I had been ten months in Australia and New Zealand before taking the flight to Suva in Fiji. For the most part, my experiences in the South Pacific confirmed the idyllic and edenic reputation that the South Pacific has had – as the ultimate gentle escape – for centuries.
Fiji was the southeastern most extent of Melanesia. The South Pacific, though comparatively expensive compared to other destinations, was one of the most genuinely and softly welcoming parts of the world. I made my way around the main island of Viti Levu, which has a circular road going clockwise from Suva down to Lautoka, Nadi and Rakiraki, with some day excursions inland. I also went to Ovalau island, home of the first capital of Fiji.
Tonga represented the transition to Polynesia, I spent most of my time at Moe’s Guest House in Tongatapu, visited the Ha’amonga Trilithon and continued on for a few days to the beaches of Kolovai. It was there where I bumped into a couple I had met twenty months earlier in Afghanistan. The Soviets had just invaded and I recall both of us agreeing that the Soviets had made the biggest tactical mistake. The Afghans will never give in to an occupation. Now thirty years later with NATO in Afghanistan and not the Soviets, I still believe the same thing.
My ticket allowed me to stop in the New Zealand dependency of Niue island. At 100 square miles in size, it is the largest coral island in the world. The impact of Niue’s relationship with New Zealand was mixed. On the positive side, the standard of living was considerably higher than either Fiji or Tonga. But the appeal of New Zealand was having the effect of depopulating the island, whose population had dropped from 5300 to 3600 over the course of the previous decade.
I continued on to Raratonga in the Cook Islands. During my time in New Zealand, the Cook Islands were advertised as the unspoiled South Pacific paradise. My experience was just the opposite. It was the most intensely commercialized and touristed of all of the South Pacific islands I had visited at that point, though the island was strikingly beautiful. I continued from there to Tahiti and the island of Moorea, with superb scenery and the highest prices I was to encounter on my trip.
From there I continued to Easter Island. Going east from Tahiti was another one of the great travel “divides”. One could go north to Hawaii and Los Angeles, or across to Easter Island and Chile. Easter Island was yet another one of those impossibly remote, impossibly romantic places. For me it was the last destination in the journey to the East. The loneliest place in the world. Easter Island was considerably more desolate than the other islands of the South Pacific. As a Chilean possession during the time of the Pinochet regime, I had the rather eerie spectacle one day of seeing of seeing a group of young Polynesian men, dressed in military uniform, responding to barked out orders of commanding officers. It was an initial precursor of what was to come in South America