Author: Philip Game
Forget the offshore resorts: Fiji’s main island of Viti Levu is packed with alternatives. We met hospitable villagers, explored rainforests, reefs, rock pools and verdant river valleys and browsed rural markets crowded with coconuts and kava (the root from which Fiji’s murky ceremonial tipple is wrung). You can wade for hours in tidal pools, searching for sea-slugs and starfish, you can go mountain biking in the rutted highland roads behind Nadi or just make friends with a rare crested iguana. The best part is you can do it all yourself.
Nadi (pronounced ‘Nandi’) is where your Fijian journey begins. We’d arrived, bleary-eyed, at 4am, but even then the Fiji Visitors’ Bureau was open for business in the arrivals area, with an obliging cash machine dispensing Fiji dollars, while the Bureau people suggested places to stay. Outside the terminal, taxi drivers are only too happy to negotiate a reasonable fare, while communal taxis and open-windowed buses could also be flagged from the roadside.
Our route was a two-hour drive to the Coral Coast down the Queens Road, the southern route to Suva. Viti Levu’s other highway is the Kings Highway, a northern loop from Nadi to Suva and a scenic journey best tackled over two days. Whichever way you head from Nadi, the drive through miles of dense, manicured canefields at first seems reminiscent of Queensland, Australia.
Miniature orange locomotives haul long chains of cane stacked onto flatcars. Then you pass the domes and spires of a mosque or a Sikh or Hindu temple, built by the descendants of indentured cane-cutters; or glance inland to those jagged grass-green ridges which could never be mistaken for an Australian horizon.
Cross the Sigatoka River (pronounced ‘Singer-toka’), roughly halfway to Suva, and the Coral Coast begins. Around each bend of the Queens Road lies another palm-fringed golden beach, sheltered waters segregated from the deep blue beyond by a distant white ribbon of breakers. Often there’s another resort as well, large or small, catering to every budget.
It’s worth coming back into bustling, cheerful Sigatoka to check out the comings and goings around the market square, where locals barter for earthy clumps of dalo (taro), cassava and kava root, or for mounds of grey-blue river mussels. A graded road follows the fertile valley of the Sigatoka River into the highlands, while a slight detour winds up to the hilltop fort built by a Tongan warrior-king.
Along the coast west of town the black sand dunes rise as high as 60 metres. Storms and cyclones often expose the skeletons of the earliest Fijians – 2000 years old. Ranger Tui, a lean, wiry individual, escorted me to a vantage point on the highest dune, then we followed the windswept surf beach (thanks to the drifting sands, there is no reef) before turning back through tortured pandanus palm and willow-like casuarina.
Back in town, check out the fast food – a combination of Chinese fried rice, mutton curries and Fijian baked fish. Often featured at hotel ‘Island Nights’, a true Fijian spread includes pork rolled in rourou leaves and baked in coconut milk; kokoda (marinated fish); and Ika vakalolo, fish poached in coconut cream.
At Korotogo, east of Sigatoka, the Kula Eco Park breeds Fiji’s endangered wildlife: peregrine falcons, red-breasted musk parrots and Fiji’s own dinosaur, the crested iguana. It is here we met Adi, whose name means princess, a banded apple-green and white vokai who prances up and down your arm with her pointy little feet.
Suva, the capital, enjoys a magnificent waterfront setting fringed by sawtooth ranges. Along Victoria Parade, the main drag, the verandah-fronted facades are a roll-call of grand old colonial trading houses like Carpenters or Burns Philp. In the Municipal Market pyramids of green-tinged mangoes and huge hands of robust green bananas compete for attention. In the main building, the ‘Grog Sales’ sign points the way to dealers in kava root and bulk Indian spices: orange saffron, cumin, panch pora and garam masala.
The Fiji Museum’s treasures include the solitary boot which survived after the Reverend Baker ended up as someone’s dinner, and a hall full of the bark cloth in which Fijian chiefs used to be absolutely swathed. If that’s all too much history, head north through Tamavua for a dip in one of the swimming holes at Colo-i-Suva Forest Park (pronounced ‘Tholo’) and you’re ready to tackle the Kings Road loop back around to Nadi.
Tarmac gives way to winding gravel as the Kings Road pursues the Wainibuka River into verdant hill country where breadfruit, papaya, banana, cassava, taro and kava all flourish in the village plots.
Along the northern coast, the towns are fairly unremarkable. Rakiraki is another hot, dusty sugarmilling settlement, just one main street and a market square, lined with Indian shopfronts such as Dossoo’s General Store, Gafoor and Sons Pool Hall and Kava Saloon.
Could have stayed in London? Cool it. For one thing, Nananu-i-Ra island awaits just offshore. For another, you can head inland to a village where a couple of stone balls exercise their mystical powers.
Those apple-green mountains inland, the Nakauvadra Range (Source of the Wind), are the home of the great snake god Degei, and at the foot of the range lies Vatukacevaceva. Decades ago, two people fishing found the mysterious spherical stones ‘just like mirrors’ caught in their net. Ever since the villagers have revered their magical powers and when one stone was removed, its rumblings caused so much trouble it was quickly shipped home. One is still safeguarded by the traditional priest whose name is Jim.
Bula, Jim accepts our gift of a bunch of kava root, and recites the ritual words of thanks. With the formalities out of the way, he fetches what looked like a well-polished cannonball off the shelf and begins to describe its healing powers. (Through the open door I notice a boy hobbling about with his lower leg in plaster).
Vatukacevaceva shows few obvious signs of material blessings – but what a magical lifestyle, sheltered by the towering range and surrounded by groves of sugar cane, coconut palms, breadfruit and cassava crops.