Loving the Laus

01st October 2013
After just over three months in the Lau Islands of Fiji, mainly in the south it’s time for a little reflection about these fabulous places that somehow seem to conjure up everything we ever thought about when we had imagined ‘islands of the South Pacific’ – water the most ridiculous shades of blue that we’ve seen since the Tuamotus in French Polynesia (no Mike hasn’t photoshopped his pictures), ancient collapsed volcanic islands with calderas to anchor in (think Marquesas), stunning coral and fish life in crystal clear water and some of the friendliest people we have met anywhere, certainly the most welcoming. We moved slowly through the islands, only managing to visit five of them, but each has enthralled us in its own special way.


Fulaga, where we met Meli (see the previous Sea Mail) certainly has the most picturesque lagoon – has it all in fact, golden sandy beaches, a large lagoon scattered with mushroom like motus which mean that, despite its popularity you can always find an anchorage to yourself, great diving and snorkelling and a friendly village ashore (sadly they also have the most awful mosquitos on the walk up to the village). Rightly people talk of Fulaga as being the Laus’ ‘jewel in the crown’. We loved our three weeks there and even went back briefly to catch up with cruising friends and take people ashore prints of Mike’s photos. Those we’d met in the village were genuinely pleased to see us come back.


Totoya has to take prize as the most dramatic of the Laus. The caldera of this collapsed volcano is so enormous, no photo can ever do it justice. The picture above is us anchored at one end of it and below, the rest of the caldera, Sea Rover barely visible bottom right!


The snorkelling on the volcanic plug in the middle has to be some of the best we have ever done and the corals simply out of this world. We were here when the elusive supply ship the MV Lady Sandy made an appearance – an occasion for much organised mayhem and scenes that were almost Dickensian as people and cargo were offloaded and loaded into the night. We had another reason for being interested in the ship’s arrival. We’d worked out there was a very high likelihood that the pastor we’d given a lift to Suva to might be aboard. He was and was waving frantically to us from the ship. We had to go round and see him. ‘That’s our boat’ is what he told us he’d said to his assistant Metui, to whom we’d also given a lift. Tavita the pastor was almost uncontainable in his delight in seeing us. His wife, Unaisi even producing food for us to eat! We’d been wondering about a return visit to his island – Matuku but weren’t sure after all we had been there twice and wondered if they might end up looking on us as the proverbial bad pennies refusing to finally leave. This decided us – we were going back.


The day after the Sandy left so did we, complete with Waqa aboard – somehow he’d missed the boat’s departure at 4:00am – too much grog methinks but hey haven’t we all missed the last train at some point or another? The welcome back at Matuku was overwhelming and so very touching. They’d all been watching out for us since the morning, Tavita having alerted them that we were coming and they had all been hoping we’d make it for Sunday lunch! But all this is jumping ahead. Maybe a bit of what happened on our previous visits will help explain why our answer to the question ‘Which is your favourite Lau?’ is Matuku.


From our first visit to Matuku everyone has been so welcoming inviting us onto their homes and their lives, including us in the community’s activities; like the first Girl Guide and Boy Scout Camp for some 30 plus years – Mike got nominated as the guest of honour and got to light their spectacular bonfire (oops campfire as I was corrected by one of the scouts). No health and safety here as this towering pile of timber went up with the most amazing whoosh and burnt furiously sending sparks and embers all over the place! There are stories we could write about most people in Matuku, but for now we’ll tell you about one family: Chicco, the mayor (or turanga-ni-koro) of Lomati has been delegated by the seven villages ashore to receive sevusevu from visiting yachts as the anchorage off Lomati is main anchorage we all use. Sitting cross legged on his veranda to do our sevusevu we met his wife Benina and two of his children Loseana and Rosi who immediately adopted us as their new playthings! Chicco takes his role in welcoming yachts very seriously and has been our guide throughout, introducing us to people and making us feel so very welcome. It was only the need to restock that brought our first visit to an end.


Late July, after church on Sunday with one of Chicco and Benina’s great lunches where all the families in Lomati (the village we anchored off) contributed a dish and so with very fond farewells we set sail for Suva with Tavita, Matuku’s senior pastor and Metui, his trainee aboard bound for the Methodist Church Conference; the Sandy having failed to appear.
Gas, fuel and food replenished in Fiji’s capital, we couldn’t resist going back to catch up with our new friends ashore in Matuku. Would they want to see us again? No worries there the welcome ashore was no less warm than on our first visit. Actually think it was warmer as they were so pleased that we had wanted to go back. Even more doors seemed open and, courtesy of the campfire event so many people from the other villages on Matuku now knew us by sight and greeted us as old friends.
We visited the other villages with Chicco when he took us in his fibreglass boat on a trip round the island. It was the best way to see the villages with Chicco taking us under his wing. Was fascinating to see that he was doing the formal greeting of sevusevu in each village we visited, including us in ceremony.


Think this trip plus the fact that we have taken up every invitation to join in the island’s life – going to the local school’s fund raiser, attending the island council where their representative to the Lau Provincial Council was being briefed (again Chicco looked after us, sitting beside us to make sure we got the gist of what was going on and bringing us safely back in his packed fibreglass and fading light), having three of the ladies, Ledua, Benina and Tokasa bring their fibreglass boat alongside one night to fish courtesy of our spotlight and generally welcoming people aboard the boat have helped make us feel part of their community.


But other islands beckoned and we felt after a couple of weeks that we were in danger of never moving on, in fact Chicco suggested we might like to move into one of the many vacant houses. Rural depopulation is a major challenge for islands as either children going to secondary school in Suva never return or people simply move in search of work. In several islands and villages we found the chiefs were ‘in Suva’ leaving others to deputise for them. Hard to tell the kids to come home when the chiefs don’t. And harder still to argue against the interim government curtailing the chiefly system’s hold on Fiji’s development.
Despite the magic of these islands we’re not blind to the challenges for both the people living on them and for the country as a whole. How do you support these small communities, how sustainable is life here? On the radio we heard reports of Japan, with its much stronger economy, taking the decision to ‘close’ several hundred uneconomic towns/villages – yes you can still live there but without government support or funding for the infrastructure. Could this yet happen in the uneconomic Laus? Life is hard work but apart from government workers (teachers, nurses etc) we never met anyone who said they paid tax! Often women can earn the most money with their handicrafts, weaving and making masi by printing patterns onto cloth made up of pieces of bark battered until they are flat.


Fulaga may have a more beautiful lagoon, Namuku-i-Lau a nicer beach (golden, shell strewn sand), ideal for sundowners ashore, Vanua Balavu has its Bay of Islands, Totoya its awesome scenery and snorkelling but Matuku has a bit of all of these plus a small bit of our hearts won by the warmth and welcome of her people. This welcome has been extraordinary – gifts of fish, fruit, vegetables, handicrafts and the number of meals we have eaten with them all with no expectation of anything from us in return, has really touched us in a way that is hard to describe. We now know so many people it’s impossible to walk through the village without invitations to come in, sit down and have something to eat or drink. As we sailed away for the last time we felt as if we were leaving another home and were feeling very emotional. We were both left pondering ‘In just how many places can you be lucky enough to feel you're in a home away from?’

Enjoy more photos from our time in the Laus


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