Labasa (Lahm - bah - sah). The northernmost Fijian town (as opposed to a village), Labasa is the commercial hub for Vanua Levu's sugar cane farmers. Located on the dry side of the island, the town's population is in the high 20,000's and hosts a sugar cane mill, two hotels, a movie theatre, and restaurants. Except for those intrepid backpackers or wanderlust travelers who enjoy an adventurous curiosity off the beaten track, few tourists venture this way. While I would like to continue this town's description with the sentence, "and that's too bad, because Labasa is ... (and then add a lot of flowery, positive adjectives before the word) 'great!'", I am unable to do so. The plane is landing outside the town limits and I am headed in the opposite direction, towards the only resort in all of Fiji that dives The Great Sea Reef: Nukubati. Maybe next time I'll strike my off on a curiosity trip to explore the adjectives.
For those interested in seeing Nukubati's website (as a supplement to this and subsequent blogs), please go to:
I've just landed at Labasa's airport and I'm supposed to be met by a driver who will whisk me away to the resort. I do not know the driver's name or what he looks like, so it'll be up to the driver to identify me. I'm looking around and I see an American couple also peering over heads, looking for some connection. Maybe they're also going to Nukubati? I head their direction, but stop just before I pose the question when I see and hear an expatriate whisking them away. They're definitely not going my way. An Indian couple catch my eye and ask me if I'd like to share a cab with them into Labasa (Did they discern the wrinkled brow as a plea for help?). Very friendly smiles; happy dispositions. It'd be grand getting to know them. I politely decline and wish them a "Good day." From behind me I hear the most needed and reassuring sentence, "Are you Scott Putnam?" "Yes!.. Yes!" I enthusiastically reply (the second "yes" was for me).
My taxi driver smiles and asks for my luggage. I look over towards the baggage cart (airport is too small for a baggage carousel), see my 3 very heavy bags (They made it!), look back at the small frame of my Indian driver, and tell him, "It's O.K., let me get the luggage and I'll meet you at the front." He smiles and heads off. I go over and grab a luggage cart and with effort and bended knees (so as to not throw out my back) I lift my dive bag onto it. "Argh!" Then I grab the other two bags. They're not as heavy, but I'm winded. And the heat! Oh my God, is it ever hot and humid here! This is supposed to be the dry side of the island(?). When I hear the word "dry", I think "high pressure", "dry heat", my hometown of Redding, California. Not this. I'm in the shade and I feel like a summer tourist in Washington, D.C. Sweat is starting to leak from every pore in my body. I look around me for communal confirmation. Everyone's fine, no one appears to be sweating. "O.K., "I tell myself, "it appears you just need to acclimatize. Only complain to yourself because no one likes a whiner."
The car pulls up and the small Indian man grabs my bags and puts them in the back of his car - with ease. There's no grunting, no smart aleck comment about "What'd you put in here?!" I feel pathetic but grin the smile of a guilty man. Hopping into the left front seat, I close the door, and yahoo, we're off! Now I just need to focus on the road and not cringe or put my hands to my face when I see cars coming at me from the wrong direction. Fijians drive on the "wrong"/English/left-side of the road. There aren't any cars on the road, so I'm pretending we're driving on a 2-lane one-way street. This trick is really working!
We've been driving now for some time and the road is still paved/sealed. How odd. The next island over, Taveuni, has only a few kilometers of paved road, yet this one seems paved all over. Is Taveuni Fiji's bastard child? Hmmm... it makes me wonder. Looking out the window, I see kilometer after kilometer of rolling hills and sugar cane. The landscape, except for the sugarcane, reminds me a lot of rural, far northern California. There are even pine trees and farm houses. The driver is now pulling over to the side of the road and pointing out that the "sealed" road continues on to Savusavu or the end of the island, but that we were now turning off towards Nukubati. "Oh good," I think, "we're almost there!"...
Heh, heh, heh. The joke is on me. We've been driving now for at least a half hour since the turn off. We just passed a medical clinic, but lest my previous generalization pass unnoticed, we're on a dirt road. This is a very good dirt road, mind you, much better than Taveuni's dirt roads filled with razor ruts and gaping cart-sized pot holes; but, it's still a dirt road. My window is open and my once light blue shorts are getting a good dusting. I look at the dashboard to see if there is a sedimentary layer, but find it surprisingly clean. Hmmm... How does he drive these roads and yet keep his car so clean? An inquiring mind want to know... Wait, wait, wait! I see a "sealed" road approaching: we must be close to the resort. Ahh yes, we're on the sealed road, a smooth surface; nice on the joints. There's a village on both sides of the road, and ... what?! Dirt road again? Oh, how funny. A hundred meters of sealed road and that's it. I'm starting to contemplate opening up a car repair business on this island. Truly, how many kilometers can a car actually drive here without needing repairs?
It's been now about an hour and a half since we left the airport and I'm starting to nod. The vibration of the car is very similar to the washing machine my parents used to put me on to lull me to sleep as a child.
"Do you want to take a picture?" the driver asks.
"What?" I reply. Lulled out of a Fijian stupor.
"Nukubati is over there." He points a finger over a ridge towards an island with a traditional Fijian structure on the top of a hill. I get out of the car, grab my 20 lb. camera bag, and prepare to take a picture.
"Umm, can you give me a few minutes?" I ask the driver. He smiles and says, "Yes." I think at the same time, however, that my question was stupid. Of course he's going to say, "Yes". What else would he say? This isn't New York. I find my Nikon D90 at the bottom of the bag, take off the lens cover and see that I have the UV filter on. I search for the polarizing filter, find it, and exchange it with the UV. It's broad, tropical daylight - streaming brightness. I switch the camera to "A", put the F stop at 16, set my white balance reading (and yes, this is taking time), and take the picture. This would be a pretty shot at sunrise or sunset, but this will have to do. I put the camera back in the bag and down the hill we go to Nukubati's pier.
The pier is great. It is a long gray, wooden structure extending out from the surrounding mangroves. There's a thatched, covered rest area for people transiting from this location. Nice. There are two Fijian men, in bright red uniforms, who introduce themselves (I miss the names), grab my bags and head towards the waiting skiff. I grab my camera and start clicking away as I walk down the pier. It's high tide, so the boat is not far below the dock. I step in, sit down, and the introductions start again. The motorboat engine drowns out whatever they're saying. I smile, laugh, and think, "Holy cow. I'm in Fiji!"