Far South in the Lau Islands – Fulaga

We left Taveuni in the company of Stop Work Order, a Gulfstar 60, as the weather window we had hoped for finally appeared to allow us to push S in to the Lau Islands. The wind was due to swing slowly North of East over about 36hrs then collapse back into the SE as the Trades re-established. We had about 12 days before we needed to get Shena and Kinsley back to the airport and although Fulaga was a long trip there and back, everything we had read about the island suggested that it was worth it. Set 180Nm SSE of Savusavu and well over 200Nm E of Suva, it is very isolated and has a population of about 250. It has also been described as one of the gems of Fiji.

As the wind had not yet started to turn in our favour, we chose to run NE from Paradise, using Taveuni as cover to gain another 30miles or so of Easting. Doing this killed much of the fetch and allowed us to get close to the outer islands and reef that run the length of the Laus. It was the right choice but I never like adding distance on to a trip. It took the distance we need to run from about 160Nm to over 200Nm.

We got through the mile long Somosomo Pass with a bouncy wind over tide, still running at 2kts in our favour just before the slack. Make sure that you do time it right here. The tide does run to 4+kts which would not be fun if you were pushing against it. As an aside, we crossed the 180E line as we went up the island, crossing back into the western hemisphere.

As we turned around the top of the reef jutting out of Taveuni, we started the long close haul S. Needing a course of 130mag to get us to Fulaga, we could initially push no better course than 170mag. As the first day ended and through the night the wind slowly veered N and we followed it around, managing about 155mag. The next day was a continuation of the pounding, slowly getting closer and closer to the course we required, pushing in to the 2m seas. We could see Stop Work Order most of the time and I don’t think we ever got more than 5 miles from each other. I was surprised at how well we kept with her considering her size and cutter rig. New sails work!

Fulaga

Although the forecast has suggest winds of about 15kts and no more than 20kts, we had one period of three hours where the wind was a constant 30kt plus. Patrick on Stop Work Order called me on the radio to warn me of one squall of 35+kts which had hit him. I thanked him for the heads up but had to tell him that I had seen him being rounded up and took that as a signal to wrap more jib away and to scandalise the main, already with two reefs in, which I managed just before the squall got to me.

Because of the extra mileage we put in in the lee of Taveuni, our timing to hit Fulaga was out by 6hrs. We arrived to sheltered water behind a line of islands 15 miles N from our destination just as the sun disappeared. With electronic charts being inaccurate (and paper being 1:1000000 in scale) there was no way I was going anywhere near the pass entrance in darkness. We dropped the mainsail, left just enough jib out to make way and sailed at a knot towards the pass. We were still going too fast at 0300hrs so I heaved to (yes you can do it in a catamaran) and we sat comfortably and quiet 5 miles N off our destination.

Fulaga

First light came and saw Stop Work Order and ourselves push down towards the pass as slack water was due to last until about 0700hrs. As long as you have light, the 50m wide pass is an easy one. What you need to do is ignore your chart plotter and use your eyes. My Navionics charts showed an entrance both sides of a small islet sitting at the entrance to the pass. Wrong. The pass was only accessible well to the right of this. Once we identified the pass we pushed in mid channel, according to my charts going over the reef, about 100m off set to the E.  Once through it showed me clear water. Wrong. More reef extending well out into the bay from the W end of the pass……..

Fulaga

Easy lesson – don’t trust your charts in Fijian waters for any information other than gross approximations.

Saying that as we pushed through towards an anchorage inside the lagoon, I actually “passed through” several islands so maybe be careful even with gross approximations! Perhaps Navionics should do here as they did in the Tuamotus and put an accurate satellite picture over their data and update it. It may not have lots of depth info but I’d be happy with the knowledge that there is a lump there which I need to miss and the correct placement of the reefs. It is worryingly wrong at the moment. Open CPN and SASPlanet (an excellent Russian programme that lets you download info from a vast variety of sources) are both more accurate on the basis that you can run Google Maps through them. Both are hampered by cloud cover over parts of the lagoon.

We anchored at 19 08.039S 178 34.542W in 40’ of water and decided that we need to get in to see the Chief quickly as we didn’t want to have to wait two days until Monday to conduct the sevusevu ceremony. This is your way of showing respect to the locals and receiving permission to visit their land. Lou and Shena had had fun braking our 2kg lump of kava root in to smaller presentation packages of about 500g each. We got ourselves dressed up and headed in towards the village. The right village to go to is actually on the S side of the island which means you need to find the bay (anchor at 19 08.902S 178 33.925W on sand in 25’) with a small warehouse  by the beach then follow the track across the island to the village. I’d suggest you take bug spray as the mosquitos are vicious on the walk across. We got picked up by a smiling local at the edge of the village and taken to the Chief’s house.

Some rules for you to note.

Don’t take your time in visiting the Chief. Get in to see him as soon as you can after arriving at an atoll as you can guarantee that they will know you are there. Make sure you see the senior Chief of the atoll. There may be several villages, each with a Chief but you only need to see and present Kava root to the most senior.

You are expected to cover up and dress correctly when you see the Chief. They take the sevusevu ceremony very seriously and so must you.

Take in an offering of about 3-500g of kava. Unfortunately kava has recently become very expensive (about $100 a kg) as the USA has decided that it is a “super” health product. With far more going to export, it has significantly increased local prices. DO NOT offer powered root; it must be the whole root. When invited to sit in front of your host, place the root in front of you halfway between you and let him pick it up. If they do so, it shows that it has been accepted.

Men should wear a sula and shirt, ladies need to cover their knees and shoulders. Trousers are frowned upon and the Frenchman with us was loaned a sulu to visit the chief. I used my far more colourful sulu from FP and that was fine. You can buy a proper Fijian sulu for $15. My shirt, screaming though it looks,  is proper Fijian dress. Lovely, isn’t it!

Do not wear a hat or sunglasses in the villagers’ presence. It shows disrespect.

Whilst kids can get away with it, adults don’t carry bags on their shoulders. No idea why, it is just the rules. Hand carry any bag you require.

If you are offered kava, thank them by saying “Bula” then drink the cup in one go. Don’t sip.

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The ceremony was held in the Chief’s house, a grand old man in his 90’s, one of the few truly old people we have seen in all our time in Fiji. We shared the ceremony with a French couple, Stop Work Order and Skylark’s crews all sitting in front of him. The kava parcels were formally accepted and the Chief’s 2IC translated for us. We were asked to explain where we had come from and to introduce each of us, including the kids. We then paid a $50 contribution which goes to the village fund, currently being used to buy each house a couple of solar panels, invertor and battery pack. I have seen some cruisers complain that this is not Fijian hospitality and that we should protest the charge (ref: The Fijian Compendium from Soggy Paws). I’d suggest that whilst it is all well and good to act charitably to the “poor locals” (makes some people feel all warm and fuzzy inside…) I would far prefer for the locals to be able to be in charge of their own destiny and get things they require with hard cash. I had no problem at all in paying this small amount in to their kitty. There are no generators in the village and a single telephone set up at an open window at the school. The nearest mobile phone coverage is some 150 miles away.

I was asked if we could fix the Chief’s magnifying glass he uses for reading which had broken and I took it way to use my super strength glue to fix it.

We were taken for a quick tour of the village and the school. The school has 59 students from the four villages on the island, up to Grade 8 (about age 13-14). Grade 9 and above is conducted in Suva on the big island. The classrooms have a good homemade posters, mostly in English and the school tries to teach wholly in English. The kids are trilingual, speaking the local island dialect, Fijian and English. The school struggles with teaching materials. Books are in short supply and what there is is old, beat up and falling apart. George, the headmaster was very keen to get his hands on any teaching material we could give him. Sadly we handed on most of our old stuff  to the school in Tonga. We did give them as many David Attenborourgh and BBC educational  documentaries as the schools computer’s memory would take. If anyone could help out with a range of primary school books (they will happily photocopy anything they get to pass out to the kids), I’d be pleased to give people an address by PM. Land mail is delivered once a month when the ship comes in. There is no air service to the island. There is one TV which “sometimes” works with a sat dish and a freeview box, held communally in one of the school buildings. It wasn’t working whilst we were there. We got the Scotland-Fiji score via a phone call.

We visited our host family for our stay in the atoll. This visit entailed simple introductions, a cup of lemon tea and some pancakes. Kid’s boats aren’t common (less than 1 in 10, said our host) so having so many kids suddenly rock up caused great interest and our hosts’ house had a revolving crowd of village smalls all coming to see our kids.

Our hosts, Tai, Suka, Wattie and Koro were all names we had read about in the Compendium. Tai, staff at Musket Cove for 15yrs was the man that had the Chief introduce the $50 fee for staying in the atoll. Articulate, bright and friendly he was an excellent host. Wattie and Koro are cousins but seem to hang out with each other.  Koro has a good understanding of English but seemed shy to use it.

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We dinghied around back around to the village the next day having been invited to lunch after church. The church service lasted two hours and the Minister was more of a fire and brimstone type than the happy cheerful soul that led the service in Tahaa, still the best service we have been to. We were asked during the service to stand up and give the congregation a quick run down of ourselves and I took the opportunity to thank them all for their hospitality and friendship. The Minister came to apologise after the service in excellent English for conducting it in Fijian. We told him we were glad he didn’t as it would have removed a lot of the charm of the occasion! Those from our party that partook in Communion said he did their blessing in English.

As always in the Pacific the singing was loud and enthusiastic. The only musical accompaniment was a metal triangle vigourously banged. The kids’ choir was excellent and I’ve included one of their renditions. I’d think most churches in the UK would be happy with the volume and the harmony! Click the link.

Kids Choir of Muanaicake, Falaga, Lau Island, singing in church

We went for a wander around the village after church to wait for the call for lunch. Sala, the headmaster’s daughter showed us around.

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Lunch was a glorious offering of homemade food. There were noodles, half a dozen different fish dishes, a turtle curry, cassava in a couple of forms, roti, bread fruit, a sweet bread for pudding and all in huge quantities. We as the guests ate first and as we proclaimed ourselves to be full, the plates were handed down the table and our hosts got stuck in. I think we all felt that the turtle curry was the piece de resistance but it was all terrific. We also enjoyed fresh coconut milk using a cut papaya stem as the straw.

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After inviting the family back to see us on Tuesday evening on board Skylark we headed back to the boat. We moved Skylark to another island no more than 500m from where we were to 19 08.008S 178 34.339W on sand in 24’ of water. Occupied until just recently, the small hut is still in good condition and the coconut grove is in a fair condition. The island has large beaches exposed at low tide and  we had a good explore . We stayed on the island all day exploring the shallow bays and finding a good selection of hard corals,  chitons, starfish and small fish.

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It was too good a chance for the kids to go in to school and having been invited by George, the headmaster, the younger ones headed in. Hannah was a bit surprised at how long schools went on for (0830-1500 – boy, is she in for a shock when we get home). Eleanor found herself well beyond anything they were teaching. Kinsley helped with the kindergarten kids.

Fulaga

After heading back to the boats to feed children and being joined by Invictus, we decided that the island was a perfect place to have a bonfire. It was a great night.

With limited time left to explore we decided to move to the SE corner of the atoll.  With the watermaker playing silly buggers, Invictus was kind enough to fill us up with water before we moved. You are always grateful to have a friend with a watermaker making nearly 10x the amount of water we can with our little one! It took less than an hour to make and transfer around 300l. Our thanks to Tobi and Nicole and and wish them a safe passage across to Maola Island. We should catch up with them in a couple of weeks at Musket Cove.

The passage through the atoll is one you need to be careful of but the scenery is fantastic. The lagoon is full of small James Bond type ancient coral formations which you can generally pass quite close to.

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As with all atolls, there are bommies and sandbanks around and you need eyes at the front of the boat. We went one better and stuck Eleanor up the mast so she could get a decent view forward and to warn us if we were getting near to trouble. She had fun with the camera too.

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The ladies on board, supplemented by Ciara from Stop Work Order, decided to have a pouting competition. You can decide the winner. Hannah didn’t get it and just looks cute!

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We anchored @ 19 08.396S 178 32.528W in 12’ of water, disturbing a turtle as we dropped the hook. There was a certain amount of toing and froing between boats and it ended up with Hannah having a sleepover with Truly on Stop Work Order and the Eleanor and Kinsley sleeping on our trampoline. We hosted Patrick and Corise for sundowners to give them a break from the noise of six kids before we split them back to their respective yachts!

We had a rendition of “We are the Champions” over Ch16 which was the victory call of T-Be, a NZ Bahia 46 who had got the news that NZ had won the America’s Cup. Great news and a invitation to all was extended for a pot luck supper and sundowners on their boat in the evening. It was a fun evening and we met another set of Hendersons from NZ who very conveniently were able to give us details of where they had bought and imported a new membrane for their Spectra water maker, sadly something we now need to do as well. It has saved us a lot of wasted time researching.

The kids went off with Stop Work Order to visit the small village at the end of the atoll whilst we moved the boat around to the bay at 19 08.902S 178 33.925W on sand in 25’ of water to allow us short taxi rides for Tai and family’s visit out to us. The men were keen to get stuck into the kava, the kids into the cake, sweets and juice and the ladies a mix of both. We weren’t quite expecting the number that arrived but it was great to be able to host the family back after all their hospitality. Great people.

The kava flowed and everyone, including our girls, got a taste. Hannah left hurriedly but showed enough decorum not to retch until she was out of sight of the locals!

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They stayed for a couple of hours and we thoroughly enjoyed their company. We talked about the possibility of the island becoming a booking in port, something that would greatly increase the number of visitors the island would get and the impact on the island. Even after 5 years of being open to cruisers again, the local view is mixed in whether this would be welcome or not.

After they had sung a farewell song to us, we ran them home with storage containers, toys, books and what dry stores we could spare.

We moved back up to the SE anchorage at last light using our previous track and a big torch to ensure we got in safe.

Our last day was spent in and around the anchorage, kids playing with Stop Work Order and the grown ups getting the boat ready. I made one last visit to the village to take some printed photos of our time in the village to Tai and to visit the school and download some documentaries.

The people of Fulaga have been the most welcoming of anyone we have met in during our travels. Still early in the season, they have had few boats as of yet (they average about 75 a season) and perhaps was just that they aren’t touristed out yet. But I  rather think what we experienced was their simple and honest hospitality. They don’t have much but all they had was offered freely. Life is hard for the islanders and those that stay are proud of the old lifestyle. However, it hasn’t stopped the majority of adults of a working age moving away from the island for an easier more modern life. All children leave for their secondary education in Savu and many families simply up and go for this period too, not to be seen again until their 40s or in Tai’s case, once he retired at 55. It is a sad fact that the old ways are no longer attractive enough for the young to hold them to the island. There needs to be more opportunity for money making ventures to entice some at least to stay. Otherwise, the island population will continue to see a slow decrease. There are already too many unoccupied houses in the village.  Exposure to modern conveniences has happened, Pandora’s box has been opened and there is no shutting it now.

We left Fulaga on a falling tide with just a few standing waves at the pass for the 130Nm trip up to Vanua Balavu, part of the Explorer Isles.

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