BEN KEENE: I was actually in Sydney a few weeks ago, but I didn’t get a chance to stop which really annoyed me. I was on my way back from Fiji. I flew in over the National Park south of the city and all those beaches … I could see the guys surfing, and was like, “Hang on a second, why am I transiting here?” [Laughs].
KATE BEZAR: It’s a pretty amazing approach coming into Sydney airport.
It is. So how’s Dumbo Feather going? It looks great. I’m surprised I haven’t come across your work before.
Well we don’t have extensive distribution in the UK, which might be why, but yeah, we’re around. It just spreads by word of mouth and people finding it themselves, so there’s a really nice community and a level of commitment to the mag by readers which is really beautiful.
Fantastic, that’s what you need in your little tribe isn’t it?
Speaking of tribes … Why were you back in Fiji?
I try to spend a couple of months a year there and we’ve just finished the initial three years of the project. That was the term of our lease there as well, so the main reason was to get the lease renewed. It had been offered to us kindly by the landowners last year, but negotiating it can take a long time in Fiji, so I got the bulk of that done. We also had a big party and got our new team in. The new lease is going to be for ten more years, which is fantastic. Hopefully it’s a home for a long time yet, but tourism’s tough at the moment in Fiji and the tsunami warnings earlier this year didn’t really help.
But the tsunami didn’t reach Fiji, did it?
No it didn’t, but a lot of people back here in the UK think we were hit by a tsunami and I’m like, “No guys, that was about 200 kilometres away.” No one was concerned in Fiji of course. It was the same during the coup. I said, “Guys, we’re being run by the army now,” and they were like, “Oh no problem, we’ll just go fishing.”
So that hasn’t affected things all that much …?
Well, the hangover from the coup was obviously the economic impact. It was significant, but I think on the island the education isn’t to the extent that people can really get a grip on what it means to not have a vote. Of course New Zealand and parts of Australia are putting a lot of pressure on Fiji to have a democratically elected government. When you’re sitting on the inside you feel like you’re part of the adolescent stage of a country’s political development. Socially and culturally it’s an incredible place to live, but politically and in terms of business, it’s still got a long way to go. That doesn’t mean it’s not peaceful, it just means it’s a bit … You know, those rights, like being able to vote, aren’t completely there yet, so it’s complicated. I think, for the people we live without in the islands, as long as they can get the resources there, then they’re mostly okay. The problem is of course that the impact of this and the recession is that gas prices and food prices in the markets have shot up, which then pushes up crime and that filters down … Anyway, that’s the same everywhere, but it’s still a very happy place to live compared to a lot of parts of the world, I think. Have you been over?
I haven’t been to Fiji, no. I’ve been to Tonga, but that’s as close as I’ve got unfortunately. I’d love to.
Well, we’re there for ten more years so I’m gonna hassle you annually until you come!
Fine by me. So when you say you’ve renewed a lease, it’s a lease for a chunk of land?
That’s right. The ‘Tribewanted’ story started for me at the end of 2005. I remember it very clearly actually. It was Boxing Day, and I was here at home where I am today, in Devon in England. It was grey and winter and I got an email from a guy I’d never heard of called Mark who was up in Liverpool. It said, “I see you’re working in adventure travel and volunteer tours in Africa … I’m looking at some ideas to do a sort of travel network or community with an online network or community.” I wasn’t really sure what he was talking about – this was before Facebook hit the UK. We started to have a conversation and the example he gave me was the band The Arctic Monkeys. They’re just from Sheffield here in the UK and they built up this fan-base through MySpace. Then, off the back of that online fan base, they released a single in both the UK and the States at the same time, which went straight to number one in both countries overnight. Mark was saying, “Look, you can use this online community as a way of building a network or a group of people before you launch a new idea … You can even fund stuff.” He was interested in whether you could do it in the travel and ‘new tourism’ space, which is where I’d spent a few years running projects and trips around the world. I thought, this is kind of interesting, so we talked for a few weeks and then we eventually came up with this idea of giving an online community a base somewhere in the world.
Then we wondered, if you were going to get a bunch of people together online and then say, “This is your physical HQ, this is your home, this is your spot, this is where you can go and hang out” where would it be? Mark said, “Well, it has to be on a remote island somewhere,” and I said (laughs), “That’s the opposite of an online community or network.” He said “Exactly. It’s bringing two trends or two themes together; the idea of living in a remote place, the kind of ‘original Eden’, the remote island, or the cast-away, and the new culture of communication and networking online. If we put them together could we use the network in a positive way to develop a place and work with local people to create jobs, create business, create a new venture?” I thought it was a stupid idea; I tried to ignore it, and then the next day I found that I hadn’t deleted the email from my inbox and it had stuck in my head, so that was it.