July 15, 2024
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Back in Fiji–Paddy Ryan on the move–Part 1

Editor’s Note: No one personifies Fiji’s natural history space more than Paddy Ryan, author of Fiji’s Natural HeritageTraned as a biologist, Paddy is an acclaimed photographer, skilled diver and underwater photographer, writer and chronicler of Fiji’s natural world. He’s back in Fiji now, updating his classic book. I think a cursury look at his art will blow your mind.


I promised a weekly (or thereabouts) newsletter to friends and family but have failed miserably in this. Part of it is inertia, part of it is the internet (although that’s mostly an excuse) and part of it is nothing to report. In addition, the b,k, p, and s keys on my laptop stopped working and I had to buy a cheap USB keyboard.

The trip started badly. I got to LAX from DEN okay with my two 30 kg bags but at check-in with Fiji Airways I found that while my Tabua Club does allow me two bags it only allows a total of 40 kgs. I had to take stuff out of each suitcase and put them into my carry-on and photographer’s jacket and even so, I still had to pay US$200 for the extra suitcase. Despite my comments that Tourism Fiji were covering my airfare so as to promote Fiji, it made no difference. These guys would have done the Waffen SS proud. Orders is Orders.

Turbinaria algae–middle background (Courtesy Paddy Ryan Photography)

The flight was pleasant, aisle seat middle row. On arrival I bought a cheap Samsung phone with Sim cards for the two carriers in Fiji, Vodafone and Digicel. I was kind of hopeful that someone from Tourism Fiji would be there to meet me but not at all surprised when they weren’t as they were busy with the Fiji Tourism Convention. I hung around the terminal for a while and then checked in online to a local hotel.

Later, I met friend Mike Agnew who lent me dive gear and picked me up for dinner. We went to one of my favourite Fiji restaurants “The Masala Twist” and when we finished, I walked to another nearby Indian Restaurant to meet another friend, Richard Markham.

I caught a cab back to the hotel, got out and went to the driver’s side, took my wallet out of my pocket, and paid the driver. Went straight up to my room and went to sleep. In the morning, I couldn’t find my wallet. I wasn’t too concerned. I usually put it in a “safe place” and often forget where that safe place is. After I had searched every piece of luggage twice, I came to the reluctant conclusion that it was lost. But I have absolutely no idea how. I must have missed my pocket when putting it back after paying the driver. In the days when I would have had 4 or 5 Fiji Bitters this might be expected. But after only having had two I thought this was a little unfair.

Buprestid beetle (Courtesy Paddy Ryan Photography)

What to do? Renting a car without my driver’s license wasn’t possible. I was ultimately able to access the Colorado State website and download a copy of my license. That left the minor problem of no money. Using my Vodafone account on the new phone I was able to initiate an Mpaisa account and then Western Union money to myself from my US bank account. In some ways it’s better than using my cards. All places here charge a 3-4% transaction fee and Mpaisa is cheaper than that. The major banks charge F$15 for a cash withdrawal (about US$7!). One bank, BSB, “only” charges $10 (about US$4.50).

While everyone on FB suggested I cancel my cards I chose not to do so. I have so many automatic payments on them that I didn’t want the hassle of re-carding those. It was a gamble, but it’s been nearly a month now and there are no strange transactions on my Bellco debit card and I am sure my Visa credit card would have queried sudden Fijian transactions. I am still hopeful my wallet is in a secret hidey hole I have yet to rediscover.

Sago palm seeds (Courtesy Paddy Ryan Photography)

I sat around in Nadi for four days, not doing a lot, waiting to hear from Tourism Fiji. They took a while but ultimately came through with the choice between a rental car or hotel accommodation in Suva. I opted for the accommodation at the mid-range Peninsula (which is where I usually stay). That sorted, I grabbed a taxi to Mango Bay Resort where my new friend, Ed Duffy, made me very welcome. I stayed here for four nights getting some useful photos. I made a side trip to visit Victor Bonito who is studying Fiji corals and climate change. I used Mike’s dive gear here and the Olympus TG-6 in my Ikelite housing with twin newly serviced Ikelite flashes to take photos of algae. There was a strong surge running and with my scuba tank and housing could not make it all the way to Victor’s study site. After being body slammed by an incoming surge, I moved back inshore to a quiet area behind a coral bommie and got several of the photos I need for the book. It was exciting to have the camera gear work the way it should.

 Ed introduced me to a rental car company and dropped me at the Peninsula during a visit to Suva. I ended up with a sweet deal on a RAV 4 which I rented for two weeks. The new mobility has been great although, as I outlined in a recent FB post, it isn’t perfect. Here’s that post.

Degeneria vitiensis (Courtesy Paddy Ryan Photography)

“A few days ago, when I ventured out to take drone shots of the Fijian sago palm I headed out in the rental RAV 4 on the road to Lex’s property out back of Pacific Harbour. I’d driven the road several times before, but it was a little wet and more rutted than usual. After struggling to get to the top of one of the hills I stopped to put the car into 4WD – only there wasn’t any. I didn’t even realize there WERE RAV 4s without 4WD. I just had to keep going until I could find a turning spot. To get up the hills in 2WD with road tires I had to build-up speed and hold on tight as we bounced into and over the ruts.

Obviously, I made it and so did the car (although it bottomed out the suspension twice with a resounding thud each time). I have done a lot of driving on bad roads (mostly with Chris Henry on our various adventures) but this was the only time, apart from when Chris backed down the Road of Death in Bolivia (at night, in the rain and with no guard rails) that I’ve felt a frisson of fear. I’ve tagged Chris and Lex – although they weren’t physically with me, they were in spirit. 

Vatulele Cave, Fiji (Courtesy Paddy Ryan Photography)

Since being in Suva I have made several side trips. I flew the drone to take photos of the endemic Fijian sago palm tree and of some very stately banyans. I’ve also been up the Namosi Road after bird and plant photos. Renowned Fijian ornithologist Vilikesa Masibalavu took me to the Sovi basin where he and one of his sons and his daughter set four mist nets in pursuit of the rare, endemic, and endangered long-legged thicket bird. We failed in this but did catch two fantails, a female golden dove and a very pugnacious lesser shrikebill.

Thanks to my friend Erica Lee-Jamnadas I gave a talk about the book to a Suva Rotary Club and met a few old friends as well including Lorraine Evans. Lorraine, and husband Dave were instrumental in my early underwater photography letting me go on many dive trips to Beqa with them.

Cephalopholis miniata Coral grouper (Serranidae) Taveuni, Fiji (Courtesy Paddy Ryan Photography)

I stayed in the Peninsula for 13 days. Tourism Fiji paid for seven and I picked up the other six. But despite the very successful and generous Gofund me contributions I still have to worry about money and am now staying with my fish friend Altaf Jalil. Altaf shares my enthusiasm for Fiji’s freshwater fish, and we have been on several collecting/photographic trips together. We need the rain to stop though as the rivers and streams are discoloured and flooded.

It is raining as I write this, but I intend to photograph some toad tadpoles today plus some freshwater pipefish that Altaf collected a few weeks ago and which are thriving in one of his huge outdoors tanks.

I remain depressed by the state of Fiji’s environment. Fish that were common in the mangroves are no longer seen (at least by me) and the rainforest has been taken over by an obnoxious ant (white-footed ant?). Although it doesn’t bite or sting it is everywhere and in astounding numbers. When I check the leaf axils of Pandanus bushes where I often used to find tree frogs or cool insects, all I get today are thousands of these bloody ants. The invasive African tulip tree is taking over previously pristine rainforests, loggers pollute our waterways and crystal meth is now on the streets.

Chromodoris coi, Coi’s chromodoris (Courtesy Paddy Ryan Photography)

I am also a little depressed by my total inability to raise sponsorship money for the book. Neither the US nor UK embassies have responded to my emails requesting a meeting to discuss the possibility. I am worried that this massive project is just going to die and all my work over the last few years will be for naught. I am also aware that the project can’t be open-ended. I can always get better photos of everything and find new things to photograph and learn about. But I am not getting any younger and although currently fit and healthy that won’t be the case forever.

I am reminded of a former colleague at the Metropolitan State University of Denver. Dr Robert (Bob) Cohen was an ornithologist who studied a bird population, swallows I think. He studied them for nearly 30 years. I kept telling him he should publish and that he had plenty of data. “Just a few more years” Bob would say. And then he died in a car crash and all his research died with him.

Chromodoris kunei, Kadavu, Fiji (Courtesy Paddy Ryan Photography)

I did take delivery of a dummy of the book with one chapter (frogs) included. I am delighted with it and hope it will help in my quest for sponsorship (I think all of you know me well enough to know that I am not doing this for money – I doubt if I will ever make a cent from the book).

So, I’ve decided just one more trip in Dec/Jan this year/next year and that’s it. If I can’t have the photos I need – too bad – I’ll either get them from friends or do without.

I’m sorry this isn’t bursting with positivity. I feel bad that I have so little to show from this trip so far and that I am letting down those of you who contributed to my GoFundme. I still hope to get to Rotuma, Taveuni, and Vanua Levu in the time left to me. The trip to VatuVara, the place where Meghan Markel and Prince Harry? stayed at has been sold, so my visit there isn’t going to happen.

Anyway, the rain can’t last forever, and I’ve discovered a bakery that sells lamb shank pies and I have coffee, so life is good.

Stay tuned for future blogs from Paddy Ryan and he continues his journey…

Rob Kay

Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award winner Rob Kay wrote the original Lonely Planet Fiji Travel Guide, and is Founder of Fijiguide.com.

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