On a girls' week in Fiji, Shandelle Battersby goes on a cultural safari in Sigatoka, via jetboat.

It was hard to know when Captain Jack, the entertaining Fijian at the helm of our Sigatoka River Safari jetboat, was "fulla bula" or when he was telling us the truth. The Captain - real name Josh Ratukuna - had so many interesting stories that the odd one may have slipped through that was "bulashit". Like the one about the mountain which may or may not have been a film set for James Cameron's Avatar. Or about the hungry "piranha-conda" that lives in the river and has a penchant for people with white skin.

It certainly made for a memorable way to learn about the fertile Sigatoka Valley - Fiji's salad bowl, which produces 70 per cent of the country's fruit and vegetables - and has been home to the River Safari tours since 2006.

Our half-day date with the Captain, a highlight of a girls' week in Fiji, began with an early morning pick-up from our hotel at Denarau, and a 90-minute drive south to the Coral Coast where we met the rest of our tour party at Sigatoka township.

We headed inland again, through the lush, green countryside and past the odd wind farm to the River Safari's jetty, where the Captain was waiting to give us our safety briefing ("don't fall in or the piranha-conda will get you", etc). On the bus heading there, charming safari guide SWT had told us a little about the valley's history, customs, religious beliefs (read: rugby) and agricultural industry.


First order of business was to choose our "chief" - the oldest member of our group - who was put in charge of the yaqona, or kava root, a traditional gift for the village we were scheduled to visit later in the morning.

We piled into the boat and Captain Jack, who trained on many of New Zealand's South Island rivers including Queenstown's famous Shotover, took us on a leisurely but noisy hoon down the serene Sigatoka River, one of the longest in Fiji at 120km. As we skidded deep into its interior, past imposing marble cliffs and working farms, we saw local people going about their daily lives - mothers and children doing their washing - and washing themselves - in the shallows, locals collecting firewood, and goats, bullocks and grazing horses.

Our arms got a good workout from waving at all the smiling people we slid past.

The Captain pulled over every now and again to point out local landmarks, explain village life, and invariably share a yarn or two, many of which revolved around Fiji's history of cannibalism.

The last person known to have ended up on the menu is English missionary Reverend Thomas Baker in 1907, believed to be the only white man eaten in Fiji. The legend reads that Baker was killed because he touched a chief's head to remove a comb - major taboo - but historians say it was a reaction to the spread of Christianity.

We pulled over to drop off a huge Fijian man, who looked like he was part of the national rugby squad but was actually a local priest and one of three brothers responsible for protecting the Naihehe Cave, the nation's largest and one of its most culturally significant. Before anyone enters the cave, a former fortress of a cannibal tribe, tourists and guides must present a yaqona to the priest, and ask for permission to enter.

After about 40 minutes we reached the jumping-off point for the village of Vunarewa, where guide Ana was waiting to meet us and show us around before we were officially welcomed with a sevusevu, or traditional Fijian kava ceremony.

The village visit was at first sobering for us privileged tourists: there's no electricity and the 150 residents mostly live in humble houses with no rooms, just curtains for privacy.

The largest and nicest building is the church, which is being rebuilt. On Sundays, villagers go to church three times. "It brings us light," Ana told me.

After the sevusevu - our cheeks marked with talcum powder to show we were now part of the village family - Ana took us into the hall for a simple, tasty lunch of chicken, sausages, fried eggplant, pancakes, and fresh fruit.

Then came mingling, singing and some slightly awkward dancing before we were bid farewell with Isa Lei, the traditional Fijian goodbye song.

We handed over stationery and other bits and pieces we'd brought for the village kids and climbed back aboard our red rocket to head back down the river, this time with less talking and more action as Captain Jack got everyone shrieking in delight with his thrilling 360-degree "Sigatoka Spins".

The Sigatoka River Safari is a Fijian success story that began in 1991 with a visit to the area by a then 13-year-old Australian boy, Jay Whyte.

A local he befriended took him to a village in the interior that made a lasting impression. A holiday in New Zealand a year later which included a river ride on a jetboat sealed young Jay's fate.

In 2006, he realised his teenage dream, with the launch of Fiji's first jetboat and village experience. Ten years later the business has grown to include a fleet of boats (designed and built in New Zealand specifically for the Sigatoka), and also offers an off-road cave safari that takes guests to Naihehe.

Tours visit a dozen or so villages on a rotating roster that ensures communities get a chance to take part without disrupting daily life too much.

Piling back into the boat after our visit to Vunurewa, we threw farewell high-fives to the smiling, laughing children who pushed our boat back into the river; it was easy to see why Whyte is a hero in these parts.



Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to Nadi, with one-way Economy fares starting from $318. airnewzealand.co.nz

Sigatoka River Safari tours depart Sigatoka town twice daily at 8.45am and 1pm. There are different price packages that include resort pick-up from the Coral Coast and Nadi. From Denarau, tours are $208 for adults. sigatokariver.com