By TOM COCKREM
Fijian terracotta pottery has fascinated me ever since I first saw the pots and bought one in a church fete in Suva about seven years ago. I learned then that this ancient art form has long been in decline.
In Viti Levu, Fiji's main island, it is now confined to just three villages. My self-appointed mission was to visit them.
There is some good news: The wares are now much more readily available in souvenir shops and market stalls in Suva and elsewhere.
The pots are far from being refined but their charm lies in their earthy unpretentiousness.
They are made in the way of the ancients, without even the aid of a wheel.
I was pleased to learn that two of the island's surviving pottery villages are close to one of my favourite places in Fiji, Sigatoka.
This vibrant little market town lies on the Queens Rd, 60km south of the international airport at Nadi, and 120km west of Suva.
Both villages, Lawai and Nakabuta, are just a short way upriver from the town. They are set amid shady tropical gardens and look typically idyllic kinds of places, tranquil to the point that the only sounds you hear are those made by living creatures.
I felt intrusive bringing my car.
My first stop was Lawai. One of the women, Karalaini Turaga, came to meet me, having guessed why I had come.
"You want to see some pottery?" she asked with a knowing smile. "It's all in here."
Clearly, I was not alone in my interest in the pottery.
The entire village meeting house was given over to the wares, with all items for sale. They ranged from tiny frogs, pigs and turtles to full-sized cooking pots.
I was told the pigs represented authority, the turtles good luck, and the frogs were just for fun.
I was a little disappointed to see many of the smaller pieces heavily glazed, which apparently makes them more appealing to the tourists - but not to me.
Karalaini asked if I would like to see a pottery demonstration. Great! So the women drifted over, and a bunch of youngsters, too. I sat down for the show.
Pottery-making, Fiji-style, demands extraordinary patience and skill. The clay is brought up from the river by the men - it's their one contribution - then the women set to work.
The clay first goes under foot, a kneading process to rid it of air bubbles and impurities.
The modelling is done by either paddle and hand, or with the added help of a smooth, rounded stone.
Smaller pieces present minimal challenge to the expert. Drinking vessels and cooking pots are an entirely different matter.
The potter begins with three slabs of clay, one for the base and two for the sides. These are bonded together with slip.
Once she achieves the crude form - itself a formidable task - the woman cuts a hole in the side of the pot so she can insert the stone.
She holds this inside while beating the clay against it from the outside with the paddle, until the desired shape and smoothness is achieved.
The potter then reseals the hole and work begins on the neck and lip, from where the sealant piece was cut. Try doing that at home!
Transfixed by all this magic action, I remained at Lawai far too long.
By the time I arrived at Nakabuta it was approaching dusk. Still, the welcome I received was little short of royal.
A teenage girl, Chippo, took it on herself to orchestrate the event, summoning the potters and directing them to me with their wares; all this with whimsical aplomb.
"Come on ladies! Take out those pots. Mr Tom wants to see them! Okay now, put them on the log for a photo - the big ones at the back."
And the women duly did. They readily posed for photos at Chippo's beckoning, and went through hoops to please.
I was also introduced to the village chief, a congenial chap who interrupted his carpentry for a chat. I left Nakabuta feeling very properly chuffed.
In bygone times, pots made at Lawai and Nakabuta would have been transported upriver to interior villages, and traded for the likes of woven mats and tapa (hand-painted bark cloth).
Special wares would have been commissioned by the chief for use in events such as kava drinking ceremonies and temple consecrations.
Kava drinking required a large bowl, or tanoa, for the kava, and a drinking vessel to be passed from hand to hand.
Temple consecrations called for oil lamps and decorative goblets for exclusive use by the priests and the chief. Some fine examples of these can be seen in Suva's excellent Fiji Museum.
Viti Levu's third pottery village, Nasilai Rewa, lies on an island in the Rewa River Delta, a 40-minute drive east of Suva.
Getting there entails being ferried across the river in a longboat. You don't have to ask for this - the chaps at the landing are there expressly for that purpose.
They are also quick to lend a helping hand. Noticing I had a puncture, they went straight to work and changed the wheel without me having to ask.
Nasilai Rewa is an idyll. The river ensures that nothing of noisy western contrivance has the chance to intrude, not even my car.
Duly welcomed, I requested and received my pottery demonstration outdoors.
The chosen spot was a grassed-over mound on which once stood a chiefly house. A sizeable throng assembled, including the kids. And then came the pots, and with them my astonishment.
The first one was a whopper of a water carrier.
Taller than the toddlers, its flagon-like shape was impossibly perfect, and its shoulder and neck were embellished with mysterious geometric etchings and applique. I just sat and gazed at it.
Its creator was my hostess, Maraia, who also performed the demonstration.
This, too, was a revelation. It seemed mandatory for the girls to gather around the potter, each with her own chunk of clay. They watched and imitated Maraia's every move.
The entire procedure was accompanied by the thrust and parry of countless jests and jibes from the onlookers, and uproarious fits of laughter. It was hard to keep my camera still.
Meanwhile, Maraia produced two little pottery gems, ready for firing. The children brought the kindling - dried coconut fronds and bamboo - as they previously had the water for the slip and the river sand for binding.
Pottery making in Fiji is one more activity that reinforces the strong bonds of community that exist within the village.
We are told it is a dying art. But is it? My experiences convinced me it is definitely on the up.
In Lawai, Nakabuta and Nasilai Rewa it is thriving, generating much-needed income for the people and is being readily embraced by the young. Other villages will hopefully soon catch the bug.
* Lonely Planet's Fiji edition includes information on the pottery villages, or try Traditional Handicrafts of Fiji by Mereisi Sekinabou Tabualevu (Institute of Pacific Studies).
* Fiji Visitor's Bureau
can be contacted on (09) 376 2533.