Posted by: asolare | 20/06/2008

Not so desert island

Our arrival boldly announced by a single cockerel made us doubt we were alone on our desert island. We had slipped into the flat waters of a remote atoll shortly after dawn cruising the 15 miles across it’s diameter to an anchorage behind a small island.

From our chart it is clear our atoll is the remains of an ancient volcano, being an almost continuous and quite circular ring of reef and small islands. The ring is broken only in two places, one of which, American Passage formed our entrance (deep and wide), the other a narrow gully Qilaqila Passage, will provide our eventual exit. Once over the lip of the volcano, the water depth in the crater is generally a comfortable 27- 40 meters rather less than the 5000+ m of the seabed outside! The platform for an atoll is a volcano that is slowly sinking into the sea, what gives the atoll its character is the coral that grows on top. The coral goes on growing towards the light as the volcano sinks beneath it. Knowing this, perhaps we should not have been so surprised at the number of (often uncharted) isolated coral capped pinnacles, shoal patches and linked reefs that we found in this otherwise quite benign sailing-crater. These hazards, just at or under the sea surface turned casual cruising into quite an adventure. It is no wonder these are called the Exploring Isles!

Our island 2 miles long, 3/4 mile wide and maybe 150m high, is topped with a thick forest of coconut palm and notable variety of tree species. At high water the island looks quite impenetrable, at low water a 25 metre shelf of coral emerges, sufficient for two native-backed horses to come galloping by!

Temo and Nada are from the local town of Loma Loma on another Island, they are two of eight people working on the island harvesting copra. None live here permanently, they come and work for 2 weeks before a boat arrives to collect the copra and take it to Suva for sale. Then they either move to another island or return home, depending. Their party is made up of six young guys an older man and a woman who, as they put it, cooks for them.

While his mate cut coconut deftly with his machete, passing the opened fruits to us at intervals, Temo went on to explain a little more. He knows these islands well, when he is not harvesting copra he dives for “Sea-demons” which we later discovered are a particular type of sea-cucumber, a local delicacy. Temo has scuba-dived all around these islands and while foreign travel is just a dream for him, he knows the rich coral and sea life here are something extra special. Our own brief snorkelling trips revealed curtains of coral, shoals of brightly coloured fish, a small turtle (apparently there are many) but no whales. Temo advises that no big whales come here, pretty much like yachts, which he has also never seen here before.

After tales of the English-man who once owned this small island, which he “bought with his gun” chasing the locals away to the other islands, and a gentle comparison of life on Fiji compared to life in London, it was soon time for the boys to get back to work. Mounting their horses bareback they galloped off across the re-submerging coral shelf just before the tide got too high for the horses to return.

Left to our own devices we planned our evening entertainment. A BBQ on the beach, it just had to be done even in the inevitable rain. It has rained here in the South Pacific almost every day for a month. And it rains well here! Just like on those childhood camping holidays in North Wales, Devon or Cornwall, continuous heavy downpour for hours gives way to sultry low cloud occasionally. However when the sun does eventually come out, everything changes, the scene is transformed to one of sparkling blue ocean spotted with aqua-marine edged coral reef, and coconut palm-fringed beaches just like on the screen-saver images people long-over in city offices across the world!

Our BBQ, in the dark, in the rain, covered in insect repellent, on a beach diminished to the point of non-existence, a truly British experience, was deemed a success by all. We returned to Asolare happy!



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