Beyond the beaches, cocktails and sunsets, how to find the real Fiji…
I wonder what sort of impression I would have had of Fiji if I had followed the rest of the tourists at Nadi airport, jumped straight on a bus to Denarau Marina and caught the Tiger IV catamaran out to one of the island resorts in the Mamanucagroup of islands?
I’m sure I would have left with a confident feel that Fiji was enjoying a strong tourist industry, with visitors from Australia, the UK, the US and Japan all enjoying the warm waters and even warmer smiles of our Fijian hosts.
However, my journey through the cane fields, past the diesel-powered cane trains and east along the Coral Coast took me to the forgotten little inlet of Pacific Harbour.
Just 50 kilometres west of the capital Suva on the main island of Viti Levu, we found ourselves the near lone guests of the town’s sole golf resort. Originally built as a bordello for Arab businessman, this colonial throwback, furnished in imitation European baroque, thankfully never fulfilled its intended purpose. As our lonely footsteps echoed along the empty hallways of this golf resort that attracts no golfers, but many business conferences and international dive groups, we encountered the friendly, but anxious staff who outnumbered visitors 4 to 1 – a poignant reminder that the military coups of the late 1990s and 2000 have left pockets of Fiji virtual tourist ghost towns. What was intended to balance out opportunities between Fijians and Indian-Fijians instead drove away both international investment and tourism during and long after this period of civil unrest.
“This is the real Fiji!”
It is wrong that this forgotten harbour falls on the wrong side of the invisible tourist line along the Coral Coast as it is the perfect rally point to explore the lush rainforests of Namosi highlands. Our guide proudly pointed out as we bumped along the rough mountain roads, holding on tightly in the back of the open bed truck, “this is the real Fiji!”
Before we could romantise over the tropical rainforests, the quaint villages and the smiling locals, we had the opportunity to see what life in these idyllic surroundings was really like. Over a welcoming bowl of Kava (the Fijian ice-breaker made from the roots of the mature plant of the same name) with the Chief of Nakavika village, we learnt of the villages’ recent success. They had built a simple two-room schoolhouse that now saved the village children the 6 kilometre journey and subsequent weeklong separation from their parents to attend class in a neighbouring village.
This achievement had caught the eye of those high up, and no less than the Fijian Prime Minister himself was scheduled to officially open the school the following week. This auspicious occasion was both a sense of pride and stress for the village’s Chief. His concern to make the most of the opportunity was evident by his repeated comment to us that he planned to ask the visiting PM for much needed further funding, there was still teachers to pay and house, and a high school to be built. Feeling for this man’s heavy burden for this one shot opportunity, I could only inadequately advise him in our farewell “to ask for a lot!¨.
Hiking In The Park
Returning to Nadi, we made a short two-hour drive up to the grasslands of the Nausori Highlands on the west side of Viti Levu, the Fijian mainland. The village of Abaca and the nearby Nase Forest Lodge in the Koroyanitu National Park were both heavily mentioned in various tourist brochures, and with its close proximity to Nadi, we anticipated that our lone guest days in Fiji were over.
Alas, the hiking trails leading up to Castle Rock were all ours and there were no visitors to share the glorious sunset across the bay to Yanuca and Beqa islands. Instead we had the luxury of our village hosts all to ourselves, sharing our evening meal of taro roots and “Fijian spinach” and breakfast of pancakes and fresh, still warm milk with Ms Bose and her extended family.
An Event In A Fijian Life
The 20-minute hike from our mountain lodge to the 14 house village was well worth the effort to hear the latest village news. The building of the village church was on track for the following months’ nuptials of one of the villages young women; the planting of the crops, while hard work, was proceeding well by the manual efforts of the villagers; and preparations were underway for the upcoming celebration that would feature one of the village cows (not that which provided us with our morning milk!) as the main menu item.
Ms Bose teenage nephew was to be circumcised, an event normally occurring in infancy, but no less significant with careful preparations being made for his post-operative recovery. A new soft blanket and pillow were being readied for his 4-day rest period following the procedure where his adult relatives would take it in turns to stay by his side.
Given the limited transportation — a sole truck to transport vegetables to market — that made the hour long journey from the closest hospital in the city of Lautaka to the village, it was not insignificant that this young man’s request to be circumcised was quickly organised by his loving aunts and uncles. We were reminded that the rough mountain roads and limited transportation saw most women give birth in the village, only afterwards making the trip to hospital for post-birth care and to register their babies.
Our eventual trip to Demanaru Harbour and transit to the resort island of Mana to sail, snorkel and soak up the sun saw our reunion with our fellow tourists. A coral paradise amongst the Mamanuca islands, the highlight is snorkelling amongst countless varieties of tropical fish less than 100 metres off the islands’ south beach. Its one of those luxurious full service resorts where you can dine, swim, sail, even be married, all within 5 minutes of your suite door. The Japanese owned resort is welcoming and friendly, creating an environment where return stays are the norm and visitors delight in showing off their new babies as they renew friendships with the islands staff.