Back to the Blue Lagoon

Sixty years ago, adventurer and botanist Ronald Gatty pioneered Fijian tourism with his explorations of the Yasawa Islands. He’s still at it. Lauren Bartlett joins Ronald and others aboard a Blue Lagoon Cruise and learns a little of the history of this wild and beautiful area

Blue lagoon

1948: The waves were higher than coconut palms and the ten-metre boat was being lashed with such force that the Fijian crew fled below to wail death chants. Steven Smith, the Kai-Loma (part-European, part-native Fijian) skipper, struggled to control the tiller of the Ancheber while explorer Ronald Gatty gripped the gunwales during the worst of the hurricane.

This wasn’t the first time Ronald had faced death—nor would it be the last. When exploring jungles in a later decade, he carried a rifle as protection from cannibals and braved waters teeming with sharks. He still bears the scar where one “took a nibble”. The expedition charted the Yasawa Islands and forged Fiji’s early tourism trade.

Now nearly 60 years later, Ronald is back traversing the same route he helped put on the tourist map—though this vessel is a far cry from the basic ketch battered by that 1948 storm. This time he’s travelling as a guest on a three-night Gold Club Cruise on the luxurious, 56-metre MV Mystique Princess, together with his French wife Jeanette.

The Blue Lagoon company launched its first vessel, the Turanga Levu, in the 1950s and has been sailing in the area ever since. The first boat was financed by Ronald’s father, adventurer Harold Gatty, who navigated on the first-ever around-the-world flight. Gatty senior went on to found Air Pacific and Blue Lagoon Cruises.

At the captain’s table on the first evening, we mingle with an eccentric group of passengers—a United Nations of stereotypes. There’s the retired Bay of Plenty schoolteacher who helps organise shipboard activities, the Canadian television producer who is constantly admiring the scenery and a brash criminal lawyer from “The US of A”. “Why do you Kiwis always speak so quietly!” We don’t have the heart to point out that it’s not that we’re so quiet …

Blue lagoon

This eclectic group certainly makes for interesting dinner-time conversation. Over a trifle laden with mock cream, we are soon engrossed in a discussion about the world economy, an argument about the death penalty, finishing off with a round of Irish jokes, well told by a large red-nosed Dubliner. Retiring later to our spacious cabin, we find the curtains have been drawn across the large picture window and the bright bedspread is turned down—ready for the satiated and travel-weary.

Over the following days we’re roused by a breakfast bell to participate in a crew-versus-shipmates volleyball match in true hi-de-hi style. Then there’s snorkelling among bream and zebra fish before retiring to the cosy library in the bow of the ship for a spell of night-time reading.

One night, we’re cajoled into participating in a national variety show. Luckily the schoolteacher in the party is able to deftly fashion pois using plastic bags and screwed-up newspaper. Our somewhat tragic warbling of ‘Pokarekare Ana’ fails to secure us the top spot, but at least we outdo the Aussies’ botched rendition of ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport’.

The next morning we reach the famed Blue Lagoon. According to the cruise director, Blue Lagoon Cruises was named because Trevor Withers, one of the company’s founders, admired Jean Simmons, the star of the 1949 version of Blue Lagoon, which was filmed nearby. In 1979 the Blue Lagoon fleet was chartered by the film crew remaking the movie—this time an adolescent fantasy flick starring Brooke Shields. The company also played host to Hollywood again in the following decade, providing transportation services for the film crews of Contact, Castaway and Swiss Family Robinson.

Blue lagoon

Now a magnet for tourists lucky enough to visit by boat, the area is also the remote home of several hundred native Fijians. On Nacula Island, nestled into the corner of the lagoon, is the village of Navotua. It seems little has changed since Ronald first visited the region.

The 200 native Fijians live day-to-day, eating home-grown taro and fresh fish. They make a modest living collecting coconuts to hawk on the main island and selling shell necklaces to tourists. The thatched huts provide protection from the elements, and the only sign that technology has arrived is the hum of a generator that provides power for the village’s sole telephone and single television set—used to watch the rugby, of course.

The sounds of conch and drum echo around as we wander through the small settlement. We file into the community centre—a half-built hut with open sides, funded through tourism dollars—as white teeth and eyes sparkle in the darkness and beautiful voices sing welcoming songs.

A kava, or yaqona, ceremony follows, performed by the village ratu (chief) and our nominated chief, a Melburnian bloke nick-named ‘Ratu Rowdy’ because of his escapades during the ship’s happy hour. The muddy liquid, made from pepper root, is ladled from the tanoa into smaller bilos for the men to gulp. The women follow suit.

Blue lagoon

Not as unpleasant as it first seems, kava drinking leaves me fairly relaxed. The sea breeze blows through the windows, fishermen pull their boats onto the shore, and our performers’ children run about excitedly, dancing conga-style on the lawn and falling in giggling heaps.

We peruse a shell market laid out on the grass before the all-male Mystique Princess crew ferries us across the lagoon for a seafood buffet dinner as the ship cruises to its next destination.

We watch from the deck as we glide past Turtle Island, the resort where Britney Spears supposedly remarried, and past a raft of other palm-covered cays where famous faces have re-created South Pacific castaway stories.

“When I look I see it the way it was,” says Ronald.

Gazing out across these celebrated islands, little has changed; the Yasawas are still a blank canvas for adventures to come.

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