Secret Island: Ovalau, Fiji

  • Ovalau is nothing like the Fiji I know, all pearly white beaches and thatched-hut bures fronting tranquil lagoons. I found none of those things on this reclusive Fijian island or in its old colonial capital, Levuka . No gorgeous beaches, no bures for the tourists and nary a three-star hotel, let alone a luxury resort. But I did find something else on Ovalau. Something almost intangible, something I didn't recognize until I'd been there a few days: a secret beauty veiled behind the last vestiges of the English colonial era, when Great Britain controlled much of the world. Fijian chiefs were cajoled, in 1874, into ceding the islands to the Brits right here on Ovalau , making Fiji a colony for almost 100 years.

  • On my first morning in Levuka, a village of some 1,500 Fijians on the east coast of Ovalau, I asked a man trimming banana trees at the hotel where I was staying if he had time to give me a tour. "In Levuka we've got nothing but time," he said. Meli, an old man of indeterminate age, used a whittled stick for a cane as we walked around the quiet town, stopping first in front of the Church of the Sacred Heart, built by Marist Fathers in the mid-19th century. Back then, this South Pacifi c outpost boomed with coconut planters, missionaries and sailors of every nationality, and the streets were lined with saloons and roughneck boarding houses.

  • "Things have slowed down a bit since then," said Meli. "But the French clock in the old tower still gongs on the hour, just like it did a hundred years ago."

  • Just past the church, we saw a young man taking the family pig for a stroll. The man asked where I was from, and when I said Los Angeles, he looked at me blankly. Most people on Ovalau have never been to another Fijian island, Meli told me, let alone California. As if to prove its isolated status, he took me to a spot across from the post office where there used to be a roost for carrier pigeons that delivered mail to Suva, about 40 miles away. He said, "My grandfather sent love letters to my grandmother that way. Took less than an hour to get a reply."

  • At the end of our stroll, he pointed the way to Mission Hill, telling me that if I had the gumption to climb the 199 steps to the top , I might, on a clear day, see the mystic isle of Mborutu. "That's where the spirits of the ancient Fijians are said to go," he said softly. "I figure I'll be joining them there soon enough, so there's no need for me to climb that hill anymore."

  • Everything about Levuka feels as if it were part of an old Hollywood set for a movie about life in the South Seas during Britain's colonial heyday. There's the Royal Hotel, for example, built in the 19th century and the oldest such establishment in Fiji. I spent most afternoons there, enjoying a beer and half expecting to find W. Somerset Maugham wearing a tropical suit and Panama hat, lounging on the wicker furniture and drinking a tumbler of Holland gin, neat. But once the copra trade died in the 1950s, the colorful British colonials went home. At least most of them did.

  • Stopping one warm afternoon at the oh-so-English Ovalau Club, a white-washed clapboard structure housing one of the oldest social organizations in the South Pacific, I met one of the members sitting at the bar. He asked if I'd met the bloke who owned the disheveled sloop in the harbor.

  • I'd seen the boat sitting at anchor offshore, but I told him I hadn't seen the owner. "Of course not," he said, ordering himself another bitters. "No one has, at least not for years. But there's a light that comes on in the cabin in the evening and goes off shortly before dawn. The locals say he's the last ol' Brit on the island, and when he goes, the ghosts of colonial England go with him."

  • But while Levuka may be locked in a time warp, its continued future seems guaranteed by the sheer number of young people I met on the island. Walking around town early one morning as a handful of old women set up an informal market near the sea wall, selling taro and yams, bananas and mangoes, I couldn't help but notice the flocks of children flitting about in their school uniforms -- pink-and-white cotton dresses for the girls, pale blue shorts and shirts for the boys. Following the road past the old Marist Convent School, I met a throng of kids hanging on the white picket fence, shouting "Bula! Bula!" and asking me to take their picture, which I did.

  • "Where you going?" they asked. I told them I didn't know, that I was just aimlessly walking around since there didn't seem to be a whole lot to do in Levuka. "Oh, there's lots to do here," they chided me. "Have you been to the secret pool?"

  • When I told them I hadn't, they all spoke at once, giving me confusing directions: Take the dirt road past the right- colored, colonial-era houses; no, the short-cut behind the soccer field; no, better to go down the hidden trail by the bridge. Somehow I found it -- a crystalclear pool, secluded and vacant, where I went skinny-dipping in the tropical heat. In the idyllic setting -- an eye of cool water surrounded by lush growth with swallows diving in the air overhead -- I wondered why there was no one else there.

  • Afterward I climbed the 199 steps to the top of Mission Hill. The view was astounding. The odd British sloop that had been anchored near Cession Monument was gone. I could see its water trail leading to a tiny, emeraldgreen mound off the south end of the island, probably Yanuca Lailai, or Lost Island as it's sometimes called. The perfect anchorage, it seemed to me, for an old British sailor. I thought of the story Meli had told me about the mystical island of Mborutu. Perhaps, I thought, Ovalau is that island -- the secret place where the souls of ancient Fijians settle. There was no need to scout the Koro Sea. All one needed to do to discover this Fijian secret was climb the highest peak in Levuka and marvel at the beauty all around.

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