Down memory lane

Main street at Levuka Town. Picture: SOPHIE RALULU

Rob Hunt is a historian based in New Zealand. A keen student of Pacific Island history, he came to Fiji as a young teacher in the 1960s. He taught at Navuso Agricultural School in 1967 and St John’s College at Cawaci, Levuka in 1970. After a teaching career that spanned 50 years, the retiree busies himself with writing books on historical subjects that fascinate him. But it is the memory of Fiji that lingers on. Below we share a story he shared to us of those times.

I TAUGHT in New Zealand as a science master before I came to Fiji.

I taught at Navuso Agricultural School in 1967 before I left for the British Solomon Islands on a two-year posting.

I returned to Fiji in January 1970, and quite unexpectedly met a Roman Catholic priest, Father Julian Waqa, in the bar of the Melbourne Hotel, alas now gone, but not far I think from the present Fiji Times office.

Father Waqa had been educated at St Patrick’s College, Silverstream, and when we met, the topic soon was rugby.

He told me he was teaching on the island of Ovalau, and when I mentioned to him that I was looking for a job, immediately suggested that his school was looking for a teacher and that I accompany him back to the island. I had first gone to Ovalau in 1967 and spent a weekend in Levuka, and had walked around, up, and down the historic first capital, and stayed at the local hotel.

I worshipped on the Sunday at the Church of the Redeemer, and met several of the ‘kai Solomoni’.

Then three years later, I arrived at St. John’s College.

But walking past the villages before reaching Cawaci, I encountered quite a gathering at one of them and saw a local nurse explaining the ‘mouth-to-mouth’ resuscitation, then very much in vogue.

The demonstration the nurse provided was very clear, but little did I know then that I would need to use the same method only about half an hour later.

Just before visiting the school, there was quite a commotion on the beach area in front of the school.

A nun was beside herself in tears – a small Chinese infant had obviously strayed from the care of its parents, and had gone into the water, and had been discovered, not breathing!

Several villagers crowded around, none knowing what on Earth to do.

Equipped with my refreshed knowledge of mouth to mouth, and remembering to hold the neck up in an arched position, I applied some firm breaths, and then a few moments later, the child was making same breaths itself.

The parents went off with the child in their car and returned not long after with a present for me, a clock of all things. Little did I know then that 34 years later I would be lecturing in International relations in a leading Shanghai University in China!

Father Waqa introduced me to the head of the school, a delightful Irishman Father Clerkin, and his other Irish priest, Father O’Gorman. After a delicious lunch of fresh fish, I was offered a position at the school.

Father Clerkin was overjoyed that I was qualified to teach Latin, and I agreed to take the third form class in that subject, and a class that included a group of young Fijian novices.

I also taught history and Chemistry to the senior boys, who were preparing for the Overseas Cambridge exams — an examination that I had to admit I knew nothing about, only having had experience with the New Zealand examination system.

But the jewel in the crown was simply the great Fijian young men that I was required to teach. So willing to learn, and so amenable — and so easy to teach!

And an added bonus was to be able to watch a master rugby coach in action, and Father Waqa never failed to impress.

Father Clerkin’s dry wit was ever to the fore while I watched the games on the school rara: when a boy missed in getting the ball over the bar, the
Reverend Father often turned to me “Oh, the sisters have been praying for us!” I was able to go on away matches to RKS where we were hospitably
looked after by Mr Pat Managreve, and at QVS by Mr. John McDougall, an Old Boy of my old school in Auckland, and himself a staunch rugby

Fridays were always a day that I looked forward to, as the school provided a bottle of whisky on the refectory table, and Father Waqa and I partook
of some of its contents before making for Levuka, and then the Ovalau Club.

I became a member of that club, and met there quite a selection of the kai Levuka, I met the assistant headteacher of the Levuka Public School,
who later on in Auckland became a well-respected principal of a leading Roman Catholic School.

I walked around the island of Ovalau and was really entertained in a number of villages.

I lived in a bure in the village of Vatukalo, the nearest village to Cawaci, and was treated to so many uncommon kindnesses of true veiqaravi.

The event of the year was, of course, the celebrations for Fiji’s Independence, and witnessing the ceremony in Suva was a magnificent spectacle.

After in the GPH bar, I was able to have a lengthy conversation with the American astronaut who was Fiji’s special guest Travelling to Viti Levu from Ovalau was made by plane, in a six-seater Cessna.

Taking off from the ‘strip’ on Ovalau at first was a bit harrowing: the door was left wide open until the plane had reached full throttle; the pilot informed me that if anything untoward happened we would need a ready escape!

About 10 minutes in the air was very convenient; coming in to land the pilot would say – ‘See the fish!’

That small island was a great introduction to Fiji for me, and though I missed the rising of the balolo, I ended up with a great farewell from a
grateful class, who all sat on the floor in my small room at Cawaci, and after singing Isa Lei all burst into tears: and which I did too.

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