Fiji: Smile foundation

By Rebecca Barry Hill

It's only when the picture comes into focus I realise what I'm pointing my camera at. Yes, that's a spectacular view of the Namosi Valley but _ ew! _ the big white gauze in the foreground is a spider's web, dotted with hundreds of bodies and a black beauty the size of my hand at the centre.

I back away quickly but Giles, the English tourist, gets rather excited and moves in closer for a photo. He's about to take his shot when - woosh! - suddenly he disappears from view.

A few seconds later he emerges from the hole he just slipped into, covered in grass and laughing hysterically, and almost walks straight into the middle of the web. It's a close encounter and our first taste of what our guides call "the real Fiji". Only we haven't really experienced the real Fiji just yet.

That morning we'd met at Pacific Harbour for our Rivers Fiji excursion, a day trip that would take us into the heart of Viti Levu for the kind of experience you just don't get poolside at the fancy resorts. We would then return via the Wainikoroiluva ('Luva) River in inflatable kayaks.

For nearly two hours our open truck had lurched slowly along the narrow dirt road into the jungle, the only sign of civilisation being a small group of Fijian people huddled around a fire by the river.

"A funeral," says our guide Andre. "An old man from my village."

The Fijian people moved to the highlands about a century ago, forced inland by cannibalism and tribal warfare. Nestled in the lush interior of the island are 27 villages, the biggest home to around 400 people. This road, which continues to Suva, is their only link to the coast. It's a feat of engineering unto itself, the way it snakes perilously through the jungle, riddled by potholes the truck must negotiate at half-speed. Thank goodness it's a clear day - it's easy to imagine how sketchy things must get when the track turns to mud.

Most of the villages now have cars, but in the early days the villagers would make monthly trips down the river on rafts of fresh produce to sell at the markets. They would then make the arduous walk all the way back. Now they often rely on the Rivers Fiji truck to ferry them in and out of the island's interior.

The remoteness of the highlands truly hits home when, three hours into our bumpy journey, we pass a modest huddle of buildings - a high school - nestled at the foot of dramatic mountains. The road plateaus and locals wander past, the driver occasionally pulling over for a chat, some of them with spears for hunting wild boar, others accompanied by cows, pigs and goats.

Andre, who is shy to begin with but chattier as our trip progresses, explains he was brought up here, surrounded by extended family, and encouraged to socialise with everyone in his village. The Fijian people's openness is incredibly humbling, even if it's as simple as one of the villagers waving hello and calling "bula", one stranger welcoming another.

For our trip to continue down the River 'Luva, we must get permission from a village chief. No sooner have we climbed out of the truck when we're bombarded by about 20 children, who race out of a simple tin hut classroom. Their teacher smiles as the least shy of her class throw themselves at our legs, and others swarm around us, giggling as though we're celebrities arriving on a red carpet. I'm almost moved to tears when a girl of about 6 grabs my hand and accompanies me on the short wander to the chief's house.

It's now midday and I'm grateful for the sulu, (sarong) I'm wearing. The sun is beating down on a corrugated iron sheet on top of which kava and flax have been laid out to dry.

At the entrance to the chief's house, an elderly woman sits cooking meat in a simple pot. Inside, an old man sits at the other side of the room, his legs splayed in front of him under a table. It's not until about halfway through the kava ceremony he is introduced as the village Chief Leo Naikasau. Andre also reveals he's his eldest son, and therefore, a chieftain-in-waiting.

The chief, now 75, was a policeman for 17 years in Suva. He was also an avid rugby player but injuries led to paralysis in later life. Though frail and softly spoken, his wisdom and hospitality are palpable. He speaks disapprovingly of the coup. The Government provided his village with power generators and monthly supplies which have since dried up, he says; there was no consultation with tribal leaders when the military took over.

This is not the Fijian way, he says. Fijians are a community-minded people. His sentiments are echoed when, on the ride to the river, six villagers join us on the back of the truck as though they're boarding a bus. It seems a fair enough arrangement - here we are trudging through their backyard, why shouldn't they get a free ride downtown? But there's good reason not to feel, as Giles puts it, "like an exploitative tourist". The village not only benefits from Rivers Fiji tourism monetarily, the village trip provides an invaluable window into Fijian culture.

Our trip blessed, it's time to meet the 'Luva. After a quick tutorial with the inflatable kayaks, I manage to go backwards down my first river rapid. It's hard work but once we've paddled our way between rocks, trying not to butt up against the face of them, we're shunted dreamily downstream, free to enjoy the scenery.

It's as though the earth has cracked apart and been carpeted with bubbling white staircases, its walls decorated with every palm frond and vine imaginable. A bat darts across the sky and further downstream, cows hang out on the water's edge, as though in conversation with their bovine friends on the other side of the river.

Just when I think it can't get much more Romancing the Stone, we park our kayaks on the shore and follow a path to a waterfall almost 30m high. We jump in and swim to the other side, battling the power of the water which has created its own current, barely able to breathe under the heavy force of water and wind. It's another exhilarating surprise in what has already been a memorable day.

By the time we hop back in our kayaks, I feel as though I've got the hang of it. So it's a bit embarrassing when the river narrows and we find locals waving from their gardens and school children playing in the river. Naturally, my kayak starts doing wild 360s. Just when I regain control and prepare for the next rapids, a child grabs the front of my kayak, and we lurch out of control, towards the churning white water, him yelling for me to "turn!" as we come close to slamming into a rock. He tumbles off, I panic, then he surfaces and waves goodbye, a huge smile on his face.

It's contagious, this smiling thing. When we reach the confluence of the 'Luva and Navua rivers, jump into a motorised longboat and relax for the 45-minute blat home, I realise I can't stop.

GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand operates nine services a week between Auckland and Nadi. In addition there is a weekly direct service between Wellington and Nadi and Christchurch and Nadi. For fares and schedule information go to airnewzealand.co.nz.

WHERE TO STAY
You can find out about the Lagoon Resort Harbour at www.lagoonresort.com. Details of Pearl South Pacific are at www.thepearlsouthpacific.com.

WHAT TO DO
Rivers Fiji in Pacific Harbour offers three main day trips. Adventures on the 'Luva includes an overland journey into the Namosi Valley to the village of Nakavika for a kava ceremony in the home of the chief, followed by inflatable kayaking (class II whitewater), a picnic lunch, a short hike to a magnificent waterfall and a longboat ride.

Rafting the upper Navua also travels into the highlands but takes a different route on shared inflatable rafts with four to six people, past many waterfalls and a deep, narrow canyon through spectacular rainforest. Coastal sea kayaking is also available. For more information, go to www.riversfiji.com

FURTHER INFORMATION
General information on Fiji is at www.bulafiji.com.


*Rebecca Barry flew to Nadi, Fiji on Air New Zealand and stayed at the Lagoon Resort and the Pearl South Pacific in Pacific Harbour.

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