Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Kiwi Chronicles - Chapter 1, Part 2: Beachcomber Island

This is part of an ongoing series of the semester I spent abroad in New Zealand entitled "The Kiwi Chronicles". Part 1 of Fiji can be found here, and you can start the series here.

At one point in our week in Fiji, Emma and I decided that it was time to go do our own thing. We had our room booked for the last night at the hostel near the airport, so we would rendezvous there before heading out to New Zealand. It was good idea: she was into anthropology, I was into getting into trouble. So, after our gameplan for getting out of the country was set, we said goodbye and embarked on our adventures for the rest of the week.

We had made friends with a Canadian couple when we were on our Fijian spa day, and back at the hostel I was drinking a couple beers with them and this Aussie guy we met along the way. Halfway into a box of Fiji Bitter, we got chatting about our plans for the week. The Aussie guy was flying out the next day, but the Canadian couple were going to this beach resort called the "Beachcomber". Apparently, it was known as the 'party island of the Pacific', so naturally I was intrigued.

I checked the rates for the dormitory... $79FJD a night, with all meals inclusive. Pop that into the conversion calculator and I'm breaking the bank at $38 a night. I had to take George out of my wallet and kiss him in thanks for being a strong currency (my how things have changed). I dropped $114 for the 3 nights without a second thought and hopped on a boat heading out into the Pacific.

Our high-speed catamaran cruised on crystal blue waters, with the main island getting smaller and smaller behind us. The boat was packed with tourists from all around the world looking for some rest and relaxation.

We passed half a dozen islands that were smaller than city blocks, each with white sand and some huts to stay in. As we passed them, the workers would come out and wave at the passing boat. Sometimes you can hear shouts of 'Bula' (welcome) coming from the island, just barely audible from the waves crashing on the boat. Occasionally, we would stop to let people off at certain islands, which were often accessible by rowboat only. I was on the top deck laughing as people tried to get their multiple pieces of luggage on a boat that could barely hold 3 or 4 people. My New Zealand luggage was safely locked up at the hostel on the main island, so I had a small backpack with a pair of swim trunks and my GL2. That's what started my love affair with backpacks and the art of light travel.

After sipping some drinks on the top deck, we finally made it to the Beachcomber.
Yeah, this is a promotional pic, but my camera couldn't do this island justice.
First reaction was "Holy crap, this place is gorgeous!". Second reaction was "Holy crap, this place is gorgeous and I'm paying $38 a night!". Even this aerial promotional pic couldn't do this island justice. The water was crystal blue, and the island looked incredibly fake. How could a place like this just pop out of the ocean like that?

As it turns out, we were sitting on a giant coral reef, and I didn't know it until we hopped on our taxi boat that took us to the island. The boat was bigger than the rowboat we saw earlier, and the entire bottom of the boat was glass. As we got out of the deep water, the reef became visible. It was like we were looking down at the aquarium from 'Finding Nemo': fish and creatures galore, all basking in the most vivid colors I've ever seen. Thank goodness I had snorkeling would be a crime if I didn't get some serious snorkeling done while I was here.

The next three days were so incredible (and alcohol-driven) that the order of events that occurred after setting foot on the island are still questionable in my mind. For the sake of coherence, I'll breakdown the highlights of the island and my stay there, in no particular order.

The Dormitory
The dorm that I was staying at was in the heart of the island, where the foliage blocked all view of the ocean that was just yards away. It was incredibly simple: a couple dozen bunkbeds underneath a giant straw roof, propped up by logs. Everything was open, allowing the ocean breeze to come in at night and calm you to sleep. Small birds would chirp in the morning, but nothing too obnoxious. Seeing it, it reminded me of an upgraded version of camping, but to this day I never had a better night's sleep than I did there.

The Beach
Why did I leave again?
On an average day, the Beachcomber had about 100 or so people staying on the island. Add the 100 or so day visitors from the catamarans, and you have one cramped sand bar in the middle of the Pacific. You would think that the beaches would be as crowded as a small water park, but like all islands, this one had it's secrets. One side of the beach housed the bar and recreation center, and naturally that's where most people spend their time. But, if you walk 50 yards through the brush to the other side, you have a white sand beach all to yourself. Sure, the occasional couple will come walking by, but for the most part you can use the beach to your leisure. I finished a book on that beach....listening to the waves crashing on the sand and the faint sound of an ocean breeze. If I had to choose a time where I thought life couldn't possibly get any better, it would have been on that isolated beach on the far side of the Beachcomber.

The Reef
If you look at the picture of the island above, you'll notice the patches of green stuff surrounding the place. That's a coral reef, the kind of stuff you see replicated in aquariums. One of my pastimes on the Beachcomber consisted of taking my snorkel gear and walking the 30-60 feet to the reef and go exploring. The reef started at waist-level, so you didn't need any help getting out there. We had a preview on the boat ride in, but being in the mix of it all is a different experience entirely.

The colors are absolutely spectacular. Reds and blues and greens bombard your senses as hundreds of different species of plants and coral swayed with the motion of the ocean. Fish and other creatures swam around, almost completely oblivious to your presence. At one point a Dory-fish (Dory from "Finding Nemo. I don't know her species) scurried between my fingers as I inspected some kind of sponge thing. All the creatures welcomed you to their habitat, and it was only natural to feel a deep respect for the environment around you. You didn't go stomping around in the floated above it, as a silent observer. Being one with nature is something that hippies brag about, but they can go suck it. Snorkeling in Fiji trumps their tree-hugging conventions every day of the week, and I didn't have to smell like a stale pizza box to fit in.

As you went deeper into the reef, the ocean became more and more mysterious. You would swim about 6 feet above the reef for a hundred yards or so, often getting as close as 2 feet as waves would come and go. Then, out of the darkness, came the drop off.

Reefs suddenly stop in the middle of the ocean, creating these sea cliffs that drop to the sea floor 30 feet below. You could just barely make out the bottom, and the light dissolving in the water below you was eerie and wonderful. As it turns out, this is also where the reef sharks live....a crapload of reef sharks. So what's my first instinct? Let's go diving with the sharks.

I would take a deep breath and dive 15 feet around the overhang of the reef as 10 or so sharks circled in my vicinity. They would hover in the darkness below me or pop out of the reef above. The green glow of the ocean and the rays of sun beaming down set the mood. Cue the Jaws music John Williams...I was surrounded.

I'm a man's man, so I was ready to fight whichever little punk wanted to try some Hawaiian cuisine this afternoon. My logic was, if they all attacked me at once, I could punch each of them in the nose and assert my dominance. I would be King of the Reef, and they would respect and love me. One bite wouldn't be too much to concede to the little bastards. Scars are cool, especially when it's from a shark.  I was also an idiot who had a couple beers at the bar and decided it was a good idea to go diving with the sharks.

I would later find out that reef sharks are quite harmless...even friendly. The people I went diving with, however, didn't have the heart to tell me. Apparently, a skinny kid swimming with his fists ready to fight with a bunch of harmless sharks was incredibly entertaining. They bought me beers later that night, so it was a fair trade.

The Bar
So majestic...
A party island without a bar is like forgetting the condiments at a tailgate party: unforgivable in the eyes of God. The Fijians are smarter than the kid across the hall rushing a Fraternity our freshman year, and so they provided us with a wonderful establishment of alcohol.

Much like the other bars in the country, beer was readily available at 5am. And, like the other bars, it was cheap. Really cheap. So cheap that, for some people, their vacations were dedicated to drinking the beer from the minute they woke up to the minute the bar was the case for the Aussies.

While I was there, I met this group of Aussie guys who were the life of the island...mostly because they never left their booth. Ever. Most of the guys were on holiday, and to treat themselves they bought tickets to Fiji, where they spent 5 nights sitting in a booth at the Beachcomber drinking as much as humanly possible. They would wake up at the crack of dawn, often from an epic hangover, and combat their dehydration with pitchers of beer. On one of the days I woke up late, and was stumbling to breakfast at 9am. By that time, between the 7 or 8 of them, they had killed a good 15 pitchers of beer.

Throughout my day I would spend an hour or two with them, talking about life and school and whatever subject the alcohol was fueling at the time. Then, after finishing the pitcher that they bought for me, I would go snorkel or swimming. I would come back a couple of times during the day. Rinse and repeat 3x's and you have my vacation on the Beachcomber.

The bar showed it's true colors at night, when all the families left on their catamarans and the sole inhabitants were the bar staff and 100 or so people under the age of 30. To chronicle those nights would be irresponsible, but here's some of the highlights of the 3 nights I was there:

  • Boat races. It's like flip cup...except with 50-person teams and all you had to do was drink.
  • Norwegian raves. A group of Norwegians convinced the DJ to play techno for 3 solid hours. Everyone danced.
  • Groups of people dancing on tables, much like Merry and Pippen from 'Lord of the Rings'
  • Forest parties. We would buy pitchers and take them into the trees and drink under the stars.
  • Beach Rugby. One of the Aussies brought a Rugby ball, and had some pick up games around 10 at night.
  • "The Run". A tradition of the Beachcomber. After things got wild and crazy, the entire bar would strip to their underwear or birthday suits and make a sprint to the ocean, only to continue the party in the waves.
  • Aborigine dance-offs. One of the Aussies took pride in being Aborigine, and would challenge people to dance-offs in a tribal dance of his. Imagine breakdancing meets the 'robot.' It was infectious, and huge chunks of the night were dedicated to dancing tournaments.
Needless to say, the bar is where stories were made and where the Beachcomber is made famous.

My last night before going back to the hostel and leaving the country for New Zealand I was lying on the beach, beer in hand, talking to two Aussie girls I met a couple days prior. Even though we were mere yards away from the bar, it was quiet and very dark. The night sky was littered with stars...more stars than I had ever seen before. The Milky Way disappeared beyond the blue horizon, reflecting it's starry trail on ocean below.

We were talking about growing up, and all the trials and tribulations you go through along the way. They were 22 or 23, so they had some years on me. But, for the most part, we saw eye to eye on how to live the most ideal life possible. Staying stagnant, building a life in one place, finding a stable career and settling down with someone wasn't for us. It didn't make sense. These were (and still are) the selfish years of your life, where you create the stories that you tell people for years to come. All three of us had friends starting to settle down and felt the pressure that came from them, telling us how our lives should be. I look back at those friends, the ones who never took a risk or made any effort to embark on adventures, and I feel bad for them. I love to tell them stories of my newest conquest, but I would much rather have them experience it with me. 

I'm glad I learned that at 19, because now that I'm out of school and trying to make a name for myself, I have the tenacity and the spirit to go out and see the world. It was on that beach in the middle of the South Pacific that I formed my philosophy to live as adventurously as possible. Call it selfish, but when I'm 40 years old I want an arsenal of stories over a stable 401k...

The next day Emma and I said goodbye to our new friends and jumped on a plane for New Zealand. I learned that flying with a hangover is the worst idea ever, but the excitement of finding my new home for the next 5 months carried me through. I would go back to Fiji if given the chance, but for now that's one country crossed off the list. Next stop: NZ.

Oh, and if anyone wanted to know...minus the cost of the flight (which was 0 because it was on the way to New Zealand), I spent under $500 for an epic week on a tropical island. Yeah, I have skills...


  1. I'm so frickin jealous. I want to travel sooo bad! It sounds like you had an amazing time :) Does live in the states seem a bit blah after all that?

  2. Only all the time, Amber. The US is getting a little stale for my liking....gotta hit the road again.