Vunabaka: A Waterman’s Paradise In Fiji
How a small group of surfers are pursuing an outlandish dream in the South Pacific
Ten years ago Andrew Griffiths woke in a pool of sweat under a mosquito net in the remote village of Talalaeu in the Mentawai Islands, Indonesia, and discovered a mud crab crawling through his beard.
“The ferries had broken down, we had no way of getting back to Padang … and our food supplies had stopped,” remembers Griff, “I felt this thing crawling across my head and it was this mud crab and there was another burrowing through my beard. It’s so hot, it’s four o’clock in the morning, the roosters had just started up and I went, what the f—k am I doing?”
What the former investment banker was doing in this remote Indonesian village was trying to eradicate rampant malaria and empower the locals to tackle widespread disease and disadvantage. Griff had been swept up in the idealistic dream of SurfAid founder Dr Dave Jenkins to bring medical aid to remote communities in the Mentawai Islands. He threw in a well-paid career in banking and postponed a round the world surf trip to spend six years working for SurfAid. Together with Dave, a dedicated staff, an army of volunteers and support from the world-wide surfing community and industry, SurfAid continues to achieve great things to reduce disease and suffering in the Mentawais.
A decade on from that sweaty encounter with a mud crab, Andrew Griffiths is standing on a hill on Malolo Island, Fiji, pursuing another outlandish dream in the tropics. This one involves creating a Utopian holiday community on a South Pacific Island with friends and family while generating benefits for the local community. From banker to aid worker to property developer, Griff is nothing if not a dreamer.
The common denominator through these vastly different enterprises is surfing and how it has brought him together with the people and circumstances that have compelled him to take bold leaps of faith. “I gave up banking to do SurfAid, then I became a partner in a hedge fund and gave up that to go and do this,” he laughs.
Griff met one of his partners in the new resort, Vunabaka, surfing in Mexico 20 years ago. Mike Lucas was traveling through Mexico in a VW camper with his brother and then-girlfriend when they heard of a New Zealand surfer who was seriously ill. “Griff was traveling alone. We were in a bar and they mentioned a Kiwi guy was staying in one of the local hotels and he was really sick,” recalls Mike. “We thought we would go find this guy – my brother was halfway through a medical degree. We got him on a saline drip and he came right.”
The pair met up again in London, where they formed an investment company called Endless Summer, which was going to fund their dream of sailing around the world surfing together. “We did really well during the dot com era and then went really badly,” says Griff. They had to downscale that dream a little but still spent four months surfing in French Polynesia, staying with a local family.
From there, Griff headed on to Indonesia where Mike’s brother Andy was now volunteering for SurfAid in the Mentawais as a freshly graduated medical student. Griff got swept up in the mission, ditched the rest of his round the world surf trip and spent the next six years distributing mosquito nets, raising money and spreading the SurfAid message.
Griff met another partner Anthony Marcotti in 2001 in the Mentawais on a pumping day at E-Bay. Anthony was a schoolteacher in California who spent every Summer holiday in Indonesia until he started taking bookings for Martin Daly’s Indies Trader charter boats and eventually became a partner in the Kandui Resort. “E-Bay was ten foot and still to this day the biggest and best I’ve ever seen it,” recalls Anthony.
“I was filming and Ant was getting the best waves of his life and he snapped his favourite board, came in looking for the other half of it and found me on the beach,” says Griff.
The pair clicked instantly, two surfers at a remote Indonesian surf spot pursuing very different dreams. Anthony was in the early stages of starting the Kandui Resort and Griff was trying to get a fledgling aid agency off the ground. “He was super helpful with SurfAid and we developed a great friendship,” says Griff.
“As I got involved in Mentawai surf tourism over the next few years, I put on a few events to help SurfAid called ‘Wave of Compassion,’” says Anthony. “I consider Andrew a mentor and older brother who I look up to and respect on every level.”
Eight years later, Griff was happily married with two young kids in southern California and re-kindling his stalled career in banking when his old friend Mike called out of the blue with an opportunity. Mike had just sold his successful market research business and travelled to Fiji looking for a holiday property. Instead, he’d come across a resort development called Vunabaka in need of new partners. Mike wanted to buy in and he wanted to persuade a few old friends to do likewise.
Griff and his wife Morgan got engaged in Fiji and needed little persuasion. He called Anthony and he was so taken with the idea, he eventually sold his stake in Kandui to fund this next audacious dream.
“Anthony had never been to Fiji – he came back freaking about how good it is. I knew the area really well so I could make the decision,” says Griff. “Based on Mike’s recommendations we went, yes, pull the trigger. We headed off to Fiji, fell in love with this project, and thought we’d go off and have an adventure.”
Now Griff and his young family have based themselves in Fiji full-time to make their dream a reality. Two years on, civil works are underway and 25 out of 45 lots in stage one have been sold, all to personal friends and family. The concept is to create a community of like-minded, ocean-loving folk. When complete, Vunabaka will comprise 60 or more waterfront properties, landscaped gardens, a marina and five-star boutique hotel.
“We’ve done no marketing or selling per se. All the selling has been through personal contacts and friends and family. We’re putting our relationships on the line with our network,’ says Griff. “None of us are property developers. Everyone has done well in their own professions, we’re just really passionate about creating a community there that stands out as one of the most incredible places in the South Pacific. We want to blow minds with it and have our grand kids on the beach with us one day.”
The entire development will run on networked solar power (with backup generator) and an organic waste-water system. A reforestation program will restore native rainforest and hardwood trees. Holiday-makers will have the opportunity to offset the carbon footprint of their travel by planting trees.
“We are trying to be completely realistic about any impacts the development might have and our approach is, what can we do to more than make up for it?” says Griff. “Any environmental impact has been minimized and carefully managed.” Malolo Island is a 45 minute boat trip from Nadi and only 10 to 15 minutes from the famed waves of Cloudbreak and Restaurants, now with unrestricted access. Namotu, Wilkes and Desperations are all close by.
“The idea isn’t to make a whole bunch of money but to do something we’re really proud of,” says Griff. “We’re in this for the very long term. We want to be standing at the bar in 20 years time with our neighbours and create a community that we really like going on holiday with.”
One recent visitor to Vunabaka was SurfAid founder Dr Dave Jenkins, and this time he was so swept up in Griff’s dream he bought a lot and offered guidance on how the project can best benefit the local community. The site on Malolo Island is on a 99-year lease from local landholders. The local community receives 10% of all land sales and has a 21% stake in the ongoing operating entity that will run the resort.
With Dr Dave joining the community Griff reckons his SurfAid journey feels like it has come full circle. “There’s so much déjà vu being here in the tropics embarking on another dream. It feels like doing the SurfAid thing all over again … It’s like the sequel to a movie.”—Tim Baker
For more information go to vunabaka.com