It certainly wasn’t the ideal day for our friends Dave (aka ‘Skipper’) & Lanie to arrive in Fiji.
The ‘tropical depression’ (TD) 200 miles off the coast of Fiji had intensified & some meteorological sites were even calling it a ‘cyclonic depression’ (CD).
All we knew, was that we had left the relative safety of our anchorage at Naiqueque Bay in order to fight our way across the Somosomo Straits to the township of Somosomo on Taveuni Island, in order to pick up our friends flying in from Australia the following day.
There, we passed a roly night with strong gusts & heavy rain & woke to a miserable day, with rain squalls & seas flattened by gusts exceeding 35 knots at times, blasting spray and rain horizontally across the surface of the water. The mouth of the nearby Somosomo river spewed out a muddy brown sludge into the sea and the only beach where we could land the dinghy had waves breaking onto the rocky shoreline a surfer wouldn’t ignore.
Frank dressed for practicality, in swimmers and rashy vest to drop me on shore whilst he stayed with the yacht & I managed to clamber out of the dinghy with just wet pants and my dignity intact.
After picking Dave & Lanie up at the airport, clambering back into the dinghy a couple of hours later with one heavy suitcase full of dive gear, another full of 3 cases of McGuigans red wine & duty free Rum & Gin, plus hand luggage, was slightly more challenging. Dave & Lanie took off their pants & shoes to avoid a drenching and we waited whilst Frank timed his approach onto the beach. A couple of large sharks cruising past in the shallows didn’t help the situation, but gave us the motivation to avoid standing in the water too long, throw the luggage in & jump onto the dinghy quick smart!
Back on the yacht, the gear was stashed below so that we could raise the anchor immediately and move away from this exposed shoreline. We followed our track back across the Somosomo Straits and with the wind pushing us along from the north east on our aft quarter, it only took a couple of hours to motor the 10 miles back to the tiny inlet of Naiqueque Bay. It was just about dark by the time we turned into the bay and we had the fright of our life when Frank clipped the coral reef that jutted out from the shoreline, misjudging the course on the GPS. He forgot that he had altered the route direction to ‘north up’ and not ‘course up’, meaning that he turned the wheel the opposite way to follow our previous route. Thankfully, the crunching of the coral sounded far worse than the damage as a result. Frank reversed us off quickly and we escaped with just some deep gouges in the keel’s fiberglass and some very shot nerves.
The same 3 yachts- ‘Snufkin’, a 32 ft steel gaff rigged yacht from Brisbane, ‘Taranui’ from NZ & an Italian yacht ‘Ghanesh’ were still all sheltering in the bay, so we carefully maneuvered between them in near darkness to anchor in just 3.8 meters of water with 40 meters of chain to hold us fast in the strong winds. It was still gusting down the channel, but at least we were out of the swell and waves.
Finally, we could relax & enjoy a welcome drink with our friends.
The next few days we were unable to do much as the winds increased even more and both day & night, we experienced dreadful gusts that swung the yacht violently till the anchor chain took up the slack and jerked us with the g-force of a fairground twister ride. We had to move a couple of times when we dragged anchor, once in the middle of the night when we risked running aground on the sandbanks.
Both Dave & Lanie had arrived with colds, so they were content to spend this time relaxing and catching up with our news, and yes, unfortunately passing on their colds to me!!.
We socialized a little with the other yachts and introduced Dave & Lanie to our new friends Marina & Eddie on shore at Loboki.
By the time the front had passed, the wind had died down & the sun had started to peek through the clouds again, we were all more than ready for some activity in the form of diving on nearby Rainbow Reef. We moved to Sau Bay to anchor near the resort where we had met the owner Nigel Douglas, a couple of months previously and enjoyed some diving. Over the next few days, we were taken to various sites around Viani Bay in their dive boat and experienced the White Wall & Rainbow’s End (Frank & I had already done them but were happy to re visit these outstanding dives), The Fish Factory & Cabbage Patch where the soft coral resembled a huge field of giant cabbages.
Whilst we were resting between dives near the White Wall, our dive master and driver, Tiko & Carl, became alarmed when a series of particularly strong surges rocked the dive boat and sent waves of surf crashing over nearby reefs. They informed us that the previous evening Carl (who had been out fishing in a longboat) had felt the impact of a 7.3 earthquake that had hit Port Olry in Vanuatu and this could be the resulting tsunami effect. They released the dive boat from the mooring buoy and motored into deep waters whilst the surges gradually calmed down.
Mmnnn- a near cyclone and a possible tsunami- what next?
In the evenings after diving, we enjoyed sun downers and meals on board SE2 or Nigel’s generous hospitality at the resort with his guests, a lovely young couple from Austria, Anne & Michael.
The snorkeling along the foreshores in Sau Bay was very good and Lanie & I spent a number of hours over the few days we were anchored here, exploring the coral & marine life.
We had been restricted by the weather conditions when Dave & Lanie first arrived, but were keen to show them some different areas, so once we had enjoyed several days of diving, we sailed up the coastline of nearby Kioa Island & across to the tiny volcanic island of Matagi, to the east of Taveuni Island, where we stayed 2 nights anchored in the tranquil setting & beautiful azure waters of Horseshoe Bay, enjoying some fantastic snorkeling in pristine clear water just off the headland.
Our planned itinerary took us 40 miles east to the tiny island of Wailagilala Atoll, the only true atoll in Fiji. We had to tack a couple of times to sail east in the 20 knot head winds & to make the narrow entrance through the reef into the large lagoon. The island is only 3 meters above sea level with coconut trees & dense vegetation & several bure’s around the shoreline that are serviced by a caretaker. The atoll was surrounded by a stunning sandy beach & amazing blue water and being so remote, I was pretty excited to see if we would discover shells like I had found at Chesterfield Reef.
We tried landing the dinghy next morning in several locations along the beach, but due to the large prevailing swell and and incredibly steep slope of the beach we disappointingly found it too dangerous.
With strong wind and waves surging over the reef fringing the atoll, we only had protection from the swell at low tide so the rocky anchorage meant a restless night’s sleep. Despite the stunning location, it didn’t need much persuasion to leave next morning.
It was 25 miles from the atoll to the northern most island of the Lau Group- Vanua Balavu which is where we sailed the next day. (or ‘Wata Palaver’ as renamed by Skipper due to the hassle to get to this place!)
En route, islands appeared, steep craggy shadows scattered across the horizon. Our maps showed many were just reefs, some were small islets & islands, although most were inaccessible due to breaking reefs that fringed the entire land mass. Interestingly enough, of those we sailed close to, there seemed to be signs of habitation with native huts or smoke rising from the trees, so they were obviously still accessible by flat bottomed native boats.
As we approached Vanua Balavu, to pass safely through the reef, we had to line up two white monolith leads on land and follow our chart & markers closely through the shallows & reefs before entering the fjord-like lagoon of Nabavatu Harbour. The lagoon is surrounded by steep lime stone cliffs up to 400 ft high and has a 800 acre copra plantation on the clifftop.
We reconnoitered the area in the dinghy & found out that we could tie up to a buoy mooring in the bay which we were most grateful to use once Frank tried to lift the anchor to move across. He discovered that one of the wires to the anchor winch had worn through due to constant rubbing by the anchor chain. ‘Fixit Frank’ lived up to his reputation once again, although it entailed squeezing into the tiny anchor compartment in order to clean up the wires in the anchor winch motor & twist them together using lots of insulation tape as a temporary fix.
We spent our first night here, and the following day we moved to a bay just near the entrance leads, where we snorkeled in beautiful blue water surrounded by tiny rocky islands eroded around their bases to resemble mushrooms.
We had anticipated that the prevailing south easterly winds would push us all the way back to Taveuni, but the forecast predicted the winds would drop to virtually nothing over the next couple of days, so we ended up having to motor sail the 50 miles back to Matagi in balmy conditions & brilliant sunshine.
We spent a couple of relaxing days anchored back at Horseshoe Bay in beautiful weather & the calmest conditions we had enjoyed in a long time. The waters settled & became so clear, we delighted in snorkeling for hours along the foreshores at the northern entrance, where the coral and marine life was excellent and a resident reef shark kept a wary eye on us as we explored his territory.
We caught up with Nigel again (from Sau Bay Resort), who had motored across in his boat to stay with his family on the other side of the island at their stunning Matagi Resort, surrounded by tropical gardens & sandy beaches fringed with coral reefs.
We were sad to leave this paradise behind, but we needed to take Dave & Lanie back to Taveuni to catch their flight, so after 2 nights at anchor, we sailed 10 miles to a sandy bay just below the restaurant “Tramonto’, perched on the clifftop & not far from the airport. We topped off their stay with a pleasant lunch on the restaurant verandah with stunning views over the bay and across to Kioa & Vanua Levu in the distance. We went to the airport with our friends to see them off in the small inter island plane to Nadi where they would connect to their flight back to Brisbane.
During Dave & Lanie’s stay, we always put out the trolling line, and were successful on a number of occasions, but we never actually got to enjoy fish for dinner once!
Our first hit slipped the lure just as Frank was bringing the mahi mahi onto the yacht deck.
The second hit came from a totally unexpected direction when Frank noticed the fishing line take off vertically into the air. He saw that it was attached to the beak of an albatross or booby bird who had dived into the water and grabbed the lure. We had never heard of this happening before & were so devastated that we went into action stations to save the poor bird. Frank & Lanie reeled the line in as fast as they could, hoping it would not drown as it was dragged through the water whilst I slowed the yacht & grabbed gloves & towels to help hold the bird once on board. Thankfully the huge bird was so subdued with shock (& half drowned!), that Frank was able to remove the lure easily before it launched itself back into the water where its’ mate who had been flustering around protectively, landed alongside. We watched and could see the bird move around in the water, but realized it would need to rest up before it could summon the strength to take flight.
This episode really shook us all and we were amazed later that day to see two large sea birds (we wondered if they were the same couple) hover behind the yacht, looking for all intent, as if they were about to dive on the lure. We all screamed and shouted and Frank grabbed the fog horn to scare them off.
The third near catch was just as we were arriving at Vanua Balavu- we caught a beautiful specimen of a yellow tailed rainbow runner (according to book) on our troll line. This time, just as Frank was hauling it to the side of the yacht, the swage on the trace line broke and the fish escaped with the entire lure.
The last catch was just as we were approaching Matagi Island on our sail from Vanua Balavu. I heard the ruckass on deck & came up from below in time to see Frank with a large mahi mahi on the gaff, so I dashed back down to grab my camera. By the time I reached the side of the yacht Frank had an empty hook. My jaw dropped & I looked at him questioningly. It appeared that Frank had released the fish out of respect for our visitors on board who have strong moral principles about capturing this species of fish whom they say mate for life. I will have to research this theory before I pass judgement.
Life goes on- I went below & pulled some chops out of the freezer for dinner that night, for our last meal on board, instead of the fresh fish I had been looking forward to!
Despite the unwelcome weather at the start, we had really enjoyed Dave & Lanie’s visit on board Stars End 2 & their two weeks stay had sped past.
We had appreciated some peaceful anchorages in stunning blue waters (that we have come to associate with Fiji), after experiencing a number roly nights in more exposed locations, and we had several long sails to more remote islands that none of us had visited before. We had some great dives, exhausted ourselves with hours of snorkeling and certainly didn’t lack for entertainment, whether relaxing on board SE2 with sun downers & hearty meals or socializing with friends & yachties.
However, once Frank & I had returned to Stars End 2 after saying goodbye to Dave & Lanie, we needed to tackle the big decision of where next?
In the 6 months since we left Brisbane, we have contemplated many options about where to spend the cyclone season that is now upon us, and have heard many cruisers opinions and thoughts on the matter- our options included- hunker down in a safe place here in Fiji so we could fly home for Christmas and then return for another season in the Pacific? Sail north to the Marshall Islands? Head to New Zealand like many of the cruising fraternity or sail back to Australia?
Both Frank & I agree we love this lifestyle and wish to continue cruising indefinitely & travel to distant shores, but our family remain the most important facet of our lives.
Our big news is that we are thrilled to hear that we are to be grandparents again- we already consider adorable 4 year old Dante our grandson, and now Kylie and Michael are expecting a baby brother for Dante in March. Just 5 weeks later, in mid April, Jenny & Paul are expecting their first baby, and we are so excited, so how could we not be there to welcome our two new grandchildren into the world?
There is also the strong pull of my father, who has made a magnificent effort to tackle technology and email us on his iPad. It may well have become the bane of his life, & frustrate the hell out of him as it ‘eats up’ entire emails, deletes and ‘loses’ others and confuses the bejesus out of him, but he has made made a valiant attempt & it has certainly given him an interest and enabled him to enjoy following our travels from the solitude of his room in the nursing home. In turn, it has given me great peace of mind knowing I have regular communication with him and can check how things are going. Unfortunately, he is depressed by a multitude of ailments and prescribed medications and I know would appreciate some time together.
Another contributing factor is that we now have to run our generator for upwards of 3 hours a day just to keep the freezer happy. The insulation has disintegrated to the point where it is leaking condensed water into the floor & cupboards around it (at least we have in floor air conditioning in the galley!) and Frank wants to do some major work that would be so much easier back in Brisbane where he has access to the boys’ tools & workshops.
Therefore- we are coming home! We don’t expect to be in Brisbane all the time, as Frank will no longer have work commitments, but we will be home for Xmas and of course for the births of our grandchildren.
Lastly, but not least, we are also looking forward to spending some quality time down near Coffs Harbour with Avery & Chantelle who have bought & are renovating a beautiful homestead on a 45 acre rural property in the northern NSW coast hinterland. They are building it up slowly to become a sustainable farm with animals & eco friendly gardens as well as creating a thriving B & B business in a self contained converted dairy plus using part of the homestead. We can’t wait to catch up and Frank is looking forward to spending time helping out on projects whilst we are staying with them, whilst I will simply relish doing my ‘mother earth’ stuff, cooking, gardening and nurturing!
This means that we are now slowly making our way back from the north of Fiji to the main island of Viti Levu. We even released a juvenile barracuda plus caught a 4ft wahoo on the trolling line on our first leg back to Makogai. Thanks to Paul for the lure he sent over- fresh fish tonight for dinner.
We plan to clear out of customs in the next couple of weeks or so, when there is a decent weather window to sail the 650 miles to New Caledonia where we would like to break our journey. We have yet to decide where we will enter Australia, but time, wind and weather will dictate that option further down the track.
In all honesty, I don’t look forward to the ocean passages, but Frank assures me that we should not have to bash into head winds like we did for most of the 1400 miles plus from Brisbane to New Caledonia to Vanuatu to Fiji!!
I will now pray for those same blessed prevailing trade winds I have consistently cursed in my blogs to continue blowing. That being the case, they should be on our aft quarter and give us a welcome push in the right direction. We will see…..
Below are some of the underwater shots taken around Vanua Balavu & Matagi Island