A true story of adventure, deceit and buried treasure lost in the islands of Fiji.by Rachael Crawley Sigsbee
It was a dream I had since for as long as I could remember. I would be traveling the world with the love of my life and writing about the journey every step of the way. I was lucky enough to find someone who had the flexibility to travel like I did as a freelance journalist. Shane and I had been traveling for the past 15 months around the U.S., gradually moving west with the changing seasons in search for our next great adventure – skiing in Breckenridge, Colo., surfing in Hermosa Beach, Calif., and scuba diving in Maui, Hawaii.
At the end of December 2010, our journey led us to Fiji, a place neither of us had ever been, much less ever dreamt of going to. We were ending our 18-month-long journey in Australia, so we thought Fiji would be a great stop-off to completely go off the grid before coming back to reality.
It was a few days before New Years when we arrived in Suva, the capital city of Fiji on the island of Viti Levu. After spending the night in Suva, we set sail early the next morning on the first boat out of the harbor to the Octopus Resort in the Yasawa Island chain. We loaded into a skiff, along with a dozen or so tourists who we dropped off at different resorts along the way, and pulled out of port, leaving behind any notion of civilization and conveniences as we set off to navigate the puzzle of secluded islands.
On the two-hour boat ride out to the Octopus Resort on Waya Island, we passed by countless small, uninhabited islands blanketed in lush jungle that was as green as the water was blue. The boat slowed over the bright turquoise, crystal clear waters of the Pacific as we pulled into the sparkling cove of the Waya Island. Once we reached shore, we were greeted with a tall glass of fresh-squeezed juice while the staff of the resort, the lone resort on the island situated at the base of a mountain, serenaded us in Fijian song.
The next few days on the island were spent snorkeling, laying on the beach and sipping cocktails in hammocks under palm trees. We lived barefoot in our bathing suits and sunglasses from sunup to sundown. The feeling of being on a secluded island in the South Pacific was just as romantic as it sounds.
The Waya Island in Fiji
December 30, 2010
We were gearing up to leave the next morning for the next stop on our island hopping adventure, the Blue Lagoon Beach Resort on Nacula Island, which is about 55 kilometers north of Waya. It was 11:30 p.m. when we settled into our mosquito nets after returning to our bure (a Fijian word meaning a wood and straw hut), labeled bure #3, after dinner and quiz night in the main house. The pace on the island is as slow as the sunrise, so nightly events kept the guests from coming down with island fever.
Bure #3 at the Octopus Resort
I remembered my Apple MacBook, a.k.a. my fifth limb, needed a charge, so I walked to our spare twin bed located to the right of our bure where I last left the computer, but it was nowhere to be found. I searched through luggage, under beds and in the bamboo hutch next to the bed. I wondered if someone had stolen it in the dark of the night, or if my mind, saturated with weeks of heat and humidity (we had just spent a month in Maui where we got engaged), was too worn and weary to remember where I placed it.
I last saw my laptop before we left for dinner around 7:15 p.m. when I took it out of my North Face backpack. I had purchased my backpack it in college to take on my first trip traveling abroad, and it’s been everywhere with me since – hiking the Swiss Alps, drinking my way through Tuscany and exploring the plains of Africa. Like the backpack itself, my laptop was my life and it too had traveled the world with me, storing my thoughts and photos along the way.
Shane and I searched every inch of the bure for the laptop, and when reality set in around midnight that the laptop was stolen, we went to the manager of the resort, Frasier, a Scottish fella, who immediately launched Fiji's version of an investigation: gas lantern in hand and Fijian security guard in tow to inspect the bure and surrounding brush for evidence. After unsuccessfully searching for clues in the thick of the Fijian night for what seemed like hours, the investigation was called off until morning.
December 31, 2010
I dreamt of waking up with my laptop sitting untouched on the porch, as if the thief miraculously gained a conscious overnight and returned the laptop to its rightful owner, no harm, no foul. Instead, we awoke to find that another bure at the resort located just steps from ours was also broken into during dinner the night before. The victims, a Swedish family, were missing a $5,000 camera, two iPods, cash and two bottles of Crown Royal whiskey.
At breakfast, we ran into Brody, a guest of the resort we had befriended who was a member of the Los Angeles Police Department, and told him of the events that happened the night before. Brody, who was built like an Olympian and trained like one every morning on the beach, went back to our bure and investigated the crime scene. We circled around to the backside of the hut and that’s where we saw it — a lone, muddy footprint on the outside bathroom wall of the bure. All of the bathrooms in each bure were open-air to allow guest to be completely immersed in the beauty of the islands. Unfortunately we realized this lets in all types of creatures and bugs, and now apparently criminals.
In full CSI form, Brody reenacted his take on the event and found that the thief, with mud fresh on his feet from trekking through the island brush, used the plumbing that ran up the exterior wall to hoist him up and over and through the unlocked bathroom door that led into the bedroom. Upon further inspection, a mysterious muddy bath towel on the floor of the interior of the bathroom confirmed Brody’s theory. At least the thief was kind enough to wipe his feet, I thought.
Instead of moving on to the Blue Lagoon, we decided to stay at Octopus to ring in the New Year to better our chances of getting my laptop back. We were moved from bure #3 to another bure on the opposite side of the resort to accommodate new guest who was assigned to bure #3.
Fiji is halved by the 180th meridian, so half of country is located in the Western Hemisphere and the other half is located in the Eastern Hemisphere, which is always the first to welcome in the New Year. You’ve never experienced ringing in the New Year until you are the first to do so, on a secluded island, lit by bonfire, dancing with complete strangers under the bright, starry skies of the South Pacific. We forgot about our loss and marked this the best New Years we’d ever had.
January 1, 2011
On the heels of a night that will go down in the history books, we got news that two detectives from the main island of Viti Levu were en route to Waya to investigate the crime.
After breakfast in the main house, I returned to our new bure to find the maid, who lived in the village on the other side of the mountain, cleaning our room. I asked her if she had heard of the crime that was committed. She told me in very broken English that the buzz around the island was that it was someone from the village who stole the items. I encouraged her to tell the authorities what she had heard, but trust in the village runs as thick as the jungle. Later in the day she returned to the bure upset and told me that she had been ridiculed by the other villagers for speaking to an outsider on the matter.
Later that afternoon, a detective and a policeman from Viti Levu arrived by boat to take our statements and to dust for fingerprints in bure #3. However, heavy rains had come through during the nights following the burglary and had allegedly washed any evidence away. The detective told us that going into the village would also be effective, as they would question the villagers and narrow down their suspect since rumor had it that it was a local on the island. We learned that whoever took the items would face serious punishment, as the Fijian laws are very strict for locals who steal from tourists.
Time crept along as we waited for what seemed hours for the police to return to our side of the island. Throughout the day, we were updated with different leads and stories that were being whispered around the village and among the staff of the resort like a game of telephone.
At sunset, Shane was invited to drink kava with the mayor of the village on the front porch of the resort, a daily ritual at Octopus. Kava is a dirty brown liquid made from the roots of the Kava plant and is popular among Pacific islanders because the natural concoction acts as a sedative and, in higher quantities, can result in intoxication.
Each day at the same hour, the higher powers of the island gather at Octopus, along with the guests that had arrived that day, to drink from the same little wooden bowl dipped in the same big wooden bowl of dirty water. What might look like a death trap is actually safe to drink, but tastes much like it looks and leaves fuzzy feeling on your tongue. Sitting in a circle cross-legged on straw mats, Shane searched for answers from the mayor, but all the mayor would disclose was that there was good news coming with the return of the authorities.
The communal Kava on the front porch of the Octopus Resort
We had just sat for dinner in the main dining hall, grass roof above, sand floor below, when Frasier came through the dining room sporting two thumbs up. A huge sigh of relief came over us.
He led us through the property to the resort’s main office where they were holding a suspect and our stolen items. Before we went in, the policeman stopped me, not Shane, short of the door and told me that the thief wanted to apologize to me for taking our things. A remorseful criminal, I thought.
We walked in the dim room and found a young Fijian man with a Mohawk sitting in a chair with a look of despair on his face. We had seen the villager several times throughout the week, so we recognized him immediately. He was even a part of the New Year’s Eve entertainment the locals provided for us poolside at the resort.
My laptop, along with several other items of ours we were unaware that were stolen, including Shane’s watch and laptop charger, and several iPhone chargers, were sitting on the desk in the corner of the hut. The Swedish family's items were there, too, all but the whiskey of course because, well, YOLO.
The police had gone to the village to question the locals about the stolen items. When they confronted the actual culprit, John, he confessed. John apologized to both of us; we forgave him and told him that it's not right to steal but everyone deserves a second chance, and collected our belongings and headed back to our bure to end the night.
We stayed up late under the breeze of the ceiling fan inside our misquote net recalling the chain of events, trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. But there was one detail that just didn't add up. If the Fijian government has such harsh punishment for stealing from guests of the islands, and nobody seemed to have proof of who did it, why then, we wondered, was John so quick to confess?
January 2, 2011
We were sitting down having drinks near the bar when we struck up a conversation with Kellie, an Aussie who had stopped off at the resort the afternoon of New Year's Eve to spend a few days on holiday solo. It wasn't unusual that she was visiting the islands alone. The South Pacific is known for being a premier party destination so an influx of backpackers comes from around the world to meet up with other travelers exploring the islands during the holidays.
Word had spread about the burglary, so she asked us about the events that took place. We told her that John, a local Fijian from the neighboring village, went on a stealing rampage thorough the resort. As we told our story, a bewildered look came over her face. As chance might have it, she told us she too had a story to tell about John.
She, along with a few other young tourists visiting the island for New Year's, were partying with the locals in the village. As the night lingered on, the kava flowed and Kellie and one local, John, who led the tourists from Octopus to the village, began to strike up a friendship. Toward the end of the night, John asked Kellie which bure she was staying in. “bure #3”, she told him.
After she told him where she was staying, she said, he had a look of horror on his face, and after hearing our story she now knew why — the poor soul thought it was his new love's belongings he had stolen and that his irresponsible act might hurt his chances of finding true love in the islands, so he confessed.
When the policeman stopped me outside the hut to tell me John wanted to apologize, he thought the person he would be answering to was Kellie. The thought that must have gone through his mind when I, a newly engaged little American girl, walked in and not his new Aussie babe.
As the story goes, the resort hired John along with four villagers to provide entertainment for the guests the night the items went missing. When the five men arrived, the resort realized they only needed three of the locals, so the other two men were sent back to the village without pay.
Instead of John returning home, the disgruntled villager went on a mad rage through the guesthouses. He took the stolen goods up and over the mountain through the thick island jungle in the dark of the night, wrapped the items in and buried them in a towel on a beach on the north side of the small island, about 5 kilometers from the Octopus Resort.
For three whole days, my laptop sat buried just a few feet beneath the sand, like buried treasure you might read about in a Robert Louis Stevenson novel. I can picture the mighty waves of the Pacific crashing on the shore as the island breeze blew over my treasured travel companion, just waiting patiently to be discovered so I could write about the events that had taken place during our time in the South Pacific.
Miraculously, when we found our items on the desk in the office, they were dusted ever so lightly with sand, and the InCase Laptop Sleeve my MacBook rested in was faintly damp, with specs of sand embedded in the neoprene. All electronics were in perfect working condition.
I believe InCase might have predicted this sort of thing could happen and added extra durability to the sleeve, as travel writers like myself traverse remote areas of the world in search of a story such as this.
The beaches of the village, a possible location for the buried items.
Shane (right) and I (left) with the detective from the island of Viti Levu who recovered my laptop (pictured).
All details in this article, including names, events and locations, are 100% factual. Believe it, or not.