Wednesday, October 12th, 2011: Suva, Fiji
Suva, the capital of Fiji, is the largest city by far in all of the 330+ islands that make up the archipelago. Although there is much to see and do here, we had a wonderful opportunity to get outside of all of the hustle and bustle of the port and make our way west to the town of Navua. Here, the Navua River meets the ocean, and as we donned our life jackets and packed our packs into waterproof plastic bags, we stepped onto long and narrow river canoes for a trip upstream on a full day excursion that exemplifies the true beauty of this place.
The tour company is called “The Jewel of Fiji” and in this case, we believe the name fits beautifully. We booked a full day excursion called “The Awesome Foursome” which included four activities: River Canoeing, Traditional Village, Magic Waterfalls, and Bili-Bili Bamboo Rafting. On paper, these seem unique and exciting, but as the day came together, they formed the basis for a memorable day sharing in the culture of the Fijian people.
We were picked up shortly before 9am right from the cruise ship dock and we headed west along the Kings Highway for about 30kms to the coastal town to Navua. Here, we arrived at the Jewel of Fiji base of operations, in a riverfront building that bordered the water. Here, we were welcomed by the owner, Scott, who we had been emailing for some time, and he walked us through our day and the prep that would allow us to enjoy the day’s activities even more. We donned our fluorescent yellow lifejackets and packed our backpacks into waterproof plastic bags. At first, I thought this was a bit of a overabundence of caution until Scott showed us our transportation for the day.
We would be travelling as the villagers of Fiji travel the rivers today. In very long (nearly 30 feet in length), very narrow (only 4 feet wide at the center), and very shallow (only 2 feet deep) river canoes with outboard motors. The ones used by Jewel of Fiji are light green in color and our group of 9 participants entered the vessel in three rows of 2 and three rows of 1. Moments later, our canoe driver Bill fired up the throttle and we were headed upstream.
Our canoe cut threw the water as we made our way upstream with a reasonable amount of speed as the sides of the canoe grazed the river within an inch or so on both sides. Balance is critical to our success making our way to our first destination, so Bill had us make some adjustments (“Move to the left”, “Move to the Right”. “Center yourself!”) and within a couple minutes we were flying up the Navua. The river had a creamy hot chocolate color as the day prior to our arrival, it had rained, carrying to the river additional sediment and mud. Within a day or two, our guide told us, the water would again be crystal clear and fishermen would spearfish for freshwater eels, trout, and other local seafood.
It took about 25 minutes for us to arrive at our first destination, which was the waterfront village of Koromakalua. As we stepped off the canoes (one at a time, and very carefully) we stood before a stone staircase that brought us up the riverbank and into the village. Prior to our arrival, the eldest male would need to be chosen to represent the visitors, and in our case, that was Chief Ken, a really nice guy from Canada. As we climbed the staircase, the traditional carved wooden drum was played to announce our arrival and for the village to come to the meeting house for the welcoming Kava ceremony.
Our guide presented us with a quick introduction to the rules and customs of the village, including to remove our shoes and hats prior to entry and to sit on the woven mats of the house cross-legged as a sign of respect. Once inside, the villagers also took their seats and before we knew it, there were more than 40 people inside of the house to meet us. A few moments later, the conch shell was blown and the Kava ceremony of welcome began.
Warriors of the tribe brought in the drinking cups for the kava (half coconut shells) as well as the kava powder and fresh water to mix and dilute the kava drink. Kava is made from a pepper plant, is dried and its root ground into a fine powder which is then combined with water to complete the brew. Its taste is somewhat like chalky water or heavily diluted coffee, but there is a little something extra in kava, that acts as a depressant and mellows you out. Called a serious “stress reducer” by the locals, each of us was granted the opportunity to try some kava from one of three “sizes”… Low Tide, High Tide, or Tsunami…
After trying the kava, the eldest male of Koromakalua spoke in the native Fijian dialect for this area and welcomed us from all corners of the world, including Canada, Australia, and the United States. Once we had completed the ceremony, we were welcomed as family and members of the village, no longer as visitors or outsiders and we were allowed to walk throughout the village and share with the residents. This permitted us to see the local pre-school, where the kids introduced themselves to us and sang some songs as they are learning their letters, numbers, and colors. We also got to see the women’s and the men’s craft huts where woven mats, crafts, brooms, wood carvings, and other skills were shown. Our last stop in the village was to see the lovo, or outdoor underground oven, where the day’s lunch meal was being prepared. Much like a New Zealand hangi, our food sat under banana leaves, palm fronds, and very hot stones to cook, though in our case, aluminium foil wa also included to ensure proper food prep and safety for the guests.
From here, we were brought back to the meeting house, where we could partake in the lunch feast. We were presented with a huge bufffet lunch of fish in coconut milk, chicken curry, chicken stir fry, spinach in coconut milk, taro, rice, pineapple, vegetables, and that tropical fruit juice to wash it all down. The food was amazing and the villagers seemed to hope upon hope that we would each have 2-3 plates a piece as there was more than enough food for everyone.
As we were finishing our meal, short cultural performances were made by the men and the women of the village to share traditional dance, fighting skills, and music. The entire village was involved from elders to the youngest children and everyone had a part from making music to dancing and singing. Everyone enjoyed the performance and the guests (us) also got to participate in some dancing, and it was a actually a lot of fun.
Once the performance finished, the meeting room transformed in a matter of mere minutes into a large craft market, where there were nearly 20 “stalls” of available crafts, souvenirs, sarongs, and other items available for sale. The amazing display of colors, crafts, and treated wood was then combined with a song that everyone sang to offer their thanks for our arrival and our support of their village. With that, we gathered up our lifejackets and bags, and the village said goodbye as we made our way back into the canoes to continue our trip upstream to our next stop, the Magic Waterfalls.
During the first half of our trip, the water was still and calm, the only waves or movement coming from the canoes themselves, so there was little to be concerned about in the way of falling out or anything getting wet. The second half of the trip, though, all of the precautions came in quite handy. It seems that this section of the river has some small rapids where the water that normally stays in the river, suddenly ends up in the middle of the canoe and can drench anything and everyone within it. We all enjoyed a little splash as we continued up the river, and our canoe driver continued to operate with professional precision as we has no concerns about our safety at any point during the trip.
As we continued on our journey, the farms and lowlands on the banks of the river transitioned into steep walls of lush green trees and rock as the walls on other side began to tower over us. It is this elevation that allows for waterfalls to begin their steep descent into the river below and provide some amazing scenery along the way. As we continued, we saw around a half a dozen smaller waterfalls before we brought the canoes into a small cove and we exited to begin a short 5 minute walk into the interior where we arrived at a place filled with magic.
Magic Falls were just another hidden gem along the banks of the river, where an artisian (natural) spring continuously drains the plunge pool below and brings the water back to the top of the ridge to begin the process all over again. When we arrived, we enjoyed the view and took some pictures, but as the warm sun continued to press on us, everyone quickly transitioned to their swimsuits and we all jumped into the cool water.
After nearly an hour of time here at the falls, we began to make our way back to the canoes, but took a small detour to another plunge pool nearby. Here, the water is quite deep and some of the group (including Darin) jumped off of the walkway about 25 feet above the ground and into the pool below. From a distance it doesn’t look that high until you are just in the final seconds before you decide to jump off of a perfectly good ledge. It was all in good fun, and our guides ensured that everyone was safe in the process.
Back in the canoes, we began the trip home, though as we were now headed downstream, we could travel with the current and things seemed to move much faster than in the earlier trip. A few minutes after our start, we moved from our canoes to a craft called a bili-bili, a raft made entirely of lashed together bamboo. The name bili-bili literally means “push-push” and these rafts are traditionally what Fijians used before the days of outboard motors and canoes. This allowed crops to be moved down river to market and for transportation between the villages. We rode on one of these for about 30 minutes, and realized that if we took this raft all the way to our final destination it would take several hours to get there, so we got back in the canoes and the motors made the remaining distance in about 30 minutes.
Upon arrival back at the boat house, we thanked our guides and Scott, the owner of Jewel of Fiji tours for a fantastic day and we were driven back into Suva just as the sky began to open up and a cool rain began to fall. It was an amazing day and just continued to cement Fiji as a future return vacation destination.