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Bula Vinaka!

Bula Vinaka roughly translates as ‘the good life’, and is used as a welcome greeting in Fiji. Gabi Steindl found both a warm welcome and a taste of the good life on her trip there, experiencing the generous hospitality of the local people and ripping some of the world-class waves Cloudbreak has to offer, happily sharing the lineup with renowned pro surfers and kite-surfers like Kai Lenny.

Photos: Josh Bystrom, Camara Sailing, Kalani Muller, Creative 7 FIJI and Gabi Steindl

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“Watch out, Abo, here comes a wide set!” More focused on his handline than the massive swell lines rolling in, Abo my Fijian longboat driver instantly kicked the trusty Yamaha 40 outboard into gear. The vibe in the channel was electric, a mix of excitement, stoke and fear. Us and the other boats all chocker block with spectators, camera people and surfers sped towards the horizon into safer waters. Heaving, spitting and barreling so hard, the legendary Cloudbreak was going off its brain. A whole bus could have fit into some of the pits we were seeing. Only a few hardcore local big wave chargers were out with a handful of top pro surfers who had flown in for this swell. With it looking like the wind would not come in, I felt relaxed and happy just to watch the show from the safety of the boat – until the breeze suddenly swung and picked up from the south, and then I knew – I had to make a call….

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With over 330 paradise islands, warm water, consistent swell and uncountable world-class breaks, Fiji in the South Pacific is what surfers’ dreams are made of. Considered one of the best waves on the planet, Cloudbreak in the southern Mamanuca Islands is the holy grail, holding nearly mythical status amongst wave frothers. For decades I’ve been fantasizing about one day going to Fiji. In 2020, I had flights booked to live out my Fiji dreams onboard the “Camara”, an 80ft Whitbread former round-the-world racing yacht, when Covid shattered them. Staying in touch with the Palmers, the family of four owning and living on this boat, I sent them an email this August with a spontaneous idea. Six weeks later, I arrived in Nadi with three massive bags of kiting and surfing gear. Ignoring that it would be my financial ruin, I booked my flights four weeks apart. Time is crucial when you’re hoping to score at least one decent swell, and so I said “F*** it”. The tentative plan was to first join the Palmers on their amazing boat before spending the remaining time in a small traditional village.

Pete Palmer, a South African boat builder and lifelong surfer, and Christina have been sailing for over 20 years, covering over 50,000nm and raising both their children afloat. Tara, 16, has been living onboard boats since the tender age of three hours. 18-year-old Cameron had his first birthday on his first ocean crossing from Central America to French Polynesia. The name “Camara” is made up of the kids’ names. Racing under different names in the 80’s in the most prestigious sailing competitions, the boat was eventually retired to New Zealand. In 2015, Pete and Christina decided to buy and breathe new life back into her, turning into an insane undertaking of a full refit that took over three years. Being the only guest on a boat of this caliber and size felt totally surreal. My cabin was in the bow with the entire cabin next door serving as my toy shed. We had a rough itinerary in mind with the first stop a definite: the fabled Cloudbreak. On the way there, I had to pinch myself sitting up on deck, surrounded by a sheet of liquid glass in a million shades of blue, cruising past surfing’s two most exclusive islands: Tavarua and Namotu.

We dropped anchor about three nautical miles further south, just 800m from Cloudbreak whose name is derived from the local expression “Nakuru Kuru Malagi” meaning “Thundercloud Reef”. Surfing fun-size Cloudies for the first few days was perfect for getting to know the wave. It gets faster, shallower and more critical as it grinds down the line, before it unleashes with the wave speeding up and becoming extraordinarily hollow on the inside section. Appropriately called “Shish Kebabs”, the end bowl breaks over super shallow razor-sharp live reef. A considerable swell popped up on the forecast and grew in wave energy as it got closer. Rumors of Kai Lenny having flown in circulated, and my anticipation of experiencing Cloudbreak in its full glory grew by the minute. Mother Nature delivered the goods. Watching Kai and some WSL legends including Joao “Chumbo” Chianca and Jack Robinson disappear in massive liquid caverns, with the thickest backlit lip in the craziest see-through hues of blue, was mind-blowing.

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Too big to surf for Captain Pete or me the next morning, we watched the madness again for a while, before heading back to the boat for lunch. Suddenly I noticed white caps all around  Camara. What the…? The forecast hadn’t predicted any kiteable wind. With Cloudbreak about 9km west of Fiji’s largest island Viti Levu, you need to be very wary as the easterly trade winds are blocked by the island, creating its own little microclimate. With one eye peeled on the wind odometer in the cockpit and the other on the ocean, my brain went into overdrive calculating the potential risks vs rewards. “Let’s do it!” I launched my 10m Neo D/LAB from the boat and kited over to Cloudbreak. Only two surfers were out on guns when I got there. The wind was cross-off and super patchy. I prayed for it to swing more to the south, as the southerly is more likely to last for a while. Two jet skis and another longboat suddenly arrived with quite a crew onboard and lots of cameras. I realized it was Jack Robinson, “Chumbo” and Yago Dora with their film team. Trading set waves with Robbo and the WSL boys doing step-offs the ski as well as the two local surfers paddling their hearts out to get onto the heaving beasts, it was a momentous session. The magic lasted about two hours before the wind turned super fluky and I pulled the pin, “just” in time. Literally, within minutes of me landing my kite safely off the back of Camara, the sea turned to a sheet of glass as far as the eye could see.

The next morning I met Robbo in the surf. He high-fived me and said, “That was special yesterday, sessions like these don’t happen often.” It was only day five of my trip, and I felt on top of the world. Well, as so often happens in life, the higher you fly, the further you fall… When heavy rain set in the next day, I didn’t think much of it. Although the forecast predicted rain and zero swell or wind as far as it showed, I convinced myself not to believe it. What I didn’t know was that what the locals call the “Bogi Walu” had hit, a weather phenomenon that can arise around big high-pressure systems. Highs can intensify the trade winds in the tropics, in particular around the outside of the system. These enhanced trades can reach between 30-40 knots and it’s usually overcast with a high likelihood of rain. Being anchored in that much wind out to sea can get really dangerous.

Camara had to be moved to Musket Cove, a safe and well-protected anchorage far away from the surf. Bogi stands for “eight” and walu for “nights” – do the math! Basically, the weather was complete crap till my time on the dream boat Camara was over. But it wasn’t all bad. Whilst stuck in Musket Cove, some random coincidences led to me bumping into a windsurfing mate from Spain whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade. So I joined him and his mates, a bunch of Kiwi surfer mad dogs on their 46ft custom high-performance catamaran for five crazy days. I slept on an emergency fold-out bed in the aisle, but I couldn’t care less. The swell was pumping, and we lived it up, celebrating the moment, anchored right at Cloudbreak.

Starting the last leg of my trip, I moved into a homestay in Nabila Village on the west coast of Viti Levu. I was excited to experience the traditional Fijian culture first-hand and to live so closely with these beautiful island people who have the reputation of being the happiest, genuinely kindest folk in the world. The super rich high-end holiday industry, with mega yachts and exclusive island resorts, is in stark contrast with Fiji’s local people’s lifestyle where little suggests the modern world has infiltrated. Life revolves around the family in Fijian culture and it is common for households to be multigenerational. Walking through the village, beautiful big white smiles would call out “Bula” (“hello” in Fijian literally meaning ‘life’ and ‘health’). A few days into my stay in Nabila, stepping outside with my morning coffee, I noticed smoke at the other end of the village. I went to investigate. A big bunch of the village men had gathered. “Bula Gabi, come, come! We’re making lovo, it’s the priest’s birthday today, big big party, hundreds of people coming!”

The term ‘lovo’ refers to an underground oven reserved for special occasions in Fijian villages to cook traditional feasts. Used here for centuries, the specifics of this cooking method are passed down from generation to generation. Kindling and firewood layered up on stones in a pit dug into the ground get lit. Once there are hot coals and glowing rocks, anything from meat to fish and vegetables wrapped up in beautifully braided banana and palm leaf parcels or foil is added, before the whole mound is covered with soil and left to slow cook for several hours. A whole pig was put on, and so were dozens of chickens and veggies. Village women of all ages were sitting in a group together chopping, slicing and preparing. I joined in and gave them a hand. The preparations took all day. In the presence of over a hundred people from several villages, the priest was celebrated with a long speech and presents before the feast was served buffet style, with music and dancing until late into the night.

Unfortunately, for the last week of my trip, an insidious, tenacious virus had me in bed for many days with horrendous muscle aches and headaches, fever, cough and sweats. It sucked big time, even more so as a massive swell was headed towards Fiji. Although still feeling super weak and sick, I knew I had to get out to Cloudbreak for this swell. With the help of Abo, a massive 6’8 Nabila local with a heart of gold, I managed to hire a longboat for the two biggest forecasted days. Both days were even bigger and gnarlier than the epic swell I kited three weeks earlier. Again, some big names in surfing flew in, amongst them WSL’s current No.2 Ethan Ewing and big wave hellman Laurie Towner. Serious water freight trains were on an annihilation course towards the reef. So much raw energy and water moving, with ginormous rogue clean-up sets had resulted in a serious head injury and several broken boards already in the morning.

Hiding in the shade of the longboat’s little awning, pumped full of cold and flu tablets, I was still feeling very under the weather. When the wind swung and picked up from the south, the lineup cleared out. The risk-reward ratio was certainly not in favor of me going kiting. It was insane and I literally would have drowned had something gone wrong, yet I simply had to go. Trying to tame a beastly Cloudbreak turned into a four-hour session of survival. For most of it, our boat was the only one there. At one point a bunch of guests from Namotu came out for a watch, hooting their heads off for me from the channel. The later it got, the more insane the turquoise colors of the wave became. A massive dark cloud marching in from the southeast, with the wind picking up to nearly 30 knots and about an hour to sunset, was my cue to call it a day. Instead of attempting to land the kite in the crazy choppy seas with the wildest of gusts, I opted for kiting all the way to the wind line just off the main island. Utterly buggered, Abo picked me up with the boat and once back in Nabila, I went straight to bed.

Day two of the swell happened to be Fiji Day and the whole country was in celebration mode, commemorating two key events in the nation’s history, Fiji’s cession to the United Kingdom in 1874 and its attainment of independence in 1970. Even gnarlier than the day prior, Cloudbreak had a real mean, angry vibe to it. I had to make yet again another serious judgment call. Whilst getting ready, a jet ski rocked up. It was Ben Wilson and Taj Burrows, and the two legends were frothing for some step-off action. Together we shared one of the craziest, biggest and possibly most risky sessions of my life, and without a doubt, one of the most memorable ones… “Vinaka (thank you) Fiji!” What a hell of a trip…

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