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Shark diving, waterfall sliding, kava drinking and sea snaking in Fiji

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My 2 weeks in Fiji were exciting, beautiful and restorative. Fijians are among the friendliest people I've ever met, and traveling there was an absolute pleasure. This was my first time traveling solo, and I met so many wonderful locals and fellow travelers.

The trip started on Viti Levu, the biggest, most populous and developed island. Though much of it seems quite rural.

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Arriving at Club Oceanus in Pacific Harbour, the divemasters immediately plied me with beer and pizza. Clearly these are people who know how to relax.

That evening, my new friend Ash from the resort took me to a big party at Uprising, up the street. The party was a bit frat house, what with its Jim Beam sponsorship, silly dance contests, and heavy Black Eyed Peas rotation. I liked that local people and travelers were mixing it up there, and it had a fun, laid back vibe. A great way to kick off the trip.

The next day I swam in warm water at a local beach, and was joined by about 12 young local boys. They spoke great English (it's required in school), and played Marco Polo with me. They buried an older kid completely in sand, and offered to do the same for me. One boy sang Stevie Wonder songs in a beautiful voice. Several asked to borrow my goggles. Come to think of it, the same thing happened when I swam with local kids in Taganga, Colombia.

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White water rafting with Rivers Fiji was pretty fabulous (that's me on the left). Driving up a mountain on bumpy roads, our group boarded 4 yellow rubber rafts. A fun little group of Australians was on my raft — a mom and 2 daughters. Moses, our guide, did an excellent job steering our boat and keeping us safe. Moses and Abraham, another guide, instigated splashing wars, but of course Moses had the advantage in water-related issues.

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It was such a gorgeous day out, and the landscape was amazing — the river had carved deep, curving canyons through the mountain, and lush jungle dripped onto us from atop the steep canyon walls. The whitewater parts were fun, and Moses took us down a few little inlets to swim and splash in small waterfalls. Sometimes we'd float down the river in our life vests. At one point, we got soaked standing under a much larger waterfall. This is one of my favorite kinds of days — sun, water, adrenaline and fun!

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The next day, I rode the ziplines at Zip Fiji. The owner drove me there, and it was interesting to hear how he'd applied his airospace engineering skills to building zip line courses around the world. Luckily, my group consisted only of myself and a little boy.

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Two guides led us through some rain forest to the first platform, explaining local uses of some of the plants to me. Apparently there's a plant that serves as a fish sedative when you put it in the water, making it easier to fish. And there's even a scuba mask defogger plant!

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The platforms and ziplines looked well engineered; each line was actually a double line. I really liked the tour of the forest canopy that the ziplines gave. It was a course of 8 lines, so you could see the landscape change as you went down the mountain.

My final day in Pacific Harbour, I went on a 2 tank shark dive with Aqua Trek. It was pretty fabulous. I've seen and even snuggled sharks while diving before, but never so many at once.

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Photo: E. Cheng for Aqua Trek

We all descended to the ocean floor, overweighted so we could sit comfortably and not drift. 12 feet away, divemasters with chainmail gloves removed tuna heads from garbage cans, and the sharks began to swarm and feed from their hands.

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Photo: Pete Atkinson

There were black tip, white tip, silver tip, nurse, lemon, and my favorite, the bull shark! I'd seen all the others, but hadn't seen bulls before; in addition to being long, up to 11', they are quite wide and stout. A couple swam over my head. There may have been 20-30 sharks circling and feeding. Giant trevally, jacks, snappers, and other fish joined the fray — there were hundreds of fish in the frenzy. At one point, Sammy the divemaster came over to give me a beautiful bull shark tooth. After the activity died down we swam around a boat wreck for a few minutes.

While in Pacific Harbour, I met some interesting independent travelers, including a couple guys sailing around the world. One night, I tried kava, along with a couple fellow travelers and the locals who made it for us.


 

It's crazy how many cane toads there are on Viti Levu. They're an invasive species, and come out like a biblical plague when it rains.

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My last evening in Pacific Harbour, some of my new friends from Club Oceanus took me out drinking to say farewell.

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Early the next morning, I cabbed it to Suva, Fiji's biggest city, for my flight to Taveuni the "Garden Island." The airport cafe had some delicious Indian sausage rolls — something I haven't tried before.

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On Taveuni, I stayed at the lovely Coconut Grove resort, a small bed and breakfast with 3 guest bures (the name for a freestanding native home), and guest room in the main house (where I stayed).

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Ronna, the proprietor, and her sweet staff made it such a fun, comfortable stay.

The ladies at Coconut Grove made lovely food; I enjoyed it the whole time I was there. One favorite item was a sweet and spicy papaya soup.

Cats Popsickle and Creamsickle, and Millie the dog demanded daily belly rubs. Coconut Grove felt very homey.

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And Taveuni was incredibly beautiful, green and natural.

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Though Taveuni's population is quite small, there were many churches of different denominations, mosques, and Hindu temples.

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Soccer and rugby are super popular in Fiji.

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You can walk from today into tomorrow on Taveuni, as it's on the international dateline.

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This woman showed me her sewing shop, and accompanied me to the store to buy a sarong.

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The local fire brigade did their practice exercises for a crowd.

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I enjoyed the samosa shop's marijuana PSA poster.

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It was fun sliding down natural waterslides made of eroded rock with the local kids.

Waterslides

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I dove for a couple of days on Taveuni's Rainbow Reef with Taveuni Dive, but didn't bother with a camera this time. The coral was gorgeous and barroque; endless shapes and colors of coral were piled atop each other, and all the requisite tropical fish.

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Photos: Dominic Toledo

I especially enjoyed seeing a very large octopus, a couple unusual shrimp and lobsters, and some nudibranches. At one point, dolphins frolicked off the bow of our boat.

Another day I went on the Lavena Coastal Walk, a very well-built and groomed tropical rain forest trail by the sea. The plants, mountains, coast and waterfalls were gorgeous. Swimming in waterfall-fed ponds was delicious, as was sliding down a 12 foot waterfall into a lagoon.

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Jungle

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That night I stayed at a lodge next to a traditional village. I joined Ken, a marine biologist, and his group in giving kava to the village chief. This is a traditional way to ask permission to stay in a village. We walked through the village, took off our shoes, and entered a home where all the belongings seemed to hang from the rafters.

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The experience of sitting on the floor in the chief's dark room, as our greeting was translated, and our gift proffered to the chief was very powerful and special.

Later that evening, dinner was cooked by the local women, and included fish in coconut milk, taro, taro leaves (like spinach). Delicious. 

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Afterward, Ken invited me to go "sea snaking" with his group. He's an expert on sea snakes, and was counting the population along the shore. Shining flashlights, we waded around a rocky outcropping. The snakes can breathe air and water, and nest in holes at night on the shore. After a long search, a snake was found.

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One of his students carefully unearthed it from its hole, and I was able to hold the it! What a thrill. It was beautiful with dark blue and white banding, and a distinctive paddle-like tail. Sea snakes can be 20 times more venomous than land snakes, but I felt comfortable that the people around me were experts. I'm so grateful for this unique experience of seeing one up close.

It was so great to see the more developed (Viti Levu) and less developed (Taveuni) sides of Fiji in one trip. I hope to return and see my Fijian friends one day.

Ugly Overload!

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Yeah! One of my pictures made Ugly Overload today. Check it out. Or read the original post.

Profiteroles and Palm Trees

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We landed in Tahiti by night, and the air was pleasantly balmy. The owner of the pension picked us up, and later gave us some delicious buttery cake. A huge advantage of traveling in Francophone countries is that they know their bread and pastries.

The next day was unseasonably cloudy; we walked around Pipette all afternoon. There’s not a lot going on in Pipette.

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Lunch was delicious (and expensive) at a place called Zinc. Black pearls were being sold all over town. After cocktails at an open-air Chinese restaurant, we had dinner at an unlikely place: a French brewpub that makes its own special "tarts" — flaky crusted pizza with distinctive toppings. The waiter joked, "It’s better because it’s French." It was.

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Tahiti´s local brew…

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The next day, after a short ferry ride to the island of Moorea, we took a local bus to our ocean-side pension. Moorea is smaller than Tahiti, and looks wilder and more mountainous. It basically consists of steep, jagged, volcanic mountaintops jutting out of the sea — the platonic ideal of a Polynesian island. People only live at the bottom edge.

Our little hut was several feet from the water. Moorea is surrounded by a coral reef, which creates lovely, calm, coral-filled lagoons. We snorkeled several feet from our bungalow, and saw two octopi, a Lionfish, a Pipefish, and lots of other animals. It was better than some dives we’ve had.

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Diving with a local shop, the coral off Moorea looked like a pristine garden of dimpled umbrella-shaped coral heads. On the first dive, we saw several Black-Tipped and Lemon sharks. But the highlight was a sleeping Nurse shark — an eight-footer slumbering with its head under some coral. It was amazing to be within a foot of this creature.

A friendly Hawksbill turtle named Jeannine came to see us several times. Once, I swam through a current, right next to her. Later, the dive-master helped us feed her some sponge.

Assorted Morray Eels, Lionfish, Porcupine Fish, octopus, Pufferfish, Titan, Orange-line and Picasso Triggerfish, and many others were seen.

Moorea diving seems to be about (relatively) clear, warm waters, and mega-fauna. There aren’t many Nudibranches there.

A later snorkeling expedition revealed a large eel and lots of Pipefish.

One night, watching the sunset from the porch, I saw a couple longboats go by, rowed by chanting men.

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We enjoyed playing with this kitten at the pension.

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No account of French Poly is complete without one of these photos:

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On our last day, we took a tour, and saw lots of Black-tipped Sharks and, later, stingrays. The stingrays swarmed the tour group, searching for food, and felt very slippery and flexible. Lunch was an excellent barbecue on a small island. A bizarre number of chickens (forty?) and five cats showed up for a handout. A chicken drank from a cup of rum punch. We snorkeled near the island a while. Rays came near the shore of the island; being flattish, they can swim in just several inches of water.

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French Polynesia left me with some new impressions, though our stay was short. It has a reputation for being unfriendly, but we had only positive experiences. We enjoyed the meshing of French and Polynesian culture and cuisine. Somehow this sign for web design and sight administration seemed particularly French to me.

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And it surprised us to see how small the tourism infrastructure was on the islands, given that the islands have been a famous vacation spot for so long. This is a great thing for a traveler who likes a (relatively) less commercial experience, but probably makes it hard for the local economy to thrive. A positive aspect of the limited tourism infrastructure is that French Poly seems very livable for locals. It´s not completely overrun with tourists, and many businesses are aimed at the local market — the locals seem to continue to "own" their public spaces, unlike some more commercial places we´ve visited. Though I didn´t stay at Le Meridien, and the feeling might be different at that kind of venue.

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Diving the Great Barrier Reef

In Cairns, on the northeast coast of Australia, we made our first dive-related purchase — masks and snorkels. Mine are in white, and make me think of A Clockwork Orange somehow. We also attended a "Reef Teach" lecture on the flora and fauna of the reef, taught by the bizarrely theatrical, yet incredibly informative Paddy.

The next day, we boarded a Pro-Dive live-aboard dive boat for a three day adventure on the Great Barrier Reef. The boat was very comfortable, and with a good set of people.

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The three hour ride to the reef was incredibly choppy, and most were feeling queasy on arrival.

While at the reef, Jason and I did our first unguided dives together, some more successful than others. We saw some interesting fish, yet the reef seemed rather dead in some areas. We also tried night diving for the first time, and really enjoyed the feeling of floating in outer space. Many large red cod were out at night.

On one particularly good dive, we saw several large sea turtles. One of our fellow divers, Donald Cantlon, took this and all the other underwater shots in this post:

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There were multiple types of Clown-fish (Nemo) on the reef.

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Lion-Fish (or Scorpion-Fish) were well camouflaged.

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At one point, Jason and I were trying to navigate around a big coral formation and find the "swim through" to get back to the boat. We didn’t find it, and figured we’d swim over the top of the formation. Unfortunately, the flattish top of the coral was quite broad, and was only about three feet away from the roiling surface of the sea. We were churned around up there, and struggled to get back to the boat. It was exhausting. After a struggle, we finally cleared the coral. Now we know why it’s called a swim through. Not to be repeated.

We purchased a slate on the boat for the next dive. A slate is a tablet you can write on underwater. We figured this would help us communicate better. Our first underwater "conversation" was something highly streamlined like,

"Where boat?"

"Maybe that way –>"

"But are you sure we passed this coral?"

"Compass says that way."

"You sure?"

"Think so."

etc.

We spotted a few nudibranches (tiny colorful slugs), a sign we were improving — diving slowly and observantly.

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There were a few rays in the reefs too.

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Journey to the Red Center 5: Brick Beehives

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After getting up at a leisurely 6am, we cleared out.

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We stopped at Kings Canyon for the last hike of the trip. It another day of beautiful scenery in the desert. Muscular rounded rock formations look like brick domes or beehives.

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And there’s an oasis; a deep, rugged gorge cut by a stream, filled with plant life.

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Cycads, an ancient form of palm tree from the dinosaur days, thrive there — some are a thousand years old, but they look like they could have grown in a year to my eye. The little valley of green is a rarity in the harsh, dry bush.

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You can see layers of stone from the ice age(s) on massive sliced cliff-sides.

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We saw some parrots near our lunch site.

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After stretching our legs, we got back on the bus for several hours. We stopped at the giant echidna roadhouse again, where I saw this emu resting.

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Then we drove several hours to Alice Springs, the end-point of our outback adventure. That night, the group had one last dinner together.