Project Canterbury

Levuka Days of a Parson in Polynesia

By C. W. Whonsbon-Aston

London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1937.


IT fell out that the wedding arrangements had to be made some weeks ahead, when shipping facilities were becoming more and more uncertain. The day selected proved to be exactly the wrong day to avoid a long stay (though it would have been a pleasant one) if boats were to be fitted into the scheme of things. So it behoved me to turn "sky pilot." That is the only solution to the difficulties of swift transit in the Pacific Isles.

No wonder the parties were becoming anxious. The last available boat had reached them and, two days before the event, heavy weather, of the eight-day southeast trades type, began to make its appearance.

The day set for leaving brought heavy rain with poor visibility, clearing later in the day; but early morning is best for flying in Fiji. The next morning was just a little better, and fortunately we decided to risk it, for the remainder of the week brought heavy rain and strong gales.

We left Levuka at 8 a.m., rising quickly from the smooth waters within the reef in the single engine twin-float light machine. The islands have a new beauty from the air. Levuka houses became dots between the rich greens of the hillside, the white strip of shore reef [52/53] faded into the deep blue as we rose, while the colouring in the coral barrier reef showed to perfection--a light brown basis lightly washed by the sea, with mauve deepening into deep purples, pinks into rich scarlet, pale yellow into dark brown or through shades of green to emerald. Two thousand feet up gave a vision of the scattered islands of the Lomaiviti Group, the deep blue Koro Sea flecked with great "white horses," the long dangerous Horseshoe Reef with the white "break" of the outer ocean on it, and, a few miles from us, a Burns Philp steamer making for Levuka.

As we climbed, the clouds about us thickened. Soon through their film could be seen below us the famous island of Wakaya and the bay where Count von Luckner was captured. It may be said in passing that von Luckner's reputation still stands very high in Fiji, where people of the sea can appreciate good seamanship, such as was displayed in his long voyage in the small boat from the wrecked German raider See Adler. Among the trophies with pride of place in Levuka's Ovalau Club is a framed letter which he left at the island of Katafaga in the Lau Group a day or so before his capture. It reads:


"We are sorry that we have not met you here. Although we had a good time in your island I and my mate sleept in your house, we had a good wash and are now quite fit to proceed on our sporting trip. The [53/54] wonderful stroll around your little island we shall never forget. Perhaps we shall call at your island again and hope to meet you the next time.

All the things we took is paid for--a turkey, 11 sh. Bananas 2 sh.

"Me and my man are thankfull to you and your Maciu.

"With best regards,

"Yours truly,

"M. PEMBERTON, Sept., 1917."

Sir Max Pemberton will probably be grateful that Count von Luckner deputised for him.

My attention was soon attracted to the island of Makogai, with its leper station below us, a charming picture, just like an emerald framed in a yellow strip of beach with its coral reefs in a sapphire sea, while faintly to be seen in the cloudy mists was the greenish bulk of the large island of Koro, the scene of bloodthirsty attacks on sandalwood ships in the old cannibal days. We sped on, and I had fallen quietly asleep when the machine heeled over and as suddenly dropped, but it was only to warn me that we were passing over the ghost island of Namena and the waters of the Dakuwaga. The coasts of the big island of Vanua Levu were now to be seen, first the deep indentation of Waipunu Bay and later the bigger Savu Savu Bay, where the wireless station would note our passing. The blue heaving waters of Somo Somo Straits were now [54/55] beneath us, the sun was shining clearly, the clouds were scattering, and the motor vessel Derek, a unit of His Majesty's civil establishment, was to be seen, appearing from our viewpoint as a mere dinghy in size. Up Somo Somo Straits we flew. What a view was there! The sun glistened on the waters, and the long deep bays and coral reefs made an amazing picture. The long mountainous Taveuni Island began in the distance to take shape. We had to set some good folk's minds at rest, so towards the southern end of Taveuni we buzzed. Ere long we were skirting the coast of the island, the rich coconut groves below us, with here and there small villages and plantation homes. Wairiki Roman Catholic Mission station, right on the 180th meridian, looked a model of orderliness as we passed over it. Here the close proximity to the high mountain range with its attendant aerial eddies made our progress a little rough. Once more over the sea we dropped lower and lower on the shallower, smooth waters of the shore reef at Naselesele, just over the 180th meridian but for the fact that the date line bulges here to take in Tonga in the same "zone time," it would have been a flight from to-day into yesterday. It was the first time that a 'plane had been used for ecclesiastical purposes in Fiji. We had flown about 148 miles in an hour and thirty-two minutes. It will probably be a long time before another such flight is made, as the 'plane is no longer in Fiji, but a safer type of machine for waters that are so lacking in shipping would be a twin-engined [55/56] machine. With visibility poor and a motor truck axle, which was carried in the cockpit with me, disturbing the compass, it was quite within the realms of possibility that we should have arrived in the Lau Group (with its lack of communications) instead, but the pilot was a very good pilot indeed.

Good friends from Nagasau met us, and I stayed there until next day. The evening brought more rain, and my departure next day for the southern end of the island was accomplished in torrential rain and a strong gale. Well-nigh soaked, I was able for a moment to call on the patients at the hospital, and was glad to get to the Provincial School at Buca Levu; the headmaster there, with his wife, was always so good as to arrange the services on the island. Next day--now with the road becoming washed away by the abnormal rains--I moved on. The rain was considerate enough to stop in good time to allow the guests to arrive, and the wedding took place according to programme.

* * * * *

Some parts of the islands are very isolated. To one of these places, on the less prosperous side of Vanua Levu, I had promised to go and to baptise a child. People on the coast had not recovered from the disastrous hurricane, and now, on top of it all, the fall in copra was adding to the burden. A spark of hope was kindled when the Ottawa Conference had arranged for a certain quota of the splendid Fiji bananas to enter Australia.

[57] I crossed in the Provincial yacht from Taveuni and landed on the reef strewn coast, the boat proceeding further down on official business with the intention of calling for me on its return.

Laboriously I climbed the steep hill to the homestead on the Bluff, to find that the husband was away across the bay packing bananas--in a dreadfully hot place. We sent a message along to him and, led by his pretty little daughter, went along the coast. Skirting the shore reef, we came upon a deep and dirty looking creek spanned by a tight rope. The Blondin act safely accomplished, we soon bore down on the Captain's abode. His house had originally been two-storeyed, but the hurricane had cut the upper rooms away, and he told me of the narrow escape he and his good lady had had when a tidal wave had dashed across his land.

The husband, a returned soldier with the M.M., had arrived and the baptism was completed. We waited in vain for the good ship. Dusk came, and the hope of that or any ship negotiating the labyrinth of coral reefs to reach me was past. Later we saw her lights making for Taveuni outside the danger zone. She had been unavoidably delayed, and returned for me the next morning.

Supper over, my host suggested a fishing expedition. His part of the adventure was to pole the punt over the shallow shore reef, mine was to balance forward, holding a bright Miller lamp in one hand and a fish spear [57/58] in the other. Somehow or other the right sort of fish did not appear--at least I speared none of them.

One of the worries my friend had was whether his fruit would be in time for the overseas boat from Suva. He suffered the handicap that many European planters have to contend with, for, after all his hard work, through shortage of labour owing to the financial troubles, the cutter sent to lift his and other planters' fruit arrived behind schedule time and all was condemned on its arrival in Suva. It is a privilege to be able to call on such people and break to some extent the monotony of their unequal struggle.

My marooned state was a matter of concern to us both and early morning found us at work launching his motor boat, which had been beached and housed safely away from the hurricane season. It was no small task with no strong native labour to hand, but it was safely accomplished, though a falling tide on the shore reef gave some anxiety. Breakfast was just under way when the Provincial yacht was seen threading its tedious way through the reefs. We left Vanua Levu in sunshine, but as we approached Taveuni the clouds about the high central peaks seemed to extend to long strata, like some huge cantilever veranda reaching out to cover us, and rain came soon after we landed.

From this trip to Taveuni, I returned to Levuka on H.M.C.S. Pioneer, the Governor's yacht, which had originally been built for Mr. Singer, but was taken over by the Admiralty during the war to do patrol [58/59] work. She bears her scars and honours of the war. It was the hurricane season and, curiously enough, this is the period of glassy tropical seas, the days when the sea melts into the sky and the sunset glows are things of beauty. On this voyage I was able to read and to follow with great interest Professor Henderson's book on The Discoverers of Fiji, with the aid of the officers of the ship who had given material assistance in collecting accurate information for the author. It is really amazing what risks were taken in those early days by great navigators such as the Spaniards, Tasman, Cook, Bligh, and others. Away to the north the Ringold Islands were to be seen, not far from which Tasman took a risk and "jumped" the reef--a reef entirely unknown to him--and had the good fortune to clear it at the only spot possible and at the one time of the whole year possible. It is good to feel that much of this early voyaging for purposes of discovery was under the ægis of the Church, and even Cook's great voyage to view the transit of Venus was due to the enthusiasm of the young Anglican priest astronomer, whose calculations were thereby proved to be correct.

With well advised caution we carefully negotiated the reef waters. At one stage our escort was a picturesque school of whales disporting themselves in the rich blue sea.

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