Raphael Kessler

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South East Asia 1999

  1. Vietnam - February 1999
  2. Thailand - April 1999
  3. Malaysia and Singapore - May 1999
  4. Indonesia - June 1999
Africa to home, the long way
- Africa
  1. South Africa
  2. Namibia and Botswana
  3. Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya
  4. Uganda
  5. Ethiopia
  6. Egypt
- Middle East and Balkans
  1. Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey
  2. Balkans
  3. Turkey
  4. Iran
- Asia
  1. Pakistan
  2. China
  3. Tibet
  4. Nepal
  5. India 1
  6. India 2
  7. India 3
  8. Sri Lanka
  9. Bangladesh
  10. Myanmar
  11. Thailand
  12. Cambodia
  13. Laos
  14. China, Macao and Hong Kong
  15. Mongolia
- North America and Caribbean
  Caribbean, USA, Mexico and Canada
- Scandinavia and Eastern Europe
  1. Russia
  2. Sweden
  3. Baltics
  4. Poland and Czech Republic
South America 2002
  1. Brazil
  2. Argentina
  3. Chile and Easter Island
Central America and Mexico 2002
  1. Panama
  2. Costa Rica
  3. Nicaragua
  4. Honduras
  5. El Salvador
  6. Guatemala
  7. Belize
  8. Mexico
South America 2003-4
  1. Trinidad and Tobago
  2. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana
  3. Venezuela
  4. Colombia
  5. Ecuador and The Galapagos Islands
  6. Peru
  7. Bolivia
  8. Argentina
  9. Uruguay and Paraguay
  10. Bolivia 2
  11. Peru 2
Specific Pacific
  1. California to Fiji+ French Polynesia & Cook Islands
  2. Samoa, Niue and American Samoa
  3. Tonga and New Zealand
  4. Australia 1
  5. Australia 2

California, French Polynesia, Cook Islands, Fiji

Hi there,

Firstly, if I haven't already wished you it, I hope you had a nice holiday season and that you have a happy new year etc.

As you may or may not know, I am back on the road again, this time on a trans-pacific jaunt.

I left Heathrow at midday and eleven hours later, I arrived in LA, at three o'clock in the afternoon. This was to be just the first in a series of strangeness involving time. I was in LA to see my good friend Annie, whom I hadn't seen since I was last in China some years ago. It was nice to catch up. We went on a bit of a road tip up to Lake Tahoe in northern California, where there was thick snow and nice countryside. There we stayed with some off Annie’s friends (Chris and Krissy), which was very nice and Chris and I went for a nice walk Chris through the woods there, wearing snow shoes, to prevent myself from sinking into the thick snow.

After more than a week with Annie, in California, my next stop was to Tahiti and French Polynesia. French Polynesia is a French overseas department, with very limited autonomy. Effectively a remnant of the French empire, with an occupying force. It was also where Jacques Chirac, despite international condemnation and consternation decided to do some nuclear testing just a few years ago, in Mororua Atoll. In spite of the scientific evidence that the fallout was getting into the sea and therefore the food chain, causing untold long term damage.

French Polynesia covers an area of ocean the size of Europe, although majority is just water. The population is less than 250,000 with sixty nine percent being on the main island of Tahiti.

I arrived in Tahiti at 2.20 am and waited until the shops and more importantly the airline office opened, then got an air pass which took me first to Moorea. The ten minute flight was not too stressful and the island is quite large and very nice, with pleasant beaches etc.

In Moorea I did some diving and wandering. The diving was nice with lots of black tip and lemon sharks. Unfortunately, the cost of French Polynesia was already becoming apparent - and this was the cheaper bit.

My next stop on the air pass was to Bora Bora, an overly touristed island fringed with a protective reef. The setting is quite stunning, although unfortunately there is just too much development there for my taste. The prices were going up too, it is a very popular honeymoon and resort holiday destination. It is also a popular spot for stars and celebrities and those with plenty of money. I went for a walk to a good vantage point, where I could see almost the whole island. I also went snorkelling there for two hours, saw some rays, Picasso triggerfish, moray and other stuff and got my calves quite well ad truly sunburned.

When I was in South Africa recently, Benoit Multignet a French wildlife film-maker told me to go to Rangiroa, when I was in French Polynesia. He was actually right, it is good diving, although expensive. Saw lots of grey, black tip, white tip and lemon sharks. Also a couple of silvertips which were nice (they have to chum for them, bringing them up from their normal depth of between one and two hundred metres. The chumming also brought a school of red snapper and the sharks then fed on them. It was impressive to see live feeding like that) and a couple of great hammerheads which were really great (at about four metres each). There were also schools of Eagle rays and a nice manta, as well as friendly turtles and general reef fishes. Very nice. It was also where I spent Christmas, the diving on Christmas day being particularly good.

Rangiroa was a little more real than Bora Bora. Bora Bora was previously uninhabited (they have no fresh water source). There are normal Polynesian people who live on Rangiroa who were nice to talk to and were not necessarily involved in the tourist business, there being a school etc., despite it being a small motu (one of the islands that make up an atoll).

I headed back to Tahiti and wandered to town an unattractive grey dingy town, that was all closed (it was sunday) apart from the McDonalds. I walked back to the airport, more for something to do. Then spent time there reading and chatting to a couple on the same flight as me. The airport itself being incredibly boring, entirely lacking in facilities or comfortable chairs, until you get to the transit / departure lounge.

Then to the Cook Islands, which are cheaper and more relaxed. No French people around either. The main island of Raratonga is also where the capital Avorua can be found. The Cook Islands are an independent country, covering an area of the pacific almost equal to the 48 contiguous United States. The majority of the population of fifteen thousand can be found on Raratonga (twelve thousand). It was a British colony and then given to New Zealand to administrate, before gaining independence. The people all speak English although a Maori dialect is their mother tongue.

The greatest problem to the culture is the influx of missionaries who are splitting up families through religious proselytising. These churches are eroding the traditional belief structures and much of the hereditary culture. Tangiroa, the most important god of the local pantheon, who is also on the one dollar coin offends these missionaries, who say he is obscene as he has a very prominent penis. For that reason they are trying to lobby the government to have him removed, another step to divorcing the population from their roots entirely. It is also quite funny as the coin has the queen's head on the other side, so when you turn it, it looks like Liz is staring at Tangiroa's knob.

It is a nice place to socialise and at the backpackers where I stayed was a social place and the various people staying there would regularly go out on semi-organised nights out. Colin a long term resident there would organise for the minibus to take us to one bar or another, see a cultural music and dance show and so forth and was generally good fun and amenable.

The social dynamic of the island was also interesting to see, as most people know each other or at least know about each other. When I hitched back from town to the hostel, it was with a guy who is going to the UK shortly to play rugby. When I mentioned this to Tua and Tisa (a couple of the sisters who run the hostel), they worked out within two minutes who I was talking about. The same happened when I mentioned people I had met whilst out, they always seemed to know who was who. This is also apparent on the national TV channel (there is only one). The majority of the programming comes from Australia and New Zealand, in between there would be personal announcements, in the manner of a local community newspaper, births, deaths, marriages and so forth. One of the musical interludes featured the checkout girl from the little supermarket around the corner etc.

I did some diving in Raratonga, it was pleasant although not special. The visibility, coral and fish were average at best, so not worth expounding upon.

The people in the Cook Islands are very friendly, several times when I was walking along the road people would just pull up and offer me a ride, saving me waiting for the hourly bus to come by. The nature of the islanders made going out more pleasant as although the folk from the place I was staying were pleasant enough, I would often end up chatting with some locals and New Years Eve was good fun with partying and dancing until the early hours with a good mix of locals and foreigners.

I decided that to get to see the island properly, I would have to do the cross-island walk. This meant climbing up to one of the high points, a rocky pinnacle "The Needle" where there were some lovely views and then scrambling down the other way, coming out on the opposite side of the island. The walk took about three hours and it was well needed exercise. On the way down from the needle I met a kiwi couple and so it became a social outing too.

Aitutaki is the second most populated of the islands, with two thousand permanent residents. It is also a more attractive place, with a lagoon and nice beaches all over. I met a couple of Kiwi girls there and together we rented kayaks and headed over to a motu about twenty minutes paddle away. We had the whole place to ourselves and could see fish swimming around in the clear water and crabs scuttling around.

At one point Harriet almost got sucked down in some quick sand / mud, which was very amusing.

In Aitutaki, I also went to the second of the cultural shows I had seen. This one was much more for the local people, many of whom were in attendance. At points in the performances, children would make an impromptu addition to the line up and by the end, many of the locals were joining in, whole-heartedly

Back in Rarotonga, I met some friends I had made in Rangiroa and we went out to what was then my third cultural performance. They are all different though and well worth seeing, not as artificial as many I have seen in other parts of the world. My friends and I also witnessed a wedding, on the beach which was nice. Then on the Friday evening I was leaving to go to Fiji.

Chris who was on the same flight went to the airport with my bags after dinner and kept guard of them as I went out on the town with some of the folk from the backpacker. Just before check-in was due to close, I walked out, got a lift on the back of some random woman’s moped to the airport and checked-in.

After a bit of hanging around, then we boarded the plane and I was pleased to have three seats to my self and spread myself out as soon as the seatbelt light was off. Then the foolish folk at Air New Zealand would bother me incessantly from my drunken slumber with stupid questions like “would you like breakfast?”, “Do you want a drink?”, “Can you please sit up put your seatbelt on we are landing?”, “Can you please leave the plane now, we arrived an hour ago?”. That last one wasn’t actually true.

So after a three hour gruelling flight leaving late on Friday evening, I had now arrived in Nadi, Fiji on Sunday morning. I was robbed of an entire day.

In Nadi (pronounced “Nandy”) airport I had the opportunity to make up my mind as to where I was going, as I had no previous ideas. When I saw the opportunity to go to Waya Lailai, I realised I should go, because it sounds like a Simon and Garfunkel lyric. Travelling is sometimes like picking a horse for the Grand National, the name is everything and perhaps you get a winner.

So after a few hours waiting in another airport, off I went on the Awesome Adventures catamaran that plies the route through the Yasawa group of islands, north of the mainland (or more accurately, largest island of Viti Levu). We passed several island idylls, sand a couple of cabanas and a smattering of palm trees. After about two hours discourging tourists to their relevant islands, we reached Waya Lailai, which was certainly more attractive looking and larger than any of the islands we had previously passed.

In all honesty, it wasn’t only the name that had attracted me. I had also found that this was one of the islands that had a variety of recreational opportunities, not just sun, sea, surf and booze.

The island is of a reasonable size, joined at low tide by a sandbar isthmus to Waya Levu, a much larger island. The forested islands have some dramatic rock faces and are populated by an indigenous Fijian population, not just tourists like some of the others.

The resort of Waya Lailai, which is far from the luxury establishment, that the resort moniker normally implies is owned by the three villages on the island and all the employment is given to the villagers and the funds go directly back to the villages, supporting them in construction, education and sanitation efforts.

I spent several days there, getting to know some of the locals, who I found to be charming, almost without exception. I also took the opportunity to do some diving, which was above average, though not outstandingly so.

I decided to go to a vantage point to watch the sunset one afternoon, which was nice. I was joined by an American and an Australian and when we reached the appropriate rocky outcropping, the fruit bats, the only endemic land based mammal in Fiji all took to the skies, swarming and circling which was nice to see. The sunset was pleasant, though not overly dramatic.

Another day, I decided to go for a walk around the island. I had been told that it would take three hours or so to circumambulate, so off I went, joined once again by Erin the American and another Australian, named Daniel, the same name, though different person to the one who went up to the viewpoint with us the previous day.

The walk began well enough and involved some amount of wading. When the walking should have got easier though, it didn’t and it turned into quite a slog. Scrambling over rocks and through brush when I thought we would have beaches to walk on. After all that is what I had been told. After nearly four hours, we reached a principal village and although I was greeted cordially when I got there, the reaction of the locals frosted decidedly when Erin arrived in just a bikini. I was previously unaware, but apparently the Fijians equate bikinis with total nudity and it is not allowed in the villages. Erin had known this, but not realised we were going to pass through any villages, so not brought an appropriate covering. This is quite a recent thing, the modesty issue, prior to Christianity, the locals would gallivant around in loincloths or grass skirts and nothing more. Their conservatism arrived with the strictures of the missionaries.

Anyway, by the time we were going through the village, I was sure that something was awry and suggested getting a lift in one of their boats back to where we were staying. Erin was feeling particularly shameful and wanted to carry on. Daniel generally followed her like a lapdog, so agreed and being in a minority of one, I acquiesced.

So off we went, it all got much trickier then, the shoreline was just rocks projecting in to the sea. They could not be swum around due to the swells smashing on the rocks, neither climbed over. We tried to go inland, but the paths only went so far before dead-ending in impenetrable thickets. Then Erin found what she believed to be a passable rock face. She is quite an ardent rock-climber, who actually had her climbing gear back in her room, though unfortunately not with us.

We were all beginning to dehydrate and I mooted the idea of going back to the village again, but it was dismissed, so over the rocks we started to go. At one point as I climbed behind Erin and Daniel was behind me, I grabbed a large rock for a handhold and it came loose, with several others, each weighing in excess of one hundred kilos. They all tumbled away, though not dramatically, they were potentially deadly as all the rocks constituting the arms length distance between Daniel and I disappeared into the undergrowth. I escaped with a bashed knuckle and Daniel with a scratch on his foot. We were lucky.

Onwards we went, sliding down cliff faces and over more rocks until we finally reached a bit more beach. There was no way by this point that we could go back anyway. At least, not until low tide. Off went the other two and I followed and when they started climbing more rocks, I was going very slow, as I knew we were not really making headway.

At that point, a boat came past, which we flagged down. They gave us a lift to the resort and all was well, albeit I was feeling quite dehydrated. I had taken two litres of water with me, Erin had one and a half and Daniel had none, so we had not had enough between us. Still, it turned out okay. After twenty minutes and having drunk two litres of water I went off on a nice night dive. Daniel started to recover from the panic he had been feeling and Erin felt downhearted. I saw some really nice bits on the dive including a couple of sharks, a cuttlefish and lots of odd things, you only see in the water at night.

In Waya Lailai, the locals would regularly have Kava. This is a local drink, drunk all over Fiji. It is made by pounding the Kava root and then putting it in a cloth bag, which is then mixed around in water producing a watery beverage with the flavour of a mild horseradish. It also has some narcotropic effects, similar to a very mild combination of alcohol and marijuana. Though great quantities must be consumed and the effect is still quite limited.

I joined them for several cups, more out of courtesy than anything else. The flavour although entirely unpleasant, I would not rank anywhere amongst my favourites. Furthermore, I never got the slightest effect from it.

One evening we had a formal ceremony, with the locals in their traditional finery. I was designated pseudo-chief (probably only because Jerry the headman knew my name). I received the first cup and so had to follow procedure. Whenever drinking Kava, there is an orthodox procedure to be followed. The Kava is prepared and then offered formally to each person, starting always with the chief or most senior person present (in this case me). He then claps once, says “Bula” and drinks the coconut shell bowl in one. Then returns it to the person who gave it to him and claps three times, accompanied by everyone present. This goes on all evening potentially, though I skipped out right at the beginning as dinner had just been served.

That evening we had a Hagi (pronounced “Hun-gee”), which is meat, roots and vegetables that have been cooked in the earth for some hours and is very tasty.

I left Waya Lailai back to the mainland. The resort boat is infamously unreliable and just outside of Lautoka, the port we were heading to, the engines died. As a couple of the guys set about trying to fix it, we drifted in towards the port and it was a close run thing whether the current would take us in before the engine. As it turned out the engine came back to life for the last few hundred metres.

From Lautoka, I got a bus down to Suva, the capital, as I was planning on going to Kadavu (“Kan-Dah-voo).

I was going to get a ferry over as I thought it would be more interesting. When I found out how long it would actually take though (six hours for the initial crossing, about thirty-six to get to the part I wanted to go to) and the fact that it was only marginally cheaper than flying, I decided to fly.

Kadavu is a much less touristed part of Fiji than many others. Partly due to its isolation. The main appeal for me to go there was The Great Astrolabe Reef. The diving there, I had been promised was of the highest quality.

It turned out to be good, at worst and great, at best. The corals there being exceptional in some areas and the smaller fishes particularly being excellent. At “Manta Rock” there were several manta rays coming by and hanging around, one after the other, so we did two dives there. The smallest of the Mantas was almost three metres across and the largest in excess of four metres, gracefully flying through the water, sometimes just arms length away.

Tim, a Kiwi and I decided to go see the waterfall, the other side of the nearby village one day. As we reached the village perimeter, the Fijians would greet us with a hearty “Bula”. In no time, we had an entourage of children guiding us to the falls and then when we got there, there were more there. They would jump off the rocks into the water and were generally very playful, but always impressively polite.

We were walking back out of the village after our bathing and jumping when some locals invited us in for Kava, so we joined them for a few bowls. They then gave us a lift back to where we were staying, in their boat, which saved us the forty-five minute sweaty walk.

From Kadavu, I went back to Suva, the capital, originally just for a night but then for several. It was a good place to get some things done and also to relax a bit. I had several wanders around and even in the biggest city, the Fijians are often very friendly, calling out “Bula” regularly as I passed one in a quieter street.

I went and saw the Fijian cemetery, which has some ornately decorated tombs, garlanded with colourful materials. When I got there, there were several prisoners there working. It is commonplace in Fiji to use the prisoners to upkeep the cemeteries. They were friendly as was their guard, who I noticed was unarmed and seemed very relaxed.

I also went past the jail, an ugly, soul-destroying, bleak edifice. The murals on the outer wall were nice in parts, or at least distinctive. I managed to get permission from an officer there to take some photos, we’ll see how they came out.

The government buildings and presidential palace are not too impressive, though somehow I found that Suva has some kind of charm, although I don’t know exactly what.

Anyway, on Sunday morning I leave Fiji to go to Samoa. The flight is not very long and I will be crossing the International Date Line again, so will arrive on Saturday morning. This is all just done to confuse me and make keeping a diary more difficult.



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