It’s been building for some time – that feeling I need to do something completely for and by myself. Having been in a close-knit relationship with my beautiful husband for the past six years, and my mother’s live-in daughter for most of my life before that, I’ve never truly put my own resourcefulness to the test and enjoyed a sense of raw independence.
As I stand on the cusp of thirty, I still feel like I have some growing up to do and my cravings for adventure, self-discovery, and exciting challenges have reached a crescendo. I'm restless in my hometown of Brisbane (where I’ve been based for over 19 years), and also in my mind. So, I figure it’s time to pack my suitcase and start diving into a few solo adventures abroad.
Fiji was my destination of choice for my first independent trip. I figured it could do with my tourism dollars in light of recent weather events. It’s also considered a great entry-level option for solo female travellers, striking the right balance between cultural novelty and safe familiarity. Plus, the place is paradise!
Let me just say, my two weeks of island-hopping around Fiji didn’t disappoint. From midnight beach parties and secluded sunset swims to heart-warming interactions with locals and snorkel sessions with sharks, I didn’t think Fiji had the power to grab me by the heart and tickle my playful spirit quite like this…
Nadi Town & Surrounds
As I caught my first glimpse of Fiji from the plane window, a sense of bubbling anticipation took hold of me. The view was nothing short of glorious: a spellbinding reef with its vivid beauty wrapped around an undulating landscape that was greener than a billiard table. I was itching to explore the countless beaches, villages and mountains below. But first, I had to settle into Nadi and get my accommodation sorted.
In an effort to challenge my comfort zone, I decided to hunt out a hostel and opt for communal living during my time in Fiji (for the most part, anyway). Considering I’m a light sleeper who struggles with misophonia, and a little shy when it comes to meeting strangers, I was curious to see how dorm life would affect my experience of Fiji.
If my first night at Bamboo Backpackers was anything to go by, the impact was going to be major... in a good way. Within minutes of claiming a bunk bed, I met two solo female wanderers who kept me absorbed in their tales of love, life and travel for hours. My fear of struggling to make friends was instantly put to bed.
At some point during the early evening, we plonked our butts on a straw matt and joined the hostel staff in a kava ceremony and freestyle sing-along (two quintessential Fijian experiences, which must be tried). Sure, kava tastes like a dishwater and mud milkshake, but as soon as the tingling sensation kicks in one’s tastebuds seem to tolerate the flavour assault!
As day turned into night, we made our way to Wailoaloa Beach (our hostel’s backyard) and watched the sky put on a magnificent sunset show; a dreamy dance between clouds that were kissed with vermillion, clementine and fuchsia. Horses galloped along the shoreline at breakneck speed, while ultra-fit Fijians climbed towering palm trees and cracked open fresh coconuts for guests. The moment couldn’t be more perfect.
After a late night swim in the ocean (let’s be honest, the murky beaches off Nadi are a lot more appealing under the cover of darkness), the girls and I devoured some dinner and wine. The hostel’s restaurant was heaving, so we feasted on fresh fish from the comfort of a hammock. Yep, I was on holiday in Fiji!
Bamboo Backpackers wasn’t just popular with stingy travellers like me; locals and expats loved the place, too. The bar went off like a frog in a sock every night and blaring dance floor beats could be heard from miles away. Just in case I was deaf, my dorm room was conveniently located right next to the speakers. No worries, I was too excited to sleep anyway, haha!
The next morning, I leapt out of bed eager to explore Nadi’s town centre. But first, I had to figure out how to use Fiji's bus service. When I asked the hostel receptionist about specific bus times and stations, he simply said, “Yes, yes, it’ll come – out that way,” with a general wave of the hand in no particular direction. So, I started the long walk towards town and hoped a bus would pick me up at some point.
Within 5 minutes, a friendly local pulled over and offered to drop me at the markets. Considering I was a lone chick, red flags went up and I had visions of newspaper headlines about unlucky hitchhikers on holiday. But, Fiji is different – offering lifts is what the locals do. Plus, I trusted my gut and it told me to get in the bloody car rather than wait for a bus in the blistering heat. So I did, and I got some great local advice along with a free ride (note: that’s not to say I’d take the risk again, or encourage others to do so).
The markets turned out to be pretty entertaining on the people-watching front. I loved witnessing the hustle-and-bustle of commercial activity above the benches, while everyday family life unfolded below them. There were infinite sub-stories unravelling all around me; I just had to stand still long enough to spot them: women breastfeeding newborns, brothers sharing tales over kava, wrinkly raisin ladies falling asleep on makeshift mats..
The markets were also a great way to witness Indo-Fijian culture in all of its glory. From the whole-in-the-wall spice shops and flavour-packed street food to the vibrant saris and nearby Sri Siva Subramaniya Hindu Temple, traces of the Indian subcontinent delivered an exciting addition to Fiji’s national identity. Indians first arrived on the islands as servants and labourers when they were under British rule. Today, Indo-Fijians make up a whopping 40% of the total population. The result? A hyper-colourful culture which manages to be both festive and laid back.
With a few spare hours to kill in Nadi, I decided to get my adrenalin pumping and hire a quad bike from Westside Motorbike Rentals. Once they discovered I wanted to explore the surrounding farmlands, they buddied me up with a guide who made sure I encountered the best sights. En route to the "Sleeping Giant", a mystical mountain range which looks exactly like its name suggests, we raced our way around a maze of dirt tracks (the quads go 70 km/h without any trouble at all). My guide was a pro at drifting and engulfing me in a cloud of dust. Not to worry. We got caught in a storm so the grime didn't last long. The whole experience was a blast!
Before long, it was time to wave goodbye to Nadi and start a week of island-hopping around the Yasawas and Mamanucas with Awesome Adventures Fiji. Arming myself with a mountain of camera gear, I headed to Port Denarau, jumped on one of South Sea Cruise’s vessels, waded through the ocean of sunburnt tourists who’d already passed out on the deck, tucked myself away in the Captain’s Lounge, and prepared to take an obscene amount of photos. My body relished the air-conditioning, tranquillity and complementary caffeine in the Captain’s Lounge – it was well worth the ticket upgrade.
Within a couple of hours, I was making my way to the blinding white shores of Barefoot Manta Island, where a team of beaming Fijians waited to welcome their new guests with a serenade. If this is what the rest of the islands were going to be like, I was in for a real treat.
Barefoot Manta was very different to the touristy destinations I’d experienced in Thailand and Indonesia. With little more than a few dorm villas, glamping tents, rickety outdoor bathrooms, and a communal dining shack, the island was blissfully (and purposefully) basic. Practically every structure looked like it’d been handmade using local materials. The effect? A natural environment, which offered true escapism.
Just to make the situation even more sublime, sunset was celebrated with a game of beachside volleyball. Guests and staff united for an hour of freestyle fun. Considering the Fijians enjoyed this ritual every afternoon, it wasn’t surprising how skilled they were. The island’s resident chef, a pint-sized pocket rocket who took no prisoners, was especially thrilling to watch. She jumped to impossible heights and my eyes struggled to keep up with her lightening bolt speed.
Once the darkness stifled the last bit of light, it was time to call it quits and check out my dorm room. With its cobblestone foot path, shuttered windows and views straight onto the beach, it was truly the stuff of my daydreams. I was bunking with a couple of Norwegians, who came with little baggage and a lot of mischief on the mind. After a communal dinner with the other guests and an eclipse of giant moths, we carried on socialising with some spirited Kiwis who were up for a good night. So, we all retired to the beach outside our villa, cracked into some liquor, turned up the Swedish house music, and shared stories about our different cultures and lives back home.
The Norwegians taught us about snus, a powder form of tobacco that delivers a serious nicotine buzz. After a few shots of vodka, they broke into song and started chanting their national drinking anthem with pure patriotism. Half macho Viking, half high-pitched pansy, it was the funniest thing I’d heard in a long time. I completely lost it and fell off my bench backwards in a fit of laughter. Thank goodness the sand was there to cushion my fall. Hours of drinking games and comedic tales kept us cackling until the early hours of the morning. Only the stars were awake to witness our fun.
After a few hours of sleep, the sound of bongo drums let us know that manta rays had been sighted. There's one rule on this island: if there are mantas in the water, you stop whatever you're doing and get in the water. Unlike me, these beautiful creatures seemed to love mornings. Usually it takes me a whole day to recover from a long, liquor-fuelled night. But, I was feeling high on life and surprisingly bright eyed and bushy tailed. So, I chucked on a bikini and jumped straight into the ocean.
After a full day of water sports and hard labour with the Vinaka volunteer program (I'll fill you in on the latter in my next blog), my body was begging me to turn the energy levels down a notch. Thankfully, I was shifted to a private tent, which boasted a king-sized bed, enclosed courtyard, outdoor shower and direct access to the beach. It was good to be back under canvas again and getting my glamper girl on.
That evening, I watched the sunset from my courtyard hammock. When the sky exploded with colour and the water morphed into a glistening ocean of iridescent violet and liquid silver, I couldn’t sit still any longer. It was too beautiful not to touch. So I raced down to the water and swam towards the horizon until the last bit of light took its leave. It was just me and the edge of the world, and it was completely invigorating.
A couple of days later, I jumped on another South Sea Cruises transfer and made my way to Barefoot Kuata. As far as welcome parties go, this island’s was pretty cool. Its natural entrance was marked by a dramatic rock formation, which jutted out from the ocean’s raging waves and commanded every visitor’s attention. One man stood proud on this mighty structure, wearing a traditional grass skirt and little else. He performed a fierce meke-style dance, twisting and turning his wooden staff like it was a wild weapon.
Once I arrived on the island and checked into my new beachside dorm, it didn’t take me long to realise this slice of paradise was even more chilled out than the last one. There were fewer people, the staff were even more relaxed (in a good way) and there was little to occupy guests beyond the playground that is Mother Nature. Most of the islands seemed to be off the internet grid, and it felt great to get away from the virtual world and live in the real world.
During my stay at Barefoot Kuata, I spent my mornings watching the sunrise and exploring the island by foot – barefoot, of course. My favourite trek was an hour-long stomp to Kuata’s main summit. I spent most of the journey peeling spider webs off my face, beating a path through the dense jungle with a stick, and loving the thrill of being off-the-beaten-track on my own. The panoramic ocean views at the top of the mountain were just icing on the cake.
My afternoons were spent snorkelling with whitetip reef sharks, a signature experience at Barefoot Kuata. For tourists who come from landlocked countries, it can be a nail-biting, high adrenalin encounter of the ultimate kind. For this Aussie beach baby, it felt completely natural and was a whole lot of fun.
The sharks turned out to be very friendly and social. They examined our group of snorkelers with acute curiosity and rubbed against our legs as if to say, “Hey! Let's play!”. I loved watching the free-diving Fijians who swam alongside them to incredible depths and rarely claimed a fresh breath of air. I swear they had gills!
When I wasn’t absorbed in the action, I was busy being hypnotised by the tranquil reef. An intricate tapestry of electric violet and gold, it looked like the robe of a royal. Just beautiful.
That evening, I was eager to spend time catching up with my dorm buddies who were practically all solo female travellers from Germany. Many of them had only just completed school, and I was in awe of their courage and passion for globetrotting at such a young age. They all seemed to be loving the freedom and spontaneity that came with independent travel, but they struggled with loneliness from time to time and hated how fleeting their encounters with other travellers were. When they finally crossed paths someone or a group of people they clicked with, it was time to move on. I could definitely relate. In the space of a mere week, I'd already loved and left half a dozen people I wanted to know better. C'est la vie.
After a slow refuel at the island's main restaurant, where the floor was made of soft sand and the tables were beautifully hand-carved, most of the guests caught an early night's sleep. Being a complete night owl, I felt wildly awake once the island had gone to bed. So, I tiptoed out to the rocks and enjoyed a midnight yoga session under the stars. Every time I looked down at my feet, I saw dozens of hermit crabs commuting between the moonlit boulders. As I stretched my weary body, limb by limb, the warm ocean breeze hugged my skin and the sound of waves blocked out every other noise (including the chatter in my mind). I felt completely happy and stress-free.
South Sea Island
As my time in the Yasawas came to an end, the Mamanucas winked at me from the horizon and begged to be explored. So, my adventures continued on to South Sea Island. A mere freckle in the vast ocean, it was tiny enough to kayak, swim and walk around before breakfast.
By 10 am, South Sea was packed to the brim with day-trippers who took full advantage of the all-inclusive meals, beverages, resort facilities and water equipment hire. I dodged the daytime madness, opting for a sailing adventure with Seaspray instead. This magnificent, 83 foot schooner whisked me off to Modriki, a remote island which became the iconic backdrop for the blockbuster film Castaway ("Wilson!"). The topaz water was surely filled with sirens, as it had Seaspray's passengers jumping off the boat's bow in no time. We slowly snorkelled our way to Modriki’s pristine shoreline and slept in the sand until our skin turned golden, which didn’t take long!
After a hearty Fijian feast on board Seaspray, we stopped off at Yanuya Island and wandered around its main village. A beaming smile and friendly “Bula!” met us around each corner. Having the opportunity to witness authentic Fijian life, free from tourism, was truly nourishing. The local children grabbed us by the hand and showed us their world. They woke their families from an afternoon siesta to guide us around the colourful bungalows they called home. Life was pretty sweet and simple on Yanuya Island.
During the journey back to port, it was time for everyone on board Sespray to let their hair down. The Fiji beers and bottles of wine were flowing, the crew made beautiful music with their vocal cords and acoustic guitars, and the passengers giggled and gasbagged all the way home. A great day was had.
When I arrived back at South Sea, a bright halo of pastel pink cloud had formed above the island. I was a little too legless to make it up the beach, so a staff member kindly carried me across the rocks to the dorm. Dinner was served under the stars, on a long communal table which saw guests trading tales well into the night. The evening’s entertainment included hermit crab racing and a Fijian-inspired dance off. It was the perfect end to my journey with Awesome Adventures Fiji.
If you dream of a holiday filled with sun, sand, surf and smiles; if you want to travel solo but make new friends along the way; if you yearn to get off the grid and feel re-energised by nature; if you crave authentic cultural experiences which haven't been completely tarnished by tourism; Fiji is for you. Throw caution to the wind and hop from one island paradise to the next like I did. You won't regret it, and I'll never forget it.
'Happiness Hunter' Sophee Southall is the writer, photographer and social media addict behind the travel blog Sophee Smiles - 'Explore. Experiment. Find your Happy Place.'
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