On a recent visit to Viti Levu — Fiji’s main island — my teen daughter and I stayed at the InterContinental Fiji Golf Resort & Spa. The property overlooks stunning Natadola Bay, considered by many to be the island’s best beach. The resort grounds are adorned with tropical gardens and native Polynesian art. Tiki torches light the winding, paved paths around the 14-hectare property.
It would have been easy to stay put and spend days enjoying this paradise, but, upon the concierge’s recommendation, we opt for a tour with Sigatoka River Safari, which offers visitors to the island an opportunity to experience daily village life and traditions.
Viti Levu: A river runs through it
The Sigatoka is Fiji’s longest river. With most of its banks still undeveloped, it winds through the center of the island. Our tour guide, “Captain Jack,” as he refers to himself, leads a group of about 10 of us as he races down the river in a jet boat. Equally entertaining and knowledgeable, Captain Jack intermittently stops the boat to share stories about Fiji’s history and the river. His anecdotes run the gamut, from Fiji’s ancient wars to its rugby pride to gory details about Fiji’s last victim of cannibalism (in 1867!), Reverend Thomas Baker.
“He made one mistake,” Captain Jack says. “He touched the chief on the head, and that was a sign of disrespect.”
Along the river banks, we see a farmer leading his animals to water, goats perched on jagged rocks and a man walking his horse through the river to the other side.
“Until recently, many of the children in the villages along the river put their school uniforms in a bag and then walked through the river to get to school,” Captain Jack explains. “There was only one primary school.”
Now, thanks in part to government funding and proceeds from this tour, there’s a new preschool, a new school bus and other types of infrastructure.
“Many of the villages did not have electricity until recently,” he adds, noting that these remote villages have benefited in many ways by welcoming tour participants. The tour rotates visits to 11 different villages to ensure more than one village benefits.
After an adrenaline-filled journey down the river, Captain Jack pulls up along a steep bank, adjacent to a tiny village called Vunarewa. We’re directed out of the boat (who needs a dock?) and guided up a dirt path by a tall, lanky villager named Saddam, who serves as the English-speaking tour guide for the village. As he shows us around, children from the village begin to gather, watching our every move with curiosity and intrigue.
The tour’s main event goes down at the village’s community hall, where all important village ceremonies take place. We ditch our shoes (it’s the custom) and are instructed how to sit: men cross-legged, women on their knees. As honored guests, our necks are draped with salusalus, or welcome garlands of leaves and flowers, gathered by the children and strung together by the women.
We spend the afternoon listening to the villagers sing, dancing with anyone who asks and sharing a lunch of traditional village fare. There’s chicken, cassava, fresh fruit, vegetables and fish — the latter of which includes the head, which my foodie daughter promptly consumes. Unexpectedly, a few villagers come around and smear baby powder on our cheeks, which we’re told indicates that we’re special. It’s these unexpected gestures that stay with me.
No visit to Fiji is complete without a kava ceremony, or sevusevu, a most important and sacred ritual. The village chief is presented with yaqona root, which is then pounded and mixed with water. The resulting kava is a mud-like beverage, considered by many to be a mild narcotic or sedative. I find it to be just tingly and numbing on the lips.
We’re instructed how to participate in the sevusevu, and I pay close attention. First, clap your hands once and exclaim, “bula,” which literally means “life” and is commonly used as a greeting to say hello or welcome. Then, drink the kava in one gulp before clapping three more times and exclaiming, “maca,” meaning “finished” or “it is empty.” At 15, my daughter is considered old enough to participate and does so a little too enthusiastically. Needless to say, the villagers love her.
Many hotels and resorts in Fiji offer the opportunity to participate in the sevusevu, but our experience with Sigatoka River Safari felt truly authentic. We left the village feeling humbled, grateful and changed. Pared with our luxurious stay at Fiji InterCon, we experienced the best of both worlds.