The craggy seaward coast of Taveuni scrapes the rain from the humid sou'east trade wind by the bucketful. Combined with the rich soil on the flanks of this huge, elongated shield volcano, the hot, wet climate produces a near impenetrable jungle. Although it's a great place to be a tree, the invasive kudzu vine is ruining large parts of this tropical Eden.
The curious story of how this Asian plant came to smother Fijian forests is the subject of a series of photographs taken by Derek Henderson. "I felt like Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now hiking into this constantly wet jungle with a large format camera," he says. "All the skin on my hands and feet peeled off after three weeks."
Henderson was shooting in Bouma National Heritage Park on the remote east coast of Taveuni. This fecund environment sees the kudzu vine growing at an astonishing 30cm a day. It never loses a battle for sunlight and that prodigious growth rate made it the perfect natural camouflage for American forces preparing positions in Fiji and Vanuatu against a possible Japanese invasion in the 1940s.
The vine is a legume and its ability to rampantly spread made it seem a perfect foil to prevent erosion in Dust Bowl-era US. It even had potential as feed for grazing animals, but after many millions of kudzu seeds had been sown in the south it became clear what an awful plant it was. Armed with this knowledge, American forces blithely employed this Japanese creeper to hide their barracks in the South Pacific from the Japanese Navy.
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"When you have a precedence of war everything else goes out the window," Henderson reflects. "I've always been interested in the term paradise," he says of our often impoverished and sometimes corrupt Pacific Island neighbours. "Those places aren't sold as that, they never were. From Gauguin to Cook, the stories are similar. The people often live quite Third World existences, but they didn't sell it like that."
Henderson lives in Sydney now, but he's never been tempted to cover the Australian landscape in his fine art photography. "I don't tackle Australia because it's a different language. New Zealand and the South Pacific have a lot in common, but I see Australia as separate from that."
Henderson's alluring and intricate pictures, taken in the Bouma region of Fiji's "garden island" Taveuni, are captured on 4x5 inch film. The prints can be viewed at the Melanie Roger Gallery on Jervois Rd in Herne Bay until April 18, not far from the Steve Braunias-endorsed Herne Bay Bakery, run by a team of dedicated Cambodians, who have fine hot cross buns for sale.