Getting off the usual tourist merry-go-round in Fiji offers visitors unique insights, writes Eli Orzessek.
Once you've spent enough time on the road in Fiji, the landscapes start to resemble strange things.
It begins as we leave Nadi and head towards Lautoka, with a stop at the Sleeping Giant Zipline along the way. The slumbering big guy referred to in the name can be seen relaxing out along the mountain ranges in front of us.
It takes me a few seconds to see it, but there he is: a face with an open mouth, folded arms and feet sticking up.
Due to the interesting placement of a power pylon (perhaps intentional?), it also looks like something else is sticking up at the lower end of his mountainous torso — but hey, it is the morning.
Rather staying in a close radius of the resort pool, we're going on a mission around Viti Levu to see everything the biggest island of Fiji has to offer.
As we head off the main drag, where the cars are pimped out in crazy ways that definitely wouldn't be allowed at home, the roads get much bumpier — I'm thankful to be travelling in a massive 4WD ute. We pass small villages, schools and sugarcane fields, while mongooses run intermittently across the road. Brought in to control the rats that ate the sugarcane, they themselves became a problem as they began to eat the native snakes.
It's a bit late now, so you'll see these weird critters everywhere. On first glance, it's easy to mistake them for large lizards.
Set among the foothills of the Sleeping Giant is our first stop, his namesake zipline — located among 35ha of pristine rainforest.
I've never ziplined before, but it's basically a flying fox on steroids — and it turns out to be a fantastic way to see all the lush nature from a different angle, with the longest line over a swiftly flowing river.
We're joined by a couple in their 60s, who prove this excursion is enjoyable for all ages, even if can be a little terrifying at times. But by my third zip, I've mastered the art of taking a selfie on my still new iPhone while suspended in the air – partially thanks to the reassurance of travel insurance.
With that morning wake-up call done and dusted, we're en route to Lautoka — also known as the Sugar City, due to the thriving sugarcane industry. Fittingly, it's a great place to stop on a road trip for a sweet, juicy treat. In Lautoka's bustling and colourful marketplace, the smell of fruit permeates the air while stores around the edges sell an impressive selection of bootleg DVDs. I munch down a refreshing cold pineapple, cut in a way that you hold the stalk like a fruity lollipop.
The Sugar City sets a precedent. My journey becomes fuelled by sugar, in the form of fresh pineapple and mangoes, or the slightly more artificial pineapple Fanta, which quenches my thirst after too many bags of chilli and salt taro chips.
We continue along the Queen's Rd to Ba, where we need to pick up a special cargo that's very important for our next destination: kava root, which my guide picks out carefully at the local market. It's a savusavu (ceremonial gift) for the chief and his family at the village we're visiting.
The one thing everyone comes back talking about after a trip to Fiji is how friendly the people — and that stereotype certainly rings true. I quickly lose count of how many times I've exclaimed "Bula!" It's so genuine that it's a real pleasure to do so. As we're driving the bumpy and dusty roads that will lead us to Navala Village, everyone we pass turns to smile and wave.
We arrive on the outskirts of Navala, at Bulou's Eco Lodge, to meet Tui, the nephew of the village chief. He isn't home when we arrive but luckily it's a beautiful place to wait around after the hustle and bustle of Lautoka and Ba — pure quiet, except for birds singing, with the smell of flowers all around us. Soon enough, Tui arrives, with a couple of German tourists in tow. When our truck won't start, Tui helps out and we're soon on our way to the main village.
On our arrival, what seems like every kid in the village rushes out to greet us, running alongside the car as we weave through the thatched houses. After we pull up, it's hard to get out of the ute as we're surrounded by eager faces and smiles.
Navala is one of few villages to have retained the traditional style of thatched housing and we're lucky enough to go inside building for a kava ceremony with Tui and some elders of the village. It's clearly a home, with a small religious shrine and a tapestry of the Last Supper hanging on the wall alongside school photos.
Having previously only tried powdered instant kava, I was keen to try the real deal — pounded down from the roots we bought earlier and scooped out of a wooden bowl with coconut shells. Although it's certainly an acquired taste, and not for everyone, it tastes a lot better when fresh. As I knock back a shell, the room claps and claps until it's all gone.
As we return outside — feeling nicely relaxed from the kava — we see two kids having a ball on a tyre swing, while a couple of the many dogs watch on. It seems like an idyllic place to spend your childhood. There's a small school backing on to the field, where a bunch of teenagers are playing rugby — no doubt inspired by the recent gold-medal winning sevens team whose pictures grace the wall of the classroom.
It's hard to leave after all that hospitality, but we have to hit the road again. We're headed to Wanunavu Beach Resort in Rakiraki, at the northern end of the island. This was an area that was particularly badly hit by Cyclone Winston in 2016, but it's largely been cleaned up since and is welcoming visitors.
The resort is right on the beach and offers plenty of water-based activities, including diving training in the pool — I opt for a morning of snorkelling. It's some of the best snorkelling I've experienced, with plenty of colourful coral and fish to admire. Afterwards, I'm dropped on the beach of a nearby island to relax for a bit and it's here that I see some evidence of the cyclone's devastation. I stumble across an abandoned backpackers' hostel, frozen in time with furniture and decorations strewn across the floor.
Back on the mainland, a supermoon rises between the palm trees as I enjoy a Fiji Gold on my deck.
We head off for Suva the next day, but first, a mission. According to my guide, mangos are much cheaper in the north than in Suva, so we go on a little side trip into the nearby villages. We pull over whenever we spot a mango tree on a property and ask the people there if we can buy some. After about half an hour, the back seat is covered in bags of mangoes and the smell filling the ute.
We take the scenic road to Suva. The Queen's Rd is faster and more popular, but the King's Rd is just as spectacular. It's around two and half hours through lush and rugged back country, with views of the Wainibuka River and the occasional village along the way.
The radio fades in and out, until we near the capital and things get busier.
We cruise past the swanky Government House, the Georgian-style mansion that's home to the one and only Frank Bainimarama, before stopping in at the Fiji Museum. It hosts a small collection of interesting artefacts and is well worth visiting to learn more about the history and culture of the country.
There's more history around the corner at Governors, Fiji's only museum-themed
restaurant, housed on an old colonial estate. I enjoy a delicious lunch of calamari and ota, a type of local water fern that's peppery and crunchy.
However, we're soon on the road again, heading out of Suva, towards Pacific Harbour on our way back to Nadi. We zip past my favourite anti drink-driving billboard along the way: a cracked egg, with blood pouring out of it. The text reads, "Drive like an egg, die like an egg", with Bainimarama smiling in the corner.
Again, the mountains start shape-shifting. My guide points out one that looks like a thumb — officially called Joske's Thumb. When I read more about it later, I find it even defeated Sir Edmund Hillary on his first attempt. And like him, it even once featured on a bank note — gracing Fiji's $10 bill in 2012.
Fiji Airways flies from Auckland to Nadi, with return Economy Class fares from $639 per adult and $386 per child (2-11 years).