Fiji: Ancient tales of cannibals and conquest

By Jim Eagles

Fiji's islands boast a rich history and curious traditions, writes Jim Eagles.

The boatman delivered a shocking titbit about Naigani Island as he cruised past cannibal cave: 'It's where the Fijians used to cook and eat people in the old days' he said. Photo / Jim Eagles
The boatman delivered a shocking titbit about Naigani Island as he cruised past cannibal cave: 'It's where the Fijians used to cook and eat people in the old days' he said. Photo / Jim Eagles

We were bouncing through a choppy sea round the shores of Naigani Island when the boatman slowed down, pointed and said, "That's the cannibal cave."

Eh? I could see a large opening that stood out darkly against the cliff. But what was its connection to cannibals?

"It's where the Fijians used to cook and eat people in the old days," said the boatman. "The inside is black with the smoke from their cooking fires."

I heard more about the cannibal cave when I arrived at Naigani Island Resort, a relaxed, old-fashioned sort of place and the only resort on this island, which lies about an hour by car and 45min by boat from Suva. During a chat over a beer with the half-dozen other guests before the resort's weekly barbecue - the grilled fish is superb - one Australian couple mentioned they had walked to the cave that day.

"[It's] not very nice," said the husband. "The walls are covered in soot from the fires where they cooked people.

I didn't stay long. I got bad vibes from the place."

I didn't make it to the cave myself to check its vibes. But, as you find with all the 110-odd inhabited islands which make up the Fijian archipelago, the tale of the cannibal cave is typical of the traditions associated with most local landmarks. This is, after all, a place which has been inhabited by humans for much longer than New Zealand. On Naigani, when the resort was extended in 1981 the excavations uncovered Lapita pottery dating back 2500 years.

The highest point on Naigani is occupied by an ancient fort, Wailevu. Visit the island's sole village and you'll almost certainly hear the saga of how 150 years ago the great warlord Seru Epenisa Cakobau, who tried to conquer the whole of Fiji, was unable to overcome the fortress and so resorted to treachery to lure the local people from their sanctuary. He slaughtered the lot - except for three young men. The trio jumped into the sea from the highest cliff on the island and made their way to the island of Verata, where they settled and took wives. When the tribal wars were over, the three men and their families returned to re-settle Naigani.

The most beautiful beach on the island, known as Sacred Bay, carries other traditions. People fishing there are not allowed to use lines or spears, only basket nets, and any trevalli caught have to be cooked whole and their bones returned to the bay before midnight. "Then," said Ili Satoqi, the resort sales manager, "the bones turn back into trevalli."

An American couple who had snorkled there agreed that Sacred Bay was a special place. "There are huge schools of sardines," said the wife, "and lots of trevalli which almost seem to be guarding them. When you swim there the trevalli swim right up at you in a challenging way ... I've never experienced anything like it."

CHECKLIST

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

Where to stay: Naigani Island Resort is off the south coast of Viti Levu.

Further information: See Tourism Fiji's website.

Jim Eagles visited Naigani Island as guest of Tourism Fiji.

- NZ Herald

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