Fiji: Sevens heaven

By Dave Sanders

Visit Fiji’s Coral Coast to watch rugby and be spoilt.

Chapel by the beach on the Coral Coast, Fiji. Photo / Tourism Fiji
Chapel by the beach on the Coral Coast, Fiji. Photo / Tourism Fiji

My mum and dad loved Fiji. My mum, in her best Welsh Hyacynth Bucket accent would say, "They treat us like royalty, your dad like a chief."

On my first visit to Fiji, and from the first of 10,000 "bula"s, I discovered they treat everyone like royalty, I was a a three-day chief - until, of course, I got home.

My main reason for visiting Fiji was for the upcoming Coral Coast Sevens.

Combining a sevens rugby tournament with a Fijian holiday seems to be a match made in heaven.

Fiji has a passion for sevens rugby unmatched in the world and there is something about the short-sided game that fits perfectly with the essence of Fijians. They have a vibrant spirit and you can sense their simple joy in the barest essentials of the game. They know how to make use of wide empty spaces, they run like the wind, and wear smiles as wide as the ambition stirred by a sense of adventure.

Sigatoka, an hour's drive from Nadi, proclaims itself the home of rugby, and who can argue with the signs - the rugby ball-shaped waste-paper bins, and the rugby shirts worn by nearly every man on the street.

The town is the principal urban centre for the province of Navosa/Nadroga. There I talked with resident Aussie Jay Whyte, sponsor and rugby co-ordinator for Navosa rugby, and to Kele Leawere, a former Fiji captain and current Nadroga coach. We met in a Sigatoka cafe, which doubled as a souvenir shop, trebled as a sports store, and threw in an icecream bar as well.

"We had this vision of a champion of champions tournament for club teams in the Asia Pacific region," says Jay, who has lived in Fiji for six years. "In Fiji, where sevens is like a religion, the tournament allows us to showcase the game to the world."

"The opportunities rugby gives young Fijians is unbelievable," adds Kele, who played the game not only internationally, but professionally in Japan. With rugby sevens now an Olympic sport, the game has had a huge boost, with many countries now taking an interest.

And the game, through this sevens tournament, is giving back to the surrounding community.

Jay's award-winning Sigatoka River Safaris venture also does that, providing income to two dozen villages along the waterway. He set up the business when he moved here, having first become besotted with Fiji as an 11-year-old on a family visit in 1991. Jay befriended a local who invited Jay and his family up the Sigatoka River to his village.

A year later Jake's family holidayed in Queenstown, where they went up an altogether wilder river in a jetboat. Jay later put the two unforgettable experiences together in an eco-tourism venture in Fiji, which combines a slice of unique local culture with a thrilling jetboat ride.

Sigatoka River Safaris recommend you wear comfortable clothing, sunglasses, sunscreen and footwear and bring a change of clothes, a sense of adventure, and a smile. I joined a group of mainly Aussies, a collection of dusty mine truck drivers and their helmet-haired spouses, who'd been dragged away from happy hours by their resorts' pools and herded in a shuttle to Sigatoka town.

We pulled into River Safari's base above the river, were given our life jackets and ponchos and climbed down to the river level where one of four New Zealand custom-made jetboats awaited.

Our Kiwi-trained driver introduced himself as Captain Black Jack and issued mock-airline safety instructions on how to put on our life jackets: "Don't worry - they are purely for show. If you do end up in the river, just stand up and walk out."

He wasn't joking. The river is in many places just 15cm deep and along which we hared at great pace, swinging nonchalantly past upturned tree roots.

Our boat sped past farmers wading their horses laden with crops to sell, and children and old men swimming in the river, all with time to wave and smile.

The captain gave us some history of the river including the fact that the last act of cannibalism in Fiji occurred in 1867 further up the river at the village of Nabutautau. A Reverend Baker and several missionary colleagues had attempted to convert the natives to Christianity and obviously didn't listen to their tour guide's tips on protocol. Although initial interactions between Baker and the villagers were positive, an attempt to retrieve a comb saw the Reverend touch the head of the village chief, a forbidden act and a gesture that to the villagers was tantamount to declaring war.

Baker and his fellow missionaries ended up being unfortunate dinner guests, and the poor man's boot, with teeth marks still on it, is on display in the Fiji Museum. The cultural misunderstanding was probably the world's most graphic example of foot in mouth.

After about half an hour we pulled up at a jetty, and before we stepped ashore, our tour guide gave us a quick lesson in protocol. We had to choose a chief, a privilege reserved for the oldest male, so a retired professor in his 80s was supplied a kava plant, which was to be the customary gift to the local chief. We hoped his hearing aid was turned up as he listened to his instructions. Vunaqoru Village was a 10 minute stroll through fields of tobacco, cabbages and taro.

Tupou, the only woman guide out of the 20 or so villages that host these daily tours, talked about daily life. She pointed proudly to recently constructed power lines, which made Vunaqoru one of the few villages that did not have to rely on kerosene lamps, the fuel for which is required by the drum load as gifts by local suitors.

Before entering the village hall, where the entire populace had gathered, we had to remove our hats and shoes. After we were welcomed and the gift of kava received, we participated in a solemn sevusevu (kava ceremony). After our chief and their three dignitaries, all male, had drunk, with short speeches and much clapping, the kava bowl was offered around. The acquired taste is earthy, like a gritty wash of raw parsnips, and the effect is a mild mouth numbing and an apparent drowsiness.

We sat down to sample traditional Fijian foods like taro and taro leaves, and chicken cooked in coconut milk. Then the band struck up. Before long the local men and women rose and within minutes everyone was dancing with smiles and laughter. It was a disco in the afternoon, for all ages. Two of the local unattached ladies took a shine to our handsome young guide, and he did not seem to mind the attention.

After a final snake dance, led by our now friendly chief, and a gift giving ceremony, we departed, as an unseasonal shower started.

I had truly been treated like a chief, or at least his antipodean offsider. My dad would have been at home.

Coral coast sevens

The Coral Coast Sevens is a three-day tournament at Sigatoka from November 15-17. It is in its third year and New Zealand rugby legend Jonah Lomu is the tournament's ambassador, while Nick Jordan, on the Wellington Sevens management committee, is the tournament technical director. The technical adviser is David Campese.

The Coral Coast Sevens aspires to be a champion of champions event, drawing winners from other tournaments such as the Vancouver Sevens (Canada), Central Coast Sevens (Australia), Denver (USA) and even the Middlesex Sevens (UK). The defending champions are Fijian side Wardens.

This year's participants include Australian champions Sunnybank, Otago University, Pacific Warriors (New Zealand-based Fijians), Team Serevi (Seattle), the Cook Islands national team and other teams from the USA, Tonga and American Samoa. For more info visit sevenspassion.com.

Further afield

In the adventurous spirit of sevens rugby, why not take advantage of the Coral Coast's many local attractions while you're there?

On the water, adrenalin junkies can choose from bamboo-rafting, scuba-diving, surfing and wind-surfing; the more sedate can relax on fishing trips and cruises.

Take a walk around the Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park, about 20 minutes from the township. It is the site of man's first arrival in Fiji and was discovered in the late 1940s by archaeologists who uncovered an ancient burial site, subsequently dated at 2600 years old. Pottery and other archaeological remains have led scientists to believe that these early inhabitants were of Lapita origin from the New Caledonia region.

Or you could wander around the magnificent Natadola Bay Golf Course, finishing for a drink at its high, cedar-roofed South Pacific-style club house. Unfortunately an unseasonal gale prevented my scheduled round, but I sat with a consolatory beer in the bar while looking over the immaculate 18-hole championship course. It is a par 72 and 6566m, from the championship tees. A full round is $165 while clubs can be hired from $50-$60.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air Pacific flies from New Zealand to both Nadi and Suva.

Where to stay: Shangri-La's Fijian Resort & Spa.

Outrigger on the Lagoon Fiji.

For more info on Fiji and the Coral Coast click here.

Dave Sanders travelled to the Coral Coast thanks to Tourism Fiji.

- Herald on Sunday

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