We tried to keep up with Niumaia, the 69-year-old Fijian medicine man, as he nimbly made his way barefoot down the steep jungle path, pointing out as we went the healing plants used by his tribal mountain people.
Unfortunately, a little later in our tramp through the rainforest, Niumaiahad to put his medicines and healing powers to the test on me.
As I climbed past a waterfall, my expensive sneakers slipped on the same wet rocks Niumaia had just scrambled over shoeless, leaving me flat on my face with my right knee scraped raw.
Our medicine man swung into action, heading off into the rainforest and returning with a handful of shiny leaves. Grinding these between his hands into a green mush, Niumaia placed the dripping compound on to my raw and throbbing knee.
"The leaves are from the Bonabulukau plant," he explained, applying his healing touch. "It will stop the bleeding, ease the pain and help you heal quickly."
I'm still not exactly sure what Niumaia covered my kneewith, but I do know the bleeding stopped almost immediately, and the pain seemed to ease. A little scar on my knee reminds me of Fiji's traditional healing touch.
Niumaia Kavika is a man of many talents; medicine man, blues musician, and cultural host at Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort. Niumaia, who calls himself a bushman, moved from his mountain village in 1950 where his mother was chief, and is now the resort's ambassador to traditional Fijian culture and customs on his island home of Vanua Levu.
Ironically, the day of our ill-fated tramp began with a guided walk around the resort, during which Niumaia shared his knowledge of the healing powers of his island's plants.
The grounds of the resort are a thriving natural chemist shop, with enough variety of local flora to cure just about any ailment.
Try the juice from crushed Drala leaves (the Verbena family) to clear up sinus problems. The leaves of the Jaina leka (dwarf banana tree) when pounded, mixed with water and ingested, will fight asthma.
To reduce the pain and swelling of a sprained ankle, wrap the rough side of the Vauleka plant (short hibiscus) around the injury overnight. Or, use the juice from the domele plant (common basil), to treat coughs, mosquito bites, burns, and fever. It seems traditional Fijian bush medicine has a natural remedy for every ailment.
Kava, made from the roots of the Piper Methysticum plant, is an integral part of Fijian life. Drinking yaqona (kava) is an ancient custom filled with tradition and ceremony.
Niumaia explained that offering a bundle of kava root as a sevusevu (gift) is the custom when invited into any of Vanua Levu's traditional villages. We felt privileged to be invited to Nukubalavu Village, a local community of 300 people, just along the beach from the Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Island Resort.
Experiencing village life and sharing in a ritual kava ceremony was one of the resort's complimentary activities offered during their Day of Fijian Culture.
As their cultural host, Niumaia helped us to understand and respect the social rituals and ancient traditions when visiting a village in his Fijian island home.
First, Niumaia chose a chief to lead our group. My husband Brian was honoured but a bit nervous to be chosen, later comparing his uncertainty to that, "am I using the right fork?" feeling.
Brian presented our sevusevu to the village chief, who sat facing us, cross-legged on his front porch floor. The chief welcomed us to his village in Fijian and invited each guest to come forward and greet him personally.
Brian was then invited to lead his group to the village hall for the time-honoured kava ceremony, which has strict rules for preparing and drinking. As I silently watched the ritual of kava root being pounded and mixed with water for the ceremony, I was happy to see they weren't using the more traditional method of chewing the root into mush and mixing in the water by hand before offering us the drink.
Saliva is supposed to release the root's active ingredients, so kava prepared by chewing is more potent than that from the pounding. Thankfully, we got the less-potent version.
After trying this bitter, muddy-tasting brew for the first time, I would say kava is an acquired taste. And other than a slight numbing of my lips and tongue, I didn't feel any of the other effects often associated with this mildly narcotic drink.
To be part of this ancient kava custom however, was an emotional and moving experience. The deliberate hand-clap signalling the ceremonious sipping from the coconut shells was the only sound to break the peaceful and quiet ambience.
The calm of the kava ceremony was broken by an exuberant and intricate spear dance by the men of the village, followed by the warm and beautiful hand dance of the women. As the music continued, we were invited to join the villagers in their dances, while other guests checked out the local arts and craftwork being sold in the hall.
You can also discover these wonderful villages and traditional Fijian customs on your own in Vanua Levu. The southeast coast of Fiji's second-largest island is dotted with small, indigenous villages.
It is best not to show up to a village uninvited but, if you do, the first thing to do is ask to meet the chief. And don't forget your sevusevu of kava.
Almost all the land on Vanua Levu is owned by the villages, so remember to ask permission before wandering through the countryside or strolling along some sandy beach.
Hire a sturdy vehicle to explore the more remote areas of this scenic, tropical island. Take the winding coastal Hibiscus Highway through the lush Tunuloa Peninsula.
You will discover endless hectares of towering coconut plantations, sparkling blue-green waters, sweeping sandy beaches, small local villages, and wild green mountains, where the rainforest seems to stretch forever through hills and valleys.
With the truck windows wide open, the friendly "bula" greeting of the waving villagers seems to welcome you around every curve in the rough road.
We decided they were almost too friendly at times as we tried to figure out what to do with the two happy boys who jumped into the back of our rental truck.
We saw the bare-foot schoolboys walking along the side of the road dragging some sticks and looking adorable in their untidy school uniforms. No sooner had I jumped out to take a photo when the two boys jumped into the back of our truck, figuring we had stopped to give them a ride.
We had no idea what to do with these two trusting, smiling stowaways with no village in sight, and no way to communicate. Luckily, some bigger school kids came down the road and our two passengers gracefully jumped out of the back of our truck to join their older friends. A lasting image of traditional Vanua Levu as the two smiling Fijian boys waved goodbye.
* Janie Robinson's trip was subsidised by Goway Travel, Air New Zealand and Fiji Visitors' Bureau.
By Janie Robinson