David in Fiji

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David Whitley goes hiking and riding inland on Viti Levu, and discovers that Fijian life isn’t all about dressing up as cannibals for tourists.

 

Health and safety regulations, it would seem, are not held in particularly high regard here. The closest approximation to a riding helmet is Adam’s baseball cap and when the stirrups are clearly too long for my legs, he tells me to just put my feet through the straps on top of them instead. Poor Blondie underneath me doesn’t look particularly cut out for the task ahead – lugging a visitor who has clearly had the odd pie too many up to the top of a mountain – but she just about manages it.  And I’m glad she does – sitting on horseback with sweeping views of the Viti Levu’s Sabeto Valley is a pretty special experience.

 

People tend to come to the Pacific nations for the beaches and desert island stereotypes, but I usually find that they get a whole lot more interesting once you head inland. Fiji, it seems, is no exception. The interior on the main island of Viti Levu is surprisingly mountainous; it’s covered for the most part by thick forest and cut through by fast-flowing rivers and waterfalls.

 

One of the latter that is the destination for the first part of our “village tour”. Ordinarily, those two words should strike fear into the heart. It’s usually a code for the sort of excruciating experience that involves dancers in ridiculous costumes pretending to be cannibals for the sake of the tourists. Such cultural villages are nothing of the sort – they almost always hark back to a long gone era and are populated by people who would much sooner be dressed in jeans and drinking a Coke whilst watching the football on telly.

 

Nalesutale doesn’t go in for any of that cultural show nonsense – you take it as you find it, and there’s no pretence that archaic ceremonies and traditional clothing are part of everyday life. The ramshackle collection of huts at the end of the bumpy track is by no means extent of the village either. As with many villages in Fiji, the chief’s land is rather expansive. Adam tells me that it would take an hour and a half to ride from one side of Nalusetale to the other. As we squelch our way uphill through the mud (heavy rains in recent days have made the forest tracks rather slippery), he has many more snippets of good stattery to impart.

 

“We have snakes in Fiji...” he helpfully adds as we tramp through a particularly thick piece of foliage – classic serpent territory. “But none are poisonous.” “The British didn’t like them, though, so they brought over the mongoose to eat them,” he adds. “We used to like the mongoose, but now they eat our chickens because there aren’t enough snakes, so they’re not so popular.”

 

He also gives an insight into how the village system works. The formalities have eased in recent times – anyone can speak to the chief rather than go through his appointed spokesman – but the hierarchy is still surprisingly strong. Hunting is still a man’s job, weaving and cooking are still done almost exclusively by the women.The chief, meanwhile, is still afforded a tremendous amount of respect, and takes his responsibility to protect and provide for his people seriously. He’ll never be addressed by his given name either – it’s always Ratu.

 

The traditional ways still exist in Fiji, albeit in an adapted fashion. They don’t involve daily kava drinking ceremonies (and never have done) or fire dancing every evening, but it’s still the case that if you want to go and swim in a waterfall belonging to a village, you need to ask permission first before waltzing straight on through. And after a hike through wild spinach plantations, across precarious stepping stones and around massive cave-like boulders, that swim in Ririnaika Falls feels better than any in a photogenic island lagoon could ever do.

 

More photos here

 

David Whitley visited Nalusetale as a guest of Viti Eco Tours (Fijiecotours.net).

 

Three days in Fiji

 

Only three days in Fiji? Tough luck. This South Pacific destination is so full of diverse islands and attractions that you could happily spend weeks, maybe months there.



On the other hand, three days in Fiji? Great! A short stay is better than not visiting at all, and there are still plenty of activities you can do in that space of time.

Given that you only have three days, it’s likely you won’t be ranging far from Nadi in the west of the main island of Viti Levu, where the international airport is located.

Those three days can be neatly matched with three types of activities: on the water, heading inland, and chilling out.

On the water

Fiji being an archipelago of hundreds of islands, you’re never far from the ocean. The Mamanuca group of small islands of Viti Levu’s west coast is a popular place for cruises, often done as a day trip.

South Sea Cruises offers a number of cruises to the Mamanucas and the more northerly Yasawa islands. One takes passengers to Mana Island, which has three beaches and a resort. The fare includes lunch, a semi-submersible boat ride and the use of snorkelling gear.

From Mana you can join the sailboat Seaspray, the star of a 1960s TV series, for a cruise which includes a visit to a village and a kava ceremony. A more direct sailing cruise departs from the mainland aboard the Whales Tale , and includes a champagne breakfast, snorkelling and an island visit.

Feeling more energetic? Tokoriki Diving offers dives from its position at the more secluded northern end of the Mamanucas. And on the southern Coral Coast, the Mango Surf School has a one-day “learn to surf” session at the Natadola surf break.

 

 

 

Heading inland

I’ve written before about the Off-Road Cave Safari, and the same Coral Coast company operates the Sigatoka River Safari. This is a jet boat ride up Fiji’s longest river, stopping at a village for a kava ceremony and lunch.

Not far away is the Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park. The huge dunes here can be climbed for views, but they’re also significant for their wealth of archaeological remains left behind by the earliest Fijians. 

Another way to stretch your legs is by making the five-hour hike past jungle and waterfalls to Mount Batilamu within Koroyanitu National Heritage Park .

If you want scenery without too much physical effort, a tour to the Vuda Lookout, passing through the beautiful Sabeto Valley on the way, might be the ticket.

Chilling out

Considering the number of resorts in western Fiji, it isn’t hard to find a place to relax for the day. Port Denarau, a short distance from Nadi, contains several resorts, along with a golf course and a variety of shops and restaurants. The resorts all offer spa treatments.

On the Coral Coast, one of the most memorable places for a treatment or massage is the Bebe Spa . Situated high on a hill above the Outrigger on the Lagoon resort, the treatment rooms have sweeping ocean views. Afterward, the even higher Kalokalo Bar is an exceptionally pleasant place to relax with a cocktail, as the Pacific waves break onto the reef far below.

Disclosure: Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Outrigger on the Lagoon resort

 

You can get Fiji included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW or on our Discoverer RTW deal

Published by Stuart Lodge

Mark in Fiji

 

Someone once said that strangers are just good friends you haven’t met yet. One of the great things about taking an extended trip through so many countries is that you end up with so many great friends…and so many more excuses to pass back through the same places yet again, sometime in the future. These days with email, facebook, skype and messenger it’s easier than ever to keep in contact with people you’ve met on the road…and even to hook up with ‘unknown good friends’ even before you arrive in a country.

 

It is particularly reassuring to be able to touch down in a new country and have instant access to knowledgeable, friendly and hospitable local people who can point you in the right direction towards interesting places or secret spots that are way beyond the realm of the average guidebooks. Couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing.com) is a forum that I’ve used several times on this trip. I’ve surfed four couches on this trip (in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Hawaii and, now, Fiji) and I fully intend one day to catch up with the people that so quickly became good friends, either to visit again, or to repay their phenomenal hospitality by hosting them with my own spare bed somewhere on the other side of the world.


Once you put a profile up on the Couchsurfing website you are able to search through a database of over a million couchsurfers. Major cities like LA might have over a thousand contacts offering (mostly) a bed/couch for a night or two or, possibly, just a contact who is more than happy to meet up with for a coffee or a beer. Although on the face of it is essentially free accommodation, in some cases it might not actually turn out to be cheaper than staying in a local hostel since you really ought to turn up with a small gift and on a short stay it is a good idea to invite your host out for dinner or (on a longer one) perhaps also stock the fridge. Beyond what is often very pleasant accommodation Couchsurfing’s main advantage is that when you touch down in an unfamiliar place you immediately have the benefit of sound local knowledge and, with luck, perhaps the most enthusiastic and interesting guide you will ever find.

Fiji: Within 15 minutes of meeting up with local lady Milika in her Nadi boutique I had learned more about Fiji and Fijian life than I had in the previous two days at a beautiful (but sterile) resort on the coast. Milika has hosted more than a dozen travellers in her lovely four-bedroom house. She clearly enjoys meeting people from all over the world and continues to take typical Fijian hospitality to a new level. The five days I spent with Milika’s family gave me a chance to experience Fijian life from an angle that few tourists will ever experience…including an unexpected and very rushed jaunt to the highlands during what seemed to be an extremely serious tsunami warning.


Hearing of my ambition to learn how to cook with a traditional Fijian ‘lovo’ (ground oven) Milika even arranged for me to spend a morning, in company with a good part of the local rugby team, burying chicken, fish and taro in a bed of superheated rocks in her front garden. And we spent the same afternoon feasting and lying around drinking ceremonial kava (known here as ‘grog’). 

Hawaii: Never in the history of Hawaiian tourism has a weary ‘haole’ landed on his feet in the islands in quite the style that I did. Within forty minutes of touching down at Honolulu airport I was on a leaping speedboat (piloted by a screaming Hawaiian speed-freak) with four bikini-clad beach babes. And within an hour I was standing up to my chest on an oceanic sandbank sipping from a frosted bottle of Longboard beer while my host Allison and her boyfriend Mike clued me in on island life. I spent a week crashing on Allison’s couch and learned a lot about island life from her and her Hawaiian flatmates (…and their pet rat!). It might have been a week of sleep deprivation (due in the first instance partly to the mescal and rum I smuggled in from Mexico and afterwards to the more or less limitless endurance of this house full of University of Hawaii scholars). But it was great fun and when I again hit the road I had the feeling that I had left some of my favourite people in that house in Hawaii.

San Salvador: “Ok, no problem,” the young lady on the phone said, “I won’t be back from work for a few hours but the girl is at the flat cleaning. Just tell her who you are and make yourself at home. There’s beer in the fridge and coffee in the cupboard. I’ll see you later.” She had never even met me before and knew nothing about me beyond my Couchsurfing profile and yet she was confidently inviting this weary wayfarer into her home. San Salvador has a reputation of being a dangerous city (though not as dangerous as it was when I last passed through here in the early nineties). Yet this level of trust is something typical of many parts of Latin America…and something that is rarely found in the so-called ‘developed’ and ‘civilised’ countries farther north. (Among a thousand couches on offer in LA I was unable to get a single invitation).


I was only in San Salvador for one night but I invited my new friend out for a steak dinner during which we chatted ceaselessly and even in this short time I still came to understand more about her city than I might have learned in several days at one of the big hotels.

Nicaragua: My first couchsurfing experience was in Managua where two European women took me under their collective wings. They had wracked up several years of Nicaraguan experience between them and, since I was on the lookout for a magazine story from Managua, they were the best possible contacts I could hope for. Also, they had a deep interest in their adopted country and a limitless thirst to learn and enjoy their time there. I had planned to stay 3 or 4 days and ended up staying for 10. And I wish I could have stayed more!

I have just arrived in Sydney – halfway around my ‘world tour’ – and these people are responsible for some of the most memorable highlights of what has been a truly astounding six months..

 

By Mark Eveleigh

Tim in Fiji

Into Fiji’s Interior

 



I’m standing within the Naihehe Cave in the interior of Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island, my cheap trainers filling slowly with cold water as the light strapped to my head picks out the rocky walls. Ahead is the “pregnancy gap”, a low passage between this chamber and the next, presumably named because a pregnant woman couldn’t make it through.

 

Beyond the gap is a set of caverns within which the local Sautabu tribe hid centuries ago, after Christianity had arrived on the islands and the age-old practice of cannibalism was on the way out. It’s still regarded by the locals as a special place, and is the focal point of the Off-Road Cave Safari 

The cave makes a great destination for a day trip, but just as interesting is the way our group reaches it. Leaving the Outrigger on the Lagoon resort for the nearby town of Sigatoka, we join a bus which takes us along the west bank of the Sigatoka River. We’re then ferried across to a waiting four wheel drive vehicle.

This is where the real fun begins. Heading along a rough road, we pass through thick greenery which occasionally reveals the broad river far below. It’s the very definition of “soft adventure” – enough bouncing, jolting and swerving descents down muddy inclines to excite, but without us ever feeling in peril.

The scenery is spectacular, with sheer rock faces surrounded by jungle-covered slopes which are cut through by streams.

We also meet locals as we go, passing small, simple but neatly organised villages as residents wave. On the roadside are locals on their way to farm work, some of them dramatically hefty men wearing headbands and carrying wickedly long machetes, who call “Bula!” (“Welcome!”) as we pass.

As pleasant as resort life is, it’s good to head inland. Westerners think of Pacific islands as being defined by their palm-studded coastlines, but there’s a hell of a lot of interior to Viti Levu and much everyday life going on here. 

 

 


 

I ask our driver, a Fijian named Bill, if the locals mind these excursions to check out their cave.

“No, it helps both sides,” he replies. “The tour company pays a fee to the village, which means they can buy things they need. And I like the work, it’s good to meet new people.”

It’s Bill who’s our translator during the welcome at the village. As we sit cross-legged on mats within an open-sided meeting house, he switches between English and the local dialect. 

There are smiles all round and, shortly, numb lips. For part of the welcoming ritual is a ceremony involving the drinking of yaqona (kava). Its root, when prepared with water, produces a muddy drink with a slightly narcotic effect.

After the cave visit, the group shares a simple lunch of barbecued meat, bread and salad above a waterhole. A jolting jungle drive, a serve of kava and a cave visit, followed by a sausage sandwich with tomato sauce? I call that a perfect island day.

Disclosure: Tim Richards travelled courtesy of the Outrigger on the Lagoon resort.

You can get Fiji included as a stopover on a Navigator RTW or on our Discoverer RTW deal

 


Published by Stuart Lodge

Vanuatu

 

David Whitley goes drinking with a difference on Vanuatu’s main island, Efate

 

 

It’s an invite that I’m lucky to get. If I’d rocked up on my own, it may have been rather uncomfortable – although, in fairness, I’d have never found it in a million years. The owner of my hotel has brought me to his favourite nakimal – a word that means �?meeting place’ in Bislama, one of the more common of Vanuatu’s hundreds of languages.

 

Vanuatu’s increasing numbers of visitors will know a nakimal as a kava bar. Heading to one is seen as a bit of a cultural evening, and there are some around the main island of Efate that effectively exist for the visitors rather than the locals. The one we’ve driven to in the dark, up a seemingly interminable hillside most certainly doesn’t fit that description. The hotel owner – Bernie* - regards this as his local, and his fellow drinkers as friends. He doesn’t ordinarily bring his guests here – just those that have expressed a specific interest in getting to know the country and its people.

 

Bernie is welcomed in by Robert, who seems to see him as an uncle figure. Bernie has given Robert work and training as part of his commitment to only employing ni-Vanuatu staff. Many of the other chaps at the nakimal feel the same way. Running a nakimal is a protected industry here. Only ni-Vanuatu people are allowed to operate one, and the best will generally get their kava in from the island of Tanna. Kava is a bitter tasting drink made from the roots of the kava plant – a relation of the pepper bush. It’s illegal in some countries, but part of �?kastom’ – the traditional way of life that still holds tremendous sway here.

 

It’s often banned for two reasons, the first being that you’re effectively drinking muddy water and the second being the allegedly narcotic properties. I hand over 100 vatu for a coconut shell full of the murky juice. I’ve tried the Samoan equivalent before, but this is clearly much stronger. I try to hide my wince as I drink it down – it’s what can only be described as an acquired taste. It’s bitter, earthy and somewhat tongue-numbing but I can’t say I’m entering an altered state of consciousness.

 

But it’s a mistake to think a visit to the nakimal is about the drink. It’s the Melanesian equivalent of a trip to the local pub, and the talking is far more important than the kava itself.

 

As Bernie says: “Most of the business of parliament is done in a kava hut – it’s just ratified in the Parliament building.”

 

Fascinating though Bernie’s insights are, I get far more insight into the local culture by talking to his friends. Robert tells me that he has been in love with a woman for twenty years, but has only recently got permission from his mother and the village chief to marry her. That’s one hell of a long wait for approval.

 

Sam* has an even more extraordinary, heart-breaking story to tell. His wife has recently given birth to his second son. But kastom dictates that children are somewhat portable amongst the extended family. The chief and Sam’s mother have said that he must give his newborn son to his brother – who only has daughters. Each brother having a male heir is seen as more important than biological bonds between child and parent. Sam is clearly fighting back the tears as he explains, distraught at having to put duty before love.

 

My visit is fairly brief, and only skims the surface of local life in Vanuatu. But it does show me something very important – it’s not the drink that’s important, but the people you’re sharing it with.

 

*All names have been changed on request