An escape to the South Pacific and Castaway Island, Fiji
One month out from holidays, I’m grinning maniacally as I load my South Pacific destination into my smartphone weather app. In wintry Melbourne I can feel some insidious vitamin D deficiency draining my will to put more than two metres between me and the nearest heater. By day I’m swathed in high-tech thermal “inner-wear” encased in thick jumpers and coats; by night it’s all polar fleece, Ugg boots and flannelette. I worry that if, heaven forbid, I go into cardiac arrest (can severe chills induce heart failure?) my supposed saviours working the defibrillator will struggle to reach bare skin in time. Hopefully there’s a large pair of industrial shears in their kit. “Yes,” says a Brisbane-based travel agent I speak to in the early stages of planning my getaway, her lengthened affirmation soothing and sympathetic. “We’ve had a lot of bookings lately from Melbourne. Sounds like it’s really cold down there.”
“Cold” is one of the kinder words I’d use, but I’ve promised friends and colleagues that I’ll improve on last year’s steady whine and try to keep griping to a minimum. The only way to maintain this pledge, clearly, is to head north for a week, soak up some thrilling sunshine, swim in tepid briny waters and return replenished and with spring in sight.
Every day, and more than once, I tap on my phone to bring up the current temperature on Qalito island, Fiji. A bright yellow orb shines back at me, better than any smiley-face emoji. Minimum 23 degrees, maximum 29, and bright, glorious, vitamin D-filled sun. That’ll do nicely. Periodically I share the forecast with others, basking in several degrees of smugness.
Six days out from my holiday, my eyes rise from my computer screen and narrow at the drenching icy rain falling beyond the office windows. I reach for solace and my phone. Tap, swipe, scroll. Now my eyes are wide in horror and, panicked, I double-check I’ve swiped to the right location. Monday through Friday there’s my favourite sunny icon, but on Saturday, one day before my toes are due to curl in pleasure in the island’s clement sand, the mood changes and staring back at me is a cloud with malevolent, slanting rain descending from it. Sunday has the same cloud, now adorned with a lightning bolt. Minimum 19, maximum 22. Monday and Tuesday offer the same bleak prognosis. I sink miserably into my chair and Google “god of weather”. There must be something – or someone – I can sacrifice to this deity in exchange for sultry conditions.
Less than four days before takeoff, I walk to work and for the first time catch the lift rather than climb the one flight of stairs to the office. My back is strangely achy and I’m exhausted. Must be the lack of vitamin D, I tell myself. Proof that I really am due a holiday in the tropics.
That afternoon, my usual self-satisfied holiday boast is replaced by an apology that I must leave early and get a massage for my now-insufferable back. Half an hour later I’m being straddled in a discombobulating way by a young Thai woman. I try to imagine I’m lying face down on the silken sand of Qalito, a chalky white crust of drying salt water tightening the warm skin of my back. Unfortunately, all I can really think of is how I want to go home to bed. And possibly vomit.
By 5.30 I’m lying in my darkened bedroom, clutching a hot-water bottle; by 6.30 the hot-water bottle is discarded and I become intimately acquainted with a shiny blue bucket.
The next afternoon I extricate myself from my sickbed to visit the doctor. It seems a gastro flu has been doing the rounds and I’ve succumbed. She highly doubts I’ll be able to do anything productive the following day but hopes that by the night after I’ll manage to get on my plane. I’ll still be depleted, she says, but not contagious. In my heart I know I will get on that plane, even if I have to crawl.
Takeoff time and a red-eye to Fiji is the last thing I need. But I reason that the flight would leave me “depleted” anyway, so I may as well start off that way.
True to the weather app forecast, it’s bucketing rain as the plane touches down with a wallop in Nadi. With not a hint of humour the flight attendant begins her spiel: “Sorry about the thump, but anyway…” Filling out the passenger arrival card, I come to the final question: Are you having any of the following signs/symptoms? Fever. Cough. Vomiting. Headache. Diarrhoea. I tick none of the boxes and sign the card. Certainly I haven’t been coughing.
Customs cleared, my travel partner and I head for our transfer bus to Port Denarau Marina, from where we will take a two-hour boat ride to Qalito, aka Castaway Island resort. As my friend orders a restorative latte and some toast for breakfast, I opt for a convenience store iceblock, the most my digestive system can tackle. The sky bears the colour palette of a seagull’s outstretched wing, pale greys melding with deeper, more ominous shades. The sea in the port is flat and unforeboding, but we know that beyond the breakwater, pelagic pleasures may be hard to find.
Heaving seas survived without heaving, we reach our destination and the passengers for Castaway decant into a tender vessel and head for shore. Any resemblance to the aquamarine waters and cerulean skies of the publicity shots is slim. There are just 50 shades of grey, and not in a way that brings any pleasure. Smiling staff members line the beach to serenade us with a “welcome song”, shout out, “Bula! Welcome to Castaway!”, then arm us with umbrellas as we await receipt of the swipe card for our waterfront bure.
For three days we watch choppy seas send frothy spittle up and over the retaining wall outside our bure doors, which have been unaesthetically barricaded with beach towels and a mattress protector to stop the rain pouring in. Two empty deckchairs cut a doleful silhouette, one minute doused in ocean spray, the next cleansed by driving rain from above. The palm fronds we’d imagined delicately dancing on a balmy breeze are bent at right angles to the trees’ trunks, saluting the howling southerly in unison.
Each day various staff of the island recount stories of the superb weather the previous week and assure us the low-pressure system will soon move on from this Mamanuca group of islands. “Vinaka,” we say weakly, thanking them for their positivity before we return indoors for yet another game of Scrabble, our hats and sunscreen still packed in our bags.
Day four and I’m woken by a puzzling sound. Silence. No sheeting rain like drubbing, impatient fingers against our windows, no wind in angry battle with our thatched roof, no waves relentlessly forging a path towards our door.
By lunchtime the sun has parted the gloomy grey curtain to which we’ve become accustomed, blue sky takes centre stage and the theatre of our much-dreamt-of holiday is about to begin. My appetite fully returned, we feast in the beachside dining room and plan boardgame-free activities.
For the next four days we snorkel with rainbow-coloured wrasse, canary-yellow golden damsels, bemused-looking orange-lined triggerfish and Moorish idols with dorsal fin filament trailing (think Gill from Finding Nemo). We kayak round the island on translucent water, spotting sapphire blue starfish clinging to the seabed, and joke how it beggars belief we didn’t make Olympic K2 selection. We swim amid ripples crusted in twinkling diamonds as the radiant sun caresses the sea’s surface, then sip cool crisp wine as the giant fireball sinks, shooting out blazing shafts of gilded light, before finally being extinguished by its watery grave.
We watch dolphins frolic just metres from our bure, and realise from random patches of hot, strawberry-coloured skin that our 30+ sunscreen must make way for tropical-strength 50+. We hike each day before breakfast to Qalito’s summit and look out to the island where Cast Away was filmed, wondering why on earth a marooned Tom Hanks didn’t just swim across, Wilson in tow, to this idyllic resort. It has a beach volleyball court, after all.
As the tender arrives on our final afternoon to deliver us back to real life, I’m made misty-eyed by the “farewell song” and find myself longing to stay in this tropical paradise. I grab my phone and dial up the weather for my arrival into Melbourne. A paltry 16 degrees but, thankfully, only the same number of days until spring.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 1, 2016 as "The sun also teases ". Subscribe here.