It was just past 4pm and the afternoon breeze was starting to pick up as we jumped in our dual sit-on-top kayaks with two girls and two bottles of wine heading for Bat Island. During low tide the small island sitting on the edge of the reef has a quaint white sand beach which when the tide rises disappears under the warm tropical waters, the lapping waves reaching the roots of the thick green trees,
After the first bottle of red is gone, my friend Markus and I decide to leave the girls and one kayak on the sand and risk our luck in the open Pacific, outside the protection of the reef barrier.
The shallow water inside the breakwater is teaming with small fish and corals of every shape and colour as the tide slowly fills in, but it is my experience that the most intriguing creatures are found right past the breaking waves, as the reef falls into the deeps.
We are still trying to synchronize our paddles on the two-man vessel as we approach the whitewater attacking the reef. Fighting with the irreverent clash of colliding plastic, we choose to paddle through a small trough where either the reef is slightly deeper, or the converging waves cancel each other out, and we cross over the reef with large waves on each side of us.
The waters quickly change from the light azure to a clear midnight blue, as the deeps of the Pacific sink below us. A few meters safely outside the break zone of the crashing waves, we put on our masks and fins preparing to explore the mysterious outer reef.
Already in the water, I attach an old nylon rope to my ankle to pull the kayak. The eyelet on the front of the kayak is broken, so I have to tie onto the drain holes in the middle of the plastic boat. I dive under the surface for my first view of the reef. I make out the silhouette of a shoal of large fish in the distance as I marvel at the reef which is less than a meter deep where the waves cross it, to about 25 meters deep to the south of us. Suspended in spectacular dark blue, I watch the surface violently dance with the air and waves above.
The euphoria of weightlessness is quickly shattered as the rope on my ankle pulls and limits my movement. Snorkeling with a kayak in tow is usually not this hard. When properly attached to the front of the vessel, the rope guides the boat nose first trough the waves and chop. Unfortunately, I am pulling it sideways into the strength of the waves. I grab the rope with my hand to better control the rhythmic tugs. The waves broadsiding the kayak have effectively changed our adventure into an aggressive tug of war, ripping my hand with each swell. My ankle doesn’t fare better – the swell is too big, and I now have a slight cut on my leg.
We decide to change location and attempt to explore the reef closer to the channel entrance, two kilometers to the east, on the east side of the island. Planning to tie the kayak to a small buoy, we carefully balance ourselves while climbing aboard. Off to the southeast darker clouds and a thunderhead appear; the swell and the wind begin to increase. The sharp, rocky shore of the island slices the now five to seven meter swells as we try to paddle on. The afternoon storm to the southeast is creating a strange wave and wind angle, hindering our progress and pushing us rapidly towards the crashing waves. Fighting to maintain our course, the kayak is suddenly lifted on a passing swell – and we are thrown in the water.
The abrupt baptism caught both Markus and I off guard. As I struggle to the surface I find my limbs bound with the rope I had sitting in my lap. At this moment I am happy for the Water Safety merit-badge I earned in the Boy Scouts as a child.
Without panic, I unravel the rope from my body while calmly sinking in the tropical water. We gather our scattered masks, fins and camera and take the next five minutes to balance ourselves and climb aboard – flipping back into the water as the wind chop continues to batter our existence.
We have lost one of my flippers to the relentless sea – a sacrifice to the water gods. There is no time to look for it with the rocks moving faster towards us. Frantically we paddle towards the imagined harbour entrance, but the cross angle of the storm front causes us to flip back into the water thirty seconds later.
Fortunately, we're both experienced with climbing on kayaks, so we're able to quickly remount in the choppy seas without incident. Attempting to place distance between our selves and the hard rocks, we spare no time in aiming the bow directly into the wind of the quickly growing afternoon squall.
The only way to maintain balance is to paddle directly into the storm, climbing and sinking with each increasing larger wave. We find a strong rhythm and for the next fifteen minutes we paddle away from the island and directly at the open ocean. In our trance we have distanced ourselves from imminent danger, but I can’t help but think that with our current direction, the next landfall is most likely the frozen shores of Antartica, tens of thousands of kilometers to the south. We have to turn towards shore.
With a quick coordinated pull of the oars we attempt to aim towards the mythical harbour entrance, the angled swell and wind threaten us. Not wanting to fall into the water again and fairly tired at this point, we give up. Paddling with less effort, we ride the waves with the wind at our back and move at a speed we couldn’t have imaged a few moments before. We are heading towards home.
In a minute or so we have made up about half the distance back to the island, splashes of water careen over the nose as we glide onwards. In awe we watch details of the reef and island getting clearer. As if some predisposed fate has now begun, and now reversed, the bright blue flipper that was lost about 20 minutes earlier appears in front of us. We begin to feel that our luck has changed, that the angry sea has decided to spare us this day. We were wrong.
In our haste to return closer to the shore, and with the storm at our backs, we once again had not been able to adjust our angle in the rough sea. With the jagged rocks to the right and large waves to the left we are trapped with no chance to enter the barrier reef where we exited.
Too far right of low breakers, we have no option but to continue on a straight path directly through the larger waves as they wash over the sharp coral. A series of confident shouts back and forth discuss the need to paddle hard through waves, to not forget to lean back when the water grows steep and begins to pitch.
Adrenalin starts to pump through my body, as the waves grow and the ocean floor quickly rises to meet us. “Lean backwards... and paddle hard,” Markus yells. Remembering the first rule I was ever taught about surfing over rocks and reefs, I quickly respond, “If we go over... cover head and stay shallow.”
In a split second, a wave picks us up quickly and the kayak begins to accelerate towards the reef. Much faster than I had expected, we are in no position to surf through this breaker, both of us leaning back and attempting to paddle through.
I watch in slow motion as the nose sinks into the wave, and to my surprise suddenly stops as it digs into the shallow coral. Like rag dolls both of us are helplessly catapulted into the shallow water; the laundry machine force rolling us onto the reef. Disoriented, I gasp for air above the foamy whitewash, only to see my confused friend do the same as our heads pop up for a second. “Fuck the kayak and the stuff. Swim as fast as you can! Get off the reef!” We have only a few seconds before the next barrage attacks us.
Then as quick as it happened, it is over. The warm calm waters surround us, no more choppy seas, no more uncontrollable wind. The tide has come up, and we can comfortably swim in inside the bay.
Feeling empowered from our brush with reality, but with no desire to mount the kayak, we gather our scattered gear and put on our masks and begin kicking towards the island. Purple star fish brightly welcome us and a baby lion fish swims out to celebrate our return. We have to squint to find the girls huddled in trees on the island – the small white sand beach is now underwater – with no more beach and no more wine our female companions are not happy.
Both Markus and I are ALIVE and happier than ever with a satisfaction that we had experienced the energy of basic nature and perhaps cheated fate. Smiling from ear to ear, scraped up and bleeding on our feet, hands and arms we head back to the comfort of the hotel's traditional, yet luxurious bures. Energized by the story, the girls convince us to stop by the bar for another bottle of wine before we retire to a vigorous night indoors.
I love Fiji.
- W. DRIVER
Co-Publisher, ptUnbound, Nisbet Publishing