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Destination: Fiji

Natural Selection : Exploring tiny, ecologically intact islands in this South Pacific corner by kayak and on foot

March 09, 1997|MARGO PFEIFF | Pfeiff is a freelance writer who lives in Quebec, Canada

TAVEUNI, Fiji — Perhaps it was those smiling eyes--part Irish, part Fijian--or his heart-melting charm. But when Keni Madden whistled softly, I'll be darned if the little hermit crabs we had just plucked from the beach didn't pop right out of their shells to have a look.

Madden lives in a magical paradise and he knows it. I met him at his robin's-egg-blue cottage perched on a hilltop on the Fijian island of Taveuni. We had a date to go kayaking for the day. After stacking the philosophy book he was reading onto a pile of British literature in his cottage, he grabbed some paddles from the porch and we were off.

While I surfed my kayak over rollers breaking across a reef, Madden paddled in to the local seaside Indian grocery to buy us a lunch of chapatis stuffed with spicy lentils. When he returned, we set off for Honeymoon Island, west of Taveuni.

The liquid turquoise beneath our boats was clear through 60 feet. A harmless blue and white banded sea snake floated by and flying fish took to the air ahead of our bows. All of this occurred as Madden regaled me with tales of his adventurous youth growing up on a tiny island just off Taveuni; of having to paddle in for groceries and the inevitable consequences of staying too late and being caught in the dark or in a storm.

After two hours we arrived at Honeymoon Island and had it to ourselves: a tiny horseshoe-shaped sliver with a thumbnail of white sand beach. We broke out the chapatis, and Madden cracked open fresh coconuts so we could sip the sweet milk inside.

In late afternoon we strapped on masks and fins and snorkeled a circle around the island, drifting above a rainbow panorama of purple lace sea fans, orange sponges and giant clams whose iridescent green mantles shimmered in the shards of sunlight probing the shallow reef. Tiny forests of pink anemones waved in the current as they sheltered families of striped orange clown fish. Hundreds of neon blue chromis flitted between the fingers of delicate coral mazes. As the gentle surge of the sea swayed me, I felt the tension of the outside world slip away. I was back in Taveuni after 14 years and almost nothing had changed.

*

The eight-seater prop plane that flew me in three days earlier had been packed to the ceiling with packages, crates of fruit and bags of flour. A rotund Englishman sweating profusely in his beige safari suit flopped into the seat beside me and peered about. "Good," he concluded. "No chickens today." One of those characters you always seem to run across in odd corners of the tropics, he told me that he left Boston on a round-the-world yacht trip eight years before, sailed as far as Fiji and never left.

It warmed my heart to see that Taveuni's airstrip at Matei was still unpaved. The terminal remained two simple huts with corrugated iron roofs: one for Sunflower Airlines, the other for Air Fiji, the airline that chauffeured me in from Nadi International Airport on the main island of Viti Levu. I had flown northeast of Viti Levu to the third biggest in the Fijian island chain of 330; back in time, too, to Taveuni's simple lifestyle.

I had come in search of a natural holiday in the tropics: hiking, bird-watching, kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving and living in thatch-roofed bures (traditional Fijian cottages) in resorts where the power is turned off at night and on again in the morning. No TV or radio, no air-conditioning or e-mail, not a paved road in sight. We call it eco-tourism. Fijians call it life.

Taveuni is a 166-square-mile volcanic island so rugged that the main road can only partly encircle its oblong shape. The eastern side is steep and cliff-lined, with waterfalls tumbling out of the jungle and into the sea. It is covered with vast virgin rain forest stocked with creatures no longer found on other Fiji Islands because the mongoose, used to kill rats elsewhere, was never introduced here.

As a result, Taveuni has a huge repertoire of birds--all the species found in Fiji--including several, like the orange-breasted dove and a parrot the locals call the kula, that are not found anywhere else.

Joachim Kiess, owner of Maravu Plantation Resort on Taveuni, my first lodging of the trip, loads me into his Jeep to show me the bird life high in the jungle forest of Des Voeux Peak, one of the tallest in the islands. As we bump our way along the shoreline road that runs down the western edge of the island, Kiess, who is also a real estate broker in southern Germany, tells me how he, his wife, Angela, and their two children came to live half of the year in Taveuni.

"We were staying at Maravu while we looked for a vacation house on the island," he said. When they learned, one day over lunch, that the resort was for sale they bought it. "Why not?" he laughs, with the sheer bliss of a man reborn in paradise. That was six months ago, and he now uses every excuse to explore his new home.

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