Rhythm and Blues

A travel article by Sean Mooney

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an island in possession of a tropical latitude must be in want of a volleyball. At least since 2000, when the movie Cast Away introduced the world to the red-faced and rotund character of Wilson. Despite being lost at sea, Tom Hanks’ bouncy deserted-island besty lives on in countless South Pacific travel tales. See, even I’m doing it, despite vowing not to allow Wilson’s bloody handprint to stain my story. But as I’m heading to my beachside hut, or bure, on the first day of my stay on the tiny Fijian coral cay of Navini, what do I find tangled up in some sand-stranded seagrass but a glistening white volleyball. It may be just a no-name cheapo that is soon claimed by a young boy, however it’s not long before I discover that the volcanic island I can see from my beach lounge – “You can’t miss it, it looks like a boot”, “…like a car”, “…like a ship with a single funnel” – is none other than Monuriki, the very place where Cast Away was filmed. I sigh, scribble the W-word in my notes and vow to move on.

In truth, there’s really not that far you can move on this six-acre mound of sand, coconuts and flame trees just off the west coast of the largest of the Fijian islands, Viti Levu. But my initial concerns about the diminutive size of Navini Island Resort soon dissolve like the aspirin I down on the first night after underestimating the strength of the tropical sun. Navini is a small but sparkling link in a chain of 14 inhabited islands (containing 25 resorts) that spill out of Nadi Bay. It can cater for a maximum of 30 guests, so visitors are always outnumbered by the more than 35 staff. Even better, there’s not a themed buffet or kids’ club in sight – just a low-key operation in which freshly prepared food is a given and the kids run wild with local children.

The island’s size means you get to know everyone, but you don’t have to spend your days watching them rub coconut oil into their thighs or down mai tais by the pool. In fact, there is no pool – just the brilliant blue hues of the ocean that flow into one another over a complex canvas of sand, rock and coral. I choose to swing in a hammock between our bure and the sea, watching the green peaks of nearby islands disappear behind curtains of rain. My wife humours me for a while as I point out each new cloud formation, but the headphones soon come out. The kids are naming captured hermit crabs – Red Eye, Nip and Tuck, Clawful – and trying to feed them the twitching tails of some unfortunate skinks. The childless may scoff, but for us family types, it’s heaven.

It’s the beginning of a week governed by rhythm and saturated with blues. The rhythm is dictated by the weather and the tides; the beating of the island’s lali drum that calls us to each meal; the thwacking of the sea against the resort’s watercraft; brief but intense storms at dawn, distant thunder at dusk; the unwinding of unharried guests over unhurried days. All of it infused with the infinite blues of the sea and sky, the schools of aquamarine chromis fish hiding in staghorn corals and, finally, that empty feeling when it’s time to go home. It’s a delicious vibe that leaves one quite unprepared for a return to big-city life, something the Australian couple who first happened upon the island in the seventies decided that they didn’t want to do. Where others saw an uninhabited, waterless, almost tree-less patch of sand clinging to a rock formation, Arthur and Helen Reed saw a potential new home and business. They negotiated a 60-year lease with Navini’s owners on nearby Malolo Island and set about building their resort – tree by tree, hut by hut – eventually opening for business in 1980.

These days, Arthur no longer strolls along the island’s garden-lined pathways resplendent in one of his many colourful bula shirts and a sulu skirt. He passed away in 2013 and Helen has returned to Australia, but their daughter Simone and her husband Tueta live on the island and keep it running as it has done for more than 30 years. They usually eat dinner with guests seated at long tables in an open room that catches the sea breeze. They talk of the challenges of raising a family on an island, of how almost half their guests are repeat visitors, of how proud they are that they are now self-sufficient when it comes to drinking water. (About three quarters of the potable water on the island is captured rainfall, the remainder coming from desalination and water purification.) They are clearly passionate about the island and the Fijian people they employ to maintain it, and this imbues Navini with a genuinely happy feel that is impossible to fake.

Fresh, fragrant dishes such as mango salad, reef fish with cassava, and spiced pilau rice with coconut are prepared and served by a warm and engaging crew of Fijian women. Visitors are also given the option of private beachside dining, but most people choose the communal option, which makes each meal a social event. Over many dishes we meet Swedish folk singers, Alaskan animal researchers, Australian gallery curators and American long-distance runners (the latter lapping the island in swimwear and sneakers, much to the amusement of the Fijian kids). Talk usually turns to the day’s activities, often a boat trip to a nearby reef or another island in the Mamanuca archipelago. Groper, turtle and stingray sightings are reported.

As Navini’s reef area has been a sanctuary for almost two decades, it has no shortage of sea creatures with little fear of humans. There are also sharks; we’re talking harmless one-metre blacktip and whitetip reef sharks, although something about their predatory shape still gets the adrenaline pumping when they glide past your goggles. Most of guests we meet, ourselves included, are self-confessed ‘stalkellers’ – all of us hunting down and then tailing any shark we can find, just for the thrill of it. The Fijian children love showing their incredulous foreign counterparts how to chase the baby sharks that cruise the shallows. They splash and giggle as little fins circle their shins. It takes some getting used to, but Navini really is the kind of place that you can tell the kids to go play with the sharks.

I swim with a few mature reef sharks over the week, but spot many more baby ones from the beach as they surf the wavelets breaking on the rock shelf below our bure. I’m told they sometimes hunt newly hatched baby turtles in these waters, head-butting them off mats of floating seaweed and into their junior jaws. I see many other things from my beach lounge: sandbanks shifting with the swinging winds and changing currents, fossils embedded in cracked rocks exposed by the ebbing tide, scuttling crabs and bobbing coconuts. When clouds like cling-wrapped mercury roll over the darkening sea, I retreat to our covered porch and watch the ocean become utterly becalmed for a few magical moments before it is hit by a barrage of raindrops.

It often rains during our time on Navini, but usually at night and never for very long. I awake on the penultimate morning of our stay to a sound that is evocative for many Australians: heavy rain on a corrugated-iron roof. A wild wind is soon whipping in off the sea and blowing through our bure’s many slatted windows, which we position each day to catch the prevailing sea breezes. It’s the only morning that ends up being a washout, but those guests (mainly the kids) who don’t fancy reading or snoozing the day away are kept busy with basket weaving, rounds of the staple Fijian game vidi-vidi, and the preparation (then swift consumption) of coconut toffee.

Our neighbours on the island, Alaskan couple Jason and Carrie, see out the storm watching their collection of Fiji-themed movies on a laptop. There’s Blue LagoonMutiny on the Bounty and, yes, Cast Away. When discussing the latter film that evening over a couple of local Vonu beers, we decide that Tom Hanks probably didn’t lose Wilson at all. More likely, Wilson ditched Tom when they floated past Navini. At least, that’s what any ball with half a brain would do.