Melanesian Gallivant, July 2024

Just about every Aussie’s been to Fiji at some time or other but not me. Therefore I must go. While planning the trip I found (thank you Alex from Flight Centre) that I can fly straight to the Solomon Islands from here and thence to PNG, without having to zigzag back and forth from Australian staging posts like Sydney and/or Brisbane.

So, three Melanesian destinations in one foul swoop. (And yes, I know it’s ‘fell swoop’, but while ‘fell’ and ‘foul’ mean basically the same thing, the malapropism is funnier because it conjures the image of a ferocious chook descending from the sky onto its prey.)

Day 1 was Hobart-Sydney, Sydney-Nadi. This second leg was a category 2 Travel Horror. Up at 4.15 for an 8.30 am flight. We boarded and happily settled in when the pilot announced we couldn’t fly because a crack had been discovered in the co-pilot’s window, causing it to mist up. ‘No quick fix’, said the pilot, ‘we’ll have to find you another plane.’ Fair enough, can’t blame Qantas for that. The pilot told us we’d be disembarked into the departure lounge so we wouldn’t have to go through customs and security again (good) but that we’d have to wait for Border Force to authorise it, which took about half an hour (bad). Why? Why couldn’t Border Force just say ‘yep, good idea,’ and let us get off straight away so we could go and spend our $30 vouchers on breakfast in the terminal?

It took two hours for the new plane to come and we boarded happily. Then – another delay! There wasn’t going to be any catering on this new flight (hence the vouchers) but the crew jacked up and demanded they be allowed to load drinks at least, as they were to do the return flight and would need some refreshment.

Fair enough too. And god bless the pilot for giving us frequent progress reports. My neighbours and I all agreed it had made the delay much easier to stomach knowing exactly what the problems were, and in a timely fashion. It worked to the pilot’s advantage too in that it deflected our ire to a) the technical malfunction, b) Border Force and c) Qantas (for mucking the crew around with the drinks thing).

At last, three hours late, we took off, and Fate had no further misfortune to visit on us.

Nadi: 30 degrees and very humid when we arrived. Loved the traditional musical welcome and the arrivals corridor open to the elements and the view of runway and distant mountains. Customs and baggage reclaim all went smoothly. We seemed to be the only arrivals in the terminal, so I was surprised when the taxi-driver and some other travellers later told me there are about 20 flights into Nadi every day now, from Adelaide, Los Angeles and China as well as the usual Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Auckland.

I’m at the Mercure. Usually a 15-minute drive from the airport, but on Friday evening at peak hour, more like 30.

It’s OK. I could have wished for a swifter check-in, but there was a load of faffing about to be endured in order to get access to free wifi. Had to sign up to the hotel chain’s loyalty program. Must be the new thing -I got wind that I would have to sign up to the Hilton loyalty program in order to get wifi in Port Moresby. But at least I did all that faffing in the comfort of my own home, not while dog-tired and yearning for a cold beer, food and sleep, in that order.

I’m going to be outlining a few First World Problems here. Not because I’m a whinger, no sirree. It’s because my duty as a travel blogger is to pass on experience and tips. Any questions? I thought not.

So to the next fly-in-the-ointment: it’s Aussie school holidays and the hotel swimming pool is full of kids screeching and bellowing all the live-long day. Bear this in mind when choosing the dates for YOUR Fiji sojourn.

Next: Music. There was a combo performing in the bar/restaurant/outdoor area last night, consisting of a big Fijian woman and a bloke doing something or other I couldn’t make out in the dark. She had a good voice and sang all the right easy-listening stuff, but it was too damn loud and there was no quiet corner anywhere. No escape. Even when I retired to my ground-floor room after a 40-minute wait for my (very good) pizza washed down with some okay but overpriced (FJ$16 a glass) chardonnay, the bass notes penetrated the walls. (Cue sympathy for your correspondent yearning for sleep after her ungodly rising and sundry ordeals.)

Next day I chose to forego the official ‘sights’ – the hot mudsprings, the big Hindu temple – because the hotel was going to charge a motzah for their favoured tour so I decided to head out for some street life and the markets instead.

Kava Bars everywhere. That’s it raw in the feature pic at the top, at the market. I was offered a drink but I hate the stuff – tastes like drinking watery chalk. Although the bloke at the top assured me that after the first few sips that horrible chalky feeling goes away.
Downtown Nadi

I headed into town on foot and was soon hailed by Chris, who offered to take me into the markets in town for $15. I got him down to $7. There was an awful high-pitched whining noise, and when I asked about it Chris explained that it was his faulty ABS system that meant he effectively had no brakes! (Wish I could remember what kind of car it was because I know some folks like that kind of detail, but all I can say is that it wasn’t an old bomb.) Chris had no qualms about telling me this, and he demonstrated how he was able to stop the car at any time using the gears. (And I couldn’t swear to it but I think it was an automatic – sorry again.) He thought this was terribly funny, and I wanted to take a photo of his merry face but he wouldn’t let me. When he dropped me off he didn’t have change for my $20 bill, so I gave him a 5 and a one (coin) instead, telling him the discount was for the horrible noise and the lack of brakes. He still laughed.

The market area was vast. And it was just for food (and kava).

Some of these crabs were moving. Gulp.

Don’t look too closely at the chooks, poor buggers. No egg shortage here though.

At some stage during my market wanderings I got to reflecting on how quickly I was getting through the airport potboiler I brought along, and a terrible fear seized me that I might soon be caught out with nothing to read. I briefly castigated myself for getting into such a pickle. I’ve got a house full of books but I like to travel light. I SHOULD have downloaded the odd title onto my kindle and brought that with me but ….I didn’t. (Planning failure.)

So I went in search of bookshops or newsagenty-type places that might sell magazines. Zilch to be found. Just street after street of shops filled with cheap imported clothes and tat, One fella lured me into a shop saying it had none of that Chinese and Indian rubbish but was all authentically hand-made Fijian stuff. He himself had an unmistakeably Indian accent and did not look Melanesian but I courteously refrained from pointing this out and went in for a look. There were some nice children’s drawings on rough paperbark and lots of wood carvings but I’ve long since cured myself of the impulse to pick up ornaments, or jewellery, or clothes …although I do occasionally succumb to lush pretty textiles. No, I reminded myself, the only souvenirs I’m allowed to bring home from foreign parts these days are …. fridge magnets! And thus reminded, I bought this suitably glitzy kitschy one.

As for the other quest – for books – that proved to be quite an adventure because it got me talking to numerous folks, starting with two nice ladies handing out flyers for the USP (University of the South Pacific). They ought to know where to find books, I figured. And they did. They advised me to get on the bus to Namaka, which happened to be waiting at the stop over the road. By now I had some small change so was confident I could purchase my ride. Hopped on the bus, $1 a ride, out to Namaka, couldn’t find the place, back on the bus, got off at the wrong stop, found nice cafe, had iced coffee (it was pretty hot) and a tiny quiche, bought some sandwiches for ‘Ron, got talking to nice lady who re-directed me back to Namaka with clearer directions to bookshop. Got on bus again, got talking to another woman with two boys who was getting off at the same stop and sent one of her boys to show me, found bookshop, gave little boy a dollar for being my tour guide, bought 2 books, got back on bus and back to hotel.

The buses are mostly open, like this one. And not only are the people super-friendly and helpful, one young man gave up his seat for me, and once when I fumbled too long in my pocket for the change, the driver and his sidekick just waved me on without having to pay. Each of the four buses I rode on had this same set-up: a young bloke sits cross-legged next to the driver, apparently some kind of apprentice. It’s his job to take the money, and also to fiddle with the volume control on the music which was, as usual, very loud but I liked it: a bit reggae, a bit calypso, obviously local and authentic! I recorded a short video but the hotel wifi isn’t up to uploading so much data, I fear.

I also came across a bunch of about 50 people demonstrating along the highway. They were for Jesus and against drugs and were singing in beautiful harmony. I took a vid, but no stills, silly me. I even edited the video down to just one second, but computer says ‘this type of file is not supported’. Sigh.

But I did find two good books in a tiny little newsagent of a place that would have had no more than about 200 titles spread over 4 short shelves. They were secondhand, but cost the equivalent of about $A12 each. But what with ominous warnings about a lack of internet in the Solomons, at least I won’t be bookless.