I like hiking. I went to four years of college in a National Park. I’ve done some time on mountains and I always like an opportunity to stretch my legs beyond our 41 feet of boat deck.
Sailing into view of Waya Island made me feel nostalgic for that moment we spotted Nuku Hiva spiking out of the sea back in 2010. We were in Fiji now, but once again I felt that we were arriving in a land new and strange to us. Brian’s sister, Betsy, was aboard for three weeks, cruising with us from Savusavu through the Yasawas. Her Rough Guide to Fiji cheerfully recommended taking a hike up the mountain overlooking Waya’s main village of Yalobi. They actually called it a “walking trail” and suggested getting a guide from the village was the polite thing to do, not a necessity.
Fiji custom upon arrival in a village is to deliver sevusevu to the chief. Big Tom, Chief of Yalobi, went through the blessing, welcomed us to the island, and accepted our offering of kava (though I imagined him opening a closet door at the back of his hut and chucking it onto a pile with hundreds of other newspaper-wrapped bundles of kava, since this island is pretty close to Nadi and gets a weekly dose of cruise ship traffic.)
We chatted a bit with Big Tom, standing in the late afternoon shadow of the mountain looming above us. The face was a steep, brooding, volcanic beast, rising about 1500 feet up from the beach at a pitch of at least 45 degrees. I assumed the “walking trail” would be found somewhere off to the side, leading gently into the verdant valley at the back of the village, switch-backing up to the peak from a less acute angle. Brian asked if it would be possible to hike it the next day. Sure, sure, no problem, Big Tom said. He’d provide a guide if we didn’t mind paying him $20.
Sure, sure, no problem, we said. Big Tom told us to be at his hut around 7:30 the next morning.
I don’t know how the rest of you cruisers roll, but 7:30 is a big ask for us. We might be able to tune into a radio net and get a pot of coffee going at that hour, but actually turning-to on the beach, ready to rip…well, we didn’t make it in until 8. Big Tom wasn’t pleased, but I couldn’t tell if it was because we were late or because our guide, Timon, hadn’t shown up yet either.
When he did, he frowned at our feet. “No shoes?” Timon asked.
We hadn’t worn shoes in months and it hadn’t even occurred to me to don anything more than flip-flops, but this should have been the first red flag. My kicks were Chacos, with solid webbing straps and a decent sole, but Brian prefers cheaper the better – you know, the ones with the white foot bed and the thin rubber straps typically worn by old Key West drunks.
Timon didn’t like it.
“Aren’t you wearing them, too?” Brian pointed to Timon’s flip-flops, which looked worse than Brian’s. Betsy, in Tevas, was the overachiever of the group.
Timon shrug-nodded, as if neither confirming nor denying he was in the possession of flip-flops.
“Well, if they’re good for you, they’re good for us,” Brian said, a gesture of solidarity, a way of saying the footwear of foreign yachties is no better than that of local villagers.
If Timon had been hired through an adventure tourism outfit – someone with insurance and wrongful death lawsuits to worry about – now would have been the time to break out the waiver forms and insist nobody was going anywhere until they put on their big boy boots.
But Timon just shrugged again as he rolled a ratty t-shirt into a sweatband to wrap around his brow.
I’d also like to take this moment to say that at no point did he ask us if we wanted to take the easy route or the hard route. (And there was an easy route – months later we heard all about it from Bob aboard Stella.) We just started marching through the bush, weaving among taro patches and banana groves, past some overgrown graves (possibly of people who have fallen off the mountain.)
Timon asked if Big Tom had told us to be there early that morning. He did, we confirmed, 7:30.
Earlier is better, he told us. When the sun is high, the mountain gets very hot.
Yeah, no doubt, I was thinking. We’re in Fiji and it’s hot everyday, but we packed a couple of water bottles, so…
Then things started getting vertical. We were above the coconut tree line now, scrambling over sharp, black volcanic rock, shimmying the tips of our flip-flops along narrow crumbling ledges, clinging to spindly little shrubs that threatened to snap, frog-walking hand over hand up the hot, black rock, which was covered with little pebbles that slid like spilled beads under our flip-flopped feet.
Within 15 minutes, I was sure one of us was going to die. It’s gonna be so sad, I thought. Will we be able to transport the mangled, fallen body to the boat? Do we perform a burial at sea or might they let us use that graveyard we passed on the way up? It was almost fun to delve into these morbid technicalities because it’s such a rare feeling to be truly, overly concerned about the next 45 minutes of your life. This was, by far, the sketchiest thing I’d ever done.
Seeing we were struggling, Timon shared with us some uplifting, inspiring stories of other people he’d lead up the mountain – included a man who was nearly as old as all of our combined ages, and a woman who was so afraid she crawled up on her hands and knees. It took her four hours to get to the top. “Walk like a goat,” Timon advised, gently steering us away from that outcome by talking short, slow steps zigzagging along the steep black face.
Little goats were scrambling up the adjacent face, crying to one another across gullies. I wanted to cry, too. Before long, my head was throbbing with the heat and I had that woozy feeling you get when your body is being asked to do something it wasn’t designed for. The rock beneath us radiated heat like a blazing bonfire. We busted out the water and tried not to drain the bottles in one go. We offered some to Timon, but he turned us down. Magic, I decided. The man is powered by magic.
Less than two hours later, our swollen, red faces felt the first gentle gust of wind from the open ocean on the other side. We were standing on a thin slice of rock at the very top. After climbing at such a steep angle for so long, the flat surface made my feet as detached from my body, as the world was still slanted and it was time to be straight. I don’t often experience dock rock, but here it was – on a mountaintop. We passed around the last, hot gulp of water, prevailing on Timon to take at least one sip. Clara Katherine was barely visible, just a little scratch on the smooth blue surface of the bay. We could see all the way to Viti Levu and the white tracks of ferries, like contrails, coming and going between distant islands. The mute distance of the rest of the world was relaxing and we fell into meditative silence.
Or maybe we were all just thinking about how the hell we were going to get down. “Walk like a goat,” Timon reminded us.
We walked like goats and made it safely down to Timon’s hut, where we were treated to fresh green coconuts. We paid him the well-earned $20. It didn’t seem like enough for all that sweat, so the next day Brian returned with a brand new pair of flip-flops for him.