x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Surrounded by corals of every colour and a brilliant array of fish

The nomad After my first Fijian kava ceremony I arrive back at the hostel on Beachcomber island in the early evening.

After my first Fijian kava ceremony I arrive back at the hostel on Beachcomber island in the early evening, then linger on the patio with a few of the other backpackers to recap the events of previous days. Later, everyone gathers to watch 20 reef sharks, each about 70cm in length, lurking only a few metres from the shoreline. The next morning, I board a boat for the Yasawas islands. Off the west coast of Viti Levu on its own island is the Mantaray resort, so named because in the early morning, dozens of manta rays can be seen gliding through the waters nearby.

My dormitory room turns out to be more comfortable than the one at Beachcomber, with my new accommodation having only 25 bunk beds instead of 50. The island, however, is bigger than Beachcomber and the resort has a lot more activities to offer, such as game fishing, snorkelling, scuba diving and the somewhat tamer bracelet making. I quickly make myself at home on a sunlounger and soak up the sun's rays while reading a book. After a couple of chapters, however, I can't resist joining in a beach volleyball match. Soon it is time for lunch on a terrace built into the hillside. Before us, there is a stunning view: the jungly island landscape creeps down to white beaches to crystalline blue sea. Happily, I soon return for dinner.

The following morning, the dorm awakens to the sound of a thundering drum beat to signal that breakfast is ready. I would have preferred an alarm clock, perhaps one with a snooze button. Soon another beating drum informs us manta rays have been spotted offshore. Several of us grab snorkelling equipment from the diving store and board speedboats that anchor where the rays have been seen. We plunge in to watch these mysterious creatures that are sometimes known as devilfish. The average wingspan of the manta rays that we observe is between three and five metres. Though they look fearsome with their giant "wings" as they sweep ghostlike through the water, they are, in fact, friendly creatures that seem to enjoy swimming with us. One ray in particular decides to show off some of its moves, twisting and turning in the current as I follow its lead.

I spend the rest of that day kayaking and playing volleyball before heading back to the dining area where we are treated to traditional Fijian dancing by villagers wearing palm skirts. Besides the dance routines, one of the tour guides entices us to try to crack a coconut shell with our bare hands. No one manages to accomplish the feat. Instead, we wince as we strike the seemingly impenetrable shell. The tour guide, an energetic Fijian who calls himself Ace, manages to make it look as simple as cracking an egg. I later learn it's not about how hard you hit the coconut but the point at which you strike it. The shell of each coconut has a cluster of three small holes. If you strike down the line connecting these, the coconut will crack with ease.

After listening to the soothing island music and being mesmerised by the gentle swaying of the dancers I am overcome with drowsiness and hit the bunks just after midnight. The following morning I am again summoned from my slumber by a hearty drum beat. Whoever thought this is what tourists want on their holidays should be used as shark bait. I still have an introductory dive course that is included in my tour package, however, and it is good to get moving before the sun becomes too hot. I meet the instructor and we both pull on our wetsuits, tight as sausage casings and connect our breathing apparatus. One step at a time, we walk into the sea and leave the world we know for an alien, aquatic one.

Soon we are surrounded by corals of every colour and many species of plant life that I have never seen. We come across a plant that changes colour from a light green to a purplish hue upon touching it. Other orange plants look like the tentacles of some strange science-fiction beast and stick to our fingers when we graze them. We are encircled by a brilliant array of fish, many of which I recognised and some that I have never seen before.

More startling, however, are the monstrous, slithering eel, a two-metre reef shark and an octopus nesting in a coral alcove. The diving instructor tries to take it out but it is strong and refuses. Each time I try to touch the octopus I feel the suction from its tentacles on my skin and recoil. When we get back to the surface my instructor warns me that octopuses are clever creatures and that they tend to pull out your inhaler if you bother them too much.

Next week: Omar visits the ancient site of Vergina, in Greece