by Jim McNish
A pod of spinner dolphins burst through the gin-clear water and as they leapt in front of the boat my heart leapt with them. It was our first full day on Leleuvia and there were eight volunteers plus Howard, Seru and Joni on the boat. We were on our way to the coral farm, a short 20 minute hop away from the island for a fun afternoon of snorkeling and fish spotting.
The twelve volunteers from three different countries had gathered together in drips and drabs over a couple of days in Nadi. Three of us had arrived via Seoul six days earlier and met up with three others who were already checked in to the Nadi Bay Resort Hotel. A couple of gap year students joined us the next morning and three more arrived singly over the course of the next 24 hours. Most people spent their free day chilling by the pool with a cocktail or a bottle of Fiji Bitter, recovering from the jet lag and getting to know each other. Howard, the brave and glorious leader of our adventure, (he emits a faint golden glow wherever he walks and is known and loved in every smoothie and cake shop in the islands. He arrived in the evening and eventually tracked us all down in the back of the hotel’s restaurant, where he gave us a brief run down on the activities planned for the next few days and an overview of island life and the aims of the project.
Day two began with exploration of Nadi town where several of us went shopping for vibrantly coloured Bula shirts and formal sulus, or Bula sundresses for the ladies, for we had been told that we were going to be honoured and privileged to meet Ratu Epenisa, the gentleman most likely to succeed as the next High Chief of all the islands – this was incredibly exciting news, comparable, perhaps, to arriving on a backpacking tour of the UK only to be informed that you had been invited to Buckingham Palace for tea with the Queen. Ratu Epenisa had learned about Blue Ventures activities on Leleuvia, which is only a 40 minute boat ride from his home island of Bau (pronounced Bao), and he had thrown his formidable weight and influence behind the project. This was not only big news for us, but was news for the whole of Fiji, as foreigners are almost never invited to Bau. We were to be accompanied by a reporter from the Fiji Times and a camera crew from Fiji One news as well as Professor Randy Thaman from the University of the South Pacific with some of his marine biology students and a representative of the Ministry of Fisheries. Before that, however, we needed to get to Suva on the other side of Viti Levu island, so the following morning we boarded an air conditioned coach for the four hour journey along the coast road. Two minutes before the coach pulled away Britt, the final member of the team arrived, straight off the plane and looking frazzled after a 24 hour flight delay in Los Angeles.
Every bend in the road revealed jaw dropping landscapes dotted with palm trees, sugar cane fields, jagged mountains veiled in mist and thick jungle on one side, and rocky outcrops and white sandy beaches leading to lapis coloured seas on the other. On arrival in Suva the scrubby mangroves gave way to cultivated gardens, docks and the local prison – possibly the least inviting place I have ever seen despite the gaily painted murals and bible quotations that adorned the outside walls.
The bus dropped us outside the Holiday Inn (slightly outside our price bracket) in the midday heat and we immediately transferred all our ridiculously heavy luggage into a pair of waiting minibuses that whisked us uphill for fifteen minutes to deposit us at the Rain tree Lodge, a small and comfortable hotel on the edge of the rainforest, with pools of brightly coloured giant water lilies, rich bird life and fish jumping to catch the (surprisingly few) mosquitoes. We were joined at lunch by Saras, the lady from the Department of Fisheries who would be joining us on Bau and representatives from the local Community Development Partnership who the BV team has been working with to get the project kicked off.
An afternoon of relaxing by the murky swimming pool gave way to evening so Craig, a professor of biology from Adrian College, Angus, a Scottish engineer and I, an Englishman who recently quit the rat race, donned our Bula shirts and sulus before heading to the bar to be met with a chorus of wolf whistles from the, it must be said, comparatively scruffy looking female members of our party. After dinner we had a short lecture followed by a Q and A session with Mr. Batibasaga, the Principle Fisheries Researcher, as jetlag caught up again with several of the crew. The ladies headed to bed shortly afterwards and the men folk retired to our verandah for a nightcap and much laughter as we listened to Craig’s stories of lizard hunting in Africa and Britt’s tales of life in Alabama. Good times.
The following day began with a trip into Suva to check out the fruit and fish market – an impromptu chance to practice fish identification skills, before we split into groups to help Howard gather the last few supplies, such as lubricant for the compressor, lifejackets and flares, first aid stuff and stationery supplies. After lunch some of the team went to the museum where they had a guided tour given by a local archeologist while others went to the flea market or headed back to the hotel.
Day three of the expedition proper saw Howard heading back into town for the very final bits and pieces that we needed to transport to the island while all the volunteers went for a walk in the rainforest. Overgrown jungle paths lead us towards a series of waterfalls and pools until eventually we got to a shallow and fairly murky swimming hole, where we washed off the sweat and splashed around and laughed some more. Of course, everyone was melting again by the time we had walked back uphill for an hour, but it was great fun.
That afternoon we loaded up the minibuses again and started the final leg of the trip to Leleuvia. The buses deposited people and bags in a big heap at Bau Landing – just a clearing in the mangroves with a small bus shelter to shade people from the sun while they await the arrival of the boats to the outer islands. Tristan, one of the four BV staff, met us at the dockside as he was on his way into Suva to buy a new dive boat. We divided up the kit and people between two small boats and were soon on our way, with the excitement building as we got closer and closer to our new island home.