February 2012

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The Free Massage waterfall

That's me in front of Free Massage. Behind the waterfall is the groom holding hands with his new BFF. Photos by David Lansing.

We paddled for hours. Actually, that’s not true. I didn’t really paddle at all. David put Christopher and Marguarite in the back and Cindy and Katie in the front which left me in the middle. For balance. So I just sat there and took photos. While everyone else did all the work.

After awhile, Cindy said her shoulder was hurting. And her knee (from where she’d jammed it when David had thrown us when we went down the first rapid). She kept rubbing it and asking Katie if she thought it looked swollen. By now I’d already taken ten thousand photos so I didn’t really need to be in the middle anymore. I told Cindy I’d switch with her.

After awhile we came to this waterfall David called Free Massage. Cindy asked him why it was called Free Massage. David said, Because if you stand under it, you get a free massage.

All the boats pulled up along the bank next to the waterfall. People started creeping their way along the slippery wet rocks behind the fall. “Oh my gawd,” said Cindy. “This is just an accident waiting to happen.”

It did seem crazy. The guides stood on the wet rocks helping people inch their way along but once you got under the water, which hit your head and shoulders like wet bags of cement, you were kind of helpless. You couldn’t really see where you were going and one misstep would drop you onto the rocks below.

“So,” said David, “who’s going to get a free massage?”

Our rafting guides take a shower beneath the Free Massage waterfall.

Cindy and Marguarite said they were going to sunbathe. Christopher and I got out of the boat and stood in the shallow water but neither one of us had any intention of dying on a river in Fiji. Katie, the renegade from Idaho, said she’d go. With the guides helping her, she climbed the wet rocks and cautiously moved along the slippery ledge until she was behind the waterfall. It looked like she was getting hit by a constant barrage of water balloons. It was crazy but I admired her for doing it.

The craziest thing though was this young couple from Australia who were here on their honeymoon. They decided to climb up and have their picture taken. Which isn’t the weird part. The weird part is that they did it with another guy from their boat and when they got close to the waterfall, the bride, who was kind of heavyset, slowed down while her husband and the other guy from the boat went forward. They kind of left her standing there, not quite in the waterfall but not at a safe distance either. And then the two boys stood under the cascade of water, holding hands, while the bride stood nervously to the side looking like she was absolutely terrified.

Marguarite was watching all this. “If that was my husband, I’d push him off that damn waterfall,” she said. I’m sure she meant it.

After that, all the guides climbed up the rocks and made funny faces and flashed signs and then we all got back in the boats and proceeded back down the river. We passed the boat with the newlyweds. “The bride doesn’t look too happy,” murmured Marguarite. “No free massage for him tonight.”

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Down the Upper Navua

Katie, Christopher, our guide, David, Marguarite and Cindy...or is it Jennie? Photo by David Lansing.

We’re standing at the edge of the chocolaty Navua River with about twenty other people, half-listening as one of the Fijian guides drones on and on about the do’s and don’ts of river rafting. If you fall out, don’t try to swim, you’ll drown. Do exactly what the guide says. Don’t take your helmet off.

“My helmet smells funky,” says Marguarite, holding it a foot or so from her face and wrinkling her nose. “Here,” she says, holding it up to me, “smell it.”

No, thank you. Really.

I love Marguarite. Last year we went to Vanuatu together. We paddled canoes to a Blue Hole and Marguarite was right behind me when some idiot woman tipped our canoe and my camera sunk to the bottom of the river. Marguarite was the one who told everyone else on the canoe trip to not say a word to me after this happened. Which I appreciated.

Marguarite goes over to our guide, David, and tells him her helmet smells funny. “Like something died in it,” she says. David shrugs and gives her a new helmet. Marguarite comes back over to our group. “Well?” I say. “This one smells too,” says Marguarite, “but not as bad.”

I tell Marguarite not to worry about it. We’ll just take them off once we get going. “They’re kind of useless anyway.” And they are. Just cheap plastic that would shatter into a thousand pieces if our noggins ever hit a rock or submerged tree.

Meanwhile, the lead guide is still giving instructions. “Come on,” mumbles Marguarite. “Let’s just get in the boats and get going. It’s hot out here.”

And it is. Hot and steamy. Made more so by the ridiculous kiddie helmets and suffocating PFDs we have to wear.

There are five of us in our group. The lead guide wants one of us to join another boat. Marguarite won’t hear of it. “Uh-uh,” she sternly tells him. “We’re staying together.”

The lead guide smiles, shrugs, walks away. We climb into the inflatable—Christopher, the manager of the resort where we’re staying; Cindy, who is from San Francisco and whose real name is Jennie (but for some reason I keep calling her Cindy); Katie, a perky, sweet journalist from Idaho who is constantly uttering observations that either demonstrate her naiveté or deadpan sense of irony, I haven’t quite figured out which; and Marguarite and myself.

The other boats pulls away from shore. There is a modest rapid right at the beginning of the trip and first one and then another of the inflatables gets turned around, their paddlers tossed and thrown around the inflatable. Everyone gets drenched. Obviously the guides have done this on purpose. Marguarite gives our guide a steely look as he pushed us away from the shore: “Do not do that to us,” she scolds him. David smiles, lifts his oars, and the boat spins backwards. Cindy, who is sitting in the front, is thrown violently backwards. Katie half falls out of the boat. The rest of us all get soaked. The journey has begun.

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To the Navua River

Whitewater rafting the Navua River, Fiji from David Lansing on Vimeo.

I don’t think I’ve ever spent less time at a resort than I did The Pearl South Pacific. I checked in very late Sunday night and by 6:30 the next morning I was in the lobby, packed and ready to go. I was also badly in need of coffee.

“Daryl, could you get David a coffee?” said Julie Hodson. Julie and her husband Daryl are the managers of the Royal Davui, the resort in Fiji where I’ll be staying. They’d come over on a boat from Davui the day before expecting to have dinner with me at The Pearl but when I still hadn’t shown up by midnight, they’d gone to bed. Sensibly, I think. Still, Julie had arranged to have a platter of food brought to my room (some wonderful cheeses and fruit and the like) Sunday night so I’d have something to eat when I arrived, and god was I thankful for that, having not had anything to eat since breakfast some 20 hours earlier.

Anyway, Daryl got me a coffee and we sat around The Pearl’s lobby watching the sun come up and then around 7 we walked over to the resort’s pier and waited for the boat coming over from Davui. Daryl and Julie were heading back over to the island while I’d be joining up with a small group coming over to go white water rafting down the Upper Navua River.
I know what you’re thinking: white water river rafting in Fiji?

That’s what I was thinking as well. But my buddy Marguarite, who’d arranged this trip, told me it would be fun.

“You don’t have to do it,” she’d said, “but you’ll be sorry if you don’t.”

Well, I didn’t want to be sorry. Even if I was so tired at the moment that all I could think about was how envious that Julie and Daryl were just now getting on the little boat taking them back to Davui where, if I was with them, I could check-in to my villa and take a long nap.

I waved good-by as Julie and Daryl pulled away from the pier and headed out onto the open ocean. Then I climbed on the bus with the others and headed off into the rainforest towards the Navua River.

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Bitters on the road to Pacific Harbour

After arriving three hours late from Melbourne, Feroz and I drove from Nadi through the night to Pacific Harbour on the southern end of the island.

I woke up Sunday morning knowing that getting from Tasmania to Fiji was going to be difficult. Here’s the set-up. I had to leave Hobart very early Sunday morning, drive to the airport, return my rental car, fly to Melbourne, wait for my bags, go through customs and immigration, change airline terminals, and get on a flight to Nadi, Fiji where, supposedly, someone would be waiting to drive me half way around Viti Levu, the main island, to Pacific Harbour.

There were just too many opportunities for things to go wrong. And they did.

Getting to the Hobart airport was no problem, but then things got interesting when the flight coming in from Fiji was late. By a couple of hours. That meant I’d have less than an hour to go through customs in Melbourne, transfer terminals, and check-in for my flight to Nadi. I won’t go into all the bloody details but the way it worked out, I arrived in Fiji about three hours later than expected. Amazingly, my driver was still waiting for me, albeit slumped over and snoozing in one of the plastic bucket seats next to the luggage carousel. His name was Feroz and, he told me, he’d been at the airport for eight hours waiting for me. Poor guy.

So we loaded up and headed off into the Fijian countryside, in total darkness, up little country roads, passing by all the locals walking along the side of the narrow road and the dogs sleeping on the warm tarmac. It would be just nothing and nothing and nothing, and then a little village that we’d pass through in about two minutes, and then more nothing and nothing and nothing.

As we were entering one of the little nameless villages, Feroz asked me if I was thirsty and would like to stop for a beer. I told him I was fine. A few minutes later, he asked me if I needed a bathroom break. I told him that wouldn’t be a bad idea. So he pulled the taxi over onto the side of the road. In the darkness of the night, we headed off into the jungle, he in one direction, I in another. We did our business in the bushes and got back in the taxi.

After about an hour or so I told Feroz that I’d changed my mind; a beer sounded good. So we pulled into one of the little Indian-owned markets the size of a rural post office which has iron grates on the front and where you tell someone what it is you want and they go find it in the back and bring it out for you and hand it through the grate. These markets are ubiquitous in Fiji.

It was about ten o’clock. The Indian family that owned the market was sitting behind the grated counter watching snowy images on an old TV. A single bare light bulb lit the store. A girl of about fifteen or sixteen, wearing a sari, got up from the TV and came to the grated window. I asked her for a beer.

“Gold or bitter?”


“Just one?”

“Yes, please.”

When she walked away I thought maybe I should have asked for two. Afterall, we still had hours of driving ahead of us. She came back with a paper bag and handed it to me through the grate.

Now, I was thinking that I was going to get a regular-sized bottle of beer or maybe even a can. But when I opened the bag, I saw that I’d bought one of those liter-sized beers that aficionados of Colt .45 and Olde English “800” seem to prefer.

“Big beer,” I said to Feroz as I got back into his taxi.

He laughed. “Very big, sir.”

We drove on, Feroz talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone and me drinking my big beer out of a paper bag. The thing is, it tasted pretty damn good. And I rather enjoyed the decadence of sitting in the front seat of a Fijian taxi driving like a bat out of hell through the pitch-black countryside drinking a big ol’ beer. There was a certain gonzo aspect to it. (As Hunter S. Thompson said, “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they’ve always worked for me.”)

Sometime after midnight, we arrived at The Pearl in Pacific Harbour, my lodgings for the night. Feroz looked even more tired than I did. I was worried that he still had a three-hour return trip to Nadi ahead of him. But he told me that wasn’t the case. He lived nearby. “I’m going home now,” he said. I shook his hand and thanked him for the admirable driving job. And for stopping to let me buy a beer.

“It was not a problem,” he said. “I hope you enjoyed it.”

And I did.

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To Tasman Island

A massive school of bottlenose dolphins approaching our Zodiac. Photo by David Lansing.

Sunday morning I fly back to Sydney and then on to Fiji so I thought today I’d do something a little bit wilder than visiting cheeseries and saffron farms. So at my friend Malcolm’s recommendation, I booked a four-hour wilderness eco-cruise between Port Arthur and Eaglehawk Neck. The tour information I got said to “dress very warmly.” I asked Malcolm what that meant.

“Well, I’d wear thermal underwear if you’ve got it,” he said. I told him I hadn’t packed my thermal underwear. I wasn’t expecting to go skiing. My choice, he said, but it would be bloody cold out on the water. “You’re going to be on the edge of the Southern Ocean. It can be tempestuous.”

So here’s how I dressed at 6:30 this morning: I put the bottoms of my track suit underneath my jeans and on top I wore a long-sleeved turtle neck shirt, a thick polo shirt, topped by a fleece jacket and a water-proof parka. Surely, I thought, that would keep me warm.

When I showed up at Tasman Island Cruises in Port Arthur a little after nine, they issued me a full-body water-proof Gortex suit. I asked them if I was to take off my other jackets and coats or put the Goretex suit on over them. “Put it over your clothes,” they said.

I guess they weren’t kidding about it being cold.

Still, it all seemed a bit much to me. The morning was gorgeous and there wasn’t a breath of wind when we pulled out of Port Arthur, siddling past the old convict’s prison and the Isle of the Dead. There were a dozen or so school kids aboard our vessel which was basically an over-sized Zodiac with maybe two-dozen blue plastic seats, all with seat belts (I should have known from the fact that we were instructed to always wear our seatbelts that this wasn’t going to be a gentle float down the river).

We looked at some seabird rookeries and saw lots of lazy seals sunning on the rocks and then circumnavigated the towering sea cliffs of Tasman Island and Cape Pillar. It was as we were admiring the old lighthouse atop Tasman Island that I first noticed the very black sky to our south. Our captain and tour guide (both named Damian: “Most folks call us Damo and Damo”) had noticed it to.

“We just need to get past the point and we’ll be okay,” said one of the Damos. The sea got choppy and the other Damo lurched around the Zodiac handing out wool caps to put on underneath our Goretex hoods. At first I declined but then it started to rain a bit and I grabbed a cap. Five minutes later, all hell broke loose. It was the most amazing meteorological event I’d ever experienced. We went from a cool but mild morning to a very scary storm, complete with hail coming in sideways at us thanks to gusts of sixty miles per hour, in just a matter of minutes. Everyone, including me, sealed themselves up in the Goretex as tightly as they could. I left only the tiniest of slits above my nose for my eyes.

Mind you, I was wearing more clothes than I’ve ever worn skiing—including helicopter skiing in Canada—and I was still shivering with cold. Nobody spoke. The water had really gotten turbulent. Everyone just held on as best they could while one of the Damos gunned the Zodiac up the coast trying to outrun the storm. Eventually we came around the point he’d been aiming for and just like that, the wind and rain ceased. I pulled down my hood, grateful to be out of the storm, and looked out on the horizon. Coming directly towards us was what looked like a river of white water. Something—thousands of somethings—were breaking the water up ahead and coming our way.

“Dolphins,” said one of the Damos. “Thousands of them.”

And that’s what it was. The largest school of giant bottlenose dolphins I’d ever seen or heard about. Damo estimated there had to be at least three- or four-thousand of the animals. They surrounded our Zodiac and swam beside us and in front of us and underneath us. One of the largest cruised right next to us and began intentionally spanking his flipper against the water as he swam, soaking us. He did it over and over again. “Bastard knows what he’s doing,” said Damo.

This went on for fifteen or twenty minutes. And then, just like the storm that had appeared out of nowhere from the Southern Ocean, the dolphins were gone and the sea was still again.

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