Fiona Harper believes Captain James Cook may have missed the point … and one of Fiji’s unspoilt gems when he left the Lau Islands without further exploration.

Intrepid navigator Captain James Cook’s ambitious explorations enticed him from the wintery shores of Great Britain to the idyllic South Pacific. It sounds like a dream assignment. Commanding an expedition to observe the Transit of Venus, Cook spent a number of years bouncing around the Pacific Ocean on-board the bark Endeavour once that mission was accomplished. Searching for the mythical Great Southern Land, his travels took him into chilly Antarctic Circle waters before heading northwards to the Marquesas. Making just one landfall in Fiji (or Fidgee as it was then known) he chose to go ashore at one of the most beautiful islands in a country with over 300 of them. Sighting turtles foraging on the reef, Cook’s shore party found islanders armed with clubs and spears. He named the landmass rising out of the fringing reef Turtle Island before casting Fiji adrift and sailing over the horizon.

Had he known that he missed the chain of islands now known as the Lau Group of Islands the course of history would likely have been vastly different. But he was on a mission, inspired to ‘not only go farther than anyone had been before, but as far as it was possible for man to go’.

Three years and lots of kava

Sorry James, we know you were on important government business, but, with respect, you kind of missed the point of exploration. Well, you did when compared to today’s travellers seeking their own tropical paradise in far-flung South Pacific locales. Particularly those inclined towards finding secret spots as yet undiscovered by mass tourism. On that point the Lau Islands deliver in spades. If you’re looking for the Fiji unseen in any tourism brochures, you’ll find it in the Lau Group.

In fact, the Lau Islands are so far off the tourist radar few have heard of them. The chain of 57 islands that run north-south along the 180 degree meridian are beautifully bejewelled treasures draped across an aquamarine sea. There are a couple of dirt airstrips though most arrivals come by sea just as they have for eons long before Cook stumbled upon them. Cruising yachts and a sporadic inter island service offer two options to get there. But the best way to explore the Lau Islands is to book a berth on Captain Cook Cruises MV Reef Endeavour. It took CCC three years over innumerable kava bowls to gain approval, meeting with chiefs, islanders and government officials.

It was worth the wait. Cook’s namesake ventures to this far eastern archipelago just three times each year, taking travellers to places without postcards. Though Cook reported altercations with fierce warriors, these days bashful children or gap-toothed elders are more likely to greet the rare visitors who step ashore.

Touted as the ‘real Fiji, untouched and unspoilt by western influence’, it’s hard to argue with the claim. Particularly after surging through the narrow gap of fringing reef surrounding Fulaga Lagoon. A vast turquoise-hued lagoon is protected by ocean swells generated by south east trade winds. It’s a natural tropical paradise. The only thing missing is a freshly hulled coconut with a miniature umbrella and a straw poking out of it. There are however plenty of palm trees dripping with coconuts at hand to make amends. Beneath a powder blue sky dotted with cotton puff clouds tiny mushroom-like islets rise from the seabed. The shallow seabed itself is every bit as white as the clouds overhead. Atop the tiny islets iridescent green palm trees swoosh in the breeze. Undercut and eroded by the tide, some have arches creating miniature land bridges just large enough for a kayak or canoe to manoeuvre through.

Oceania’s star cluster

As the tide falls sandy islets rise above the sea, their shores kissed by gin-clear waters. Turtles appear to hover in thin air. Further afield long strips of beach sand are shaded by more coconut palms. This is the real treasure that Cook missed. It’s the sort of tranquil South Pacific idyll countless adventurers and artists, hedonists and hermits have sought for eons. I confess I’m smitten. Hidden away in the Southern Lau Group, Fulaga Lagoon is as far from downtown Nadi as it’s possible to be. If paradise has a postcode it’s right here. I toy briefly with the idea of jumping ship, settling into Fijian life and living a castaway life. Had Tom Hanks’s Cast Away character Chuck found himself washed up at Fulaga I suspect he wouldn’t have been quite so enthusiastic about being rescued.

Travel writer Paul Theroux in The Happy Isles of Oceania describes the Lau group quite neatly as ‘one of the pretty little star-clusters in the universe of Oceania’. He must have paddled into Fulaga Lagoon too.

There are but a handful of villages spread across the Lau archipelago. Few receive foreign visitors so that when MV Reef Endeavour appears on the horizon villagers throw open their arms. They open up their meagre homes, schools and churches too, inviting visitors to come inside like long lost family. Some, like those on Makogai Island lay out the welcome mat with delightful meke (dance) performances. It doesn’t take long for bashful children to lose their inhibitions amongst strangers, happily holding visitors’ hands as they proudly show off their school classrooms. Makogai was a former leper colony until 1969, when approximately 4,500 lepers passed through the hospital staffed by Catholic nuns. A crumbling graveyard and hospital ruins overgrown by jungle remain.

At Waiqori village on Oneata Island villagers turn out in their Sunday best to greet new arrivals before worship services begin. Women bring out bolts of tapa cloth hand beaten from bark and decorated with vegetable dye geometric designs. Purchases are discussed with much laughter and joviality while curious onlookers keep their distance.

The Lau group’s third largest island, the coastline of volcanic Vanuabalavu Island has been eroded and undercut by wind and waves creating caves accessible by sea. Snorkelling through a gap in the rock a cavernous cathedral opens up. It’s dripping with stalactites. Fish dart in and out of the cave unperturbed by human invasion. Archaeological expeditions conclude that a Vanuabaluva cave shows signs of human habitation around ten centuries ago. Life in these fertile islands remains very simple with the land, the sea and the sky providing pretty much all the sustenance required. I wonder how much daily life in these parts has changed since Cook’s much-lauded Pacific voyages. Not a whole lot I suspect.

More information
Captain Cook Cruises www.captaincookcruisesfiji.com