Pacific Islands: Off road in the real Fiji

By Derek Cheng

Derek Cheng takes a detour from the resorts and stumbles across something authentic

Tony (far right) accepts a bowl of traditional Fijian kava. Photo / Derek Cheng
Tony (far right) accepts a bowl of traditional Fijian kava. Photo / Derek Cheng

"Bula bula bula," he chanted, clapping his enormous black hands and looking at me expectantly.

I looked at the bowl of Fijian kava, which bears a striking resemblance to muddy water layered in extra servings of filth, and then at the five pairs of dark eyes staring at me.

"Bula bula bula," I replied, smiling politely, before downing the bowl in a gulp.

The beverage, if such a groggy concoction qualifies as such, comes from a root plant from the pepper family. It immediately stung my tongue and lips with a resinous blast and a touch of numbness. I scrunched up my face, but it soon subsided and I re-opened my eyes to a room of wide grins.

This was a distinctly different Fiji to the beach resorts you see in travel brochures. Bavu is a small group of thatch, wooden and corrugated iron huts, where the people are mostly farmers and the highest value is loyalty to the village.

How I came to be here involved a camera, a scooter and my own foolish ignorance. I had started the day in the city of Nadi in a rental-car office, trying to rent something to take me to the countryside without my drivers' licence, which had fled to New Zealand well-hidden inside my girlfriend's bag the previous day.

"I can pay cash and leave you my passport until I return," I suggested.

"Yes, but you don't have your licence, so you'll need extra insurance," replied the man in the office, his senses heightened by the smell of extra dollars.

"What for?" I asked.

"If the police stop you, say the scooter belongs to a friend and you're just taking it to the shop."

"That's fine, but what does that have to do with insurance?"

"Look, we're doing you a favour," his colleague said, leaning towards me.

Eventually I demanded to see an insurance contract which, as expected, was voluntary.

I left on a scooter heading south towards a beautiful beach some locals had told me about, near the tourist haven of Sigatoka.

The breeze eased the humidity as I passed fields of sugar cane, run-down houses and waving locals selling food at roadside stalls.

But when I stopped to snap a photo, I had no idea how to open the compartment under the seat, where my camera was.

I pulled into a service station, where several workers tugged at the seat in vain. Then one of them took off with the scooter, leaving me slightly apprehensive, but returned victorious five minutes later.

Tony, whose name wasn't Tony but he said it was easier to pronounce, approached as I was leaving.

"Would you like to come back with me to my village later and drink some kava? We sit, drink and tell stories," he said shyly.

I humbly accepted and agreed to meet him - a typically relaxed Fijian arrangement - on the side of the road somewhere to the north in a few hours.

I eventually found the beach, a gorgeous sandy stretch ... with an enormous luxury resort being built on its shore.

I headed back the way I had come, not really expecting Tony to be there. But an hour or so from the service station, there he sat, clapping his hands enthusiastically at the sight of the scooter.

We took a dirt road to Bavu, with its lines of colourful laundry and large communal shelter in the centre.

He took me into a small hut and sat me down on the only mat on the floor. He and his four brothers sat in a half-circle, facing me.

Tony was studying forestry at a college and doing a logging apprenticeship.

"That's why I speak English," the 24-year-old said.

He took powdered kava from a small bag - they didn't grow it there, so they bought it from roadside stalls - and emptied the contents into a bag made of fine fabric.

His brother then poured water through the bag, filtering the kava into a wide ceramic bowl.

Kava is a legal and traditional relaxant used throughout the Pacific Islands, usually after a day of hard work or during celebrations.

"Have you ever had kava before?" Tony asked as he handed me the first bowl.

"In Vanuatu."

"It's much stronger here."

The Vanuatu people had told me the opposite.

He then explained the ritual of drinking: Bula bula bula, clap clap clap, then down the hatch. Cue strained face.

It left me with the sensation of having wrapped my mouth around a handful of leaves.

Tony started handing a bowl to each of his brothers in turn, before finally taking one himself.

As he downed it, his face imploded and eyeballs tried to launch to the skies.

"You don't like it?"

"Not the taste. But I like the effect," he replied.

"But you must be used to it by now. How often do you drink?"

"Most nights. Several bowls after work. But I never get used to the taste."

A few more rounds and the relaxant had taken hold. I asked Tony about the village as his brother offered me dried tobacco rolled in paper.

Bavu has about 1000 people, each with their own share of the land for chickens, tobacco and growing vegetables such as kumara and yams. A river nearby provides water, while the flat part of the village doubles as a rugby field and volleyball court.

The chief settles any village disputes, and what he says is final.

Tony had few ambitions outside of this bubble. "People only leave the village for work. Everybody comes back."

They approve of Fiji's military dictator, Frank Bainimarama, who has headed Fiji since staging a coup in 2006.

"We like him," Tony said. "He works for the people. [Former Prime Minister Laisenia] Qarase was an outsider, from the outer islands. The real Fiji is here."

After round five, I felt distinctly content. The mild numbness had transferred from my mouth to my mind, leaving me in a rather tranquil stupor. It wasn't the best frame of mind to negotiate the roads to Nadi, where I had to return the scooter and collect my passport by 5pm.

It was already 4.20pm when I realised that another round of plant juice was not worth me being late and missing my flight the following morning.

Despite an invitation to a village wedding the next day - "there'll be lots of kava" - I thanked my hosts and took my leave. Tony saw me out.

"If you come back, you can stay longer and we can show you the river and the mountains.

"This is the real Fiji," he repeated.

Several bowls of kava alter your perception of danger.

Weaving in and out of traffic and dodging sugar cane flying off the back of trucks no longer seemed perilous. I pulled in to the rental office with 15 minutes to spare.

Which, in island time, is an eternity.


Fans of kava claim the Pacific drink works on the central nervous system, promoting relaxation for people suffering from anxiety or depression. It can be known by different names in different parts of the Pacific, 'awa' in Hawaii, 'ava' in Samoa and 'yaqona' in parts of Fiji.

Fiji Checklist

GETTING THERE: Air Pacific (soon to be rebranded as Fiji Airways) flies from Auckland to both Nadi and Suva.


- NZ Herald

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