Fiji - The Surf Bros, the Villagers, the Wave Doctor, the Tech Money, and the Fight for Fiji’s Soul
Once a Pacific Eden, the island nation has become a destination for a highly combustible mix of global wealth and power—as a trio of would-be landowners have found out the hard way.
I. THE SURFERS AND THE BOATMAN
Five years ago, Ratu “Jona” Joseva, a 32-year-old Indigenous Fijian boat taximan, and two Aussie lifelong surfing bros, Navrin Fox and Woody Jack, bought an overgrown five-acre patch of coastline on Malolo, among the most popular of Fiji’s more than 330 islands. With its crescent beaches, Seussian palms, and proximity to the international airport, the roadless three-mile-long island has become a post-lockdown playground for billionaire yachties and privacy-seeking celebs. During my visit last July as Joseva and I puttered along the coast in his small fishing boat, we were lost in the shadow of a Millennium Falcon–size $45 million superyacht.
But Malolo also attracts another crowd: surfers like Fox and Jack who come to ride *the wave—*the one Kelly Slater has called his favorite—Cloudbreak. After Fox and Jack met Joseva on his boat taxi on a surf trip around 2014, the three men decided to go in on a sliver of undeveloped land, the rights of which were controlled by Joseva’s village. They secured a 99-year lease for $50,000. While the rest of the island was going high-end, they imagined building four little eco-friendly bures for their families and friends.
Jack, a laid-back 42-year-old with long curly blond hair stuffed under his red baseball cap and maritime tattoos on his arms, is a surfboard shaper in Yamba, Australia. He saw the Fiji property as his home away from home. “We wanted our kids to grow up here,” he says.
“I don’t care how smart you think you are. You don’t go ripping up a pristine reef.”
As Joseva steers us onto the shore, his dogs leap from the boat looking for mullet. They come up empty. “No fish,” Joseva explains. That’s because there’s no coral either, and without it, the ecosystem crumbles. What was once a pristine coastal reef is now a graveyard. A 25-foot-deep channel cuts a 100-foot path through to the beach, where a large graffitied barge spills with rusting junk. Nearby, a gate runs through the center of their leased land, with deserted security booths on either side. A sloppily painted sign hangs from a post with a misspelled warning: “No Trespas.”
The Walking Dead vibes only worsen along the zombie reef’s trail. Dozens of giant rusting construction trucks, their windows blown out by cyclones, line the road, leeching fluid into what’s left of the mangroves. Corroding steel girders and pipes litter the brush. Stacks of lumber rot into a stream turned toxic green. It’s like this for more than a mile of coastline, marked by warning signs in Chinese. At the end, there’s a small, fading strip of signs illustrating what this site was to be: a 61-acre tropical wonderland of 370 thatch-roofed bures, sparkling pools, and beachfront bungalows. It was going to be the largest resort in Fiji and the island nation’s first casino, and its name was Freesoul.
In 2018, Fox, Jack, and Joseva discovered that the mysterious builders behind the project had illegally seized their land and were willing to resort to violence to defend it. Five years later, their battle has become a full-on war for the heart of paradise that’s as bizarre as Fiji is beautiful, a parable of powerful international developers, pearl farmers, Silicon Valley billionaires, and a surfer-scientist who promises that he can solve coastal degradation and provide rideable breaks.