My maiden voyage on the Uto ni Yalo | Part 2
11 June, 2023, 4:44 pm
Last week you caught a glimpse of the child-like excitement that gripped me the moment I stepped aboard the Uto Ni Yalo.
That was my first official trip on the contemporary traditional sailing vessel.
I followed a group of the Blue Prosperity Fiji divers around a little patch of reefs off a little islet off Leleuvia Island.
They were demonstrating their work, initiated by the government, to take stock of our in-shore marine resources, and collect traditional knowledge of fishing grounds from their traditional owners, to assist in the development and implementation of laws that govern and protect our marine life.
After following the divers around I made for the islet, which I was told was called Honeymoon Island.
It was not more than a 100-meter swim from where we were following the divers around to what seemed like an oasis in a blue desert.
As I got closer it became evident that this little dot in the sea was a haven for seabirds.
Petrels and noddys crammed the airspace around the island.
They soared, from gust to gust, seemingly suspended in the air with their stretched out pair of gliders.
The stench of their droppings struck you as you approached from about 20 meters out.
It hung stubbornly in the air, but the beauty of the place – even though it looked wind-whipped – removed it from mind.
The sand was almost like flour – fine, smooth, and white.
I stood up in the water waist-deep and trode on to the beach.
It was deserted except for the flock of petrels and noddys that were chorusing from their nests down in the creeping beach vine that held the sand together.
There was a rather nasty cloud cover, which just made the rising mountains of Viti Levu and Ovalau even more dramatic.
The rain threatened to come down pouring on the island, to drench me – not that I would care as I was still wet from the swim over – but the sun would crack through the clouds, illuminating the lagoon from a seemingly angry shade of aqua blue.
Despite the rancid smell of the bird droppings that seemed to worsen as the wind blew it from the far side of the island to where I stood, I could not help but feel as though I was on the threshold of heaven.
There was definitely a presence, whether just of the island as an oasis or some other spirits, I could not tell at the time.
Pieces of coral litter was strewn on the beach, and my issue of finding souvenirs for my comrades back in the office was sorted.
All I had to do was swim back to the Uto, still anchored about 100 meters off the island, with all those pieces of coral I had collected from the beach.
On went the fins, the mask, and the snorkel.
The pieces of coral that could fit in my pockets went in, and I clung to my phone in its waterproof case as I began the swim back, gliding over the clusters of coral that had been surveyed by the team of divers from the Plan B not 30 minutes earlier.
The current was no joke, and to stop from being carried towards Moturiki we swam slightly up stream and drifted down towards the Uto.
There was only one ladder for the half a dozen or so snorkelers who dived into the water to observe the dive team, so there was quite a wait as we climbed back aboard one by one.
After everyone had come out of the water, we weighed anchor and set sail back to Leleuvia.
It was a short sail and after a few attempts we dropped the hook off Leleuvia, which was a more sheltered anchorage than Honeymoon Island.
After a saltwater bath, we rubbed ourselves down with coconut oil to remove the salt from our skins and joined the rest of the expedition party on deck.
By this time the tanoa had been brought out and we all seemed to be called to the water before dinner was served.
After we were welcomed by the crew to this tradition of the Uto, the stories began to be spun – stories about the size of the seas they encountered while on voyages around the Pacific, the fun they had in the different Islands, and the sadness of losing some of the family that made up the crew of the Uto Ni Yalo.
The following morning, after a beautiful night spent gently rocked to sleep on deck – and with the help of the kava induced euphoria – I woke to sounds of the sea as it lapped the side of the long and narrow hulls.
The smell of lolo buns cooking on the stove and of a freshly boiled kettle of tea aroused the senses.
One of the crew then asked about the swim to the island the day before and I proudly announced I was the first to reach it.
Then the story of the island, although details did seem sketchy, came out.
It was named Honeymoon Island by the English speakers, but its Fijian name was Sau Tabu.
I began to stare in disbelief, recognising what it meant.
The crew member then said it was a chiefly burial ground a long time ago.
They stood there on deck watching as we swam to the island.
“You couldn’t have told me this before we went walking around on it?” I asked as they broke out in laughter.
The biggest piece of coral that came from Sau Tabu, I gifted to my favourite colleague, Ana Madigibuli — my Tau from Ra.
As we waited for the lolo buns, we decided to explore Leleuvia, which was still waking up from its slumber.
The island has quite a history too, as shared by the crew.
It was a check point for canoes sailing into Bau Waters in the days of old.
Men would be stationed on the island and would monitor movements on the sea heading towards Bau.
Apparently standing on deck as you sailed into Bau Waters was an act of aggression.
Leleuvia also boasted an old cannibal pot where many poor and unfortunate souls were cooked.
Not too long after breakfast we had one last dip in the sea before we began the journey back to reality.
Join us next week for a talanoa with Kaiafa Ledua, a navigator on the Uto Ni Yalo.
PART 3 —NEXT WEEK