David in Fiji


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).