Attempting a castaway's existence
Once upon an island Fafa away, Jeanie Davison attempted a castaway's existence. But she found getting back to nature tougher than you’d think.
It's the middle of the night. I huddle in the pitch dark under a cavernous mosquito net, and the jungle outside is just waking up. I hear intermittent thuds as athletic geckos land on the floor around my bed, fresh from their forays catching mosquitoes on the ceiling. Something bigger (a wild boar, perhaps?) is snuffling around my fale (bungalow), grunting urgently as it rummages in the undergrowth. Most disconcerting is the sound of violent flapping in the treetops, as though a huge bird has got itself trapped in the dense foliage.
Lying awake amid this swelling nocturnal noise, I tell myself it's all part of the desert island experience. I've come here to "get back to nature", and communing with the wildlife in the dead of night is part of the deal.
Ironically, Fafa Island is billed as "the perfect retreat for those seeking peace and tranquillity". At this moment, deprived of sleep by a chorus of its native creatures, I'm not sure the promise is entirely accurate.
Certainly the location feels remote. From Nuku'alofa, the Kingdom of Tonga's capital, catching a wooden motor launch across open ocean is the only way to reach this 8.64-hectare atoll. During the 30-minute voyage, my first glimpses of Fafa's empty beaches and turquoise waters confirm it as a true South Sea hideaway.
As we pitch and roll across the choppy sea, Solomon the boatman tells me the desolate island's only resort offers "primitive luxury". Its 13 fales are constructed in traditional Polynesian style, complete with open-air bathrooms and solar-heated water, and surrounded by woven coconut leaf walls. It's a unique accommodation experience, creating a sense of being close to nature but with a few of life's little luxuries thrown in.
It's the perfect setting for a taste of remote island living. But I find getting back to nature a little trying at first.
I've been on Fafa only a few hours when I have a brush with a wispy blue jellyfish out on the coral reef, resulting in a less-than-fetching welt on my thigh. Thankfully, a well-placed sarong hides the injury from the island's other guests.
Later, back at my fale after a hard day on the beach, I flip open my suitcase to discover the mother of all geckos crawling through my belongings. Startled, it scrambles wildly up my bare arm before making a spectacular leap for the window. Moments later, its accomplice pops its snout out from under my travel hairdryer, eyes me frantically for a second, then makes a bolt for the open door. My heart is pumping violently. Man, those lizards can move.
Reassuringly, other guests are having similar experiences. Julia, a German woman on honeymoon with husband Karl, tells me she's discovered that the "birds" on the island are actually flying foxes. Rambling through some dense vegetation, she had a close encounter with one of the giant fruit bats, which somehow became entangled in her long, flowing hair. The offending locks are now firmly scraped back into a neat chignon.
Wildlife aside, Fafa has a wonderful feeling of remoteness, and the outside world is refreshingly absent. My cellphone lost its signal just a few minutes across the water from Nuku'alofa.
On the island, there's no television or email; just a phone at the resort's reception for anyone who feels compelled to break the illusion of being on a desert island. That's certainly not going to be me . I've come here to shun the modern world. I even left my Blackberry at home; that's how serious I am about this.
The authentic island experience goes way beyond the location itself. The resort staff, a friendly mix of Tongans and Fijians, are keen for visitors to immerse themselves in the simple pleasures of South Pacific life.
One evening after dinner, Vili the bar master beckons me to a beach where he and his colleagues are chilling out with kava and local Ikale beer. As they sing traditional songs and we chat into the small hours, I realise I've slipped seamlessly into Tonga time.
Nonetheless, after a few days on Fafa, I have a strange feeling of "cabin fever" creeping in. The island is not much bigger than a rugby field. It takes me less than 20 minutes to meander around its deserted coastline.
I'm getting restless, so Solomon agrees to take me by boat to Malinoa, an uninhabited island nearby. Smaller than Fafa and no less beautiful, it provides an even more acute incarnation of the "Robinson Crusoe" life. Abandoned by Solomon on its desolate shores, I'm hoping we've hit it off well enough that he'll remember to come back for me.
Temporarily marooned, I appear to have two choices: indulge in some serious sun-worshipping on the beach, or go snorkelling on Malinoa's pristine coral reef. I smile to myself as I realise the simplicity of my life at this moment. It feels sublime. As I explore the reef, I'm struck again by the sense of remoteness.
There's no sight or sound of human life, and in every direction, the Pacific Ocean stretches away endlessly. Is it possible this is the very same ocean that laps the shores of New Zealand?
My tolerance of exotic wildlife is tested once again when I find myself swimming alongside two black and white sea snakes. Miles from any medical facility, I'm already playing out in my head the possible consequences of a double snake attack, until I realise they haven't even noticed me and are swimming gently away in the opposite direction.
After my day on Malinoa, returning to Fafa feels like coming home. Solomon greets me with a huge Tongan smile and some delicious coconut juice.
Guiding the little wooden boat back towards Fafa, he regales me with tales of his own day. He and some local fishermen have spent the afternoon at sea catching tonight's dinner: lobster, mahi mahi, snapper and mussels. I'm salivating as he describes how the fish will be cooked. pan-fried in olive oil with lemon juice, coconut and spices. I swear I can smell it wafting across the waves as we approach. At the end of five blissful days, I must head back to the "big smoke" of the Tongatapu mainland. As the launch bobs to a halt at Nuku'alofa's main wharf, I can see container ships and huge fishing trawlers. Just beyond, there's a sign pointing towards an internet cafe, and a little coffee shop offering lattes and long blacks. I'm back in civilisation again.
Hauling my suitcase on to the boardwalk, Solomon bids me farewell with his customary warm smile. I have a sudden pang of sadness. During my short time on Fafa, life has consisted of simple pleasures and time seems to have stood still. Now I have to go back to my real life and be complicated again.
Solomon, of course, is blissfully unaware of my angst. He gives me one last enthusiastic wave and heads back out to sea in his little wooden boat, setting off in search of fresh snapper for tonight's dinner.
* For more information, visit: fafaislandresort.com
The Dominion Post