To think we almost didn’t come here. To think they almost didn’t let us come here! After sitting down with customs and immigration in Fiji and having a carefully worded conversation, they granted us a visit for the sole purpose of refuelling before continuing north. Our “special permission” came on a very official-looking sticky note and was accompanied by intimidating eye contact and the stipulation that we were neither on vacation nor to go surfing. Though the weather window we were looking at was less than ideal it was the best we’d seen in weeks and we were impatient to go, so we backed out of the office while still in their good graces and prepared Cavalo for passage.
A two day motor-sail and the island appeared suddenly as islands tend to do when the air is dense and humid and holding the seaspray in a perpetual state of suspension. It was larger than we expected with peaks and coves, a spattering of rocky islets all around. As we rounded the eastern coastline the flash of the sun off a mirror glinted on the beach and I ran below to grab a compact to return the signal. Senseless twinkles of communication left me giddy, and when we reached the anchorage we found the clear turquoise-blue bay all to ourselves. What was this paradise we’d so recently just heard of?
While Rotuma is technically part of Fiji, the people and culture bear little resemblance. They speak their own language and have their own customs and holidays, and are widely considered Polynesian instead of Melanesian, tracing their lineage back to Tonga, Samoa and French Polynesia. Even the land itself, dark and jagged volcanic rock, was more reminiscent of the Marquesas. We thumbed a truck into town (after walking 6 of the 12 kilometres) and drove past immaculate homes nested behind expertly crafted low coral walls, veils of orchids and hibiscus and a rainbow of other tropical flora, deducing that the locals take great pride in gardening and property maintenance. Even the grounds surrounding abandoned homes were kept, rubbish we’d grown used to seeing on beaches was nowhere to be found.
There are no tourist facilities on the island. No hotels, hostels, places to buy a meal. That said, there were no other visitors present and all eyes were on us, so we made sure to play by the rules. We jumped off the truck in front of the police station and went in to make ourselves known and show immigration our special sticky note, then set off to take care of our own business. While we didn’t end up needing much fuel, what we did need was a new battery. Wait, what!? If you’re thinking that by now we must be beyond sick of thinking, talking and writing about batteries, you’re right. So, in short, the engine start battery that we got for a very reasonable price in Raiatea over two years ago that at this point doesn’t owe us anything finally gave up. And by “gave up” I mean fucking exploded. Gunshot bang, cabin full of thick white smoke, battery acid everywhere. Obviously this all happened offshore in the middle of the night and was absolutely terrifying. The boat is fine, we’re fine.
Here enters the unlikely hero… In addition to the other amenities Rotuma lacks (not in the least bit a complaint) there isn’t, you know, a battery store. We set off on foot towards the energy building that powers the island thinking they would know where we might be able to get our hands on something, but ran into one of the officials from biosecurity along the way. We told him what we were doing, he told us he had a battery. In fact, he had a brand new battery. It had been destined for a generator but for whatever reason wasn’t needed after all and had been sitting on the floor in his office for six months. He seemed eager to get rid of it and offered to put in on a charge for a few days, and just like that, in one brief chance encounter, we managed to acquire a battery and buy ourselves a few days to not be on vacation. The rest of the biosecurity team was organizing their weekly fruit harvest and offered to take us along; their route went right by the wharf, and an impromptu tour could double as a lift home. We climbed into the truck and took off down a dirt road running parallel to but hidden from the main road, through backyards and a large muddy sports field. They described to us the different fruits they were harvesting and the fruit flies they were incubating for study, I explained what doing doughnuts was. Matt shot me a sideways glance but they seemed in good humor, though disinclined to stomp the accelerator and crank the wheel.
Rotuma seems almost a secret, like a puzzle box. The twinkle on the beach was an invitation, or a dare, and with each passing day more of the island opened up to us. Faces became familiar and one by one revealed to us a glimpse of the island’s seemingly endless trove of treasures along the coastline, in the jungle, underwater or in someone’s home. Places and things that no one would find on their own without feeling like they were trespassing. A quiet, isolated little island with a whole world inside it. We did manage to go surfing, but we won’t say where.
- If attempting to obtain clearance, confirm well ahead of time that all officials will be on the island. They usually are not all present, Fiji is strict on formalities, and they will know you’re there.
- The main town is on the western side of the larger portion of the island, north of the neck to the smaller portion. It is about 12 kilometres from the main anchorage and there are few vehicles on the island, so plan your walk early and stick out your thumb.
- NE anchorage is the most reliable, though it is largely exposed, shallow, any strong breeze from any northerly direction would make it untenable.
- Anchor in 2.5 metres, sand. Swell is bothersome, stern anchor recommended. Tuck in as close to the wharf as you dare. Have a long line ready to run to the wharf for strong northerlies or excessive swell.
- Flies are extremely bothersome. They do not bite, but will swarm heavily at all hours of daylight. Screens are very recommended for those planning to visit Rotuma.
- There are no yachting facilities whatsoever. Diesel can be purchased from barrels at a number of locations on the island, but the supply ship only comes once a month, so one should be considerate of the islanders’ needs. You will need to arrange transportation of your jerry cans, there is no mobile diesel unit.
- There are no rubbish receptacles and all water is either bore water or rainwater.
- Basic provisions can be obtained in every village, with the main town having the most variety. There is no produce market, so if you want fruit or veg you will need to make friends. Again, be considerate of the islanders’ needs.
- Ciguatera reported.
* These notes are offered as observations only and are not meant for navigational purposes.