hiking trails on Makodroga and Saras, the chief Fijian Fisheries scientist on site, didn't encourage us to go looking for the elusive iguanas. The weather was exceptionally calm for a couple of the days of our visit, allowing us and others to venture far out into the lagoon. There we viewed the amazing underwater landscape through the bright clear water with visibility that seemed to be 100' or so.
After a trough passed, which had brought a brief period of cool cloudy weather, we again set sail, this time to Naigani Island where we tucked against its north side all the while protected by reefs stretching north and south both east and west of us. Here we'll wait out a period of accelerated trade winds before crossing to Fiji's largest island, Viti Levu.
The predicted winds found us yesterday and are expected to continue for at least two more days. Overnight we had continuous cycles of winds gusting from single digits to 30+ knots every few minutes, sending Carina backwards and heeling her until the snubber lines on the anchor chain caught and she pointed up. "Our" island (there is a village and small resort on the opposite coast) protects us, but it is apparent we are experiencing wrap-around winds and perhaps a bit of catabatic wind that slides down the island's deep ravine. We have no appreciable wave action and have good holding in sand, so we're content to hunker down to chores while enjoying the surfeit of electrical power generated by our solar and wind power systems. The next leg of our journey passes through shallow waters dotted with reefs, charted and uncharted, and we'd prefer flat water and sunny weather to help us spot and avoid obstructions.
Your friends of the yacht Carina,
Philip, Leslie and fat cat, Jake