As the Picton Castle sailed into Suva Harbour on the 25th of September, after a sweet sailing passage from Pukapuka in the northern Cook Islands, the crew could not help but remark that it was strange and somewhat surreal to see big city lights once more. In sailing across the South Pacific it had been four months since Panama, since they had seen bright big city lights on the horizon glow like this; the plethora of possibility beckons like this; the threat of over-stimulation looms like this.
Those on lookout the night before were constantly reminded that we were no longer ‘off the beaten track’, or maybe on a really different ‘beaten track’ – we were sailing to the capital of the South Pacific. The ship had sailed through the largely uninhabited Lau Group of Fijian islands some 90 miles to the east the previous afternoon, sailing past mysterious looking islands and rock formations. As we made our way in smooth seas toward Viti Levu (the biggest island in Fiji) lights twinkled on the horizon. Some were from Fiji’s outlaying islands and some from ships heading to or from this busy cosmopolitan centre. All of them blended with the setting stars of a shifting night. Dawn was fast approaching and we took in sail, attempting to delay our departure by just a few hours. At sunrise we hove to at the pilot station just off the breaking reef surrounding Suva harbour.
They say that you can smell land before you see it and that every piece of land has a distinct smell. Rarotonga smelled of sweet incense, Palmerston of sun-bleached sand and cool coconuts, Pukapuka of fresh rain and salty palm. The island of Viti Levu smelled of bush fires and yet as we drew closer to Suva a city smell became distinct. Automobile fumes, factories, industry, late nights, coffee, curry, bargain prices…you could smell it all. Wasn’t bad at all.
Fiji is the name as pronounced by the Tongans and was later adopted by the Europeans. The islands formally known as Vitu were originally inhabited by an eclectic group of people of Polynesian, Micronesian and Melanesian descent who lived on this large group of islands for 35 centuries before European colonization. Fiji is the largest land mass anywhere around. Canabilism was pretty big here well into the 19th century. With the arrival of the Europeans came the shift to large scale agriculture and plantations. With plantations came the need for cheap labour and a lot of it. Indian indentured labourers were brought in by the bureaucrats of the British Empire back when much of the world map was pink, to work the fields and many stayed in Fiji afterwards. Not to get into the political or historical climate too deeply (although it is rather fascinating) the result today is a beautiful mishmash of cultures, cuisine, mentalities, languages, religions and politics. And in spite of the occasional coup, all seems to get along remarkably well.
With all of the islands in Fiji (all 300 of them) to chose from, why did the Captain choose Viti Levu? Why Suva? The answer is multifaceted. Practically speaking Suva is an excellent anchorage and the perfect place in which to provision the ship for the long passages ahead. We would provision in Suva for five months of deck supplies, engine room gizmos, cleaning supplies, galley instruments and canned goods. Suva is also an interesting city. It is a cosmopolitan hub with grit, hutzpa and flavour. It hasn’t forgotten its past, but it is remembering to define it’s own future. Cities say a lot about a country and Suva is no exception. It is a smorgasboard of delightful surprises. It is the largest city in the South Pacific and is also home to the University of the South Pacific which is jointly owned by 12 different nations. The result is a multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural campus, contributing even more to the general feel of the city. Suva is loud, busy, smelly, fragrant, friendly, old and new – the captain says he wouldn’t want us to miss it. It is also very central. Those in the crew who felt adventuous could easily leave the island itself and travel -seeking out and creating their personal journey. Beaches? You got it. Traditional Villages? You’ve also got that. Fine dining? Well, yes. Especially Indian. Shopping? Yup. The Captain says that some cruising yachts avoid Suva but he wouldn’t want us to miss it for the world, so delightfully rich and real it is.
As we motored into the main harbour the sun winked at us through the morning haze surrounding the city. We waited for the pilot to arrive to guide us into the quarantine area where the health and environment officers would board – followed by the immigration and customs officials accompanied by our agents. It had been a beautiful sail and now it was time to explore something new. Something big.