For many Australians there’s an unspoken right of passage that many of my generation undergoes. It’s usually in the form of a gap year between college and university when most choose to work for a while and then spend the remainder of their time abroad, travelling through various countries and racking up quite a bit of life experience in the process. I’ve watched so many of my friends set off overseas for years and heard their stories with a slightly jealous ear. Whilst a week away in an exotic location doesn’t really compare to a year spent overseas it has given me many insights on life, work and the human condition.
As everyone now knows our honeymoon location was none other than Turtle Island, a private island held by Richard Evanson. It’s been in operation for about 27 years now and has a maximum occupancy of about 14 couples. The focus of the entire experience on the island is to welcome you into the family of staff and other guests. The Fijian people are incredibly welcoming no matter where you are and I don’t think I could pass one of the staff without them smiling and giving me a hearty “Bula!” (Hello/Welcome). This sense of welcome is even more instilled when you’re introduced to your Bure (traditional Fijian house) Mama, who is for all intents and purposes your mum whilst you are on the island. They will get you anything you want, clean your bure, arrange activities for you and be your own personal photographer. They’re also your source of insights into the Fijian culture, something I was completely ignorant to before coming to Turtle Island.
There are only 2 ways to get to the island: by a 4 hour boat ride or a 30 min seaplane. Being so fascinated by aeronautics I couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a ride in a seaplane which turned out to be a de Haviland Beaver, a rare craft that hasn’t had a new one built in over 40 years. The pilot was a French-Canadian who has had 40 years of flying experience and this showed from his ability to handle such a craft as the Beaver. The flight in is very picturesque with islands and reefs dotting the course until finally you make the final approach into Turtle Island, where you get to see the island for the very first time.
All the housing on the island is done in the traditional Fijian style, with Bures and thatched roofs being the norm. All the staff are either from the surrounding Yasawa island chain or Fijian natives. Jumping off the plane you are greeted to songs and, if you’re one of the fairer gender, you will be carried off the plane by 2 of the staff dressed in traditional war attire. The initial experience is so overwhelming that you almost don’t know how to react other than smiling and soaking in the atmosphere. The waters of the beaches are either crystal clear or a piercing blue, with the sand of the beaches white and welcoming. It’s hard to describe the island as anything short of a dream as from the moment you leave the plane you feel like you’ve stepped into another world.
Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner are all held at the family table unless you’re having a private dine out. This means that every day you get together with your fellow guests for food, wine and good conversation. It was a confronting experience for Rebecca and I since we were the youngest couple on the island by at least half a decade, although the insights and wisdom we gained from their experience was phenomenal. The shop talk was kept to a minimum as most of the other guests were extremely busy people normally and talking about work was the last thing on their minds. It was great though and the advice we’ve taken away from the other couples is something we’ll carry with us for the rest of their lives.
After a few days on the island you start to completely let go of your normal self and start to slip into the Fijian lifestyle. I can remember clearly waking up on day 3 completely aloof to the stresses of work and normal life. To be honest this was my first real holiday in over a year and it felt like my brain finally had time to process the last years worth of tangled up memories. After that I was completely comfortable with spending an hour or two just sitting on a hammock and staring out into the sea. For someone who’s usually strung up on making the most of their time anywhere this was quite a mind shift and I think it was something that I sorely needed.
One of the things that got me when we first arrived was everyone kept saying “Welcome home”. Now I know where my home is, and it wasn’t there, so I just wrote them off as being polite. However after spending a few days on the island you forget how life was before and Turtle Island becomes your home without you even realising it. Every guest and staff member then becomes part of your Turtle family with all the emotional attachment that comes with it. I really didn’t notice it until the day we tried to leave when I felt that familiar tightness in my chest, the one I get when I feel I’ve lost something. That day I was moving away from home and it really pulled at my heart strings.
The island is not about the food or the accommodation or activities you do whilst you’re there; it’s about the people. The Fijian people are so welcoming that you can’t help but feel like you’ve stepped into a world filled with old friends and this is imprinted on every guest that stays there. When you’re about to leave you make a Check-Out Tile which is a small hexagonal block of concrete imprinted with whatever message you want. These are then used on the island everywhere, and I mean everywhere. There are literally thousands of them to be seen each with their own unique message to the current guests of the island. We have no idea where ours will end up, but I’ll be sure to track it down on our next visit to the island.
Turtle Island wasn’t a vacation for me, it was a transformation. I finally unravelled the meaning behind the last year of my life and broke apart a lot of my preconceived ideas about people and the world. Being thrown into such a foreign situation and changing so rapidly is something that someone like myself, who thought they thrived on change, had never experienced before. It is with a smile on my face and many fond memories behind me that I write this post and recommend that everyone try the experience at least once in their life.
My life has changed.