Our course was south to the Makongai Channel that cuts between the end of the Namena Barrier Reef and the reefs surrounding the Makongai Island Group, which is just northeast of the historically significant island of Ovalau. (The city of Levuka on Ovalua -- the base of early European colonizers -- was the first capital of Fiji.)
My original idea had been to take this trip slowly, leg by leg, stopping over at Namena and Makongai which are said to have great diving, and then onward, leisurely, to Vuda Point around the top of Viti Levu by the route inside the reefs. Last week's weather delay, however, robbed us of the time to be leisurely, and new wx forecasts threatened a possibility of high winds returning. With Uncle Bill's return ticket just a week away, we felt we ought to keep moving.
The day was gorgeous, clear skies and crisp air. Of course, having waited out the heavy winds, we now had too little, and we were forced to motorsail most of the morning. But who could complain! The boat motion was dreamy, an easy swishing over the seas under blue sky, and we enjoyed a decadent lunch of baguettes (frozen from Futuna) with pate and brie!
As we approached the Makongai Channel, however, the wind steadily picked up until before we knew it we were bashing in 20+ knots, the sea abruptly stirred to whitecaps far and wide! Even so, having reached the channel early – about 1300 – we decided to push onward to the next stop, Naigani Island, a mere fifteen miles further on. This, probably, was not a particularly wise decision, because those fifteen miles were across Fiji's infamous Vatu-I-Ra channel, where winds funnel and accelerate between Vanua Levu and Viti Levu. Had something not gone quite right, there we would have been, at the end of a long day, up the proverbial creek.
Things did not go wrong, however, and once we realized we still had a full main up (we so rarely do these days!) and got it reefed, our ride settled back into the manageable and we laid Naigani comfortably before dusk.
From offshore, we'd been skeptical that the three steep lumps of the island seemingly huddled in the sea of whitecaps could provide a comfortable anchorage for us where it was alleged to be at the north end. But, in fact Cagabuli (Thangambuli!) (17*34.33'S; 178*44.65'E) proved to be a charming cove with a sand bottom and a white sandy beach with palm trees, all within the embrace of two curving reefs. Although the wind gusted around the north end of the island, the boat sat comfortably back-winded stern-to the beach. According to the cruising guide, the only village on Naigani is a few coves further on while a small resort is at the southeast end. With towering cumulus clouds massed on the sunset horizon over the north end of Viti Levu and with bats chattering in the forest ashore, the only clue that we didn't have the island to ourselves was the cackle and crow of common chickens.
The next morning, after indulging in a leisurely breakfast that we felt we deserved to enjoy in the beauty of our surrounds, we moved onward, in part motivated by a radio call from our young friends Tricky and Jane on Lionheart, who, after stopping at Makongai, had determined they must press on due to some battery problems. We "allowed" them to catch up to us as we sailed up the coast and traveled tandem with them the rest of the way around.
The north coast of Viti Levu is quite handsome with lots of inlets with small beaches, small Fijian villages, and waving coconut palms. As we reached the northernmost tip at Volivoli Point with the off-lying Nananu islands, the development became abruptly more westernized with expensive-looking housing on the islands and a large, eye-catching resort on the mainland point(a little Internet research reveal the new resort is Wananavu Beach Resort!) on the mainland point, all in a landscape now reminiscent of the California coast. We didn't get to rubber-neck to the degree we might have liked, because the channel requires some abrupt changes of direction as it wends its way among the reefs. Since we'd been sailing with main only, this called for some quick gybing back and forth, for which we were quite grateful to have an extra hand on board!
As we started down the back side of Viti Levu, the landscape suddenly became reminiscent of Baja, with dusky brown mountains ranging high and haunting behind arid looking grasslands in the foreground. The Fijian national pastime of burning fields was well in evidence by the haze that pooled in this valley or the other. In fact, from the anchorage we found about five in the afternoon, the flames of several hillside blazes burned like beacons in the dark. Fortunately, they were all downwind.
We woke early again to another crystal clear day and were underway one behind the other by 0630 passing a landscape from which the majesty gradually drained away to a fairly blah palette of browns. This area, the Ba roads, is said to be the fast-growing district in Fiji, but for sure it must be inland somewhere, because, but for a big wharf, there was little sign of it on the coast. An interesting anecdote, however, is that I had strong cellular broadband service the whole way (except in the lee of Naigani), and I confess I spent some time on the computer during the boring stretches.
We passed through the busy port of Lautoka a little after midday. Lautoka is Fiji's second largest city (after the capital of Suva) and is the center of the sugar industry, long the economic mainstay of the country. Wood chips must also be a major product, judging by the huge pile rising behind the commercial docks. Several mini-cruise ships were moored in the roadstead, but other than a yard stacked with containers, a small marina, and the commercial docks, there was not much on the shoreline to catch our eye. Offshore there is the island of Bekana with a small resort and several sailboats on moorings. We'd been advised that to check in to the port of Lautoka it was preferable to moor out at Bekana, and dinghy across to the port, but we didn't stop as the marine brochure for Fiji advised we could check in from Vuda Marina by bus. And so, we pushed onward the last few miles, rounding the headland where Fiji's first settlers are reputed to have landed, to pull into Vuda Point Marina by mid-afternoon.
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