Sunday, May 10, 2015

1MB Travels: Fiji: Adventure Flashpacking Day 4: Shark Diving, Arts Village, Kumaran Chetty's

"Do one thing that scares you, every day." - Eleanor Roosevelt

I didn't grow up dreaming of swimming with sharks.

I ended up doing it metaphorically, involuntarily, most of my professional career - and on this trip to Fiji, literally, semi-voluntarily.

Truthfully, my original intention with Fiji was to dive the world famous Rainbow Reef. Fiji is the soft coral capital of the world, and scuba diving there is definitely a bucket list adventure.  I'd dreamed of a utopic underwater world, fish of all sizes and creatures of all forms flitting around, technicolor coral formations in all directions - marine life at 500% vibrancy.

But Fiji also features probably the best shark diving in the world - a once in a lifetime experience on par with, and possibly overshadowing the Rainbow Reef.  With the safety rule of not diving 24 hours before flying, we could only choose one.  As I was traveling with daredevil @gourmetpigs, and *because* the thought of diving with sharks (and as extremely inexperienced divers, at that - we'd only completed the minimum dives required to get PADI certified) terrified me - we decided to go for the shark dive.  When else in our lives were we going to do this?  And, if we were going to take the risk: might as well do it at the best place possible.

After some research, we decided on Beqa Adventure Divers - run by marine biologists who were conservationists first and foremost, running tours to educate, inform and raise funds to keep protecting sharks and their beautiful habitats. While they were perfectly friendly to guests/customers, what we loved was that they did not seem to be tourist pleasers, who would never encourage any goofy, risky behavior, nor tolerate silly selfie-takers. 

Four dive masters accompanied our group of five amateurs, led by a guide who asked to be addressed as 'Papa'.  Papa was charismatic and very entertaining on the boat ride to our dive site - but make no mistake, he had been running this tour for 18 years, loves the sharks like his own children - he knows almost all of the regulars by name - and never had any incidents.  He laid out the rules we were to follow, not only to keep us safe from the sharks, but the sharks safe from us (after all, if anything were to happen, the damage from a fear driven public would cause irreparable harm to the entire shark population).  

Our destination that early morning was to Shark Reef Marine Reserve, an aquatic park with coral walls built for the study of the resident shark population.  We would travel as a group to each wall, amateurs to lie prone, heads down - while divemasters used tuna heads and other feed above us to attract the sharks.  The first stop was at a ledge 30 meters / 100 feet down, in "The Arena", where we spend just under 20 amazing minutes with 30 to 40 bull sharks swirling around us.

Then we move up to "The Shallows", at 16 meters / 55 feet - where smaller sharks from blacktips, whitetips, grey to lemon dart back and forth along the wall, sometimes at just arm's length from us. 

The thrill of the first dive was incredible: there is the expected adrenaline rush, but at the same time, an amazing stillness from being in the presence of the majestic creatures, designed by nature as the most efficient killers, but really simply following the basic instinct to survive - just like all other living beings.  We didn't see the blood-lust driven monsters from Jaws movies that everyone who thought we were insane were afraid that we would come across (ok we didn't encounter that exact species, great whites, either, but you get the point).  They're not swimming around looking for humans to tear limb from limb - most shark attacks happen because sharks can't see very well, and sometimes mistake humans for fish.

If you're wondering what was protecting us from sharks who can't distinguish us from lunch - it was basically our divemasters, holding blunt metal rods (shaped like those triangle-handled screwdrivers you get with IKEA furniture sometimes) that they use to gently nudge curious sharks away whenever they get a little too close. 

When we surfaced, we were very pleasantly surprised to hear that there was a second round!  This time, the divemasters HAND FED a line of bull sharks, right in front of us!  The sharks seemed to know the drill though, and were very comfortable with all the feeders and having us bunch of tourists around watching while they grabbed lunch from the divemasters, in protective metal mesh suits.

All in all, an incredible bucket list experience - one that we will always look back on proudly to have done!!!

After an adventure-filled morning, we headed back to the resort for a little R&R.

Since we arrived fairly late night the first night, it was great to get a chance to see and appreciate the resort property with its traditionally-styled bures (even at the oceanfront bar).
We ordered our requisite island drinks ('tropical juice' - a blend I think of watermelon, pineapple, and ? - seemed to popular here too)
And after all the excitement, we realized we were starving - and inhaled this lovely kokoda (traditional Fijian ceviche made with mahi mahi and coconut cream) presented in a coconut shell bowl, the best version of it we'd had in Fiji so far - with super fresh fish that was just the right supple texture and infused with flavor.

We also had mahi mahi prepared another way: as fish and chips, also tasty with a fresh fried golden crispy exterior and juicy, flaky fish beneath. 

The only bit of trouble we had in paradise was with mosquitos - they were everywhere, and made quick lunch of us wherever we went.  Time to break out my secondary supply of mosquito repellent - I was trying to stay 'natural' as much as possible, and had brought "Florida Water" from Hong Kong's "Two Girls" brand.  It smelled great, and was supposed to repel bugs.  But like all the other repellent I brought, this didn't work very well.  In Fiji, if mosquitos are a problem for you (I'm allergic and bites swell up sometimes to knuckle size), I would advise on giving in to tropical-strength / max strength DEET repellent. They smell like death and are bad for the environment and for the person inhaling the fumes - but they will work to keep those bloodsuckers from making a meal of you.

Photo credit:
We'd heard that Arts Village was a great place to visit, and that it was 'just across the street' from Uprising Resort, and decided to walk off our lunch there.  

Found out this was a bad idea for 3 reasons:

  • Across the street turns out to be 15 minutes
  • In the Fijian heat, every minute feels like half an hour
  • During wet season, downpours can happen at any minute without warning

We totally got scorched in the heat of the first part of the walk, then drenched in the rain running for cover (which was still a distance away).

Photo credit:
Oh yeah, and there was a fourth reason: while we had planned fairly meticulously the rest of the itinerary to ensure we maximized every minute of the bucket list trip, I had somehow missed looking up showtimes for the the Arts Village fire walking and meke dance.  Maybe in the back of my mind I thought it was something that would occur a few times throughout the day, or perhaps once in the evening (allowing us plenty of time to get there after our shark dive).  

Apparently there was only 1 show time, at 2:30 - and we had missed it.  

Also, 'Fiji time' meant that all the little shops close by 3:30pm / 4pm. While to be honest we were not impressed by the number and quality of shops we did manage to see, we also don't know what it might have been like if we had arrived early enough for most stores (and possibly table vendors) to be open.  I had been looking forward to getting some unique souvenirs, especially handcrafted items like the Fijian weave bracelets / bags - but the shops we saw mostly carried standard issue postcards, magnets, generic shell jewelry and bath products.  There was also a small market, where we were hoping to find local snacks and other food treasures - but that one also catered to tourists and carried mainly processed items from Australia.

So learn from our mistakes and if you go: 
1) Take a taxi
2) Plan even your visit to the local arts village to give yourself time to fully enjoy it.

Venturing on to check out local fare at Kumaran Chetty's down the street, we had a lovely meal of lamb curry 

...and Mahi Mahi curry.  A little more expensive than we had expected, at $35 Fiji total (~$17 USD) including drinks, but we were glad to have been able to check out a local spot.

All in all, an amazing Day 4!

(You can see my recaps for Day 1 here , Day 2 here and Day 3 here)



Uprising Beach Resort
Queens Rd, Pacific Harbour, Fiji

Beqa Adventure Divers
Lagoon Resort, Pacific Harbour, Fiji
Ph: +679 345 0911

Arts Village
Pacific Harbour, Fiji
Ph: +679 345 0065
Wednesday, Thursday, Friday & Saturday
10:45am – 11:45pm – Boat Tour
12pm – 1pm – Temple Tour
1:15pm – 2:15pm – Lovo Lunch
2:30pm – 3:30pm – Fire walking & Meke Show

Kumaran Chetty's
Lot 9 Pacific Highway, Pacific Harbour, (Opposite Pacific Timber), 3450096 Navua, Central, Fiji
Ph: +679 9962062

Day 4 costs breakdown:
  • Car service from hotel to Beqa Adventure Divers and back: $0 (FREE, provided with dive - just have hotel call to arrange in advance).  Tip optional (we tipped $8 Fiji total roundtrip)
  • Shark dive:  $375 Fiji per person (~$187 USD pp) PADI certification required, Open Water Diver at minimum
  • Lunch at Uprising Resort: $27.50 Fiji per person (~$13.75 USD)
  • Dinner at Kumaran Chetty's: $17 Fiji per person (~$9 USD pp tip included) 
  • Taxis: $10 Fiji (~$5 USD)
  • Uprising Beach Resort 2nd night (@gourmetpigs caught a promo code that knocked $100 off this night's booking.  And free upgrade to beachfront bure continued!): $31 USD total tax included) prepaid via Orbitz
  • Total: ~$229.75 USD per person

(See my recaps for Day 1 here , Day 2 here , Day 3 here, and Day 5 here)

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