From Mai Life Online (24 December 2008)

Rotuma - Paradise in isolation

THEY say getting to Rotuma is hard.

Getting to the island takes a minimum of two-days by boat or an hour and 45 minutes by plane. This is on the MV Westerland.

Some trips have been known to take more than three days. And the boat ride is not a merry affair. Remember Rotuma is over 460 km away from Viti Levu and getting there means traversing across the open ocean where 10 foot waves are a normal sight.

This is one reason why those who move to Viti Levu or Vanua Levu never return until years later. “We have at least 10-20 children leaving for Viti Levu every year to further education and get a job, most of them never return until years later,’’ a Rotuman who sailed with me explained.

Mai Life boarded the Westerland on its maiden franchise voyage to Rotuma in what many on the island hope will be a constant affair.

As with many other islands in the Fiji group, transportation is an issue for Rotuma. Those traveling to the island are cramped together with cargo into a boat every three weeks or once a month at times, while there is always a backlog of bookings on flights. To get to Rotuma via plane will cost you around $800 return. Bigger vessels usually make a loss when they make a trip to and from the island because of the numbers involved and the amount of cargo, so those who want to travel in greater comfort usually have to wait for ages for such a trip to take place. This often leaves people with no option but to travel on smaller boats in often unhygienic conditions with their own cargo and often no sleeping space for two to three days on end.

But for the weary first time traveler, the breathtaking sight and beauty of the Islands takes away all the exhaustion of being tossed around on the high waves and the lack of sleep over the two days of the voyage.

Rotuma is indeed paradise in isolation.

“I don’t know why you are all slaving away in Suva,” a friend who moved to Rotuma this year told Mai Life.

Rotuma’s isolation has been compounded in the past and in recent times by the lack of communication infrastructure, and the failure to establish modern communication technology on the island. But everything else needed for survival and relaxation is in abundance.

Just a wade out 30 metres into the blue sea, toss a fishing line and in minutes you can catch enough fish for a small banquet for you and your friends. A visit to Rotuma in May this year by the interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama saw promises and increased commitment to the development of the island and this has come in leaps and bounds according to locals.

“More progress than maybe the four previous Governments put together,” says school teacher Peter Pene.

Also on board the maiden voyage of the MV Westerland to Rotuma was the Digicel crew, Telecom Fiji crew, the Public Works Department and the first ever Police vehicle for Rotuma.

In that respect Mai Life was on a historic voyage, escorting Rotuma’s first Police vehicle to the island. The Rotumans must have really impressed Bainimarama.

“Bainimarama kept his promise to the people of Rotuma,’’ Police officer Paka Tokoara told Mai Life concerning the police vehicle. “Police in Rotuma before used to go on horse back, motor bikes or on foot until Prime Minister Bainimarama came over this year and asked if we needed a vehicle.”

Apparently there is more in store for this outlying island whose inhabitants, though small in numbers, have greatly contributed to the development of Fiji as a whole.

Rotuma was this year declared an international port of entry thus the new developments taking place there. An 18-men crew from the PWD consisting of builders, electricians and plumbers are currently on the Island and will be there for the duration of 2-3 months renovating the hospital, the weather station and the plumbing system on the Island.

Telecom Fiji two months ago set up their Easy Tel station on the Island connecting the once communication blind spot island to the world. Even the newest player on the market Digicel have begun building their transmission station there and will be in operation this month.

With these developments however, the people of Rotuma have been cautioned that certain trends and changes in people’s perceptions and behaviour are set to follow.

“Its all a result of new developments, some say that these changes will be followed by crime and so forth, but we are a small and close-knit community so I hope all changes will be for the good,’’ says school teacher Pene.

Westerland ship captain Mika Labalaba says they will only service this route at least once every 5-6 weeks to replenish supplies on the island, transport cargo and passengers.

“But the challenge will be to have a full load going there and back so the trip is viable for us. Perhaps people could utilise our trips there to bring their copra cargo over to Lautoka as we have a bigger capacity than the usual.”