A ROGUE'S PROGRESS
AS you fly into Nadi International Airport, on the western side of Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu, you invariably sweep over a rugged volcanic mountain range the locals have colloquially called the Sleeping Giant.
It is not possible to witness the dimensions of the giant from the air. Only from ground level and from a certain side of the range does it come into sharp relief. Only then can you visualise its length, girth, and strange facial features. The Sleeping Giant rests flat on its back, has a huge belly, and its profile is not unlike a heavily quiffed Elvis Presley. Its mouth is agape.
It’s nice to think that the giant emits long, sonorous sounds that can be heard across the country’s 332 islands and is responsible for what is known as “Fiji time” – a euphemism for a way of life that is not dictated by the hourly strictures of Greenwich. That the giant’s snores disrupt time, mischievously play with the hands of clocks and watches, and act as an inner-call to an older, slower and more civilised mode of living.
Peter Foster, 43, the notorious Queensland-born weight loss entrepreneur, raconteur, one-time global playboy and occasional political time bomb, has heard the call of the giant.
As we enter the main hall of Nadi airport he is there to greet us. For a moment you have to look twice to make sure it’s him, out of the context, as he is, of world famous hotels, the French Riviera, the esplanade at Surfers Paradise.
His picture has dominated British tabloids and Australian newspapers for more than two decades. He has been seen in tuxedo and tie beside his one-time lover and former pop star Samantha Fox. He has been pictured in the bright orange jumpsuits of the American prison system. More recently, he has been snapped in Bond Street’s finest threads in London with Carole Caplin, former confidante and personal advisor to Cherie Blair, wife of the British Prime Minister.
But here, leading us to his old plum-coloured SUV in the airport car park, he is resplendently louche in rubber thongs, crumpled khaki shorts and an old red T-shirt. There is whiskery growth on his face. His hair is ungroomed.
After four years of government-imposed exile, Peter Foster is back in the country he has loved since childhood, and is deep inside “Fiji time”. He has returned to set in train a lifelong dream – to build a home on one of Fiji’s most remote islands. He may also develop an “exclusive gated residence” for world celebrities like Elton John or Bill Clinton or Tony Blair.
It only becomes apparent later that he is here for many reasons, some of them personal and complex. But in the car park he is gregarious, revelling in his dishevelled self. He could be a native of the islands, if it wasn’t for his pale, wintry complexion.
“Bula!” he says, lifting our luggage into the car. “How about a drink?”
The drive to Foster’s villa at the Sheraton Fiji in Denarau takes us away from the Sleeping Giant and through Nadi town. He navigates the SUV with seasoned agility, the roads at peak hour clogged with trucks, bicycles, heavily-laden buses and even the occasional livestock.
“It’s been strange to come back,” he says. “It’s been four years. I’ve had people come up to me and say – Peter, Peter, good to see you. You’ve gotten so fat, Peter. Is Mr Foster inside there somewhere, Peter? I wasn’t sure if they’d ever let me in (to the country) again. I could be the only person in the world who has to carry a letter from the Fijian Immigration Department to let me through customs.”
He may be right. The letter in question, issued on April 26 this year and titled Uplifting of Prohibition Notice, is signed by Mr E. Tudia, Acting Director of Immigration. It advises that the department minister has “agreed to the uplifting” of Foster’s prohibited status.
The ban stemmed from Foster’s involvement in the 2001 Fiji elections. After a politically dormant life, he made a snap decision to get behind Fiji’s New Labor Unity Party headed by former Fiji deputy Prime Minister Dr Tupeni Baba.
Foster became proxy campaign manager for Dr Baba, put hundreds of thousands of dollars behind hisbid for prime ministership, and introduced never before seen American-style political spruiking to the Fijian political landscape.
Dr Baba said from his new home in Auckland, New Zealand: “As a person genuinely interested in Fiji where he (Foster) was making some investments at the time and obviously like other citizens who loved and believed in Fiji, he appeared interested to see it had a Government that could bring about peace and stability following the Coup of 2000.
“He offered to assist and paid for whatever he organised in terms of advertisements and campaigns .This was not different from any others in Fiji who offered help. He did not break any law in Fiji as his actions were all within the law.”
Dr Baba was defeated. And Foster was ejected from the country as a “political activist”, which contravened his visa conditions.
“I prefer to have seen myself as a freedom fighter,” he says now in the SUV, heading towards the tree-lined boulevard into the Sheraton. “I still believe Dr Baba was and is the Nelson Mandela of the Pacific. I believe he’s a good man. As for the ban, I fully accept what happened and that in their view I contravened the conditions of my visa at the time.”
Foster parks the car and is greeted by concierges and bell hops. They refer to him as Mr Foster, and warmly grasp his hand.
Foster’s rented villa is the same one he was living in when the Fijians threw him out of the country. It is a resplendent white and timber-shuttered two-storey terrace house facing the ocean.
“It’s beautiful here, isn’t it?” he says, sipping a white wine and squinting into the amber light streaming into the villa. “I always feel at home when I’m back in Fiji.”
His love of the country, he says, can be sourced to a succession of Fijian nannies that helped bring him up from when he was about four years old. He recalls one – Kata – who “would kick a football with me”.
“She was mother, father, nursemaid all rolled into one, and she would have made a great front row forward,” he says.
Foster’s mother, Louise Foster-Poletti, 73, says she started visiting Fiji in the early 1960s and had an instant affiliation with the it. “Peter has always loved the place,” she says. “I do think he will end up there, a recluse, sooner rather than later. Every time he tries to do something in Australia he’s knocked down for it. He’s tired of all that. In Fiji he can be himself.”
But what, precisely, is that self?
Foster is an intriguing dichotomy. He has been perennially branded the archtypal “conman” – a phrase he loathes – since the days of the Bai Lin slimming tea scandal in the 1980s and 90s. He has been jailed for fraud and various misdemeanours on three continents. He very nearly brought Downing Street to its knees in early 2003 when, via Caplin, he helped Cherie Blair with the purchase of two investment flats.
The British tabloids ate him, and to some extent the Blairs, alive. Resultantly, Foster was hounded out of the UK and returned to the place he knew best – Queensland’s Gold Coast – where he had been brought up and schooled.
Simultaneously, Foster is urbane and well-read, is a practising Christian, and has committed innumerable philanthropic acts outside the media gaze. In person he is ineffably charming, and has the often unnerving ability, in conversation, to make you feel you are the centre of the universe at that moment in time.
It is a skill, one can only presume, that has worked both for and against him. For, in that he secures people’s attention and trust almost instantly. Against, in that in some of his past business ventures – which he freely admits were “big mistakes” – it was that very ability, learned or otherwise, that got him into a lot of trouble.
I went through part of high school with Peter Foster. We were not strangers to each other, nor were we friends, and I saw nothing of him from when he left Aquinas College in Southport in 1978, until the eve of the Fiji election in 2001, when we bumped into each other by chance.
At school he possessed an odd, exotic quality. He was far older than his actual years, and had experienced life in ways the rest of us could only imagine. By year 11 he was gone, bobbing up soon after as a boxing promoter and already labelled the “Kid Tycoon”. He has always been a man who has attracted labels.
As I once wrote of him in his school years: “It was difficult to ignore him. At about 15 he arrived at class with assorted briefcases that contained watches and shark-tooth and pig-tusk necklaces for sale. It was rumoured (and later proven correct) that he leased a string of pinball machines to highrise apartment buildings in Surfers Paradise. The pocket money of kids his age ended up, well, in his pocket.”
And in Fiji four years ago around the Sheraton pool, he had maintained that alluring frisson. He had an air about him that anything could happen. Not exactly one of danger, but of mischief and disruption. Indeed, the Cheriegate scandal was ahead of him.
He has proved, time and again, that he is one of those people who draws succour from life’s dramas. When matters are on edge and sparks are flying, he is alive. This can become an addiction. It can wear you down.
Here, enjoying a wine in the Sheraton villa, Foster appears, momentarily, to have lost his taste for elements of his own past behaviour and, more precisely, his past. “When I’m here in Fiji,” he says, “I don’t feel I have anyone looking over my shoulder. I don’t feel I’m being judged on the man I used to be. I’m sick of it, to be honest with you. Back home (in Australia) I’m always Peter Foster the conman. I can’t actually do anything because I’m the conman.
“I want to be in a part of the world where I don’t have to fear authority or perception, to be viewed as I am today. I made a lot of mistakes when I was younger. I went to jail for that. I want a chance to start over.
“My family spent our holidays here every year for as long as I can remember. When I was a young man, in my teens, I brought mates and girlfriends here. I have always loved it. Then in my early 20s I went to Europe and Fiji wasn’t part of my life for about 14 years. Now I’ve come back.
“This may sound funny to you, but this is just about the only place left where I actually feel free.”
There is something both hopeful and sad about his stark assessment. I suggest to him that he has taken a full loop by returning to a place that made him happiest as a child.
Foster looks away and contemplates the proposition. “I hadn’t thought of it in those terms. Yes. That may be right. Perhaps I’ve returned to my memories.”
Two days later, Foster is back at Nadi airport. A charter plane has been arranged for a 45-minute flight to the island of Yasawa-I-Rara, the northernmost island in the Yasawa chain, north-west of Viti Levu.
Earlier this year, Foster secured a 99-year-lease over 45-hecatares of the island, including the stunning Liku Beach, known also as Champagne Beach (after a nearby bubbling freshwater spring).
Liku has been described for years as possibly the finest stretch of beach in the South Pacific. Foster’s attainment of the lease involved protracted discussions with the local Matanqali or tribe. At one point he flew senior tribal members to the Gold Coast for in-depth discussions.
Having visited the island before, Foster was acquainted with the local village and its characters. He knew the then chief, and old man Tiki, and the fisherman One-armed Moses, and Moses’ cousin Ben.
He had so enamoured himself with the village – through gifts, medical care, and vital food supplies - that Ben named one of his children after Foster. The boy is known throughout the region as Small Peter.
Waiting for the seaplane Foster is showing some trepidation. He has not visited the island in four years. He sits in the waiting lounge surrounded by gifts he has bought – the traditional kava, two dozens pints of long life milk, loaves of bread, and countless bags of lollies for the children.
“For years I’ve thought that if I ever got the lease I’d develop it, build an exclusive club like Turtle Island but even moreso,” he says. “Just a few bures, and a bar, Pete’s Bar. I guess it’s every man’s fantasy, isn’t it – like (the TV show) Cheers, to own a bar where everybody knows your name.
“But now I’m not so sure. Perhaps I’ll just build a house for myself. Stuff them. Stuff everybody. This is not about money. I’ve done the profit margins on this development. It could be enormous.
“Now I’m thinking I might stick it up everybody, build a house for myself, thumb my nose at all of them and become an eccentric, a recluse. What do you think?”
The seaplane is finally ready after several delays. We are told it will be set to go in 20 minutes, then five minutes, then 30, then 10. We’re embroiled in Fiji time. At last the food and gifts are secured in the hold. The Canadian pilot, Gary, is particularly unaffable, even brusk.
“I’ve been here 18 months, working non-stop, and this is my last flight,” he says grimly. As Gary adjusts the controls and kicks the propeller to life, there is a gloom in the small cabin of the plane, and possibly thoughts of a fatal crash. It would fit well in a newspaper story – “The pilot of the doomed plane, Gary, was on his last flight…”
With the plane airborne, Foster adjusts his sunglasses and stares through the windshield at the chain of islands unfolding before him.
OF Fiji’s 332 islands, about two-thirds remain uninhabited, according to the Fiji government. Following successive coups, from Colonel Rambuka in 1987 to George Speight in 2000, the country’s desirability to tourism investors has waxed and waned.
Post-September 11, however, the world is again catching up with Fiji as one of the few remaining locations for a holiday free of terrorist threats and geo-political upheaval. Pundits suggest Fiji is on the brink of a tourist boom the likes of which it has never experienced.
As for Yasawa-I-Rara, it has remained largely untouched despite day trips from cruise ships, and visits from bible society representatives and supply boats. The Fiji government stated in June this year that the Yasawa-I-Rara region had been untapped “for too long now”. It added: “It’s now time for this pristine island region to come into limelight and join the mainstream tourism and to share the many benefits that the industry has to offer to the nation.”
The village at the island’s northern tip has a population of about 200. Foster’s friend Ben, one of the few villagers to speak fluent English, says his family has “always” lived in the village.
“My father is of the village,” Ben says. “And his father is of the village. And his father is of the village.”
Approaching the island, Foster asks the pilot if he can land on Liku Beach. Gary the Canadian has not heard of it. But he has heard of the Anglicised name – Champagne. The plane begins to drop altitude and Foster’s dream comes into view – it is stunning in its perfection, a half-moon arc of white sand fringed with palms, submerged basalt and aquamarine water.
Foster jumps off one of the plane’s floats close to shore. As Gary parks the aircraft in the adjacent bay, Foster’s conversation becomes effusive. He recounts snippets of the island’s history, comments on a recent fire that has razed the rear hills, and strides along the water’s edge to his proposed house site.
It sits just inside the beach’s northern hook – a clearing behind the palms – and Foster works his way through the imaginary house, outlining the kitchen and dining rooms, drawing with his hands the building’s dimensions.
Group chairman of Foster’s island development company and interior designer, Paul Jason Einsiedel, has already completed several draft plans for the home of the future hermit Foster.
“My observation is that Peter and his mother are native at heart,” he says. “He’s had a love affair with Fiji all his life. What a lot of people don’t understand is that whenever he builds anything his greatest enjoyment is giving people associated with that project a better living, a better lifestyle. There’s a side of him that has to give.”
Foster climbs the steep hillock behind the house site and stares down at his spine of beach.
“This is it,” he says.. “You swim in the morning. In the afternoons you take a nap in the house. At night the boys from the village have caught fresh lobsters for you for dinner. It’s perfect.”
Later, he visits the village, weighed down with his bags of gifts. He is recognised immediately despite his long absence. “Peter!” they shout. “Foster! Foster!”
As is tradition, the tribal elders gather on the veranda of their recently completed community hall. The new chief, Roco, sits with his legs crossed. He is wearing a Wests-Tigers rugby league jersey and aviator sunglasses.
The other elders form a circle and Foster’s cartons of long life milk are placed in the middle. There is clapping and greetings mumbled in Fijian and hands shaken all around. Within minutes of the ceremony, someone at the back of the village can be heard rhythmically crushing the kava root.
Small Peter, now a lively four-year-old, hovers around his namesake.
“Is he a good boy or a naughty boy?” Foster asks the villagers. Good, they assure him. Small Peter is a good boy. Foster seems momentarily relieved.
The women and children of the village swarm on the bags of sweets. They shout after him: “Foster! We love you Foster!” He is clearly delighted at the chaos his visit has created. “I don’t really contribute to the environment when I visit,” he says. “By tonight there’ll be 5,000 lolly papers strewn across the island.”
He warmly greets old man Tiki, and they wander off for private discussions about the lease on a small stretch of sand south of Champagne, owned forever by Tiki’s family. The old man indicates he’d like to get things formalised sooner rather than later.
Waiting for the seaplane on the beach, and surrounded by the villagers, Foster says: “Tiki is about 80 now. I’m 43. Hopefully, one day, people will look at a black and white picture of the two of us on a wall and they’ll say – these two men started all this. These two men became friends.”
Back on the mainland, Foster is tired.
He has arranged to meet a group of people in the Sheraton Bar but doesn’t materialise. When telephoned in the villa, he says: “I’m not up for it. I’ve hit the wall.”
One of his good Fijian friends – local music star Laisa Vulakoro – has turned up to meet him for a drink. She sits on one of the bar lounges and watches the band.
“He does this all the time,” she says, smiling. “Before I even knew Peter, I had people calling me from here and overseas to warn me – watch out, he’s a conman. The Fijians know. It’s a small place. Everyone knows about you, even when you don’t think they do. Even in the most remote village, they know of Peter Foster.
“But he was very good to me, Peter. During the campaign for Dr Baba, he gave me work when it was a very bad situation in Fiji after the coup in 2000. I heard a lot of bad things about Peter. I was told my reputation would go down if I associated with him.
“But he was like a saviour who came down from heaven for me. And now that I know everything, I wouldn’t abandon him. He’s a friend. I helped to get his visa restored. I appealed to them that there were many, many things this man had done, good things, that had to be taken into account. That they needed to look at his humanitarian side.
“It’s best to try and concentrate on the good things in people, I think. Life is short.”
Laisa, unable to resist the lure of the stage, later gets up and sings a version of Bob Dylan’s Knocking on Heaven’s Door.
The next day the Fiji Times reports that the Australian government has issued warnings to its citizens working or holidaying in Fiji to be “mindful” of the country’s political climate. The travel advisory warning relates to the controversial Reconciliation, Tolerance and Unity Bill being debated across the country.
Foster takes us to the airport and as he parks the car points out film star Mel Gibson’s private jet on the tarmac. Gibson is in town to look over his own private island – Mago – which he recently purchased. (“I was talking to his local vet, whom I know,” Foster confides. “He’s organising Gibson’s cattle for him.”)
Courteous to the end, he sits drinking coffee, waiting for our boarding call. Looking at him, you can’t rule out future surprises in the colourful life of Peter Foster. Unpredictability has, in the past, been his stock in trade.
Around the Sheraton, the staff jokingly refer to him as Ratu, or King. Many years ago, his mother dubbed him Ratu Galoot. King Fool.
As the plane ascends over the Sleeping Giant, you look down at the receding cane fields and clusters of tin house rooves and know he is driving the plum SUV around the feet of the giant and towards what?
The weight of middle age? Personal reevaluation? Or is Peter Foster journeying towards some sort of redemption, on the most remote beach of the most remote Fijian island, at the bottom of the world?