End of a Chapter

The final chapter in our cruise with Andrea and Anson was spent around the island of Taveuni and the outlying islands of Rabi and Kioa. Taveuni’s north tip was the site of kiting joy last year, and we hoped for a repeat. But the winds had backed to the east and one frustrating day at the kiting spot made us realize that a SE trade was essential for kiting bliss at this locale.

The next day we set off on a road trip and hike to the three waterfalls in Bouma National Park. We pushed ourselves up the beautiful hike in hot sun, up and up and up and up to the top fall. Sweating and out of shape from our time at sea, we plunged into the pool at the base of the topmost waterfall and enjoyed the surreal beauty of tropical foliage surrounding a picture perfect cascade dropping into a round pool. We lounged like lizards on the warming rocks and ate a snack before hiking down, vacating the top pool just as the next party of hikers arrived. By the time we reached the bottom pool, church was out and local youth were playing water rugby. We swam again to cool off and enjoy the scene, then set out on the long bumpy ride back to the boat.

But the ride itself was another joy, for we quickly made friends with Mani, the taxi driver, by launching into Hindi and opening up worlds. We shared dinner that night with his wife and grandson at a local pizzeria by our anchorage. They are rebuilding their cyclone devastated kava plantation with hopes of retirement in a few years, to be followed by traveling. The first destination will be India to connect with relatives of his (great?) grandparents, people he knows only through Facebook. Our many worlds collide in Fiji, and at times, speaking Hindi as the world blurs by out the windows, it is hard to remember which side of the globe we are on.

The next day we set out for Albert’s Cove on Rabi Island, a picturesque semi-circular cove with good protection from the trades and a lovely white beach. We had a delightful reach northeast from Taveuni, then hardened up to parallel the southern edge of Rabi’s barrier reef, flying effortlessly along. We had a choice before us: cut through a pass in the reef and dodge corals along the way to and through another pass on the north side, then slip a few miles west to the anchorage, or journey to the tip of the reef, five miles further east, and sail 7 miles west back along the northern edge of the lagoon. With plenty of daylight and glorious sailing, choosing the longer path was easy. Besides, it set us up for our only spinnaker set of the trip.
Anson and Devon got in high gear on the foredeck; this time Devon ran all the lines for the spin set so he’d be prepared to take over the critical position of bow once Anson departed. Anson watched his brother master the complex run of lines and pole and then readied for the raise. With the chute popped, Anthea surged forward. We trimmed that spinnaker like we were racing, easing the sheet until the edge barely curled and calling for the muscle on the winch to help trim to every puff and lull. We set the pole for maximum power and ate up the 7 mile broad reach eastward. Too soon we arrived outside the cove and had to douse the chute and return to cruising life. We could have sailed with that spinnaker for hours!

Thankfully Albert’s Cove was a divine destination, with a beautiful crescent beach and calm water. Mark and I dinghied ashore to see if anyone was living in what our cruising guide described as a seasonal abode. To our astonishment we met Kaotha, a man in his late 60s living alone in a simple shelter with outdoor kitchen. He walked with a crutch to help support a leg that never recovered from a stroke a decade ago. We asked for his permission to anchor and set a time for our full crew to visit him the next morning. The next morning, after our banana pancake breakfast, all five of us journeyed ashore, offering a solar light and several pancakes as gratitude for his welcome into the cove. He was delighted by the light, a most welcome addition to his homestead, as he had no power source other than flashlight batteries. We sat on the platform he had erected from rough hewn timbers, centered in the yard that he had carefully swept that morning.

Early in our conversation, he shared two dates with us which helped us understand the significance of this unique island. The first was January 15, 1945, the day the first shipload of displaced Banaban Islanders (original residents of Banaba or “Ocean” Island near Kirabati) set foot on Rabi Island in Fiji. The second was his birthdate, in December of 1951. It struck us that he first offered the date of his people’s arrival, spurring us to learn more about the circumstances that led Britain to purchase the island from Fiji and settle thousands of refugees from their home thousands of miles away.

The story of Kaotha’s people is classic colonialism, with theft of land and extraction of resources at an obscene scale. Farmers of Australia and New Zealand, hungry for fertilizer, created the demand for the phosphate; Banaba Island was found to be one of the most phosphate rich islands in the Pacific. The New Zealander Albert Ellis, working for a British mining company, began exploiting the island, first with consent for mining a limited portion of land, and then through coercion and deceit. Finally an agent of the British government threatened the Banaban peoples with force and ended non-violent protests by Banaban women, who hugged their coconut trees in an attempt to stop the plunder of the land. The island was quickly being decimated by the mining, and then came WWII. In 1942 the Japanese landed on the island, sent most of the inhabitants to labor camps on neighboring islands, and massacred over 100 men. Upon the completion of the war, Britian vowed to prevent the Banabans from returning to their home so that they could mine every ounce of phosphate without interruption. The Crown turned to Fiji, bought an island, and resettled a traumatized people in a land far from home, while the plunder continued to the bitter end. In the 1960s and 70s several Banaban leaders went to London to seek justice, and after numerous meetings with bureaucrats resulted in no action, they launched the longest court case in British history, finally winning limited justice, but with no specification for compensation. A limited monetary settlement followed over a decade later, but money is not land, and the Banabans remain an isolated minority within Fiji, recrafting their lives in an environment much colder and wetter than their equatorial home. (If interested, see http://www.banaban.com/contents/en-us/d17_Banaban-historical-overview.html for a website by Banaban peoples on their history and current projects. The 1970s documentary/film “Tell it to the Judge” is at once a critique of colonialism and a reproduction of colonial discourse, with some excellent historic footage from the 1970s court case.)

Kaotha came of age during the fight for justice, but our Banaban is non-existant, and his English limited, so we were left to interact through word and gesture, sharing simple stories of family, land and sea. We made a plan for a fire on the beach and a shared dinner for the following day, and then left to explore the area.

Our walk along the beach stretching northward was magical. We were the only boat in the anchorage, and Kaotha the only resident in the cove, so we felt lost in space and time. Mark and I walked ahead and sat on the beach as Anson and Andrea searched for shells along the route (Devon opted for time home alone aboard Anthea). Before me I saw a pebble rise in the air, twirl and swirl in circles before landing again. After a short pause, it seemed to leap up into the air and dance some more. Spinning, leaping and twirling, the pebble danced inches above the sand, its movements as elegant as a ballerina. I let myself enter a fairy world of dancing rocks by a lagoon’s sandy shore, deferring the search for a rational explanation. And then my brain correlated breeze with leap, and I saw the delicate silk of a spider’s web ensnaring the pebble and attaching it to a small branch overhead. Mark and I watched the show and urged Anson and Andrea down the beach to witness this spider art sashayed by breeze. Small moments like these, senses touched by nature, soothe the soul.

A snorkel in the windy cove showed us many of our fishy friends, and some of the coral we have come to love, but the visibility was poor. The wind, however, inspired thoughts of kiting. The next day we returned to the beach and pulled off a first successful dinghy launch. Without a tangle in his lines, Anson took off beyond the lee of the island, but still within the protected lagoon, and powered upwind, one graceful sliding transition after another propelling him forward. Mark, the endlessly supportive father that he is, then returned to shore to help with dinghy launch number two. Devon had all his gear ready for the dinghy ride into the wind; he hopped in the water, swam his lines out, and up went the kite. But something was terribly wrong! He depowered the kite and wrestled with the bar to attempt to untwist lines, but soon found that he was in a potentially bad situation. Yanking the emergency release, the kite soared hundreds of feet in the air and then sank from the sky. Luckily it landed within the lagoon, within easy reach of the dinghy. Mark and Devon raced out to retrieve the kite and returned to shore.

By this time the clock was ticking for our beach fire and cookout date. Anson finally turned downwind, and we rushed to pack up all the gear and return to Anthea. Once aboard we frantically threw sausages, potatoes, cheese, pre-made rotis and mustard into a bag, along with a cutting board, knife and aluminum foil, and set off for shore. There we met up with Kaotha and one of his nephews. Kaotha coordinated the efforts of gathering dried palm leaves, and soon we realized we had competing visions of the meaning of beach fire. We had imagined a tidy little flame on the beach over which we roasted sausages on sticks and placed sliced potatoes and cheese in foil packets within the coals. Kaotha, however, had planned a massive conflagration. We followed his lead of course, and Devon and I helped him to shove dried palm fronds into the skeleton of a dead tree at the edge of the beach. After Kaotha determined that each frond was as high as it could possibly go, he handed Devon a strip of bark to secure the bundle to the branches. He then moved us down a limb and out to the side, concluding with a bundle of fronds layered at the base of the dead tree. The amount of fuel looked terrifying – the palm leaves needed only a spark to catch, and we imagined the dead tree would burn for days. But this was Kaotha’s home turf, so we followed his plan and hoped we wouldn’t burn his home down. Meanwhile Mark, Anson and Andrea worked on the cooking fire, in Kaotha’s fire pit fueled by coconut husks. Potato packets were lovingly stuffed in the coals while sticks were cut for roasting.

Kaotha called everyone for the lighting ceremony, and we gathered on the beach for the show. Flames leapt, dried palm crackled, and sparks burst into the sky. Soon the air above us was peppered with glowing orange and red sparks, causing us to stare in disbelief at the firework-like show. Occasionally dodging a falling ember or stamping out a rogue flame, we watched as the sky cleared and then crept forward towards the roaring remnants of the fire. The heat pushed us back, and we soon realized that even in its death throws, this fire would not be for cooking.

While the fire was spectacular, the dinner was abysmal. Sausages in Fiji are a far cry from gourmet California cuisine, and even mustard couldn’t hide that fact. Meanwhile the potato packets were either charred or raw. We served the best of the lot to Kaotha and his nephew, who seemed to enjoy the unusual dinner (or at least the spectacle of a bunch of foreigners roasting sausages and extracting potatoes and cheese from the fire). Fortunately the food was the only disaster: the palm frond flames died out and the dead tree stood tall; even the rogue sparks, flying hundreds of feet into the forest, were fended off by the moist tropical foliage.

The next day we set sail for the protection of Naqaiqai Bay, as a significant trough was forecast with the slight possibility of a tropical depression forming, so we set out for ultimate safety in this mud and mangrove bay at the mouth of a creek. Our sail along Rabi was raucous, as the winds had already built. We dashed across the channel between Rabi and Kioa and found ourselves in the protection of Kioa’s high peak. Here we glided slowly in flat water and watched the green hills slip slowly by. Too soon we shot out the other side and were beating into wind and wave once again, finally arriving at the cyclone hole of Naqaiqai Bay. The snorkeling was over for Anson and Andrea, as were the sails. This anchorage marked the tail end of a month-long chapter of five aboard Anthea.

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