The earth cranks cruelly around in the winter, stranding us on the far side, the sun brief and oblique in the southern sky. For the several hundred islands called Fiji, in the South Pacific below the Equator, our winter is just more good news. Over the green islands and their surrounding labyrinth of coral reef, the sun goes on trumpeting all day.
The day I left San Francisco was frigid and rainy. The worst storm in two years was slamming out of the northwest, violent 10-foot chop tearing up the beach decks along the coast. I'd had it. I'd been freezing for weeks. I was heading for Fiji, to go surfing or watch birds on a couple of those hundreds of islands, but mainly to get warm.
As I write these words it's about 90 degrees. The sun's as big as a ham, and I'm lying in a hammock in a grass shack, no less. Out there is a warm Pacific Ocean and what is arguably the best surfing beach in the world. Breaking greenly at the edge of the turquoise water over the reef are perfect waves, crispy "lefts," superhollow peelers about four feet high.
Nobody's surfing. There are only six surfers allowed on this island at a time, and they went out in the longboat this morning, to a reef a mile out, to catch waves as perfect as these but twice as large. Nobody's left on the island but me and three women in bikinis. Eat your heart out, frozen America.
Fiji's about the same distance south of the Equator as Hawaii is north of it. It is transected by the 180th meridian and the international date line -- which jogs conveniently eastward around the islands, so that the people up the street don't have to live in yesterday.
Fewer than 100 of the Fiji islands are inhabited at all. Some, like those owned by Americans Malcolm Forbes -- who's built his own freeway here -- and the guru Da Free John, with his circle of devotees, have special populations.
The 30-acre island I'm writing from, called Tavarua, has about 20 inhabitants, mostly Americans dedicated to the sport of surfing. Tavarua is an anomaly in the Fijis -- it lies in a gap in the otherwise extensive barrier reef and is open to the swells built up by the trade winds. It has its own reef; in fact, the island is a reef, covered with sand and the vegetation that has migrated here on the waves -- coconut palms, mangrove, casuarina, creepers and bamboo.
The island's about 20 minutes, by boat, west of Viti Levu, the big island of Fiji, hilly and volcanically formed. To get here you find a taxi that will take you down a dirt road through the hills and cane fields to the unmarked shore; you then walk along a mangrove swamp across a mud flat for a half mile to meet the longboat and Scott Funk, one of the two American surfers who own the island. He takes you over with a load of cargo -- bread or motor oil or whatever -- across a wide bay to the island, which lies low against the water, green-rimmed with a band of white sand.
The place has bures, or thatched cottages, for guests, and a restaurant, and is clean and comfortable -- and elaborate, considering that all of it has been hauled across the bay and up the beach by hand. In the open-air restaurant, you can drink Fiji Beer with its ironic label -- "Fiji Bitter Fiji" -- and watch the waves and the two islands beyond them, one distant and mountainous, one tiny and perfect with its three palms, like a New Yorker cartoon.
The first thing I did this morning was go snorkeling. I'd done so elsewhere in Fiji, and I noticed immediately that the reef was different here, rougher and more oceanic. The fish were big, whole schools of banded blackfish, for instance, each as large as a forearm. The water was so clear I could watch the mirrored undersurfaces of the waves passing overhead, but the reef looked battered and had deep gouges through it, like highways through the stone forest, heading for the beach. When I got in, I asked about this. "Oh," someone said, "the tide's out. Wait until it comes in and you'll understand."
It did and I did. At high tide the surf here, however graceful, is ferocious. The reef is part of what makes the waves so beautiful, dragging them evenly and effectively from beneath. But the power of the waves takes its toll on the coral, gouging and sweeping the stone. And needless to say, the coral takes its toll on the surfers.
I never surfed; I still don't surf. But when I was a kid in Springfield, Va., 3,000 miles from any good waves, I got hooked on surf magazine photos, not to mention white cord Levis, tire-tread sandals and Jan and Dean records. I saw "The Endless Summer" 12 times. None of that's entirely behind me. I can still identify many surf spots I've never visited from a glance at a photo. So on this tiny island in Fiji, with real surfers and world-class waves, I was, as they say, totally stoked.
But my look at the reef kept me out of the big waves. When I mentioned those gouges in the reef to one of the surfers -- a guy called "Mad Dog" by his friends -- he thought of them gratefully. That's where you survive, he said, if you fall. You huddle there, in these gaps in the sharp coral, while houses of water fall on you.
So I took a boogie-board -- the '80s equivalent of the good old rubber raft -- into the shore break. These were the waves that broke close in, on the soft sand of the beach. One of the women gave me pointers, and I was soon cutting right or left, to stay in the unbroken water, ahead of the foam. Often in doing so, I would run into the broken water of another part of the wave.
What makes the bigger waves here perfect is that this inconsistent break almost never happens: The wave breaks in one gesture across its whole length, like a salami fed to a slicer. The rides go on and on, and end only where a deep channel opens in the reefs around the island, the waves break in different directions and at different heights, depending on the reef, the tide, the distance from shore.
In this way Tavarua is more like a ski area than a surf spot, with various waves and conditions ranging in difficulty, as I saw it, from dangerous to fatal.
The brochure for the island includes this hair-raising sentence: "A comprehensive first-aid kit will be available to help handle the consequences of meeting the bottom, and should a serious accident occur, a hospital can be reached within two hours." "Meeting the bottom" is such a pleasant phrase, rather like "lunching with Godzilla."
The toughest place here is called Cloud Breaks. From the Swiss Family Robinson-style treehouse on the island, I watched through binoculars as the surfers took off there. The waves break a long way offshore -- the longboat takes the surfers and their boards out, and then anchors, safely beyond the break. It must feel like mid-ocean.
The sets of huge ocean waves come in over the reef, like white wheels rolling in the water. The waves break to the left, and their uptake exposes the horns and blades of the coral to the right, only 50 yards from the surfers as they take off.
And there they were, crouched in the round rooms of water beneath the curl, shredding the broad vertical face of the water. Gnarly barrels, they called the waves, Black-and-Deckers.
There's more to worry about out there than the waves and the coral. At the edge of the deep water are the deep-water animals. One of the guys saw a large shark rise with a swell, and I found a poisonous eight-foot sea snake, banded black and white with a fin for a tail, sunning itself on the rocks in the early morning. Small deadly things live in the reef as well: the stonefish with its instant poison and the spiny lionfish. Most common and none the worse is the staph infection that often comes with coral cuts.
Even with all this, the surfers are dedicated. Dave Clark, the co-owner of the place, put it matter-of-factly. "My main motivation in life," he said, "is surf." The guys I watched stayed out all day, putting in seven or eight hours at Cloud Breaks. When they came in I saw not the delicate gymnasts I expected, but moose, lumberjack-shouldered, big guys and strong swimmers. Surfer Phil Rose, called "The Wavehound," went back in the surf during his lunch break and again after dinner. Even one of his tired buddies, impressed, said, "I should have gone with him, but I totally gelled."
I watched his persistence pay off in the longest ride of the day. He held the wave's green face for what seemed like hours, pursued by the arc of the break across the whole length of the beach, under an evening sky. Those of us in the restaurant had to put aside what we were doing to watch, all of us transported by his ride.
I spent a week mostly in the water, slowly remembering what it's like to swim easily and comfortably. From Tavarua I returned to the "mainland" of Viti Levu and took a tiny plane north to the other island I decided to see, Taveuni, known as the Garden Island of the Fijis.
Long and steep, Taveuni has a volcanic spine that precipitates huge amounts of rain from the trade winds. Almost any afternoon the 4,000-foot ridge has a crown of billowing cumulus clouds and dark streaks of rain falling beneath it. The daily rainfall and the volcanic soil have produced a dense rain forest on the island, and the absence of the mongoose -- imported to the other islands for pest control -- has allowed for a rich array of birdlife -- parrots, doves, ground fowl and others.
It's now my eighth day in Fiji, and though it's only 9 in the morning, I've been hiking uphill for three hours to reach the peak of the island and the radio tower at the top. I've had the good fortune to arrive on a day when the monthly maintenance crew is at work on the broadcasting facilities here. They invited me to climb the tower and I've done so, dizzily, up a narrow, nearly vertical steel ladder to the first platform, about 50 feet up and seeming like 500. I'm sitting in the middle of this platform -- as far away from any edge as possible -- and looking down on the whole island.
To the west is the Somosomo Strait, a body of azure water between Taveuni and the island of Vanua Levu, second largest in the Fijis. The strait is streaked and dotted with the turquoise of submerged coral reef, perhaps the most varied and beautiful in the world, prime scuba-diving territory.
For the past three days, I've been fluttering around down there, listening to my own bubbles and staring awestruck through a glass mask. The water is so clear here that at a depth of 60 feet one casts shadows on the reef, and seeing for a hundred yards in every direction, one has the amazing sense of flying over an underwater landscape, of hills and bluffs and caves, wildly colored vegetation over all of it and fish -- small ones everywhere and great big ones at the blue edges of things, flashing away. Most amazing of all, perhaps, is the blue vault of the surface, radiant and strange, calling our shattered breath back to the atmosphere of air.
Today, though, one ear still full of water, I decided to stay on dry land, to get away from people, to see the birds and get up high. I rented a moped at the hotel and drove it over the gravel roads (no mean feat, I might add) into the foothills, until the tiny engine began to complain. Then I parked it in the long grass and began to walk uphill, on a road paved with chunks of coral.
I walked through one small Fijian village and was wished "Mbula!" -- hello and welcome -- by everyone in sight. The Fijians, much feared in the last century as cannibals, now seem to be among the most sincerely welcoming people in the world. The most dangerous thing about riding a moped in Fiji, for instance, is wanting to wave all the time, returning the ubiquitous greeting and thus removing one hand -- not to mention one's concentration -- from the steering.
The kids in the village tagged along with me for a while as I climbed, and then turned back, waving goodbye. At higher elevations the coral in the roadbed disappeared, replaced by rough chunks of lava. Part of what I wanted to see at the top was the crater, now filled with a shallow lake.
The trees by the road were that tropical yellow-green and in dense profusion, tangled with vines and moss and niched with orchids. Everything was heavily beaded with dew. This early in the morning the sun silhouetted the ridge to the east, laying down nearly horizontal shafts of light through the tops of the larger trees, and it was the time of day for birdsong.
Among the songs -- the cooing and whistling of fruit doves, the call of the cuckoo, the trills of the smaller birds -- was the occasional racket of squawking from gangs of parrots in the trees, red-breasted musk parrots to be exact, of a species native to this island, with maroon heads, blue collars, bright green backs and wings. A stunning and noisy bird, this parrot is called "loud-mouthed" by bird expert Fergus Clunie, whose guidebook "Birds of the Fiji Bush" notes also that these birds are "remarkably alert and inquisitive, gathering in raucous flocks to discuss even the most cunning observer." Coming flagrantly up the radio tower road, I made an easy target and was scolded for miles on end.
The ordinarily dispassionate Clunie cannot contain his superlatives for one bird, which I saw several times on my walk: the silktail, which Clunie describes as "supremely beautiful." Common only to Taveuni, this flycatcher is satin black and spangled on the head and shoulders with metallic blue. This classy bird has silk-white tail coverts that flash when it takes flight.
As I approached the top of the ridge the lava chips of the roadbed got finer and finer, until I was walking on dark silvered sand that crunched like ground glass. The trail grew steeper and switched back and forth more violently near the top, then opened onto a narrow plateau from which rose the radio tower.
And here at the top of the island I was greeted by three maintenance engineers and invited in for breakfast -- strong tea with sugar and milk, papaya and the sweet starchy tuber of tapioca. My three hosts spend two weeks at the station every few months, repairing switches and relays. We spoke a little -- of Russia and America, mostly -- but in some mysterious way they made me feel completely comfortable and made the option of speaking just that, an option. I remembered a friend in the Peace Corps in Africa, who found to his amazement that people there were content to come over to visit and then sit happily in silence for hours.
After breakfast, they invited me to climb their tower, and here I am. To the northeast is the small lake over the crater of the volcano and, beyond that, the coast and island after island in its aura of coral -- Qamea, Laucala, Matagi -- then the ocean swells and deep blue of the Pacific, and a continent's length away, Hawaii, and as far again as that, winter.