Sunday, July 3, 2022

Bula Fiji! Queens Road cycle tour

After a veritable orgy of international travel in 2019, the limitations imposed by the pandemic have really starting to wear thin on Sarah and I.  As the end of daylight savings approached in March, we started to see signs that restrictions were beginning to ease.  Other than noises the government was making about fully opening our border, Air New Zealand scheduling seemed like as good a signal as any - they had so much financial stake in things, I assumed their decision making would surely reflect the best forecasting money could buy.  

On 28 March we felt we'd waited long enough, booking not one, but two trips - the first of which was a week in Fiji in late June.  We'd discussed a trip to Mongolia, but it still seemed sensible to avoid international transfers (even if there'd been a feasible route in).  At the time of booking, there looked to be all sorts of hoops still to jump through - both in Fiji and returning home, some of them expensive - but I decided to completely ignore the rules until immediately before travelling.  That strategy proved sound, as both Fiji and NZ ditched almost every requirement by the time we flew in the respective directions.  

One curveball for me was the annoying recurrence of my lower back issues - I'd been trying to be proactive with regular massages and physio, but soon after returning from a lovely break in the Coromandel Peninsula, things pinged off (albeit mildly), which resulted in a seven week period in which I literally rode three times for a total of 50km.  Right up until the week of departure, it was unclear whether I was planning for a riding holiday, or the sort of holiday in Fiji that "regular people have".  Things had settled sufficiently that we were at least confident enough to take our matching Open cycles with us (Unbeaten Paths, here we come...).

Aside from the stress and uncertainty (and er, fitness and fatness - too much of one and too little of the other), another ill effect of the layoff was that I didn't discover my rear brake was grumpy after a post-Coro pads replacement until I was starting to pack the bikes.  "Never leave first thing on a Monday" was what I told myself, but I probably should have been saying "Don't wait until the last minute to check...".  Sunday was a bit stressful, but hurtling around trying to find a lost headphones case and seeing if MyRide could do anything about the brake certainly avoided any pre-holiday impatience.  

Other prep went relatively smoothly - we had printed off our international vaccine certificates (which we needed a few times in Fiji - notably at the border, and again at at least one of our hotels), and had pre-booked RAT tests for the day after we arrived (with printed evidence of that, which we weren't asked for).  

Otherwise, I discovered my tried-and-true method of downloading basemaps for my Garmin GPS had shut down.  They had kindly supplied a re-direct to an alternative - - though getting that site to work took multiple attempts, not to mention some cursing and swearing, and scouring the 'net for alternatives (testing it again now, when there's no sense of urgency, and it worked immediately - of course...).  

We had a lovely final evening with Kaitlyn and Khulan, and decided at the last minute to launch from Karori rather than my parents' place in Strathmore, trading off a slightly better sleep against an earlier start time. 

Day 1:  (NZ to) Nadi to Olosara

Airport logistics went fine, both in Wellington and Auckland, and even though the Dreamliner flight to Nadi was short, we still enjoyed the relative sparsity of the business class cabin, courtesy of our successful upgrade requests - Air NZ have very kindly extended our travel perks for another couple of years.  From my vantage point on the starboard side of the cabin, I got a reasonable view of some of what we'd traverse later that day, though the finer details were lost on me.  

Looking East along the Coral Coast - unbeknownst to me at the time, our destination was just where the cloud is hitting the coast

The pilot had warned us it had been raining in Nadi, and we saw plenty of evidence of that as we disembarked.  While our fat-tyred road bikes were gravel-ready, it wasn't clear how much of the network would be sealed - and besides, it was WARM and that makes all the difference when you get a bit wet!!!  

I don't expect to ever tire of seeing these magnificent machines up close, and in the open air is always a treat

Once through customs, I scoped out the Left Luggage office in the Arrivals Hall, before heading outside to find somewhere to assemble the bikes.  We didn't rush but soon enough were suited up and ready to roll.  Last job was to pack one bike bag inside the other, whereby we paid for only a single bulky item for the week - worth every cent and a much appreciated service.  

Ready to roll!

Despite promising both my physio and Sarah that the first afternoon's ride would be pretty short, we'd ended up with accommodation over 70km away from the airport, and I knew that by trying to stay off the main road, there'd be a few on top of that.  We initially took Nadi Back Road, which immediately felt like a bad idea - 80km speed limit (the maximum on the island) and narrow.  Fortunately for us, the reasonably heavy traffic all gave us plenty of space. 

About 10km in, we peeled off what was by then Queens Road - when paired with Kings Road in the north, you have a circular route around Fiji's main island Viti Levu.  When we found the parallel road I'd scoped on the map was not only unsealed, but sodden, we headed back to the main route and stayed on it for another 20km.  

We did take the turnoff to Momi Bay, this time on the seaward side of Queens Road, and a few kilometres later discovered we'd traded traffic for hills.  At the top of one of the bigger climbs, we started to get the sense that we'd likely see more use of horses as transport than bicycles, and we weren't wrong!

I was surprised soon after when the seal abruptly ended - the side loop was relatively prominent on a handy map I'd used as a planning tool, so it was a surprise that it wasn't as "unsealed" as the map seemed to suggest.  In any case, we were past the point of no return, and luckily, the surface was a tad drier than the road we'd rejected earlier.  

Along the way we passed a bunch of children walking home from school.  One barefoot young boy ran alongside me on the road for about 100 metres - I maintained my speed so as to test only his endurance.  When he finally eased off, I focused on the road ahead and didn't notice if Sarah received similar company.  Despite my body already beginning to chip away at rebuilding my handlebar callouses, I quietly lamented my soft city skin.  

Just before we hit the Queens Road again, we stopped to briefly chat to a man tending to his roadside lawn.  It was interesting to note that he introduced himself, and like a few others that we'd more briefly interacted with, was keen to know both where we were from, and where we were going to.  It was never completely clear to me (from the question or the reaction to my answer) whether they were angling for "New Zealand" or the start point of the day's ride - I suppose I should have asked.

In total, we spent about 30km on the side road, during which time we heard and said "BULA" probably in excess of a hundred times apiece - we noticed that if we pre-emptively called out, the reply would often be "BULA BULA", but in any case, it was a real delight. 

Not quite so delightful was that my rear brake had completely vanished somewhere between Karori and Viti Levu.  The pads were closing up a tiny bit, but weren't creating enough friction to warm up, let alone slow me down.  The resumption of the tar seal made life a little less hectic when gravity assisted. On the technical upside, I'd installed a new split pin in one of Sarah's brakes after hearing a scraping noise emanating from her bike and discovering the old one had vanished.  And, when Sarah announced her front derailleur wasn't shifting, unlike our recent summer trip where we needed rescuing by Dr Fish and his friend Brad, I was fully prepared. Within minutes I'd unpacked the Di2 charger and a power bank, and within minutes she was rolling (and shifting with gay abandon) again.  Some mistakes I'm good at not making a second time.  

Between the 1pm arrival, immigration, bike assembly, detours and tinkering, the day had really marched on, and while we were treated to a beautiful sunset, it was a shame to be riding on the main road after dark.  Fortunately, we had good lights, and the few drivers on the road gave as ample space.  It really doesn't take long in a new place to appreciate how appalling the typical attitude towards cyclists is in NZ relative to... (so far) everywhere I've ever ridden.  

My queen on Queens Road

It was properly dark by the time we reached Sigatoka, and though our accommodation was a few kilometres further, and purported to have a restaurant, we decided to grab something to eat in the town.  Without too much of a survey, we settled on a small indian eatery, and had a very cheap meal which had little else going for it.  I fared slightly better than Sarah - the lamb in her curry was mostly lamb bone, but I'd gone with a vegetarian option and it was pretty much as advertised.  

Our modest "resort" was on a side road, and unfortunately the direct route wasn't a route at all - that added another few minutes to our ride, but worse was that Sarah managed to find a muddy bog somewhere along it requiring a solid bit of maintenance in the morning.  

Day 2:  Olosara to Pacific Harbour

Prior to the aforementioned bike cleaning, we enjoyed breakfast in an outdoor communal area which was across an empty paddock from the main road.  During our meal, we enjoyed watching various good samaritans trying to control some wayward livestock.  

Back from the future - a photo of our first stay, taken when we passed again a few days later

Our first night's accommodation was one of the first bookings I'd made, and when subsequently booking our within-48-hours-of-arrival RAT tests back in Sigatoka, it was too late to change it.  Sadly, this meant the first 10km of riding after breakfast only got us back to where we'd started.  Though, at least we'd fulfilled our duty, and pleasingly, passed both tests with flying colours.  

One advantage of the detour was that when we passed a fellow selling coconuts on the roadside, we'd been riding for more than a couple of minutes, and felt much better about stopping.  It turned out the ones he had for sale were for cooking, but before too long, a family member had dislodged a couple of green coconuts from a nearby tree, and we were chowing into them.  The $5 (about $4 NZD) we were asked for seemed paltry in comparison to the coconut we'd consumed and the mighty fine conversation we'd had, and everyone seemed delighted when I doubled it, not least Sarah.   We'd been told that the locals referred to our destination - Pacific Harbour - as "Pac Harbour", and subsequently, so did we.  

It was an action packed stretch of road.  Soon after, Sarah - hot on the tail of a grader - boosted through a Stop-Go sign in its Stop configuration, and I got a bit of a talking to on her behalf, despite stopping myself.  We reconciled over a coffee and a lamington (for her) and a rather delicious chicken, corn and cheese pie (for him) not much further down the road.  The food at least would have been outrageous without the Sigatoka leg, so it all was starting to feel like a good thing I'd not been better organised.  

I knew our ride to be shorter than what we'd squeezed into the previous afternoon, and that took ample pressure off when it came to stops.  Not long after the coffee, I interpreted a cry from behind as one of bike trouble, but rather Sarah was alerting me of a mighty fine jetty she'd noticed.  I'd being paying close attention to the various accommodation options along this part of the road (we'd be back here in three nights' time), but clearly hadn't been as attentive to the scenery.

It was interesting to note the regular shops along the route - mini dairies with standardised signage and therefore pretty easy to spot.  We mostly didn't bother with them, as between the full water bottles we'd left Sigatoka with and the coconut and coffee stops, we were well catered for.  Nonetheless, Sarah pulled up at a stall to buy some bananas, and when she was required to buy the whole bunch, I had a flash back to our trip to New Caledonia back in 2017 where I recall the same (awkward) thing happening.  It looked like fruit-abuse bungeeing the bunch to the top of her saddle bag, but it was quite cool how she could just reach back and snap another one off whenever the desire took her.

[apparently unflattering photo removed at request of the subject!!!!]

Before finding our accommodation at Pac Harbour we treated ourselves to an icecream each, and not long after were washed and relaxing.  I had kept the Magnum sticks, with designs to try to somehow use them to breath some life back into my rear brake, but once clean, didn't have the energy to (I think I was expecting the stick to be slightly thicker than the rotor, and was hoping that somehow that might help rearrange the hydraulic fluid in a useful way).  

With the apartment's umbrella in tow in case the drizzle that had been threatening came to pass, we walked the kilometre or so back to the main road, and enjoyed an early but otherwise delicious dinner.  The reduced pace gave us a good chance to marvel at some of the greenery, and made a nice change to riding.  

That night before bed I booked a room on the outskirts of Suva, and the most appealing of the places we'd passed that morning.  My back seemed to be holding up nicely, in large part due to the warmth we both thought, and so we felt able to be a bit more ambitious with the distances for the next few days - confidence I'd not had before leaving home.  

Stats84km, 750vm, 26 degrees

Day 3:  Pac Harbour to Uduya Point

The apartment's fridge was stocked for a good breakfast, and with full bellies and a long ride ahead, we didn't feel inclined to stop for seconds when we passed the tourist centre not a few minutes into the ride.  The lily-laden pond was worthy of a photo stop mind you.

We skipped Navua also - it looked to be a fairly major town on the bank of a sizeable river.  A few kilometres later, we stopped to attend to a torn contact lens - at least when cycle touring, there was no question that Sarah would have a spare set, and I was delighted to learn she'd over-catered.  Despite being en route to Suva, Fiji's capital and its largest city, I knew Sarah's prescription was a rather exotic one, and didn't relish the thought of trying to get extras!

Our much anticipated turnoff came after about an hour's riding.  No sooner had we left the main road, we were onto a dirt road, and it was very obvious that we had some serious hills ahead.  While I now had no rear brake to speak of, Sarah's was making a horrible noise and to my horror I discovered that I'd done a lousy bit of replacing her split pin on day one - I hadn't taken the time to ensure the pads were seated properly and the pin had passed through neither of them.  For a couple of days it hadn't mattered (apparently), but this morning they'd moved into a lousy position (hence the noise).  This time I did the job properly, with some relief that all the necessary bits and pieces had stuck around.  

We soon descended into a bit of a basin, where I decided to bust out our newest cycle touring accessory - a DJI Mini 3 Pro drone.  We'd owned it a couple of months - while this blog has been for me a most reliable and enjoyable way to bake in memories for a lifetime, some of the scenery we've recently ridden through has been crying out for a better vantage point.  The drone seemed to tick the bill, and if I can eventually convince Sarah to set up and then populate with content, a "Sarah Goes (Bike) Riding" youtube channel, all the better!  

We'd had it long enough to get a bit of practice under our belts (pilot and model), so getting it up in the sky and capturing a short video and a couple of stills of Sarah riding added only 3 or 4 minutes to the ride.  Bryce at Cyclewerks had supplied a Revelate Egress Pocket which marries to my Pronghorn nicely, and has perfect space for both the drone and its controller, not to mention passports!

We followed a river inland for a while longer, and just when the road seem poised to tip upwards for good, I suggested Sarah have a cooling dip in the river - which was running much cleaner than many we'd crossed on trip so far.  I think she appreciated the suggestion, and maybe it scored me a few useful brownie points to make up for what was to come!

While the road surface was generally good, it quickly became apparent that the gradients were insane.  I know from experience that a sustained 10% slope on the road is tough, and that any double-digit gradient on an unsealed surface is tougher again because it can be nigh on impossible to climb out of the saddle.  Fijian engineers are seemingly quite happy with slopes in excess of 20% which make life really tough on even a lightly-laden cycle tourist!  Tactical walks (sending love to Dave Sharpe for that nugget) weren't always necessary, but were definitely deployed, not always voluntarily!  


After the first main climb was over, we descended into a concrete ford through which flowed the most beautifully clear water we saw on the trip.  We stopped to mess around with the drone, and I subsequently regretted not taking a bit more time and having a swim.  Aside from the refreshment, deferring the next 90 minutes in hell would have been wise.  I held out some vain hope that this was the steep side of the mountain, and while I was able to peel off about 150vm on the other side mounted, I walked almost the entire main descent.  The 1.88km @ -12.9% strava segment is aptly titled "Pray the brakes don't fail" but of course, one of mine already had, and I wasn't about to test the second!

I was relieved to finally be in the river valley, and hoped that we'd be following the river all the way to Suva.  Unfortunately our path (at least in the vertical plane) wouldn't be quite so consistent as the water's - the roads had plenty left in store for my front brake and my nerve alike and I was getting used to a gently skidding front tyre.  Given we'd haemorrhaged both time and energy getting to this point, I chose not to take a detour upriver to see Namosi, which in hindsight was a shame (it looks like a decent sized town on the satellite map).  

Sarah (Pray the brakes don't fail QOM) waiting for me at the bottom, with Waidina village in the background (just downriver of Namosi).

The paper map I'd printed had a least one placename marked on it, and there I hoped to find a shop (Namosi isn't, incidentally - indeed the map tends to name completely different places to what you see on Google Maps)!  The first village we passed was on the other side of the river, accessed by a swing bridge (which we didn't take).  

We'd occasionally see a car, or exchange "BULA" calls with someone on foot.  I waited for Sarah at yet another ford, and watched a group of about eight people in the river below, beating the surface with sticks as they slowly moved upstream.  Another onlooker confirmed they were driving fish up into a trap, from where they'd hopefully become a late lunch.  

We soon reached a village to find about 20 adults watching what looked to be a small school's worth of children playing sports.  

Sports in Waimaro Village

We asked about a shop, and were directed to "the Canteen" about 15 metres up a side "street".  This was a useful learning experience - we'd not heard that terminology before, so now knew to use it when asking for directions - and we'd certainly never have noticed this building was one, even had we been riding straight at it.  We bought a bottle of the local cola, which the proprietor seemed very embarrassed to sell us.  I've drunk so little Coke in my life, I'd honestly never have known this wasn't it, and it was soon all gone.  

Happy customers

After more steep but mercifully short hills, we met a major road, and turned away from the town we could see not far away - Naqali.  On the outskirts of our next turnoff onto Princess Road, I was rushed at by a couple of dogs.  They were intent on me, whereas they should have been concentrating on a truck that went barreling past.  I felt a little sick to hear some of the barking turn to yelping, and when Sarah passed the same spot 30 seconds later, both dogs were alive, but completely silent.  I hope they made it, but I hate to say it, there's a lesson in there somewhere. 

At Princess Road, we started our final climb of the day.  It was avoidable, but at the expense of considerable extra distance, and so we stuck with it.  It wasn't steep, and was at times shaded - both features were much appreciated!  The road design was interesting - it seemed deliberate that there were no road markings at all.  There might have been enough room for four lanes in places, but the drivers seemed to be making conservative use of their own side of the road.  Reminded me of what dicks we tend to become behind the wheel here in NZ.    

Over the other side of the hill we entered into hill suburbs on the outskirts of Suva.  No sooner had we done so, than the ubiquitous calls of "BULA" immediately ceased, only to resume the next morning as we left.  Ah, city life...

Our accommodation wasn't actually in Suva, so we never saw much more than the couple of suburbs we rode through.  Perhaps the big smoke would have been preferable to the bizarre experience we had when we arrived to check in.  The place had promise, and the host seemed nice enough... 

... but the place had been the scene of a party (or maybe a riot) and the owner hadn't brought himself to sanitise the place before our arrival.  It was totally unacceptable, and had our room not been pristine, I'm sure we would have overcome our fatigue and left.  As it was, it was still tempting to bail, but the headache seemed not worth it, despite the horrors we passed through a couple more times before leaving the place in the morning.  Bad form, Suva Hideaway Villa.

Day 4:  Uduya Point to Tagaqe

The next day we began heading back towards Nadi along Queens Road. While I really liked the look of the road crossing the island (between Naqali and Korovou), even from behind a desk in New Zealand it looked like a route that demanded full fitness and a fully functioning bicycle - neither of which I had.  So, plan B was to head back along the coast towards Sigatoka.  It would be new road until the previous day's turnoff (about 20km west), but the rest we'd seen, albeit in the opposite direction of travel.  

Breakfast hadn't been great, but we figured (correctly) that we'd survive as far as Navua.  There we easily found a coffee stop, and then managed to refresh our cash supply at a much more elusive ATM.  

After the previous day's ordeal - both on account of some hard riding and weird stress points - the sealed road was nice, but I was noticing the small hills and longer stretches between stores much more than I had on the earlier pass.  

A spectacularly pendulous banana arrangement

At Pac Harbour we settled on a sweet wee cafe, where Sarah ordered fish and chips (rather than Fish On Chips which were available down the road, according to the store's slightly amusing name).  She raved about them while I quietly downed my breakfast burrito, feeling a touch envious!

The "Harbour" inlet

I later regretted not filling my bottles up fully before leaving, and it wasn't until we were almost due to arrival at our resort that there were all of a sudden stores in abundance.  These are clearly what I'd remembered about this stretch, but not that they were all concentrated at one end.  

I was relieved to find that the resort was just as lovely on the inside as it had appeared from the outside.  A touch of luxury did not go amiss at all!  I was deliberately trying to mix things up on that front, but hadn't anticipated one end of the extreme being quite so extreme.  

Before dinner, Sarah had time for a quick snorkel, and I faffed around with a lemonade can which I cut in the shape of brake pads in order to pack out my own.  Perhaps had I persisted with another half dozen layers it might have made a useful difference, but by now I had even less brake than when we arrived in Fiji.  

Thursday happened to be when the weekly fire-walk happened, and we watched that before chowing into a buffet dinner, followed soon after by a deep sleep - little did we know how much we'd need it.  

Stats104km, 890vm, 24 degrees

Day 5:  Tagaqe to Navala Village

Knowing it to be a big day of riding ahead, we ensured we were at the breakfast buffet when it opened.  After eating a little more than was comfortable, we went back to our rooms and suited up into freshly laundered cycling kit.  

We did stop in for a quick coffee at Baravi Handcrafts and Cafe, and upon recognising us, one of the staff, Poate, greeted us with "Kia ora".   I could only faintly remember his name, but after a surreptitious glance at his name tag replied with "Bula Poate", and in return, brought a smile to his face.  

It was a 20km ride into Sigatoka where we bought 4.5L of water - hopefully enough to see us through the day (perhaps supplemented by what we could buy en route to Navala).  

Our destination was Navala Village, which makes Lonely Planet's Fiji Top 15, and is described as "the best place in Fiji to witness authentic, age-old indigenous life up close... the country's last bastion of traditional architecture."  They also listed Bulou's Eco Lodge as nearby accommodation, and I'd had a lovely email exchange with a staff member who'd promised dinner, bed and breakfast, and had given tips on how to see the village the next morning before heading home. He'd said he was collecting some other guests in Sigatoka, and we'd packed slightly differently lest we had the opportunity to off-load some luggage into his vehicle.  We were on the road before the time he'd indicated meeting those others, so felt sure we'd see him.

For the early part of the day, everyone we told of our destination looked at us like we were crazy.  This included a policeman who'd stopped his vehicle and flagged us down.  He told us to ring 112 if we needed rescuing, and somewhat implied we would need to.  

Sigatoka sits near the mouth of the Sigatoka River, and for about 40km, we followed that river inland.  There were very few vehicles on the road, but each one that passed us brought fleeting hope that our loads might be lightened!

Nabuavatu Kindergarten had the sweet sound of learning emanating from it as we passed

Much of Queens Road had an impressive ditch running alongside, typically containing flowering water lilies.  Pac Harbour too had a pond laden with them, but these had nothing on what we saw just over 30km upriver from Sigatoka.  A large pond full of pink and purple flowering plants demanded we fire the drone up.  This brought a fair bit of attention from some local children, and feeling slightly uneasy (despite ensuring the drone was filming well away from any homes), I rushed a bit to get it all packed away again.   

Soon after that, we pulled into a wee store, and celebrated its existence with a Magnum each - ironically cheaper than we'd have found them anywhere in NZ.  

A building crew were enjoying smoko in the shade, and I moved around strangely in a prolonged attempt to protect them from the blown-out back of my bib-shorts, which Sarah had been gently ribbing me about (they didn't make the final pack, and are destined to a landfill somewhere in Nadi).  

The Sigatoka River

After checking out the river (from land), we got rolling again, and were soon making the northward turn that surely signaled the beginning of the serious climbing.   The road downsized slightly, but the condition didn't deteriorate markedly.  When Sigatoka Valley Road continued around to the right, it was nice to see a rare sign, one of whose sides was distinctly easier to read than the other.

Exhibit 1

... and the sunny side of the sign

With the hills also came the effects of the sun, and I began keeping my eyes out for a likely swimming hole.  At the bottom of a short but nerve-wrackingly loose descent I spied a culvert, and we both ended up in the water for the first time.  After cooling down, we got ready to ride again, before discovering sealant bubbling from Sarah's rear tyre.  The hole seemed large enough to require a plug, and within 3 or 4 further stops to add more air, things finally settled down and didn't need to be touched again for the duration of the trip.  I'd first seen plugs at the Cape Epic back in 2012, and it took a few more years before they became ubiquitous in NZ - they're a must addition to any "gravel grinder's" toolkit for just this eventuality.  

A "bacon strip" tyre plug doing its business

The main climb was about 350vm over 6km, but had some very steep sections indeed (more 20%+ gradients).  It was hard work, but the steep sections tended to be shorter than the route a few days ago so the road was generally more rideable.  Despite feeling well and truly "in the jungle", there were plenty of signs of life, even if the villages proper weren't obvious from the road.  

As we neared the top of the climb, we started to see kids heading home from school, and I stopped to talk to some uniformed high-schoolers.  By now flashes of disbelief at mention of our destination had typically become looks of respect if not amazement.   Mention or sight of Sarah typically cranked these up another notch - while we ourselves were impressed by the distances these guys were travelling on foot or horseback, active-transport from the Coral Coast was obviously outside their sense of what was possible.  

Upon seeing the school uniforms, my expectations of the village of Bukuya went way up, which I think explains my confusion at not finding a full-blown supermarket.  Instead we were directed to one rudimentary canteen, at which we were able to buy a much needed 1.5L bottle of water, but no soft-drink.  In hindsight we should have tried the other (which we'd apparently passed but not noticed).  I got separated from Sarah briefly, only to double back and find her with with a jammed chain (soon successfully liberated).

Passing through Bukuya

After a few minutes more climbing, we broke out into the open, and began our "descent" to Navala Village.  Overall, we'd lose almost 400vm over 20km, but I made the mistake of ignoring the jaggedness of the profile which should have made clear we had plenty of climbing (and front-brake-only descending) left in store.  

I fired the drone up one more time to capture the broader surroundings, before we put it away for good and resumed plugging away.

It's like an invisible 20m (plus) selfie-stick!

The expansive views and minor road kept eliciting a sense that we were in the middle of nowhere, but we were constantly seeing people on the road.  

We stopped briefly to acknowledge this group chilling out by a river

Not only did the road continue going up and down, but the pitches remained steep, which, combined with our growing fatigue necessitated an increasing amount of walking, sometimes with "company".  

Between that, photography and generally conservative descending, the final 20km "downhill" took us over 2.5 hours and by the end of it, we were firing up our front lights.  There was no sign of Bulou's Eco Lodge at it's location on Google Maps, so after asking directions on the outskirts of Navala itself, we doubled back - now in complete darkness.   We found the gate which was chained and locked.  Using my cell phone torch, I walked down the driveway only to find the lodge slowly being reclaimed by the jungle.  It wasn't quite a lost cause, but it most certainly was not the welcoming place we'd been promised.  There was nothing for it but to ride back towards the village.  

I was tired, and now quite scared.  Though, through the haze I had a conscious thought that generally does come to mind when things start going a little pear-shaped:  "at least this will make an interesting story"...

Although we had little water left, that was the least of my concerns (we were in the hills, and surely many of the natural water courses would have been running clean).  We'd been slowly but surely chipping away at our supplies of One Square Meals to the extent that we were down to only three unopened bars plus some scraps - better than nothing even if to cover two dinners and one breakfast.  The town of Ba was 30km away, and as optimistic as I'd been about the downhill run to Navala, at this point I was willing to assume that continuing towards Ba would be just as gnarly and non-trivial (which turned out to be true, at least for half the distance).   I concluded that riding out was out of the question, and to seal that deal, Sarah announced her light was out of juice.  We only had an emergency bivy bag, and certainly no tent or sleeping bags.  Even our overnight clothing was pretty minimal - I'd never go anywhere in NZ with so little, given the reasonable chance of experiencing winter conditions even at the height of summer.  I guessed it was warm enough that we would survive an uncomfortable night in the open, but hoped it wouldn't come to that.

We stopped an elderly gentleman walking in the direction we'd just come from.  He said he'd take us in, but seemed to imply it was a bit of a walk to his place.  He also said to head onward to the village: "They'll take care of you."  On further reflection, he ushered us towards the covered deck of the adjacent home, which he said belonged to the village pastor.  He seemed convinced that this was the best option for us, so I forced $50 into his hand, thanked him, and then followed his advice. 

We were greeted by Mrs Luisa Lotawa, wife of Pastor Dan.  As we'd soon discover, she was a nurse, and was deeply committed to taking care of us.  My brain was quite addled, but Sarah seemed much more relaxed about things - we were having a cultural experience much more part of the Mongolian landscape than anything within my frame of reference.  

We polished off the food we had in our pockets, accepted the water we were given, and once changed out of our riding gear, were unable to turn down some chicken soup, steamed cassava, and salad prepared especially for us.  

Conversation was equally generous, and the family seemed to coordinate to ensure there was always exactly one person talking with us - the moment someone new sat down, the other left.  We discovered among them fascinating military experience.  The oldest child was an accounting and economics student at a high school in Ba.  His father spoke Hindi, and had traveled extensively, including peacekeeping in various hot-spots in the middle east.  Luisa herself had recently returned from a year nursing in Israel.  We were told the village (and the home we'd been welcomed into) were hooked to the electricity grid as recently as 2018.  It has been easy to assume up until this point, that everyone we passed had little experience outside of their village.  Silly me.  

The fellow I'd been communicating with via the email address in the Lonely Planet is real, but the family were pretty careful not to throw him under the bus.  They confirmed the lodge closed down at the beginning of the pandemic, but never quite stated that accommodation that night was never a realistic prospect.  

I was so wiped out after eating that I excused myself and made for the bed they'd offered, sleeping in my clothes simply because I was too rooted to reorganise myself.  All things considered, our sleep was amazing and it was clear that our misfortune had actually been a blessing in disguise.  Had we known from the outset the lodge was closed, we'd never have come this way, never have gotten such a rich glimpse into Fijian culture, and never have experienced the kindness of strangers.  

Day 6:  Navala Village to Lauwaki

Mrs Lotawa had flagged she was heading into Ba on the 6am bus for a vaccination clinic, but most others were also gone from the home when we surfaced.   Orders had clearly been left though, and we were ushered to the dining table and presented with pancakes and lemongrass tea to get us on the road.  

I used the only bit of paper we had - the backside of our paper map of the island - to write a note for our saviours, and tucked the money we'd been expecting to spend at the lodge (the arrangement was to pay $180 cash for dinner, bed and breakfast - not as lucrative a scam as asking for credit card details) into the page before folding it up and passing it to one of the children.

We then suited up and left, circling back once I realised a departure photo would make a nice memento, and hadn't already been secured.  

A minute later we pulled up at the gate to Navala Village.  There, a sign laid out the rules of engagement for tourists like us.  I was inclined to press on, but Sarah rightfully insisted that we try to enlist a tour guide.  There was a fairly large group of people observing us, including one elder and about a dozen children.  The elder designated a fellow in his 40s to be our guide, and told us the fee, and stressed that didn't include a tip for our guide.  

We were shown around for about 20 minutes, and learnt a bit more about the history of the village, and how it had been formed by five neighbouring tribes coming together to benefit from their combined scale (for schooling and the like).  One bure we passed had been destroyed during 2016's Cyclone Winston, but gave us a better sense of how these impressive homes were constructed.  

Our guide admitted the work to build a new home (hardwood poles, grass roof, bamboo walls) was slightly quicker these days with the use of power tools, and there were signs that some of the more recently constructed dwellings were of a non-traditional design.  

Once back at our bikes, we readjusted into our immodest cycling clothing, before heading in the direction of Ba.  The road was as expected, and progress was pretty slow.  We did stop briefly to soak in a river, but otherwise probably ran to a similar schedule as the 2-hour bus service that Luisa would have been on earlier that morning.  Bus and passengers alike would surely get a bit of a thrashing, as did we!

We passed plenty of sugar cane fields, and with little more than 10km on the clock crested a hill which gave us a view out across to Ba.  It seemed slightly inconceivable that we were less than half way there, but it proved to be the case, distance-wise at least.  

We hadn't filled our bottles before we'd left Navala, and had been sipping at the remnants from the previous evening.   One shop we passed was closed, but soon after we came to another, at which we bought an assortment of drinks (water, Fanta, chocolate milk) before consuming them in the shade of an adjacent building.  It felt like the end of our (mis-)adventure, and a fitting celebration of our survival!   

Not far from the store, the road turned to seal, and we were soon in Ba.  It took us a wee while to find somewhere to stop, but when we finally saw The Coffee Club, we realised it couldn't have been more obvious and wondered why we hadn't noticed it earlier.  There, we were able to eat, drink and be merry.  I'd used our Garmin inReach the previous evening to send a single "we're off the road" txt home, but here we were able to connect to the cell network, and spent a bit of time catching up on what everyone else had been up to, only hinting at our travails.

Not far up the road, I had special accommodation booked, which seemed miraculously apt in contrast to Bulou's Derelict Lodge.  It was about a third of the way between Lautoka and Nadi, and in between was some pretty uninspiring road bashing in hot conditions, and heavy (but otherwise well behaved) traffic.  

We were on Kings Road for the run into Lautoka, and I didn't notice that there it switched to Queens Road (if Google Maps is to believed, there's a 5.5km discontinuity between them back in Suva, 200m of which is a terminal section of Princess Road).  We stopped for an icecream on the approach to Lautoka, were we piqued the curiosity of some boys enjoying the Saturday morning away from school.  As we left Lautoka, we stopped again, this time to knock back the liquid contents of a couple of coconuts!

Our overnight stop was at the very lovely boutique resort:  The Fiji Orchid.   As with the Hideaway resort on the Coral Coast, our late booking had been at a hefty discount, but even absent that, it would have been a fitting celebration of our survival, and worth every cent.  

As might be expected, we were warmly welcomed, and had a very comfortable and chilled out evening, blessed temporarily with the company of the resident one-eyed cat.  

Day 7:  Lauwaki to Nadi

The next morning signaled our gentle pivot from cycle tourists to tourist-tourists.  Our overnight hotel was very close to the airport, and un-noticed at the time, had come within 500m of it when we set off a week earlier.  

While we had enough time to ride to Port Denarau for our booked half-day outing with South Sea Cruises, for the sake of bike security, I thought it better to ride as far as the hotel, and catch a cab to the marina.  We contemplated doing a side trip to the Garden of the Sleeping Giant, but slightly pressed for time, and in part because the Fiji Orchid resort had been set up by the same individual back in the day, we opted instead to skip it.   

That gave us a wee bit of time checking out the souvenir shops before boarding our ferry.  We passed "The Beast" out of Auckland as we set sail - while it isn't unusual to see a boat on a boat, the relative size differential seemed strangely small in this case.  

The cruise was short, and was followed by an even shorter transfer to a small island.  

There we had some lunch before signing up to a for-novices scuba activity.  Neither Sarah nor I had ever been, and this seemed like as good an opportunity as any.  I enjoyed the briefing before we got anywhere near the water, and coped relatively well once we were submerged.  Sarah was somewhat at the opposing end of the nervousness scale, but overcame her fears and was able to enjoy the experience.

Even before getting out of the water, I found myself deciding I would unlikely try this again.  I really didn't enjoy how noisy it was - both the incessant racket of the forced inhalations, and also the constant stream of bubbles over my ears.  To seal the deal, I felt horribly nauseous within a few seconds of being out of the water, despite that we'd not gone particularly deep.  It wasn't until after a shower back at the hotel a few hours later that I started to feel human again.  A previously unknown chink in my armour!  In any case, far better to suffer from depth issues than altitude sickness, which really would have stuffed up some wonderful riding occasions.  This, I can avoid!

Stats17km, 100vm, 24 degrees

Day 8:  Nadi sift

The next morning, I unceremoniously stuffed my bibs into the bathroom waste bin, before heading out for a short ride in regular shorts.  Sarah's Kiwi-mum had lived in Nadi decades ago, and from her descriptions of the place and its surroundings, Sarah correctly identified the precise location of the home - internet sleuthing is one of her many talents!

After checking that out, we stopped into a market briefly.  I watched the bikes, and also was intrigued to see a young male tourist figure the five-second rule did indeed apply to the freshly sliced mango he'd just dropped on the concrete floor.  Perhaps if he'd seen me watching, he'd have noticed the look on my face which would have been betraying my view of his choice!  I do love those fly on the wall moments.

To chew up a bit more time, I thought we'd head into the centre of Nadi, but at Sarah's insistence, we instead opted for a nearby cafe.  It turned out to be an excellent choice - we had good coffee out of their Rocket machine (the second we saw in two days - The Fiji Orchid also had one), and had a bit of a lark trying to secure an appropriate selfie with the nifty logo in shot.  

One of the final attempts, as I was trying to reclaim my phone!

The route I took back to the airport left a lot to be desired, but it was otherwise effective enough, and we had time for the indirectness of it all.  

Once at the terminal, we got a reminder that we'd taken our eye off the COVID-ball, and hadn't pre-submitted a New Zealand Traveller Declaration form - one of the few remaining requirements.  We had a slightly anxious wait to discover that these were approved almost instantly, and beyond that, the journey back to Karori went very smoothly, including our Day 0 RAT testing, thankfully.  

Stats13km, 70vm, 25 degrees

* * *

Our one week break in Fiji - or "one weak brake" as I began to think of it - was an absolute delight.  It felt good to get back onto the international travel horse, and both our timing and the destination made it as easy as it could possibly have been.

Right from the outset, it was clear that the Fijian people are a delight to visit.  One ratbag aside, our interactions were a treat.  Especially a little off the beaten track, it is noteworthy that the sight of a person on a bicycle tends to bring a smile to the face of an onlooker, from small children all the way up to the elderly.  People inherently know we're doing something worth smiling about, and while I couldn't agree with that sentiment more, I don't take it for granted, and do appreciate it.

As described, our bikes weren't flawless, but that was largely due to neglected maintenance rather than design issues!  Both will be spending some time in Oli's workshop, and upon emerging, I expect them to be all set to take us on the next adventure.  My sense is that Sarah's Di2 battery needs replacing - the two bikes are being charged at the same time, and are being used similarly, and that mine's holding charge while hers is not, signals she got a dud, and that needs to be rectified.  

It is going to take a bit of time to get used to having the drone.  As will come as no surprise, I love this written format, and so I think I'd be happy enough using it simply as a 1kg flying camera tripod!  But, I do hope that we learn to use it consistently to capture video, supplemented by a little bit of GoPro interview, to yield another creative artefact from our rides together.  Time will tell.  

If it isn't already clear, I can't recommend Fiji highly enough as an interesting cycle touring or bike-packing destination.  For a native speaker of English, communication is a breeze (unlike, e.g. in New Caledonia).  Compared to the only other islands I've been to, New Cali (similarly sized) and Niue (tiny in comparison), both shops and accommodation options were more frequent and easier to access.  Traffic was incredibly well behaved, and despite what you might read on the internet (e.g. Can you cycle around Fiji?: "Leave the road cycle at home: the best roads for biking in Fiji are gravel roads and are best done with mountain bikes"), our experience over a mixed 600km, was that the drivers were universally fantastic (at least relative to NZ), and that experienced cyclists (road or otherwise) should chose their own poison. 

As ever, Sarah continues to be an inspiration to me.  She did enquire at one point as to why we didn't have holidays like regular people (hence the oblique reference at the beginning of the post), but didn't take that as far as toy-throwing.  There are times when we are clearly a very good team, pulling (or pushing) one another in directions that alone we would not take, yet greatly appreciate after the dust settles (even if not during...).  

My back turned out to be a bit of a non-issue, so thanks to Chris Cheesmore at Capital Sports Medicine for a particularly apt bit of advice in the final weeks.  Sadly, it didn't take overly kindly to the first steps out of the water with the weight belt and scuba tank (and gravity), so it is in the feeling-funky column for the time-being.  

And, a final shout-out to the Lotawa family, currently of Navala Village.  Thanks for showing us the very best of humanity.  Whilst I know anyone reading this would have done exactly the same thing given that same situation, it was nonetheless a privilege to be the recipient of your generosity.