Rotuma, Fiji

An Isolated Polynesian Outpost in Fiji

After ten days and around 1500 nm (navigational instrument failure makes it impossible to be more precise), we reached Rotuma, a pleasant island, verdant, lush and hilly, surrounded by coral reefs, that is a part of Fiji although hundreds of miles to the north of most of Fiji and with a Polynesian population (mainland Fiji is Melanesian and Indian).  The passage was typical for this time of year – just at the conclusion of cyclone season  with weather ranging from harsh to mild with a few excellent sailing days.  Because the route was essentially due north the entire way and winds usually blow from east or west, we never had wind on the nose and mostly enjoyed fine reaches with wind on the beam, the most desirable point of sail.

Several occasions saw winds in the forties, many more times we were in the thirties, while the majority of the passage was evenly split between the twenties and the teens, with only rare periods with winds under ten knots.  The highest wind I noticed was 47 knots.

Backbeat, our musically-named catamaran, performed well for the sort of boat she is, an everyday cruiser that plays adagio compared to my last boat, a fast cruiser, that played allegro.  Backbeat is more comfortable and more enjoyable to sail than my previous boat, however, and because her price was considerably less (although it is unfair to compare the price of this eleven-year-old to that of a brand new boat, like my last one), all in all I much prefer her.  I am in no great hurry to get anywhere, for one thing, as I truly enjoy passagemaking, especially when we have three aboard which allows for a very leisurely watch routine of four hours on and eight hours off.  Moreover, the faster one goes in any sea but a flat one the less pleasant it is anyway, and Backbeat’s cockpit is an infinitely more pleasant place than that of my last boat, so we spend as much time there as possible, outside the cabin quite near the water.  We saw pods of dolphins, leaping pelagic fish chasing flying fish, gliding seabirds, and many outstanding sunsets and sunrises, but we also saw lightning and black thunderheads and breaking seas up to about three meters, and at night we occasionally glimpsed falling stars in the much different Southern Hemisphere heavens, and we caught several mahi-mahi and a kingfish while trolling from the safe and comfy confines of the cockpit, which also provided us a lovely dining venue on several occasions.  It was a pleasant passage overall largely because of the comforts that Backbeat offers and the leisurely pace we set for ourselves.

Because of our checkered history we started the voyage very conservatively, sailing with more reefs (that is, less sail) than necessary and each of us harnessed to a jackline whenever we left the cockpit to go forward on deck, even in light winds.  Glen, my Kiwi crewman, was the most adamant about this, and I played along since I well understand his inspiration.  John, an Englishman/Texan, also thought we were overdoing it with the harnesses, but was often seasick and grateful for us at least slowing down.  One morning, after one of the first days when we had suffered through high winds and lumpy seas, Glen told me he had dreamed that night of being in a boat that was capsizing and was shocked suddenly awake, the first time in a long time that memories of our Infamous Flip had agitated him like that. 

One brand new experience for us on this passage was to see the ocean covered in stone – well, not exactly covered, but we saw hundreds of elongated patches perhaps thirty square meters and smaller of fist-sized clumps of an unusual grayish substance, definitely not seaweed, floating on the ocean.  Glen was able to gather some and the stuff turned out to be pumice, evidently from volcanos in Indonesia, according to a geologist friend I queried by email, and there were a dozen or so small shellfish attached, flat and whitish.  Glen said that some Kiwi friends of his were sailing to Tonga last year and went through an immense patch of pumice, so thick that it ground off the sheen of the paint around the boat’s waterline.  This is an entirely unpublicized hazard in sailing the oceans:  one has to beware of floating stone!

The greatest frustration I experienced on Backbeat was trying to send and receive email via our satellite phone.  It was exasperating to the point of pulling my hair and screaming profanities.  Every morning I would sit at the nav station and watch the computer session-log show my system attempting to dial the remote server, connect with it, have my phone ID authenticated, then log in, and finally send and receive, and without fail every dad-gum day have glitches occur somewhere among those various steps and an assortment of error messages appear.  Then I would have to turn off the email program and the satphone, then turn them back on – reboot  and try again and ultimately, for no apparent reason, the stars would align and the system miraculously would work.  The fewest times I ever had to reboot was three and the most over a dozen, I think, although I lost count on the latter, with the average probably five to seven.

Were I inclined to write pop songs I would write one called “Reboot Rap” based on the repetitive refrain:

   Turn the muddafucka OFF, turn the muddafucka ON

   Turn the muddafucka OFF, turn the muddafucka ON

   Turn the muddafucka OFF, turn the muddafucka ON . . . .

Excuse the coarse language, but that is the harsh reality of the grim life I lead in our pitiless computer-satphone ghetto.  I hesitate to admit it but I shout those very words every day.  You will understand if I don’t, or can’t, readily reply to every message, as I limit myself to no more than one hour a day battling for email.

The other great frustration was the weather on Rotuma:  squally winds, surging seas and suspended sand throughout the reef, and rain – sometimes blinding and deafening  every day.  Rain forced us to keep the boat closed up too often and in the warm temps it was uncomfortably stuffy.

Rotuma is a fascinating place, but is not for everyone.  For one thing there is absolutely no tourist infrastructure here:  there are no lodgings, no restaurants or cafes, no rent cars or bikes, no scuba operator, the shops sell only basics like Fijian cookies and New Zealand corned beef, no handicrafts, and there is not even VHF radio for marine communications or any lighted buoys or nav markers  nothing.  And yet Rotuma has a population of 2000.  The Customs officer who checked us in told us we are the second yacht to visit Rotuma in two years!   He and the Health Officer were late in arriving to process us on arrival, by the way, because they came in the ‘ambulance’ (a 4WD SUV) and had to round up a mechanic – it was Sunday morning  to get it started.  Chief occupations on Rotuma are processing copra (dried coconut), subsistence farming (taro root, cassava/tapioca, papaya, mangos, chickens and pigs) and subsistence fishing.  The plum jobs are, naturally, working for the government.  At our anchorage, the main one for the island, not only were there no other boats, but there was not even a single light visible at night.  There is no electrical grid on Rotuma, and people who want electricity must provide it themselves with a generator or alternative source, such as a solar array, something the Japanese international aid agency recently provided to hundreds of homes here.

We had a tough day and a half before we made landfall here with winds constantly in the thirties gusting over forty, with mean seas combined from several directions that caused an uncomfortable motion, waves pounding the hulls, pots and pans and bottles and jars rattling, producing too much movement to cook a meal, downpours off and on, and just as we were entering the channel to the not-very-large harbour a squall hit with winds of forty-plus knots, so we turned and went back out to sea to wait for calmer conditions.  Once we anchored, though, we were much taken with the natural beauty of the place, blemished only by the few tatty buildings on the pier where the once-a-month supply ship docks.  The island is surprisingly elevated, something I did not notice at first when looking at the Google Earth image.  From the sea Rotuma looks almost mountainous, or at the least much like New Zealand.  I swam over to a small beach and went ashore the first day and found the interior almost impenetrable with jagged mounds of black lava and overabundant vegetation, palms and vines mostly, the ground covered in old coconuts and rotting trunks and leaves and palm fronds, deep coarse sand everywhere there wasn’t lava.  They also have, we later discovered, large old trees that grow nuts that, crushed, provide a natural fly repellent that we can vouch for, as well as an elixir to combat diabetes, high blood pressure, baldness, impotence, irregularity, and in-grown toenails, we were informed.  Mormons swear by it, someone said.

The coral reefs that surround the island are not in good condition, although better than in some places I’ve been.  There were no showy corals at all, such as sea fans or antlers or anything branching, and the healthiest corals were brain-like and rather drab in color, although the generally overcast skies contributed to the gloomy aspect.  There are many canyons and caves among the reefs and there is adequate sea life (as opposed to, say, Tahiti) so snorkelling here is interesting enough, although I have been starved for these warm tropical waters and am hesitant to criticize.  Visibility was not great but that is undoubtedly due to the constant heavy weather and breakers stirring up sand.  Were the reefs in good shape this would be a world-class scuba destination because of their vastness and the elaborate underwater passages.  We saw incredible sealife:  turtles, sharks, rays, all the normal colorful reef fishes from large to microscopic, and the largest fish I think I have ever seen, the odd-looking Napoleon Wrasse in a group of three.  And there is a fascinating colony of blackhead noddies, a gregarious seabird in the tern family, that displays the unique hunting technique of picking up leaves and other small vegetable matter off the ocean surface and then dropping them back down to try to draw the attention of small fish  using vegetation as bait.  

A local told us that some disease is slowly creeping over the reefs, killing them, and evidently is worse on the south side – we were in the harbour on the northeast corner where the reef has suffered less, but still it was very evident to us, a whitish-gray chalky substance covering extensive areas of the vast reefs nearby.  Since there is no industry on the island and no major pollution, it is unclear what is causing the die-off except for warmer waters or acidification of the ocean.  This same local said that about thirty years ago fishermen regularly used a grated poisonous vegetable that they would sprinkle in the reef to stun and kill the fish so they could be easily harvested, and perhaps this die-off or disease is a long-term result of that, although that seems unlikely considering the cleansing power of the ocean as it washes over the reefs.  Another local with whom we went spearfishing claimed that, on a smaller scale, locals even today attack some corals with crowbars to harvest a seaweed that grows under them.  There was also a great deal of physical destruction from storms.

The only locals we saw fishing were using bamboo poles along the beaches for foot-long mullet, but we were told (yet never saw) that fishermen go to sea and fish for tuna and mahi-mahi and snapper.  Sharks, while evident, have never bitten anyone here we were informed, although they will steal catch when spearfishing.  We encountered blacktip reef sharks just about every time we went spearfishing, and that was twice almost every day.  There was so little delectable reef fish that it was only on my fifth day that I first fired my speargun, so perhaps it is more accurately stated that we went snorkelling twice a day and carried spearguns to ward away sharks. 

The locals were all eager to be helpful, a common trait among the generally gracious island peoples we have met throughout the Pacific, and provided us with coconuts, bananas (the smaller, more delicate and softer, but too-sweet-for-my-taste Ladyfinger variety), papayas, lamb curry, hot buns/rolls, and jungle juice (a homebrew concoction made from fermented papaya juice) all without expectation of payment.  Most island peoples pride themselves on being generous, and that was certainly the case here.  The lamb curry someone later suggested might well have been dog-meat curry, something common among many Polynesian groups and well-known here among the local Catholics.  (In my recollection the woman who gave us the curry did appear to wear rosary beads.)  We were told that dog-meat can often be discerned by the unpleasant aroma and by a pronounced aftertaste.  Although I mostly smelled curry – not your run-of-the-mill curry from the Taj Mahal Restaurant, admittedly  when first consuming the dish, there was an off-odor about it and, moreover, there was considerable and hearty belching afterwards that was unusually pungent and stomach-churning in its off-flavor, which unfortunately I still can taste just recalling it.  Bur-ur-urp!  Woof-woof!

I just hope it wasn’t a Labrador.

The local Polynesian language is unique to Rotuma, a mixture of Samoan and Tongan mostly, but just about everyone speaks some English, as the signage makes evident.  When we went to the crippled (by motorbike accident) bootlegger’s for the jungle juice, for example, he had a precious, giggly four-year-old girl who was eager to practice her ten words of English and listen to me speak.  But his mother-in-law – older than I am – didn’t seem to speak a word of English.

To travel around the island, one has to hitchhike and it is common to pay a bit to help cover fuel costs.  We paid a fellow to give us a tour around the entire island one day, and found it beautiful and lush with lovely small bays but poor with many abandoned homes, the island now populated mostly by old people and children, the wage-earning generations largely working in various foreign countries.  That is, of course, one reason so few have boats here – they are either too young or too old to go fishing out in the open ocean.  Remittances comprise 75% of income, we heard, and income in this sharing, clan-based, subsistence economy is abysmally low by world standards as a result.  Homes are mostly cinder block with galvanized metal roofs, but most have a separate outbuilding for cooking, often burning wood, and many of these are thatched.  There were a few traditional open-sided buildings with people sitting and lying on the floor, as well as open-air platforms under trees that seemed to be a sort of hard hammock where people napped.  Quite near our anchorage was a large structure where people wait on the beach for the monthly supply ship, and where at least one women’s group gathers for lunch on occasion, which is a traditional high-pitched open-sided and thatched building made out of local materials with a sand floor.

People share produce and tools within their clan and to others to whom they are indebted socially or otherwise.  The clan, or extended family, on small Polynesian islands like Rotuma is more important than the nuclear family largely due to the need for sharing.  I can’t claim to understand but the basics, and perhaps I err in some particulars even there, but the gist of it is that the nuclear family is not stressed as much as in European societies and the broader throng of kinfolk receives emphasis instead, creating many more linkages between people than we are accustomed to and a less binding one between natural mother and father and their children.  Even the words used to describe clan members are more inclusive than in our nuclear-family model, so that everyone in the grandparents’ generation is called grandparent, everyone in the parents’ generation is called parent, even though the person is what we would consider an uncle or aunt, while everyone in my own generation would be a brother or sister, although the person is really a cousin, and people in our children’s generation are all referred to as son or daughter even though most are nephews and nieces.  Such word usage downplays the nuclear family and emphasizes the extended family, largely because to survive one must share among many.  

Clans could expand to include everyone on the island and the way they prevent that from happening – you will never guess this, it is so counterintuitive for a westerner – is through, of all things, marriage!  One may not marry family, so if distant cousins decide to marry, they simply quit considering themselves kin and the clan connection is broken there, affecting not only the marriage pair but dozens of others and their relationships.  Marriage actually causes clans to divide.  Joe, for example, is fourth cousin of Jane, and their parents and siblings on both sides all consider each other cousins.  But if Joe and Jane marry, the parents and siblings no longer consider themselves cousins to the people on the other side of the marriage.  Clan and marriage do not go together. 

Besides blood kin there are also specially adopted family members, sort of like ‘blood brothers’, who pledge themselves to be kin, and every child usually has a volunteer ‘mother’, like a godmother but one who actually helps with feeding and cleaning infants a couple of times every day, who then is considered kin and subject to sharing produce, etc.  If someone needs assistance here, there are many clan members who pitch in so that the burden is shared among a broad number of households.  The little girl practicing her English I spoke of, for example, was being raised by her father’s brother, the bootlegger, and his wife and the wife’s mother because they were stay-at-homes due to the bootlegger’s disability and had no other children living with them. 

Land ownership is clan-based but matrilineal (that is, when a fellow marries he goes off to live on his wife’s clan-land), I think, and the island is governed by a council made up of chiefs and elected representatives (all male) from the seven districts, the ‘chiefs’ being non-hereditary and selected by their clans with the clans rotating the honor of providing the chief for the district every few years.  Annually, we were told, Fiji provides $200,000 in Fiji dollars – about half value of US currency – plus special projects, and for those who don’t have jobs, they squeeze by on about Fiji$500 a year, we were told.  Most live on money and goods sent by relatives overseas.

There is one flight here on the unsealed landing strip each week, weather and aircraft maintenance permitting, and one ship carrying passengers (a 48-hour trip from Fiji) each month.  I heard that there is a homestay accommodation that can be arranged here, if you are interested.  But be certain to bring a flashlight and absolutely everything else you might need if you decide to come.  And while you may well be tempted to sample the jungle juice, which has a pleasant wine-like effect, I suggest you avoid the ‘lamb’ curry.

(May 2013)

                      Glen with large mahi-mahi (dorado) enroute to Rotuma

                                                 Anchorage at Rotuma

                                            Main settlement at Rotuma

                                        Main Catholic cemetary at Rotuma

                                            Sunset at Rotuma anchorage

© R. Kelly Wright 2014