I have visited the Fijian island Taveuni five times. First with a group of volunteers for an Easter vacation, next with my sister to visit Bouma Falls, again with my mother to swim beneath the waterfalls in Lavena village, and two more times in a single week, once with my brother and sister on their vacation from America, and again with some other volunteers to dive the famous Rainbow Reef. Because the latter two were the most recent, they are the ones I will focus on in this post, though it is meant to be a travel guide to the island as well as a narrative of my adventures.
Taveuni is referred to as the “Garden Island of Fiji” due to its fertile soil and abundance of farmers making their living growing and selling fruits, vegetables, and kava. Despite this, the produce is very expensive in the town markets, because all of the local produce is sold to make money and more must be imported for consumption. Not far from town, one will be distracted from the economics by the lush jungles, colorful parrots, roaring waterfalls, and a flower so rare that it does not grow anywhere else in the world, not even on other Fiji islands.
Kara's homestay/hostel is one of two places I have taken up quarters in Taveuni and there are many reasons I continue to go back. Kara is a woman who owns a large plot of land just outside a village called Lovonivonu (“turtle cooked in an underground oven,” in English). On her compound she grows just about every fruit and vegetable imaginable. Parrots squawk and flutter between trees, sometimes landing on the passion fruit vines for a juicy snack. Their green backs, blue wings, and red bellies can hold my attention for hours. There is a pool on the compound made with large stones around a small stream. The passage can be stopped up so the pool fills and creates a semi-natural swimming pond complete with fish and shrimp.
She has a three bedroom house, beside which is another large, one room house for her guests. There are typically four beds, though she has added more when necessary. Inside are two bathrooms and a sink, and outside are two more bathrooms with toilets and showers. Just beside it, connected by a large front porch, is a kitchen with a gas stove, sink, and all the utensils, plates, and pans you could need. Kara usually provides fruits for breakfast in the mornings and she will cook for her guests for a small fee (about USD$7/day) if they ask.
To stay, Kara only charges FJD$25/night (USD$12). She is one of the kindest people I have ever met and I highly recommend her accommodation. To get there from the ferry, just walk south until you see the second sign for Lovonivonu and make a left. From the airport, a taxi is necessary and will cost about FJD$20. Tell the taxi driver to take you to Waimakare, and if he is confused tell him, “Rock pool.” Most people know about the rock pool.
It is possible other guests will share the accommodation with you, but Kara will usually ask if this is alright. However, I have only shared once in my five times there, as it is not well advertised and very few tourists find out about it. It is truly a hidden paradise.
On my last trip I dove the Rainbow Reef. The Somosomo straight, an ocean passage between Vanua Levu and Taveuni, is one of the most beautiful dive spots in Fiji. The Pacific Ocean feeds through and creates more soft coral than exists anywhere else in the world. This is why Fiji is often referred to by divers as the “Soft Coral Capital of the World”.
When I went with three other volunteers we dove with Taveuni Ocean Sports and I would highly recommend them. On top of being professional and safe (not extremely common when diving in Fiji) they are fun. Owned by an American named Julie, they are really good to US Peace Corps Volunteers. They picked us up from Kara's, where we were staying, which would have been a $15 cab ride, each of the two mornings we dove. They provided all of our gear and took us out on very new and reliable boats.
The first day the weather was bad and we were with a new diver from Japan who spoke little English. She held us up. Once down on the ocean floor, we waited for some time for her to get the hang of swimming. She was up and down and all around the whole time, unable to control her movement. Due to this, we spent a lot of time on that first dive sitting on dead coral looking at a few fish and one White Tip Reef Shark.
As Peace Corps Volunteers, we are always on the look out for good food, and the snacks we were given on the boat between dives were some of the best I've had in Fiji. Homemade hummus, not too thick and not too thin, fresh vegetables, crackers, fruits, fresh squeezed fruit juice, chai tea, and home-baked deserts were provided. I felt bad for the Japanese girl as we swarmed and devoured every crumb before the dive master was finished talking to us about species of fish.
The second dive on that first day started out better. We went to Fish Factory, a dive site I had heard amazing things about. People had told me schools of fish surround divers, so that one could hardly see. I had big expectations. Once in the water, my mask began to fill with water every time I turned against the current. I cleared it a few times by pushing the top and blowing out my nose as I had learned to do when I was certified. It worked, but did not stop it from filling again two minutes later. Drastic measures were required.
During the PADI Open Water Diver certification course, one is expected to prove the ability to remove and replace one's mask underwater. It was by far the most stressful part of the certification. But now I am more experienced, I have earned my PADI Adventure Diver certification, and I am more comfortable underwater. So, when my mask would not stop filling up with water, I took it off and readjusted it, seventy feet below the sea's surface. Three times I did this. No luck. I suffered and saw little. But I did not miss much. Fish Factory, at least on this day, did not live up to its name.
At the end of the first day, I was disappointed. All of us were, though we did not want to admit it to the others or to ourselves. I felt as though I had wasted two-hundred dollars. It was not the dive shop's fault. As with all disappointment, our expectations had been too high. We had heard so many amazing things about diving in Taveuni—many people had told me it was their favorite spot in the world—and it did not live up to the hype. I hoped the next day would be better.
That night we went out for delicious and expensive bacon cheeseburgers at Coconut Grove, another American owned establishment. Hannah and I had a glass of wine and the total for the two of us came to FJD$64 after a Peace Corps discount. Quite an expensive dinner, but I was ready and willing to pay for a good meal after spending months eating fish and taro leaves.
The following morning we were picked up by the dive shop's white van again. On the way to the shop the owner asked how the diving was the day before. I lied and said it was excellent. After all, it was not her fault it had sucked.
At the dive shop we grabbed our gear and headed out again, on a newer, nicer boat with two two-hundred horsepower engines. It was fast and got us to our first dive of the day, a site called Swirling Rainbow due to the rotating current.
This time, us three Peace Corps Volunteers had our own personal dive master so we did not have to wait for anyone else like we did for the Japanese girl on the first day. Unfortunately, Emily was not able to join us this time because her ears had given her problems the day before and she was afraid they would rupture.
As soon as we got in the water we descended and began swimming, enjoying the fact that we were in control of our dive. We saw an octopus standing guard above its home, a White Tip Reef Shark resting on the sea floor, schools of fish, a huge Clown Trigger Fish, an Oriental Sweetlips hiding in coral, lots of Clown Fish guarded by anemones, and so much more. It was a nice dive, more what I had expected from Taveuni. And the strong current kept it interesting.
After another delicious humus snack and one-hour surface interval, we were told our next dive site. The Great White Wall. It was the dive we had all been hoping for since we arrived in Taveuni. It is a vertical wall covered in white soft coral and sea life. It seems to be in the middle of an infinite sea, as looking to the right or straight down one can see nothing but blue. It was truly amazing.
This gorgeous site was made better with swims through caverns, under coral ceilings, and up through rock holes that looked like portals with the sunny ocean surface above. It was the best dive I have ever done. I hope to go back again.
However, getting back on the boat presented some troubles. When we surfaced our dive master told us the current had brought us too close to the reef and we needed to swim away so the boat could get close enough to pick us up. We kicked as hard as we could as our inflated vests kept us afloat. Shortly, the boat came around, the captain throwing out a long rope. The dive master told us to grab hold.
I grabbed on and so did everyone else, including another group of divers that had joined us at the surface. There were about ten of us holding the rope in a single file line. Hannah was in front of me and as the boat started to pick up speed I saw her bobbing in and out of the waves, struggling to breathe, as we had all taken our regulators out.
She was the first to be ripped off, as far as I could tell. She was ripped backward, slammed into me, and spun off to my left. I let go, not wanting to leave her behind and because it was becoming near impossible to hang on. When I did I realized that no one was still on the rope. The boat had gone so fast, pulled so hard, that everyone had let go or been pulled off.
“What the hell was that?” a middle-aged American woman asked.
All of us Peace Corps Volunteers had learned not to become angry at such things and we all laughed. Eventually, the boat got us out of the water, though we struggled to get onto the boat as fast as we could, which is a difficult task with twenty pounds or more of gear on.
At the end of the day we grabbed a beer at the parent resort of the dive shop, Nakia, and talked about what a great time we had and how much better it was than the previous day. I even shirt swapped our dive master for his Taveuni Ocean Sports t-shirt that costs FJD$30 at the shop. We had dinner at Taveuni Dive Resort, a delicious pizza, and talked mostly about diving.
The earlier trip, with my brother and sister to the waterfalls at Bouma, will be a separate post in a few days since I had so much to say about diving.