Shelby "won" the island of Yawalau, off the coast of Fiji's main island, in a 1957 contest plugging a movie called The Little Hut, starring Ava Gardner and David Niven. Studio flacks renamed the island "Ava-Ava" and offered a lifetime lease as first prize. Shelby entered on a whim, and won.
A systems analyst for a Richmond, Calif. chemical company, Shelby is now 40 and plumpish. But in early 1958 he and a buddy were footloose enough to move to Ava-Ava to live. The studio loved the publicity, of course, and arranged round-trip ocean liner tickets, a gala welcome and living accommodations in Fiji's best hotel. Later, when Shelby and his friend, a school-teacher named Doug Howard, were taken the four miles offshore to his island, they found a handsomely furnished thatched hut, an outboard motor and a servant boy. The two men were photographed endlessly as they fished and swam and loafed.
Then one day the publicity ran dry and a boatload of movers was dispatched from the mainland to remove the furniture, the outboard motor—and the servant. Even the mosquito netting was repossessed. Shelby and Howard, who had brought only $150 in cash, gamely tried to hang on by fishing in the abundant waters, but it was an uphill battle. They once tried to sail an abandoned outrigger to the mainland for supplies and were nearly drowned in a sudden storm. On another occasion Shelby attempted to learn to spearfish underwater, until he met up with a shark. "I saw its shadow," he still recalls vividly. "It looked like a battleship." During low tide, the island measured about 38 comfortable acres. At high tide, though, it shrank to a mere four-and-a-half.
Finally the two men decided to pack it in. Dressed in native Fijian garb, they caught the first ship home. Even then there were snags. The steward at first refused to let them aboard, mistaking them for trinket peddlers. They arrived in the United States virtually penniless, and Shelby had to borrow a dime to call a friend to pick him up.
He didn't give the youthful adventure on Ava-Ava much more thought until last month, when he heard a news report that the Fiji government was advertising to find the owner of the little island, without saying why. Quickly Shelby fired off a registered letter informing the government of his whereabouts. The government, he suspects, may now want to turn his island into something profitable, like a resort. If so, Shelby wants a piece of the paradise.
When Ken Shelby last saw his tropical Fiji island paradise, it was hell. He was broke, mosquito-riddled and disillusioned. But now he has learned the tiny piece of South Pacific real estate may turn out to be a bonanza after all.