The cicadas are screeching, their high-pitched cackling echoes through the trees. My heart thumps with such force I'm certain it's about to rip open my ribcage. My husband is wide-eyed, skin as white as winter, blood dribbling from his nose. His left leg is drenched, dark red. His wrist has ballooned to the size of a golf ball.
When John and I decided to move to Fiji, many assumed our life would be a constant Instagram feed of hammocks and sun-kissed skin. Life in Fiji had its challenges - at least, challenges for a relatively privileged couple from a First World country.
When John went to work as a construction manager at Nadi Airport, my typical day was mostly spent on my laptop writing, struggling for inspiration through the constant thick blanket of heat while frequent power cuts meant no air conditioning, no fans, no refrigeration and certainly no Wi-Fi - and a pungent bowl of guavas rotting in the humidity.
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Our happiest memories of Fiji didn't come from lying in hammocks in remote islands or parading around wealthy resorts. Our fondest times were driving through stilt-house villages, offering hitch-hiking families a ride on the back of the ute and seeing toothy-grinned children waving madly at us, yelling "Bula!" as we passed. Come summertime, cyclone season in the tropics, the humidity intensified and the only refuge from the scorching temperatures was in the dense rainforests of Viti Levu bathing in hideaway lakes and rivers.
I married someone who is best described as an active relaxer. John's ideal relaxation is far more intense and dynamic than my own: for him a perfect day off work was a Sunday trek through the bush in rural Fiji with nothing but GPS co-ordinates, in search of cannibal caves and ancient burial sites.
The area of Sigatoka, on the southwestern coast of Fiji's mainland, is an archaeologist's fantasy. Excavations in the area have uncovered pottery shards believed to be more than 2600 years old, as well as human remains and other artefacts from the earliest inhabitants. Fiji doesn't hide its macabre past of the cannibal days either. Good-humoured guides often tease foreigners about just how recently the practice may have ended ("Yesterday," I was once told) and a quick stroll through Jack's souvenir shop and you'll be able to purchase your own replica cannibal forks and figurines.
While there is an official tour of the giant Naihehe Cave — known as the cave of Fiji's last cannibal tribes — John preferred to lead our own private archaeological expedition to another lesser-known cave entrance. After consulting his workmates and Google, he discovered what he believed were GPS co-ordinates for the cave system.
On an otherwise unremarkable Sunday, we drive to Sigatoka to start hiking through the bush in search of the cave entrance.
As we venture further off the road, the sounds of the clapping wings of the cicadas intensify to the point I can't hear myself think. I feel uneasy. I hover back near the river, while John forges on ahead up the hills, annoyed I don't want to join him in the adventure. A short time later, the deafening screeching of insects is interrupted by John screaming.
I'd never heard John shriek before and the sound is piercing - and terrifying.
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My mind races through all possible scenarios: maybe he had stumbled across some human remains or someone was coming after him with a machete. I try to haul myself up through the cliffs but my limbs are shaking in such fear I have no strength to climb. I call out to him but John replies only in screams. When he emerges, blood is pouring from his nose.
The sight of him paralyses me. The flesh on John's shin is torn open and there's a hole down to his bone. I struggle not to vomit. There's blood on his face and his wrist is swollen. But John doesn't say anything. He's in shock and in pain and is focused on getting out of the bush. He begins walking back along the track, limping and grunting with every step.
We hobble along an old rail line to a pathway into a nearby village. The occupants of one house look at us, surprised.
"Bro, you need a hospital," one of them says.
John is keen to get to a medical centre in Nadi as soon as possible. Infections can fester far too easily in the tropical heat. I ask him for the keys to the ute, still unsure of what has happened as he won't speak. He pats down his pockets and chest before letting out a series of expletives. His wallet, phone and the keys to the ute had fallen out of his pockets somewhere in the bush. Still in shock and bleeding, John stumbles back to the village and explains what had happened.
"Stepped on a wasps' nest. Giant wasps stinging my back. Tried to huddle down and cover my face. Tripped on a rock. Fell down a cliff. Bro. I dropped my keys in the bush." I can see his adrenalin rush evaporating and the pain intensifying.
After a quick first aid patch-up, our new friend, Arun, accompanies us back into the bush. John is the only person who knows where he'd fallen and he has no choice but to limp back to the site to retrieve his belongings. He's still not saying much. Arun endures multiple wasp stings himself and helps John through the jungle. The cicadas are still screeching. My legs are still shaking too much to climb so I leave the men to the search. John knows exactly where he had fallen, and the two of them manage to locate the keys, wallet and cellphone.
It takes 45 minutes to drive back to Nadi, John groaning on the back seat, pleading with me to drive faster. At the medical centre, we are informed it will take at least 30 minutes before a doctor will be on site. A nurse squirts some iodine on the wound but shakes her head when John asks for pain relief. "Sorry, I can't give you anything." John tries to bribe her with cash for anything she could find but his efforts are futile. "I'm sorry sir, we don't have anything to give you."
John rings his boss, who gives him simple advice, "If in pain, get on a plane." When the doctor arrives, he informs us the risk of infection is extremely high, as the wound is down to the bone and John needs to be admitted to hospital to receive antibiotics intravenously. With the go-ahead from John's boss, we book the remaining two seats on the day's last flight back to Auckland, leaving in two hours.
We sweep up a bundle of whatever clothing we can find straight into a suitcase, grab our documents, a handful of paracetamol and speed off to the airport, passing through Immigration as boarding starts. On the plane, John and I are seated rows apart from one another, so I keep checking on him and explain to the flight attendants to look out for him and they oblige. I can see John is in pain but he knows there's nothing he can do for the next three hours while in the air, so tries to be stoic.
Ten hours after the accident, we arrive at Auckland Hospital's Emergency Department. The orthopaedic surgeon reveals John will need a skin graft and at least two surgeries. The first is to thoroughly clean it — "You've had a Fiji clean, we need to do a New Zealand clean" — followed by the skin graft 48 hours later. An x-ray also confirms he's broken his wrist.
At 4.30am and far too much laughing gas later, John eventually gets a cast for his wrist. By 7.30am he is taken into the operating theatre for his first surgery. Two days later, during his second surgery, doctors are able to successfully close the wound with stitches, without the skin graft.
Back in New Zealand, life feels surreal as I stay in a hotel near the hospital. Returning to Fiji a couple of weeks later results in mixed emotions — some of sadness, saying goodbye to family once more but also the happy anticipation of returning to island life. And, we still have a mission to complete, one we would later succeed without incident — to conquer the Fiji jungle and find the entrance to the burial cave John had been so eager to discover.