Tim Roxborogh discovers the ancient secrets of Sigatoka's sands.
Fiji has a $7 note. They also have bananas on their national flag, but as far as statements of unabashed patriotic pride go, there are few things cooler than having a freakin' $7 note. Not even flag bananas.
As to why the note exists, well anyone who knows anything about what makes Fijians tick should be able to guess: this is a land where rugby sevens is a borderline religion, something that reached fever pitch with the winning of Olympic gold at the 2016 Rio games.
To mark the occasion, two-million $7 notes — complete with images of the champion sevens rugby team — were printed in 2017, alongside one million commemorative 50-cent coins. (If the Black Caps ever win the Cricket World Cup — and for the record, I'm putting money on them for 2023 — we'd better get an $11 note.)
A close inspection of one of those coins reveals clues as to an extraordinary landscape too few tourists to Fiji have even heard of, let alone visited. Yes indeed, the man depicted on the coin sitting atop a sand dune with folded arms is none other than former Fijian sevens rugby head coach, Ben Ryan. But the setting isn't just any generic mound of sand.
If not for Ryan and the Fijian sevens rugby team, not only would the world have been deprived of Fiji's glorious $7 note, but the Sigatoka Sand Dunes may have remained something of a secret. Sure, they were declared a national park back in 1989 (and Fiji's first national park at that), but with most tourists more inclined towards sand of a different, more relaxing, variety the Sigatoka Sand Dunes weren't exactly on the international radar.
That all changed when word spread that the reason the Fiji sevens team were fitter and stronger than their competitors was because of a unique training technique — and perhaps more specifically, a unique training location. Under Ryan's direction, the elite of Fiji rugby performed precise training drills up and down the dramatic sandscapes of the Sigatoka, something a mere mortal would surely dread, if they could do it at all.
Those remarkable athletes earned their place on their currency.
With some of the piles of sand as high as 60m, and gradients to make Dunedin's Baldwin St seem flat - and with a heaviness underfoot to test even the sturdiest of heart-rates - these dunes can be as brutal as they are beautiful. I'm pleased to say this is something I know first-hand.
A short drive from the large regional town of Sigatoka (roughly an hour from Nadi), the Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park comprises about 5km of coastline-hugging dunes. Also within the national park are grasslands and a slowly increasing band of native forest, as well as a grove of mahogany trees planted in the 1960s to halt dune encroachment.
The dunes are estimated to be thousands of years old. Pottery dating back 2600 years ago has been found in the area, which was also an ancient burial site. The whole place feels surreal and my slow trudge to the top of the ridgeline was worth it for the sensational coconut tree-dominated inland view on one side and the sight of the crashing waves on the other. It may have been a slow trudge upwards, but the run down the other side was fast and giddy fun.
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With walking trails taking in the grasslands, forest and the dunes, and ranging in length between one to two hours, Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park is yet another side of Fiji, away from the cocktails and sun-loungers cliche of Denarau.
Now that the word is out, it's not hard to see the appeal. Beyond all the Insta-worthy travel snaps, there's a deep history to excite archaeologists and historians both amateur and professional, as well as a recent history that brings in those more interested in sports or conservation (the latter as also evidenced by the dozens of striking driftwood-made tipis that have been constructed on the beach to prevent erosion).
Or if, like me, you just can't get enough of that $7 note, go and pay your respects to the place that made it happen.