This account was, as I sharpened my pencil, intended to concern Her Majesty’s Fijian Ship Latui, The Hawk. But there seems to be some writer-resistance, so now it appears the topic is to be Mbengga (or Beqa if you prefer) lagoon. As I write, though, Mbengga Lagoon is in any case largely a function of HMFS Latui, so perhaps all is not lost.
Mbengga Lagoon, then, is big – a broad oval area surrounded by deep water on all sides and lying a few miles off the south-eastern corner of Viti Levu, the principal island of the Fiji archipelago. Its longest dimension is some fifteen miles in an ENE-WSW direction, with Mbengga Island sitting solidly in the eastern end, brooding on its greater past.
The jagged silhouette of the island unhappily no longer even looks like a volcano, although here and there are circular bays and hollows which could be the remains of satellite craters. Dark rocks, patches of straggly forest merging into scrub and grassy slopes, scattered villages mostly protected by sea walls and consisting of groups of smart oblong bures roofed in red and while – signals of an affluence based on fire-walking for the benefit of tourists, not here but on the mainland.
From every flattish coastal strip untidy plantations of subsistence-farmed coconuts climb onto the steep ground behind. Humans have a symbiotic relation with coconut trees – they plant them, and in due course are rewarded casually with some of the nuts. Probably in the South Pacific neither party could in the past have managed without the other. Once the first trees have been established, however, can the colony hold the ground indefinitely despite the jungaly scrub doing its best to strangle its babies? I do not know.
The main part of the lagoon lies west of Mbengga Island, and that too is big. The Mbengga Barrier Reef marking its southern flank disappears south-westwards as a straight line of foam running away to infinity; faintly seen as breakers in the distance, on nearer sighting it is an indescribable complex of blue, white, green and brown. I saw it from behind an inner line of bommies awash with breaking wavelets, separated from the main reef farther out by a band of cobalt flecked with white.
Yes, those bommies. Are they beautiful in a very special sense or are they a fearsome danger – objects to be avoided with a slight tingling in the back of the neck and all senses at the alert? They first appear as pale green surgings in the blueness, then brownish and yellowish bouldery objects become visible through the transparent water, clearly not suitable for wallowing encounters with our aluminium punt. Regrettably best avoid them unless the sea is calm, which it never seems to be.
The chart shows many bommies, but apart from those near the barrier reef we encountered only one group. Mostly it was blue water varying from fairly smooth to (for our punt) fairly rough, and nearly always with white horses; not so blue all the time either – often grey or so-so.
Then there are those romantic islands in the lagoon. Yanutha is volcanic (all these volcanoes are long since dead) and inhabited. Stuart Island is volcanic too – the destination for catamaran cruises from the Pacific Harbour resort on Viti Levu. Bird Island and Sand Island are sand cays on the part of the barrier reef which faces north, towards Mbengga Passage between the lagoon and the mainland. Sand cays with the inevitable prominent coconut trees. Bird Island from a distance looks as though it possesses just half a dozen stick like palms sloping in random outward directions above a broad stretch of pale sand. Stuart Island carries a large green reef on its western side, which in lee conditions appears almost as fearsome as those bommies. What if the outboard runs out of fuel for example? At least I suppose we could perhaps scramble ashore.
This brings us back to our mother ship Latui, for it is from Latui, anchored in sheltered waters west of Mbengga, that the Mediterranean cobalt of the water can be seen at its best, merging transparently down into yet deeper blueness. By what law of physics, though, does a rusty red anchor sparkle emerald green as it is pulled up through this deeper blueness?
Latui was, however, not designed as a platform for viewing blueness, or even magic greenness. It was designed, or at least is at present operating, as a platform for transporting eight large Fijian sailors plus our smiling electronics technician, Vinod Reddy, plus myself. The object – to permit us, on behalf of the Geological Survey of Fiji, to look back into the past of this lagoon, and indeed attempt to assess if it has any possible future as an oilfield prospect.
Just now these two functions – method and object – are semi-combined, for the eight large Fijian sailors are drinking yangona from a coconut bowl in the electronics laboratory containing the instruments which permit the looking back into the past. They are seated cross legged as far as space permits, mostly half naked, with their communal grog basin in the middle of the rather small floor. The skipper strums a guitar, the cook improvises a jungle drum with the end of a boxful of sonar recorder paper, and the others chant. Certainly a gathering and a form of ceremonial which harks back in spirit to the days when their ancestors chased Captain Bligh in the hope of a meal.
The master of ceremonies stirs the grog with the coconut bowl, lifting and dropping it carefully in bowlfuls. Then he hands the half filled bowl to the senior man, who claps his hands, drinks the pale brown liquid in one gulp and claps twice again. There is some vague incantation as the bowl passes around. I seem to be the senior man when present with this particular group. In Rukua Village I drank twelve bowlfuls one night in a similar occasion, for the first and last time I may say, although it had little noticeable effect.
The yangona ceremony as practiced on Latui is a downgraded version of what was, and still is, a pre-Christian religious happening. Those straight-laced Victorian missionaries must have had a tussle with their consciences in allowing it to survive; they are not the only proselytisers to have felt it wise to make a concession to the powers of darkness.
Darkness. These people are dark. Their group loyalties now are wider than in Captain Bligh’s day, but everything outside the group had better watch out. They ate turtle last night with gusto, and would be eating fish tonight with the same gusto had they succeeded in their efforts to catch some. No mercy there and no understanding of the cruelty casually inflicted; no mercy. Like, if it comes to that, most people in most places at most times.
When the local villagers come alongside in their brightly painted punts with glossy outboards they approach unsmiling. An appropriate introduction, negotiation and peacemaking between leaders has to be made privately before there is any question of fraternising. Impassivity, whatever, has a place in their mode of behaviour. They could well be more at home in dugout canoes with outriggers, naked, freed of the mould of our western century. For a moment it seems the visitors might indeed be hostile, until their leader nods a faint smile for the benefit of the white man. He is probably a church elder, or perhaps a lay preacher.
Impassivity; but also abandoned boisterousness, vocal and otherwise. To hear them at cards is an aural experience, preferably a distant one. Hooting is the predominant sound, with a good admixture of high pitched, more than full throated laughter.
There is Lese, the skipper, he would probably make a black Coriolanus if he had the chance; Bearded One has ‘I am not easy’ tattooed on his chest – he doesn’t look easy and he is big – I believe he is the mate; there is another bearded one, almost identical, who can be distinguished by the useful circumstance that he has lost most of his front teeth, presumably also in the course of not being easy; Long Black Bearded One is the coxswain I think – sometimes his straggly beard is tied neatly with a rubber band; Handsome has no beard and a Roman nose; Soulful is the electrician, with a short curly beard – he also is handsome, perhaps an inarticulate Keats – there must be some around; Smiler is round faced and beardless; last and probably least is Petit Raté.
Poor Petit Raté, he usually seems to miss out. He had a tussle today with Toothless One for the use of a fishing line, and inevitably lost. He was obliged to retire into a corner for a smoke to cool himself off. He was the one who hurt his foot when the ship’s boat sunk a few days ago and dumped its six occupants, myself included, in the ocean, and he was the one who got left behind when his shipmates went off to bomb it up at Mba during my last trip aboard Latui. He is the cook. I don’t suppose I can hold him personally responsible for hacking all those chickens in the deep freeze to death with his cane knife, but I am sure he would willingly have done so if only it could have helped prove his manhood.
Goodness me. I have forgotten Ratu, the engineer officer, probably the one who has the most empathy with white men, although given to long brooding silences and pressing shortages of money. That makes nine and I think there are only eight; there are certainly less than eight bunks in the crew quarters. Can it be that I Am Not Easy and Toothless One really are one and the same? I will have to check. It involves having them shirtless and open mouthed together.
A curious feature of this lagoon is that it doesn’t have much obvious animal life about it apart from the odd flying fish. It doesn’t phosphoresce, the South Pacific never seems to do so; not one fish has been caught by the lads; there are no noticeable birds. Still, the anchor did come up this morning covered with shell fragments, and these huge reefs are biogenic structures. It’s a pity I won’t be able to get onto the barrier reef, having avoided shipwrecking our punt on it. The villagers seems to catch fish, and we picked up a floating spear gun miles from anywhere today, in Frigate Passage. Yes, there must be fish; maybe on the reef front.
Professionally I am faced with the problem of how this lot got as it is. Mbengga Island is steep-to, precipitously so in places, and it rises to 1440 ft. The floor of the lagoon is not exactly as flat as a pancake, but relatively it is so, and the surrounding fore-reef slopes are pretty steep and straight, looking like the edge of the world as they slope everywhere steeply into the surrounding abyss.
The Mbengga Volcano has been dated at 5.1 million years before present. Is it possible that the reefs rise from the submerged lower slopes of the volcano, permitting the lagoon to fill with detritus from its erosion? Or is the whole area a faulted horst of older sedimentary rock which just happens to have a volcano at one side? Anyhow, with our low power acoustic equipment we are not seeing more than around fifty metres into what are clearly lagoonal sands. A lot of detritus must have gone somewhere during the last few million years, and what better place than a convenient lagoon? How, though, did the Mbengga Volcano manage to erode to such an extent when now it scarcely seems to erode at all, there being no sign of any wave-cut platform on rocks which look tough enough to last for ever? What is a million years to them? Ah well!
But now, for a while, I need to leave puzzles from the Mbengga of the past to deal with the more-than-super-efficient air conditioning of this cabin I share with Vinod – if not discouraged it would convert the cabin into a deep freeze and us into its contents. This is Latui, willing but a bit juvenile, not to say simple minded. Piles of slaughtered chickens and large tough steaks, mounds of dalo and cassava, a lot of cold raspberry cordial and tea served with a tablespoonful of sugar stirred into each cup.
Tomorrow we will sail out of Sulphur Passage and watch the seabed on the sparker record drop steeply away down the reef front. When it reaches 375 metres we will switch off the power and haul in the over-the -side gear, whilst Latui will increase her engine revs and head hopefully home to her stable in Suva, ending my last visit to Mbengga Lagoon and probably my last operational marine geology exercise.
I suppose it has been a memorable swansong. Yes, I am sure it has. I shall return to Suva with two pairs of shorts so impregnated with oily goo that they will be condemned as beyond resuscitation, having lived in little else for ten days. One can’t do that in the North Sea. But the cockroaches here are just the same thrusting but timid adventurers, like the men.