Paradise.

Once we were settled into our glamp-ourous teepee on Fiji’s Matacawalevu Island, surrounded by palm trees and tropical flowers, it occurred to me that I had dreamed almost all my life of coming to a place just like this. In my reveries of future adventures walking barefoot on a tropical island (I may have been heavily influenced by a 90s children’s TV show called Ocean Girl where a girl lives alone on an island, and pretended to be her every time I went swimming- anyone else remember that one?) I imagined what turns out to be almost exactly the set up of Waitui Basecamp. It might be partly due to this that I felt so instantly at home there, but to give credit where credit is due, it is more likely a direct result of the incredible warmth of the team who run Waitui, the beautifully decorated and comfortable teepee, the cheap wine at happy hour, and the fresh and delicious dinners we ate every night.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWaitui Basecamp- where no filter in this world can better the natural beauty of the setting!

IMG_9016.JPGGlamping: the interior stylings of the teepee

We were collected from the large ferry which makes its way daily round the Yasawa Islands by 2 members of the Waitui team in their own smaller boat, and as soon as we arrived at the campsite with the 4 other guests also staying there, we were invited to help ourselves to a plate of just-caught parrotfish, spinach cooked in coconut cream, and sweet potato. This set the scene for the future meals: authentic Fijian style with freshly caught fish, and fruit and vegetables straight from the neighbouring organic farm. Other culinary highlights of the stay included the packed lunch we were given as we set off on a kayaking and snorkeling adventure the following day (co-owner Tim grilled up aubergine, chicken legs and sausages beside us on the barbecue at breakfast time with fresh watermelon, pineapple, and banana for dessert), and all the out-of-this-world meals prepared by Tui, formerly a chef at a 5-star resort nearby. The most memorable was a mud-crab curry with roti, rice, and all sorts of delicious chutneys and sauces, the crabs having been fished in the mangroves by the women at Waitui the previous day.

fullsizeoutput_5e1.jpegCould this place BE any prettier?

We spent 3 truly great days here: we hiked up the hill behind the campsite and walked into the web of some VERY large Golden Orb spiders, went snorkeling on our own and then with two expert spear-fishers from the team. We made 2 trips like these, the first wasn’t so fruitful and involved an extremely choppy boat ride out to what felt like the middle of the Pacific ocean (in reality we were only 5km from the campsite) and ended with me and my slightly delicate stomach adding to the biodiversity of the sea… if you know what I mean. But on the second trip we saw (and followed to the 12-metre depths of the ocean, if your name is Adrien Chazaux) a turtle, a beautiful eagle ray with almost cheetah-like black and white markings, and from a distance, much to my horror, a shark (it turned out to be a reef shark though, which are apparently harmless- more on these guys later!).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADay 1: The view from the top (spiders not in shot, but ooooh they were there)

fullsizeoutput_60e.jpegDay 2: Stopping for lunch on our own deserted beach

IMG_9065.JPGDay 3: Coconut haul. So many photos of Adrien climbing things throughout this blog…

One of our most enjoyable afternoons was spent just chilling at Waitui. We played petanque with Tim and Arthur from the team, glass of rum in hand (except me- I was on the water after the more unpleasant ending to the morning’s diving trip), and were then treated to a demonstration of how to collect and open coconuts. This activity involved both eating and drinking from a coconut (high up on my list of favourite foods), and was therefore just as enjoyable and delicious as you can imagine.

IMG_9090.JPGLast breakfast at Waitui- coffee, fresh fruit, and Fijian cakes with pineapple syrup

We left our little island haven after 3 days, and headed south on the ferry to Barefoot Manta, a bigger resort where the snorkeling was supposed to be fantastic, and friendly manta rays often swam and played in the waters surrounding the island. If I start by saying that we had a brilliant 4 days here, it will make me sound much less of a spoilt child when I admit that I was not the happiest bunny when we arrived. The vibe was just totally different to Waitui, much more resort-y, much busier, much more administration and organised fun, and this was before we a) came face to face with a huntsman spider in our bure (a Fijian hut-style accommodation) and b) had to compare the food on offer with Tui’s delicacies (when on holiday in Fiji, would you rather have spaghetti bolognese and sponge cake, or freshly caught mud crabs and pawpaw?).  However, and this is a big however, once I came to my senses and realised that I was still on holiday on a beautiful tropical island, we really did have an incredible 4 days. Such are the swings and roundabouts of life, although I much preferred the relaxed and quiet vibe of Waitui, the snorkeling at Barefoot Manta was fantastic as promised, with the whole island surrounded by reef so that wherever you stepped off the beach (and one was literally on our doorstep) you found yourself in the midst of countless tropical fish and colourful corals.

IMG_9125.JPGMountain – beach – reef – sea

IMG_9247.JPGUnderwater treasures, all photo cred here to Mr Chazaux

Two amazing things happened underwater on this part of the trip. Number one, the “call to manta” on our first morning. At around 8.30am a staff member walked through the resort calling “mantaaaaaaa, maaantaaaaaa!!” to alert tourists to the arrival of manta rays in the channel, everyone scarpered down to the main beach to get life-jacketed up and sped off in the speed boat to catch a glimpse of these majestic sea flap-flaps in their natural habitat. However, not quite following what was going on (it was early) we were late for the boat. No problem, we just ended up in a second boat with no one else but us and 2 guides, while the 15 other manta-spotters crammed into one boat! We jumped into the water, and seconds later were passed by two enormous and very majestic mantas. Much to our guide’s irritation, Adrien (who is by the way a very good free diver despite what he might say himself) insisted on ignoring the instructions to “drift with the current”, preferring to get up close and personal with the manta and swam with her for 20 minutes. The result is some crazy beautiful footage of one man and one manta, while the rest of the group crowded together far away, bobbing up and down in their life jackets. I was lucky enough to be somewhere in between the two: accidentally having my own personal guide (and trusted to swim life-jacket free), we seemed to always be in the perfect manta spotting position before the enthusiastic crowds appeared next to us, often announcing their presence with a flipper to the face. It was an incredible morning, and I’ll never forget the size of the beautiful creatures with their strangely shaped mouths as they glided so serenely past us, reminding me of something out of a space age movie.

DCIM156GOPROA 4-metre wide manta ray, casually swimming past

The second underwater thrill happened on our last morning snorkeling near the mantas’ channel, where reef sharks are also a fairly common sight. I kid you not, I was swimming along thinking how scared I would be if I saw a shark when one passed in front of me, at least a metre and a half long, with Adrien hot on its fins. I had a bit of an initial “oh dear lord this is how it ends” moment, but as we’d checked what different shark types look like the day before I was 99.99% certain this was a friendly reefer, but here is the difference between me and Adrien: he was totally relaxed, confident it was indeed a reef shark and so happily followed its trajectory, but my tendency to err on the side of caution got the better of me (what if I was wrong?! Or what if reefers aren’t ALWAYS friendly?!) and once the shark was out of sight I made for the inner part of the reef. Adrien continued tracking our toothy friend, who got a bit sick of this and tried to escape its perceived predator, and in doing so in fact swam in a large circle around and right past me. I was again momentarily gripped with fear at seeing the shark not 10 feet away from me, but it passed quickly and the excitement at having been so close to a real life shark, however non-predatory he (thankfully) was, overtook any remaining fear.

IMG_9248Oh hi there Mr Shark, you’re looking very… long… please don’t hurt me okay thanks

It really was a great week: the relaxed, authentic feel of Waitui Basecamp with their warm welcome and part-of-the-family atmosphere far exceeded my expectations for what I thought was going to be generally a very touristy destination, and the underwater kingdom surrounding every inch of Barefoot Manta more than made up for the pricey and below-standard food, and less comfortable living space (where the vision of the huntsman never quite left my mind’s eye).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThinking about manta rays (definitely not huntsmen spiders)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven in the rain, it’s still paradise

Fiji, you’re a beauty, vinaka vatalevu!

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