Monthly Archive for September, 2009

Fiji: Dance of the Devil Fish


Hidden away in Fiji’s Yasawa Island group north-east of Nadi, a pre-historic submarine ritual is played out before a mesmerised Roderick Eime.

Like dog-fighting starfighters from some science fiction epic, the two creatures banked, dived and barrel-rolled in perfect unison, the slightly smaller of the two trailing behind, appearing to be lining up for an attack. But as the act played out in perfect slow motion harmony, it was clear the two enormous underwater beasts were simply cavorting in an ancient ceremony only they understood.

Manta Rays [Manta birostris] are the largest of all the rays and unlike the all-too-deadly stingrays we are now familiar with, these massive, yet gentle and placid plankton feeders just cruise and browse their way around the world’s oceans.

Worshipped as mystical sea gods by some Pacific Islanders and as wanton demons by the Japanese who believed the beast would envelope a man in its wings and crush him to death. Giant Manta Rays can grow to 8 metres across and weigh as much as 2000kg. The two distinctive protrusions near the eyes (paps) spawning the other common name, devil fish. Anything but evil, Mantas are serene, beautiful animals and a gold medal sighting for divers and snorkellers.

Here on Drawaqa Island, not far from where Tom Hanks was marooned in Castaway, is Barefoot Lodge, a low-impact, no-electricity ‘resort’ for those wanting to enjoy a true Gilliganesque “get away from it all” tropical island holiday. Families and couples of all ages from the USA, Europe and Australia are drawn here for an authentic, if Spartan island experience. Barely 100 metres from the bamboo breakfast bar is the northernmost tip of the tiny island, unambiguously dubbed Manta Ray Point.

At the rise and fall of the tide, the resident population of Manta Rays, as many as a dozen at a time, glide serenely along the narrow channel between Drawaqa and neighbouring Naviti Island. The rush of nutrient-rich water creates a current of several knots that makes swimming with the rays a near-Olympic task, so we are content drifting with them momentarily until the tender scoops us up and places us upstream again for another pass.

I hover transfixed above one of the larger ones just watching it glide effortlessly against the current, its span considerably wider than the limit of my outstretched arms. From a depth of perhaps three metres, it suddenly angles sharply upward toward me. Is it asking me to dance? Is it moving to attack? Or I am I just in its blindspot? I manage a metre of reverse thrust to allow it some room, when it rolls onto its back and stares at me point blank, its gaping mouth teaming with tiny, bright yellow fish continually attending to the host’s dental hygiene. The urge to touch it and make contact is overwhelming, but the Manta’s skin is covered by a thin protecting layer of mucus-like film and my skin would damage it, leaving the ray vulnerable to lesions and parasites. Instead we tango tantalisingly close for a few seconds, the proximity heightening my excitement. And then, like a fleeting apparition, it swoops down to the depths and slowly and vanishes.

“Hey man, let it go,” calls Brian, a Californian holidaying with his family. Snapping out of my trance, I look back to see I have floated nearly fifty metres from the group, now clambering elated into the dive tender, chattering madly about their own close encounter.

True, if left alone I would have followed it out on its voyage to wherever it was heading, such was the hypnotic attraction of the legendary ‘devil fish’. But we must now go our separate ways.

Later, after a bountiful lovo (earth oven) dinner of pork, chicken and walu (Spanish mackerel), we sit on the beach sipping cold beer admiring the lurid phosphorescence of the night sky away from the city. Shooting stars occasionally burst into life and extinguish themselves in the upper atmosphere, the perfect silence interrupted only by the lapping waves and the intermittent throaty gurgle of an emptying stubbie.

Past the faint silhouette of our transport, the 100 foot brigantine ‘Ra Marama’ moored just off shore, a new moon casts a simmering glow on the calm waters. Beneath the surface the misnamed devil fish are out there somewhere, patrolling the endless ocean on their quest for whatever it is they quest for. If only our own lives were that simple.

Doing It: Captain Cook Cruises (Fiji) sail to Barefoot Lodge on Drawaqa Island as part of their Yasawa Island Sailing Safaris. Choose from 3-day/2-night or 4-day/3-night packages starting at FJ$545 pp twin share. Includes transfers, all food and activities on shore, including the Manta Ray swim. http://www.captaincook.com.au/ Ph: 02 9206 1100

Getting there: Pacific Blue, International Airline of Virgin Blue offers direct daily flights from Sydney to Nadi. Formal connections are also available daily via Brisbane with fares start from $289 per person, one way on the net. If you’re looking to keep entertained, simply hire the digEplayer. Your own personal in-flight system features movies, TV shows and a board array of of music for an additional $15. For extra leg room, book the Blue Zone seating option for an additional $45 on top of your fare. Check out www.flypacificblue.com for current specials, bookings and all your travel needs.

The author was a guest of Capatin Cook Cruises and Pacific Blue

Sail in for a Solomon Island Surprise

 

The Solomon Islands are a mystery to most Pacific Island vacationers. Adventure cruiser, Roderick Eime, reckons all it takes is a little bit of curiosity and a sense of history to be bewitched by this emerging destination.

The ghostly group approached us timidly, looking curiously in all directions. Mainly young men and a couple of boys, all smeared head-to-toe in lurid orange mud, they scanned the bushes, the tree tops and the tall grass. Clearly in fear of being observed, they moved cautiously as if any or every movement would betray them.

While these orange interlopers patrolled the gathering, women and men in traditional village attire danced and chanted energetically. The women, in particular, cavorted in a way that would have the missionaries covering their eyes and rushing for their bibles. Their hands firmly on their hips, they gyrated unambiguously, throwing their heads back in mirth.

But it wasn’t long before the orange mudmen’s imagined bogeymen materialised. Slim, lithesome and painted as black as the proverbial, their mouths were bright crimson as if full of fresh blood. They stalked the citrus-coloured troupe, snarling and mocking the orange men with menacing, wide-mouthed laughs and jabbing long, sharp spears. Forced into a terrified huddle, they ducked and dodged the increasingly nasty thrusts.

The scenario played out for a just a few minutes and our alarm grew as the younger ones clung nervously to the quivering legs of the elders, but the finale was approaching and the assembled local villagers cat-calling and laughter grew more enthusiastic as the bewildered mudmen scurried off into the bush at the point of a lance.

The final act played out, the entire cast reassembled for a curtain call and our cameras clicked furiously. Those without cameras applauded appreciatively.

Here on Santa Ana Island in the eastern province of Makira Ulawa, the ancient traditions are preserved and gleefully recreated for the occasional tourist group. The significance of this performance is explained as a representation of the arrival of foreign people and their disruption of local custom. There is some dispute however whether the new arrivals are Europeans or Polynesians. I imagine they’re interchangeable.

Santa Ana is one of several outlying islands that maintain strong cultural traditions, as much for themselves as a marketable commodity for visitors. Either way, all parties are winners and our visiting group display great interest in the multitude of artefacts and handicrafts set out for perusal.

The islands in the immediate vicinity are theorised to have been first settled by the ubiquitous Lapita people around the time the Romans were getting underway in Europe. Scattering their trademark pottery throughout the Pacific, anthropologists still debate the actual migration route, but it is generally believed to have been from the west and dependant on the sea levels current at the time.

At the Busu Cultural Village on Alite Island in Malatia Province, the centuries-old tradition of shell jewellery and currency has its home – a kind of shell mint Again we are met by energetic dancers, although instead of mud, coral and animal teeth, these handsome performers are draped in intricate shell ornaments.

Certainly the most prominent example of shell currency is in the payment of bride price and to illustrate this ritual, a nervous young girl clings to her booty clad in a veil of tiny shells painstakingly woven together to form calciferous garments. She doesn’t appear too pleased at the drawn out ceremony and I must assume she’ll be more enthusiastic when the real day arrives.

The men of Busu Village adopt a decidedly threatening pose. Their job is to protect the women during any exchange or barter that involves transactions of the shell currency which they produce laboriously in the huts behind. Weapons and the skills required to use them are displayed, just in case we get any ideas.

The most significant confrontations and combat synonymous with the Solomon Islands are the furious and bloody battles fought between the Allied and invading Japanese forces during the Second World War. Some of the most ferocious fighting took place around the capital, Honiara, on the island of Guadalcanal throughout 1943.

The war history of the Solomon Islands would easily occupy several articles and the history of the campaign and the many relics, wrecks and material left behind continues to attract amateur historians and sightseers. Overgrown and abandoned tanks, crashed aircraft, sunken vessels of all types and forlorn fortifications draw curious visitors all year around.

Many of the most interesting artefacts are below the waterline, particularly around the island of Gizo (also sometimes spelled Ghizo) in the Western Province. Local dive operator, Danny Kennedy, regales us with wartime tales, particularly his favourite one, that of his namesake President, which took place not far from his little shop in the township.

While patrolling nearby Blackett Strait in August 1943, the President-to-be was in command of PT-109 when it was cut in two by a speeding Japanese destroyer in the middle of the night. The surviving crew swam to what was then Plum Pudding Island before finally being rescued thanks to heroic efforts by two local village boys. The island is now named Kennedy Island.

Danny regularly takes divers to visit his catalogue of dive sites that includes both natural and manmade attractions. Fighter aircraft and various shipwrecks make up most of the program, but the Toa Maru, lying virtually intact in just a few metres of water is the piece de resistance. At 7000 tons, the Toa Maru is possibly the largest, best preserved and divable wreck in the Pacific.

The best way to travel the many islands that make up the Solomons is by small ship expedition. The experience of arriving by ship is hard to surpass as each arrival is usually accompanied by a flotilla of local canoes decorated with flowers and costumed “warriors”. Coral Princess Cruises’s flagship, Oceanic Discoverer, is now a familiar sight in Melanesian waters as she completes her itineraries between Papua New Guinea and Auckland.

Like its neighbours Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands share the natural hospitality and friendliness of its Melanesian population while offering greater depth and richness to the entire region thanks to its many natural and human attractions.

Getting There:

Fly Solomons

Cruising:

For information about small ship expeditions throughout the Solomon Islands and Melanesia, contact Coral Princess Cruises [www.coralprincess.com.au]