Sitting next to me, Subendra's knuckles are white. And green and red and gold. We've dropped out of the clouds and got our first look at Nadi town just 50 feet above the tarmac, seconds before the fuselage slams down. "F–k bro!" He exclaims in an accent part-Suva part-South Auckland, all Polynesian. It was raining coconuts when we flew out after last year's contest and it's bucketing down again now. This is the dry season, apparently, and locals tell me it feels like this weather has been around forever.
Subendra's knuckles, gripping the armrest, are gnarled from years of boxing around the Pacific. Suva, Nuku'alofa, Apia, Auckland...the Las Vegas of the circuit. For a Pacific prizefighter his face is remarkably well preserved, so I figure he knew the sweet science pretty well. His hands are also covered in tattoos and gold rings, which I figure are the marks of life after boxing. Subendra--"Call me 'Su'"--lives in Melbourne these days and is coming home for the first time in two years. He left Fiji when Rabuka took over in the '80s, when opportunities suddenly dried up for a half-Fijian, half-Indian boxer and his family. His kids split with him, and they became part of the great Pacific diaspora that's been ongoing now for 3000 years. He has kids in Newcastle, Sydney and Auckland. He tells me he wants to move nearby to one of them, he's just not sure which one. "Wherever the fishing is best," he suggests.
It's the day before the Volcom Fiji Pro is due to start and most of the surfers are already out on the islands. All except for Michel Bourez, who's just disembarked the plane after mine, suitably late on Tahitian time, and his passage is not being helped by the glacial speed of Fijian Immigration. It'd even make a Tahitian impatient. Michel's lamenting that, for the second time in a month, he's going to miss a Code Rouge swell at home for a contest. It might however be easier to watch it from Fiji this time instead of Rio. Like me, Michel won't be making it out to the islands tonight...it's an hour's drive and a half-hour boat ride, and while we've got two hours till dark, the weather will have the last word. We hear a boat got lost this afternoon making the simple mile-wide crossing between Tavarua and Namotu. She's bleak out there, and I'm consigned to a night in the backpackers in Nadi, sampling a dubious kokoda that will haunt me for the next two days while listening to a couple of local boys in the bar perform those traditional Fijian favorites "Lucille" and "A Boy Named Sue".
There's no rush getting out to Namotu the next morning. The wind is an out-of-season northerly and the waves are a chumpy hangover from the localized low that hit last week. Mick, Joel, and Ace Buchan all chased it and got some 12-footers on their melon for their troubles. Parko, as promised on the big day last year, turned up this year to Fiji with a big yellow 8'0" quad, and needed most of it. Ace and Mick brought a 7'3" and 7'2" respectively. And while the swell was a little too ribbed to offer anything memorable, they all contended they were better for the thrashing. Come the end of the week and what's brewing to the south the experience might prove fortifying. Last week's storm was unseasonal, an Australian East Coast low a couple of meridians out of position, and along with the dry season rain, Joel Parkinson on a SUP and Taj Burrow's rare haircut, they are signs that the world here is slightly off axis at present. What we're hoping to see later in the week, fingers crossed, should signal a correcting alignment of the elements.
But for now it's layday fun, in all likelihood a brace of them before we see a shot fired in anger. The wind has swung back to a light trade, there's two feet of swell on the reefs this morning, and Fiji is as Fiji does. Bede Durbidge has just got back in from fishing, arms rubbery after wrestling a reef shark from the bottom for an hour in the vain hope that it was something more of a trophy fish. The rest of Namotu Island's residents are either recovering from a night on the tiles in honor of Taj's birthday, or out scrapping for a blue-oil zipper at Cloudbreak with 50 other guys. Everyone except for Gabe Medina however, who's sitting alongside his stepdad, Charles, glued to the TV in the bar as Brazil play England in a football friendly at Maracana Stadium. And if you reckon Gabe took his heats in Rio seriously, when England took the lead late in the second half the silence was positively deafening. The thought of Brazil losing to football's perennial losers was not to be entertained. The national team, however, level it up just before full time and it finishes 2-2. But I'm wasting my time telling you about any of this, as the surfers on both islands will spend more time Gramming their exploits over the next three days than they will actually performing them.
When a surfing contest inevitably and rudely interrupts this tropical frolicking, I'll give you five stories worth following on the coconut wireless...
John Florence island-hopped to Namotu yesterday to get his troublesome ankle seen to. He walked fine, seemed happy. After three months out, his return to the fray could not be better timed. The most technically gifted tuberider in the world matched against what many surfers regard as the most technical tube in the world...certainly so on your backhand.
Adriano: world number one. Who'd have thunk it? But even more surprising is the way the entire surfing world (solely comprised of America and Australia) is suddenly taking a shine to him after years of deriding his whole act. Adriano for his part has met them in the middle. He's a little older and a little wiser, and there's a respectful aura about him this year that ringing a bell certainly helped. He's carrying himself like world number one right now and for those of you discounting him here at Cloudbreak, the numbers offer a retort; he's made semis and quarters here before.
Parko will be looking to get his world title defense back on the rails after consecutive 13ths. Joel didn't cop a 13th all season last year, so it's been a rude shock to say the least. His results this year don't speak truly for his surfing, and whenever he had good waves in his heats this year he has lit fires. He will get good waves at Cloudbreak. And if his fishing form is anything to go by, he is looking the goods, bagging four 50lb Spanish submarines yesterday.
The top brass of ZoSea's production crew are here in Fiji inspecting the lay of the land. Their acquisition of the Big Wave World Tour last week might provide a window into their wider broadcast intentions. They, like everyone else, saw the future here in Fiji last year. Imagine, just for a second, viewers, a lightfooted production team that can travel to a far-flung tropical speck of dust on a day's notice, tap a satellite signal, sort the panoramics, beam three-hours of swell back to a salivating populace then simply pack up and go home. Last year they got lucky here with the 10,000-to-one happenstance of that swell coinciding with a broadcast team just happening to be in town. Maybe they're looking at making their own luck.
And finally, speaking of that swell, will we all suffer a collective hangover from 2012? The only problem with a once-in-a-lifetime swell is that it happens, well...you know how often, and anything stacked up against it might just seem a bit of a let down. If this first swell, due to show itself fully here on Thursday, only materializes at a mere six-to-eight feet, brushed clean by the deftest of trades, unfathomably good, will we not be entertained?
Footnote: Did I say five stories? I may have shortchanged you by one. There's a storyline conspicuous by its absence...the surfer at the centre of it also conspicuous by his absence. No contest in Fiji is complete without some kind of outrageous cameo from Kelly Slater...and as of this afternoon Kelly Slater's not even here, man.