Sunday, December 29, 2013


Dr. L.N. (Duke) McGillis at the controls of the old Denver & Rio Grande Engine No. 478 in the year 1965 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Ride the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad from Durango to Silverton, Colorado in 1965 (Part 2)

In August of 1965, my father (Dr. L.N. McGillis) and I visited Durango, Colorado. One of the highlights of our visit was a ride on the old Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad (D&RGW) from Durango to Silverton, forty-five miles north. At the time of our visit, the Durango to Silverton line was already 83 years old. By the 1960s, steam locomotives had largely disappeared from the main railroad lines throughout the U.S.

The Author (Jim McGillis) looks back toward the camera as Engine No. 478 pulls a hill on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge line in 1965 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Today, over forty-eight years later, a few heritage lines like the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad continue to roll. What makes the Durango & Silverton line interesting to me is how little it has changed since its inception the 1880s. Although heavier tracks now support the larger K-36 “480 Series” locomotives both those and the original K-28 “470 Series” locomotives began service in the early 1920s.

Built to roll on tracks that measured a mere 3 ft. between their rail heads, the 470 Series engines were purpose-built for the narrow gauge. The larger, 480 Series engines started life at standard gauge, measuring 4 ft. 8 1⁄2 in. from wheel flange to wheel flange. In 1965, old rails, which weighed about 45 lb. per yard, lay stacked alongside the tracks in many places. In preparation for the heavier 480 Series engines entering into service on the line, crews installed new tracks weighing up to 90 lb. per yard.

With a rock outcropping overhead, the Denver & Rio Grande Engine No. 478 rounds a curve at the summit of a climb on the was from Durango to Silverton in 1965 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In preparation for our 1965 excursion, my father and I had visited the Durango Depot early in the morning. With our film cameras in hand, we had snapped pictures of the first section, powered by Engine No. 476 as it departed Durango for Silverton. Soon, it was time for us to board the second section, led by Engine No. 478. In those days, the tender cars of both engines featured a stylized “Rio Grande” logo. Reflecting a change of ownership in the early 1980s, the same trains today feature the “Durango & Silverton” name.

Although Engine No. 478 sported a traditional black and silver paint scheme, the ten passenger cars in our train were painted bright orange, with black trim and silver roofs. At that time, each passenger car still featured a rooftop chimney. In earlier days, the chimneys vented coal-fired stoves, which heated the cars during the colder months. Although most of the passenger cars on the line today retain their traditional livery, the stovepipes are now gone.

After we departed the Durango Depot, the steam whistle sounded each time the train approached another grade crossing. With no less than eight grade crossings in town, the engineer and fireman were busy watching for cross traffic and letting the steam whistle wail. After making its way across the Animas River Bridge north of town, the train began its slow ascent through the picturesque Upper Animas Valley.

Leaving behind a huge cloud of coal smoke, the D&RGW narrow gauge train pulls up the Animas River Canyon in August 1965 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Unlike current diesel locomotives, steam engines use a constant flow of water to recharge their boilers. At the old Hermosa Depot, we stopped to fill the water tank on the tender car. Once we were moving again, the 2-8-2 Mikado began a more serious climb into the former San Juan mining district. In the 1880s, passenger and freight service to the numerous mines was the original impetus for laying tracks up the series of steep grades. Built in less than two years, construction required the blasting of solid rock from the canyon walls. Construction crews shuttled the resulting rubble to create a riverside bench for tracks laid along the lower sections of the line. Despite periodic flooding along the Animas River, the rubble rock staved off the floods and supported the tracks. Over one hundred thirty years after railroad tracks first linked Durango and Silverton, the route remains essentially unchanged.

Clinging precariously to the wall of the Upper Animas River Canyon, an early twentieth century silver mine offered a nostalgic view in 1965 of what must have been a dangerous profession in its day - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)In the early twentieth century, when regional gold and silver mining collapsed, various abandoned mines remained, some hanging precariously on the canyon walls. Built with wood from nearby forests, they were unpainted and exposed to the elements. In 1965, we were amazed to see how many of the old mines remained in the Animas River Canyon. In the 1960s, they were a picturesque reminder of an earlier day. In the 1960s, professional photographers hiked up into the canyon and meticulously photographed every remnant of that short lived but industrious time in Southeastern Colorado. Many of the photographs found their way into wall calendars of the era. While researching this article, I was sorry to find that none of those earlier mine photos has survived on the internet.

In order to personalize our photographs of the journey, I hiked from one end of the train to the other. Whenever we would go around a dramatic curve, I would lean out from a platform or a window. At that time, no one told us to keep our heads, hands and arms inside the train. By the time we finished our trip, we had many images of me looking back toward the camera, rounding a curve and one as we pulled into the Silverton Depot.

Like "The Little Engine That Could", D&RGW Engine No. 478 continues up the Animas River Canyon toward Silverton, Colorado - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)As first time passengers on the Durango & Silverton line, we did not realize how long it would take to complete the trip. Including time for several water stops along the way, the train took three and one half hours to travel the forty-five mile route. That meant we averaged just less than thirteen miles per hour. As exciting and interesting as the experience was, we were happy to arrive in Silverton in time for a late lunch.

Until its peak in the early 1900s, Silverton had serviced the needs of miners from throughout the high country. By the 1960s, Silverton was living off its legacy as a former mining and commercial center. Many buildings were empty and falling into disrepair. Land and property in the remote town was selling at an all-time low. Only a few restaurants and old time hotels supported the town. When I visited again in 2007, I met a white haired old man who had bought property in Silverton in the 1970’s. As modest as the man was, the list of properties he then owned in town was worth in the millions of dollars.

Looking every bit the professional that he was, our unnamed engineer held court in the cab of Engine No. 478 at Silverton, Colorado in 1965 - Click for larger image (htp://jamesmcgillis.com)In the 1960s, passengers could wait in line for a chance to visit with the engineer in the cab of the locomotive. When it was his turn, my father climbed into the cab of Engine No. 478 and took a seat in the fireman’s location. In the picture that I took of him that day, looking forward and down the track, he looked every bit like a professional railroad engineer.

Although the steam engine was huge, the area between the cab and the tender was not spacious. There was barely room for the fireman to take a scoop of coal, step on the lever that opened the firebox door and toss the fuel in. Like a pizza oven, the idea was to minimize the frequency and duration of door openings, thus keeping the firebox hot at all times.

Kodak Ecktachrome image of Engine No. 478 at rest in Silverton Colorado - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)While waiting in Silverton for our return trip to Durango, we had time to inspect al of the running gear on the huge engine. Dripping hot water and emitting small jets of steam were the twin airbrake compressors that hung low and wide near the front of the engine. Using a system originally devised by George Westinghouse in 1868, steam from the boiler would occasionally cycle into each compressor. There, a steam driven piston would pump air into a reservoir. Within the Westinghouse airbrake system, low pressure in the brake lines activated the brakes. With the train parked on level ground at Silverton, the occasional cycling of the air brake compressor was the only sound that the engine made. When it was time to depart, the Head Brakeman used a valve within the cab to increase pressure in the lines, thus releasing the airbrakes along the full length of the train.

Black & White photography adds a nostalgic touch to Engine No. 478 in Silverton, Colorado in 1965 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)After a couple of hours in Silverton, a blast from the steam whistle indicated that it was almost time to depart for Durango. In those days, the train parked head-in at the station throughout the visit. Upon departure, workers threw manual switches along the tracks, thus allowing the engineer to back the train on to a wye track. Once safely on the wye, other switches were thrown, thus allowing the train to proceed down canyon toward Durango. Over time, these procedures have changed. Now, while the passengers are enjoying lunch in Silverton, the trains back on to the wye, pull forward briefly and then backs into the Silverton station. When it is time to go, the engine is facing in the correct direction for travel.

Departing Silverton Station in 1965, the author (Jim McGillis) watches as the train backs on to a wye track before changing directions and  then heading down-canyon toward Durango - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)When the old Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad began service between Durango and Silverton, the train was far faster than the wagon road previously used. Today, that is no longer the case. Although the route of U.S. Highway 550 (the Million Dollar Highway) between the towns is three miles longer than the rail line, it takes only an hour to make the trip by automobile. With a three and one half hour train trip back to Durango, the final hour of travel can become tedious. Passengers now have the option of taking a motor coach in one direction and the train the other direction. Also today, passengers can opt for more luxurious seating, beverage service and snacks in one of several parlor cars.

Thunder clouds build as the Denver & Rio Grande Durango & Silverton steam train heads back to Durango in 1965 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Any way you go, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad is piece of American history that travels through some spectacular scenery. Several times in its history, the railroad almost went broke. With its current popularity, the line now boasts up to three trains per day during the peak summer season. With that revenue stream, I expect to see the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad prosper for many years to come.

This Part Two of a two-part article. To read Part One, Click HERE.


  

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Namenalala Island, Ocean Paradise in the Fiji Islands

Namenalala Island, Ocean Paradise in the Fiji Islands

Friday August 25, 2001
Namena Island, View from the air, with the Bligh Waters in the distance - Fiji Islands - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)7:00 AM – The scuba diving gear is in the Jimny, so we zoom off to the far side of Vanua Levu Island

8:00 AM – We arrive at Jean-Michel Cousteau's Fiji Islands Resort, which is at the opposite end of the island from Lomalagi Resort.  Owned by the sole surviving son of scuba inventor, Jacques Cousteau, the place befits its Five Star rating.  We were not there to enjoy opulence and luxury, but rather, for the diving.

9:00 AM – With about a dozen divers on-board, the high-powered, twin-diesel dive boat swept away from the resort’s little wooden dock.  The day was clear, the weather was warm and we were heading towards one of the world’s most legendary dive sites, the lagoon at Namenalala (Namena) Island.

10:00 AM – We anchor a few hundred yards off Namenalala Island, Namena Island view, from nearby scuba diving anchorage - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)inside the reef-line of a clear-water lagoon.  Namenalala, in Fijian, means “the place where no one lives”.  Although contemporary Fijians never occupied the 110-acre desert island, the Namena Island Resort now holds its ecologically appropriate claim to the space.
Moody's Namena is the only resort on the island.  According to Joan Moody, the proprietor (along with her husband Tom) their maximum capacity is twelve guests in six bures (cottages), each designed to accommodate a couple.  The surrounding Namena Barrier Reef became a marine reserve in 2004.  Joan and Tom helped design the reserve on the same principle as  Bonaire's Marine Park.  Attractive plastic-coated tags are sold for F$25.00 each to compensate the Fijian villagers who have stopped fishing within their designated reefs.  The funds collected go towards scholarship awards to the children of these villages.
Namena Island underwater tropical reef view - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Rather than use an internal combustion generator, with its attendant noise and exhaust, the resort incorporates clean, alternative energy (solar, wind and propane gas, the latter of which operates their entire kitchen, including stoves, freezers, refrigerators and lights).  The guest bures operate off either propane gas or solar for the coffee maker, water heater and lighting.    

11:00 AM – Our first dive was a revelation.  If the dive sites on Vanua Levu were somewhat compromised by development and siltation, this remote, mid-ocean location was untouched by fishing, pollution of other signs of man’s intervention.  As bright sunlight filtered through the water, colorful fish, both predator and prey alike schooled and swam over and around the reef structures.

12:00 PM – Between dives, we ate lunch and looked at the profusion of sea birds that visited Namena, including the “condor of the ocean”, a rare Lesser Frigate Bird.
Lesser Frigate Bird over Namena Island, Fiji - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)
1:00 PM – Our second dive was as revealing as the first.  For those who do not scuba dive, the closest similar experience I can describe is what you feel in an IMAX 3-D theater production.  With the exceptional clarity of the water and sunlight reflecting off the shallow sandy bottom, everything, including color appears magnified and surreal.  One can get up to within inches of the small reef fish and study them in their micro-habitats or take a long view and see the interplay between species, as predators enter the arena.  The experience is one of exquisite sensory overload.

3:00 PM – It is time to leave the most perfect dive site on the planet and head back across the Bligh Water to the Cousteau Resort, then on home to our own, more humble bure at Lomalagi Resort.
Epilogue – Upon returning home to Los Angeles, several days later, I started to chronicle our Fiji Island adventure.  From the brief of notes that I had kept, I was able to recreate a chronology of our adventure in paradise, almost hour by hour.Namena Island, Fiji underwater reef view - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Originally, I sent these ten separate stories as photo-essay emails to friends and family.  Since the process took several weeks to complete, I was not yet done with the full story on September 11, 2001, a day when so many of our lives seemed to change forever.

After the terrorist attacks of that day, stories of fun and frivolous adventures on tropical islands no longer seemed appropriate.  Most all of us thought that the world had “turned serious” and lighthearted stories were no longer acceptable.  We, as Americans, were in mourning for the way it used to be.

Luckily, the world, and most of its inhabitants survived the attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Since this is not a political blog, I will not state my personal views on the approval process and conduct of those wars.  The real lesson for me was that life, indeed, does go on.
Moody's Resort, Namena Island, Fiji - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Although my relationship with Cagey ended shortly thereafter, I look fondly on our time together and especially our vacation at Natewa Bay on Vanua Levu, Fiji in August 2001.

If you are looking for an exotic and beautiful place to go, then go to Vanua Levu, Fiji and experience the beauty for yourself. 

This is Chapter Ten of ten chapters. To view the previous article in this series, click HERE. To view the first article in this series, click HERE.

Finding The Dream House - Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands


Lagoon View, From "The Dream House" at Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Finding The Dream House - Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands

Thursday, August 24, 2001
6:45 AM – The myna bird "alarm clock" started ringing, right on time.  I put the coffee on; went back to bed.
7:10 AM – Breakfast outside, in nature.
8:15 AM – The scuba diving gear is already at the dive shop, so our trip will be easier this morning.
8:40 AM – We arrive at the dive shop, but we find no dive boat.  The feeling is something like what you experience when you run out of gas in your car.  You are not sure if your plans are going to work out that day, but you know that they will be different from what you planned.  Luckily, we did not have to wait too long to start the next chapter in our adventure.  A filmmaker had chartered the dive boat for fishing and it was due back soon.
Oceanic Whitetip Shark in the water off Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)9:30 AM – We were running a little late, so we motored out the channel, past the first point, but still inside the reef line of the lagoon.  We dived the Dream House site, named for the lone house standing at the end of a nearby spit of land, which extends straight out into the lagoon.  On our dive, we saw oceanic whitetip sharks, which I am sure I don’t have to describe, other than to say that they really do have white tips on their dorsal and pectoral fins.  If you are painting these scenes in your mind, even the tips of their tails get a little splotch of white paint. 
In addition to the sharks, there were several other large fish hovering near their favorite underwater retreats.  It was like an underwater nature walk, with each species represented by only one or two of its kind, separated by enough space that it felt like walking from diorama to diorama at the Museum of Natural History.  Although there were no explanatory signs adjacent to each fish, that was all that appeared to be missing.
Lagoon View, from "The Dream House", Vanua Levu, Fiji - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)10:00 AM – I’ll digress.  I bet you didn’t expect me to do thatThe Dream House dive site is just offshore from The Dream House, itself.  It is an unpresupposing example of rectangular architecture, with a gabled roof running its length.  However, it could be your little piece of paradise, paid for by the day.  Sitting in the middle of the lagoon, you might find yourself living in a simple house, with all the amenities, but none of the pretensions associated with big-time resort living. 
As the afternoon wears on, the winds will pick up a bit and you will hear the waves crashing on the reef, half a mile offshore.  There is a small volcanic island toward the West.  It is eroded at the base and has no shore to speak of.  The waves undercut the edges of the island leaving it looking like a large green mushroom, with palm trees atop.  As the Sun sets, we Americans look to the South and West, in anticipation of where the Sun has set all our lives.  However, here the Sun swings North and West and sets behind the trees of Vuana Levu. 
Still, the Dream House beckons, inviting us set up household and live our daily lives on this island.  If I keep up this line of reasoning, we shall all soon be living fulltime in an island paradise.  They teach us to be more sensible than that, don’t they?
Structure and setting similar to "The Dream House", Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)11:00 AM – Our second dive was at The Caves, with aptly eroded lava structures smoothed and punched full of holes by time and tide.  It reminded me of diving that we did along the Kona Coast of Hawaii, only there the island includes a live volcano and all the lava structures seem new, or at least recently installed.  Caves are fun, but there is usually a lot of sediment inside, thus only the first person through will have a clear view. 
Regardless of water clarity it is an amazing feeling to swim into a hole where the light does not penetrate, then swim through a lava tube, up and out at the other end.  As you rise and exit the tube, seeing the blue sky filtering down through the water, it is very birth-like.  At human birth, you have to struggle to get out of the womb and receive that first breath-of-life.  In your waterborne rebirth, your eyes are open and you have a pressure-regulated breathing device already in you mouth.  You are born from Mother Nature and sent up and out toward the sky, to freely breathe the clear air and to live your life again.  Looking back on it, it wasn’t such a boring dive site, after all. Those clever dive masters take you in from below, so you can gently ascend to your new life on the New Earth
1:00 PM – On the return trip to Lomalagi, we met an SUV at a bend in the road.  Driving fast, he must have been a local.  As the vehicle whizzed past us, Cagey commented, “That was Terry and his mother, Linda going towards town”.  The next day, we were talking to Terry down by the resort office and the subject turned to cars and trucks.  I was using all my best arguments, railing against oversized and wasteful SUV’s.  After a few minutes, Terry seemed to summon up his nerve to ask a question to which he intuitively knew the answer.  He asked, “What’s an SUV?”  With that honest question, I realized how much had changed in the twenty years since Terry had lived in the U.S.  After I answered his question, we both were a bit embarrassed.
3:00 PM –We relaxed and enjoyed the afternoon, watching as the puffy White Clouds Fading, Over Lomalagi Resort, Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)clouds in the sky drifted by at high altitude.  It was another stunningly beautiful day in paradise.
6:00 PM – As usual, we observed Sunset on the Lanai.
7:05 PM – After dinner, we gazed again at the setting of the crescent moon, seeming larger now and setting later than before.  Time was growing closer to the day of our departure, back to Los Angeles and away from our island paradise. 
This is Chapter Nine of ten chapters. To view the previous article in this series, click HERE.  To view the following article in this series, click HERE.

Taking a Dive - Fiji Style


Morning Light on Natewa Bay, Vanua Levu, Fiji in August 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Taking a Dive - Fiji Style

Wednesday, August 23, 2001
7:00 AM – Brrriing.  Is that the sound of the alarm clock?  No, because we did not pack one.  It is our friendly myna birds squawking away outside.  When the windows are open all night and it is quiet, the contrast of morning in Fiji will wake you up in a hurry.
7:15 AM – Our usual breakfast of fresh fruit, orange juice and baked goods arrives, just as the coffee pot finishes brewing.  Weather normal – beautiful.  They did not tear down our movie set overnight and cart it away to the prop shop.  The palm trees are all in their proper places and Natewa Bay forms its usual serene backdrop.  Only today, we are in a hurry.
8:15 AM – We drag our dive gear down the wooden walkway to the ever-faithful Suzuki Jimny.  We rattle away down the local road, only to find that the construction crew had added some fresh fill-dirt in certain places.  The only problem is that the “dirt” that was used has rocks the size of grapefruits strewn throughout.  We make it out to the Hibiscus Highway and “floor it” down the correct (left) side of the road.  That lasts about a half a minute until I get to the blind curves and the three-tracks, often shared by two oncoming vehicles.
8:30 AM – We slow down to go through our favorite local village.  It is aYoung residents of a local village on Vanua Levu, Fiji, August 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com) settlement that is about two hundred-fifty yards long, and has houses of varying quality and age on each side of the road.  The sign says, “Slow through Village” as many road signs say throughout Fiji.  We smile, wave and shout-out our usual “Bula” to the village folk.  They smile, wave back and give us the “Bula, Bula” (or was that an old college song?) in return.
Over the next four or five days, they would watch us roar off to go diving in the morning and roar back through on our way home for lunch.  They must have wondered what we were doing with that little car each day that kept us roaring back and forth.
8:50 AM  - After negotiating both the old part of the road and the ever-shifting detours of the new road, we almost sped right past the Koro Sun Resort, which is a bucolic hotel with bures for rooms and a coconut plantation for grounds.  Later, one local Fijian told us that if you stayed there, you got “free golf”, for just the price of the room.  What they do not tell you is that it is a “mountain course”, with more uphill and downhill than any championship course in the world.  Since a driving iron would send the ball straight into the nearest grassy knoll, it was a “wedges-only” course.
We pulled in to the hotel grounds and asked the native Fijian woman who was using a palm frond to sweep the driveway where the dive shop was.  Finally, she gave us discernable directions, or perhaps we just stumbled upon the dive shop.  It was the little freestanding storefront on the “beach side” of the highway.  Beaches, in the Caribbean sense of the word are very rare in Fiji.  At that time, some of the promotional materials from the Koro Sun showed sunbathers on wide, sandy beaches.  There is about six to twelve feet of sand at the edge of the lagoon, but so much for truth in advertising. 
The dive shop looked like saloon from the Old West.  It had a false front The Cousteau Dive Shop, Viewed from the Lagoon, Vanua Levu, Fiji, August 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)that made it look like it was two stories high, although it was not.  When we arrived, it was as deserted as a ghost town.  Of course, we forgot that we were on “island time”, which runs on a clock of its own.  Despite our anxiety over possibly “missing the boat”, since we were the only divers registered that day, the boat would not have left with out us.  We also discovered that this satellite location of the Jean-Michel Cousteau Resort was open only on demand. 
A previous dive company had built the rock jetty on which the dive shop sat, as well as building and outfitting the building.  They then carved a channel out of the coral to get the dive boat out to the deeper water of the lagoon.  In 2000, when everything was completed, the “Coup Plotters” tried to take over the Parliament Building on Viti Levu and put a total stop to all tourism in Fiji for months.  Needles to say, the dive shop went out of business before it really had a chance.
When we visited, in August of 2001, tourism was making a comeback throughout Fiji and the Cousteau people decided to “make another go” of the location.  We were among the first of the intrepid divers to try out these dive sites since Cousteau brought diving back to the east end of the island.  Since the unanticipated consequences of the 911 attacks in America were less than a month away, we were probably also among the last to dive these sites for some time to come.
Sam, the Dive Master, loading the Cousteau dive boat, Vanua Levu, Fiji in August 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)9:00 AM – We placed our gear on the boat and our lead weights in the weight-pockets in our buoyancy control devices (BCD’s), so that we would sink properly once we were in the water.  Sam, the boat driver and sometimes dive master was ready to go. 
9:15 AM – Gary, a New Zealander who runs the main Cousteau Resort dive shop arrived and we took off.  He had come over to check us out and be sure that his satellite operation was adequate.  He made sure that he did not interfere with our diving, but it was nice to know that there was the safety and security of another set of eyes to make sure that everything was OK.  That morning, Leonard was our dive master.  He was the only Fijian that we met during our entire stay who seemed a little standoffish.  He was a rich kid, by their standards and wanted our undivided attention, even when we were not quite ready to give it to him.  Sam, on the other hand was a big bear of a man, and as kind and generous as could be.
9:30 AM – We arrived at the Fanfare Site, just a mile or two out of the alt="Exiting the lagoon, on the way to our dive site, Vanua Levu, Fiji, August 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)" />lagoon and around the point.  So there we were, ready to dive the fabled waters of Fiji.  Having dived the Kona Coast, Maui, Cozumel, Belize, Bonaire and Curacao, to name a few, we had high expectations for Fiji.  Once we were under the water, however, it all seemed a little ordinary.  The colors were drab and there were very few extraordinary sights.  The trip out in the boat was as interesting as the two dives. 
As the week went on, we discovered why the diving was not great.  Vanua Levu is mountainous and a lot of silt had washed down the streams, smothering the reefs in many areas.  Based on the large number of logging trucks we met on the roads, I can only imagine what is really happening in the highlands.  My gut tells me that they are taking too much timber.  With the land deforested, the silt is sweeping down the streams and into the lagoons, where there the lack of circulation allows it to settle near shore. 
During our dives along that coast, we found whole coconuts rolling along the bottom and lots of coconut fronds and smaller pieces of plant life strewn about.  Since the area is not dived that much, there is a lot of undisturbed material along the bottom.  I found a large, dead clam that still had both halves attached at its hinge.  It was almost one foot across at its widest point.  The fact that such a large and relatively sensitive animal could have thrived there recently told a tale that I did not want to consider.  It is sad to say that much of the siltation damage had probably happened during the very recent past.
Mini-islands, off the shore of Vanua Levu, Fiji in August 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)11:00 AM – Our second dive was at a site called The Thumb, where you could dive around and through a volcanic reef formation.  It was interesting, but not spectacular.  Still, it was great to be out on, in and under the ocean that morning, even if we were learning a lesson in forest and reef management that we had not expected.  When we returned to the dock, we found that I had not secured one of my weight pouches to my BCD and a weight pouch was now missing.  I did not look forward to finding out what the replacement pouch would cost.
12:00 PM – We motored slowly back through the narrow channel to the dive shop.  It was so shallow at low tide that Sam had to use the hydraulic lift on the two outboard motors to keep them from scrapping bottom.  When we got back, Sam found an old brown and dried coconut and cut it open for us.  He told us that the big green ones are for drinking and the little brown ones, which have shed most of their husky skin, are for eating.  The meat of the coconut is copra, which they pronounce “KOP-ruh”, but we Americans tend to pronounce “COPE-ruh”.  Sam seemed amused that we thought it was a bit of a delicacy.  The coconuts lay around like so much trash on the ground over much of the island.  Each day that we dived, thereafter, Sam took a machete and opened another coconut for our refreshment.
12:30 PM – We were on the road back to Lomalagi Resort again, retracing what would soon become familiar territory.  We no longer turned at the wrong places or wondered where we were.  Like an old horse returning to its stable, the Jimny could practically find its own way home.
1:15 PM – Collin waited lunch for us, which was nice.
3:30 PM – 6:00 PM – It was time to plan the balance of our stay in Fiji, including our various side trips, and to do nothing at all (worth mentioning) for a few hours.
6:00 PM – A beautiful tropical sunset awaited us on our Lanai.Sunset, over Natewa Bay, Vanua Levu, Fiji in August 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)
7:05 PM – Dinner, with time afterward to gaze at the crescent moon going down and to see the Milky Way light up as the sky rapidly darkened.  Looking up at the Southern Cross and the stars of the southern sky, one could get a sore neck craning to see the new and wonderful sights.  Fittingly, to end our evening, a meteor streaked across the sky.
9:45 PM – A few minutes after we returned to the room each night, the walkway lights would go out.  With the Moon down, darkness was all around.  The only human made lights emanated from our bure and a couple of fishing lanterns, down on Natewa Bay.  As the moon grew larger each night, fewer fishing families would appear, until the last few nights, when we saw none.
This is Chapter Eight of ten chapters. To view the previous article in this series, click HERE.  To view the following article in this series, click HERE.

An Average Day in Paradise (Vanua Levu, Fiji)


Morning View, Natewa Bay from Lomalagi Resort, Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

An Average Day in Paradise

(Vanua Levu, Fiji)

Tuesday August 22, 2001
8:00 AM – Our resort provides both 110V and 220V power, which is a luxury for us Americans.  We can use all of our personal care appliances without employing a voltage converter.  The smell of fresh coffee finally awoke Cagey for the day and we simply sat, watched and listened from our lanai.
8:30 AM – Takasa, our shy and pretty server came up our walk and rang the bell along our walkway.  Since we had the resort all to ourselves and the place practically defines privacy, members of the staff always ring the bell so that one can toss on a lightweight robe in time to avoid embarrassment.  In any event, Takasa had fresh cut fruit, home made bread and muffins, orange juice, butter and preserves for us.  Could it possibly be better than this?  Our bay and our breakfast were all we needed.  We fed a few pieces of papaya to the Myna Birds, in hopes of bribing them into being quiet the next morning, to no avail. Myna Bird, eating papaya on the lanai, Lomalagi Resort, Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)
10:15 AM – Terry drove us the couple hundred yards from the resort office, down the steep hill to the little dock they had built at the end of the resort’s property.  There he helped us into our Alaskan-made, two-person sea kayak, which has an aluminum frame and a waterproof fabric skin to keep us dry.  It seats two and has steering pedals that act like those on a small airplane.  The only trouble is that the kayak will not move unless you paddle it.  We never did master the art of paddling in unison, but somehow we moved along the beach and around our end of Natewa Bay.
At last, we rounded the point of land leading to Takasa’s house, and here is what we saw.  Because of tidal action, sandy beaches are in short supply in Natewa Bay.  A twenty-foot wide beach is a major one, with many places having just a rocky shore and no beach at all.  Takasa lives with her father and her young son on a sandy beach about as long as Waikiki Beach, in Hawaii.  Hers is the only house on that beach.  When I read that statement, I still have to let its reality sink in to my consciousness.
Tropical fish and coral make a colorful display in the upper reaches of Natewa Bay, Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands - Click for larger image  (http://jamesmcgillis.com)On our return trip, we paddled out about half a mile, from time to time viewing unspoiled tropical reefs below us.  Then we turned for home.  As we glided back in, we encountered one of about six I-beams that were standing vertically at the edge of the final shallows.  Apparently they were placed there to alert any sailor who might come along that they were about to hit the rocks.  Terry said that he thought they were driven-in forty or fifty years ago, but by whom he did not know.  There they stand, rusting at their bases, the only manmade items visible on Natewa Bay.
12:15 PM – We returned to the dock just as the tide began to fill our end of the bay.  Terry had contracted for a small power shovel to be brought to the dock area so that Lomalagi Resort’s tiny channel could be dredged to a depth that his Sea-Doo jet boat (more on that later) could be launched or retrieved, even at low tide.  The remnants of the old coral reef were piled to the sides, leaving small towers of gray, rock-like matter that reminded me of the tufa towers of Mono Lake, California, Dredging of Old Coral for a boat channel, Natewa Bay, Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)located on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  We rode back to the resort in an ancient work truck, which was loaded with coral sand, used to fill in the potholes of the roads within the resort.
1:15 PM – Upon our return, we were treated to a lunch of shrimp and lobster, with ice cream for dessert.  Our guests that day were three Aussies who were buying property nearby.  It seems that all the Europeans who visit our end of Vanua Levu call ahead and the Lomalagi dining room transforms into a restaurant.  The moneyman of the three said he was building a house somewhere down past Takasa’s beach.  He had brought all his “toys”, including a sport fishing boat.  Looking back, more than six years later, I wonder if he was the vanguard of the group who plan to develop a large resort nearby, creating artificial islands in the once-pristine Natewa Bay.
2:15 PM – We wandered down to the office and shopped a bit in Collin’s boutique.  Having misplaced the map I had bought in Savusavu, I purchased a large new one for $10 F.  While we were there, Collin called on our behalf to the Cousteau Resort, located at the other end of the island, to arrange for our scuba diving the next day.  I spoke with one of their dive masters, explaining that we were scuba-certified and that we really would show up the next day, if the boat would be there to meet us.
Coconut palms dot the landscape at Lomalagi Resort, Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)2:30 PM – We decided to walk around the grounds and see some of the sights.  The property comprises twenty-five acres, but we restricted ourselves to the area near our bure, which has hills, coconut trees, flowers and an incredible green lawn, which covers the entire landscape.
The previous day, when we pulled our Suzuki Jimny up under the huge tree at the center of the property the day before, we saw a powerful, lean man pushing a large power mower across a huge stretch of the lawn.  Keep in mind that half of this lawn is on what looks like a 30-degree slope.  I shouted out, “Bula” to him because I had acculturated to say that to everyone we met.  He stopped the mower and approached us.  Removing his gloves, he offered his hand and said, “Hello, I’m Spence”, in a New Zealand accent.  He appeared to be a blond haired rock-of-a-man, tall and muscular, with perhaps a bit of Maori ancestry. 
Photograph or artwork? The Myth of Sisyphus, who some call "The Original Rolling Stone" makes the task or rolling a boulder up a 45-degree slope look almost easy - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)As the days went by, we would hear Spence and his mower from time to time.  Actually, the gas engine propelled it, but even with that assist, I am sure I could not have pushed it up and down those steep hills for very long.  I recalled the Greek myth of Sisyphus.  You know the one, with Sisyphus destined to roll a huge rock up a hill.  As soon as he reached the top, the rock would get away from him and roll back to the bottom, where he would have to start the process all over again.  I always assumed that it was one of the Greek Tragedies (which technically it may be).  More recently, I heard the story Examined in a different way.  This version was about the simplicity and beauty of Sisyphus’ life.  In this version, he knew his task and he performed it well.  He made it a noble gesture to use all his strength to propel the rock up the hill, where inevitably it rolled back to the bottom.  Then, he reset his sites on his goal and started again.  Spence and his mower embodied that ethic.  He appeared to have a purpose in life and he stuck to it.
A small waterfall, Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)3:00 PM – We were back at the room, content to relax for the balance of the afternoon.
5:30 PM – It turned cloudy.  The Mynas returned to the deck.  It was time to shower in that fabulous Fiji-water and get ready for dinner.
7:00 PM – Dinner was Indian Curry, light and tasty.
9:00 PM – We were back in the room, preparing our dive gear and cameras for the next day.
This is Chapter Seven of ten chapters. To view the previous article in this series, click HERE.  To view the following article in this series, click HERE.

Vanua Levu, Fiji - Morning Breaks on Another Day in Paradise


Upper Natewa Bay at High Tide in the Morning, August 25, 2001 - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

Vanua Levu, Fiji - Morning Breaks on Another Day in Paradise

  
Tuesday August 22, 2001
 
4:00 AM Fiji Time – Since it was 9:00 AM back home in California, Cagey awoke, hungry for breakfast.  She arose and the fruit plate, which contained some juicy leftovers from our arrival, the previous day.  She ate while I slept.
 
6:00 AM – The Sun comes up shortly after 6:00 AM and sets shortly after 6:00 PM.  The dawn and twilight are shorter in the tropics, leading to the impression that you are in something like an old Walt Disney cartoon, where day breaks, the rooster crows and life in the barnyard is moving at full speed in just a few seconds.
 
7:00 AM – Somehow, I was able to stay asleep until about 7:00 AM.  By that time, our “barnyard” was so full of bird squawks, chirps, squeaks and caws that I had to pay attention and finally get up.  As usual, it was not cold, but not hot either.  I made my way out on to our Lanai.  There I discovered the Myna Birds who had awakened me.  Their habit was to make a lot of noise after sunrise, then to disappear about thirty minutes later, when there was no chance of our going back to sleep.
 
Natewa Bay, Fiji - Blazing Sun in the Afternoon - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)7:30 AM – Natewa Bay, which takes up the foreground, background and the middle ground of our view from the Lanai is one of those natural phenomena that takes some time to figure out, but absolutely no time to appreciate.  “Discovered” hundreds of years ago during early English voyagers, it was called “Nateva Bay” on reproductions of the original charts that we later saw at the Museum in Suva, The capital of Fiji.
 
The Lomalagi Resort website has a few wide-angle shots of the bay and its sunsets.  Before we arrived there, we had read on the website that Lomalagi was the only resort on the Bay, which encompasses 600 square miles of water, surrounded on three sides by lush volcanic mountains of varying topography.  Just like you, I was trying to picture a bay of that size with only a spot or two of human habitation.  I just could not picture it, or maybe I could not believe it.
 
When we arrived, it was at New Moon, which made the nights very dark Fishing Family, traversing the shallows to their billybilly (fishing raft), upper Natewa Bay, Vanua Levu, Fiji Islands - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)and the tides of the Bay come in and go out at levels known as “astronomical”.  We tend to use the word astronomical to mean huge or large.  The term takes on its true meaning here when you wake up and see sand bars miles off shore and an empty bay at you feet, only to find it brimming full only a few hours later.  Similar to Mont Saint-Michel, a castle in France that sits on a tidal island, you can almost watch the tide fill in or recede in the bay, depending on the time of day.  As the Moon entered a fuller state, the tides moderated and the bay did not go through the major highs and lows, as it did for the first several days of our visit.  As our host Terry said, “I have never seen a bay that looks good at low tide”.
 
I know it is only 7:00 AM, but I must tell you about the nights on Natewa Bay during the time of the New Moon.  Before our arrival, I was disappointed that we would not have a Full Moon during our visit, figuring that the Moon over the water was probably a sight to see.  Little did I know that the most beautiful nights are those with no Moon.  You must remember that “light pollution” has not yet occurred along Natewa Bay.  Most of the surface area is ocean, which emits no light.  What land that exists, is mainly not “electrified”, even in many places on the main island.  The few cites that have been built have neon and streetlights and many cars.  However, they are over an hour away by airplane!
 
Polling home, after a night of fishing on Natewa Bay, Fiji Islands - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Upon returning to our bure (or villa) at night, turning out our room lights and looking out across the water it is a remarkable sight.  The Milky Way is above, brighter than anywhere else you might see it (other than Antarctica, I suppose), casting enough light to dimly illuminate the basic features of land and bay.  Across the water, we could see three or four lantern lights at our end of the bay.  We saw several more lights from a village across the bay, which apparently has a small generator.  That was it.  The entire bay had a couple of electric lamps and half a dozen lanterns.
 
Later we found that the lanterns on the water were from the fishing families who ventured out on “billybillys”, which are watercraft made by lashing about eight coconut logs together.  They "pole out" into the shallows, where they drift until dawn, with their fishing hand-lines in the water.  We learned that a few years earlier there had been a fishing craze, with many billybillys on the water each night.  Predictably, the villagers had over-fished the shallows of the bay and thus they reverted to the “specialists”, who fished for all within their villages.
 

Night fishing scene, from a Japanese painting - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)If you have ever sat and contemplated a Japanese painting and seen the vision of the artist come to life, you will know what it is like to stand at our window at any time of the night, even 3:00 AM. Reassuringly, the fishers were there, each billybilly displaying a single lantern as it glided along in the shallow bay. Peace, harmony and beauty prevailed.
This is Chapter Six of ten chapters. To view the previous article in this series, click HERE.  To view the following article in this series, click HERE.

The Kava Bowl Connection - Fiji and the George Harrison Guitars


The author, Jim McGillis, next to the Mother of All Kava Bowls, almost three feet in diameter, at the Tenoa Hotel in Nadi, Fiji - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)

The Kava Bowl Connection - Fiji and the George Harrison Guitars

Tuesday August 21, 2001
6:00 PM – It was almost dark when we made our way along the wooden path leading to the pool area and the dining room at Lomalagi Resort, Vanua Levu, Fiji.  It was winter in the Southern Hemisphere and the air was cooling slightly. Even so, short sleeves and shorts were the perfect dress.  As we approached the pool, we could hear guitars playing and men singing softly.  Between our hosts, Collin and Terry, plus Terry’s Mom, Linda, Cagey and me, we became an audience of five. 
“The Boys”, as Collin calls them were about eight of the various native Fijian workers at the resort.  With them was one of their elders.  All of them sat near the lava rocks on several woven mats.  They sat facing in various directions, loosely making up two groups of four.  The elder sat facing us, with a large Kava bowl in front of him. 
Regarding Kava Bowls - The bowl is traditionally carved in one piece, from the trunk of a Raintree, or other forest hardwood.  Some of the bowls (such as the one in the picture above at the Tenoa Hotel, Viti Levu) were carved from truly massive trunks, none of which exist today in the forests of Fiji. Fir the tourist trade, locals offer moderate sized bowls for $10 – 12 USD.  Needless to say, I bought one, complete with a coconut shell scoop.Traditional Fijian Kava Ceremony, at Lomalagi Resort, prior to delivery of the George Harrison Guitars - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)
Back to our story - The elder’s assistant mixed the ground-up root of a native pepper plant with water and wrung it out, through fabric, into the ceremonial bowl.  A polished piece of a dried coconut shell became the communal cup.  Terry explained that the Kava Ceremony is the fabric that holds the Fijian social and spiritual community together.  The ceremony, conducted only among the men of the village, involves some simple but solemn rituals of offering and accepting one’s share of the slightly muddy looking liquid.  Its effects are described variously as mildly narcotic or as a slight natural sedative.  If you could call the affects a “buzz”, it is at a frequency that is well below the audible level.  You know you have experienced it, but you are not sure exactly what, if anything, has changed.
The assistant makes the rounds, offering a cup in turn to each of the guests and then to The Boys, as Colin called the band.  Then a song or two are sung before another round is offered.  In their traditional settings, the ceremony occurs when there is an event of significance to celebrate or deliberate.  If there is a conflict between neighbors or even enemies, the gift of a kilo or two of Kava will erase all conflict and peace and friendship will be immediately restored.  Powerful stuff, this Kava.
Between songs, Collin told the story of when George Harrison visited Former Beatle, George Harrison (1943 - 2001) now rests comfortably on Cloud Nine - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)Lomalagi, soon after the resort had had opened.  As we now know, (but did not, at the time of this writing) doctors had diagnosed George Harrison with what turned out to be a life-ending illness.  However, those were happier times and he still had a measure of good health to enjoy.  He had been traveling between England and Australia, where I believe he had property.  On his visit to Lomalagi Resort, Harrison was scouting Fiji as a place to buy some property, kick back and enjoy life at a slower pace.
As George arrived at the Lomalagi Kava Ceremony, he immediately decided that his place was among The Boys.  So he sat among them and played guitar with them as they sang.  Noting that their instruments were of undetermined vintage and held together with tape and glue, he said that The Boys deserved better than the sorry instruments that they had.
Several months after his departure, unmarked crates arrived from George Harrison received this guitar, the second double-bound Rickenbacker 360/12 ever made on February 8, 1964, as a gift from Rickenbacker. Its ringing sound embellished "You Can't Do That", "Eight Days a Week" and "A Hard Day's Night" - Click for larger image (http://jamesmcgillis.com)England.  Inside were new guitars and a ukulele for The Boys.  From that time forward, the instruments have been known throughout the Fiji Islands as, “The George Harrison Guitars”. 
And a beautiful sound they made.  Sam, the dive master and guide to the dolphins always played his guitar a little flat. Even so, the bluesy influence of his playing fit right in.  Often there appeared to be no leader for a song, while individual tunes would diverge and converge in a lazy way.  Somehow they always came back together at the right moment.  Maybe it was the Kava and maybe it was the songs, but between the voices, words and guitar melodies, it was easy to let your mind drift and your body relax.
I just searched the Lomalagi website for the word to the Lomalagi Song, which was written by one of The Boys.  Alas, it was not posted there, but the “best line” from that song goes something like, “Lomalagi, where the views are brighter than you.”  By the end of the Kava Ceremony, it all made perfect sense.
7:30 PM – With a couple of “stiff belts" of Kava under our belts (Is that a mixed metaphor?), it was time for an elegant dinner of Wallau, which is a light, not quite flaky local fish, along with all the best of accompaniments.  Hmm…that’s about all I remember regarding dinner, other than our friendly hosts and servers.  Could it have been the effects of the kava? As George Harrison, might intone, "My sweet Lord".
9:00 PM – We found our way back to our villa. 
10:00 PM – It is five hours earlier (as you will recall) in Fiji, but we were ready for bed at what would be 5:00 PM back home in California.  So that wrapped up what seemed like three days in one.  There were the two days in suspended animation in L.A., the overnight to Fiji and the long day’s journey into Lomalagi.  Soon,  we went to sleep on a moonless night.

This is Chapter Five of ten chapters. To view the previous article in this series, click HERE.  To view the following article in this series, click HERE.