Rule No. 1 in the quest for happiness could be: Make the Best Use of Your Vacation Time. Canoe & Kayak Managing Editor Robin Stanton did just that last fall, when she and her husband, Douglas King, took the 11-hour flight from Los Angeles to Fiji. Once there, they paddled, snorkled, and hiked the paths blazed by participants in the 2002 Eco-Challenge Fiji, while experiencing the remarkable warmth of the Fijian people.
C&K: So, when are you moving to Fiji?
RS: I’ve spent a fair amount of time fantasizing about what it would take to live in Fiji–the people are so warm and friendly and the climate is perfect. But I realize I need to be where my friends and family are.
C&K: What was the most memorable paddling there?
RS:Waking before sunrise on Kadavu and taking one of the sit-on-tops out from the beach in front of our thatched bure–gliding along the edge of the reef and peering down into the water to see all the coral and fish, slowly warming as the sun rose above the hill behind our hut.
What really struck me is how much more paddling there is to do in Fiji–we did one day on the Navua River, but there is a two-day trip with an overnight in a village that I’d really like to go do, and there’s another river that they run whitewater trips on.
We never got to paddle a bilibili–the handmade reed rafts that the Fijians use.
There’s also a whole tradition of outrigger canoeing I would love to explore. And more sea kayaking trips along the northern coast of Viti Levu, with longer village stays. I have to go back!
C&K: Are you sure it wasn’t just the Kava? I mean, you refer to it as a mild euphoriant in the May issue of Canoe & Kayak.
RS: The whole Kava experience is pretty interesting. I did not enjoy the taste, but I definitely enjoyed the experience of sitting around and sharing stories and songs that went with it.
C&K: Fijans are not as well off as Americans, but in some ways do they enjoy a richer life than we do?
RS: In the villages that we visited, Malake, Navala, Navilawa, Abaca, I got the definite sense of communal living, and the feeling that if you were a member of this village you would never lack for a place to sleep or food to eat. We got some sense of the rich community life, but I’m sure there is much greater depth to it than we were able to touch on in our short stay.
C&K: What were the children like there?
RS: The children were so friendly, and curious, but always polite. In Navala, a village where some 800 people still live in thatched huts, three or four little girls walked with us and told us stories about their school and their village, and then spontaneously sang a little song, laughed, and ran off. On Koro Island, we were lounging on the beach in the afternoon and some kids came by playing with a ball. Some of them peeled off from the group and sat near us, just watching us. One of the other women and I started talking with them, and they inched closer, and closer, and closer, until I had one little girl in my lap and the others cuddling around. On Malake Island, I loved watching the children playing on the hillside, making sleds and skis from whatever they could find, and then sliding down the slick grassy slopes. I was wishing I had a 7- or 8-year-old of my own to take on this trip–I think the Malake children would sweep up any visiting child and take them into their games.
C&K: The people there must be very hospitable. What was it like for your group to spend the night at the Malake Village chief’s home?
RS: It was pretty cool–this was just our second day in Fiji and we really had no idea what to expect. The chief there has three houses, and we had this one to ourselves. It was a very simple house, but more elaborate than many in the village. It had one big living room, a small dining room, and two small bedrooms. Not much furniture, but it did have a dining table, which is very unusual. Mostly, they serve meals on the floor. All the cooking is done outside.
C&K: What kind of paddling skills should one have to do this trip?
RS: For this trip you don’t need much skill–we were with guides the whole time. The ocean paddling we did, from Rakiraki to Malake Island, could have been challenging with bigger wind and waves than we faced, but we were in big tandem kayaks, which enabled us to pair off more-skilled paddlers with less-skilled paddlers, and there was a support boat available as well. For the whitewater trip on the Navua River, you had the option of going in a raft with a guide or paddling your own inflatable. The guides know that river very well and can point out the best routes. The stretch we did had been advertised as Class II-III, but we had really low water–it might be more challenging at higher levels. There’s also another stretch of that river that is supposed to be harder.
We also did some flatwater paddling on a couple of rivers on the island of Vanua Levu–the Salt River, which is a day trip from the Koro Sun Resort, and another day trip off of the Tui Tai adventure cruise. These were just basic scenic paddles. The Salt River took us up into a lake, where our guide told us sometimes the sharks would come to rest, but we didn’t see any sharks. I was disappointed.
If you were to do a self-guided sea kayaking trip there, of course you’d have to be able to deal with navigation, wind, current, and all the other hazards of open-ocean boating.
C&K: How was the hiking and snorkeling?
RS: Awesome! The Batilamu Trek (www.batilamutrek.com) was very rewarding. Once we got up on top and could look out over all of Viti Levu. The elevation gain was hard for me, but I really liked the rope sections, and I loved our guides. They told great stories and were very encouraging, and carried all my stuff! I’ll go anywhere with a Fiji guide.
Snorkeling–I had never done that before and I loved it! One thing which I didn’t write about in the magazine was my visit to a pearl farm at Savusavu on the island of Vanua Levu. They grow unusual black pearls there, and I got to go snorkeling among the oyster ropes. It was very different than snorkeling around the coral, which was also incredible. At the oyster farm, I felt like I was suspended in a blue infinity, with long lines of rope heading out and disappearing into the blueness with strings of oysters hanging down from them. It’s sort of surreal. And I saw a school of barracuda, like flashing silver soldiers in formation.
C&K: Are you set for the 2004 Eco-Challenge?
RS: We decided that our traveling group was the “Downwind, Downhill, Downriver Eco-Crawling Team.” It’s funny to hear the Fijians talk about the Eco-Challenge race–they think that the racers are all nuts.
Robin and Doug wrote about and photographed their time in paddler’s paradise for the May 2004 issue of Canoe & Kayak, which is on newsstands now. Or, you can order a copy by calling (800) MY-CANOE, ext. 114.