A courageous rooster crows in the sleepy village below. I’m on the southern island of Kadavu. Spirals of smoke rise from cooking fires to a lazy sky of Fiji blue. I clamber up concrete stairs by the dining room and along a spur straddling huts of palm frond thatch and sheets of rusted iron. Monster mango trees throw a shroud of welcome shade – cool and dark – over ragamuffin fence posts and loose strands of random wire. Motley chickens scratch along the path.
On the highest knoll I sit by a wind-bent palm, sun on my back, gazing across the Pacific at Nabukulevu; an extinct cloud-topped volcano with the incongruous sometimes-name of 'Mt Washington'. The expanse of the Great Astrolabe Reef stretches northwards towards Suva. There are wafts of smoke, the air smelling of burnt grass. Ethereal bouts of Sunday singing drift past on updraughts of warm air; melodious melded voices rise and fall. The hair stands on the back of my neck.
Far below, a canoe-back yacht sits, shining white hull and masts aglow on early-morning indigo seas; the unsighted captain apparently choosing last night’s tide to navigate these reef-strewn islands in total darkness.
After dinner we’re joined beachside by the mystery captain; a lone Brit sailor making his way around the world. Robert is a retired London Doctor, having always wanted to sail. With the death of his long-time wife, he bought the yacht and took lessons, leaving Bristol to see the world. With the wryest smile, he relates his first adventure; alone and stranded on Spanish sandbanks. Robert pushes the salt shaker along the bar. He’s not concerned with any danger. “Things will always work out,” he says, as if to himself.
Robert could never go back. “There's nothing for me these days.” For a moment his eyes look downward and then turn away, and he muses over a bottle of Fiji Bitter. I wonder why he’s decided on here. Robert shrugs. “Why ever not?” he answers.
Where is he headed? Robert takes a breath. “Ah”, he finally says gazing out to sea, “to the edge of the world; to where there be dragons.” There’s another of those wry smiles and with the last of the sunset we fall quiet and wait for the famous green flash on the Kadavu horizon.
In the morning I walk barefoot along the village promenade, the sandy beach wide, the waves a mere murmur; the parking lot a gaggle of runabout tinnies. There are no roads here. Kids approach and pass, with laughing eyes and white-teeth; proud and village-bound with bounty. They lug coconuts and breadfruit, hefty machetes swung from tiny hands. Generic tribes of dogs trot alongside; all tan with white-tipped curly tails and fox noses. I continue on, past snuffling pigs and vegetable paddocks.
In the shade the sand is wet – the smells organic – the legacy of a Camelot downpour overnight. Twisted palm trunks curve wherever they will, while broken coconut shells peek from dank primeval layers of leaf litter, wrecked branches and discarded palm fronds. Cliffs hide behind, rising to the hot sun and grassy knolls where I sat and pondered the arrival of Robert the morning before. Up ahead the boat sits just offshore, Robert’s unruly mop of grey hair prominent as he busies himself with chores about the deck and sails.
I sit and watch from my secret haven, cold sand between my toes. His boat turns slowly one way, then again into the wind; sails flap gently then fill. Robert stands straight and peers ahead, one hand on the helm, the other brushing the fringe from his face.
The boat turns and heads away, leaving a wake of broken glass. The splosh of the bow breaks the spell and I wonder where he’s really headed.