13th May, 2017 – 27th May, 2017
“We work in a relatively small bubble in modern sport within rugby, but the Olympics just changes everything.” Ben Ryan
After an adventurous 13 hour, overnight ferry across to Vanua Levu (the second largest island), we arrived in Savusavu, the town we would call home for the next two weeks. Both Chris and I had stayed here, four years before, but never at the same time and we had many places to re-visit and entertaining tales to re-tell. Savusavu is a much smaller town and was a breath of fresh air compared to the busy development of Suva. This is not to say that it could necessarily be considered remote anymore, being a port town, with development noticeable since our last visit.
We were staying in a rented house, on the outskirts of the area, just opposite the last bus stop (about 15 minutes drive from town along a dusty, unpaved road). Here we found the remoteness and peace and quiet we had imagined when picturing our Fiji visit. Unbeknown to us when we booked it, the modest two room house we were renting was just down the road from the Jean-Michel Cousteau Dive Resort, which certainly gave us a view of how the other half live! Chris managed to wangle us a dive deal here and it was with them that we completed 8 dives while in Savusavu (more about this in my diving post).
Savusavu still retained all the small Fijian town charm which we remembered and we made an effort to throw ourselves into life here as if we were locals. For example, on Sunday evenings, the local expat event of the week occurs at the Yacht Club. There is a live band headed by 4 Fijians and Andy the Australian drummer, and manager of the dive centre at the JMC resort. You can order food to be brought for you from two of the attached restaurants and witness the sun-beaten, retired expats downing a few shots in celebration (one can only assume, of having chosen to live in paradise).
Another event we attended was the home match of the local rugby team (Caukodrove Sharks) who were playing against the Suva team. Our taxi dropped us off on a road, and we made our way along two sides of corrugated iron fencing to get Internet to the pitch. The view over the bay meant that the pitch must rival top spot for beautiful pitch locations. We weaved our way among the excited Fijian crowd and joined them sitting on the grass, ready for the match to begin. There was some atmospheric singing from both teams, and then they began. Despite a valiant fight, the Suva team won the match (perhaps helped by being from the capital population as opposed to from a provincial town). Despite the loss, it was absolutely fantastic to watch Fijians play rugby, as you can believe that the men were built to play the sport. The crowd atmosphere was also unrivalled with good natured cat-calling and dramatic sound effects emanating from the crowd after every pass and fumble.
Pride over rugby is not just limited to local teams in Fiji and it would not be considered an exaggeration to consider the most famous, and idolised group of people in Fiji to be the Rugby 7s team who won Gold in the 2016 Brazil Olympics. One of the expats we met told us a story, that when Tom Hanks arrived in Nadi airport (ready to film Castaway), he refused to leave the plane until his security team had confirmed with the Fijian airport security that there was sufficient crowd control in place. Apparently the Fijian at the end of the telephone laughed and explained that the only time Nadi airport need crowd control is when the Rugby 7s team lands! It is easy to imagine a rather put out Tom Hanks walking through the airport with hardly a second glance at him. Perhaps the most obvious symbol of Fijian’s pride of their Gold Medal is that in April 2017 they issued $7 notes to commemorate their team, (pictured below, a precious note that I was given as change). More so than any other nationality, you will be made aware of this pride if you are British and travelling in Fiji. In almost every taxi we travelled in, when it was revealed that we were English, the follow up question would be, “Oh, do you know our Rugby 7s team? Their coach was from England.” England born, Ben Ryan has become a household name, and is honoured alongside the Fijian players. For example, Fiji’s Reserve Bank will also issue one million 50¢ coins with the image of the coach on one side and Fiji players hoisting the Olympic trophy on the other. If I was going to give any advice to a Brit on how to instantly bond with any (predominantly male) Fijian, it would be to learn about their 7s team and know Ben Ryan’s name!