29 February, 2024

French outpost Wallis and Futuna...

Wallis and Futuna is a French collectivity in the South Pacific Ocean separate to French Polynesia to the far east and New Caledonia to the west. It was a long overnight sail in the Orion from Taveuni in Fiji. The population is about 11,000 and declining. Almost all are Polynesians, a small minority French. Greater employment opportunities have led to there being more W&F citizens in New Caledonia than here. Of course, prior to this expedition, we had never heard of Wallis and Futuna. The two island (groups) of this tiny nation are about 260km apart.

the oldest indications of human presence in W&F date are from the Lapita people back to 850BC. Tongan Polynesians invaded in the 15-16th Centuries with varied success. Futuna strongly retains much of pre-Tongan culture, but Wallis much less so. Thanks to missionaries, Fortuna is strongly Catholic, with Father Pierre Chanel converting many in the mid 1800's, but he was murdered by a local chief who thought (probably rightly) that his reputation and power was being undermined by this new god.

Zodiac on the way to a beach on Futuna. [4500]

The NatGeo Orion as seen from Futuna. [4512]

Our plan was to visit Futuna for a mostly cultural visit in the morning, and for beach recreation in the afternoon. Overnight we sailed to Wallis where more beach fun was planned, but that was foiled by rain and in particular wind, so the Orion set off early for Samoa.

A musical welcome by a Futuna string band. [4508]

Fiona Wardle, a Brit turned Kiwi, is a Naturalist and Photo Instructor on the expeditaion, here riding with me in the back of a pickup truck. [4517]

Expedition Leader Karla, being careful riding in the back of a ute, our transport in Futuna. [4523]

Said to be the world's last remaining cannibal oven, this one used by warrior Papa. [4528]

Jenny Kingsley, a French speaking Canadian is a journalist and author specialising in personal stories. She amazed us with her brilliantly told tales of a three year journey in the Arctic and Polynesia, just talking to people and following their directions on who to interview next. [4530]

Few visitors arrive in Futuna so the two small minibuses are supplemented by a fleet of pickup trucks to handle us 60. [4531]

The lush tropical forests of Futuna. [4539]

Great view of the Futuna coast with the town of Poi visible centre left. [4567]

But the day at Futuna went ahead as planned. Futuna gets few visitors - one guide said only 300/year - so it must be a big occasion when us 60 arrived. Tourism is clearly not one of its main income sources, the main ones being fishing rights licensing, copra, chemicals(?) and fish. Most people are involved in subsistence agriculture, coconuts, vegetable, pigs and fishing.

The cathedral at Poi on Futuna, where Polynesia's only Saint, Pierre Chanel, was martyred by a threatened chieftain. [4547]

Tradional warrior's welcome at the site of the Poi cathedral. [4549]

Inside of the Poi cathedral. [4542]

Ceiling detail inside the museum at Poi cathedral. [4546]

We enjoyed a feast of papaya and other local fruits during our visit to Poi. [4552]

The Expedition Team on NatGeo Orion know that in these hot and humid conditions, we, the guests, really appreciate a swim in the balmy waters of the South Pacific Ocean! On the morning of our visit to Futuna, they delivered again, even though we missed the snorkel in the afternoon.

Split view above and below the water on a sandy beach on Futuna. [0673]

Collection of shells oon a beach on Futuna. [0674]

Where we took photos in the tiny French outpost of Wallis and Futuna.

28 February, 2024

Last Stop in Fiji

Volcanic Taveuni Island is number three in size in the Fiji nation and known as the "garden island". The highest mountain is Uluinggalau (1241m) and its main village is Somosomo on the west coast, but we visited Waitabu on the east coast. The strict modesty and respect dress code for Fijian villages applied, but these residents were well prepared for us infidels, and donated a sarong to each of us who needed one. (The sarongs could be donated back at the end of the visit if you didn't want to keep them.) This process was a little messy because it all took place on a tiny beach as we disembarked the Zodiacs at the same time as we needed to take off and stow our life jackets and board the mini buses.

For afar, the Taveuni skyline is characterised by exceptionally tall coconut trees on the ridge. [4391]

We were transported to Waitabu village and Tavoro waterfall on these two buses, which held the entire compliment of the Orion's passengers. [4398]

The landing place on Taveuni for Waitabu village was a rather inauspicious, tiny, muddy beach. This is where we donned knee-covering sarongs and boarded the buses. The life-jackets are left in bins. [4401]

Elaborate fireplace attached to a Taveuni village house. [4411]

Waitubu was maybe 5km from our landing place. The welcome there was astounding. The sun was relentless, but the townspeople had constructed a shelter for us only the day before, so we heard, and would pull it down again tomorrow. A formal kava ceremony took place where Expedition Leader Karla and about 6 dignitaries from the Orion squatted on a tarp on the grass were officially welcomed. Each of them skulled 2 full cups of the hallucigenic beverage. Luckily, for the rest of us, under the shelter, kava was optional. We enjoyed dancing by school-girls and a war-like dance by the young boys. And afterwards, we were treated to a feast of local foods, all collected and prepared by the ladies of Waitubu. We handed out Aussie kangaroo badges to the children which we very well appreciated.

Children waiting in the shade of a large tree, awaiting their cue to perform for us visitors. [4414]

Part of an elaborate kava ceremony, an established protocol for welcoming strangers to a village. [4424]

The Waitabu village boys perform in what appears to be a parody of a hostile reception. [4438]

Threatening gesture by one of the boys in the welcome ceremony. [4441]

The girls' part of the ceremony was more graceful and genuinely welcoming. [4450]

With legs kicking wildly in the air, these boys suggest what will happen to visitors of unfriendly intent. [4452]

These boys were happy recipients of kangaroo badges. [4458]

This boy was sitting on the beach with his dog. Maybe he was tired of the attentions of two bus-fulls of fairskinned foreigners? [4466]

This girl had beautiful white teeth, but try as I might, she wouldn't show them for the photograph. [4471]

Boys and a boat, the quiet lagoon protected by a fringing reef. [4473]

Another few km from the village is Bouma National Heritage Park and a short walk up a valley took us up to Tavoro waterfall. A swim in the deliciously cool and deep pool at the bottom of the falls was welcomed by all of us as a relief from the heat of the village. Souvenirs sold at the park office were popular with our co-expeditioners.

A house with a view! Overlooking the valley of the Tavoro waterfall. [4483]

The Tavoro waterfall in Bouma National Heritage Park on Taveuini provided welcome relief from the opressively hot conditions. [0619]

The brave amongst us swam under the waterfall, and jumped into the pool from rock ledges. Local village boys showed us the safe spots. [0630]

Then back to the bus, the Zodiacs and the Orion, and then we set sail out of Fijian waters.

Solar cells provide reliable electricity in this village where foliage is being dried in the sun for handicrafts and weaving. [4495]

This Lightroom photomap shows the places we visited in Fiji.

27 February, 2024

The Great Astrolabe Reef

A brillaint dawn at Astrolabe Reef, Kadavu Island. [4326]

The Great Astrolabe Reef, named after the French explorer ship (1811), surrounds Fiji's fourth largest island Kadavu, well offshore at about 100km south of Viti Levu. Astrolabe is one of the world's largest barrier reefs. Small islands within the reef include Yambu where we did a Zodiac drive-by for birdwatching, and Vurolevu where, off the beach, we swam and snorkelled in crystal clear waters and brilliant sunshine.

Zodiac of birdwatchers at Yambu island. [4363]

A booby in flight, with only the tail of his catch showing in his mouth, as he flies home. [4345]

Red footed boobies high on the walls of Yambu island. [4353]

Totally unrecognisable with sun protection, underwater-specialist Rachael Crane, on the way to a dive in Astrolabe Reef. [0614]

These tiny green-blue chromis fish all disappear into the nearby hard coral whenever a larger fisher comes nearby. [0606]

Colorful coral on the Astrolabe reef. [0611]

Our guides hoped we could snorkel with manta rays, by (quietly) slipping into the water from Zodiacs. Only snorkellers capable of jumping out and climbing back into Zodiacs were invited. Two Zodiacs-full of us attempted this off a point on Vurolevu, but the one manta ray we saw was very shy and we could not get near it.

26 February, 2024

Onboard the National Geographic Orion

The time came to meet the team, and our fellow passengers, of Lindblad's expedition ship, the National Geographic Orion. We were all to meet at the Sheraton golf and beach resort on Denarau Island near Nadi. Our taxi passed through Nadi CBD, but it was Sunday morning, and almost everything was closed. We saw some familar banks, a few telecom company offices and outlets, numerous Asian restaurants. The common feature was that the rest-day closed businesses were heavily barred up - obviously crime is a problem here. One bridge joins Denarau to the Fiji mainland, and the minute you cross it, you transition from Fiji's unkempt tropical green-ness, where it always looks as though the undergrowth might completely take over as soon as your back is turned, to a large expanse of finely manicured gardens and golf-courses, punctuated by numerous luxury accommodations who presumably somehow share the recreational resources here.

Lindblad expect many of their American customers to fly in that morning, something we would never contemplate, and they go to great lengths to accommodate them comfortably between their arrival and our transfer to the ship. Everyone, including us, enjoyed a complimentary room at the Sheraton. In our case, it was completely unnecessary - we spent barely 10 minutes in that room. Lindblad spend a lot to make sure we are as comfortable as possible. Our complimentary room included a FJD100 credit at the restaurant, a delightful sand-floored space right on the beach. The service was so inefficient that management refused to charge us, and Lindblad saved their money. But our Caesar salads were excellent, when they finally arrived.

Boarding the Orion involved familar rituals: issuing of swipe cards on lanyards, safety and abandon ship drills, mandatory Zodiac and snorkelling training etc. We had almost the same cabin as we enjoyed on our Antarctic voyage on this same ship almost 10 years ago. We were introduced to the Expedition Team one by one, and were pleasantly surprised to learn that the Expedition Leader, Karla Pound, was an Aussie. On our numerous prior expeditions with NatGeo/Lindblad, we don't think we have had a female Leader before, and certainly no Aussies. Karla's very diverse career included her being a ranger on the Kimberley, and this item on her CV got her a start with NatGeo when they decided to rediscover expeditions to Western Australia. Our 60 odd co-expeditioners are mostly from the USA, with about 15 Canadians, and us two Australians.

Seen from the Orion, this island is owned by a private, luxury resort. [4222]

Our first off-boat excursions were to the tiny island of Beqa, pronounced "benga", about 10km south of Fiji's main island of Viti Levu. Beqa has nine tiny villages with some low key resorts for visitors. Prior to transferring to Beqa by Zodiac (motorised rubber-duckies holding up to 10 passengers) we were advised of the protocols associated with visiting Fijian villages. Respect of the locals obviously, but in particular we had to be modestly clothed, men and women, with shoulders and knees covered, but eyes and heads uncovered. This was a surprise to us, but luckily we carry sarongs on our travels. The no hats and sunnies rule made us pretty uncomfortable in the relentless sunshine of our visit, and the village itself was definitely not shady!

The NatGeo Orion shot from a Zodiac heading towards Naisseuseu. [4240]

This villager on Beqa happily consented to having her picture taken, with no hope of ever seeing it. [4247]

None of this applied in the morning where all we did on Beqa was snorkel at Lawaki Beach, near but not at any village. It's evident that for many of our co-expeditioners, this was their maiden attempt at swimming much less snorkelling - many used noodles or flotation devices and many fussed around with their equipment endlessly. That said, the crew define boundaries clearly and guard ("nanny"?) us from Zodiacs and in the water relentlessly. We guess it would be embarrassing and inconvenient to lose paying passengers. The snorkeling itself was at best "ordinary" with so-so visibility and coral, and not many fish.

In the afternoon, by Zodiac, we arrived at the Beqa village of Naiseuseu where we followed the strict dress code. The village was in a cleared area and picturesque in a rustic way, but heavily exposed to the fierce sunshine. The locals were friendly and many consented to having their pictures taken. It was really hot and opressive here, and we suffered in our hatlessness.

Breadfruit growing in the village of Naiseuseu. [4253]

Scene in the Fiji village of Naiseuseu, basically a too-sunny cleared area in a valley. [4254]

Scene in the Fiji village of Naiseuseu, basically a too-sunny cleared area in a valley. [4258]

Scene in the Fiji village of Naiseuseu, basically a too-sunny cleared area in a valley. [4259]

Than by Zodiac back to Lawaki (where there is shade and a relaxed dress code) for a rousing welcome by a native choir of men and women, and a few children. They serenaded us as we arrived, 10 by 10, with songs that featured many "bula's" (and later, when we left). We tasted the rather unpallatable kava ("yanggona", a non-alcoholic hallucinogen made from vegetable roots), and enjoyed cultural displays, women dancing gracefully and men performing threatening warrior dances (Maori haka-like). Handicrafts could be bought (USD accepted) and our American friends spent heartily, mostly on woven fans.

A village choir welcomed us to Lawaki Beach, repeating their song for each Zodiac arrival, and enthusiastically accompanied by these four children. [4268]

Down to the formailities of the welcome at the Lawaki Beach House. [4274]

And then it was the men's turn, warriors dancing with decorated spears. [4281]

The day's highlight was a late afternoon demonstration of fire walking which involved a lot of preparatory ritual to build up tension before about half a dozen brave men, dressed in leaves, repeatedly walked across the hot rocks. A detailed explanation of the process was given, but because it is considered impolite to raise your voice, we could not hear most of it. We 60 or so enjoyed privileged positions on seats in the shade, but the event was well attended by locals who hung around the edges and on the beach, one of who admitted to us that "fire walking cermonies may be famous, but they are very uncommon" and that she personally had never seen it before. So we felt quite honoured. The fire, heating up large rocks, had been in preparation all day - we could see it from the Orion since early morning. And after it was completed, and the men showed us their charry feet, foliage was heaped over the still hot rocks, emitting occasional bursts of thick smoke.

A firewalker celebrates as he crosses the hot rockes. [4312]

The feet of two firewalkers at the end of the ceremony. [4319]

The Orion waits offshore after the firewalking ceremony. [4321]

And then some snorkelling...

The brightest features on this none-to-exciting coral-scape were these velvety starfish. [0572]

A patch of colourful coral in the reef off Beqa. [0587]

Unlike us, local guides/guards were allowed to stand on the reef. This guy was very friendly, and volunteered to dive deep with our GoPro. [0590]