Returning to the main land from Taveuni on a twelve hour overnight crossing we had half a day to stock up on supplies before moving on to Caqalai (pronounced Thangalai, obviously). This small paradisaical island, described as the near perfect backpackers resort in the guide book (I can’t bring myself to write those two words), is east of the main island of Vitu Levu and is part of the Lomaiviti island group. On a par with Koh Wai in Thailand and if it wasn’t for the weather we had I might even had said that Caqalai was better.
The island’s only resort attracts the backpacker crowd with cheap basic accommodation and all inclusive packages, the cheapest of which, provided us with a dorm bed each and fantastic food for a mere £25 a night. Not Asia prices but extremely good value compared to everywhere we had been to in the previous four months.
To get to the island we had to make our way up the Kings Road by bus to be dropped off at a bridge crossing the Waidalice River. Within half an hour a boatman turned up and took us on our way along the river, winding through the mangroves before emerging in the open sea. Twenty minutes later a tiny little coconut palm tree covered island, that was to be our home for the next four days, grew in our sights and a feeling within told me this place was going to be pretty special. A few moments later the boat deposited us on the beach amidst a warm songful welcome from the locals.
Beautiful sandy beaches, clear blue water and incredibly friendly staff greeted us to the island. We were soon to meet some of the other guests which included some real characters (in fact the place was the busiest location we’d been to so far) who we were to get to know quite well over the forthcoming days.
The snorkeling off the beaches on Canqalai was incredible. This was one of the best places I’ve ever snorkeled, second only to a marvelous spot on Koh Phang Yang (which may be better only in memory as it was the first coral reef I ever snorkeled on). I always go on about the diversity and health of coral but this place was incredible. Within metres of the beach there was splendid soft and hard corals stretching some 100 metres before the outer reef dropped off to the deep blue below. I didn’t spot any rays or turtles though (the later of which are apparently quite abundant).
On one particular morning I was surface diving down around the outer reef. The coral was four metres below the surface which I was following quite closely. I suddenly swam over the drop off and got this immense sense of vertigo as all of a sudden I could see nothing but blue stretching out endlessly below me. As if this wasn’t enough of a surprise, in the corner of my eye I spotted a banded sea snake foraging for food.
After surfacing for air I ducked down for a second time to get this photo of the snake, but when I returned to the surface it seemed to spot me and follow me up. This was just a tad unnerving as Banded Sea Snakes are poisonous with enough nasty stuff in them for it to be fatal to humans. Apparently they don’t attack humans but I didn’t really want to be close enough to find out. Once I was back on the surface the snake continued up towards me so I moved pretty quickly. It, thankfully, didn’t follow me and surfaced where I had just been. It was then that I realised that it was just coming up for air. Obvious really but having never seen a sea snake do this before I hadn’t figured they needed to. Like regular snakes they need air. If they were able to breath underwater then they would be eels… Obvious but I hadn’t thought about it before. It is a great feeling learning about something first hand by seeing with your own eyes, especially something so charming as this fine creature.
Our time on Canqalai was spent snorkeling, reading, socialising or playing cards. Due to the rain we had (varying amounts everyday) the later two took up more of our time, but it wasn’t all bad as we got to know Alex and Owen well (two very different and very interesting British lads who are travelling the world together) along with a whole host of other people including a stunning and friendly Dutch couple and several Canadian girls. There was a young Swedish couple who we didn’t get to know at all as they spent all their time in between eating, watching DVDs on their lap top. I understand that Heroes is addictive viewing by why spend loads of money crossing the world to do something that you can do better in your own living room?
It was a shame to leave Canqalai after so little time there. Without the rain the place would have been near perfect. In fact, if it wasn’t for a particular Fiji “must do” we would have spent three more days there. So, amidst a traditional Fijian goodbye of music and flowers we found ourselves boarding the tiny boat, this time covered up in sowesters ready for the journey back to the mainland.
We had yet another bus trip via Suva where we once again made full use of internet cafe’s and the wonderful hot bread kitchen, before continuing our journey to Pacific Harbour where we were booked in for the must do Shark Dive the following morning.
The Shark Dive
This was something that Jon did on his round the world trip and insisted that I check out. Additionally I read a lot about the Fiji shark dive and was somewhat psyched up for the event. The Shark Dive at Pacific Harbour is reported to be the only place in the world where you can see so many different types of sharks feeding without being tucked away behind a cage of any sort. This is high adrenaline stuff with the dive guides feeding the sharks by hand only metres in front of you.
You can imagine my frustration when I was unable to equalise and it took me 6 minutes to get down to 26 metres to join the others behind the flimsy rope that was in place to keep us back from the hungry sharks. By this point I had the worst seat in the house and the action had already started. All I could see was a frenzy of fish swimming around all over the place. During the twenty minute dive, I did spot one nurse shark, from a distance, obscured by what seemed to be a thousand other fish. I was disappointed.
This was an expensive dive and we were guaranteed sharks, but one nurse shark from a distance was very poor (I mean, Nurse Sharks don’t even look like proper sharks). In fact, I’d had closer, scarier encounters in Thailand, Australia and the Philippines. In retrospect, the sheer number and variety of fish was unlike anything I’d seen before, as was the frenzied fight for food, but if something has been hyped up and you have high expectations, it is very easy to be disappointed.
I think our guide must have picked up on my disappointment, as on the second dive I found myself closer to the chief shark feeder (a very cool job title) than anybody else. From here I was to see all the action and I was blown away. They take down a wheely bin full of fish scraps that they try to feed the sharks with. Pretty much everything in the water comes along for some of the action so before seeing any sharks a frenzy of super fast Giant Travellis were whizzing around us accompanied by rainbow runners, Ramoras, a loan huge Hump Moari Wrasse along with loads of others that I couldn’t even begin to try and name. Seeing this mad feeding frenzy take place metres from my face was quite something.
And then along came a shark. This was just the nurse shark from earlier, but being this close it was a lot more fascinating to see it feeding from human hands and attempt to eat directly from the bin. A few minutes later and along came a collection of Grey Reef sharks and Silvertips (much more mean / cool / shark looking that the nurse) which was thrilling. Then we were treated to something big. A Lemon Shark, who’s size, to my eyes at lest was incredible. Feeding from the Fijian with the wheely bin it was easy to see what sort of damage this beast could do, yet the sharks here were the most calm and relaxed things in the water. A complete contrast to all the fish hurtling about at incredible speeds and the fast erratic hearts beats and breathing of the humans witnessing all the action.
Within what seemed like five, our twenty minutes were up and it was time to return to the surface. During the ascent and safety stop we were treated to views of five or six reef and silvertip sharks swimming around us. Back on the surface on a high we all spoke at once discussing what we had just seen. I found out later that there were bull sharks down there. One dive master claimed that there were six of them. This I find very hard to believe as I didn’t see a single one. Bulls are bigger and more aggressive looking than the mighty lemon shark that passed in front of me many times. If there had been one bull shark feeding from the man with the wheely bin, I would have seen in.
So I didn’t get to see any Bull or Tiger sharks (the Tigers really are something else… they are one of the few sharks that are dangerous to humans and are immense) but they are seasonal at Pacific Harbour and we weren’t there at the right time. Apparently when the Tiger comes in close, everything else scatters, leaving a clear view for all. That, especially having seen video clips on You Tube, I have to see.
It was absolutely incredible, and despite my initial disappointment it was one of those unforgettable experiences. Due to the madness, my photos and videos are rubbish. My eyes struggled to see passed the masses of fish to focus on the sharks so my camera really had its work cut out. None the less, the following should give you some idea…
This video shows how hectic it really was down there. A lemon shark does actually swim by left to right, shortly after the hand (bottom right) points it out. Unfortunately the youtube compression makes it very hard to make out.
A much better clip, as in you can actually make out the shark. Search on you tube for shark dive Fiji to see some really good footage including the incredible Tiger Shark.
This excitement was pretty much the end of our time in Fiji and our time with Nathalie (who is off to New Zealand armed with all the advice we could throw at her), but not before we took advantage of a rather swanky resort who had the good sense to build a budget dorm for people like us.
Our next flight was to be hard work. Air New Zealand had canceled the direct flight from Nadi to Rarotonga which we originally had booked so instead we had to go via Auckland in New Zealand to get to the Cook Islands. Instead of a three hour direct flight we were looking at ten hours, seven of those in planes, three hours at the airport. On top of that we had trouble at check in as the guy only checked us in as far as Auckland. When I quizzed him, he suggested that we cleared customs, collected our bags, check them in again and pass back through immigration. I wasn’t having this and after a while he gave in and checked us in correctly to our final destination. The fun continued though. On the flight they forgot me when serving the dinner and by the time they realised they had ran out of both the chicken / veg dish and the chicken pies leaving only the pasta dish. Not in the best of moods I winged about it as this was exactly what happened on the flight out to Fiji. To be fair to Air New Zealand, the got their act together and obtained for me an excellent Chicken Paninni from business class. I also got to keep the salmon pasta from cattle class while I waited. End result? One satisfied customer.