After two aborted attempts due to Covid-19 to join an 11-night 700-nautical mile ‘Discovery Cruise’ to Fiji’s remote and idyllic Lau Group of Islands, features editor – John Newton – finally made it more than two years later. It was just the second post-Covid cruise to the lush, tropical islands by popular Captain Cook Cruises (CCC) small ship, Reef Endeavour.
As perfect days go, the Lau Islands, where people of Tongan heritage and culture only see a supply boat every six weeks, rank among the most spectacular in the Pacific Ocean.
They are part of Fiji rarely seen by tourists because of the long distance from the mainland – even by cruise ship.
Fiji is made up of about 330 islands of which 220 are uninhabited.
On the Lau islands, majestic forests, towering waterfalls, pristine and sun-kissed beaches, used mainly by the ever- smiling, happy-go-lucky locals, who are always delighted to welcome tourists ashore to their deserted, white sandy beaches to buy their wooden or pottery handicrafts.
Getting there is on the classic fun ship Reef Endeavour – although not boasting the glamour of today’s super liners - the 26-year-old ship is a veteran of the seas that cruisers can’t get enough of with its multi efficient and energetic all-Fijian crew (apart from the captain), who seem to enjoy being on board as much as its passengers.
After all, everyone’s on Fiji time (when you are taking your time, slowly but surely). There’s an onboard swimming pool for those who don’t want to swim or snorkel from the beaches and there’s plenty of entertainment at night – even shipboard hermit crab races. And, best of all, there are no casinos – not even a TV – on board. So, apart from one or two drinks at the bar, it’s’ an early night for all ahead of another full day of activities.
It’s the rich sea life, enticing beaches and historic caves that bring tourists to the islands with snorkelling and diving their top priority.
More than 2000 species of reef fish
Amos Daniel, marine biologist on Reef Endeavour, says there are more than 2000 species of reef fish found off Fiji, half of them edible, including coral trout, grouper and snapper. Reef sharks and barracuda, as well as green turtles can also be spotted around the coral reefs – as some of the ship’s eagle-eyed snorkellers discovered.
But Amos says due to climate change, the health of the coral is being affected. “The rapid heating phenomenon’s that we are having now is not giving enough time for corals to adapt to these changing conditions. Corals are like spoilt brats – they are very picky with their conditions, and if the water temperature is too high, they stress out.
“The main factors affecting coral health is the rising temperature of the ocean and ocean acidification, which cause bleaching”. All dead coral – much of it destroyed by Cyclone Winston in 2016.
CCC is involved in the rehabilitation of coral reefs. On Tivua Island, it has a team of marine biologists working on a coral nursery and the corals that are grown there are planted out on reef areas that are not doing so well.
“Coral restoration – planted on existing coral - has the potential to produce one million corals worldwide in our lifetime. Australia is spending millions on this project,” said Amos, who gives reef talks for passengers during the cruise
On Makogai Island – the ship’s first Lau stop – it has a thriving clam shell and turtle nursery, with fisheries officers working on culturing giant clams. Once in abundance on Fiji’s reefs, many species were over-harvested, and current levels are low.
Some years ago, an Australian funded project began culturing them at Makogai – and thousands have since been transplanted to various parts of Fiji. The giant clam is considered a great line of defence against Crown of Thorns starfish by filtering out thousands of their microscopic spawn.
Five local families from the island’s population of 60 are also working on the giant clam farming project.
Makogai was once the largest leper colony in the South Pacific. From 1911 to 1969, it was staffed by Catholic nuns. Now in ruin, some of the old hospital buildings remain. For many years, up to 4500 patients from Fiji and other Pacific Island nations were cared for on the island, where some of the ill-fated 1241 victims are buried. They include French-born Mother Marie Agnes, who ran the facility for more than 30 years.
Only in 1948 was an effective treatment for leprosy found, allowing the colony to be phased out over the next two decades.
Of the dozen Islands visited by Reef Endeavour, Taveuni’s surrounding reefs are regarded as some of the best dive sites in the world. Known as Fiji’s ‘Garden Island’ – its primary attraction is its landscape – virgin rainforest, an array for rare flora and fauna, waterfalls and a legendary mountain lake.
From the beach, passengers are taken by 30-year-old almost clapped-out buses on a roller coaster ride along a rocky road in the rainforest to a walkway to the cascading Bouma waterfall – formed as a result of colossal amounts of rainfall - where you swim in a deep pool.
In the afternoon, children from Makogai Primary School hop on board ship to perform some Fijian cultural dances. Like on school visits when children entertain, their eyes light up when they are given gifts or school donations by the ship’s passengers.
On Wailagilala Island – a coral cay in the northern Lau Group – it’s the gateway to Fiji for ships coming or going to Samoa. Its crystal-clear waters are attributed to its lack of terrestrial water run-off. The island has an abandoned cast-iron lighthouse, which is believed to have been prefabricated in England and shipped in sections to the South Pacific. Wailagilala has been uninhabited since the lighthouse was converted to automatic operation.
Massive tribal cave
Vanuabalavu Island (long island) – also known as the ‘Bay of Islands’ - has a massive cave in the sheer limestone cliffs. At the entrance, you’ll find the carved names of tribal chiefs, who used to meet for decision-making talks underneath giant stalactites and stalagmites hanging from a Cathedral-like roof, the home of nesting sea birds.
Tenders, including a glass bottom boat for coral viewing, take the non-diving or snorkellers on a tour of some of the 150-plus majestic, scenic islands while the rest head off for the beach and kayaking tours.
On the Sunday itinerary, passengers on the five-level Reef Endeavour are taken by tenders to Oneata Island in the southern Lau Group for a special choral service at a colourfully painted church of the Methodist Tongan denomination. It’s quite an eye-opener, as often the minister provides a little ‘fire and brimstone’ with his sermon – not aimed at the unsuspecting ship’s passengers, but at the villagers.
Like on the way to Oneata, passengers had to kick off their shoes and, helped by the ship’s crew, wade through the knee-high waves to clamber aboard the tenders, which had been stranded by the low tide. No-one complained, of course, being in the hands of strapping Fijian crew members, who were only too delighted - and amused – by the experience.
Yet more crystal-clear, turquoise waters were a magnet for swimmers, stand-up paddlers and kayakers after a cruise around the small islets of Fulaga, known for its amazing building of large outrigger canoes. The breathtaking Fulaga lagoon comprises more than 100 tiny islands which have been undercut into incredible mushroom shapes. The villagers guided us on our tender boats on a scenic cruise through the labyrinth of islands.
But it was a much tougher day on the island of Vuaqava – even for the more agile passengers, who joined the crew and locals for a hike to a saltwater lake, where you can go out on the water with villagers to try to spot turtles – and snakes..
Vuaqava has been uninhabited since an outbreak of cholera in the 1860s, when the sick were reportedly dragged into caves and left to die. Their descendants, who moved to nearby Kabara Island, still return to Vuaqava to fish, plant crops and collect native hardwoods.
Traditional Lovo feast
One of the cruise highlights is a visit the following day to Kabara for an evening of traditional culture featuring a village sevusevu ceremony and handicraft show combining a Lovo feast (Fijian dinner cooked in an earth oven). The lovo dinner is a traditional method of cooking, which is still used today. It’s an earth ovenware fire built in a pit in the ground lined with heat-resistant stones.
It resembles the hangi of the New Zealand Māori.
When the stones are hot, food - such as vegetarian and meat options wrapped in banana leaves - is placed in the pit, covered with soil and left to cook before being taken out and eaten. Afterwards, is a ‘Meke’ – a celebration of song and dance performed by the villagers.
On the final two days, the ship calls at Totoya – a horseshoe-shaped island enclosing a deep bay, which can only be entered through a narrow channel known as the Gullet. There’s another school visit when more school supplies and donations are given to the local children.
The island of Kadavu was once considered as a possible site for the new capital of Fiji, but Suva was chosen instead.
Today, some 10,000 indigenous Fijians live in 60 remote villages scattered around Kadavu - Fiji’s third largest island - where Reef Endeavour passengers are taken ashore to Nalotu village for another sevusevu ceremony and the last chance to buy souvenirs from the village women, who make clay pottery in the time-honoured tradition that is rarely seen in Fiji anymore.
Back at the ship, passengers are urged to don their best sulu (sarong) or bula shirt for the final night Pacific Island dinner, followed by a lively show by the crew during which Meke and a few tipples of Kava is served to get everyone in the mood to dance the night away.
*Meke is a tradition style of dance, while Kava – from a Pacific Island plant – is a drink considered a healthier alternative to alcohol. It’s believed to relieve pain, prevent seizures and relaxes muscles.
*Another Lau Cruise is planned for October, 2022
Where to book:
For bookings on CCC cruises, including the three, four and seven-night sailings to Yasawa Island, Mamanuca and the 11-night Lau voyage, call 1300 TOFIJJI (1300 863454; International +61 2 9126 8160 in Australia.
Or email@example.com or +679 6701 823 in Fiji. Also, go to www.captaincookcruisesfiji.com