Tempting Taveuni

Andy Belcher | VOLUME 31, ISSUE 1
Basket starfish feed at night. They can live up to 35 years and weigh up to 5kg.
Fiji’s Taveuni Island offers divers and sportfishers a host of colourful and lively options.

Rainwater trickled in cold rivulets down the back of my neck and, as I ducked for cover, I found myself under the veranda of a travel shop where my winter-jaded eye was captured by a vibrant splash of colour. The banner ‘Fijian Delight’ almost sung to me and, within minutes, I had signed up for a mid-winter Fijian holiday.

It wasn’t long before we arrived at Fiji’s Taveuni Island, a destination renowned for its dazzling diving and frantic fishing.

As a keen diver, I had barely unpacked before I was in the water and descending into a reef-top tunnel at Taveuni’s Great White Wall, where I was met by squirrelfish, lionfish, a large grouper and clouds of tiny orange anthias fish. I was hoping to see the unique and stunningly coloured peacock mantis shrimp, but maybe it had already been dazzled by someone else’s camera lights and gone into hiding.

As I emerged from the bottom of the tunnel at 24m depth, it was clear why the Great White Wall dive has a reputation as one of the world’s best. A gully, which plummets into the depths, is lined with curling red sea whips, feather stars (crinoids) and majestic red gorgonia fans. Shafts of sunlight penetrating the clear water accentuate their colour. My dive buddy found a slit near the tunnel exit that looked like a mini version of the Great White Wall – it was crammed with pastel pink, mauve and purple soft corals all tempting me, a fanatical underwater photographer, into action. Coral colours are lost at depth, but reveal their true colours when lit up with powerful underwater flash units. This was shaping up to be one of my best dives ever!

We eventually swam out of the gully beside a deep vertical wall. We could only go in one direction as the current was in charge – with considerable effort we could stop, but certainly not swim up-current against it. White soft corals on the wall stretched in every direction to the limit of our 40m visibility, with plankton-rich waters and strong tidal currents nourishing the prolific coral growth.

The contrast between the vertical, shimmering white wall and the deep blue abyss below left me awestruck. We were drifting along at 30m and if ever a dive was to tempt us into nitrogen narcosis territory, this would be it. A degree of caution was needed and our dive guides were certainly watching our depth. Unfortunately, photographs don’t do justice to the Great White Wall – you have to see it yourself to believe it. It’s not surprising that Fiji has become known among divers as the soft coral capital of the world.

ISLAND OF MYSTERY

There are only a few places on earth still worthy of the ‘paradise’ moniker and, as far as I’m concerned, Taveuni Island is definitely one of them.

Sometimes known as the ‘Mystery Island of Fiji’, Taveuni is relatively unspoiled. Its mixture of volcanic mountains, rainforest, bush, and coconut, pineapple and coffee plantations makes it unique.

Taveuni is one of the few places in the world that lie on the 180th meridian, which forms the basis of the International Date Line. For convenience, though, the line where one day turns into the next has been conveniently modified so that it passes around the Fijian island group, instead of going through Taveuni.

Geography aside, Taveuni’s greatest asset is its people. Around 150 years ago, Taveuni Islanders were known as the fiercest cannibals in Fiji, fighting many wars with neighbouring Tonga. Much has changed since then, and they are now one of the friendliest and most welcoming people in the world. Taveuni hospitality is second to none – the locals are warm, friendly and hospitable.

The aptly named Paradise Taveuni, a resort on the southwest corner of the island, proved perfect for our stay. The bures (a bure is a Fijian wood and straw hut) were comfortable and very clean, the grounds were beautifully maintained, the food was great and the Fijian staff were ever smiling and helpful.

Our meals were a combination of fresh fish, seafood and the traditional Fijian staple of root crops. The meals often had an Indian influence of curries and chillies, with rich aromas and delicious flavours.

FEASTING FIJI-STYLE

The lovo, or Fijian earth oven, is a traditional part of a Fijian feast. In it, food is cooked in a pit of hot rocks that’s covered by banana or coconut palm leaves or the like and left to roast. At meal times, the guests were encouraged to mix and mingle, which created new friendships among people from all parts of the world.

Guests also enjoyed the opportunity to learn about Fijian culture. Female staff members performed the Meke, a traditional Fijian dance. It’s the most impressive expression of Fijian performing artistry and it celebrates local stories and legends, with dancers dressed in colourful, traditional costumes with floral garlands and ornaments.

You can’t go to Fiji without drinking kava from a coconut half-shell. The locals call it ‘grog’ and it has played a traditional part in Fijian culture for over 1000 years. Kava is a non-alcoholic drink made from the root and stems of the yaqona plant (pronounced yag-oona), a species of pepper plant that can grow up to 3m in height. I have to be honest and say that I didn’t much like the taste, but it did give me a bit of a high due to its active ingredient, kavalactone, which is a natural relaxant.

Rainbow Reef lies in the middle of Somosomo Strait between Fiji’s second and third largest islands, Vanua Levu and Taveuni. Vanua Levu has many gorgeous lagoons with long, sandy, deserted beaches, which are a must-see. Rainbow Reef is ranked as one of the world’s best dive sites and I was determined to experience it.

Jelly-like soft corals were abundant in almost every shape and colour. My friend Annie, who does not scuba dive, relished a shallow-water snorkel dive among many small, colourful reef fish. She also encountered a turtle and a black and white banded sea snake. Having an experienced dive-guide beside her in the water had given her the confidence to explore the reef further, and she gushed about her experience while on the boat trip back to shore.

Paradise Reef, conveniently situated right in front of the resort, was another dive destination. I did a giant stride entry off the jetty, descended and quickly spotted two leaf fish resting on coral and swaying slowly from side to side, looking like dead leaves as they waited for prey. I was so engrossed in trying to get the perfect photo of them that I didn’t leave enough time to search for other species.

Later on, I went for a night dive and was thrilled to see two basket starfish emerge from within the reef to feed on plankton. They were challenging to photograph as, every time my camera flashes fired, they would curl up and retreat back into the reef.

ANGLING ADVENTURE

Although I didn’t have time for gamefishing, it’s well known that the pristine and abundant waters surrounding Taveuni offer some of the best sportsfishing in Fiji. Only five or so minutes after launching, the ocean opens up to vast, almost virgin fishing grounds in every direction.

Anglers can expect to find all types of pelagic and reef fish as the topography is extremely varied, with ribbon reefs, pinnacles, islands, channels, outer reefs, straits, drop offs and sandy flats. Every direction is full of possibilities for an exciting, productive day of angling adventure. Target species include black and blue marlin, sailfish, wahoo, mahi-mahi, yellowfin, big-eye tuna and albacore. For the reef fisherman who enjoys casting, there are giant trevally, bluefin trevally, barracuda, wahoo, and dogtooth tuna.

For those wishing to explore Taveuni Island, Paradise Taveuni offers daily tours to Bowma Falls, the Waitavala Waterslide, the Warrior Burial Caves and Lake Tagimaucia. Bouma Falls is inside Fiji’s only World Heritage-listed National Park. It cascades and splashes 30m into a clear, cool swimming hole, which is a very popular spot year-round.

Taveuni Island surpassed my wildest dreams. The Paradise Taveuni resort was relaxing and friendly, while the diving was excellent, with dramatic drop-offs, colourful reefs, plenty of pelagics and superb soft corals.

If pressed to define the whole experience in words, including the diving, the raw beauty of the island and its people or the great hospitality, I couldn’t go past a phrase I spotted in a local travel brochure: Taveuni, naturally unforgettable.


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