How to sail free from Fiji to Sydney
First Bundle of Ocean 50' Bamboo Raft
I did it, rather than wishing I had done it
I saw a notice at the Yacht Club in Nandi, Fiji for “deck-hand" needed to build and sail to Sydney, Australia on a bamboo raft with a hand-drawn sketch of large, ocean going bamboo raft. The raft had a name of "Kontinue" referring to the Thor Heyerdahl on his epic ocean voyage Kon-Tiki which was the raft used in his 1947 expedition across the Pacific Ocean from South America to the Polynesian islands.
Curious, I tracked down the owner of the notice. His name is Rob. His sister married the Prime Minister, Sitiveni Rabuka, who had led a bloodless coup and taken control of Fiji. Sitiveni Rabuka’s motivation was to prevent Fiji becoming like Hawaii with all of its traditional ways destroyed. The political environment at that time of Sitiveni Rabuka’s political take-over was the Indians, who had been brought to Fiji in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to work in the sugar cane fields was at a threshold to take over the government and land ownership. The Indians had accumulated most of the wealth and political power.
Given this state-of-affairs, Sitiveni Rabuka issued a decree that disenfranchised the Indians. They could not own land. There was a huge “brain drain” of Indians leaving Fiji at that time. Sitiveni Rabuka wanted to restore the “old ways” of Fiji.
Rob was/is a bona fide hippie. After he had met Mother Theresa, he decided his mission in life was to build a trust and give crutches and wheel chairs to children. At the same time, he was caught up in the zeal to assist in the focus of restoring the “old ways” of Fiji. Specifically in restoring the building of “bilibilis” (bamboo rafts) as a means to sail from and to the many islands. Native bark strips were used to tie the bundles together.
Given I felt my “alter ego,” Walter Mitty take charge, I volunteered to build the Kontinue bamboo raft. I know Walter Mitty would in his fictional character that is a meek, unassuming accountant who would daydream that he led an exciting, heroic life in order to escape his humdrum existence would immediately volunteer for this great adventure! - The fictional character appeared in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1941), written by the American humorist and artist James Thurber (1894-1961).
I was led down jungle paths to a village where there was no electricity. I was introduced to the chief and was told I would sleep in his wife’s bed. She would sleep on the floor. The “toilet” was outside. I quickly had to adjust to my “elevated status.” The chief would eat alone. Then I would eat alone, then his wife. We were always segregated. I was watch as if I was somebody special. Later I learned Rob told them I was a “rich American.” Every evening included the singing, drinking kava ceremonies for men only. The chief drank from his special polished coconut. The rest of us shared the single half coconut shell.
Rob kept disappearing to “save” some child. He always had cases of scabies, and etc. to report to the chief who gave Rob the authority to burn the bed sheets. I was told that a highland village was gathering a huge flotilla of bamboo to float down the Rewa River to the village where I was going to build the Kontinue bamboo raft. While I waited for the flotilla to arrive, I decided I must research how Thor Heyerdahl had built his two ocean going rafts. There was not a lot of material available. I read both of his books about his trips. That was the extent of my research. The huge risk began to sink in. I would have no navigational aids and must rely on Fijian sailors to guide by celestial navigation to Sydney, Australia. Rob wanted a statement made of comparing and contrasting the old ways with the new ways of ocean transportation in Fiji. Everything had to be authentic.
When the huge bamboo flotilla arrived, it was like herding cats to collect and pull out of the river the piles of 6-inch diameter and over 50-foot long bamboo and stack along the cove I had selected to begin construction of the 50’ ocean going bamboo raft.
I decided to “cheat” in the construction process and augment the strips of bark that was used to tie the bamboo bundles together with stainless steel straps. The same kind used to connect signs to telephone poles. It was determined that the trip to Sydney would take about six weeks. That is a l-o-n-g time in the ocean in a raft with many unknowns.
Since Rob could not be counted on, I accepted the reality; the raft was going to be built by myself. I began to sketch and experiment with different designs. I decided to hand tie a 30 bamboo bundle together with strips of bark and then place a truck tire between the bundles. The bundles were connected with the stainless steel straps. I used seven bundles for the deck. The mast was built like an oil derrick, a huge tri-pod.
My research had determined “dagger boards” – boards lowered or raised to prevent raft side slipping front and back would be the best method of steering with the “Chinese Junk” style sail. It took three weeks of sun up to sun down tying knots to get the deck completed. My concerns were recruiting fellow “sailors” who had sailing skills, navigation, knowledge of ocean fish, how to fish and prepare, and be reliable. The reliable part was the most difficult part to obtain. Drinking Kava makes you sleepy. Most of the Fijians sleep in. They are not fully functional until around 10 o’clock in the morning.
No one had “papers,” or passports. They were all “stowaways,” except Rob, who had an Australian and American passport. It was not a concern. One “crew member” had been caught trying to go to Australia three times. They simply returned them.
Life in the village while constructing the Kontinue….
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