Fulaga & Matuku - the Lau Group, Fiji

For these two islands it would feel more appropriate to write a book than a blog post. These are uniquely beautiful islands, both very different from each other. But what made it such a special experience was the friendly, welcoming and proud people in the villages with whom we’ve been fishing, eating, hiking and getting to know during our ten days stay. Experiencing all of this and seeing people live so simply and at the same time so very well made it the best stop of the trip for me.

We wanted to see the Lau Group islands because they are the most remote in Fiji, with no resorts or tourism other than cruisers, and being to the south east of the port of entry Savusavu, not many cruisers make is down here - it usually means a beat upwind against the prevailing south-easterly winds. The high and choppy waves in the Koro sea often makes this impossible. We were very lucky arriving in Fiji, the necessary cruising permit was issued in only two days and the day after that we had a two day weather window with very light easterly winds, allowing motor sailing to the island furthest away, Fulaga.

Fulaga

Fulaga photo album

Fulaga is a half-atoll, proper island in the middle with an atoll-lagoon a little to the side. The lagoon is actually a flooded crater and not formed by coral reef as the ones in French Polynesia. We were amazed entering the pass, this didn’t look like any other island we’ve been to and it’s starting to feel like we’ve seen a lot. Mushroom-shaped volcanic rock islets were scattered around the lagoon and almost no submerged coral heads to watch out for. Navigating through the lagoon assisted by Google Earth satellite images and waypoints (no good charts exist here) we arrived at the anchorage sport where we had 4m white sand bottom all around, well protected with no fetch for waves to build. The perfect anchorage. This being quite late in the season (we’re in cyclone season) we were the only yacht in Fulaga.

Navigation in Fulaga
Navigation inside the lagoon, OpenCPN on the Mac with CM93 and GoogleEarth charts, Navionics in the iPad. CM93 were way off, Navionics OK but no details. The satellite images are really useful here!
Sand spit running

The next step was to go to the head village (of three in total), Moana-i-cake, and present sevu-sevu to the chief. In Fiji this is a mandatory custom when visiting smaller islands and villages that are all governed in a traditional way by a village chief. You ask the chief for permission to anchor and go ashore in their island. Dress code applies in the village, no hats, sunglasses, backpack and for sevu-sevu, no shorts. Since we had skimped on buying some nice and airy sulus (the traditional fijian man-skirt) we had to get into our long pants and make the twenty minute walk to the village on this very hot and humid day. It was Sunday and as we entered the village we were greeted by a man dressed for church, sulu, short sleeve shirt, tie. He guided us to the chiefs house through the village that had some twenty houses, all made from corrugated metal sheets (supplied by the government after a 1979 cyclone), with tidy walk paths all around. In the middle of the village there was a big grassy square in front of the church. Clothes hanging to dry, smoke coming out of chimneys. The chief was an elderly man with a white afro, sitting on the floor of his house in the middle of the village. We presented the customary gift of a bundle of dried kava root as well as the $50F anchoring fee (about $25US), money that goes to the community. A Fiji favourite, kava root is pounded and mixed with water to produce a mildly narcotic drink, called kava or grog. Turned out the kava was specially welcome here, Fulaga can’t grow kava and the village had run dry, next supply ship coming in a week or so. The gift was accepted and we were now welcome in the village. Our poor timing arriving on a Sunday meant we didn’t get to do any kava drinking ceremony with the chief as the three o’clock mass was about to start and he had to leave.

Instead we got to meet our host family, Su and Pasoni, a young couple with a daughter who lived together with Pasonis parents. Pasoni is from the chief clan and they both come from the village. We were invited to sit down and have some lemon leaf tea. The village houses all have the same layout, small kitchen with a fireplace and chimney where the food is cooked. Some have a gas burner also. Next is the living room, conveniently devoid of furniture, allowing free seating for many guests on the floor. We sat down, doing our best to sit elegantly with our legs folded but they probably saw our suffering and told us to stretch out and be comfortable. We were served a simple lunch of boiled big eye jack and breadfruit that we ate with our hands. Fish fillets is unheard of in Fiji, instead you take a piece and suck the flesh off the bones and the head, wasting no meat.

The next day we got a tour of the village with Pasoni. We noticed a very modern feature, most houses had a solar panel, connected to some 12V batteries and a 300W inverter. Pretty much the same setup as on Kenobi! For this they paid a monthly fee of $18F ($9 US). We stopped by the school and met some very happy and relaxed kids, all exams were done for the semester and they were just wrapping up and practicing for the dance performance next weekend. The head teacher came from another island but had been here for some years now. Only two weeks before we came a significant event had occurred - the school became the first place in Fulaga to have Internet! An epic event to me but here nobody seemed overly excited.

Fulaga is known to be home of Fijis’ master wood carvers. We stopped by the house where all the carving is done in the workshop outside. Saws, chisels, knives and old school hand operated drills. No electrical appliances for these guys. We bought a couple nicely ornamented bowls here and another one from the carver in the neighbouring village.

Camera shyness is non existent here
On the way home, with gifts of papaya and breadfruit.

Day three in Fulaga we had a date to go fishing with Su and her friend Ma. They came down to the shore at nine and we all squeezed into the dinghy and set course for the shallow south east side of the lagoon. First mission was to find clams, both for dinner tonight and for bait. We were guided to one of the mushroom islets and Su and Ma jumped in with snorkel and goggles in the waist deep water. We saw nothing but white sand with occasional sea weed but they started pulling up clam after clam! Su showed how it’s done; look for small holes in the sand, run your hand over it and, if a clam is down there, it closes and a small water jet with sand is emitted. Just dig in with your hand and grab the clam that is just under the surface, easy! After a while the holes were easy to find and we filled two big buckets, maybe 20 kg in total of these large clams. Some were opened right away and we tried them raw; nice and sweet meat, a true delicacy but we were looking forward to try the cooked version.

Next we went to the fishing spot, only 200 m away. We anchored outside some coral rocks fringing a shallow at the corner of the lagoon. Su cracked a clam by knocking it with another clam and baited her hand line hook with a big piece. Then she whirled her hand line rig over her head like a cowboy with a lasso and let it shoot away toward the rocks. Seconds later she had landed a nice sweetlip. It was nice to see Su fishing, a true expert fisherman. She told us that after High School in Suva when she decided between staying in the city to pursue a professional career, as many villagers do, or to go back to the village to live, she chose the village - partly because she loves fishing so much. Ma also started catching fish and my spinning rod was working great too, even though it felt like cheating a bit, fishing competition-wise. We caught about a dozen sweetlips and with the clams there was more than enough for dinner.

In the late afternoon we dinghied to shore and went to the village for dinner. We’d brought some much appreciated kava and it was decided we should all have some before dinner. We went with Taj to the village kava pounding spot. We’d met Taj before as he paddles across the lagoon in the morning to lay his fishing net, always friendly and with a warm smile. He dropped the whole kava bundle in the metal mortar and crushed it to a powder with a heavy metal rod. Sometimes you hit the side and a metal cling rings out over the village, informing every one that there soon will be kava to be had. Kava powder in hand, we went over to Tajs son Alfreds house to prepare it. We’d met Alfred before, he had a been bit in the hand by a crab and it was now badly infected and swollen. The village used to have a nurse but she was gone, they explained, so we had given him some penicillin earlier that day. Next step in the kava making, Su poured water in the large wooden kava bowl and Taj put the kava powder in a cloth and kneaded it in the water. When he had gotten the right strength by observing the muddy brown colour of the concoction it was ready to drink. For every round Taj filled a small coconut shell cup and handed it to you, then you had to chug it all in one go and clap three times! The drink wasn’t too bad, a bit like a muddy, dusty water but also some almost licorice taste and a good bitterness. Apart from a mild numbing sensation in the mouth we didn’t feel to intoxicated but it did seem to have some relaxing effect. More and more people joined, more kava was kneaded and the flakes got a second pounding. Music was put on and Ma dragged us up to do little group dance with her and Su to everyones enjoyment. I talked a lot to Taj who had worked 15 years in a resort in Musket Cove and liked tourists a lot. In Fiji you retire at 50-55 something and he had come back to the village. Alfred was not drinking kava, turned out he had become a Jehova witness during his time in Suva. Now the only in the village and much against the will of the chief. But it was accepted and Hampus who sat next to him was subjected to some missionary work during the evening.

After a couple hours the kava was finished and we went over to Ma’s house for dinner. Crispy fried jack, a spaghetti dish with the clams cooked in coconut milk, breadfruit, taro, cassava, rice with curried pumpkin. All very good! Next to me was Ma’s six year old son, I asked what his favourite food was - cassava. I also asked what they buy from the supply ship that comes every two weeks, remembering the very important Aranui cargo ship in the Marquesas. There it had altered the island peoples diets to a not that great western diet. Hamburgers and french fries, potato chips, Nutella pancakes and coke, causing wide spread obesity. Here it was a different story, since they almost don’t use money at all in the village they don’t buy much from the boat either. Su said she’d buy flour, sugar and oil, that’s pretty much it. All of the actual food they eat comes from the island.

Fishing time!
Picking clams under a mushroom islet
Ma frying the catch of the day

Next morning there was more fishing! This time we went spear gunning with Korai. We tied the dinghy to some coral at the bottom just outside the reef pass. Slack at low tide, clear sea water about to come in. Here the coral plateau was about 3m and then dropped straight to 10-15m. In the deep water there were huge schools of jacks, snappers, barracudas and more. Many many hundreds of fish, no ciguatera here so free pickings. We swam out toward them, gun in hand, and started chasing. Korai just laughed as the fish kept evading us. We came back to the plateau and he showed how to spear fish. You dive down very slowly to the edge of the plateau and hold on to some coral to keep still in the current. Then you lay perfectly still, not moving a fin, gun pointing toward the schools of fish outside. After about 30-60 seconds the fish starts coming closer and if you’re lucky close enough to take a shot. Here it’s very good to have a spear gun with some range, we took turns with our longest, the 100cm one. Korai shot a bunch and Simon and Hampus one jack each. No luck for me. Next day I returned with Simon and he really proved his position as top spear gunner on Kenobi - he shot two big surgeon fish and two huge red snappers, the biggest 7,5 kg and total weight 17 kg! I spent some time trying to invent a new kind of fishing - snorkel hand lining. Using the same clams as we had used in the lagoon (we kept a couple dozens alive in a net bag tied to the boat) I was sure of success. But no, I drifted slowly over huge schools of fish 10m below me but they didn’t even look at the bait! Only smaller triggerfish by the bottom were interested. Fishing keeps surprising you. Back by the boat we saw Su and Ma sitting by the shore cleaning another big harvest of clams and we gave it all to them who distributed it among the villagers. Walking through the village later in the afternoon we found the big snapper by the carvers’ hut, getting smoked in a nice stone oven.

Just a little closer...
7 kg snapper!

We had planned to spend only a couple days at each anchorage in order to get to see as many Lau islands as possible. But after a couple of days here we felt we shouldn’t stress on but stay here a while, getting to know the villagers better. We moved to a beautiful anchorage by a large sand spit in the south east corner of the lagoon. We hiked with Pasoni to the top of a mountain to get a panoramic view of the island. On the way up he casually suggested I should look inside a cave opening in the mountain side. It was full of human craniums! Supposedly the remnants of Tongan warriors, defeated in battle. An unexpected and morbid landmark, lying completely open and seemingly untouched.

When it was time to sail on after five nights we looked through all our stuff on board to see if we could give some stuff away. Since our trip is planned to end in Australia we took this opportunity to get rid of some things we have extra or don’t use. Snorkels and goggles, fishing gear (line and hooks are very appreciated), beach toys and Taj got our unused casting net, it will be perfect for the shallow sand-bottomed lagoon of Fulaga.

Omelette with breadfruit and "Fulaga clam"
Talkin' to me??
Kenobi & Yoda - best friends.

Matuku

Matuku photo album

We motor sailed over night to Matuku in light winds, 5 knots from the rear. Had a big hit on one rod in the morning, probably tuna, who straightened the metal snap swivel and lost me the lure and the fish. Will use sturdier snap swivels from now on. Also had a school of skipjack tunas swim in front of the boat for two hours. They refused to bite on any lures I cast at them with the spinning rod, poppers, vobblers, jigs. Weird.

Kenobi arrived early morning, seeing a completely different kind of island than Fulaga. A mountainous mix of sharp cliff edges, smooth green grassy hillsides and volcanic jungle covered peaks. The deep pass on the west side turns right and you have arrived in a very sheltered lagoon outside the village of Lomati. The anchor got a good holding in the mud bottom at the second attempt. After some food and a rest we donned the long pants and went ashore with our kava bundle, ready for sevu-sevu. The village faces the water and has a stone wall in front and stretches far back into the valley between green hills. Mangroves grow around the rest of the lagoon. Smaller village with maybe twenty houses and a nice church down by the water. We were greeted by Kelly, a tall, strong man who is rugby coach for the village and the cheerful Lendoa who runs the small village shop. Kelly took us to see Cama (pronounced “Thama”) who introduced himself as mayor and acting chief since the chief now lived in Suva. He accepted our sevu-sevu gift and welcomed us as members of the village. “How long will you stay, one year, two years?” he said with a playful smile. It is clear they are very welcoming and wanting to get to know you to make sure nothing bad will come to the village. There was a story, that we also heard in Fulaga, of cruisers who had hidden drugs on a beach elsewhere in Lau years ago and this made them weary still today. Cama said they want to welcome cruisers but also don’t want anything bad to happen to the village. Very understandable and we assured we meant no harm. To seal the deal we went down to the large community function house by the water to have some kava together with Kelly and Camas sons Manoa, who is our age and the younger Andrew.

CM93 vs GoogleEarth: 0-1
Lomati

Kava customs vary a little from island to island but I believe in Matuku they have really perfected it. As captain, I was appointed “chief of honour” and the “nose” of the kava bowl was pointing at me to signify this. As we had a few rounds Cama helped educate us in the proper kava etiquette. I was to initiate every round by announcing “taki”. Then Kelly, who was mixing the kava, filled a coconut cup, handed it to Cama sitting next who handed it to me. Before taking it I’d clap my hands once, grab the bowl, optionally I might utter a loud and chiefly “bula!” (greeting) before downing the whole cup. Preferably in a slushy was so everyone heard I was drinking, I noticed the high-ranking seniors were doing this. Then Cama looks at me and says “mala” (“empty”), I reply “moli!” (sweet), hand him the cup and do three loud claps. Done! To my delight it turned out I didn’t actually have to say “taki” to initiate every round, the Spokesman could take care of this. Hampus felt like a natural Spokesman and timed the rounds just right, everyone smiling and happy when a new round began, saying “vinaka, vinaka” (thank you). We lounged on the floor and smoked suki, cigarettes made of uncut tobacco leaves rolled in a thin and long piece of newspaper (!) to form a long, very slim cone. They smoked this all day but I couldn’t stand it for long, the newspaper really gets your throat.

Pounding some kava, smoking a suki.
Kelly, Manoa, Cama and the FSG around the kava bowl
Main street Lomati

Manoa invited us to join in a night time speargun session so we finished kava around six and went back to the boat for a quick meal. Around eight he, his brother Taka and Jese James came out to us in a slim canoe-style wooden boat with a small outboard. It was a nice session in shallow waters inside the reef, north of the pass. Almost full moon out and you could swim around even with the torch tuned off. Eerie feeling swimming in the night with the occasional slim white tip shark cruising by closely, watching your moves. Mostly small fish here but Manoa and Jese managed to fill a big bucket nevertheless, decent parrots, sweetlips and a couple smaller lobsters. On the way back we heard they had also tried to catch a turtle! They jokingly call them “sea-pig” since they taste like pork. To catch one that is sleeping on the bottom you dive down, grab the sides of the shell and point it toward the boat at the surface. The turtle starts swimming and pulls you both up to the surface where a boat man lifts it into the boat. Killed by cutting around the chest plate to get to the heart. Luckily, this clever turtle woke up and escaped before being caught. At 00:00 we ceased fishing, it was officially Sunday - day of rest.

Next day we were invited for Sunday lunch at Camas. His wife Tamari is an excellent chef and as we sat down on the floor around a table cloth and some very fine, old english porcelain plates. Maybe a remnant from the old colonial days, now residing with this village chief. Tamari started filling the floor with plates of taro, cassava, fried parrotfish, sweetlip in coconut sauce, boiled jack and the new favourite - her “veggie burger/dumpling” patties made with taro leaf, ginger and garlic mixed into a batter of flour and water. Served with a sauce made of creamy, home made coconut milk. Matuku is a lot greener island and better for farming than Fulaga and it was nice to get these leafy greens.

Manoa asked if we would be okay with taking some of the kids aboard to see the boat. We were happy to and after lunch we had ten from the village kids on the boat. They were jumping in the trampolines and playing around, Manoas twin daughters being the most energetic and his brother Andrew helped running after them. We ate dates and cookies and had a good time. The highpoint was when Johan brought out the drone and flew over the boat, filming us in the trampoline and they could see it all on the remote control display. They will have a good story to tell in school!

Taro and taro leaf patties
New use for Kenobi - playground!
The twins digging into some dates from Tahiti

In the afternoon there was church service. Cama had made us understand it was expected that we would attend, there really was no option. It was a nice little church, cool inside the stone walls, simple altar and a door open next to it facing the water where you saw the lagoon and the mangroves. It was us and about fifteen other villagers who gathered. The reverend kicked things off with some hymns and speaking in fijian. Then he turned to us and gave us a small welcome speech in English, hoping the Holy Spirit would reach us today even though we didn’t understand Fijian. Then Cama gives me the nudge and whispers I should go up and speak next. Holy crap. I got up and managed to say something about who we are, our trip and thanked them all very much for making us feel at home in their village. A lot of “vinaka”s and it seemed well appreciated. Then Lendoa took over and held the sermon in a monotonous, long flow of Fijian words. We looked out toward the lagoon and meditated.

After church we had some more kava in the village meeting house with Cama, the reverend and others.They asked how we knew each other, about the trip, how much the boat cost and why we had no wives on board. We explained our friendships, the economic setup for the trip and that people in our village can a bit slow in choosing a wife. They thought we should all get wives in Suva or Australia and then come back to Matuku, one boat each and with kids and all stay in the village. We promised we’d work on it. Cama also asked how long we would stay in the village. This being late in November already we had only planned to stay two nights before sailing up to Suva to clear out of Fiji. When we told him we’d leave already tomorrow, Monday, he looked at us with a troubled face and said this was not very good. No, it is much too soon. We should at least stay until Tuesday so they could make a lovo for us - a Fijian feast prepared in an underground oven. So it was decided, and we had pushed our schedule even a little further. By now we had realised that it’s no use making much plans by yourself when staying in a Lau village, just go with the flow. We were quite exhausted and went back to the boat around eight, with leftovers from the lunch as take away dinner.

This gave us time to do a hike with Taka the next day. We met 08:00 at Camas’ and Tamari served tea and freshly steamed coconut buns. Then we left with Taka. This was a real jungle hike, no trail as far as we could see, though forests with hanging lianas, lush green fields and up slopes with loose rocks and dirt where you used your arms more than your legs. Drenched in sweat we finally climbed one of the highest peaks and got a stunning view of this island. Matuku is like a mix between Marquesas and Moorea, high, volcanic, wild and still encircled by a reef to form a sheltered lagoon. On the way down Taka stopped to get some coconuts to drink. He climbed up the trunk of a 10m tall, nearly vertical tree and all the way up he grabbed a leaf of a coconut tree a couple meters away and jumped over to it! Crazy guy. Then he kicked down a dozen green coconuts and casually grabbed a liana, that broke at one side, and swinged down to the ground! Unbelievable, the real Tarzan of the jungle is called Taka. We guzzled down the much needed coconuts and continued. When we passed a small stream, Taka stopped again. The stream only had a dripple of water running through it but under a short drop there was a small pool of about a square metre. Taka went in and moved around to muddle up the water. This, he explained, makes the shrimp go to the surface. I couldn’t believe there was any shrimp in that puddle but soon enough he started catching them with his hands. They were quick, I got one and Taka got about a dozen, threading them neatly on the stem of a leaf, and we were off toward the village where some afternoon volleyball awaited.

Taka at the top
Caught another shrimp!

Manoa had asked earlier if he could borrow our dinghy to go crab hunting in the mangroves while we were gone, no problem of course. When we returned to the village he had caught a huge crab, found in a hole in the mud and speared. He had also fished more shrimp in another stream. Dinner that night was a real feast! The crab was the best I’ve ever tasted, very sweet meat. The little shrimps garnished Tamaris taro leaf patties, also delicious.

Next day was our last day in Lomati, the lovo feast day. We first went in with some gifts, we’d done another round of finding thing we don’t want to fly home from Oz. Clothing we didn’t need and some fishing stuff, a football etc. Cama did give us some pointers that a speargun was something they really needed - they had none and Manoa had to borrow to go fishing. We gave them the middle length one, along with some extra spears and rubbers. They had also prepared a going away gift, a big sac filled with fruits, vegetables, husked coconuts and bundled taro leaves.

Manoa started preparing the lovo. Rocks had been placed in a fire and now he flipped away the coal and wood still burning around them. He made a grid of some splintered fibrous sticks and placed cassava, taro and breadfruit on top. Then cover with banana, furn and other leaves, put corn cobs on that, more leaves, cover with empty four sacs and finish off by a few showels of dirt on top to seal everything. Soon the very special lovo scent was felt; rich, sweet and smoky. One hour later it was ready to eat. Simon had speared some nice parrotfish in the morning and these were served with the nice smoky flavoured vegetables.

Breadfruit, cassava, corn and taro - ready for the lovo
Grocery bag
More taro leaf patties, today with shrimp

Sometimes during dinners and kava we talked about the future of Matuku. There are now some investors interested in building resorts on the island. The Fijian government is prepared to build an airstrip, a $3M F investment. The tourist boat also is willing to start making stops at Matuku, only there is today no accommodation available. Young and driven guys like Jese James have modern ideas like opening a small bnb for surfers; Matuku is a surf mecca with a great point break at the reef pass, today only accessible for those chartering a boat. The current government is, according to what we heard, only interested in getting tax money income and will grant any building permissions demanded. Cama is confounded on what is the right thing to do. The people here all take great pride in being able to provide for themselves with only the produce of the island, needing very little money. In the village fish catches and many other things are shared. Work like maintaining roads and paths are done during special work days where all the men are involved. Resorts and tourism exploitation would probably in the long run mean the end of the traditional village life. Cama seeks advice from the many family members who now live in Suva or abroad in NZ and the US; most Matukuians live off the island. They’ve told him that it is up to him and the people still living on the island to decide. Makes sense. For me and the crew it is easy to say that they should never change, what they have today is truly all they need and what they would get is just less freedom. But is it possible to stop that temptation of starting to make real money? Modernising, more electricity, Internet, mobile phones. Also high school and college cost money. More of the parents could give their children an education, children that would afterwards most likely pursue a career in Suva. And if the resorts are built, how will it be possible to spread the wealth in fair way among the people on the island? Most of the interesting land properties on the islands are owned by different families, something no one pays much attention to today but if this happens it would mean everything. And how not to get ripped of by business-savy exploiters? Cama is thinking of leasing the land so he won’t have to sell it. It seems inevitable that Matuku, and probably more of the Lau islands, will change a lot in the coming years. We hope they’ll find a way to keep the spirit of the village alive.

Cama and Tamari with grandchild

Fulaga photo album

Matuku photo album

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