John Maher
Photographer, Founder of Hungry Walrus
Life Flight Tavarua

The island of Tavarua in Fiji has given me many unique experiences, memories, and stories throughout the years, but this is one I will never forget.

One evening, after running boats all day in the sweltering equatorial sun, I parked the boats on the moorings and the Fiji Bitter’s started flowing. Fiji Bitter is the working man’s beer down there in the islands.

There is a saying we live by on Tavarua: “The more you drink, the better the surf gets.” Well, this night in particular I was drinking for the best surf of all time.

This hot little 18-year-old blonde who I had recently started seeing while I was back in the States had taken me up on an invitation to come down to the island, and she had just arrived that evening.

Instead of crashing out in my infamous one-room-shack house with my roommates, we moved into the old tree house on the other side of the tiny island because it was a bit more private and vacant. The tree house sits 30 feet off the jungle floor and is actually three separate rooms in three separate trees that are all connected by narrow bridges. The tree house is one of the oldest structures on the island, and it looks a lot like something out of Robinson Crusoe. It was built so you could sleep without deadly sea snakes and other jungle animals crawling into bed with you, or having storm surge and heavy rain wash you away while you sleep. A great deal of history rests in those branches, and the tree house is even said to be haunted. There are graves beneath it’s leaves, marked in Fijian tradition with stones and coral heads.

That night we got pretty hammered, drinking cheap tequila and Fiji Bitters. It was probably about “Fiji midnight,” (which is actually only nine o’clock) when we went to go to bed. I picked the poor girl up, threw her over my shoulder like I was a caveman, and, carrying her, tromped through the midnight jungle all the way to the tree house.

To get into the tree house, you have to climb a steep staircase and traverse a wooden bridge that sits in the highest branches. The bridge has a thin, low, wood railing on either side and is 20 feet away from another room built in another tree. The entire structure sits about 30 feet off the jungle floor. The staircase, which is more like a ladder, climbing up and down from the tree house is connected to the middle of the bridge. Needless to say, it takes complete concentration to get up into the tree house, then traverse from one room to another.

However, bathroom is conveniently located on the jungle floor, so you have to cross this bridge and scale the ladder if you have to go. Well, I eventually had to go, and by this time happened to be pouring down rain from a violent storm front that had rolled through in the night.

As I got out of bed and wobbled across the bridge, I hadnt even reached the ladder before I grabbed for the railing to brace myself and completely missed it.

 

I must have reached over the railing when trying to brace myself and grabbed nothing but a fistful of air. All of the momentum of my body weight flung forward over the rail, and I did a full front-flip face plant, falling 30 feet to the dirt below, buck-ass naked. The last thing I remember was saying to myself, “Oh god, this is bad” as I free fell head first off the bridge to the jungle floor below. It was like a terrible cartoon turned real-life drama. When I hit the ground, I was immediately knocked unconscious.

Eventually, after an unknown amount of time, I regained consciousness and found myself strapped to a stretcher, in a neck brace, getting carried to the infirmary by  my friends. The Australian doctor working on the island at the time was doing all he could to help me.

So luckily, and completely coincidentally, it was the doctor who stumbled across my lifeless body in the dark, then sent for my friends to get the stretcher. If one of my Fijian friends had found me, they probably would have picked me up or rolled me over to wake me. If that had happened, they probably would have accidentally severed my spinal cord, causing paralysis or even death.

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  • Erik

    Thank you for telling your inspiring story. It has had a great impact on me. Cheers
     

  • Tim Hamby

    “We’re all lucky just to be here, and everything else is a bonus.” Amen. Sounds like a brutal experience, or set of experiences. So often, that’s what it takes. True in my life, as well. So glad to hear that you’ve recovered fully, have something so profound to share with others and are doing so.

  • linda

    How often in life do we have a random, or so we think at the time, string of experiences that lead us to change profoundly, look at the world differently and appreciate each day more.  you have an angel on your shoulder.  Thank you for sharing your story – one you never would have wanted to write but wrote so very well. 

  • Anonymous

    The ending saved me from throwing-up and feeling depressed before I go to bed. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a guy I knew who got coked out and fell off a balcony. People can throw everything beautiful away in seconds. I am glad that you are sober. Hey, you are not the “typical” young pro surfer anymore. Shaka!

  • Dave F

    Thank you for sharing such an honest story, Johnny. It’s inspiring to hear true thoughts and makes me want to be a better person. Thank you.

  • bob

     1/07/08 a day I will never forget or regret!! Thanks for the share-

  • Anonymous

    Life is truly precious, what a scary and miraculous story! Made me stop and think about how life is short and can be taken away in an instance, loved your writing!

  • Anonymous

    Life is truly precious, what a scary and miraculous story! Made me stop and think about how life is short and can be taken away in an instance, loved your writing!