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Cruising the Lau Group plus other useful Fiji info.

By Sue Richards last modified Oct 18, 2011 09:07 AM

Published: 2011-10-18 09:07:33
Countries: Fiji

Our thanks to Adrian Faulkner of Sail Yacht MANDALA for this interesting and useful report. Adrian is happy to help others with info. Contact him at mandala@inspire.net.nz.

The following has been written with the assumption that the reader understands (or has been warned about) Fijian orthography. Fijian words, other than place names, are written in italics: both need to be read as Fijian words.

Commodore Voreqe Bainmarama was the leader of a military coup that ended an elected government in 2006. He has appointed himself Prime Minister. I choose to call him PM/dictator, which is factual but not judgemental.

Contents of Report:
DOCUMENTS FOR CRUISING
NEED TO KNOW - SEVUSEVU and QOLIQOLI – Fijian customs
LAU GROUP – special conditions
LAU GROUP – cruising
GENERAL ADVICE
WEATHER
ISLANDS WITH GOOD ANCHORAGES – My favourites
- VANUA BALAVU
- LAKEBA
- FULAGA (aka VULAGA)
- TOTOYA
- MATUKU

DOCUMENTS FOR CRUISING

Fiji has been built on British civil service, with a large dose of Indian development. The two threads have inevitably created a formidable bureaucracy. While officials are honest and polite, meeting the demands of the state takes time and lots of paper. Go with the flow as you cannot avoid it!

Having cleared in (foreign) at one of the five official ports – Suva, Lautoka, Levuka, Savusavu or Rotuma – outwards clearance is required before leaving that port for any Fijian cruising waters. This is granted by Customs in a process similar to gaining foreign clearance. Each official port is associated with a region of adjacent coasts and islands, and clearance from that port is required before visiting those islands and coasts.

The Customs regions are:
Suva: adjacent coasts, Beqa and Kadavu
Levuka: adjacent waters, islands and the Lomaiviti Group
Savusavu: coasts of Vanua Levu, and adjacent islands including Taveuni and adjacent islands
Lautoka: the Mamanuca Group, and Yasawas.
Lau Group: the Lau is not associated with a particular official port, but a specific permit is required for clearance to the Lau (see below).
Rotuma: newly-declared as a Customs port, this remote island has only one or two anchorages. Clearance will only be needed for going foreign again, or for heading to Fiji.

In principle one is required to clear into the official port before visiting the region, and clear back in again after visiting them; and then clear out again so as to move to another port where the process is repeated for that port’s region. Some flexibility seems acceptable when passing through an area e.g. when sailing from Savusavu to Suva one passes through the islands under Levuka’s control, and stopping for a night or two without doing the clearance at Levuka should be acceptable. In general, though, a sailor will be happy to spend a week or two in each region, so the clearance issue is not too onerous. The paper-work is taken very seriously, into computers, and without any charges.

Each yacht’s clearance is given a “rotation number”: mine is LY 11/415. This number is essential for the clearance of any packages imported duty-free, and probably for other official issues.

A CRUISING PERMIT is required by Customs before any cruising clearance can be granted. This permit is issued on request at the iTAUKEI AFFAIRS BOARD (Indigenous Affairs Board - TAB) office at 87 Queen Elizabeth Drive – Government Buildings, Suva, or at the the Commissioner Western's office in Lautoka, the Commissioner Eastern's office in Levuka, or the Provincial Office in Savusavu.

Following a directive from the TAB dated 12 August 2011 permits are issued free of charge for all areas of Fiji, including Lau Group: previously permits for the Lau were only issued by the Lau Provincial Council, and at substantial cost. A specific permit, now only issued by the TAB, and also free of charge, is required for the Lau Group, while another permit covers all other islands. Permits are issued promptly, often "while you wait". The permit is a one-page letter, entirely in Fijian, and valid for a period up to six months. An English version of the permit was "not available" when requested. Unless you can read Fijian you will not know what the permit says, or when the permit expires, so it is important to clarify this: clearance will not be given once it has expired (this happened to me).

NEED TO KNOW - SEVUSEVU and QOLIQOLI – Fijian customs

In the major tourist areas traditional customs are less important than visitors, but in more remote areas, understanding and following Fiji’s customs is strongly advised. A visitor who ignores these customs will feel less welcome, and your hosts will be offended. Indeed they will sometimes express this with anger, and they will be less willing to help should you need their help.

Sevusevu is the process that must be followed when first visiting a village. It simply involves asking for the "turaga ni koro", the village headman, and taking him a gift of yaqona (often also called waka, kava or grog). Your gift will be accepted, and you will be given the freedom of the village. In the Lau you may also be asked for an "anchorage fee" (see below). If staying for a few days the sevusevu is a nice introduction to the village, and will always lead on to valuable contacts. If just passing by, anchoring for a night or two, it can be a nuisance. If taking a long walk, through several villages, the obligation is not clear.

A supply of yaqona is needed before leaving port: it is not easily available when cruising. In major cities there is a section of the market that sells yaqona in bundles at about F$15 – 20, which is considered suitable. The powdered product is not favoured for sevusevu. The challenge is deciding how many bundles to buy (how to decide how many villages you will visit). Having a stock of rice, sugar and corned beef will allow an alternative gift for when the yaqona has run out.

Qoliqoli refers to the customary ownership of wet-lands, beaches, waters, reefs and fisheries that is vested in an adjacent village, and which is the subject of a controversial law, THE QOLIQOLI BILL 2006. For the sailor it means that all anchorages and reefs belong to a village nearby, and permission must be sought for any use of them. While this goes against the western assumption that the sea floor is in "the commons", to ignore this in Fiji will lead to offence and ultimately to conflict.

The qoliqoli rights extended to surf-breaks. A recent decree from the PM/dictator has removed this right, making ownership of surf-breaks illegal. This decree does not apply to anchorages, so permission must be still sought from the qoliqoli owners.

LAU GROUP – special conditions

The recent directive from the TAB advises those who want to visit the Lau Group that the qoliqoli owners will be charging for anchoring. In the more remote areas permission to anchor must always be sought from the Turaga ni Koro (village head), and presumably this charge will be requested after giving the sevusevu gift. The TAB advises that the Qoliqoli owners in the Lau will be charging F$10/day for the "Anchorage Fee" for yachts (and up to $3500/day for cruise liners). No such charge is ever made in any other area of Fiji, and it is not explained why Lau should be different.

On MANDALA’s recent 6-week cruise throughout Lau, no charge was made for our permit (issued just after PM/dictator Bainimarama had visited Lau, and insisted that tourism be encouraged for the sake of the economy). Only once were we asked for an anchorage fee, in the village of Daliconi on Vanua Balavu. Daliconi is the village that "owns" the Bay of Islands, a popular and beautiful area for yachts. After sevusevu, we were presented with a demand for F$150 + $25/person for anchorage fee (with no time period attached) for the Bay of Islands. We politely declined to pay, made a donation to the school, and left a 4-page paper detailing a plan for tourism developments that would help the village with revenue – and why charging for anchoring would not help them. Our approach seemed to be well-accepted.

In the rest of the Lau there was never any charge mentioned, but this visit was before the TAB directive mentioned above. How it will be handled by village leaders at other islands is not at all clear, but almost certainly it will sometimes arise. Cruisers need to be prepared to be asked for an anchorage fee, and to be clear how they will handle this. I suggest they point out that this demand will keep visitors away, and will be harmful to the reputation of the Lau – and to decline to pay.

LAU GROUP – Cruising

GENERAL ADVICE
There are scores of islands in Lau, but many lack good anchorages. MANDALA visited five islands with good anchorages in 2011, and some pointers about them may be useful. There are NO cruising guides for Lau (other than Calder’s, and he does not go beyond Vanua Balavu), but I found the BRITISH ADMIRALTY PACIFIC ISLANDS PILOT VOL II (The Central Groups) very useful. I had sailed to most of these islands in a previous yacht, in 1976, and found them still just as wonderful, and unchanged.

The island life is very simple, and the people are very poor in material terms. Most villages have a store, but there is little for sale. Fresh fruit and vegetables are hard to find, and villagers are not used to the idea of selling these things that are normally shared with friends and family. Premix petrol (and sometime diesel) is often available in bigger villages. Most villages have a telephone at the post office, but internet is rarely available. Vanua Balavu and Lakeba have the only airports in Lau, and both have once-weekly flights. Cargo ships, with passengers, visit some islands roughly monthly (in theory), but this is as unreliable as the ships are old. Some islands we visited had not had a ship for two months. This means that their already meagre supplies are running out. Do not rely on buying any of your needs.

Often the best-stocked shop is associated with the Post Office: Post Shop sells everything from very-old eggs to groceries and school books! The Post Shops are always well-run and well-organised (apart from 3-month old "use-by" dates on the eggs, still for sale in one in VB!).

WEATHER
The region is dominated by the SE trade winds which are usually from Force 3 - and mostly 5. Quite frequently these bring occasional showers. When fronts pass through heavy showers and rain are more frequent, making navigation in lagoons difficult. We had one period of frequent rain and Force 6 SE, E and NE winds, and this made cruising in the lagoons of Vanua Balavu too dangerous.

ISLANDS WITH GOOD ANCHORAGES – My Favourites

VANUA BALAVU
Largest island group in Lau, has 5 wide passes into a lagoon 15 miles by 15 miles. With many islands inside the lagoon, and many excellent anchorages (including several hurricane anchorages), there are many cruising options here, and one could be happy for a month or more. There is superb diving on the reefs, but no facilities for divers. The Bay of Islands, an area of raised coral and jungle in the NW is well worth a visit, but the unrealistic financial demands of the "qoliqoli owners", at Daliconi Village, rather spoils the feeling of welcome.

Population of VB is about 3000, in about 10 villages. The main village, Lomaloma, on the east coast, offers almost nothing beyond history, a post office and bread shop, and some very basic stores. The airport has once-weekly flights to Nausori, near Suva. Occasional ships bring stores and people, perhaps monthly. There is a high school, one rather basic guest house near Lomaloma, and a health clinic.

LAKEBA
This roughly circular volcanic island, about 6 miles across, is the political centre of Lau, and the main village of Tubou is near the only well-protected anchorage. The channel through the reef off Tubou is very narrow (23 m wide), is only roughly marked and very challenging. Leading about half a mile inside the reef, the channel leads to a long jetty, and past this to a narrow anchoring basin about 6m deep on sand. Without swinging room I needed to use three anchors to hold the yacht centred. With care there could be room for two yachts. The anchorage is calm, but difficult. I recommend taking a dinghy ride in before entering with the yacht. There is a large lagoon east of the island, with a pass into it, but it does not look attractive.

Population is about 2000, in 7 villages spread around the shore, with a road running right around. The island has an airport with weekly flights, and very basic shops and a clinic. There is a basic guest-house, and no other facilities for visitors or tourists.

FULAGA (VULAGA)
This island consists of an oval rim of jungle-covered hills of raised coral, around a lagoon about 6 miles by 5 miles. There is one 50m-wide pass into the lagoon, straight but challenging - and dangerous in bad weather or strong tides. Inside the lagoon are countless mushroom islets, and some larger islands, countless anchorages over white sand, usually <10m deep. At least one anchorage could be considered hurricane shelter. I consider this island to be Fiji’s most beautiful!

Population is about 400 in three villages, one village ((Naivindamu) on the W shore inside the lagoon and the other two outside, on the southern edge, with tracks leading from the lagoon to them. The head-village, Monacake, has the school and clinic, and is on the outer edge. No airport, and very infrequent ships make this a very isolated world, rarely visited by yachts.

TOTOYA
The island is about 5 miles wide, being the rim of a volcano with the crater open to the south, and a barrier reef around most coasts. The crater is accessible through a clear pass on the west side, and by a passage inside the reef. Anchorage in the crater is far from ideal, and very deep (20m+). We anchored on the N coast, open but calm in S winds, but did not go into the crater.

MATUKU
This is a beautiful, verdant, high volcanic island, with its crater open to the west through a wide, clear pass. There is an excellent, sheltered anchorage, 10 – 15m over mud, inside the crater off the village of Lomati. Other deeper, less sheltered anchorages are in the channel inside the pass, to the north of the main channel (17m over sand), or south of the main channel, amongst coral (6m over sand). There are more marginal anchorages inside some narrow passes on other coasts.

Seven villages are spread around the coasts, with total population about 800. No airport, only occasional shipping and yachts (mostly surf and dive charters). Currently, a road is being built around the island, but the only vehicles to use it are horses. The main village is Yaroi, on the NW coast, with a clinic and school. Anchorage is possible off another delightful village, Makadru, south of the pass.

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