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A lesson in reversing the van…

For most of my adult life I’ve always wanted to visit the town of Seventeen Seventy, locally referred to as “1770”. There’s something rather dreamy about visiting a sleepy seaside village named after a year. A tiny town, situated roughly 500km north of Brisbane and surrounded on three sides by the Coral Sea and Bustard Bay. It was the second landing site of Lieutenant James Cook and the crew of the Endeavour in May 1770 and is a huge part of Australian history.

The road into 1770 and nearby Agnes Water was not what I’d expected. I’d imaged a windy, coastal road that took in the beautiful vistas of the ocean. Instead, it was surrounded by dry, dense and rugged bushland. The little towns, like Rosedale, our picnic lunch stop, felt quite deserted and very remote.

As we arrived at the town of Agnes Water we checked Wikicamps for a good spot to stay and found a place called ‘Horizons Kangaroo Sanctuary & Camp Ground’ – 4.5 stars is almost as good as it gets, throw in some wildlife and the kids will be over the moon. We drove through the gates and the dirt road leading into the property gradually became narrower, more winding and then suddenly…very steep. Too steep. The X-trail could not pull the weight of the van up the hill and as the front wheels started slipping we decided it wasn’t safe to go any further. This was new. 100m up the hill with a ditch on one side and a drop off on the other the only way was down. We had to reverse. ”Just take a few deep breathes everyone”. I climbed out, worked out we had about 1 metre to work with and very slowly started guiding the car and van down the hill. Seriously not for the faint hearted! The kids didn’t fancy going off the edge – I’ve never seen them move so fast. They jumped out and agreed to meet us at the bottom.

We were doing ok until two backpacker filled campervans arrived behind us. You can just imagine their faces when they realised there was no way around and that they too, had to reverse. Fifteen gruelling minutes later with a small audience by now and we were back where we had started. I’m not sure if you know this but some campers just love watching the ‘newbies’ try to park and reverse their vans. They pull up a chair, make a cup of tea and watch the show. No pressure. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes (like yesterday) we get it horribly wrong. You’d think we’d have it mastered by now! We are getting better, I promise.

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As for our wildlife camping idea, it was obvious that we were not going to be able to spend the night there so we headed off to the first available campsite and found ourselves on a flat, gravel free surface, right on the beach in 1770. A small wooden fence was all that separated us from the beach. The view over the bay was spectacular. This is one of the few places in Queensland where you can watch the sun set over the water. As we walked along the sand that evening, fishermen standing in the water and nearby pelicans hoping to steal a catch forming a backcloth of silhouettes, we now fully appreciated why this was such a popular holiday destination.

After breakfast the following day we took a leisurely stroll along the beach to a heritage listed site, a cairn situated on Round Hill. The cairn stands on the site where one of Cook’s crew carved the date on a tree near where they came ashore.

Rockhampton was our next destination and as we wanted to get there before dinner, we quickly packed up and headed straight off. We were going to have dinner with good friends that we hadn’t seen in years. There is only one way in and one way out of Agnes Water and 1770 and it’s quite a long, monotonous road. If you’re planning on visiting, allow yourself a few days there at the very least and don’t forget your fishing rod!

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I’d like to share a tip for all the future caravanners out there. A lovely family that we met on the cruise ship gave us very valuable advice when it comes to reversing a caravan. The person guiding the driver stands in front of the car and van reversing, facing the driver. If you want them to reverse the van to your left, call out ‘pull left’ at which point the driver pulls the steering wheel to their left and if you want them to reverse towards the right, ‘pull right’. It has saved us from embarrassment numerous times but especially in 1770!

 

Wandering through the streets of Suva

One of the most cosmopolitan and bustling cities in Oceania, Suva, the capital of Fiji, with its vibrant and colourful farmer’s market and stately buildings, dating back to colonial times, greeted us as we entered Suva Bay in the early morning.

With a population of over 86,000, Suva is home to half of Fiji’s urban population. As we wandered through the streets of Suva we passed the magnificent Houses of Parliament and a few luxury hotels overlooking the harbour. We didn’t feel under any threat, despite the warnings that petty crime has become a problem in the city. The influx of country dwellers and the city’s lack of infrastructure has triggered an increasing number of tin shelters being built on the outskirts of the city as well as the amount of people living in poverty.

After an easy, fifteen-minute walk from the port, we found ourselves at the quaint Fiji Museum, set within the once stately and magnificent Victorian-era Thurston Gardens. The museum contained examples of traditional Fijian canoes and other fascinating artefacts reflecting Fiji’s Chinese, Indian and Colonial history. Another interesting building and one of the most prominent landmarks within the city is the Sacred Heart Cathedral, a large catholic church dating back to 1902. Entry is free and you’ll be delighted when you step inside and see it’s beautiful, original stained-glass windows.

Our last stop for the day before boarding the ship and bidding farewell to our final port, was a visit to the vibrantly coloured fresh food market. Beetle nuts, unfamiliar tropical fruit and root vegetables lay spread out on the tables and the local vendors were happy to entertain us with the names and information about the fresh produce that lay before them.

Suva had a certain charm about it. It reminded me of a seaside city I used to visit when I was young. It too was multicultural, full of colonial history with its once magnificent water features and gardens, the sweet smell of Indian food cooking away in the distance and a harbour dotted with fishing boats and cargo ships.

Do you ever feel that travel has the ability to transport you back in time? Something as little as a smell from your childhood, bringing back to life a cherished memory from the past. It happens to me all the time….

 

Virtually untouched Dravuni

Accessible only by boat, Dravuni Island is situated at the northern end of Fiji’s Kadavu Group, bounded by the Great Astrolabe Reef and renowned for being a diver’s paradise. The reef was named after the French explorer Dumont d’Urville’s ship, the “Astrolabe”, which struck the reef in the 1820’s. There is not much on the island that would suggest we are living in the 21st century. It is one of the Pacific’s most unspoilt destinations and one of the least populated islands in the Fijian island group, with less than 200 inhabitants.

A walk along the unspoilt, palm-lined beach leads you to the inland peak, the highest point on the island. The climb is steep at times but well worth the effort, for what awaits you is a panoramic and breathtaking view of the island and its surrounding reef. We fell in love with a local dog that joined us for the long walk to the top and then again later for a swim on the beach. Our walk up the hill took us past some quaint little houses and a few pig pens which were the highlight for our kids. As we wandered through the village we found out why Fijians have earned a reputation for being friendly, welcoming and hospitable.

A little school catering for Kindergarten to Year-4 aged children overlooks the white sandy beach, the principal happily gave us a tour of the two tiny classrooms and explained that from year 5, students travel to a neighbouring island, where they board for the rest of their schooling. A nearby field station has also been set up here and is used by universities to study the local marine life and surrounding coral reefs. As we visited on a Sunday, all the island’s residents congregated together under a large, thatched roof hut for the weekly church service, led by the school’s principal.  No trading was allowed on this day, which made our time there even more special. Only a collection was taken for a neighbouring islands children’s hospital. Once again, it was evident that family, community and faith remained at the centre of their day to day existence.

We couldn’t leave the island without exploring the beautiful reefs offshore.  After an afternoon of snorkelling around one of the island’s rocky points, while the kids built homes for their hermit crabs, our fun-filled day on the island came to an end and it was once again time to head back to our ship.

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As we left Dravuni Island we were reminded that there are still places in the world that remain relatively untouched, you just have to be willing to explore a little further off the beaten track.

All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware

– Martin Buber

Fiji’s best kept secret

Lonely Planet’s “The Travel Book’ sits on my coffee table back home, along with “1000 places to see before you die, a traveller’s life list”. Not a week goes by where I don’t sit down with a cup of tea and indulge myself, even if only for a few minutes. It was on page 543 of the second book that I first read about SavuSavu. I now know why Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the famous explorer and oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau, chose this place to build his resort. Writing this post has been harder than I’d imagined, I really want to give it the credit it deserves.

Surrounded by green hills and glimmering azure waters, sailing boats congregate together in the harbour, a popular stopover for sailors making their way across the Pacific. Located on the large volcanic island of Vanua Levu, north east of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, you will find this unspoilt paradise. When I asked my kids to describe the island to me in a few words, here’s what they had to say: exotic, tropical, a simple but efficient lifestyle, living sustainably, using only what they need and taking no more. I think that’s a perfect description and I was proud of their perspective but I’d like to add that the inhabitants are incredibly hospitable, a visit here will enliven the travelling spirited and you may never want to leave. A few of the cruise passengers we spoke to that evening told us they’d consider moving there with their families for a year.  They said they longed for a simpler, less complicated life.  They felt like their children would greatly benefit from this lifestyle, I had to agree, it was one where family, community, faith and nature were central to daily life.

With our limited time on the island, we’d worked out that the most popular things to do here included a swim in a waterfall, a visit to a local village and some snorkelling. We decided we’d do all three (on our own), so we headed out to the main road to find a taxi. The first guide we met wanted to charge us $140, so we kept walking until we met a wonderful man called Roheat who offered to take us wherever we wanted to go for $80.  Roheat was not a licensed taxi driver, just a local, looking to capitalise on the cruise passengers’ arrival in his home town. Impressed with his entrepreneurial spirit we decided to give him a go.

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Our journey began with a scenic drive into the hills. As we reached for the seatbelts we realised none of them worked, Roheat did his best to reassure us that they weren’t necessary in Fiji. My kids are not used to this level of unconventionality, so imagine their surprise when an Australian family of 6 raced past us on the back of a ute (that’s an Australian word for utility van, you know the ones that people load things on the back of?). Having grown up in Africa, I spent a fair bit of my childhood on the back of utes, not something I’m promoting but exhilarating none the less.

Roughly halfway to our first stop, a hard to ignore clunking sound started emanating from the rear left-hand side of the car. I couldn’t remember where I’d heard that sound before. My husband jumped out to have a look and noticed some of the wheel nuts were missing from the tyre, the ones that were there, were loose too. I remembered now……as a young child I’d heard a similar sound just before mum’s car lost her tyre, sending us skidding along the road on the back-wheel axle. I kept thinking, ‘well, you wanted to show the kids what third world country living was like and now you have it!’. He reassured us he would fix the tyre at the next stop, which he did, much to my relief.

Roheat made a left turn down a dirt road to the quaint Vuondomo village which consisted of just 15 houses, belonging to only 3 families (each house built different to the next). Upon arrival, we were met by one of the residents who gave us a walking tour of the area. Our guide’s mother was selling fresh coconuts for $2 each and these were simply too good to pass up, so we stopped for a refreshing drink in the shade while the curious village children came over to say hello. Through funds raised by a Canadian Rotary club and from visits like ours, the village was able to install a 10,000 litre rainwater tank and a basic bathroom in each house. The traditional Fijian Lali Drum lies next to the church, in the centre of the village. At 10am every Sunday morning, as the drum is beaten, the villagers make their way to church to worship together. 

The village owns the surrounding land and the nearby waterfall and for a small fee you’re able to visit and swim in it. A ten-minute walk, up a gently sloping hill and a few stairs, leads you to the spectacular waterfall and an idyllic swimming hole. The villagers have built an excellent pathway using large boulders which they’ve laid by hand and a handrail made from rope. Fruit trees line the way and the villagers said, ‘if you find a ripe banana, please feel free to pick it’.

The local children seemed excited by our presence. Our kids joined in as they played together for quite some time, racing bougainvillea flowers down the stream and jumping from rock to rock. It would have been fantastic to spend a few days here, at the very least.

We had hoped to have lunch at Cousteau’s Resort, opposite Split Rock, a popular snorkelling spot. Unfortunately, as it was high season, the resort was closed to cruise passengers. We ended up at a nearby resort which was more like a backpacker’s, but the views over the bay more than made up for it.

We made our way back to Split Rock for some snorkelling. The marine life here was abundant and the reef, vibrantly coloured. Unfortunately, I never ended up making it out to the best part of the reef about 30 metres offshore but was told it was something special. I had managed to slip and cut my feet on barnacles while rock hopping with my son. I had over a dozen small cuts on the bottom of my feet. I was amazed when I watched the locals walk over the barnacles without a problem. I joked that perhaps my first world feet needed a bit of toughening up.

Before leaving to head back to the ship, our driver invited us to his house to meet his family and have a cold drink. We were really touched by his generosity and happily accepted his offer. His house, although not big, sits high up on a hill and has magnificent views across the bay, over to all the islands. The driveway to get there would unnerve even the most experienced drivers and he reversed up it with ease! I had to close my eyes as I couldn’t watch. His family were as kind and gracious as he was and we felt privileged to have met them.    

Keeping in contact with people we meet on our travels is now much easier thanks to social media and I am so thankful for this. I made three new friends in SavuSavu. I look forward to sharing our different cultural experiences and catching up again on our next visit to this magical place, they are lucky enough to call home.