Welcome to Fiji, the disaster chapter. A.K.A: That time that we became stranded by a cyclone. I’ve alluded to it a few times but it needed a space of its own. Mostly for dramatic effect. Kidding! It’s just a really long story. Are you ready?
To give you some context, Mike and I booked two weeks in Fiji to mark the end of our 6-month jaunt around the world. We paid for Fiji long before we jetted off, as we wanted to indulge in some real luxury before heading home.
We booked through STA Travel as it was such a big trip and we thought that booking via an agent would be comforting/useful, in case anything went wrong. Interestingly, STA was amazing in sorting out the first 5.5 months for us, but when we were referred to their ‘Fiji expert’ things took a turn for the worse. Clearly, we have a very different understanding of the word expert… but there we go. Multiple mix-ups later, we settled upon x5 different resorts in Fiji, for 2-3 nights each. At no point during this process were we warned about cyclone season. Not once.
A few months went by as we embarked upon our great adventure. Naturally, we started looking forward to Fiji, though the end of the trip was inevitably bittersweet. We were due to stay at a stunning looking resort called Viwa, however, upon arrival in Kaiteriteri (New Zealand) we learned that Viwa had been completely devastated by Cyclone Winston and sadly we wouldn’t be able to visit*. Of course, STA didn’t inform us of this, we actually had to let them know after hearing the news from fellow travellers. News reports mentioned that Winston was uncharacteristic for that time of year and they didn’t anticipate another great cyclone at that time. This was 2-3 weeks before we were due to head there ourselves.
*It is my understanding that Viwa Island Resort is up and running again as normal.
Arriving in Fiji
Finally, the day arrived and we headed off on our trip to Fiji. Goodbye hostel lifestyle and hello luxury! The Fijian sun shone gloriously for two blissful weeks as we spent time at Blue Lagoon, Nanuya, Paradise Cove and lastly, Octopus Resort.
Fiji is one of those naturally beautiful places that hasn’t undergone much gentrification of modification, phones and internet are not commonplace in the same way that many of us are accustomed to. In fact, out of the resorts we stayed in, only Blue Lagoon and Paradise Cove had free Wi-Fi for guests, which only really worked in your room. Fine by me as we didn’t need to use it much in these beautiful resorts. Nanuya and Octopus, on the other hand, charge astronomical prices for internet by the hour, so we didn’t use it at all. Ande we certainly didn’t use it to check the weather when we were continually waking up to glorious sunshine.
The morning of our departure arrived and we were pretty excited to be heading back to London after half a year away. So, when we woke up to torrential rain, it seemed rather fitting. Pathetic fallacy and all that. We’re leaving anyway, right? We headed to check-out of Octopus Resort and shelter at the cocktail bar where we played cards for hours on end. The ferry only stops by once a day, so there is time to kill but not really anywhere to kill it, as far as the resort is concerned, we are old news.
The time came for the ferry to arrive but we are told it’s delayed due to the storm. An hour later, we’re told the same thing. 4 hours later, we’re informed that there is a cyclone is about to hit and the ferry is no longer accepting passengers today. Our flight back to the U.K. is set for early morning so we panic, but no other information can be provided at this time. It’s hardly a compassionate response but I suppose there isn’t much anyone can do about it. If only they’d told us about the cyclone hours ago when they first found out…
Initial Panic Mode
Eventually, we are sent back to our original room, where we start to really panic. Mike’s phone with the cheap roaming costs had packed itself in and we can’t get onto the Wi-Fi even after paying for it, as it’s so patchy due to the storm. The only choice we have is to accept the costs my UK mobile will incur and call our travel agent to try and change our existing flights at a minimal cost.
Given that it’s a Sunday in the UK, it’s hard work getting through to someone. Our local branch is closed so we call the emergency helpline and are transferred to someone not-so-helpful. After explaining our situation she has the audacity to tell me that she’s got customers in-store and doesn’t have time to deal with my request. Yep. Can anyone tell me why you would go through an agent when they’re a). Impolite and b). Can’t help you because they openly tell you that you’re not a priority given their daily sales targets. No? Didn’t think so.
We are eventually transferred to another lady (20 minutes on hold, a small fortune thanks to Vodafone). The problem is that we don’t know when the cyclone will pass/when we are able to leave the island. The new lady informs me that it doesn’t really matter as the next flight with availability is a week later… Plus there is a 2-day stopover in Hong Kong. Our original flights had a two-hour stopover to catch the connecting flight so, by this time, I’m crying. All tears aside, there is literally no other option. We begrudgingly accept the flight and fortunately, it’s only £80 for the both of us to change; Thank goodness we opted for the flexible flight option. What wasn’t so fortunate? The £350 phone bill and an extra week without any accommodation booked in…
The Next Morning
Naturally, we don’t sleep that well. We have no idea how we were going to pay for the extra night in our pricey room. Mainly, we don’t know when we can leave, if only to get back to the mainland.
The cyclone picked up overnight, so much so, we can hear and feel the wind through our wooden shutters. Our ‘outdoor’ shower has become impossible to use. We open our front door and stop in our tracks. Typically, the azure ocean gracefully laps the shore just a few steps from us, but not anymore. The water has receded so far that the once glorious, colourful coral reef has become completely exposed, and everything is grey. We know that there is no way the ferry will come today. We also know we can’t afford to stay in the most expensive room category any longer. So, I guess it’s time to speak to the General Manager, Caesar, about changing rooms.
I’ll spare you the details but let’s just say he wasn’t feeling particularly hospitable. After a few sharp words which could have very easily been avoided (and absolutely should have been given the circumstances), we are able to move. Our new room is a glorified garden shed. That’s literally the only way I can describe it. It is damp and depressing. What’s more depressing? We are back to using communal bathrooms… And the Dutch family of four we are sharing these bathrooms with have all contracted conjunctivitis.
A Few More Days
The next few days are totally and utterly dull. There is nothing to do at a beachside resort when you can’t access the beach. All of our books are finished, we have played cards 100 times too many and have made friends with a few of the others stranded with us. There is actually one other couple that we really get on with, but you know, you can’t spend every waking moment together.
One evening – they all blur together – we stay in the restaurant area chatting with our new friends. The wind is so strong and sand starts flying around us. We notice some of the staff members grab huge torches and start pacing along the shore. At first, they won’t tell us why. We later learn that they are checking for swells in the water as tsunami warnings have been issued. We are told ‘at least our island has a hill’. Comforting.
For the first time, Caesar actually gives us some insight into what is happening. He shows us that there are two cyclones and if they collide, a tsunami will ensue. From the map that he shows us, it seems chances are slim for the storms not to meet.
The following morning the water seems to have receded even further. By lunchtime, Mike turns to me and tells me to put our passports, credit cards and my mobile phone into the plastic ziplock bag I usually use for airport security. Now, I’m really worried, as he’s typically the relaxed one. Looking back on this day, I clearly remember having to go for a walk along the beach alone, taking deep breaths as I felt like a panic attack was coming. Not that I often have these, it was all just very overwhelming.
Finally, Good News
The next day we hear that one family and one solo traveller are trying to charter a helicopter as the cyclone has subsided, at least for a couple of hours. We decide that we want to do the same, bank balances be damned. Unfortunately for us, these helicopters are in high demand and it’s either us or the family with young children, so naturally we can’t put ourselves forward.
We then hear that the mainland is going to try to send the ferry. The window of time is very slim, so they aren’t sure how many islands they will get to before winds pick up again. We have to be ready.
No boats can get close enough because the coral reef is still exposed, so, we have to walk. To the other side of the island. Caesar leads the way and we have to climb the ‘hill’ we’d been told about previously. Anyone who seriously thought that hill would save us is deluded. But, I digress. It was so muddy that the majority take off their shoes for the walk. Any trainers would have been drenched and sandals were too slippery. So there I am, barefoot atop a bloody hill… With a load of wild pigs. I vividly recall thinking that one day we will laugh about this ludicrous story. I’m still not sure that day has arrived.
Eventually, we make it to the other side and into the tin boat that would take us to the ferry. The water is still so rough that it’s hardly a pleasant ride, but we are so eager to leave that it doesn’t really matter.
If you think this is where things improve, you’d be wrong.
We board the ferry and it’s jam-packed. Everyone looks as miserable as we feel, but at least they have chairs. We find a tiny space on the floor and just have to wait. People are getting sea-sick everywhere due to the rough seas. It’s pretty horrendous.
A couple of hours in, a lady who worked at the port comes out and sets up a little ‘desk’ area. She is trying to book people into last-minute accommodation on the mainland. I’m feeling hopeful. Foolishly.
The only hotels she can suggest are way out of our price range. Given that our price range is zero, I don’t know what I was really hoping for. When she sees me break down into tears (again) she gives me a ‘special offer’. This includes paying the equivalent of £200-£250 a night to stay in the backroom of some local guy’s house that she knows. Not a hotel, not even a homestay. Just some random person looking to make some extra cash.
Naturally, I decline and go back to my floor space where I tell Mike about our options. We are pretty shocked at how many opportunists we have encountered so far, given that Fiji is renowned for having lovely hospitable people.
We decide to just risk it and try to find a hotel near the port. This actually works in our favour. Most people are headed straight for the airport or to hotels near the airport, but as we still have half a week to kill we don’t see much point in travelling further. Plus, it’s already dark.
Things Are Looking Up
We find The Palms a short walk from Port Denarau and luckily they have availability. Though a little more than we intended to pay, we don’t care any longer. This cyclone has really beaten us. Before committing to anything, we call home as there is finally signal and WiFi back on the mainland. Our parents are relieved to hear from us and kindly loan us credit card details for the room so that we can worry about paying for it later.
Our new room is perfect. Spacious and clean with no sand in sight. At last! We even have a double bed each. The next few days are still dull but at least we are safe. We watch some really bizarre films as there were only a couple of English TV channels on our Fijian TV and in the evenings we eat at the lovely Rhum-Ba Restaurant.
The staff at the Rhum-Ba are incredible and we get to know them pretty well as this restaurant is one of the few that remained open when the cyclone hit! The rest have boarded up their windows or run out of food because no produce could make it in or out. But who cares, we’re finally back on track. Phew!