Thursday, October 13th, 2011: Savusavu, Fiji
Savusavu is located on another island to the northeast of Viti Levu, where things began to slow down and we really begin to grasp the concept of “Fiji Time”. Our third stop of four within Fiji, this tender port with a picturesque harbor has a population of only 5,000 people, and a small main street that runs through the middle of town. When 2,500 passengers and crew arrive, the small coastal town springs to life.
We had already been warned that this island would be much more “basic”, “rustic”, and “simplistic” then our previous stops in Fiji. Evidently, these terms translate to 1) No air conditioning in the tour buses, 2) no microphones and amplified tour commentary in the tour buses, and 3) restrooms are more like those at a campground than a 5 star resort. Sounds like the start of a great day of adventure! We tendered into the Copra Shed, and boarded our bus for the trip to Waisali Rain Forest Preserve, where we would enjoy a half day tour at this nationally protected park.
The bus that arrived to pick us up was a 20+ year old hand me down from some random place where the knobs and buttons on the dashboard have no words and the engine needs a liter of water poured into it every 30 minutes by the driver (a convenient pour hole is available right in the middle of the dashboard, so no one has to exit the bus.) It was true that the buses have no air conditioning, but this was quickly rectified as our bus had no windows either! Red plastic looking vinyl covered all of the seats and gave our light green, windowless, magic bus a fun christmas kind of feel as the rest of the passengers for our tour got onboard.
Wait a second… Our bus, withseating for 60, only had 7 people on it. After a lengthy discussion between the bus driver, the tour company supervisor, and then a momentary cell phone call to figure out what was going on, our guide onboarded and we began to pull away. What we found out later was that the tour we were on had 75 people. In the massive push to get on the first bus available, 68 people boarded the first bus, packed it to the gills and then took off, leaving the 7 of us to enjoy the breezy comfort of our own Partridge Family Bus as we began an hour long drive into the hills surrounding Savusavu, passing through a number of villages along the way.
The tour guide really didn’t need a microphone as we were such a small group and the tank like roar of the bus engine, combined with the open air nature of our transport would instantly drown her out anyways. We admired the amazing green and lush scenery as we drove along the coastline and then turned inland and towards the hills.
The hills presented their own unique trouble. Beyond taxing the bus engine to the near fatal point of failure, our driver stayed on top of his water filling duties and we never suffered an overheat (other groups, though, weren’t so lucky). However, once the angle of the hillside roadways reached a certain point and the bus needed to grind into the lowest gear imaginable, we were inching up at a top speed of about 3 miles per hour. You could honestly get out of the bus and run faster then this hollowed out shell of a vehicle would go, but it was persistent, if slow as a turtle.
As we rounded a corner, the bus driver began to laugh, as the laws of karma dictated that even as slow as our bus of 7 was going, we would eventually catch up to, and overtake the overloaded, weighed down bus with 68 people. As we passed them, smiling, waving, and shouting “Bula!”, a traditional Fijian hello, if looks could kill, we would be one foot in the grave, as they realized their mistake and faced another 30+ minutes sweltering in the portable sauna sardine can they were making their way up the mountain in at a top speed of just 2 miles per hour.
Our bus continued to enjoy the trip into the dense rain forest of the interior valley and finally we arrived at the crest of a tall hill where the views stretched all the way back to the harbor, 30kms away, and below us sat a huge expanse of protected and native Fijian rain forest. We got the news that we had to wait for the other bus before we could start our tour, so we walked around, taking pictures and admiring the scenery, and once the other bus arrived, 68 people burst through the doors madly laying claim to a seat on our bus for the return trip.
We all gathered together and began the tour of Waisali. What we didn’t realize though was that we had a single ranger leading us through the National Park, and trail was a single file track with no stops and just one place to rest at the midpoint of the loop. Oh, that and the fact that the track takes you nearly 2.5kms down a steep gravel and mud staircase like path into the rain forest and the valley floor, only to then return everyone another 2.5kms back up another steep gravel and mud staircase to the top. In 85 degree heat and near 100% humidity, this would certainly be a challenge for us — for much of the rest of the group, it would be downright painful.
The ranger, to his credit, did the best his could in the circumstances. It was a large group and with no place to stop, the single file line began to play the old school game of telephone with someone at the front sending a message to the people behind them, who then passed it along the entire line one after another to its eventual completion (“Slippery step ahead”, “Watch for the low branches”, or “Did someone slip and fall?”). Thankfully we all made it down to the bottom of the valley and though we were throughly drenched in sweat by this point, the views along the way were enjoyable and at the valley floor there was a small waterfall and a clear running stream of crystal clear water to help provide folks with cool thoughts.
Normally, the path bends to the right and crosses over the top of the stream via a land bridge to begin the steep ascent back to the entrance of the park. Unfortunately though, the stream had been blocked underneath with leaves, mud, and other debris and was now washing over the top of the land bridge, presenting 75 hot, sweaty people with the prospect of having to walk in ankle deep water across the stream to get to the other side. Given the warm weather, we and another half a dozen or so passengers were ready to take on the overflowing stream as just another fun aspect to nature at work on our tour. Our ranger though, climbed into the stream waist deep, started pulling the rocks, leaves, and mud away from the clogged “drain” and slowly, but surely, he got the water level to begin decreasing and the once submerged land bridge, in a few minutes time, became a walking path once again. The crowd cheered and the ranger’s new name was now Moses, as he had single handedly parted the raging “sea”.
The laughter and cheering was short lived for some as the realities of 2.5kms nearly straight uphill lay ahead. Single file walking meant that if anyone needed a stop for any reason (take a photo, catch their breath, or just to stop and complain about the “talking to the shore excursion manager will get when I get back from this sauna”) the entire line and its momentum came to a screeching halt. It took nearly an hour to get back up to the top of the walking path, and though limits were tested, everyone did the best they could in the circumstances. We were soaked to the bone, hot and covered head to toe and through our clothing in sweat, but we had a good time, regardless of the circumstances around us.
As we got back to the entrance to the park and had completed the 3 mile loop, everyone sought out shelter and a place on the bus of their choice. It was immediately clear that our bus became everyone’s defacto favorite and it began to fill up fast. Thankfully, we got our seats quickly and ensured that we would have our same spots for the trip home. The guides intervened and declared that each bus would take exactly half of the passengers. Once one bus hit that magic number (in this case 38), everyone else must go to the other option. Civility began to return to the masses, and we all began to relax, enjoying a slight breeze as it moved through our open air magic bus.
A few moments later, the guides pulled two large coolers out of the belly of the first bus and setup ice cold bottles of Fiji Water and fresh local fruit out on tables in the park entrance area. No one on our bus dare move a muscle as it seemed that the other passengers were waiting for an opportunity to claim any recently emptied seat as their own. The quickly devised solution was to send no more than one person in each party out to get the water and fruit and bring it back to the bus. We all got a good laugh out of the lengths people would go to to ensure their place on a windowless, red vinyl covered, 20 year old dilipidated hunk of overheating metal, but alas, this is Fiji and no matter what, we just reminded ourselves that we were in paradise, and sometimes a little sacrifice is necessary to appreciate all that we have.
A short time later, we slowly, but surely, made our way back down the hill to the coast, and wound our way back to the drop-off point where we walked the bustling downtown of Savusavu, (it only took about 15 minutes) and picked up some sodas at the local market. We headed back to our tender and returned to the ship having enjoyed a nice day in port, a day of laughter and sweat (thankfully, no tears), and another great experience in Fiji.