Blog of the trip to Oceania

Pictures of Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Solomon

Preparing for Oceania
Sunday, April 15, 2012, 02:29 AM

Nadi (Nandi) and Suva, Fiji
Monday, April 23, 2012, 02:03 AM
Landed, easy immigration (no visa required), took a bus, crossed the island, now in Suva.
Tomorrow i fly to Tonga. Then Samoa. Then i will be back in Fiji.

Oceania is traditionally divided into three regions ("nesia" means "island", ironically, in Greek, not in their own language)(and, even more ironically, "nesia" and "micro" are routinely mispronounced
by Anglosaxons):
Polynesia: Tonga, Samoa, Tuvalu (Tahiti and other islands are still occupied by France);
Melanesia (or "black islands", from the dark skins of its inhabitants): Fiji,
Vanuatu, New Guinea, Solomon Islands (New Caledonia is still occupied by France);
and Micronesia: Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau and Kiribati (Guam and other islands are still occupied by the USA)

Fiji is a country in the southern region of Oceania between Hawaii and New Zealand, technically Melanesia, discovered by Abel Tasman in 1643 and famously visited and documented by James Cook in 1774, colonized by Great Britain in 1874 and become independent in 1970.
Descendants of the workers imported from India by the British make up a sizable percentage of the population.
Viti Levu is the main island of Fiji (there are about 300, mostly not inhabited), Nandi (mispelled Nadi but always pronounced Nandi) has the main international airport but is a tiny town. Cheap buses run the 30 minute route between town and airport. There are also two companies (Sunbeam and CoralSun) that run an express bus from Nandi/Nadi airport to downtown Suva and viceversa (about 4 hours).
Suva is the capital of Fiji.
Between Nandi and Suva the main attraction is Sigatoka, that has a Sand Dunes Park (not much of an attraction in my opinion).
Near Suva is the Coloisuva Forest.
Virtually everybody speaks English, besides the local language (those of the Fijian ethnic group) and Indian languages (those of Indian ethnic groups).
The first impression is that Fiji is very safe (despite what the natives claim) and that people are extremely friendly and helpful.
The most annoying thing about flying in this part of the world is that you always have to "reconfirm" your flights. If you don't reconfirm 24 hours before departure, the airline might sell your seat to someone else.
Other than that, buses run on time, hotels are clean, restaurants are professional, etc. Better than California.
Some things are very cheap (transportation) but others quite expensive (San Pellegrino water is $7 at the supermarket compared with $2 in the USA).

Internet: F2 per hour
Soda can: F1.60
Downtown Backpackers Hotel in Nandi: F$20 dorm bed. Sunseekers Hotel near the mosque just north of the bridge (across from school's playground): F$35 for a single with shared bath.
Hotel in Suva: South Seas Motel (10 minutes from the old government building) F$39 for a single ($22)
Buses from Nandi to Suva: SunBeam F$17 vs CoralSun F$22.
At least one of them stops also at the Nandi airport.
To go to Nandi downtown from the airport walk outside the gate and there is a bus stop (the "bus" is usually a minivan F$1)
Most buses stop running after 5pm and restart only around 7am.
Bus from Nandi to Sigatoka 2h F$6. Bus from Sigatoka to Suva 3h F$12.
If you are going to the Sand Dunes, ask to be dropped off at the entrance
(5kms before Sigatoka).
Entrance to Sigatoka Sand Dunes F$10 (not worth it in my opinion).

Nukualofa, Tonga
Tuesday, April 24, 2012, 02:22 AM
Tonga is the 139th country that i have visited in my life (i do not count Fiji yet, where i spent only the first day).

Tonga, a group of 170 islands, is the easternmost country in the world, the first country to welcome the new day.
It is also one of the few monarchies left in the world (the others are all in the Arab world). All the land is owned by the king.
The capital, Nukualofa, is a tiny town by the beach, with a few restaurants and a few stores and a modest royal palace. The cheap guesthouses tend to be out of town, and there seems to be no public transportation around town. I had to sweat quite a bit to do my usual tour of the guesthouses and pick one.
Alas, tomorrow is a national holiday (Easter). I would like to visit the island of Eua, that has a national park, but probably there will be no ferry.

$1 = 1.54 T$
No visa.
Tonga airport is far from town. A shuttle costs T$15. To get the local bus, you have to walk about 2kms from the international airport to the main road. The local bus to Nukualofa costs T$2 and takes about 40 minutes.

Sela's Guesthouse (out of town) $30 single, $20 dormitory

Tongatapu, Tonga
Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 09:12 PM

Biked around the main island of Tonga to see the "archeological sites": the royal tumuli and the Haamonga trilithon (both of the 13th century AD).
It rained most of the time, but, as the natives told me at the beginning, better than way: when it stopped raining, i got dehydrated within a few minutes.
People outside the capital are a bit weird. Some of them obviously don't speak good English, but everybody is fond of saying "bye" even when you just arrived.
Big smiles everywhere. Very safe everywhere.

Only one place rents bikes, near the International Dateline Hotel, T$10/day
The ferry to Eua runs only when the weather permits and it's a rough ride anyway (2.5 hours). It leaves at 12:30pm from Nukualofa and returns at 5am from Eua. There are several guesthouses in Eua, and the most famous seems to be Taina. Some of them also pick up guests at the airport.
Ferry: T$27 each way. Flying: T$89.

Thursday, April 26, 2012, 03:56 PM

Fiji is cosmopolitan: Christians, Hindus, Muslims and presumably some "pagans".
Tonga is very Christian. I don't think there is a single mosque or Hindu temple or any vestige of the ancient religion. Presumably the king would not allow it.
Samoa is even more Christian: it is known as the "Bible belt" of Oceania.
Indians seem to control Fiji's economy (at least the visible one).
The Chinese own a lot of the business in Tonga (alas, they are often the only ones in town who don't speak English but they run the grocery store).

Savai and Apia, Samoa
Monday, April 30, 2012, 04:12 PM

Arrived at 2am in Samoa and immediately went to Savaii island (Salelologa town).
Samoa is the 141st country that i have visited in my life.
The Samoa islands, discovered by Dutch sailors in 1722, were partitioned in 1899. Western Samoa (that used to be German and comprises two main islands) is independent, whereas eastern Samoa is still occupied by the USA. The two are divided by the dateline: it is a different day depending on which half you are.
Upolu is the main island of independent Samoa, and Apia is its capital, but the other island of independent Samoa, Savai'i is actually bigger and has more natural and historical attractions, notably the Pulemelli step pyramid and the Saleaula lava beds.
Contrary to what i thought, it is Samoa (and not Tonga) the eastermost country in the world (the first one to see the sun rise) because in december 2011 Samoa decided to switch sides of the international dateline: they used to be on the same day as the Americas but now they aligned with most of Oceania and all of Asia. Samoa must be the most religious country in the world: there are more churches than people, and many of them are truly pretty. You think that the main attraction in Samoa would be the sea but instead it's basilica-style porticoed public spaces (countless in each small village) and staircases (both to the abovesaid porticoed spaces and to the churches.
Many of the nicest houses have tombs in their frontyard, which elaborate gravestones. I did not see a cemetery like the ones that are ubiquitous in Tonga but many tombs in the front of houses or in the equivalent of a public square. In one village i was literally chatting with a local girl sitting on the tomb of her granma in front of her house.
The other thing that abounds in Samoa is taxis: they must have the highest density of taxes per person in the world.
Just like in Tonga, there is no souvenir made here. I would love to buy something typical but they are all made in other countries (mostly China, but also New Zealand). I saw unusual stuff in Fiji: it's the most touristy of these countries but maybe it is also the only one that still has native artisans.

$1=2.2 tala (ST)
No visa required.
The ferry from Mulifanua (Upolu) to Salelologa (Savaii) takes 1.5 hours (for 18 kms!) and costs ST$12 each way. It runs three times a day usually. Sundays and tuesdays are the worst days to look for a ferry.
Taxi from the international airport to the Mulifanua ferry: ST20
Salelologa's Jet Over Hotel: fale (bungalow) for ST60.
Public transportation is erratic at best in Savaii and virtually non-existent
after 4pm.
Entrance to lava fields, waterfalls, etc is always ST5.
Nobody rents bicycles in Savaii.
To get to Pulemelli (step pyramid) take the bus to Palauli and inquire in the village (ST20 should get you a guide. If you insist on trying alone, get off the bus after the bridge (after the sign for the waterfalls) and take the first road to the right after the bridge. You will soon cross the creek and then the "road" will wind its way through the plantation and the forest, slowly ascending. The pyramid is surrounded by thick vegetation so you will probably miss it. The easiest lava fields are the ones in Saleaula, where the ruins of the church are. A few kms south of this touristy place there is a vast stretch of lava fields but they are technically off limits.
Transportation in Upolu is only marginally better: there is a bus from Apia to Mulifanua but it runs only two or three times a day (in theory it is synchronized with the hours of the ferry).
Renting a bicycle is a good option to explore the two islands.
Everything closes very early, like 4 or 5pm, even restaurants.
Internet is expensive in all of Samoa. In Savai you have to buy an "Internet card" (such as Lavasoft) and then you can use any computer (including your own) at a "hot spot", but the card is usually ST15 for just one hour (and the timer seems to run even when you are not using it and there is nobody to complain to). In Apia there are many Internet cafes (more Internet cafes than restaurants), but the cost is still prohibitive (ST8). At the airport the only store to offer Internet charges ST1 per minute.
Hotel in Mulifanua between market and town: Valentine ST60
Buses to Apia depart from Mulifanua's market: ST3, 1.5 hour
Buses from Apia to the Faleolo international airport: ST3, 1 hour
There is an annoying airport tax of ST40 that you have to pay after check-in.

Lautoka, Fiji
Tuesday, May 1, 2012, 11:24 PM
Back in Fiji for 3 days. Transportation is very cheap but hard to plan anything.
I found the travel agencies of Nandi and Suva to be absolutely useless: they only know how to book you stays at resorts. They know very little about flights, ferries, buses, guesthouses, and so forth. One can find out a lot more on the Internet, and, in fact, that's what they do when you ask them about flights or ferries to any destination. The visitor information offices in Nandi and Suva are only marginally better. Their employees are not really trained to help someone plan a trip. They are trained to make you spend big money (even for extremely cheap things like buses, which cost US$1 for long distances, and Internet, which costs US$0.60 for one hour in any Internet cafe). Everything that i failed to see was due to crucial missing information (buses that only run in the morning, roads that have been washed away by recent floods, etc). They also don't seem to grasp the concept that one might want to enjoy nature instead of lying on a beach: their thinking always goes to taxis and resorts, not to biking and hiking.

Internet is extremely cheap in Fiji: F$1 in most places
Nandi-Lautoka 30' F$1
Lautoka-Ba express 1h F$2
Ba-Navala is possible by cheap bus (1.5 hours) but one needs to take the early morning bus because the last bus back is at 2pm (the only afternoon bus to go there is at 5pm but it does not return the same night).
Lautoka to Abaca (pronounced Abada) to Koroyanitu Park is only possible by 4WD carrier (they charge about F$70 roundtrip)
Lautoka Hotel F$35 +
Traveling by ferry to the islands (even the very near Mamanucas is very expensive (F$120 for the nearest of the Mamanucas)

Port Vila, Vanuatu
Sunday, May 6, 2012, 05:04 PM
Vanuatu is the 142nd country that i have visited in my life. Discovered in 1606 by Spanish sailors, and eventually named New Hebrides, they became independent only in 1980 after a period of joint colonial rule by France and Britain. The British influence is hardly visible (people speak English because most tourists are Australians) whereas the French influence is palpable: i am finally back to a world where i can buy cheese and baguette and make my own sandwich, and i can even find orange juice in a liter carton (no plastic where you open it). There is even a casino. It is the only independent country around here that drives to the right (like in continental Europe and the USA) and where football/soccer is the main sport. The population is "mela" (black) like in New Guinea. Just like in Tonga most of the stores are run by Chinese families. Just like in the other islands, everything closes before sunset (i.e. around 5pm). I appreciated that, unlike Fiji (where the tourist information office claims that there are no guesthouses at all until you show them the receipt of the place where you stayed the night before), the official guidebook lists all the cheap guesthouses and backpacker hostels, the cheapest of the cheapest (Malampa guesthouse) being 1700 VT (US$20) for the smallest single room. Also, unlike at Fiji's international airport (where the tourist information office simply sends you to travel agencies for anything you ask) the tourist information office at Port Vila's international airport loaded me with all sorts of free booklets and maps. However, Vanuatu is designed for rich Australian and European tourists: everything that has an "entrance fee" is outrageously expensive. The Mele-Maat Waterfalls cost 200VT=US$22, i.e. more than Yosemite National Park in California, which is 12,000 times bigger and has waterfalls that are 29 times taller. Buses that cost less than US$1 in Fiji cost easily three times more in Vanuatu (and they are not even buses, just minivans). Nature-wise, Vanuatu looks way more interesting than Fiji: lush vegetation and much more varied coastline. The island where Port Vila is, Efate, is the most touristy. Tanna is the main "adventure" destination but also seems mostly controlled by resorts ("adventure" as in "adventure for people who don't like adventure"). To the north are Malekula, a maze of dialects and tribes (some famous for cannibalism until a few decades ago), and Espiritu Santo, where the hiking trails seem to be really "off the beaten track". Transportation is very casual. There are no bus stops and no specific routes. You stand by the road and flag down the first minivan with a plate number that begins with B (they don't have signs on the windshield) and tell the driver where you want to go. If it's the right direction, they will take you there (door to door service). If it's the wrong direction, they will tell you where to catch the right minivan. The price too is very casual: ask before you board.

Malampa Guesthouse: 2000 VT ($22) for a family room with shared bath and no fan
City Lodhge: 3900 VT ($44)
Soda can: $1
Only Eco Tours rents bicycles and the price is colossal: $30/day.
Internet is expensive: VT10 per minute ($6.50 for one hour)
Bus from airport to town: just walk a few meters on the road and flag down any minivan going to town ($2).

Honiara, SOlomon Islands
Tuesday, May 8, 2012, 12:06 AM
The Solomon Islands are the 143rd country that i have visited in my life. This is a much bigger country than the previous islands of this trip and the culture is very "mela" (black) and similar to a relaxed version of Papua. The capital Honiara (which would be considered a sleepy provincial town in most regions of the world) is just a long stretch of unassuming buildings along the coast. It has no beginning, no end and no center. There are precious few hotels, and even fewer restaurants (virtually impossible to eat a meal at a restaurant if you are vegetarian and don't want to spend a fortune in one of the fancier places). Like in many other islands it is the Chinese who own most of the stores and restaurants outside the market. The melanesians are very friendly and, judging from the number of religious buildings, very religious. However, i am told not to walk alone at night, which means that the bad influence of Papua extends here. Not only are people friendly but they don't seem greedy either: they gladly recommend someone else if their price is too high for you. Honiara's island is Guadalcanal, mostly famous for a World War II battle. Malaita is the easiest island to visit from Honiara (daily ferry in both directions). It has the Langa Langa lagoon, not far from its capital Auki.
All guesthouses were full so i'm staying in a church with the nuns!

$1=7 Solomon dollars
Walk outside the airport about 300 meters to a little market and take buses going left (S$3).
Soda can: $1.20
Internet: $1.50/hour
The cheapest guesthouses in town are in the same block up the hill a short walk from the market: Chester Resthouse (the most famous), the Union Church resthouse (S$300=$43) and another one further down the same road. The Union Resthouse (run by nuns) is the best value. There is also a Fair Trade Resthouse right by the market but it seems to be always full for foreign tourists. Bulaya, recommended by the Lonely Planet, is far from town and expensive for what it offers.
Air Pacific flies here but mysteriously does not fly out of here, so the only choice to go back to Fiji is Solomon Airlines which is expensive.

Auki, Solomon Islands
Wednesday, May 9, 2012, 06:39 PM
Best day of this trip. Auki is the main city in the big island of Malaita and the staging point for exploring the lagoons inhabited by tribes that build artificial islands. Auki is only about 4 thousand people: 10 blocks, a few general stores, the little market by the wharf, 3 guesthouses and scattered residences. The bus takes less than one hour to Talakali on a poorly paved jungle road that goes through a few tiny villages. The bus ride is an attraction in itself. There is always something fascinating about the end of a road. Best are the ones that end at the sea. Even better are the ones that end in a lagoon, because the canals of the lagoon almost invariably become an extension of the road as people keep building homes on the tiny islands. Talakali is the slightly bigger village where you can ask for a canoe (and two rowers/guides) to visit the artificial islands. The normal rate is S$100 for 2-3 hours ($15). Life is still very traditional in these islands (each island being a family). The people of Talakali are somewhat used to foreigners coming to see the lagoon, but the people of the islands rarely utter a word, and even the children don't respond to your "hi". A tourist is still a rarity here, and they don't really like to be considered tourist attractions (yet): these are just their homes. Shell money is still used to settle arguments, weddings, etc. The most impressive thing of the whole trip is that there is hardly a mosquito in these swampy islands. On the bus (a minivan) i met a nice girl, Ruth Maeara, who offered to come with me around the lagoon. There really was no need for an interpreter, and she doesn't speak the local dialect anyway, but she was born in Papua New Guinea (which i had visited exactly one year ago) and, because she works as a social worker in Aiku, she has valuable insight into their lives. She is also the only person so far not to be shocked that i am still single. There is no public Internet in Auki and probably nowhere in the island of Malaita, and she has no email address, but she is on Facebook. Even in the most remote islands of the Pacific Ocean... We found an incredible number of large shells. I couldn't take the real big ones (briefcase-size) because they wouldn't fit in my luggage!

The economy of the Solomon Islands is obviously in shambles. Even tourism (the one industry that is usually fairly developed in the Pacific islands) is primitive. There is hardly a factory anywhere. Transportation is by old fishing boats or minivans. A big truck is a rarity. Most people live on fishing and agriculture. The country knows globalization only because of the Chinese shops that sell all sorts of household goods made in Asia. That said, the health situation is much better than i expected. I was hardly ever bitten by a mosquito. I don't know what they did, but it worked: there weren't mosquitoes even in the swamps of the lagoons. The danger of malaria is wildly exaggerated if you only stay in the main coastal areas. Unfortunately, they have the same vice of the Papuans: betelnut. Just about everybody chews and spits betelnut all the time. It takes a while to get used to those red teeth and to the red stains everywhere in the street. The dearth of tourists is a mixed blessing. Wherever you go, you will be greeted by the question "Where you from?" After the 100th time, you feel like snapping but for them meeting a foreigner is a day's momentous event. Very few ask that question because they want to sell you something (as is customary in most of the world). The majority is simply curious.

Boat to Malaita island: S$410 round trip ($60) daily (Honiara at 8am, returning at 2pm from Auki, 3 hours each way).
Akui Lodge (3 blocks from wharf) S$150 ($20) for dormitory but i was the only one in the room.
There is no restaurant. You order dinner at the hotel and they go buy the ingredients required to cook it.
Bus from Akui to Talakali: S$10 ($1.50) 1 hour.
Boat and rowers to visit the artificial islands: S$100

Nandi, Fiji
Friday, May 11, 2012, 05:15 PM
Last day of my trip. Tomorrow i fly back to California via Auckland. With the exception of the very last few days in the Solomon Islands, this trip took me to Pacific islands that mainly cater to couples (hence the most frequently asked question "where is your wife"). I have to say that it reinforced my feelings against traveling with a significant other: not only is your freedom greatly reduced (you have to negotiate every single move) but you cannot mingle with the natives the way i usually do. I get more in one hour of a local bus ride than these couples will get from an entire week of "cultural activities" organized by the local travel agency, no matter how much they spend in "local guides" (who mainly specialize in taking them to souvenir shops). The Solomon Islands rank very high in my list of countries to re-visit. An incredible amount of the country is unspoiled and relatively unexplored, pretty much like New Guinea, but traveling around the Solomon Islands feels a lot safer than traveling around New Guinea. There is generally respect for the foreigner, vendors are not aggressive, and very few people try to take advantage of tourists. I still have to see Western Australia, and now i'm toying with the new of a trip from Western Australia to Papua to Solomon Islands, maybe adding some of the states of southern Oceania that i did not see this time (Nauru, Kiribati, Tuvalu). Northern Oceania (Micronesia) is more easier visited from Hawaii or Philippines. But let's first see if i survive the return trip to the USA. In recent years, no matter how adventurous the trip was, the worst thing always happened when i landed back in the West (eg when i came back unscathed from the Congo but then freaked out in New York's Harlem, or when i arrived in Paris from West Africa only to be stranded in the middle of a national strike). Not to mention the obnoxious stone-age customs & immigration officials of the USA that, still blissfully unaware of the existence of Google, Facebook, Flickr, etc, ask you such creative questions as "Where did you go?" and "For how long were you gone?"
Pictures of Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Solomon

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