Fiji

It would be hard for a traveller to not enjoy Fiji. Over 300 islands, clear tropical water bursting with life, remote palm fringed beaches, and a vibrant culture that is positive, friendly and welcoming. This belies it’s previous decades long history of ethnic conflict, military coups and expulsion from international bodies. Indeed, now, according to some international surveys Fiji is rated as the country where its population is happiest.

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Beach Rugby

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We landed in Nadi, on the main Island of Viti Levu and took a two hour bus ride to accommodation we had booked in Pacific Harbour, arriving at night. In Fiji we found that backpacker dorms tend to be located within holiday resorts, meaning private rooms proved relatively expensive, especially as we had arrived in the Australia/New Zealand school holidays.

With blue skies the next morning we explored our surrounds and spent quality time in hammocks, planning our journey in Fiji.

Locally, we booked some diving with Aqua-Trek Beqa Dive Centre (old, badly maintained gear), and on my birthday had two dives with beautiful soft coral and clear water teeming with life. We came across around a dozen tawny nurse sharks asleep on the sand, reef sharks and a big bull shark, moving fast, clearly on the hunt.

The area is renowned for shark feeding displays, and even though we had avoided this, it was clear that the practice impacted on how sharks and other underwater life behaved. A remora (a fish that hangs around sharks hoping to grab some food) took a painful bite out of Anne’s little finger, something we have never encountered before.

Heading back to Nadi, we checked in to Bamboo Travellers on Wailoaloa Beach, an old-school backpacking haunt, where you can relax in the bar on the beach, swim, eat good food, drink cold beer, watch sunsets and talk into the night with fellow travellers. My kind of place.

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Bamboo Travellers also had an efficient travel desk that meant we were able to sort out all our Fijian travel and accommodation arrangements with minimum fuss, something that we had found near impossible till then. Our next stop was the southern Island of Kadavu.

Kadavu

Our fifty minute flight south to Kadavu was on an eighteen seater De Havilland Twin Otter, with passengers distributed according to their weight.

 

 

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The Great Astrolobe Reef Kadavu.
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With only one landing per day (weather depending) it’s not the busiest airport.

We were met at the airfield and taken through Vunisea, with its government buildings, post office and local school.

 

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Most students stay at the school during the week. With no roads and a population of under 10,000 a daily journey is impossible
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There is still evidence of the damage caused by Cyclone Keni in April this year

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The boat trip to Matava resort took around ninety minutes in some heavy swell (despite the protection of the Astrolobe Reef), and poor weather characterised our time in Kadavu. Strong Trade Winds from the south-east can develop at any time between May and October in Fiji, and this clearly affected activities such as snorkeling and kayaking. We were able to enjoy some good diving on the reef however, with colourful soft coral, unique macro life and massive cabbage and brain coral sitting on brilliant white sand. On our first dive Anne spotted a leopard shark asleep on the sand, who then woke and circled us a few times.

The company of other guests was enjoyable, the staff lovely and the view from our bure was transformed by different light on the bay. But those trade winds kept on blowing.

 

 

Among the staff at Matava were two O’Connors … very distant relatives

The Yasawas

On the day before our departure from Kadavu the plane tried to land twice, but the strong winds meant it had to return to Nadi, so we were unsure whether we would be able to leave the island. All turned out well on the day however and we were soon back in Nadi, rushing around withdrawing cash from ATMs before our trip north to the Yasawas.

The Yasawas are an archipelago of around twenty volcanic islands, scattered along the north east of Fiji. At one time they were remote and visited by only the most determined backpackers but these days island hopping is popular with travellers, budget-backpackers and those seeking luxury resorts.

We’d selected two islands and travelled first up to one of the northernmost islands, Nacula, aboard the Tavewa Seabus.

One feature of touring the Yasawas is that you frequently bump in to people you’ve met on the boats on other islands and because you share meals, activities and travelling tales, a shifting community soon develops. Add to this the friendly and enthusiastic engagement of local Fijians and you get a relaxed and entertaining journey. While we enjoyed snorkelling, visiting caves and chilling in hammocks, for me the best part of our time in Nabua Lodge was the visit to a local village where we got a real sense of how the community live, work and play in an isolated environment.

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Village life

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Origami continues to make friends

 

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Kava session on Saturday morning following a wedding in the village the previous day

Our second stop in the Yasawas was at Korovou Eco-Tour resort in Naviti. Lovely beaches, blue skies and sunsets – classic Fiji.

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Special mention should go to Abu in Korovou, who involved everyone with demonstrations on coconuts and herbal medicine, quizzes, games, singing and dancing.

 

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Great to see young people taking travelling seriously! This London couple had been on the road for a year and had a real sense of adventure

 

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Back to Nadi on the Yasawa Flyer

It felt appropriate for us to spend our final night in Fiji at the Bamboo Travellers, bumping in to people at the bar who we’d met along the way.

Then, with that abrupt transition that modern travel brings, we’re suddenly back in Auckland, staying once more with good friends who we’d said our ‘final’ goodbyes to last April.

We’ve now made our final plans and booked our flights. We’re off to Argentina on Sunday and then plan to travel overland to Brazil and along the North East Coast. We have a flight booked out of Brazil and will be home in London by the beginning of October. There is still plenty of travelling to do and there are adventures yet to come, but we are slowly heading back. Inevitably, over the next few months I suspect we’ll both be posing the question, ‘What next?’

And finally for this post, a few pictures from Muriwai, just an hour from Auckland. We saw this colony of gannets on a beautiful winters day. They are themselves great travellers, making the 4,000km journey back and forth to Australia.

The Gannets of Muriwai

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With a two metre wingspan they plunge into the sea for fish, hitting speeds of 150 kph

 

 

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Felt like we were intruding a bit here

So, South America on Sunday – we arrive four hours before we leave, thanks to the international date line.

Click ‘follow’ to see how we get on…

 

 

Land of the Long White Cloud … cntd.

Back in the City of Sails…

I found myself ordering a long flat white ☕ 😕 with Anne and discussing where next to visit in our remaining time here.

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Auckland

Due to time constraints and changing weather, we determined not to spend time in the South Island, as we had yet to explore the south of the North Island. But then we thought we might venture across the Cook Straight anyway, and see just a little of the South Island – the north bit … As always, it’s the journey that’s the thing.

While pondering our plans, Auckland got hit

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by a raging storm with heavy rain, 140km winds, falling trees and fences, flying bins and power cuts. A friend told us that kids at a local school were pleased to find three extra trampolines had landed in their playground overnight😂. Time to get moving ourselves.

We decided to take the train, the Northern Explorer, down to Wellington and left Auckland early on a clear sunny day. The late summer had returned.

We’ve always loved traveling by train, and with its panoramic windows, detailed commentary and observation carriage, the Northern Explorer is a great way to go. And of course you travel through the farmlands of Waikato, up to the volcanic peaks of the Central Plateau, through Tongariro National Park and then down to Wellington on the Kapiti coast, a stunning journey.

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Great views from the observation car

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We stayed overnight in the Wellington YHA, (very comfortable) and then got the early Interislander Ferry to Picton, traveling across the Cook Straight and through the Malborough Sounds. We were lucky enough to get perfect sailing conditions, both there and back, slowly navigating the breathtaking scenery.

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Passing ships

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Picton

Although the scenic Marlborough Sounds was reason enough for the trip, we made the most of our time in Picton, staying in the Tombstone Hostel and hiring a car to drive along the peninsula of Totaranui – the Queen Charlotte Sounds. We stopped at viewpoints as we drove and walked through beautiful forests, rivers, bays and shorelines.

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A bit more rugged up than we’ve been used to over these last eighteen months!
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Great views from the trail, including of the Ferry negotiating it’s way through the sound

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Wellington

Back on the North Island, we spent time in hilly, Windy Welli (though a lovely town, it lived up to its name), exploring the city and meeting up with friends of many years.

The coast south of Wellington, down by Owhiro Bay, was typically blustery and dramatic as we walked down to Red Rock point with Shona and Alistair

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We also had a lovely afternoon walking through Zealandia, where we saw a range of native birds including Tui, Takahē and Kaka.

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From Wellington, we drove with our friends Shona and Alistair to stay up in Ohakune by the Tongariro National Park. Friends kindly lent us their holiday home and we used it as a base to walk and explore the area. Having travelled through by train already, ‘tramping’ through the forests and hills gave us a different perspective, and we really appreciated how difficult it must have been for early settlers to survive in such a tough environment – including constructing a railroad right through it.

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Dramatic changes of light, and snow covered volcanoes appearing and disappearing in the clouds

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Walking through the valleys we came across farmland, native forests and the industrial architecture of the railway.

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Heading back toward Auckland, we spent the afternoon at Orakei Korako Geo-Thermal Park. Run by Māori, it is a typical, surreal landscape of hot springs, mud-pools and geysers.

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And, somewhat suddenly it seemed, our time in Aotearoa/New Zealand was over.

Fond goodbyes, followed by a flight back to Melbourne for more catch ups/farewells and soon we’ll be off to Western Australia (a flight that’s further from Melbourne than Auckland), a part of this massive country we have yet to visit.

We will be taking time out, and planning ‘where next’ in the final quarter of our big adventure.

Click ‘follow’ below to see where we end up …

Land of the Long White Cloud – Northlands

Aotearoa

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Long White Cloud – early morning flight over 90 Mile Beach Northlands

The exact meaning, origin or translation of Aotearoa seems to be a matter of dispute, but the everyday consensus for the translation of the Māori name for New Zealand will serve as the title for this blog. Certainly the name evokes the natural beauty of this land, and the first two pictures, one of the Tasman Sea rolling onto 90 mile beach, the other, mineral deposits from geothermal springs in Orakei Korako give a flavour of this distinctive landscape.

As with our time in Australia, we have not travelled the typical backpacker route. Our

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journey is guided by the desire to catch up with friends, to visit new places, and importantly to not repeat the mistake of our last time here, when we dashed around trying to cover every remote corner. Of course the pictures and stories in this public blog miss out the catch ups, the laughter and tales over dinner, wine and a beer. They also miss out the generosity and hospitality of friends, for which we are extremely grateful, and look forward to repaying one day back in London town.

Our time here started in Auckland in mid March, where we had the excruciating pleasure of watching the English Cricket team annihilated over four days in a day night test match, as well as exploring the city and its surrounds.

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The day night test and pink ball failed to help a woeful English team

As we’d arrived at the end of the New Zealand summer, we needed to sort out a greater variety of clothing than the shorts and t shirts we’d relied upon for over a year. We also used rainy days to explore the city and its cultural highlights, but in truth the North Island was very kind to us, with mostly balmy days in the mid 20’s and warm evenings.

Auckland also marked the start of our exploration of the complex and historically troubled relationship between Māori and Pākehā (a New Zealander of non-Maori and non-Polynesian heritage). Though this is way too big a subject to be dealt with in this blog, it should be said it is a topic that we saw addressed wherever we went, and great care was taken to acknowledge historical wrongs and to give different viewpoints a voice.

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Victorian Pākehā images of Māori
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A modern Māori image of Pākehā

When we were in the north we visited Waitangi, site of the 1840 treaty between (some) Māori leaders and the British Queen. As happened elsewhere in the world (notably with Native Americans), Perfidious Albion ensured that the Māori treaty translation differed significantly from the English, claiming a sovereignty over the country that was never countenanced by Māori. Although the subsequent lands wars demonstrated the determined fighting skills of the Māori, including the formidable Pā fortresses that proved difficult to overcome, eventually colonial might prevailed, promises were broken and land seized. But since the mid 1970s onward a Māori campaign for justice and reparation has had a significant effect on New Zealand society, and the cultural impact of Māori is visible everywhere.

Auckland remains one of those cities that is easy to escape from, for a tramp in the wilderness or a sail on a boat. We spent a lovely day walking through forest on the ecology trail at Tawharanui Regional Park, where strict controls over invasive species like possum and rats mean the trees are alive with native birdsong.

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Perching Lilies, known to NZ bushmen as ‘Widow Makers’

The North Island Robin, the Fantail and the distinctive Tui prosper. We also saw many majestic Karearea (NZ hawk) soaring in the currents or feeding on roadkill. We failed to find the blue penguin or the elusive Kiwi though.

For our day ‘tramping’ Waiheke Island – a quick ferry from Auckland, we decided on one of the less popular walls along the north coast and were soon entirely alone, wandering down into beautiful bays along a path that often disappeared, with occasional views of Auckland city in the distance.

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Auckland Harbour on the way to Whaiheke

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Heading North

We hired a car from Rent-A-Dent, and headed north, up towards the Bay of Islands and stopped off en route at Mangawhai Heads for another day of walking, this time along the cliff tops.

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The glorious weather – sun, mid-twenties temperature and a sea breeze meant walking was a joy. It was a sign of what was to come in Paihia and the Bay of Islands.

Paihia

We checked in to the YHA in Paihia, which was a good base to explore from, and seemed to have more going on than in Russell across the Bay. After the usual shopping/laundry/ sussing out the area, we booked a flight in a small plane to the far north – Cape Reinga and 90 mile beach. The seven-seater plane took off as the sun rose over the bay and we had a fabulous journey in the early morning light, with a low mist and the clouds above reflected in the water below

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The mist soon cleared and we had a beautiful journey watching the surf from the Tasman rolling on to the beach.

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Landing in a field, we hopped in to a minibus and explored Cape Reinga, and the sand dunes
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We’d arrived in rush hour!
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Cape Reinga is a sacred place for Māori and the swirling surf is where the Tasman and Pacific meet.

After a bit of sandboarding, it was back to the plane for an even more spectacular return flight.

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We spotted a pod of Dolphins in the surf below

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We also did a fair bit of exploring in the Paihia area (walking and driving) and our Rent-A-Dent did let us down once on a remote dirt road, but luckily we were able to do a few running repairs and keep going. One trip recommended to us by a German couple in the hostel was a day trip on a sailing boat, and we had a fabulous time on the water in ‘She’s a Lady’ tacking across the bay in perfect conditions – with a bit of kayaking, snorkelling and swimming thrown in.

Again, there was a low mist as we headed out in to the bay, but the sun soon burned through for a great day.

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In our last day in Paihia, we finally got to Russell on the ferry and had a lovely time walking around the town and the hills around, before a sunset dinner in Duke of Marlborough and a moonlit journey back to Paihia.

Leaving Paihia, we headed along the coast to Aroha Island in search of wild Kiwis, but without success and then stopped for a few nights in the historical, and beautiful town of Mangonui and the nearby Coopers Beach.

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Waipoua Forest

We headed further down the west coast of the far north with the aim of visiting the majestic Kauri trees in Waipoua Forest. We based ourselves for a few nights in an adapted shipping container perched up on a hill near Donnelly’s Crossing, surrounded only by stillness and birdsong. It’s been the nearest we’ve got to glamping, though we didn’t try the outside bath!

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There really is something magical about Kauri trees. Some, still growing today, were mature trees before any humanset foot on the North Island. They grow tall and straight and were used by Māori for war canoes and then felled in their tens of thousands when Pākehā arrived. It is estimated the 4,600 square miles of Kauri trees were cut down and transported down the mountains – with loggers coming from around the world to fell these giants of the forest.

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The size and girth of Kauri trees is astonishing
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The scale like bark of the tree flakes off as parasitic plants try to attach themselves to the trunk, ensuring straight growth

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Cutting down these giant trees, using only saws and axes in remote, mountainous forest was a remarkable feat. As was moving them down using oxen and specially built rail tracks. Damns were also constructed high in the mountains and then the water released sending hundred and thousands of these enormous logs crashing down the hillsides to the sawmills below. The resulting devastation of the forests for a timber that was prized around the world continued until 1970s, despite many years of protest to protect this unique area.

One other historical episode in the Pākehā exploitation of the Kauri is that the sap produced by the tree was a valued component for quality paints and varnishes. As a result ‘gum-diggers’ arrived from around the world, digging down in to prehistoric forests to mine the fossilized gum. Their story, and the story of the communities that survived in this area is brilliantly told in the Kauri Museum in Matakhoe.

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The remaining trees are now protected and many are of particular spiritual significance to Māori who manage the Waipoua Forest reserve.

The rest of our NewZealand journey took us back to Auckland, and then south, by train car and boat, we’ll cover that in the second part of this blog …. coming very soon 😊.