The coconut leaves seem certain to break apart but Mali’s hands work them expertly, weaving them between one another in a deceptively strong tapestry that forms the basin of our traditional Fijian bushman’s basket. Some of the leaves splinter slightly as he forces them into place but they’re reinforced by the combined strength of the lush, green carapace already built around them. I finish the second side of the basket – with only the occasional pointer from Mali – and then begin to tie off the loose ends to make sure the basket is enclosed.

Mali shows me once, twice, three times: “It’s just like plaiting your girlfriend’s hair – now you finish the job.”

I’m terrible at it. The old left-to-middle, right-to-middle pattern is familiar enough, but the constant gathering of extra strands, to be dragged in with one hand and then the other, leaves me all fingers and thumbs. Eventually, we get there, tieing the ends off and then creating the basket’s opening by hacking the fibrous stalk away with a machete to leave the smart, functional finished product.

“You fill it with yams, tell your story and you go home,” Mali grins, holding the basket casually over one shoulder.
Next is coconut-carving. With machete still in hand, Mali chips away the hard shell, exposing the husk, before impaling the coconut on sharpened stick, custom-made for this very exercise. I do my best to tear away the coconut’s thick inner shell but it proves a struggle, raising peals of laughter from the resort’s watching staff. At Funky Fish on Fiji’s Malolo Island, watching coconuts leave travellers utterly defeated is top-shelf matinee entertainment.

Finally, the husk comes away in small, inelegant chunks and we’re into the tasty part of the coconut. Mali chops it up into cubes and mixes it with a plate of salt and garlic, which he assures me is perfect for marinating fish.

But, as though not yet satisfied with his demonstration of the humble coconut’s versatility, Mali shows me how part of the shell can be used as a hairbrush and how the stringy pieces of the husk can be roped together into string strong enough to bind the walls of huts together. After a week travelling through Fiji’s tropics, I’m reminded once again that these islands are full of surprises.

Love songs and broken thongs

A week earlier, my island-hopping adventure begins in Nadi, a coastal town on the western edge of Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island. After boarding the Yasawa Flyer in Port Denarau, we’re soon zooming through the open sea, heading north toward the island of Waya Lailai, the first port in our whistle-stop tour. There, the Ecohaven resort is one of the few in Fiji owned entirely by the local villagers – most are part-owned and still dependent on some foreign investment.

Upon our arrival – we coast ashore in a battered metal dinghy – the staff gather on the beach to sing a Fijian welcome song, their voices raised, accompanied by a small ukulele. Accommodation on Fiji’s islands is often billed as a resort but it actually sells many of the establishments short – they are fairly basic but no less comfortable and have far more charm than any sparkling four-star chain hotel. The Ecohaven, for its part, is made up of huts – bures, in Fiji – dotted along a vast lawn overlooking a pristine beachfront.

After settling in, I introduce myself to Jerry, an enormous Fijian who runs the activity shack – he’s quite a sight down there, sporting a pencil-thin moustache, resplendent in his bright-red, XXXL Hawaiian shirt, seemingly filling every inch of space behind his desk. After locking me in for an afternoon hike to the island’s summit, Jerry offers his own take on the relaxed pace on Waya Lailai.

“All the villagers, they used to work six days a week – fishing, going to the mainland, rest on Sunday and then do 
it all again,” he explains, leaning back in a creaking chair. “But now we have a resort, we have big smiles and just play the guitar all day; ‘Bula’ when tourists come.”

The hike to the island’s summit is considerably harder work – it is, admittedly, mostly my fault, my decision to attempt the hike wearing thongs soon proving foolhardy. Following several days of heavy rain before our arrival, the ground is slick and spongey and, five minutes in, I suffer a disastrous double blow-out and am forced to discard the pair of busted flip-flops. Still, even in bare feet, the hike through the island’s hinterland, up its rugged, rocky slopes and through its pockets of thick jungle is worth it for the exquisite views from atop its jagged escarpment; the surrounding islands visible against the pinkish-orange sunset smeared across an uncluttered sky.

The expression ‘Fiji time’ may encapsulate the unhurried approach in this part of the world: if the boat’s running late or you want to take a nap – no problem, everyone’s on Fiji time. Relax. And it’s great, but on the second leg of the hike, the way back down, I discover that, although schedules might be flexible on Fiji time, it still gets dark at about 6pm. I finally return to camp, under the cover of darkness, my legs coated in mud almost to the knee, having well and truly earned my dinner.

Mary, who runs the resort’s kitchen, has, since lunch, decided I look like Prince William – she appears to mean it as a compliment but I remain unconvinced – so there’s no chance of me slinking in unnoticed. “Prince Weel-yam,” she exclaims loudly. “Where have you been?”

I mutter something about Fiji time and start drinking. 
In the corner, some of the staff have struck up a barbershop quartet; big Jerry plays a dinky little guitar, dwarfed in his hands, like a bear strumming a fiddle, while his mates sing. At the intermission, he sidles over and I ask him to translate the last song’s lyrics.

“It’s saying, ‘if you cut my heart open, your photo would be inside’,” Jerry explains, suddenly very serious. “It’s a love song. They’re all love songs.”

And so my first night in the Fijian islands, warm with island ballads, closes in around me, barefoot, bedraggled and with a belly full of beer.

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A place to party

There is an enjoyable rhythm to island-hopping in Fiji. The region’s main boat companies provide a hop-on, hop-off service, the boats tracking north from the mainland in the morning, all the way to the top of the Yasawas, before turning around and coming south in the afternoon, back past the Mamanucas before docking again at Port Denarau. Travellers simply hitch a ride as far as they want to go; when the ferry draws close to each new island it drops anchor before motorboats, driven by staff at each resort, arrive to collect disembarking guests and carry them back to shore.

All that remains is for the island-hoppers to choose where they want to spend their time and, broadly speaking, the islands are divided into places to party and quieter, more low-key places that are big with couples. As it happens, my next stop, the Mantaray, on Nanuya Balavu, is a place to party. Even in a period that is generally slower for Fijian tourism, the Mantaray is often full, a mixture of Brits, Canadians, Americans, Aussies, Kiwis and Europeans arriving in droves to spend a few nights in its neat bures, some on stilts in the jungle, others mounted just metres from the sea.

The beach bar is where much of the action happens at the Mantaray, the open-fronted pavilion, surrounded by benches and hammocks, is an inviting place to share a Fiji Bitter and a conversation with fellow travellers. It’s also where punters gather for daily activities.

I immediately sign up for the kayaking, which takes us out from the resort’s sheltered inlet to a deserted beach – not exactly a rarity in Fiji – on the other side of the water. There, after dragging our kayaks ashore, we snorkel on coral reefs and skim stones. Before sunset, a boat from the resort comes past to collect passengers for the sunset cruise. It sounds terribly genteel but there’s neither a dinner jacket nor an hors d’oeuvre in sight. Instead, as dusk descends, we find ourselves in the open sea, bobbing in tyre tubes, collecting beers from a full esky.

The signature activity, though, is, as the resort’s name suggests, swimming with the island’s resident mantarays. The timing of their presence is unpredictable but as soon as they’re sighted offshore a call goes around and the resort’s drums begin to beat, signalling that a swimming expedition is about to depart. The rays are alien-looking creatures with ‘wingspans’ of several metres, wide-spaced eyes and weird, gawping mouths that afford a line of sight straight down their gullets. Their movement through the water – during their visit to a so-called cleaning station, where smaller fish nibble at their skin and gills, clearing away parasites – looks completely effortless, arcing loops completed without the rays perceptibly moving a single muscle.

And, after dark, the fun and games only escalate – Nesi, the resort’s appointed master of ceremonies, herds the guests down from the dining hall to the beach where a limbo contest begins proceedings. Competitors are divided up by nationality, raising the stakes and ensuring all involved treat the contest with deadly seriousness. After all, bragging rights are on the line. After the limbo, won, perhaps unsurprisingly, by the sole Brazilian entrant, Nesi introduces a new game, played in pairs, where one partner must lower the other while holding their hand, allowing them to push a small stone as far along the ground as they can, before hauling them back to their feet without collapsing in a tangled pile. It’s a bizarre spectacle, with all manner of tactics employed, before Nesi weighs in at the last minute with an expert display to claim first place.

Last of all is the notorious ‘box game’, in which competitors, standing on one leg, take it in turns to bend down and lift a cardboard box off the ground using only their teeth. After each round, an inch or so of cardboard is torn from the box, making it ever harder to retrieve. After some impressive efforts, Nesi once again confounds the watching throng by nimbly doubling over, barely even wobbling, and lifting the remaining sliver of cardboard off the deck. It’s freakish, but never in doubt.

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The hunter and the hunted

On Tavewa Island, the northern-most destination on my trip, the staff at Coral View resort make up for the fact that I visit in a traditionally quieter period by singing almost constantly for the extent of my stay. There is the welcome song – which is continued all the way up from the beach and into the foyer – and the farewell song, which gets a couple of runs, and a stack of other island ditties in between. The Fijians, there can be no mistaking, love to sing.

Tavewa is remarkable among the Fiji islands for the variety and vivacity of its marine life. The resort, on a narrow peninsula, is a short boat ride from the aptly named blue lagoon, a stunning, secluded alcove where radiantly coloured fish dart in and out of the brilliant coral. They’re pretty tame, too – if you take a chunk of bread underwater, the fish are bold enough to eat right out of your hand. I swear one takes a nip out of my thumb and another even has a little go at my mask. It’s a completely unique, slightly unsettling experience to be in the centre of a horde of fish – black-and-white zebra fish, long-nosed barracuda and thousands of darting little blue ones with touches of pink around their gills.

Further afield, where the sea floor falls away into yawning, reef-lined caverns, I detect a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye. When I look more closely, there’s no mistaking the grey skin and telltale dorsal fin – there’s a bloody shark about 20 metres from me. It’s not too big, I tell myself, nothing to worry about. But, on a totally unrelated note, I decide I’ve had enough snorkeling anyway – probably time to get back to the boat. Immediately.

“What kind of sharks are down there?”, I ask our skipper, known only as Mr S, once back in the safety of the bow.

“They’re just reef sharks,” he shrugs, casually.

“Would they ever have a crack at a person swimming in the area?”, I ask, seeking reassurance.

Mr S just laughs – the mere idea of a shark attack is, apparently, ridiculous. I suppose that’s meant to be heartening. The rest of the afternoon is spent fishing – what better way to reassert my status at the top of the food chain than to hook the shark that scared me shitless earlier? Alas, though, my chunk of herring, used as bait, remains utterly untouched for several hours. Fishing is an exercise in patience, I tell myself – it doesn’t matter if you don’t catch anything, right? It’s just nice to be out on the water with a line dangling over the side of the boat. Another day in paradise and all that.

Still, I can’t help but feel a pang of indignation when Mr S ambles over next to me and, about 10 minutes after casting his line out, whoops with excitement after attracting a bite.

“Keep a lid on it, champ,” I think to myself. “No need to throw a party over hooking a piddly little garfish.”

But then, as Mr S reels his line in, it becomes clear that there’s no garfish on the other end. Instead, Mr S reaches over the side and wrestles an octopus into the boat. It doesn’t come quietly – its head is about twice the size of a man’s hand and its tentacles wrap around Mr S’s heavily tattooed arm, all the way to his shoulder. The other anglers, myself included, are stunned, the calm of our fishing expedition shattered by the sight of an octopus writhing around in the boat, desperately squirting its ink as Mr S proceeds to kill it with his bare hands, smashing and tearing its head apart. It is, at the risk of understatement, not something you see every day.

“Octopus,” Mr S grins, with a raised, satisfied eyebrow. “Will make good bait.”

Check out more pictures from our trip

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Toward the end of my trip, I lob at the Beachcomber resort, another of the most popular stops on Fiji’s island circuit, famed far and wide for its vast beachfront bar, where the sand doesn’t stop at the door. Instead, the sand covers the entire floor – it’s a perfect way to enjoy a few sundowners without leaving the beach behind.

In order to work up a thirst, though, there are the obligatory games of touch rugby and beach volleyball, travellers slotting in alongside the local lads, who appear to have spent most of their young lives practising. Much of my afternoon is spent grasping at thin air as an opponent goose-steps his way past me or face-down in the sand, having flailed hopelessly after an errant ball. It is not completely futile, though – I do come across a useful piece of Fijian vocabulary. After I attempt a particularly unsuccessful, albeit very snazzy no-look pass, one of my Fijian teammates holds up his hands and smiles: “Sega-na-lega.”

The phrase, it turns out, means “no worries”. It’s certainly a useful phrase in this part of the world, one that rings in my ears when I leave the lads to their game and retire to a nearby hammock. Later, when the shadows lengthen, I pull up a stool in the Beachcomber’s bar and am soon joined by gaggle of other new arrivals. We promptly order a tower of beer – probably three jugs’ worth, served in an upright refrigerated tube – and settle in for the night.

After dinner, the Beachcomber’s entertainment troupe stride out onto the bar’s panelled stage, decked out in shirts and leg-warmers made from grass, brandishing thick, black traditional tribal weapons. What follows is part hoedown and part war cry, a kind of choreographed line-dancing interspersed with guttural yelling and wild lunges at audience members, who inevitably recoil in shock.

Afterwards, unnerved by the imminent arrival of another tower of beer, I find an excuse to turn in, walking across the sands to my bure on the beach. Sitting on the porch, I look out across water – it’s impossible to see much but I’m sure that, somewhere, out on one of those dimly silhouetted islands, another party, like the one I’ve left, is in full swing.

It’s been a whirlwind trip and now, near the end of it, under palm fronds held horizontal in the wind, billowing like full sails, I feel relaxed enough to atomise. I reflect on my experiences and the details that have coloured my time in Fiji, this chaotic land of soft sand, unsealed paths and bumpy boat rides. I’ve clambered in and out of more tin-can dinghies than I’ve had hot breakfasts, to be spirited each time into a head-wind bearing the promise of new adventures; as surely as the last tropical paradise recedes in the boat’s wake, the next one looms on the horizon.

My trip has been pebbled with casual conversations with other island-hoppers, easy friendships quickly formed and greetings shouted from passing boats, its soundtrack made up of the buzz of mosquitoes, drumbeats heralding dinner and bird calls at dawn. Throughout, I’ve explored steepled jungle passes, strafed broad, flat beaches built for days of unending idleness and swum in seas layered by different stripes of luminescence. Sega-na-lega, indeed.

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Kava nights and unexpected visitors

Of course, no Fijian epic would be complete without an evening or two spent drinking kava. And so, after my honest day’s work at Funky Fish – spent, if you recall, cracking coconuts and weaving baskets – the staff at the resort show up with their wicker mat and clay bowls: all they require for an old-fashioned kava party.

Kava crops can be found throughout Fiji and the potion is made out of the roots of the plant, which are dried, pounded and chewed before being held in a sieve and water is filtered through, the same way you make a pot of tea. The result, though, is quite different. Kava, once ready to drink, is a grey-brown liquid, pooled in a deep basin in the centre of the circle. One man, appointed to pour, goes around the circle, filling each drinker’s cup.

“You can have low tide,” he says, filling my cup less than halfway. “Or high tide,” he continues, filling it higher. “Or, you can have tsunami,” he grins, filling my cup to the brim.

During a kava ceremony, it is polite to clap once before receiving your bowl and then, after downing your helping, clap a further three times, while keeping a broad smile on your face. Sometimes, the kava has a real kick, so beaming brightly after chugging it down can be harder than expected. Still, I acquire a taste for it and, tonight, the staff have allowed me to stand in as chief, which means I get my own special cup and get to drink the first serve from each round. 

A common misconception is that kava is alcoholic – it’s not at all and its effects are almost completely opposite to those of booze. Instead, it’s kava’s naturally occurring psychoactive ingredients, known as kava lactones, which do the trick – first, my mouth and tongue turn numb and then I find myself slowing down, chilling out, becoming very relaxed but not necessarily sleepy. It’s like being mildly, pleasantly stoned – after six or seven bowls, I find I am perfectly happy just hanging out on the kava mat, staring off into the middle distance, listening to the boys take it in turns to play guitar and sing songs I don’t understand.

Still, as the night wears on, I can’t resist the drift toward bed. Saying my goodbyes to the other drinkers, I pick my way down the hill toward the shore, where I’m staying. Admittedly, with a head full of kava, my reflexes are not at their most cat-like, so, despite detecting movement to the side of the path, it’s only after closing to within a couple of metres of the disturbance that I clock the half-dozen enormous cows that have found their way into the resort and now block the way to my bure. There’s a big bull at the front, mooing with a loud sense of entitlement.

This is too bizarre – where the hell have these cows appeared from? I later learn that they have escaped from a small farm that also operates on Malolo Island but, here and now, I begin to question whether this is some hallucinogenic side effect of the evening’s kava, whether every first-time drinker returns with wide-eyed reports of bovine intruders in the night. Fortunately, I have my camera with me so, just as the cows turn tail, I snap a handful of quick pictures. Hard evidence and further proof that, in Fiji, another surprise waits just around the corner.

Tom Sturrock travelled courtesy of Tourism Fiji.