In the olden days and even today many people referred to Africa as the “dark continent” since so little was known about it. Nowadays, this has obviously changed and many countries and locations in Africa are well known, relatively well developed and travelled. However, for us Africa is still admittedly unknown since we never travelled here with the exception of Egypt, which is very different from many sub Saharan countries. But before our arrival in Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, our first port of entry, we literally knew nothing about sub Saharan Africa beyond what we could read on the internet and the picture that we’ve formed over the years based on TV and newspaper reports. As you can imagine this is a very ambiguous and varied picture and is very different by regions and countries in Africa; things that come to mind are on the one hand negative descriptors like war, corruption, tribal or ethnic conflicts, famines and droughts or economic struggles. On the other hand there are of course the pictures of vast plains with grazing herds of wildlife but also recent success stories about Africa including a thriving movie industry (i.e. Nollywood) or fast growing and increasingly economically successful local economies, Tanzania being one of them. We also mainly picked Dar es Salaam in Tanzania as our entry point into Africa because of stories about the great wildlife in this country but other than that we were pretty ‘blank’ and had not much of an idea what to expect.
Now, three and a half days after arriving in Dar Es Salaam we’ve formed a much better picture about the country and what our plans are for the rest of our trip in the “dark continent”. It always makes it much easier to connect with a country and determine what to do once you are on the ground, at least that’s our experience. In the last few days we’ve done some more research and talked to people on the ground, a few tourists but mostly locals and a few travel agents; the internet is always a great resource of course. So we have a good idea as to how our next few weeks shape up and here’s a brief outline of our travel plans:
Zanzibar (2-3 days): Zanzibar is a short ferry ride from Dar Es Salaam and the “old town” and pristine beaches sound very interesting.
Safari (5-6 days): We have finalized a trip with a local tour operator for a safari to the Serengeti, Ngorogoro Crater and Lake Manyara, the “big three” wildlife parks in Tanzania.
Scuba Diving (6-8 days): in Tofo in Mozambique; we’ve heard many good reports about diving in this South African country.
South Africa/Cape Town (8-10 days): we’ve always wanted to visit Cape Town based on the many glowing reports from friends but also in order to do cage diving with great white sharks.
We are still flexible and things can change based on changing visa requirements etc. but at this point the above is our rough plan and below is a map, which shows the different locations in an overview.
After coming back from our short Christmas break in Miami we had a few days ‘to kill’ before we needed to travel to Phuket. So we just spent a couple of days in Bangkok getting our food and massage fixes, rented a car again and drove around to Koh Samet and Koh Chang for a day on the beach and went back to catch our flight to Phuket. Already in early December we had booked a live aboard trip from Phuket to the Similan Islands, which we’ve always wanted to visit. The Similans are supposed to be some of the best diving in Thailand and in fact anywhere in the world – it always shows up high on rankings for top diving sites in the world and we can now understand why.
We didn’t really plan on spending any significant time in Phuket since we had been there a few times. It is a pleasant island but we just wanted to get on the boat as quickly as possible. So we just booked a night in a relatively cheap hotel in Phuket (in Patong) and just had a quick dinner in the evening in one of the many seafood outside restaurants. They look a bit like the hawker centers in Singapore and the seafood is typically pretty decent and fresh. Before going to bed we got another relaxing foot massage and retired early. Our pick up the next day was not until around 4pm, so we used the time to get another foot massage and manicure in one of the local massage shops that we actually had visited a couple of times on one of our last visits here. We even recognized a couple of the staff from the last time, which was more than 3 years ago – they seem to have good retention mechanisms here. We had a good time and chatted with the staff about this and that. But Anna and I were quite intrigued by the “girl” who massaged Anna’s feet and then manicured my hands. Her name was “Cat” and she was actually not a girl – she/he was a katoye, or as it’s more commonly called a ladyboy. Now, everybody who has ever been to Thailand has probably seen or heard of the infamous Thai ladyboys and they are actually all around. Although there is a certain social stigma attached to being a ladyboy, they still seem to be fairly accepted in the Thai society. You can see them everywhere, as waitresses in restaurants, store owners, shopkeepers, in massage places and in many other businesses. Many of them are relatively easily identifiable, either by some physical features like large hands, feet or Adam’s apple or a dark voice. However, ladyboys blessed with a feminine body structure in the first place or the ones who start very, very early with hormone therapy can appear as feminine – in many cases even more feminine – then naturally born women. There’s a saying in Thailand that is used jokingly, “the prettiest women are ladyboys” and in some cases this might actually be true. Anyway, Cat fell into the latter category and although Anna and I were both relatively certain that she/he was a ladyboy, she was one of the prettiest and most natural looking ladybodys we’ve ever seen and she could easily win beauty contests against a number of quite attractive looking women contenders. Unfortunately we were not comfortable taking pictures but just consider Anna and I as ‘experts’ in these matters.
Anyway, it was time to head back to the hotel where we got picked up by a minibus together with a few other fellow travellers who were already waiting in the bus. It took us more than 90 minutes to get to the boat jetty which was north of Phuket but we finally reached the boat at around 7PM in the evening. There were probably 4 or 5 other live aboard boats that were about to leave that night and we were glad to see that our boat looked the nicest, cleanest and with the least amount of passengers on it. The preparations took more than an hour and while we received our first briefing on the boat the crew was loading up our luggage, food supplies and diving gear for the next 4 days. (The MV Pawara, our dive boat)
Now, everybody who is a diver and who has been on a live aboard trip will be familiar with some of the following descriptions but there’s probably a need to summarize how these trips work for the uninitiated. “Live aboard” obviously summarizes the main idea: for several days a bunch of hobos live on a boat and do nothing but sleeping, eating and diving. In some cases this routine is interrupted by throwing up or diarrhea but I’ll get to that part later. Once everybody was on the boat, 16 of us plus the crew (5 of them) plus the dive instructor team (4 plus a private dive guide for one Japanese passenger), Vince did the initial briefing. Vince, the head dive instructor and safety guru, is an English cat and he was always dead serious. He has a military background and used to be a fireman before he hired on as a mining rescue diver, rescuing injured or stuck ocean miners in depths of up to two miles! underwater. That’s probably where he had developed that ‘dead-serious’ attitude since every little mistake in those depths means death 100% of the time. But we were glad that he was responsible for safety and he always did all the safety briefings before every dive and dive site. ("Tough guy" Vince)
The initial briefing mainly covered the names of the crew, main safety rules on board, how to use this and that, meal procedures, and the itinerary for the first night and next day. Once that was done dinner was served, which was quite tasty and we had a little time to get to know our fellow travelers, who were quite an eclectic bunch. There were Lauri and Paulina from Finland, who we both liked a lot, then a couple from Holland, who we and most others didn’t seem to care for that much since they always appeared to be miserable and judgmental. There was also an Indian couple, Anu and Johann, who were both investment bankers with JP Morgan Chase in London. They were really nice folks but interestingly spoke very negatively about their mother country India in terms of corruption and willingness for reform. (Anna and Anu)
Then there was Tony and Alison, Tony being an Ozzi and Alison British and both are living in the UK. They were very sweet and they were our dive buddies for most of the dives. There was also an Australian couple, who we really didn’t spend much time with and then there was this quiet Japanese guy, Hiro, who mainly hung out with his personal dive instructor and “entertainer” Chiko. Chiko was an interesting character; she is a Japanese woman, close to 40 but looks much younger, very petite, in excellent shape and she has been living in Thailand for the last 15 years. She used to be a diver instructor on different boats but is now a freelancer and gets mostly hired by private persons, mainly Japanese, as their personal instructor. She smokes like a chimney, which doesn’t seem to affect her diving, she likes a cold beer or two and she was typically one of the last ones on deck chatting with Hiro. And finally there were two solo travellers, Chris and Mike. Chris is an Australian who lives in Papua New Guinea and he’s a security officer with the UN. He was very secretive about his job since his job comes with security clearance requirements but otherwise he was a very talkative and somewhat funny/awkward guy. Mike, who is an American and married to a Thai woman, lives in California but still visits Thailand once or twice a year. Mike looked and talked like a hardened biker and smoked like a chimney but interestingly he was an ordained Buddhist monk. He told us that he decided to go through the ordination process and the required time in the monastery to prepare him for being a monk because there are no male relatives in his wife’s family, so he wanted to keep the tradition alive of having at least one male in the family being an ordained monk. So, as you can see, this was a rather eclectic group of people and conversations were hardly boring. In addition there was the Thai crew, who were all very nice but hard to have a conversation with since none of them had any English skills to speak of. Of the group of dive instructors, I already talked about “tough” Vince, besides him there was Yemmi, a guy from Quebec in Canada who was the dive instructor for our group; Anna, myself, Toni and Alison. It was very nice that every dive group only consisted of max. 4 people. Yemmi was a great guy and even when he got a stomach bug with high fever and diarrhea he insisted on doing his job and guided our group under water.(Our dive instructor Yemmi feeling sick)
The other instructors were Fernando from Brazil, who never spoke a word, at least to anyone outside of his group, and Cam. Cam had also an interesting story. He is Chinese and grew up in Hong Kong before going to college in California US. He was doing well and got hired straight out of college by “Hustler” magazine as a graphics designer. He got married, bought a house and lived the American dream. But at some point he and his wife decided that they wanted to escape the ‘rat race’ and move to Thailand. They just made a nice chunk of change by selling their house 2 weeks before the bust of the housing bubble in California, so they were all set to move to Thailand, buy a small place and “live the life”. However, his wife got cold feet just before they were about to move and they broke up over it – and the divorce process was apparently very ugly. But for the last 4 years Cam has been living in Phuket, enjoying life, hiring as a dive instructor once in a while (although he doesn’t have to) and not stressing over the ‘rest of his life’. We hear a lot of interesting stories with as many diverse people as we meet on this trip. Once you start asking a few questions people tell you their whole life story – seems to be a basic need of people. On the other hand, we also meet a surprising number of people who like to talk about themselves but don’t seem to be interested in the least in other peoples’ lives.
There’s probably nothing worse than being on a boat for 5 days and just feeling sick to your stomach; throwing up, having diarrhea and headaches. Unfortunately someone brought a stomach bug onto the boat and one by one, almost two thirds of the passengers on the boat caught the bug including Anna. So at any given point in time the group that was diving was decimated significantly and several people were laying in a fetal position somewhere on deck on one of the benches outside or inside or on one of the recliners on the sundeck. This put a little damper on the mood on board but everybody just dealt with it on their own and typically people were feeling better after 24hours. So, as said Anna had the bug for 24 hours and could rejoin our small group of divers after one day and I had to take a break for three dives on the first day, not because of the stomach bug but because my ears were not adjusting to the depth due to a cold. We suspected and blamed Chris for brining the bug on board because he was sick when he arrived for the trip. Unfortunately there are not many options to escape from a boat other than jumping into the water and not coming back on board for 4 days but that would probably not be conducive to having any fun. (People chilling and recuperating on the sun deck)
Diving in Similan Islands, Koh Bon, Koh Tachai and Richelieu Rock
The diving itself was very good; varied and some of the best we have ever experienced. Although we didn’t see many of the big fishes, like sharks or mantas, we saw plenty of interesting other animals, colorful corals and terrain. The difference between the different dive sites that we stopped at is quite stark and we had everything from large, rocky pinnacles at Koh Bon to the most amazingly colorful soft corals at Richelieu Rock, to a wreck on our way back to Phuket. Also the small islands of the Similans and Koh Tachai and Koh Bon are beautiful to look at above the water and we did a small excursion to one of the islands in the afternoon of the 2nd day.(Koch Tachai)
If you have never done a live aboard trip but are a diver we would definitely recommend one since it is a very unique experience. We really liked most of our fellow passengers on our boat and we had many interesting conversations with a number of them – there’s just not much else to do and you are consumed with the basics; eating, sleeping and diving. So the distractions are small and people are typically very relaxed after a couple of days. Four dives a day also means that your are really getting into a routine of diving, you can work on your skills, really enjoy the little and big things under water and feel pretty tired at the end of the day.
Anna and I also used the experience to advance our diving skills and certifications. Anna is a certified Open Water Diver, which means that she officially is only allowed to dive up to 18 meters (60 feet), so she completed a Deep Diver certification, which includes theory and practical elements; a written test, and a dive to 30 meters (100 feet) while completing a few tasks. These tasks include calculating numbers or writing your name backwards (which in Anna’s case was relatively simple☺). All of this is designed to experience how your body and mind reacts to deeper depths, so you can recognize the symptoms in case you react to the depth on one of your future dives and take appropriate measures, i.e., ascending slowly. While I am certified as an Advanced Open Water Diver I used the opportunity to complete a certification that’s called Enriched Air, or Nitrox but let me explain briefly what this is about without trying to get too technical, the divers amongst you will be familiar with this explanation. While normal air contains 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen, Enriched Air contains typically 36% oxygen and 64% nitrogen. Many divers these days use Nitrox since it has a number of advantages compared to normal air. The first one being that diving with Nitrox extends your allowable bottom time, i.e., the time you are allowed to dive at a certain deeper depth without being required to do a safety stop at defined depths. This can be a great advantage since longer dives are now possibly without “pushing” near decompression limits. The second advantage is that Nitrox reduces the overall nitrogen load in your body, especially on multiple dives. Divers who use Nitrox report that they are less tired after multiple dives and don’t have some of the other occasional effects of multiple dives like sleeplessness or headaches. Anyway, the course includes a theoretical test after reading a book and watching an instructional video and a practical piece, which includes analyzing the gas mix in your tank and adjusting your dive computer to the different gas mix, i.e., enriched air. Nowadays, almost all dive computers can be set to enriched air and then they calculate your bottom time, decompression limits and surface time accordingly. The time we had on the boat was a good opportunity to complete these further certifications with the appropriate attention and supervision by our dive instructors. So, we used our newly acquired skills on our next dives, Anna could dive with the rest of the group at 30 meters, which many of our dives started out with, especially the first couple of dives of the day. The typical day’s schedule began at 6:30 AM with a light breakfast, i.e., tea, coffee and some toast and a first dive at 7 AM, which ensured that we were typically the first dive group in the water in case there were other dive boats nearby. After the first morning dive we had a bigger breakfast at 8:30 AM and a second dive at around 11 AM. Lunch was at around 12:30 PM, a third dive followed at 2 or 2: 30 PM and the last dive was at 5PM, just before it got dark shortly after 6PM. There was one night dive on the first day, which we didn’t participate in since neither of us are big fans of night dives.
But as said above, the overall diving experience was great and instead of trying to describe the underwater world in words, we’ve uploaded a video that is a compilation of most of our dives and includes encounters with the amazing underwater world and creatures of the Andaman Sea. We hope you enjoy watching it; it’s not National Geographic quality but a very personal summary of some of our best underwater experiences.
After listening to some of the recommendations of the many divers we met on Kadavu, including David Fleetham and some of the dive masters, we decided to spend a couple of days at Beqa Bay to do some shark diving. The place that is closest to the Beqa shark dive tour operators is called Pacific Harbour and it is indeed a slightly strange destination. It seems to be modeled after US golf course communities with its manicured lawns, real estate development going bezerk and a few buildings consisting of shops and restaurants called Arts Village.
For a couple of nights we stayed in a little resort called “Uprising” but in order to get our budget back on track after Kadavu we stayed in a dorm for a couple of nights. It was actually not so bad since we stayed in what was called a mini-dorm, which is basically a small bure/villa that has been transformed into a dorm by putting 4 bunk beds inside instead of a king size bed. So it was quite cozy, really a nice dorm compared to some of the hellholes you occasionally see when looking at the real budget dorms. For one night we actually had the company of 4 fellow travellers, three girls from England, Poland and Canada and a chap from the US who was a bit weird I have to say. I even had to bunk with him, or more correctly, in the bed above him. The girls were actually doing the “Feejee Experience”, which is a bus tour through the country with various “fun” activities – “fun” for the twentysomethings anyway. According to our Lonely Planet guide this generation prefers to do these guided fun tours through the country vs. travelling individually on public transportation, which is quite a bit cheaper. The Gen Y seems to avoid public buses, which we actually found quite comfortable and exciting since you get in close contact with the locals. Anyway, all of them turned out to be nice enough folks and they all left early in the morning and we had the dorm to ourselves for the next night. Besides the very basic accommodation – although we had an outside ‘rainforest shower’, which lost its appeal once it started to rain heavily – the resort was quite nice, located directly at a clean and empty beach. We were also able to book our shark dives for the next morning right there and this included a pick up from the resort.
(Beach at 'Uprising' resort - not too shabby for a backpacker's joint)
The weather next morning was unfortunately not great, it rained steadily and with the wind it was actually getting a bit chilly – if you can call temperatures above 25 degrees Celsius chilly. Anyway, after breakfast someone from Aqua Trek, one of the few companies which organizes shark feeding dives here, picked us up from the resort and drove us to the dive center right at the little lagoon on Pacific Harbor with access to Beqa bay. We got dressed in long 7mm dive suits and hopped on the boat. The only other guests were a couple from Sweden who are living in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. With us on the boat were Brendan, one of the owners of Aqua Trek who is South African and two local dive masters. It was fairly windy and we had some high waves driving out of the lagoon. But after only about 10 minutes we anchored at the dive site and there was just one other boat with divers. The underwater current was quite strong that morning and we almost didn’t dive due to it but our crew finally decided that it was safe enough. We all had to go down the anchor rope though in order not to drift too far from the dive spot. From there we had to switch to a steel chain at the bottom of the ocean at about 18 meters (60 feet) to reach a small coral reef ledge that we could hold on to while laying on the ground. On the way down our dive partners from Sweden had a bit of a scare since one of their regulators got tangled up in the ropes and he was rapidly losing air. So the dive masters had to take him up on the boat again and change his bottle before descending again. Not something you want to do every time you are diving but definitely good early morning excitement for adrenaline junkies.
What happened then was just incredible and you really have to see it to believe it. The dive crew hauled down a whole big garbage bin full of fish heads and chump. Once they were situated just in front of us, not more than 2-3 meters away, they opened the bin and pulled out the fish heads and other remains of fish that they get from a fish processing plant. And then the big frenzy started – thousands of fish, from smaller trevallies to Spanish mackerels to huge groupers – were swirling around us and the dive master to catch a bit of the chump. Once the whole commotion was in full swing, the bigger fish including sharks arrived to get their piece of the action. And when they say shark feeding, they mean it. We could identify at least six to seven different types of sharks, from white and black tip reef sharks to nurse sharks, lemon sharks, and grey ocean wailers. And finally a couple of large size female bull sharks arrived and it’s easy to identify them – they are the largest of the lot, ranging between 3-5 meters (10-16 feet) in length, big round chest and when they arrive the other fish keep a safe distance. That day we didn’t see tiger sharks, which come to this spot regularly as well. The whole experience was very exciting and at no point there was the feeling that anybody was in danger other then being whisked away by the strong current. The sharks are exclusively focused on the fish and disappear as soon as it’s gone. Some hang around a bit to see whether someone brings some more free fast food but most of the fish seem to be fairly well “conditioned” to know when the big old garbage can is really empty. We did a couple of these dives, the second being a bit less eventful in terms of mishaps and with less current but otherwise this was definitely one of these once-in-a-lifetime experiences. It’s safe to say that it is almost impossible to find any other spot in the world where you can dive with that many sharks, including ones with a reputation as bad as bulls and tigers, just minutes off the coast.
Now, let me just say a few words about the whole “shark feeding business”. Some of you might have a strong opinion about this, often not a very positive one, and you are not alone. Many folks argue that sharks should be left alone; nature should run its course and I would actually fully agree with this statement. However, reality is that our oceans have been hugely overfished and especially sharks have been at the receiving end of fishing practices that have vastly decimated the world’s shark population, including many Chinese vessels that hunt sharks for their fins in Fijian waters. So, not only are sharks being hunted directly but their typical prey is being overfished as well so that many sharks go hungry for long periods of time. We had a long discussion with Brendan, the owner of Aqua Trek, about the story behind it and changed out minds about the risks and benefits of controlled shark feeding over the course of our conversation although we were skeptical in the beginning as well. Brendan convincingly told us the story of how he started developing shark feeding sites in Fiji over the years and how it benefits the reefs itself and the local communities. Brendan is also a member of the local council dealing with marine preservation and has been fighting for fishing controls and preservation of endangered species for many years. The reef that we were diving used to be a “dead” reef without the variety of fish that keep a reef alive. After introducing shark feeding to several of these reefs, the fish came back to the reefs and populated them; finally developing a healthy eco system again with a variety of small and large fish. And we were definitely able to witness the health of the reef as a marine ecosystem – in fact, I have never see the amount of different types of fish in one spot before. Also, the local communities benefit from diving at the shark feeding sites since a part of the proceeds from the fees go straight to the local village that owns this part of the beach and reef. Finally, the sharks who frequent this site regularly don’t seem to change their natural behavior and still hunt in the ocean or shallow waters when the supply of fish is abundant. But during times when sharks go hungry for too long due to overfishing they seem to come to shark feeding sites for a “snack in between”. It also doesn’t seem to make them more aggressive and the shark feeding tour operators have never had any shark accidents in the many years they have been practicing in Fiji. But in the end, you should make up your mind about this issue yourself but we definitely found it educational to talk with experts and other fellow divers about the controversial topic of shark feeding.
Diving with Manta Rays and waiting for Naiqoro Passage
November 1-8 Thursday-Thursday (Day 6-13)
Besides meeting interesting people and enjoying good food our third passion that we wanted to indulge in during this trip is scuba diving. We are by no means experienced divers and we haven’t dived in more than three years, but we always enjoy it tremendously whenever we do it. We are planning to dive in most countries that we are travelling to this time and Fiji is certainly one of them and you can’t be in Fiji without at least snorkeling – the water is pristine and the corals reefs and fish variety is quite stunning.
For passionate divers, just the name Great Astrolabe Reef elicits visions of endless coral walls, coral chimneys or racing through the Naiqoro passage in heavy currents. The Great Astrolabe Reef is the fourth largest barrier reef in the world and more then 100 kilometers long. Our destination island of Kadavu is on the Eastern edge of the reef. You can either take a ferry or a small plane to Kadavu and in order to save some time we decided to take a small 12-seater turbo prop plane where we were the only passengers together with a Polish couple. It was a beautiful, short 45-minute flight over to Kadavu with stunning views over the Viti Levu mountain range, beaches and corals reefs along the way. The landing was relatively smooth despite some cross winds but we have heard stories of scary landings during storms where the pilots had to use all their skills and maverick personalities. So if you are afraid of flying, taking the plane to Kadavu in less than perfect weather might not be the best choice for you – you might be better off taking the ferry which seems to present you with a very different set of challenges if the sea is not calm. But if you crave a vertical nosedive down the mountain range and screaming passengers just before the two pilots pull the nose up for a very bumpy landing put this flight high on your bucket list.
The airport building would not quality for a toll booth in many countries but these are the charms of remote locations – no TSA or grim looking immigration officers; you pick up your bags directly from the plane and look for anybody with a pick up truck who takes you to the boat for the transfer to the resort. Due to a communication problem the resort didn’t even know when we were arriving but that’s no problem on an island that welcomes zero to 5 guests per day during low season. The guys from our resort packed us and our luggage into the truck and without using many words took us to the small dive boat on the other side of the island.
The boat ride to the resort is just beautiful, racing along the lush green wall of the island on one side and the reef break with high waves on the other. You can’t but keep staring into the incredibly clear and pristine waters, corals just feet beneath the boat.
When you approach the resort you feel like you are in a different world, set back in time to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. We were greeted by the other guests who were having lunch on the terrace of the main bure (term for house in Fijian) and we also met Lee again, the guy we met on the plane and who told us about this resort. The name of the resort is Matava and I’d urge you to check it out if you plan a visit to Fiji anytime soon. Their website is http://matava.com. The owners are three partners, two chaps from the UK and a woman from California. They started it ten years ago and have build up quite a good reputation as an eco friendly resort. There’s no electricity on the island, everything is solar powered, they have their own organic garden and even a few beehives to produce their own honey. Besides Lee and his girlfriend Jess there were a few other guests, a family of eight from the US who are all divers and who turned out to be some of the nicest people we’ve ever met. Also, there was a fellow called David Fleetham (www.davidfleetham.com) who is a professional underwater photographer and who was shooting photos for Diver’s Magazine in Canada. He’s been making underwater photos and videos for over 20 years and he told some incredible stories about all the countries and dive sites he’s visited over the years. He also showed us some of the incredible photos he shot. Anna and I actually went out with him on a dive on the first day after we arrived here. It was just fun to watching him under water getting within inches from the fish and corals with his 50 pound camera equipment without breaking a sweat.
Our first two dives on our second day on Kadavu were on Manta Reef and the name says it all; it’s a reef that regularly attracts pods of manta rays for feeding and as a cleaning station. But before we went on the dive boat to drive to our dive site which is about 45 away, I had to make an important phone call. Now, most of us rarely get to places where there’s no land phone or cell phone connection. Actually, you can use your cell phone here but you’d have to climb up the mountain and find this one spot on the island that gets a weak cell phone signal. If you are lucky you might be able to make a phone call that gets interrupted regularly. Luckily Matava has a satellite phone and the procedure to make a phone call looks like this: you tell one of the hotel staff, in my case Taa, to call the operator and get a free line for a phone call. So Taa and I walk to the edge of the little terrace right on the water and sit on one of the recliners because that’s the spot with the best satellite phone connection. Once Taa had phoned the operator, she called back and I could make the phone call which was to my mum because it was her birthday. I talked really, really fast in order to contain costs but mum was super happy to hear from us and talk for a couple of minutes while being on the other side of the world. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall to hear what she was telling her birthday guests; must have been something like, “well, my son just wished me happy birthday from a remote island in Fiji and says hi to everybody”. Anyway, I believe with that call I have put some money into the emotional bank account with my mother. And it didn’t even cost me that much I have to admit; the rates even for satellite calls in Fiji are really low due to the increasing competition of phone companies in Fiji, from Telstra, to Vadafone to Digicel; all competing for the same relatively small market.
Well, after the call to my mum we left for our dive site and our dives were just terrific. Once we suited up and got into the water, just the three of us, Anna, myself and David Fleetham plus our dive master Vice, descending for the first time after 3 years felt a bit strange but we all made it down to about 20 meters (65 feet) relatively quickly. Colorful corals and hardly any current made it very easy for us and we just hung out for a while waiting for manta rays to show up. Sure enough, after about 7 minutes the first manta showed up and came so close it almost touches us, just gracefully ‘flying’ above our heads. This happened another three times and we ascended all exited and took a small tea break on the boat. This is the first time for Anna to ever see a manta and she just loved it. Our second dive was equally nice and just before we ascended back to the surface this really dark black manta cam over the coral ridge, lingering for a few minutes and seemingly just enjoying our company. It was the biggest manta I’ve ever seen and it must have been 5 meters (15 feet) from wingtip to wingtip according to our dive instructor. So, our first day of diving on the Great Astrolabe Reef couldn’t have been more exciting and “successful”.
The video below was taken by a lovely couple from Southern California who are both dive masters. They graciously let me steal one of their videos of the mantas that they shot during one of the dives - thanks so much again, Diana and David! It's a great display of a pod of Mantas being unusually playful. So, if you are a sucker for encounters with big fish and mantas in particular this is definitely the place to go since Manta Reef at Kadavu is giving you a very, very high chance of seeing not just one but whole pods of mantas every time you dive here.
The next several days were a mix of relaxing, kayaking, reading and having long discussions with our newfound friends Lee and his girlfriend Jess and some new visitors to the island. We went diving a couple more times and stayed within the reef since the weather was changing and strong winds and high waves prevented us from attempting to cross the surf break and dive on the outer reef with unpredictable weather and strong currents. Unfortunately this made it also impossible to dive the Naiqoro passage but that'll give us a reason to come back to Matava and Fiji.