Fiji: River of life

Danielle Wright discovers the colours of Fiji on a muddy boat tour up the Nahigatoka River

A Fiji river cruise is a colourful experience.
A Fiji river cruise is a colourful experience.

The drive to Nahigatoka takes about an hour from Denerau. Along the way, we see huge trees flattened by a recent storm, children playing ring-a-rosy in front of homes without fences, boys playing rugby and men sharing a beer on tatami mats. And, always, coconut trees and bright hibiscus flowers colour the horizon.

As we walk around Nahigatoka town, it's apparent the colours of Fiji are not just in the surroundings. Everyone greets us with an ebullient "bula" and a joyful spirit. After a few days, I wonder how genuine this is, but it's our first day on the island and for now I think they're the friendliest people on Earth.

It wasn't always this friendly though, as we're about to find out on a riverboat tour. Our host, Finna, relays some of the more brutal happenings to visitors in a jolly voice and with smiling eyes: "So, don't mess with a Fijian, they'll eat you," he sums up, giggling.

Our children, 4 and 7, look at me with big eyes. "We better be on our best behaviour," I whisper in their ears. I'm impressed - and relieved - that they take the message to heart throughout the trip.

Finna also tells us about the renewed effort on conservation in the area, explains the communal way of life for villagers and talks with love about the food - especially a carbohydrate called cassava, which is eaten instead of rice or potatoes.

As the sun beats down, we wave at fishermen perched in trees and watch older siblings gleefully pushing their younger brothers into the water at the river's edge, village pigs snorting as we pass.

After 20 minutes, we're at the river mouth where dozens of fishermen carry mosquito nets attached to poles, hoping to catch whitebait, and horses buck in the heat.

"Once, a man on a horse would head back to tell the other villagers the fish were flowing," says Finna. "But with mobile phones, the whole village can now be here within minutes."

We learn so much about the people, their history and the life they lead on the island.

Next, we're shuttled off to a nearby school, where we see children in smart uniforms playing rugby on the fields. Inside, the younger ones sing us a song and we're encouraged to send books for their new library.

A drum is sounded, rather than a bell, to signal the start and end of class and we leave the happy, shy children to head to their village where the grown-ups perform a cultural show.

We're shown how to husk a coconut and told about all the benefits of the fruit of the coconut tree, nicknamed the tree of life. Inside a hut, we're given sandwiches, hot dogs and fruit set out on a tatami mat.

At the cultural show, my husband is made "chief" as the women produce kava and make him lead the dancing.

I think he likes the kava - he's very chatty for the next couple of hours and surprises me with his dance moves - although he later tells me someone was telling him what to do next.

Just when we think the tour is over, they bring out the handcrafts and show us how to make clay pigs, kneading with the heels of their feet, as well as weaving: you get your money's worth.

The Nahigatoka River Cruise was the first, and best, day of our Fijian holiday.

To be able to take some of the local colours of Fiji home with us is something that will stay with our family for a long time, much longer than the sunburn if we'd stayed around the hotel pool.


• Tour prices start at $115 for adults and $55 for children, www.coastalinlandtours.com

• We stayed at the Fiji Beach Resort & Spa managed by The Hilton. One of the best memories is having a private dinner on the beach where the kids could build sandcastles in between courses and finally turn off their "best behaviour" after a busy day on the village tour, hilton.com

• Dani Wright travelled with assistance of Fiji Tourism.

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