Fiji: Viti Levu and Kadavu
I was the kind of kid who was into Captain Cook and tall ships. It wasn’t long before this interest blossomed into a fascination with the Pacific, that incomprehensibly vast ocean with its myriad constellations of islands both windswept and verdant, flat and precipitous, tiny and vast. I read a lot about it. Adventure tales at first, but as my fascination with biology grew, it became the nexus for this as well, especially the particularly biodiverse and wild southwest corner known as Melanesia.
From 2008-2011, I spent four summers in the tropical Pacific — in Papua New Guinea, Guam, and the Northern Marianas — working, traveling, conducting research, taking meticulous daily notes in black leatherbound journals that sure better be fodder for a book some day. Despite having been away from it for several years, it remains an incredibly important place to me. Certainly in an intellectual sense, but also emotionally, something tied tightly with my sense of self, as anything so huge to your formative years is sure to do.
Two weeks ago, I had the chance to return, this time to Fiji. Kate’s mother, Elizabeth Holland, has (for the past 3 years) been a professor of climate change at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, the nation’s capitol, and with extraordinary generosity served as our conduit and host in the islands that have become her home. The dry and oppressive heat of Denver in the summer left behind, we flew ten and a half hours from Los Angeles to Nadi (pronounced Nandi), crossing the dateline and the lion’s share of the world’s largest ocean.
The trip was unusual for me in solidly qualifying as a vacation: short in duration, with no fieldwork to lend it purpose, with plenty of time planned in comfortable accommodations. But perhaps because of this flexibilty (and its languid pace), it was a pretty good one for taking pictures, and looking for cool birds and plants. Below lies a lengthy photo essay of sorts, with numerous digressions that I hope someone finds interesting. Probably long enough to merit a coffee or beer, if you’re into that sort of thing.
The day after arriving in Suva, and visiting the doctor to pick up a prescription for antibiotics to treat the strep throat I had conveniently picked up, we left for on the island of Kadavu (again, pronounced Kandavu) on the ferry Sinu-i-Wasa (formerly the Straightsman out of Hobart, Tasmania). Boarding at 8PM, we slept fitfully for the ten-hour passage on blue benches on the main deck. My fever broken, I was still in relatively poor shape, and grateful when at dawn we arrived at Vunisea, Kadavu’s sole town of note.
Kadavu, at 411 square kilometers, is the fourth largest of the Fiji group’s 333 islands, and the southernmost of any significant size. Because of this, and its greater exposure to the massive South Pacific, it has a bit of a reputation among other Fijians as being “cold” (a “little New Zealand,” as one put it.)
We scoffed, but arriving in what was already an unsually chilly Fijian winter, found its reputation warranted. I am not sure what the mercury read our first day, gray with rain and windlashed, probably something in the 50s, but I know I wore my wool sweater far more than I could ever have anticipated.
Most of Kadavu’s serpentine coastline is undeveloped, and the only way to get from one village to another along its length (barring a short stretch of road near Vunisea) is by boat. We stayed at a small resort in the Fijian style — individual bures, or bungalows — in a bay along the north coast, riding a dingy through the spray for an hour or so.
The first few days were quiet, mostly, as I got over my illness and we watched the sky and the ocean in its daily pageant of change. At night, we were treated to the incomparable wonder of the milky way from the South Pacific — where, due to vagaries of the earth’s orbit and a lack of pollution, seven times as many stars as can be seen in the northern hemisphere are visible — and at dawn, the pale fire of a sunrise we couldn’t quite see but that spilled over the forest to the tops of the palms and the breakers on the reef.
Both good things, though in terms of quality respective to one’s peers, Matthiessen wins. I’ve often found reading about some environment diametrically opposed to your surroundings — in this case, the Himalaya — to be a nice pairing.
A common and beautiful plant of the dry forest understory (possibly Vavaea amicorum; Meliaceae, though the orange venation is unusual. Identification courtesy of Tom Gillespie.)
Mangroves along the Kadavu coast. You’ve probably heard of mangroves: their intertidal swamps are of great importance for biodiversity, the stability of coastal ecosystems, and (most importantly for Homo sapiens) as breaks against storm surge, sea level rise, erosion, and other nasty things. Predictably, it’s an endangered habitat.
Taxonomy nerd digression: mangroves are not a monophyletic group, meaning there is no mangrove family or genus. Instead, it’s a grouping based on growth pattern, ecology, and life history comprised by species from various unrelated families. I like taxonomy, so I find this fascinating, though I’ll forgive you if you do not.
Canopy cover is typically estimated with the help of a device known as a densiometer, which quantifies the portion of light breaking through the trees. I think this photo depicts what, exactly, a densiometer is measuring nicely.
This corner of Kadavu is covered in cyclone-disturbed tropical dry forest, reminiscent to me (minus the nasty limestone substrate) of forest in the Mariana Islands. With few emergents and relatively small boles, it’s not a dramatic habitat, but nonetheless high in biodiversity and critically endangered across the Pacific, where it is usually the first forest to be cleared for agriculture.
In the sheltered valleys along streams, a much wetter microclimate prevailed, with more typical moist forest vegetation, including beautiful Cyathea tree ferns. Improbably tall, improbably ancient, they are gap specialists, and at the small theatre of cascades that was terminus to all my runs, they arced gracefully in front of the falls.
I never did get a camera up there.
Casuarina spp. of the understory. Casuarina is so named after its needle-like leaves’ resemblance to the quills (feathers) of the Cassowary, a dinosaur-like flightless bird of New Guinea and Australian rainforests. Despite resembling a pine, the Casuarinaceae are not conifers, but angiosperms.
A young breadfruit (Artocarpus altillis). This ubiquitous fruit tree was the trigger for Captain Bligh’s (Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) ill-fated voyage to Tahiti, where he intended to pick up breadfruit plants to transport to the West Indies in the hopes it would be a cheap and nutritious source of food for slaves. As the well-told story goes, his crew mutinied, dumping him in a 23 foot launch and prompting one of the most remarkable feats of navigation and survival ever, a 3618 nautical-mile journey from the central Pacific to Timor.
Staying on Kadavu, we managed to squeeze in three dives. I was SCUBA certified back in 2008, but have barely had a chance to use it since. Returning to the sport six years later was uncomfortable at first, but once I readjusted to its decidedly unnatural premise and equipment, I became much more relaxed, and remembered what a strange and wondrous joy it can be.
Fiji is the so-called soft-coral capital of the world, and relatively unaffected by coral bleaching. While I have little experience to confirm or deny this boast, I can say the reefs we visited, though seen only on modest dives near the resort, were healthy and spectacular.
A fifteen-minute paddle across the lagoon brought us to an unihabited islet covered in dense brush. Beneath the scrubby, windswept forest that covered the islet grew a surreal carpet of spikey, purple-green houseplants. (I’ve been unable to identify them, though they were common elsewhere along the Kadavu coast as well.)
As elsewhere in the rural Pacific, the presence of Cocos nucifera along the coast indicates the location of a village, either past or present, coconut palms being critical sources of food, water, and building materials across Oceania.
Interestingly, the geographic origins of the coconut palm are hazy. While currently found throughout the world’s tropics, it’s theorized the species probably originated somewhere in the Indian Ocean, its current pantropical distribution being mostly a result of human migration, though likely partly also due to its incredible dispersal ability (think floating coconuts.)
As fun as the ferry was, we were lucky enough to snag a flight back to Suva from Vunisea. The Vunisea airport begins about 20 feet inland from this beach. Pulling the dinghy up on the sand, we waded to shore, pushed through the littoral scrub, and entered the terminal. Things like this are why I love traveling.
We returned to Suva on a Wednesday, five days before our flight home. As is my unfortunate tendency, I took nearly no photos of the city itself. Which is a shame, as it’s a fascinating place, the beating heart of the South Pacific, as it were.
Lying at the crossroads of Melanesia and Polynesia, the city has relatively high standard of living, a functional benign dictatorship, the best university in the region, and the presence of numerous Western governmental agencies. As a result, its cultural influences are numerous, from the Indo-Fijians brought over by the British to work sugar cane plantations, to Solomon Islanders from the remote province of Temotu. There are mosques, Hindu temples, evangelical churches, international schools, shanty settlements, expat apartment complexes, and the best museum this side of Mexico City’s Museo Nacional de Antropología. The food is even passable.
Colo-i-Suva lies 9km north of the city, a mix of reclaimed mahogany plantation and remnant old growth. We spent Thursday morning hiking in the park, primarily for the purpose of birding.
Bird nerd digression: Bird photography is beyond the limits of my camera and my skills, which is why birding receives little mention on this primarily image-driven blog, but it’s another fascination of mine. Fiji is a rewarding place to do it. Species numbers are relatively low, as the theory of island biogeography would predict, but endemism — both local and region — is incredibly high.
Kadavu alone has four endemics (the Whistling Dove Ptilinopus layardi, the spectacular Kadavu Shining Parrot Prosopeia kadavensis, the Kadavu Honeyeater Xanthotis provocator, and the Kadavu Fantail Rhipidura personata), all of which I managed to see during our relatively long stint there. Viti Levu has its own raft of endemics, and while having only a single morning to devote to finding them meant I missed plenty of species, even easily-spotted ones, we saw plenty to keep us occupied. Highlights included Masked Shining Parrots (Prosopeia personata), Barking Pigeons (Ducula latrans), Blue-crested Flycatchers (Myiagra azureocapilla), and Fiji Goshawks (Accipiter rufitorques), among others.
Most of my experience with birds has been in New Guinea and Australia, and the taxa present in Fiji are primarily of Australasian derivation, making the broad groups — if not the species themselves — pleasantly familiar to me. (One exception to this rule are the enigmatic Prospeia parrots, believed to have originated in New Zealand.)
Beth’s colleague Pete is heavily involved in the resurrection of traditional sail travel in Oceania. You get the sense it’s an exciting time to be working on it: with an upcoming trip in a traditional voyaging canoe to Sydney in time for a global conference on climate change, and the collaboration of skilled boat-builders from all corners of the Pacific, momentum seems to be building to resurrect this ancient art to a level not seen since the end of the 19th century. (For more information on the movement, the Vaka Tamakau Project is a good place to start. We had the chance to meet crew members Simon Salopuka and Dixon Holland Wia, both from the Solomon Islands, prior to our departure for Kadavu. Good people, who were kind enough to let me practice my Tok Pisin.)
Pete’s work centers around the canoe-builders of the Korova in Suva. Korova is a settlement adjacent to USP consisting of several families from the Lau group in remote eastern Fiji, a region historically renowned for its boat-building. Korova was initally settled by drua, a fantastically fast and agile dual-hulled voyaging canoe that hasn’t been built for the greater part of a century.
These days, the artisans at Korova are hard at work preparing a camakau, or single-hulled outrigger canoe, to be used in training a new generation of Oceanic voyagers. Meanwhile, ambitious plans to complete a new drua simmer.
We spent our final afternoon in Fiji at Korova, drinking kava and eating cassava and coconut bread. Kava, the famous intoxicant of the South Pacific, is prepared from the roots and bark of the pepper plant Piper methysticum. In some regions, such as Vanuatu, it’s incredibly potent; in Fiji, the effects are more muted, and you can drink more of it more often. It remains hugely important for both ceremonial and entertainment purposes, though the taste takes some getting used to, to put it mildly.
It was perhaps as perfect an ending to our time in the archipelago as we could have asked for.