Goodbye to freezing cold Christchurch, hello sunny Fiji!
Bula bula all the way from Fiji! Bula is 'welcome' in Fijian, it's how everyone here greets you, and they really do welcome you. I've never met a group of people as friendly as the Fijians. To be fair though, if I lived here I'd be pretty chuffed with myself too. It's the closest thing to paradise that I've ever seen, and I've been to Rhyl. Even as I write this blog, I'm sat on the balcony of a dorm room that boasts a picture postcard view overlooking the crystalline water of the Yasawa Islands. How's about that for inspiration. The sun is slowly setting, gradually making it easier to see my sandy iPhone screen. It wasn't always this warm and sunny, however.
After the bottom numbing coach journey from Queenstown, I stayed one night in Christchurch, before taking a flight back up north to Auckland. In stark contrast to my current attire of just a pair of swim shorts (ladies, pull yourselves together), once in Christchurch I was forced to sleep fully clothed; jumper, shirt, jeans, socks, the lot. The reason? It was -2 degrees outside. Now that, my friends, is chilly. Christchurch itself was quite an eery, depressing place to stay, which is a real shame because it was solely down to the tragic earthquake that struck a few years ago. The driver could continuously be heard and seen pointing out where things "used" to be.
"See that empty space there? That used to be full of big sky scrapers".
I arrived there late and didn't get to explore much of what's left of the city, but when I visit New Zealand again I hope to see more of Christchurch. I'm sure one day, after the re-building and the regeneration is over, it will be back to its former glory.
The next day I flew back to Auckland via New Zealand airlines. For a one hour-ish flight, it was ridiculously plush. I had my own TV screen with a huge choice of programmes to watch, and there was also complimentary drinks and snacks. Take that, Jetstar. Once in Auckland, I checked into my hostel and set about buying some things for Fiji. Sun tan lotion, insect repellent, more swim shorts etc. It felt so nice to be buying summer things, especially after my teeth chattering sleep the night before.
Armed to the teeth with mosquito spray, I returned to the hostel where I met my dorm mates. There was Robbie from Scotland, and Ciara & Danni from Milton Keynes. The girls were just about to start their Kiwi Experience, so through gritted teeth I enviously provided them with recommendations and exclaimed just how good of a time they were due to have.
Speaking of the Kiwi Experience, two of the gang, crazy David from Sweden, and David aka Baguette from France, were also in Auckland that night, so through a few intermittent Facebook messages (curse you crappy wifi!), we met up at the hostel bar, where we were reunited with even more from the Kiwi bus; the four Swedish girls, Rosie, Jessie and Tom. We went to a few bars, drank a lot, and rounded the night off with a McDonalds. I even met up with Remi, the French chef I met in Auckland before I started the Kiwi Experience. He's based in New Zealand for a while, but I hope we meet up again one day, even if it's just to get the recipe off him for the "best chocolate cake in the world".
The next day it was time to don my flip flops and sunglasses as I was flying to Fiji. In another twist of fate, Sam, a guy I met all the way back in Fraser Island in Australia, was staying in Nomads too and was flying to Fiji on the same flight. We got the bus together to the airport and even ended up sitting next to each other on the plane. The flight wasn't half a bumpy ride. Once we'd taken off and reached cruising pace, the pilot announced that there might be a little turbulence so to keep the seat belts on for most of the journey. A little turbulence?! Out of nowhere I was flung out of my chair as the plane decided to shake like a maraca. It lasted for about 2 minutes too, which felt like two hours. My tv also decided to break on me, so I was a relieved man once we landed in Nadi.
From the airport, after a slight hiccup with an ATM almost swallowing my card, we got the shuttle to our resort, Smugglers Cove. Well, that was Sam's resort. Mine was its (cheaper) sister hostel, Horizon. Admittedly I did pay a minuscule $8 per night, but I didn't know I was paying for a prison cell. Sleeping in the adjacent bed there was a Canadian guy, probably in his early 50's, who quite literally had the biggest beer belly known to mankind. All he wore was a pair of white (ish) Y-fronts, and he was one of those people who really kept a conversation going. It became an on going battle to ignore his tackle and remain eye contact whenever he locked you into talking to him. Luckily there were two other guys in the dorm too, Diogo and Bruno. They're both Portuguese and they're both doctors; Diogo is an optometrist, and Bruno works on an intensive care ward, and they're two of the nicest guys I've met on my travels.
The next day, Diogo and Bruno were hiring a car and kindly asked me if I'd like to join them. Most people tend to stay one night in Nadi before sailing to the islands, so by hiring a car for the day it was a great way to see more of 'proper' Fiji. The car was a little red number. I forget the make, but I remember it was Chinese. In all honesty it was a terrible car, but despite its failings, we were all secretly attached to the thing by the end of the day.
Our first stop was a Hindu temple in Nadi. It was very similar to the likes that I saw in Singapore; bright and colourful, with carefully sculpted roofs built in a sort of pyramid shape. After spending some time exploring the temple grounds we travelled further south to the Momi Guns. Here there is a gun battery used in WW2 when the Fijian army were defending against the invading Japanese. It was also where we met Toma, the friendliest Fijian of them all. He runs the Momi Gun museum on his own, and when we were about to leave he asked us where we were going to.
"Oh, we're just going to get in the car and see where we end up",
"I will shut the museum down and come with you. I can be your guide". Bare in mind it was 11.30am and the museum is a main attraction in Nadi (it's in the Lonely Planet!). Of course we obliged. Our Chinese red car now had a brand new passenger.
Toma wanted us to visit his village, something I and the guys were certainly keen to experience. It's tradition here that when someone new visits a village they have to offer something, so we stopped off at a shop on the way to buy a kava root to use as our gift. We arrived and were instantly greeted with tens of beaming, smiling faces. All of the local children were seemingly fascinated to see us. It was a heartwarming thing to experience. A priest from a neighbouring village was visiting, so there was already a kava ceremony taking place. Kava is a drink made from pounding the roots of the kava plant and combining it with water, and it is a big part of Fijian life. It looks like puddle water, and tastes like puddle water, and it makes your mouth go numb. After offering our gift, we sat down in the circle and joined the ceremony, where we conversed and drank plenty of kava. The priest was wearing a t-shirt with something in Fijian written across it in big letters. I asked him what it said and he replied,
"It says, 'Take No Bulls***' my friend'". Now that is what I call a cool priest. After the kava we were kindly shown around the village by six or seven of the local children. They found my Scouse accent particularly hilarious, and enjoyed showing us around their homes. I'm forever grateful for Toma inviting us to his village. I got to see a slice of Fijian life that not many people get to see, and it's something I will hold in my memory forever.
We got back in the car and drove to a place called Sigatoka, where we ate some food on the beach, and gawped at the nearby 5 star Intercontinental Resort. You couldn't get a bigger contrast from my prison cell. I bet the people staying there didn't have an obese Canadian man in Y-fronts to contend with.
Once we'd finished our grub, Toma took us to another National Trust site, the Sigatoka sand dunes. The hike took about 30 minutes and the views were impressive. Here the beach was a lot more rugged than the sorts I imagined Fiji to have. It was starting to get dark, so we hopped back into the Ferrari and gave Toma a lift back to his village, then headed back to our resort. What's weird is that on the journey back I suddenly started to feel feverish. I was curled up in the fetal position in the back of the car, coughing like a 60 a day smoker and shaking like a leaf. Luckily I had the two doctors there to save my life. Once we got back to the cell, they provided me with antibiotics and instructed me to get some rest. They were leaving very early the next morning and even phoned the hostel from the airport to see how I was. What a nice pair of fellas.
The next day it was time to board the Yasawa Flyer and head out to the islands. I was first staying in the Blue Lagoon region of the Northern Yasawas, in a resort called Oarsman's Bay Lodge. It took about 5 hours on the ferry, but given that the scenery was so stunning it went quickly. The ferry can't get too close to the islands as the water gets very shallow, so to access them you are transported in a speedboat. Coasting along the turquoise water in the boat with nothing but the wind in my face was awesome, and when we got there, all of the staff at Oarsman's were performing a welcome song on the beach, singing and dancing. I don't think you can beat that for an arrival.
My first day was spent lying on the beach, soaking the rays and reading David Mitchell's hilarious autobiography (that was until my Kindle packed in!). I dabbled in a bit of snorkelling too, and before I knew it it was time for dinner. Now I must say, the food here in Fiji is out of this world compared to what I've been grazing on these past few months. Until now the only portion of vegetables I was consuming were the tiny bits of sweet corn you find in Pot Noodles. Here you get three course meals, a la carte. There's fresh fruit in the mornings, as well as cereals and a variety of different breads, and there's a lunch menu too. Filling myself up on the grub, I wandered to the neighbouring Blue Lagoon Resort where a few of the people from the Kiwi Experience were staying. They had a star gazing night organised, so we all lay on the beach and gazed into the sky for a few hours. The stars were unreal. I saw my first ever shooting star that night.
The next day was very much of the same ilk; food, sunbathing, and snorkelling. Just what the doctor ordered. There were a couple of new arrivals to the resort too. Sam and Terri, a personal training couple from North Wales, and there was Emma, a Yorkshire lass who's cousin is in this years Apprentice on BBC1 (Francesca I think). I had been recommended by Toma to visit the Sawailau caves when I arrived to Oarsmans, so visit the caves I did. The first cave was huge in size, open aired and filled roughly 7 metres with a mixture of fresh water and sea water. The second cave was a different kettle of fish. To access it you had to swim through an underwater tunnel in the pitch black for about 5 seconds. The cave itself too was pitch black, and much more compact in size. I'm not going to lie, I was pretty scared. It was great to see such a natural phenomenon though.
That night the resort was holding its own kava party. Me and the guests sat with the staff and the rest of the family, and drank about 50 bowls of the stuff. I got talking to a lovely American couple, Mac and Laurie. Mac had an exceptional knowledge of British television. Who'd have thought Last of the Summer Wine could appeal to an accountant from North Carolina? He could quote from Keeping Up Appearances too. Very impressive.
By the end of the night I could hardly talk my mouth was that numb. A great time was had though. Those Fijians know how to have a good time!
Today I check out of this paradise and check into another one. That resort is called Mantaray Island, named after its close proximity to the travelling Mantarays swimming in the nearby channel. You can snorkel with them if the staff spot them, something I hope I get to do. A few people I met in the prison cell hostel are going to be there, and it seems like more of a party place compared to the resort I've been staying in. What an amazing way to round off what has been a brilliant trip. I love you Fiji, I really do.