I’ll Follow the Sun

One steamy night a few months ago, Kim Gravelle finally succumbed
to the rat race. Literally. Stranded in a tiny guest house in the
Solomon Islands, a tropical outpost filled with jungle-choked WWII
memorabilia and not much else, the writer-photographer awoke to the
sounds of rodents snacking on the T-shirt he had carelessly
dribbled tuna juice on. Problem was, he was still in it. ‘I finally
just said, ‘You can have it!” he remembers. ‘And they ate it.’

For the past quarter century, a typical day at the office for
Gravelle has been very different from one of yours or mine,
featuring kava sessions with Fijian villagers, trips up
fire-breathing volcanoes in Vanuatu, coffee breaks in Tahitian
cafes or chewing the fat-or betel nut, as the case may be-with
Solomon Islanders on a lazy South Pacific afternoon. Sure, it’s a
tough life, but why does this guy get to live it?

A jealous observer might just say Gravelle got lucky. Plunking
down in Fiji in 1974, fresh from a four-year stint on Papua New
Guinea, he began editing a handful of South Pacific inflight
magazines. All offered paid access to tongue-twisting, palm-fringed
Edens such as Nukualofa, Funafuti and Navuniivi in exchange for a
quarterly contribution of feature stories. Life has been very good
since. Gravelle jets off to Bora Bora one day, Vanuatu the next,
with just a bit of strategic courting of immigration officials in
between for a never-ending train of work permits.

Awarded Fijian citizenship a few years back, the former Michigan
resident is philosophical about the career he’s carved out of
island-hopping. ‘I’ve purposefully been on holiday for 30 years,’
he concedes with a laugh. And the proof’s in print. Romancing
the Islands
, an assortment of anecdotes he collected while on
assignment, is a primer on how to find adventure living what you
love.

There’s the time he spent eight days as unofficial first mate
for Bill Verity, a modern-day adventurer trying to recreate Captain
Bligh’s inauspicious voyage across the Pacific in an exact replica
of the Bounty launch. From Tonga, the actual site of the
mutiny, the pair endured the rains and the rays in an open boat
whose only allowance to comfort was uncushioned wooden benches.
When they sighted Fiji, Gravelle, a Fletcher Christian for the
’70s, respectfully disembarked.

Other assignments took him to the fringes of archipelagoes to
bring back tales from a South Pacific undiscovered by Club Med.
Like the time he teetered on the ‘rim of creation’ for a story
about Yasur, Vanuatu’s belching and spewing volcano, or canvassed
Guadalcanal-still haunted by ‘the overpowering force of a thousand
ghosts’-and found Aaron Kumana, one of the guardian angels who came
to John F. Kennedy’s rescue after his PT 109 crew was sunk off Plum
Pudding Island.

Gravelle’s employers have even condoned drinking on the job,
provided he didn’t down so much kava that he couldn’t get the
details straight later. Besides, partaking of the grog bowl is only
the polite thing to do when socializing with Pacific Islanders, who
tend to drink Gravelle under the tapa mat at these sessions. ‘Soon
after the sixth or seventh bilo (cup), my nose bumped the
dirt,’ he writes about one such evening in far-flung Rotuma, Fiji’s
answer to the Emerald City.

Born in northern Michigan, Gravelle grew up knowing that ‘if I
ever had a chance to forgo shoveling snow, I would.’ His first
signs of wanderlust came at age 19, when he spent six months
motorcycling across Europe, surviving on wild lemons in tight
times.

Back in the States, Gravelle and his new wife headed to Oregon,
where he flirted with yuppiedom while working as a journalist. The
familiar rhythms of the nine-to-five seduced him for several years
until divorce nudged him to break out the passport again. This time
he chose the balmy South Seas as his next port of call.

But Gravelle’s Pacific odyssey didn’t start so well. He set off
for New Zealand, lured by visions of an exotic Polynesian heritage.
Auckland’s urban pace and chilly breezes didn’t live up, so he
skipped to Tasmania, where he lucked into a job on a lobster boat.
That romance, however, faded just as quickly. ‘Outside the harbor,
it didn’t take but 20 minutes before I realized I’d made a dreadful
error,’ recalls Gravelle, flashing back to the unforgiving waters
of the Southern Ocean. ‘It got to the point where I was lying on
the deck, and I thought, if they just roll me off into the sea, I
don’t care.

Feet firmly planted on soil, Gravelle set his compass for
Darwin, the hottest and driest spot he could think of, and after
that made his way to Melbourne, where he started writing for an
oil-industry magazine. The publication sent him to Papua New Guinea
for a story on oil exploration in the Gulf of Papua. ‘They stuck me
in a helicopter, took me 300 to 400 miles somewhere, dropped me off
on a riverbank, and there was a long canoe waiting with men to
paddle it,’ remembers Gravelle. ‘We started up the river, and
crocodiles were slipping off the bank and pythons were hanging out
over the river.’

Gravelle settled in PNG, working for a while as an overseer for
a local copper mine and cocoa plantation. It was around then that
relations between the laborers and a fellow manager of Gravelle’s,
a harsh man known for his quick backhand and cruel tongue, reached
the breaking point. ‘It was fairly intense. They finally burned his
house down and cut him up into bits when he came out,’ Gravelle
explains, in a tone no more agitated than if he were talking about
his favorite coconut recipe.

His coworker’s untimely demise did not faze Gravelle, who
remained in Papua New Guinea for years, eventually acquiring a
taste-or at least a tolerance-for barbecued crocodile skewers (‘a
firm white meat with a rich, sweet taste’). But as the country
gained independence from Australia in the mid-1970s, expats were no
longer welcome. In 1974, Gravelle was sent packing, sure of only
one thing: His next home would be surrounded by water.

‘It’s a love of warm, tropical, green places and lush
vegetation,’ he allows. ‘I’ve always sought a simpler lifestyle,
without traffic and taxicabs and crowds. I’m totally happy in a
village, sitting cross-legged on a mat and having a bowl of
grog.’

That same year, a help-wanted sign requesting an editor at the
brand new Fiji Sun persuaded him to go Melanesian. Since
then, he’s operated from his hub in Suva, Fiji’s capital, where he
lives with his wife Sisilia, a champion cyclist and triathlete, and
their 17-year-old son Gabriel. The Gravelle home has been likened
to a mini-museum of the South Pacific, full of keepsakes from the
patriarch’s island hopscotch.

But all the cool knickknacks in the world don’t always make up
for the shortcomings of living in the middle of the ocean, far
removed from a decent Pavarotti selection or crackers smothered
with Camembert. ‘Never mind Disneyland,’ says Gravelle about his
infrequent trips back to the mainland. ‘Just walking through a huge
supermarket and seeing all the produce and the candies-wow.’

What Fiji lacks in groceries, however, it makes up for in
people. ‘We simply can’t walk on a little dirt road without having
villagers come dashing out saying, ‘Come have a cup of tea,”
Gravelle boasts. ‘That’s why I like going to Vanua Levu or Taveuni.
There, the roads are still dirt, they don’t get TV and they don’t
have a McDonald’s yet.’

But for all his good fortune-most of it made by putting himself
out there-Gravelle has also had more than his share of bad luck. In
1990, he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Told by doctors
in Melbourne that he had only a few years to live, Gravelle went
back to Fiji and promptly resumed business as usual. The sky was
still blue, as far as he could see.

‘I don’t live under a black cloud. I totally ignore it,’ he
declares. His only concession to the disease is the metal walking
poles he uses to help him get around. ‘Every couple of years, I dig
the wheelchair out and try to derust it, but I won’t sit down in
it. I’m not terribly superstitious, but I think that would just be
wrong.’

Maybe regular excursions to places the rest of us only dream
about are tonic enough. When I got back, it took a couple months to
get rid of all the chigger bites and all the creatures that had
crawled under my skin,’ says Gravelle of the ill-fated trip to the
Solomons, where rats confiscated his shirt.

But even horrible trips, he notes, are worth savoring. ‘Just
getting out there gives me that edge of feeling like I’m still
participating. I’ve been lucky to come here and do just that.’

And a whole lot luckier, Gravelle points out, than a guy
dreaming about two weeks in the sun while shoveling snow off a
driveway somewhere in Michigan. For this island romancer, 30 years
out of the cold makes good sense.

‘I’m not going anywhere else.’

FromEscape(April, 1999.)
Subscriptions: $18/yr. (4 issues) from Box 462255, Escondido, CA
92046.

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