Wilderness adventure in Fiji can mean assuming new dignity and nobility, drinking big bowls of love, and immersing oneself in a sinister underworld, writes Paul Rush.

It's a solemn moment when I'm presented with the tall bundle of yaqona (kava) root and asked to lead our group into the house of a large, forbidding Fijian priest, deep in the forest.

Hastily acquiring a mien of dignity and nobility, I walk in and sit on a floor mat facing the priest and elders. A time-honoured ceremony is about to begin. My role as nominated chief of the Aotearoa visitors makes me feel a little nervous and apprehensive.

The corpulent priest sits cross-legged before a large wooden bowl of kava, surrounded by a swarthy group of elders with expressionless faces and an air of gravitas.

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Our host is focused on the large, wooden tanoa bowl at his feet, squeezing kava liquid through a sponge while intoning a prayer and then delivering an intense, rapid-fire oration.

Without warning a lithe young warrior leaps to his feet and advances towards me.

His glistening brown body, clothed in full war regalia, moves sinuously in a series of weaving and ducking motions.

His face is a study of solemnity and concentration. I clap my hands once to signify that I'm ready to begin the kava ritual.

In earlier times, my European ancestors may have leapt to their feet and run for their lives at this point in the proceedings. The Fijian archipelago had a fearsome reputation as The Cannibal Isles and a kava ceremony might well have been an innocent prelude to a feast.
However, I stand my ground and perform my chiefly duties by drinking deeply from the bowl of friendship.

I clap three times once the deed is done and loudly exclaim an appreciative "Bula".

The Fijian archipelago had a fearsome reputation as 'The Cannibal Isles' and a kava ceremony might well have been an innocent prelude to a feast.

The priest mixes kava in a wooden tanoa bowl at his feet.

The kava bowl is passed around our group, eliciting a range of facial expressions as the muddy brown liquid is imbibed.

The kava has a slightly bitter taste and the anaesthetic effect is immediate. Although non-alcoholic, it induces a tingling sensation and numbness around the mouth and a surprising sense of general well-being.

So much so that the sense of occasion causes me to succumb to the Fijian version of "One for the road" and drink another bowl of love, feeling affably relaxed and mellow.

The ceremony over, I revert to my egalitarian status as a Kiwi visitor embarking on the Sigatoka Cannibal Cave Safari. Having conferred his blessing on our group, the priest and a guide lead us down a narrow forest trail to the mysterious Naihehe Cave, Fiji's largest subterranean cave system.

The entrance is under a low rock overhang and requires some knee-high wading through a gentle creek. Further in, we crouch down in a low passage. Beyond is a vast, cathedral-like chamber with strangely evocative silica blanket formations and mounds of calcite that resemble the shape of a women's reclining body and a man's weathered face.

Naihehe means the place to get lost, which proved to be prophetic for the villagers in 1743, when 100 of the Sautabu people hid in the cave for 79 days, while marauding cannibal tribes scoured the valley for any unsuspecting farmers.

Nature has sculpted a fine calcite "priest's throne" at the end of the cave's vaulted section, which is tapu for us mere mortals.

The priest raises an ornate conch shell and blows out a haunting sound, which reverberates through the cave.

Naihehe Cave has been a wedding venue. A European couple exchanged their vows in total darkness, then local villagers lit 400 candles to provide an eerie illumination to the nuptial scene. Our guides encourage us to spread the word back home that if Kiwi couples want a totally different wedding experience they should consider Naihehe Cave.

One more feature is pointed out with great relish. It is a man-sized recess in the limestone wall, which is enthusiastically described to us as the tribe's cooking oven. It seems I have one more official duty to discharge, on the dubious grounds that the oldest guest is the most dispensable.

I scramble into the make-believe cauldron, and under duress, I'm made to hold a bare femur bone as a symbolic gesture, in memory of those bygone heroes that made the ultimate sacrifice.

Returning by 4WD to the Sigatoka River, we meet villagers walking to their cassava, taro and yaqona plantations. At a natural freshwater spring at the base of a sheer granite cliff, the guides replenish our water bottles with 100 per cent pure water.

Nearby a 4-year-old boy holds on to a rope that secures the yokes of two massive bullocks. He looks slightly bemused by the Bula-chanting foreigners and their clicking cameras as he stands sentinel over the great beasts.

In this valley with its sprinkling of tiny villages, it seems that a smile, a wave and a verbal greeting of "Bula Vinaka" from every window and doorway is the expected norm.

The villagers' unassuming friendliness and their children's unspoilt naturalness and brilliant, flashing smiles are sublime. This genuine warmth is universal here and often means that one arrives in Fiji as a visitor and leaves as a friend.

Our guides are keen rugby players. "We used to be cannibals in the early days but now we only do it on the rugby field," Simon tells us. "We want to come to New Zealand and be All Blacks but we have to eat a lot of Weetbix first."

Asked when cannibalism ceased in the islands, he comes back as quick as a flash, "Yesterday!" He adds with a wry smile, "We can always make exceptions."

This whimsical sense of fun is so typical of the spirit of Fiji. It comes so spontaneously and naturally from the Fijians, who are among the friendliest people on earth. You'll know the spirit of Bula from the very first greeting.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Five nights at the Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort, with

flights and transfers

, starts from $1369pp twin share, including two one-hour spa treatments and a themed buffet dinner.

DETAILS
Outrigger has a wide range of excursions available including visits to organic market gardens, the Sigatoka produce market, the off-road cave safari, a jet-boat river cruise and a visit to the Kula Eco Park. All have pick-ups from the hotel lobby.

ONLINE
offroadfiji.com
fiji.travel/nz