My Epic King Kong Adventure in Fiji
Rarely do we get a chance in life to see something truly unique, but it is something I’ve always wanted to do. Here at home in Australia, I love nothing more than hiking to a remote area and acting out my amateur naturalist fantasies, and sometimes I wish I could see something that very few people will ever get to see, something off the beaten track, and off the radar of most folks. I hoped I would be able to do just that while on my recent trip to Fiji.
Fiji is home to some amazing and beautiful wildlife, and I had spotted enough strange and wonderful creatures that my inner David Attenborough was invoked almost immediately upon arrival in Fiji. I had a yearning, a want to have an adventure, to seek out something that I could only see on these islands. There are many common stories coming from people who visit Fiji; geckos in the bedrooms, giant wasps hovering about, skinks and other small lizards, brightly coloured frogs and toads, colourful tropical fish, bird and insect life that is unique to the islands. It wasn’t until later that I realised that I was in a position to see something that few would ever see.
Fiji is surrounded by some of the most spectacular coral reefs which are home to a plethora of colourful fishes and crustacea. So many colourful fish that it would be hard to put a number on just how many variations there are. The vibrancy of the fish is gobsmacking, and at so many times while swimming about with them it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. I imagine if Charles Darwin had been a snorkeler that he could write some very interesting things about the fish of these reefs.
These reefs are home to a common coral snake known as the Banded Sea Krait, or the White Lipped Sea Krait, black and white stripes which create an amazing camouflage as they swim about in the coral looking for food. This one was spotted on the main island of Viti Levu, but we saw them on at least 5 other occasions while swimming in the reefs of the outer isles. Though very venomous, they are shy and tend to avoid human contact, and their fangs are set so far back in their tiny mouths that a bite is unlikely to cause much harm.
The amazing colours are not limited to the fish in coral reefs, just about everywhere I looked was an animal that shone with a seemingly inner brilliance. From small cockroaches that look like they are made from hematite and could easily be mistaken for ladybirds, to iridescent beetles and flies.
The resort that Hayley, her sister Charmaine and I stayed at for the last 5 nights of our trip to Fiji is called The Navutu Stars. It’s a small resort allowing a maximum of 20 guests at any one time, but one that claims to really cater for what the guests wish from a holiday, and this was soon confirmed for me to be the case.
The Navutu Stars resort is located on Yaqeta Island (pron: “Yangeta” with a hard “G” as in “angry”), in the northern part of the Yasawa Island Group, which are located about 50 km north-east of Fiji’s main island Viti Levu. There are no roads or cars on this island, but it is home to several hundred people who live in the Yaqeta village, about 3km from the resort. There is also a school catering for ages 6-14 and attended by 103 children. The only access to Yaqeta is by boat or seaplane. All food and provisions must be brought in this way, with the exceptions of fish caught in the immediate surrounds, and any fruit or vegetables that grow on the island. And although they are covered in lush vegetation, these islands are prone to drought for most of the year, except forthe monsoon season of December to February. For this reason the resort has its own desalination plant, a makeshift unit which was donated by a rich tourist who had been a guest there. Water is precious in a land surrounded by water.
On our second night at the Navutu Stars we met the manager of the resort, a South African girl named Helga, who informed us that if there was anything in particular we wanted to do while there, she would see if she could make it happen. I took this opportunity to ask about the rare and elusive Fijian Crested Iguana, and whether any of the locals had heard of it or knew of its existence. Helga said she’d do some research and ask some of the staff about it. I had read up a bit about it before leaving Australia, and knew that it was endemic to the Yasawa Island Group, but had no idea whether it was viable or even possible to get to the particular islands it inhabited. To my surprise, she came back half an hour later and informed me that the island just across the channel called Goat Island was reported to be home to this iguana. She said she’d see if she could organise a guide to go with me to try to find one, and hopefully get a photo of this magnificent creature. Here is s photo of me with Goat Island in the background, the pyramid shaped one right of centre.
In the map below you can see the top tip of Yaqeta Island and Matacawalevu. Goat Island is the small island in the bottom left corner.
The next day I was informed by Helga that she had organised for Eddie the boat captain to take me across to Goat Island to try to find this elusive beast. I was excited, but not too hopeful for a couple of reasons; firstly, nowhere in the literature does it mention Goat Island as a habitat; and secondly, Fijians have been know to have a habit of saying “yes” to things when they are unsure or don’t know out of fear of disappointing. I hoped this was not the case, but did not hold my breath.
3:30pm came along with low tide, and it was time to hop in the boat to head across the reefs. The trip across to Goat Island had been organised to coincide with a snorkeling trip, so along with Hayley and her sister, there were two others on the boat with us. On the trip across, Eddie mentioned that he had seen the iguana there while fishing on many occasions. Still, I thought I’d better not get my hopes up too high. Eddie dropped me off in the ankle deep waters and I waded in to shore as the boat pulled away. Eddie said:
“That big tree, you will find the iguana there.”
Goat Island is home to one family who moved there from the island of Matacawalevu. The name of the man living there with his family is Noah, and it seemed fitting I was going to this island that served as an ark for the endangered iguana.
I searched around for a while, hearing the occasional rustle of leaves as large skinks darted about on the leafy forest floor, and the sounds of goats and chickens from Noah’s makeshift house further into the island, but no sign of the lizard. Was I looking incorrectly? What was I doing wrong? Were there even iguanas on this island?
I did spot this amazingly large orb spider, about 18cm from tip to tip which gave me quite a fright as I nearly walked face-first into her web. If you look closely you will see the tiny male spider just to the left of her abdomen. It’s the largest spider I have ever seen, and quite a sight at that.
After about half an hour, the boat was returning from the snorkeling trip, so I gave up on my search, a bit bummed that I hadn’t found the iguana, but as they say in Fiji “sega nalenqa” (pron: “senga nalengga”), or “it doesn’t matter”. My trip to Fiji was not intended for finding lizards, and I was having such a great time here that this would have just been the icing on the cake really. We returned to the resort with the passengers from the snorkeling trip telling me that the coral was amazing near Goat Island.
At breakfast I was informed by Helga that she had spoken to Noah on Goat Island, and he informed her that the Crested Iguana did indeed inhabit the trees around his hut. Noah’s son was particularly adept at spotting them, and had even secreted away 2 of them in a bag once and taken them to school in the hopes of trading them for a mask and snorkel. This was heartening news indeed! Helga had organised that Eddie would take me out again to Goat Island that afternoon. I convinced Hayley and Charmaine to come along with us.
On this trip, Eddie would be coming to shore with us. He informed us that Noah was there, but his son was away at boarding school. He also informed us that Noah is his cousin, so having Eddie along was a good idea given we were effectively trespassing on Noah’s land.
We searched high and low for the iguana. The colours of the bark on the trees and the light through the leaves made it difficult to see anything up in the branches. Added to this, it was quite windy, and Eddie informed me that the lizards are capable of changing colours much like a chameleon.
“Great,” I thought, “not only is the lizard non-existent, but he’s invisible now too!”
While looking up into the branches, I heard Hayley behind me say “I think I see one! No… wait… YES I can see an iguana!”
High up in one of the trees, and out on one of the branches, was what appeared to be a strange thickening or bulge, and this bulge had legs! As you can see, his camouflage is almost perfect, the colouration of his scales matched perfectly the greens of the underside of leaves.
He was exceptionally hard to photograph. Not only did he change to an almost black colour after he had seen us, but he kept shifting around to the rear of the branch every time we moved to get a better view. These shots are the best we could manage.
He was gorgeous, about 30cm long, an before changing colours on us, he was banded green and yellowish white which you can see in the grainy, bigfoot-esque photo above.
Thanks to the keen eyes of my partner and some help from the locals, my King-Kong adventure was a success. If we visit the island again it may be to actually document this creature and get some decent shots of it. I will ensure we bring better camera equipment.
I wonder if this is an undocumented colony of the lizard, since all the literature I could find fails to mention both Matacawalevu and Goat Island as a habitat. Wikipedia says this about the Iguana:
“It was once known from 14 islands in the western part of Fiji; however, recent surveys in the past two years have only confirmed the species on three islands: Yadua Taba, Monuriki, and Macuata. Yadua Taba holds the highest concentration of the species, containing approximately 98% of all individuals, which is estimated to be 6,000 animals. This is the only legally protected population, as Yadua Taba is a National Trust of Fiji reserve and lacks the feral goats which have destroyed the lizard’s habitat on other islands.”
It is clear to me that this information is not complete, and one wonders how many other islands may contain iguana populations.
In any case I hope you enjoyed my “Epic King-Kong” adventure. More about Fiji in coming blogs. Vinaka!