Saturday, June 11, 2016
LEVUKA, FIJI – THE HOUSE ON THE HILL
Levuka on the astonishingly beautiful island of Ovalau has many worthy claims to fame. For a start back in the 1870’s this sun drenched jewel of the Pacific was the capital and seat of Fiji’s first government; then more recently Levuka was granted a rare privilege by becoming Fiji’s first Unesco World Heritage Site; but in 1877, of far more importance for me, sleepy little Levuka became the birthplace of my grandmother Maggie Maud McGowan.
(I rather think that day great grandmama Geraldine was in an alphabetically repetitive mood)
Maggie’s parents Geraldine and William
So, naturally for me a visit to Levuka meant an emotional walk down memory lane, a chance to follow in the footsteps of my great grandparents and to soak up the colonial history of this idyllic part of the world. The fact that I was making this visit in the company of an Aussie cousin whose grandfather Alfred James was Maggie Maud’s brother made the visit even more special. Jenny Gallagher and I had already met our newly found Fiji cousins in Suva, more of that happy reunion in a later blog, and now here we were on our way to Levuka.
The journey from Suva to Levuka is an adventure in itself. First you board a bus at Suva’s bus depot, a two hour trip – sometimes longer if you allow for the quaint irregularity of Fiji Time- followed by an hour long voyage in a vehicle ferry, and once on Ovalau another hour long bus trip around the perimeter of the island to Levuka… all of this onboard the same bus you departed from Suva.
For Jenny and I the crossing from the larger island of Viti Levu to the craggy mountain capped island of Ovalau revived thoughts of our great grandfather, the ship’s captain William McGowan who sailed these very seas back before Fiji was annexed to England.
WHEN BEST MADE PLANS….
But what do you do when the accommodation you’ve booked apologizes profusely that they’ve double booked and have no room in the Inn for us two? Easy: You instantly remember a friend who has in the past invited you to stay, whose home sits atop one of Levuka’s famous 100 steps or so stairways…and which not surprisingly is why unfit me has so far avoided taking up that offer.
But now the situation has changed. Jenny and I urgently need accommodation in a town with only a few places to stay. I email Rowena who lives mostly in Australia, embarrassed that I’m obviously taking advantage of our friendship.
‘Aha!’ she replies ‘you get to climb the stairs after all. No worries I’ll call Ana and Jerry and tell them you’re coming. Just hop off the bus at the terminus and wait.’
And on this brief instruction we do… and we’re both so glad we did because Paradise awaited.
THE HOUSE ON TOP OF THE HILL
Way back in the 1970’s when I made my first pilgrimage to Levuka, and long before it was made a World Heritage site, I stayed in a guest house on one of the sloping hills that rise from Levuka’s narrow ocean frontage. On that visit I had only to climb a mere 15 or so steps, but at the top of that same stairway there was another house. I could see it as I gazed up.
Photos Levuka old and new – Reg Patterson & the stairway
I was to discover very soon that the home’s elderly owner, Reg Patterson had been a young boy when my grandmother Maggie married her American husband Charles Brown Parker back in 1900, and he remembered the wedding well. Why? Because my grandfather brought his new fangled gramophone player to the ceremony and young Reg, and all the other guests had never seen or heard anything like it.
Back then the rest of those steps up the hill to the Patterson house didn’t look so steep to a much younger me, and so I made my first visit to the house on the hill. Reg, and after him his wife Dora passed away and in the intervening years the house was neglected and soon sunk into disrepair.
Until my friend Rowena in Australia bought the property and transformed the sad old house into a residence of beauty. A house, Jenny and I, in the tropical darkness of night, each clasping our suitcases now waited for Jerry, Rowena’s housekeeper to guide us to safely up the hill
Accordingly and apropos Fiji Time we arrived in the small township of Levuka in darkness. No street lights to illuminate the way…along with sunken ships and damaged homes the 'struggling to repair' after affects of Cyclone Winston… and waited for someone to approach us. Jerry did and then we were in a taxi and just seconds later arrived at the halfway point beyond which there was no road.
From there we climbed up the hill, not on the stairway but over and up the grassed and planted grounds to the house above. A torch revealed the path.
Puffing and gasping… the two of us aren’t young girls any more… we were welcomed at the house by Jerry’s gentle wife Ana, a tour of the house and a prepared meal. Then our hosts retired to their cottage in the grounds and we were left to laugh in delight at just how lucky we were.
Rest assured, by the time we left Levuka just three days later we had that hill licked; OK so we weren’t exactly sprinting up and down like gazelles, but we no longer gasped for breath.
Levuka 1870’s and Now – Church where Maggie was married – now & surviving the 1895 cyclone.
Our visit to Levuka was mostly to pay homage to the McGowans, our great-grandparents and to their children…young William, Alfred (Jenny’s grandfather) Gordon, Maggie (my grandmother) Andrew and little Constance McGowan who sadly died at birth just months after her father passed away. The house they lived in we couldn’t find, but the school our grandparents attended still stood sentinel amid newly built classrooms. We walked past the church where my Maggie married her American beau, past the shops Great-Gran Geraldine had dallied in and no doubt exchanged the gossip of the day, past the wharf where Captain William McGowan had brought his inter island ships back to port, and on to the cemetery where we found Jenny’s two year old uncle Roland McGowan’s grave stone.
We passed through the busy main thoroughfare of Levuka, running beside and parallel to the ocean, being greeted by dozens of smiling faces and replying to their constant ‘Bula’ with smiles of our own and the same greeting. Fijians are friendly by instinct and even the smallest child will offer the same refrain… ‘Bula’ matched with the widest of grins.
Where once sailors, adventurers and traders from numerous nations, Tonga, New Zealand, Samoa, Hawaii, America, Germany, China, England and Australia had mingled and plied their trade we passed by small reminders of their existence in this once upon a time busy and bustling crossroad of the world. How exciting and exotic life must have been back then when Geraldine and William pledged their vows and their children were mere babes.
The House on the Hill
The house on the hill had woven its special magic. From high above the slow daily bustle of Levuka we looked over and beyond to the blue horizon, entranced by the view of endless ocean, distant islands and behind us, standing sentinel the tall mountains of Ovalau...
Jenny and me with our hosts Ana and Jerry.
Inside The House on the Hill
We each, Jenny and I, had achieved our goal, to walk in the footsteps of our grandparents Alfred and his wife Ellen, and Maggie and her Chas, and to marvel at our great grand parents Geraldine and William, their short but fruitful time together, and in doing this we came closer to understanding the deep bond with Fiji, and Levuka in particular, that our Maggie and Alfred and their brothers took with them to their grave.
That bond now belongs to us, and we will return, the simple, friendly charm of Levuka, of Ovalau itself, the people, their history and the town’s World Heritage title exudes a powerful magic.
A postscript to this story: Rowena is now in the process of setting up her beautiful home as an AirBnB retreat, with her friends and caretakers, Ana and Jerry, Managers and Hosts of the House on the Hill. Thank you Rowena for making our visit the success it was.
Robyn Mortimer 2016-06-10