by Jim McNish
It is very difficult to describe the beauty of the island of Leleuvia as we approached. The water around it is fifty shades of blue, a fringe of white sand gives way to palms and fruit trees in the centre and as we got nearer we could look over the side to see multi-coloured corals and fish. Helen, the dive instructor and a marine biologist and Ruth, marine biologist and dive master, as well as the staff of the small backpacker hostel on the island were waiting on the beach to welcome us and garland our necks with flowers, while others strummed guitars and sang a welcoming song while we all stepped down from the boats chattering and jumping with excitement. Howard was clearly emotional at seeing two years of effort coalesce into this defining moment and was unable to speak due to the lump in his throat.
When he had recovered his composure we were given a guided tour of the facilities – it did not take long. There is a shower and toilet block, supplied by huge rainwater tanks. Rainwater is also filtered for drinking. At low tide there are reef flats that stretch half a mile or more and the accommodation is made up of wooden shacks or traditional thatched palm bures. People were divvied up and told who they would be bunking with for the next few weeks. Alex and Emily, the English gap year students are in with Breanna, an Australian backpacker. Alison, a retired Scottish teacher is sharing with Ny-Ann, a Filipino/Chinese/Spanish/American girl from San Francisco. Britt and Angus have a roommate called Scott, a Texan student who plans to study astrophysics when he gets home. Jo, a costume designer for films and TV is sharing with Jen who does something in marketing back in the real world, and I’m in with Craig. The team spent the afternoon and evening unpacking and exploring or getting a cold drink or two at the little bar, with most of the team heading off to bed fairly early as we had to be up at the crack of dawn.
The following morning began with a 400 metre swim before breakfast for everyone – one of the required tests for fitness to dive. I’m happy to say that everyone managed it with ease, although a number of folk had had misgivings about it – particularly the Americans in the party who are not familiar with metres as a unit of length. The PADI Open Water training began in earnest immediately after breakfast for the four non-qualified divers while some of us went with Tristan, resident expert on sea snakes, invertebrates and all sorts of creepy crawlies for a walk in the shallows around the island. Within five minutes we found our first sea snake, resting quietly on the foreshore. Craig the herpetologist was in raptures, stroking its strangely flattened tail (not recommended for non-professionals) while the snake languidly waved its head to taste us on the breeze. Mimic eels, morays, chitons, sea cucumbers and sponges were spotted as we completed a circuit of the island at a leisurely pace. Lectures on the ecosystem of coral reefs and classifications of marine invertebrates took place later on. Fascinating stuff. (No, really, it is!)
After a couple of days everyone is finding that time is playing tricks on us. In many ways it feels as though we have been here for weeks, and in others it feels like no time at all. I guess that is what is meant by “Fiji Time”. The pace of life is slow – it has to be in this glorious heat.
Today is a rest day and I am currently sitting outside my bure on our home made armchair fashioned from scrap wood and plastic drain pipes, I am looking out past a couple of palm trees at the flat sea lapping the sand. Angus and Breanna have just paddled past in a couple of canoes and a coconut is bobbing gently in the surf. To my right a couple of hammocks (an essential study aid) are strung from trees. I can hear a hammer banging away on the other side of the island, where the new dive shop is being constructed and a couple of birds are squawking to each other in the bushes behind me. Other than that the only sound is the gentle surf and the tapping on my keyboard and the phrase that keeps running round my head is the first piece of Fijian I learned: Seqa na leqa. No worries.