Floats & Frangipani!
Part Two

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     Regardless of the problems, for every bad day in Fiji there are always plenty of good days to compensate. Who could fault, for instance, a typical Fijian morning? Greeted by crowing roosters, the golden sun quickly establishes its predominance over the tranquil countryside. Coconut palms line the beach of Nadi Bay; the sea is glassy calm with only a barely perceptible surge, like a passing mirage, that builds and breaks upon the shore in a rush, tinkling thousands of empty seashells together like musical wind chimes. The air is still and heavy, and sweet with the fragrance of flowers. Hibiscus, frangipani, and bougainvillea are in bloom everywhere. Green parrot finches, sporting bright red prayer caps, flit from branch to branch in heavily-laden breadfruit trees. As I walk to work along the beach, local Indian herdsmen prod massive oxen solemnly past me on their way to freshly cut sugar cane fields.
Because I was born and raised in an environment of tamarack trees and spruce grouse, snow drifts and snowshoe rabbits, the morning scenery feels foreign to me. I have to ask myself, "What am I doing here?" Although I know I can enjoy the experience of being in Fiji, I only really feel comfortable when I climb into the familiar cockpit of my floatplane. I am right at home each morning as the 206 coughs into a throaty roar.

        Click on the images for a larger view
Mana Island Beach Stop

     Turtle Airways' seaplane base, known locally as the "boat club," is right beside the international airport's main runway, 03-21, that parallels the shoreline. Before take-off we call in, "Nadi Tower, good morning, Foxtrot Charlie Uniform on the water at the boat club, five persons on board for Mana Island; two plus three - zero hours fuel; will call you airborne." The resort islands we service - Castaway, Club Naitasi, Plantation, Treasure, Beachcomber, Navini, and Mana, and the Fijian Resort on the southern Coral Coast - are all within 15 minutes flying from the base. And because in Fiji all aircraft must maintain radio contact with the appropriate air traffic control tower at all times, we also call when landing, and again on departure. Thus, we always fly in a control zone.
To reach Mana Island, our busiest run, I climb out due west from Nadi levelling out at 1,000 asl. The flight across, when the sea is still calm, is a good time to spot giant sea turtles, wandering reef sharks, barrel rolling manta rays, and occasional humpback whales cruising the numerous coral reefs. At Mana, we land inside the southern coral reef that protects a beautiful, blue-green lagoon two kilometers long and 1/2 km wide from the relentless ocean swells on all but the highest tides.
From the air, the crystal clear waters are naturally color coded for take-off and landing depths. Blue is deep water. Green is shallow water with a sandy bottom, but is also safe. Brown is dead coral that appears above the low tide mark, and as Ralph Nader would say, "is not safe at any speed." Only at high tide can the plane taxi clear over certain brown corals, but the pilot has to be selective and cautious.

The Boat Club Float Plane Base

The only seaplane docks in Fiji are at our base and at Turtle Island Lodge. Therefore, in Mana, I taxi up to the beach and, stepping into knee-deep water, I heel the plane up on the soft coral sand. With an incoming tide and an onshore breeze, I can leave the plane unattended, but if the tide is going out, I have to keep the 206 from getting stranded. In the afternoon, I am normally swamped with tourists (bored with laying on the beach) asking questions, or taking pictures of the "barefoot captain," and "Turtle." Because our flying schedule is set out the day before, I know when there is time to moor the plane and cool off by going for a swim. In addition, I know the boys who run the resort's water sports so I can spend time sailing the hobie cats or wind surfers.
Sometimes, we do scenic flights off Mana Island for the Japanese tourists. My favorite scenic includes a low buzz over Robinson Crusoe Island, where the resort's boat drops off honeymoon couples to be "alone" for the day. My clients grin from ear to ear when we often catch the honeymooners taking advantage of their isolation. After the flight, the Japanese gentleman smiles and says in labored English, "Tank-you velly much, pirot, we had velly nice fright."Surfing Paradise

Later in the morning, back on Viti Levu, convection heating on the land starts drawing in cooler ocean breezes, forming billowing white cumulus clouds. Numerous sugar cane fields, like lumpy patchwork quilts, spread out toward the distant shimmering green foothills of the Nausori Highlands. Flying low over the fields, you can still see oxen, harnessed in traditional wooden yokes, pulling ploughshares through the reddish volcanic soils, and in the narrow brown rivers snaking down to Nadi Bay, sunbaked Fijian women still gather to beat their clothes clean on the smooth black rocks. Back at the base, I land beyond Indian fishermen, waist deep in the silty waters, pulling in hand-nets dotted with shiny plaice. I can't help but notice the contrast between the simple fishermen and tourists I am about to pick up.
About 10 a.m. daily, we run guests and supplies up to Turtle Island Lodge. Taking a heading of 345 magnetic, I fly straight across Bligh Waters to intersect Turtle Island, 28 minutes later, about half-way up the Yasawa Island chain. Here we land in the waters made famous by the 1948 movie starring Jean Simmons, and the 1979 movie starring Brooke Shields - both appropriately titled The Blue Lagoon, and both filmed entirely on Turtle Island.
The island's American owner, Richard Evanson, and Fijian staff greet guests and pilot alike with freshly made lemon, papaya, or mango juice. Richard originally started Turtle Airways to provide himself with a fast, dependable link to civilization, and to transfer his lodge's guests. He later sold the airline to South Sea Island Cruises, the present owners.When the music stops.

     The new lodge arrivals are quickly led away to their cottages, and outbound guests are bestowed with champagne and leis and serenaded with the touching Fijian farewell song, I sa lei. As well-wishers crowd the sinking dock, the scene blends into a mawkish display of singing Fijians, guitars, sunburned tourists, cameras, laughing children, flowers, crying women, goodbye kisses, and barking dogs - that to the hardened pilot only represents a delay in a busy schedule. To leave on time, he usually plays the spoil-sport by physically "guiding" the reluctant guests aboard the airplane. The guests suddenly come their more dignified senses when the music stops and the engine starts.
As my keels cut across the lagoon's waters, I am also aware of a quite different existence below the surface. If I have to wait on the islands, I pass my time by skin-diving among color-washed corals and riots of colorful tropical fish: brilliant orange and white clownfish, green hued parrotfish, and flashy blue angelfish that are all fascinating to watch as they dart among the tentacled sea anemones and staghorn corals. Consequently, I almost spend as much time in the water as I do on the water.
On one occasion last winter, when I stayed overnight in the islands, I went for a long relaxing sunset swim in the warm, placid waters. Reaching official darkness only 15 minutes after sunset near the equator, the sky quickly turned from blue to golden to a vermilion glow, flaming like a forest fire in the night, as the day ended in a spectrum of fading light.
Venus boldly appeared first on the far horizon, and the constellation Orion, bright as on any indigo arctic night, followed soon after. I began to feel right at home under the stars, except that high in the unfamiliar southern sky was the predominant Southern Cross sparkling and flickering down on me. Then I was surprised, naturally enough, to make out Ursa Major, turned upside down on the northern horizon. Not all of it, mind you, but the panhandle and three of the corner stars of the Big Dipper. I was intrigued that from my position in Fiji I could see both hemisphere's representing constellations in the same sky, but from home I could not see the Southern Cross.
Later, applying the analogy to Canada and Fiji, I realized that living in Fiji has allowed me to observe and compare the two countries - the flying, the people, the way of life, the scenery - but if I had stayed in Canada I would have missed that opportunity. What I discovered in my comparisons, moreover, was that although everything else may feel foreign, the experience of flying remains the same. Whether flying off Canada's northern lakes, or off South Pacific beaches, the problems facing all bush pilots are universal.
The only real difference is that here in Fiji, we fly in bare feet.

The Bare Foot Pilot

Article and Images by John S Goulet

Note from the Editor. Part Two completes the story. GPS, storm scopes, and Caravans with radar have made the basics all that much easier than 15 years ago. But, still, I find the flying remains the same. For more flying stories let the attitude indicator take you back to Feature Stories.

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Last modified on April 21st, 2000.
Virtual Horizons, 1996.