Tim Roxborogh goes off the rails in Fiji
It's hard not to be drawn to a story involving a century-old, abandoned railway in the tropics and a Kiwi with a crazy idea. It's especially hard when you learn said railway has been reinvented as an acclaimed modern-day eco adventure tour. That said, it was pretty much the sum total of my knowledge of Ecotrax on the Fijian Coral Coast before I arrived for my three-hour pedal 'n' swim escapade, but it was enough. Enough to know this would be fun, but without any real concept of just how rewarding.
I'm always a fan of holiday excursions out into the real world and as sensational as my resort was – and trust me, the recently refurbished Shangri-La is mighty sensational – Ecotrax offers that real-world experience despite being only a 10-minute drive away. Leaving behind the manicured perfection of resort life, my taxi took me down a driveway next to a field with makeshift bamboo rugby posts and dropped me off at the Fiji Sugar Loco Shed in the tiny settlement of Cuvu.
It was here, surrounded by palms and in a shed that dates back at least a century, that I met Howard de Vries. Howard and his wife Mandy Heron are the New Zealanders who began Ecotrax a year and a half ago and it's become one of the most popular outdoor activities in their adopted country. The story of how is quite something.
In 2016, Howard and Mandy visited the village of Navuevue near Sigatoka and delivered 30 bicycles to the children. In the process of teaching the kids the basics of bike repairs and maintenance, de Vries couldn't stop thinking about the disused old sugar-cane railway tracks that ran through the village. Getting help from the local rugby team, he cleared the tracks of all the overgrown grass and an idea was born: an environmentally friendly velocipede e-bike operation that could be of economic benefit to these small communities.
The concept of pedalling on a railway track isn't new, but doing so with two e-bikes mounted to a carriage was. It would take months of tinkering, not to mention extensive safety upgrades to the tracks, but by the end of 2017 Ecotrax had 10 carriages and was ready to launch.
Ultimately it's simple: Ecotrax takes tourists, either two or sometimes three to a carriage, on an 11.2-km section of railway that dates back to the early days of Fiji's sugar-cane industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They can pedal or use the accelerator (or indeed a bit of both) and along the way they'll pass attractive coastline, cross wild and rickety-looking bridges, go through rock cuttings, become enveloped by tree-tunnels, high-five children in the villages and then top it all off with a snack, swim and snorkel at a deserted beach.
To avoid de-railings there's a top speed of 20km (down to 12km for the bridges) and a handful of photo stops to break up the journey. We were greeted with a beaming "bula!" by every person we saw and the excitement of the children who ran out to see us (it was school holidays) reaffirmed that Fijian people are as welcoming as any people I've met.
From seaside villages to tracts of forest where trees surround everything but a shaft for the tracks and her carriages; from bridges where your heart misses a beat or two and you pray de Vries and his team did their due diligence (they did, don't worry); from lazy cows to mongooses to wild horses, this is a side of Fiji too many tourists miss.
Midway along our trip, the foliage cleared and we saw a beach in the distance with a curve of coastline so perfect that I was busy making plans to somehow find my way there after the tour, not realising it was to be our final destination. After pedalling (most) of the 11.2km, we pressed the brakes on our bikes, hopped off our carriages and walked down a white-sand path to a glowing beach with clear, teal waters.
Wow. Coconuts with, yes, reusable straws, appeared, fruit platters on banana leaves were presented and those of us with snorkels jumped in the ocean to the see the underwater treasures for which Fiji is so famous. The beauty of Ecotrax is the realisation there's plenty above ground to discover too.
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Shangri-La's Fijian Resort & Spa.