It's A solemn moment when I'm presented with the tall bundle of yaqona (kava) root and asked to lead our group into the Fijian priest's house. Hastily acquiring a mien of dignity and nobility, I walk into the house and sit on the floor facing the priest and elders. A time-honoured ceremony is about to begin and I take my role of nominated chief of the Aotearoa visitors seriously.
The priest sits cross-legged before a large wooden bowl of kava, surrounded by a swarthy group of elders. Our host is focused on the wooden tanoa bowl at his feet, squeezing kava liquid through a sponge while intoning a prayer and then delivering an intense, rapid-fire oration.
Without warning a lithe young warrior clothed in full war regalia leaps to his feet and advances towards me. His face is a study of solemnity and concentration. I clap my hands once to signify that I'm ready to begin the kava ritual.
In earlier times, my European ancestors may have leapt to their feet and run for their lives at this point. The Fijian archipelago had a fearsome reputation as The Cannibal Isles and a kava ceremony may well have been the prelude to a feast.
I perform my chiefly duties by drinking deeply from the bowl of friendship and it is passed around our group, eliciting a curiously varied range of facial expressions as the muddy brown liquid is imbibed.
The kava has a slightly bitter taste and the anaesthetic effect on the lips is immediate. Although non-alcoholic, it induces a tingling sensation and numbness around the mouth, and a surprising sense of wellbeing.
The ceremony over, I revert to my egalitarian status as a Kiwi visitor embarking on the Sigatoka Cannibal Cave Safari. Having conferred his blessing on our group, the priest and a guide lead us down a narrow forest trail to the mysterious Naihehe Cave, Fiji's largest subterranean cave system.
The cave's entrance is under a low rock overhang and requires some knee-high wading through a gentle creek. Further in, we crouch down and shuffle sideways along a large bamboo pipe, almost in a prone position; this low passage is euphemistically called the "pregnancy gap". Beyond the overhang is a vast, cathedral-like chamber with strangely evocative silica blanket formations and mounds of calcite that resemble the shape of a women's reclining body and a man's weathered face.
Naihehe means "the place to get lost", which proved to be prophetic for the local villagers in 1743, when 100 of the Sautabu people hid in the cave for 79 days while marauding cannibal tribes scoured the valley for unsuspecting farmers. High above the sleeping platforms at that time were two hidden entrances accessible only by rope ladder. These were the salvation of the tribe, as the fittest men could crawl out and obtain meat and firewood to sustain life for that long period of entrapment.
Nature has sculpted a fine calcite "priest's throne" at the end of the cave's vaulted section, which is "tapu" for us mere mortals. The priest raises an ornate conch shell and conjures a haunting sound, which reverberates through the cave. Behind his throne is a deep pool. Scuba divers have penetrated its underground passages for 500m and still not reached the end of the cave system.
Another feature of the cave is a man-sized recess in the limestone wall, which is enthusiastically described to us as the tribe's cooking oven. It seems I have one more official duty to discharge, on the dubious grounds that the oldest guest is the most dispensable. Accordingly, I scramble into this make-believe cauldron, and under duress I'm made to hold a bare femur bone as a symbolic gesture, in memory of those bygone heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice.
Soon we board our 4WD transport and head back to the landing on the Sigatoka River. En route we meet a variety of local villagers. Some are conveying a whole butchered cattle beast to a funeral feast. Others are hiking along the lonely road with machetes over their shoulders, heading for their cassava, taro and yaqona plantations. We pass numerous local "taxis" - horses ridden bareback with a single rope in lieu of a bridle and reins.
Every passerby is greeted with a hearty "Bula vinaka." This genuine warmth is universal here. Our guides, Simon, Bill and Boho, are in a merry mood on the return journey, either because they love their job or had an extra kava session today. "Kava makes you strong, but after three full bowls it slows you down," they say. "To us it is like a herbal treatment and because kava slows us down it's the best family-planning medicine on the market."
This sense of fun is so typical of Fiji. It comes so spontaneously and naturally from the Fijians, who are among the friendliest people on Earth. You'll know the spirit of "bula" from the very first greeting.