Arcade Field Trip - To the Places Less Traveled - Ricky Lesser
Nearly every surfer has heard of the wave called Tavarua, in Fiji. Between the immense media coverage and various surf contests, the island has garnered epic international surf status, but hours away lay the equally captivating Frigates and the Fiji Pipes. These lesser-known Fijian waves are located off the beaten path, but as we were to find out, the efforts to find them would be well worth the rewards.
Dane Zaun, Bruna Schmitz, Tyler Haft and myself landed at the Nadi international airport. Hell-bent on exploring a different side of the Fijian coast we head for a point on the map that is not riddled with surfers, overpriced drinks and heavy tourism.
Fiji has a distinctively raw quality. I suppose it is like any third world island you find. The cities are hectic with street side commerce. Patrons are selling local ag, bananas, coconuts, papayas and streetside goods mixed with tourism vibes. But then there is an instant feeling in the air when you get into the countryside and it is one of benevolence. The way the people treat each other reflects that to a tee. By far, Fiji has some of the most welcoming souls I've encountered.
A four-hour ride southeast from the airport leads us to our initial destination, the “Navutulevu” village. Getting out of the truck, we are welcomed by a very kind man with the classic Fijian smile and generous hospitality. In Fiji, it is customary that travelers staying within the vicinity of the small local villages meet face to face with the village chief and state one’s intentions. And of cours, share some Kava. In our case it was a lot of Kava...
The drink is made from the sacred Kava plant root and is linked to Fiji’s ancestral past. The kava itself is thought to have medicinal qualities helping the body and mind slip into a relaxed euphoric state. Sitting in a circle for many hours talking with the Chief and his son, we told them of our intentions to experience the lesser known areas of the region. He was enthralled and eager to help in whatever way he could. We shared stories and copious amounts of kava till the day was no more.
Awaking from the sedative haze of our kava celebration we slowly begin to relocate our focus. Channeling the fire that drove us here in the first place... the ocean.
The waters of Fiji can equate quite well to a good woman; warm, inviting, nurturing but at times unpredictable and emotional. The lesson here is that if you do the work and put the time into loving and understanding her, she will treat you with rewards beyond all reason. I guess that is why I love the sea so much.
The southern coasts of Fiji are protected by outer reefs which luckily for surfers, tend to have keyholes and channels every few miles up and down the coast. Not everyone is a gem but a handful of these reef passes absolutely shine with the right wind and direction of swell.
The Frigates and the Fiji Pipes specifically stood out with brilliance. The paramount location was a caldera 40 minutes off the coast by boat. It was a fairly grueling open water crossing with every board, pelican and fishing rod strapped down. Plowing through the ocean, we made our way to the Caldera.
Once we motored into the lee of the Caldera you could see marching lines up and down the reef. The angle of the underwater volcano does something amazing, the bathymetry however unique pulls almost 170 degrees of swell. On one side a straight closeout every time, on the other, a well-shaped wall talking perfectly with the reef, hundreds of yards down the line.
Cameras in hand we swam into the break. The water clarity and the energy of the ocean seemed unreal. While we were filming Dane and Bruna the waves would pass over our heads, we could watch ourselves and every fish 8-15 feet below, push into the reef by about 20-30 feet and then we would be pulled back out with the same urgency as the next wave in the set approached. Dane and Bruna were on cloud nine. Large faces with big drops led to long big beautiful drawn outlines captured by our water housings.
Exhausted after 5 hours in the surf and watching Dane and Bruna go absolutely ham, Tyler and I swam back to the moored boat. It is a mellow swim and we had full smiles ear to ear. Looking down, the sea floor drops away to 350 feet. We could see the random silhouettes of the reef sharks far below.
After a whole morning of pumping reef passes, we make our wet journey in towards the near shore reefs. The small break was blown out so we called it for lunch.
Spending the majority of the afternoon eating the fish we caught the day previous and drinking coconuts the locals grabbed for us, it was just about time for a few “Fiji bitters”. That is right before Dane started to freak out. unlike the rest of us he had been preoccupied with his binoculars watching the wind ever since we returned to land. “The Wind switched!!!” he was yelling as he ran off to wake up the boat driver who was napping on a hammock out back.
We were back on the boat as fast as we could get our cameras packed and boards loaded.
Pulling up to the small near shore break, there was a feeling of an eerie tension. The winds were dead offshore but it was flat. Nothing. No one said a word for a true 10 minutes. If you were there you could taste the anticipation. I believe the only thing that held the silence was the looks we got from our boat driver. He simply gestured back with a casual nod of calming confidence, as to say “hold tight, just you wait.”
Without fail a perfect 8-foot wave came in and peeled across the reef then spat its guts out just far enough for us to get a bit of spray on our faces. I think Bruna and Dane lasted 90 seconds before they were in the lineup. Trading barrels for the next few hours. They burned daylight in this slice of Fijian paradise.