Fulaga, Lau group, an island lagoon in the remote southeast corner of Fiji. The words "Lau Group", and Fulaga in particular, pull at deep emotional strings in all yachties plying the waters of the south pacific. We've dreamed of sailing here for years.
We've now been here for 3 weeks, and apologize for the lack of blog activity. The truth is, we're so far off the grid that it's difficult to focus on life outside of this isolated world. And likewise, we apologize for the lack of photos. There is no internet here, and this blog update is coming via ham radio, and can pass text only. The pix will come when we reach internet in a couple of weeks.
We arrived in Fulaga on an overcast day, after a nice though a bit squally overnight passage from Savusavu. Although we had been warned about travel within the islands of Fiji without high, bright sun, we had several sets of clear (and agreeing) waypoints entered into our chart plotters. Several boats were already in the lagoon, and, via radio, advised on the currents and confirmed our approach. With that, we decided to give the narrow passage into the lagoon a try. With Cindi on the bow to spot coral, we gingerly entered the pass. Water was 20' depth, then 18, 16…..no worries. All of a sudden it was 12'…8'…CRUNCH!!!!! Happened so very quickly…. Try full reverse, no go. We were stuck, with the tide running out. Not good. Not good at all. We've heard of 5 or 6 boats that are lost to the coral heads of Fiji each year, and this was foremost in our minds as we called out to the anchored boats that we were hard aground. We were determined not to be one of this years casualty list, and quickly rigged a tow line and a masthead halyard to heel Bravo over with another boat to attempt to pull her free. But then, as the wind blew, Bravo pivoted slowly on her keel. Quickly donning a swim mask, Adam jumped over the side and joy of joys, saw the rudder / prop was now hanging over on the deep side of the vertical coral wall!!!! Jumping back aboard, we could now give her full reverse power without worrying about damaging the gear. As a small armada of dinghies began to assemble around us prepared to assist, we finally scraped free on our own power, into the relative comfort of the narrow but 15' deep pass!!! Whew, we made it, shaken but intact, and with that, were escorted to the first safe anchorage at the sandpit of the lagoon. There an underwater recon showed minimal damage on the leading edge of the keel, with some deeper scraping into the trailing edge where we first tried to back out. Some torn fiberglass off of the glass encapsulated lead keel. Nothing structural, and all will be readily repaired when we haul out on our return to New Zealand in November. Bravo is one tough boat, and continues to look after us wonderfully.
So, what is it that makes Fulaga so special? Why do yachts sail over 100 miles, typically upwind into the prevailing trade winds to visit this remote island? Paraphrasing one boat: "If you took the best of Polynesia, Niue, Tonga and Fiji, and put it all in one place, that would be Fulaga." The island lagoon, with its hundreds of tiny islets and white sandy beaches is certainly beautiful. The dense tropical forests ringed by fringing barrier reef provide shelter for many beautiful bird species, and the diving in the clear water on the outside of the reef wall is fantastic. But with all that, it's quite simply her warm, friendly, welcoming people that make Fulaga so special, and so unique. Although yachts have occasionally visited the island over the years, the southern Lau group was essentially closed to visitors until just a couple of years ago. There is no development here, no internet, no TV (except one satellite dish and one set at the school that seems to only be used to watch rugby matches!!!). The people here live as they have for many years, relying on a monthly supply boat for essentials that cannot be grown or caught on the island or in her waters.
The morning after our rather inauspicious entry, it was time for our first foray into the village to present our offering of kava to the chief in a very formal sevusevu ceremony. Both of us dressed appropriately (Cindi in a long skirt, Adam in a black sulu, a man's skirt worn throughout Fiji) and proceeded up the 20 minute trail to the village, joined by Sandie and Brian from s/y Persephone, who had arrived just after us the previous day. As we neared the village, we were greeted by people on the trail with wide smiles, waves, and loud "BULA"'s. A very friendly guy, Tai, called us over to his house as we walked through the village, and offered to escort us to see the chief. Tai worked in Musket Cove, a resort area in western Fiji for 15 years before returning to his village long ago, and speaks excellent English. He is also very yacht savvy, and knows what our concerns and apprehensions are, and made us feel immediately at ease. With Tai at our sides, we entered the chief's house. Tai presented us and our kava (along with a requested donation of $50 fjd per boat) to the chief and his #2 man, and much chanting and discussion in Fijian took place. We hear the words "Bravo", "Adam", and "Cindi" thrown about a few times, but have no idea what is said. Finally, after about 5 minutes, the 87 year old chief receives our kava, and with a warm smile and firm handshake welcomes us to his village. (there are 3 villages on the island, but sevusevu is only required to be offered at this one…..more about this later). He promises that the people will assist and protect us during our stay, however long we wish that to be, and offers that we are free to explore, fish, dive, and make ourselves at home throughout the lagoon.
We are then assigned to a family in the village to serve as our host during our stay on the island. This is an amazing, unique program, based on Fijian traditions, that the Fulagans adopted toward the end of last year. Each visiting yacht is assigned a host family who we will get to know well, spending much time together, as we get intimately acquainted with village life in the days and weeks ahead. Our host is Meri, the local kindergarten teacher, and her husband Jon-e. Meri speaks excellent English, and we spend a fantastic first afternoon with them and their next door neighbors George (the school teacher for older kids, ages 12-14) his wife Mah, and their 2 kids. Lunch before a tour of the village, followed by a kava circle at George and Mah's. Kava is a BIG part of Fijian life, certainly here in Fulaga, and it seems that most of the village partakes nearly daily.
Here we'll end this first Fulaga post, as the radio uploads are very slow. We'll post more in the next few days to describe our life here in the village. The magic of Fulaga is how we are included in the peoples daily lives, including eating together, fishing, weaving, gathering crabs, helping to fix things where we can (spare parts and any technological know how are nearly non existent here) and exploring the island by trail or boat. The past 3 weeks have flown by, as we have gotten to know many of the adults and kids fairly well. We've visited caves housing piles of human bones from the old days when cannibalism was commonly practiced, helped the village nurse with his health screening program, and attended church together on Sundays.
In closing…..a few days ago I was talking to a wise older man Simon, about the apparent calm, happy attitudes of his people. The sea provides fish, octopus, clams and crabs, the land provides crops, and they really don't seem bothered by much. When they run out of things, they simply do without, at least until the next monthly supply ship. I asked him for the Fijian words for "worry" or "stress". At this he just smiled and said….."Atama (Fijian for "Adam")…..there is no such word"…..Fulaga, a special place indeed. Stay tuned!