Finding the real Fiji in the Lau Islands
Far from the flash hotels and beach resorts Fiji is famous for, the Lau Group of Islands are one of those tropical treasures that ‘off the beaten track’ travellers dream of
Austrian Philosopher Martin Buber said that ‘all journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware’. He may well have been talking of the Lau Island Group in Fiji’s far east. The Lau Group is so far off the tourist radar most travellers would be unaware of their existence. Straddling the 180 degree meridian, this chain of almost 60 islands are beautifully bejewelled treasures draped across an aquamarine South Pacific Ocean.
Mention Fiji on the other hand and everyone either has visited, knows someone who has visited or are planning a visit. It’s one of those ubiquitous holiday hotspots that have been on traveller’s radars pretty much since Capt. James Cook was enticed to the South Pacific from the wintery shores of Great Britain.
Searching for the mythical Great Southern Land, he made just one landfall in Fiji (or Fidgee as it was then known), choosing to go ashore at one of the most beautiful islands in the entire archipelago. Sighting turtles foraging on the reef Cook’s shore party found islanders armed with clubs and spears. He named the landmass rising out of the fringing reef Turtle Island before casting Fiji adrift and sailing over the horizon.
Cook’s hightailing it out of Fiji at the first sign of trouble is a classic tale of missing the ‘secret destinations’ Buber alluded to. Had he known that he had bypassed the chain of islands now known as the Lau Group of Islands the course of history would likely have been vastly different. Though, in fairness to Cook he had important government business to attend to (helllooo Australia!). If on the other hand, he was looking for a tropical island to relax, recharge and rejuvenate his weary body and soul, he would have found all that and more in the Lau Group.
There are a couple of dirt airstrips though most arrivals to the Lau Islands come by sea. With a sporadic interisland service from Suva, the best way to explore the Lau Islands is to book a berth on Captain Cook Cruises MV Reef Endeavour. Cook’s namesake vessel ventures to this far eastern archipelago just three times each year, taking travellers to places without postcards or post codes. Though Cook reported altercations with fierce warriors, these days bashful children or gap-toothed elders are more likely to greet the rare visitors who step ashore.
Touted as the ‘real Fiji, untouched and unspoilt by western influence’, it’s hard to argue with the claim. Particularly after surging through the narrow gap of fringing reef surrounding Fulaga Lagoon. A vast turquoise-hued lagoon is protected by ocean swells generated by south east trade winds. It’s a natural tropical paradise. The only thing missing is a freshly hulled coconut with a miniature umbrella and a straw poking out of it. There are however plenty of palm trees dripping with coconuts at hand to make amends. Beneath a powder blue sky dotted with cotton puff clouds tiny mushroom-like motus rise from the seabed. The sea floor itself is every bit as white as the clouds overhead. Atop the tiny islets iridescent green palm trees swoosh in the breeze. Undercut and eroded by the tide, some have arches creating miniature land bridges just large enough for a kayak or canoe to manoeuvre through.
As the tide falls sandy islets rise above the sea, their shores kissed by gin clear waters. Turtles appear to hover in thin air. Further afield long strips of beach sand are shaded by more coconut palms. This is the real treasure that Cook missed. It’s the sort of tranquil South Pacific idyll countless adventurers and artists, hedonists and hermits have sought for eons. I confess I’m smitten. Hidden away in the Southern Lau Group, Fulaga Lagoon is as far from downtown Nadi as it’s possible to be. If paradise has a postcode it’s right here. Learning that the next boat that services the two villages on the lagoon I toy briefly with the idea of jumping ship, settling into Fijian life and living a castaway life. Had Tom Hanks’s Cast Away character Chuck found himself washed up at Fulaga I suspect he wouldn’t have been quite so enthusiastic about being rescued.
Travel writer Paul Theroux in The Happy Isles of Oceania describes the Lau group quite neatly as 'one of the pretty little star-clusters in the universe of Oceania'. He must have paddled into Fulaga Lagoon too.
With just a handful of villages spread across the Lau archipelago, few receive foreign visitors beyond MV Reef Endeavour’s appearance. In response villagers thrown open their arms, opening their meagre homes, schools and churches, welcoming visitors like long lost family.
Archaeological expeditions conclude that a cave on Vanuabaluva Island shows signs of human habitation as far back as ten centuries. Life in these fertile islands remains very simple with the land, the sea and the sky providing pretty much all the sustenance islanders require. It’s safe to assume that little has changed since Cook’s much-lauded Pacific voyages.
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