Squalling winds and torrential rain are our constant companions on our three night stay at Mantaray Island. The oppressive sky overhead is a startling contrast to the clear skies and bright sun we were treated to at Mango Bay. I’d have to work twice as hard to get half as sunburned as I did in my five days there.
Our beachfront bure lives up to its name. The pleasantly blue-green water laps soothingly on a coral strewn beach just ten steps from where our staircase ends. Grant and I warily eye the single Queen sized bed that the room boasts. Neither of us much fancies being little spoon.
“He’s not really my type,” I tell the lady who escorted us to our room. She laughs without restraint.
“Don’t worry,” she assures us, “We will bring a mattress for tonight and move you to a double room tomorrow”.
After dorm life, we are in the lap of luxury. Grant slumps into the beanbag and I “ooh” and “aah” at the spacious bathroom. At first I’m put off by the biodegradable toilet, but no trace of foul odor wafts up from below. The shower might be cold, but it’s clean and it’s private. It’s totally worth the girlish squeals it elicits from we two burly men.
The distant beating of drums summons us to lunch. A moderately steep climb means you well and truly ern your al a carte lunch. A chalkboard menu gives us eight options, although I’m dismayed to see my first choice wiped off before I have a chance to order. I settle for the surprisingly good fish burger instead. There are near orgasmic moans from my group as they wolf down their beef burgers or personal pizzas. Thumbs go up around the table.
After our lunch and some ice cold sodas we retire to our rooms. Sleep comes shortly after, but we’re alert enough to be back up at the dining area before the drums beat for dinner. Tonight is a Fijian lovo (earth oven) buffet, and by the time the drum does beat we’re already well into a rousing game of ‘Asshole’.
It’s perhaps not as good as the lovo Fallon and I enjoyed on Robinson Crusoe Island. The chicken is mostly bone and the salad dishes are uniformly flavorless. But the Kokoda is flavorful and the mush of spinach and corn beef is surprisingly good. My brothers love the vegetarian curry and we all return for seconds of the scone like rolls. Buffet rules mean we’re all satisfied by meals end, but that doesn’t stop us from grabbing overpriced chocolate bars for the road.
Our game of asshole resumes in earnest, and we’re soon joined by a pair of criminally good looking Swedes. Nat and Matt met just before she moved to Australia to study English, and their long distance romance has culminated in this trip through Fiji and Australia.
They explain that in Sweden, ‘Asshole’ has a different name. I know it’s called ‘Presidents and Assholes’ in the US, but I’m shocked to hear that it’s known as ‘President and Nigger’ in the Scandinavian country.
More drums call us away from the dining hall and back to the beachside bar. The rain is bucketing down as we run down slippery steps.
“We’re having a wet t-shirt contest,” boasts Natalie as she and a pair of Aussie girls arrive breathless at the covered beach-side lounge.
The Fijian dance (or Meke) is quite similar to what Fallon and I saw at the Mitai Maori show in Rotorua, although the singing is more melodic. The men take great pleasure in getting in the faces of pretty girls and watching then squeal, while the women seek out the shyest looking men to coax onto the dancefloor.
“Shake it baby!” they saucily shout at we awkward foreigners as we shuffle about the floor.
Soon it’s time for the snake dance (similar to a conga line), and we are all on our feet to dance out into the rain and back into shelter. Some get more into it than others, and I can’t help but feel the night could well have devolved into drunken foolishness were it not for the wind and rain.
The traditional Fijian farewell song brings an end to things. It’s haunting in its beauty, singing not only of sadness and longing but also joy in the time spent together. It is a fitting example of Fiji’s open and loving culture.
Hands are shaken and vinaka (thank you) said, and then we’re left to our own devices. The weather has clearly dampened spirits. Most head off to their bures or dormitories, and those of us who remain are sedate despite the upbeat music and nearby bar.
My group and the Swedish couple play ‘Asshole’ well into the evening. Vonu flows and so do stories of must see Sydney sights and places to scuba dive in Europe and northern Africa. Before we part ways we exchange contact info. I’m told to let them know when I am in Sweden so they can take me skiing, and I make them promise to visit Hart’s Pub when they are next in Sydney.
Our first day at Mantaray is over, and with a cyclone warning for the area, our hopes of sun-baking and dominating beach volleyball seem all but dashed. But the house reef is a short paddle off shore and card games work better when it’s wet outside.
I doze off to the sound of rain and the ocean lapping at the shore. Despite my lingering sadness over parting ways with my best friend and girlfriend of two years – I’m in a good place.
It’s 8.30pm on our last night at Mantaray and the ever present wind and rain provide a pleasant soundtrack to tonight’s lazing about. Our buffet dinner sits heavy in our bellies and sleep doesn’t seem too far off.
Despite the torrid conditions, we’ve managed to have a good time on the island. Our second day began with us skipping breakfast in favor of an early morning snorkel. Despite being told the reef was just offshore, it’s still a surprise to dip our heads into the water and see the vibrant colors of coral and the fish that call the reef home. Even on the Barrier Reef I didn’t see such an array of aquatic life.
A strong current tugs us along the beach and we let it do the work for us. Beneath us a tapestry of the brightest colors unfolds on the sandy bottom. Grant is befriended by an inquisitive clownfish while I take a not so secret pleasure in pointing out various fish that I recognize from my dives on the Great Barrier Reef last October.
As we near the end of the resort’s stretch of beach we make our way to shore, walk back to where we began, and wade eagerly back in to do it all again.
Later that night we gather in the covered bar for the evening’s entertainment – pitching in $1 each to sponsor a hermit crab in the crab race. My charge is a plucky and unbelievably fast little guy, but he predictably gets stage fright when the race begins. None of our group win, but Grant and I find that our crustacean companions make admirable wingmen as we strike up a conversation with a trio of pretty girls from northern NSW. I soon splinter off to chat with a Norweigan sports journalist – a girl whose knowledge of football is perhaps the best I’ve ever encountered.
While we discuss the plight of woman’s football the limbo competition begins, and it’s one of my Australian compatriots who wins the guest competition. The resort’s impossibly flexible South African dive instructor takes out the overall prize and does it in fine style. His beer never once leaves his hand.
The crowd filters out as the night wears on, and soon Grant and I remain along with the trio of Aussie girls and a pair of American med students. Games of shithead and recounts of past embarassing stories are lubricated by a seemingly endless stream of cold beers interspersed with shots of vodka.
One of the med students is particularly taken with the only one of the girls in a relationship and finds her continued resistance to his drunken advances most agitating. It all ends in tears when she upends a bottle if water over his head. The last time I saw him he was curled up asleep in the corner with the radio held close to his chest.
I shouldn’t make fun of him. The closest I get to romance is an intimate moment I share with the sand after I drunkenly fall out of a hammock.
It’s fun all the same.
Sunday dawns with Leigh, Dominik, and Bronte attempting to kayak in the rough waters. It’s all going well until Dom goes to check on Bronte. She accidentally catches him in the back of his head with her oar and sends him tumbling into the warm water. Leigh has the presence of mind to intercept his rogue kayak, but the wind has picked up and soon he’s being whisked out to sea.
Dominik swims to shore and races along the beach hoping to cut Leigh off but it’s a hopeless cause. Leigh relinquishes his grip on the pilotless vessel and comes in to shore where the staff make short work of retrieving the misplaced kayak.
Later that afternoon I’m lolling in a hammock when the resort’s dive instructor stops by to see if we were interested in a dive. My laziness is pushed back by a sudden desire to do something exciting, and before too long I’m riding out through choppy waters to a spot a few dozen meters offshore.
It’s remarkable how quickly I remember all I learned in Cairns last year, and I eagerly help out Grant and Leigh as they familiarize themselves with their equipment.
We enter the water at a roll and after the two rookies are given some pointers, we drift slowly towards the sandy seafloor. There’s driving rain and howling wind in the world above, but we’re submerged in pleasantly warm waters showing no signs of the turmoil above. The serenity is beautiful.
There’s no need for wetsuits as we explore the coral rich house reef. We spot moray eels, lion fish, and even a white tip reef shark during our journey – although Leigh and Grant don’t get to do much sight-seeing as they struggle to master the difficulties of maintaining buoyancy.
Our dive lasts half an hour and goes to a depth of ten meters, and it’s over all too soon. The look of excitement in Leigh’s eyes is perhaps matched by my own. I’d perhaps worried that I’d slip into old habits without Fallon and her boundless enthusiasm, but here I was fresh off my first dive since attaining my certification. I may yet do another at our final stop – Waya Lailai.
Our final night on the island is another drunken one. What starts out as my brothers and I having a drink in honor of my parent’s 29th wedding anniversary turns into a marathon Phase 10 session. That in turn becomes drinking until the wee hours as Grant and I again team up with the trio of Aussie girls, the med students, and a pair of business students from New York. Card games, dreadful shooters, random conversations, and peanut fights ensue. By 2am I’m too tired to continue and so I make promises to be at breakfast that I’m 90% sure I won’t keep. It’s now 2am and I resist the urge to add to an already bloated phone bill by shooting out a swarm of drunken text messages.
The weather hasn’t been agreeable, but Mantaray Island certainly has. I could spend several more weeks here exploring the multitude of dive sites that lay nearby, and there’s a definite charm to the rainforest lined paths that lead between bures.
The staff have quickly learned our names and seem genuinely happy to see us whenever we meet. While the facilities might not be as lavish as those at Mango Bay, there’s a lot to be said for the pleasant blend of friendliness and pride here that was lacking on the Coral Coast. I’ll be sad to leave tomorrow when the Yasawa Flier comes to whisk us away to the final island paradise if our trip.
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