Int. Travel: Leap of Faith

Simon Rowe dives into a tropical island paradise of waterfalls, reefs and bush rugby on the Fijian archipelago.

"Don't leap before you see my head," said Rocko, flashing his pearly white teeth in the forest gloom. He gave a sudden blood-curdling scream and was gone.

The fierce-looking Fijian towered over me like a giant fig tree, with blood-shot eyes as red as rubies, and I wasn't about to refuse his orders. Five seconds later and 20 meters below, somewhere in a foaming pool fed by a waterfall bursting from the jungle 30m above my head, a mop of frizzy hair emerged. "Come ooooon. Take the leap of faith, marrnn!" he boomed, his trademark choppers gleaming in the mist.

On Fiji's fourth largest island of Kadavu (pronounced "kan-davu"), waterfall jumping is a favorite pastime for the young and young at heart. For most first-time visitors, however, the real leap begins at Nadi International Airport on the main island of Viti Levu, where Twin Otter aircraft depart the steaming tarmac twice daily for Vunisea, Kadavu's sleepy township, which lies 40 minutes away.

 

Island hopping
Fiji comprises 332 islands flung over 18,000 square kilometers of ocean; on a map, they look like shrapnel scattered haphazardly across a vast expanse of the Pacific. And while their remoteness can only truly be appreciated by throwing one's rucksack aboard the "island trader" cargo ferry for few weeks of island hopping, it's air travel that keeps most of the 110 inhabited islands connected to the outside world.

Green sea turtles go from river to dining table in Kadavu.

Below the Twin Otter's droning propellers, palm-topped islets and sand-rimmed atolls drift in and out of view. Most are little more than shifting coral dust created by strong waves and currents over the reefs. "After a strong cyclone some just disappear altogether," shouted our pilot as he cut a path between several ominous-looking thunderheads.
On disembarking at Vunisea's dirt airstrip, I quickly realized that the major attraction was not the pasty-faced new arrivals with loud T-shirts, but the boxes of New Zealand tinned beef, Australian cooking oil and those long-awaited electrical parts for the broken village TV, all of which are whisked from the plane's underbelly and quickly carted away.

Kadavu's 9,000 inhabitants are sprinkled along the coast in 100 or so villages, and despite some modern-day conveniences, still adhere to hunter-gatherer lifestyles. Sizable tracts of forest clutch the central highlands and provide habitat for wild pigs, which are hunted with homemade shotguns and carried out on the backs of the villagers. Thanks to the pigs and an abundance of reef fish and fertile volcanic soils, from which yams and torpedo-sized root potatoes—called taro—are plucked, few villagers ever go hungry.



Myths, legends and whirlpools

From Vunisea, I headed for the tiny outpost of Matava, which is located on the northeast coast and is one of the more recent additions to the island's fledgling adventure-tourism resort scene. Transfers are by a high-powered speedboat that follows a zigzag course along the 50km-long Great Astrolabe Reef—one of the world's longest continuous formations of living coral—which lures divers from around the globe to seek out its resident giant manta rays and rare soft corals.

Most-out-towners opt to stay in Fiji's traditional thatched huts.

During the week, a series of king tides had swept the coast, creating whirlpools and channel rapids as the incoming tide washed back across the reef with frightening speed. Our wiry boatman had seen it all before and motored on, unfazed by the huge inky vortices that suddenly materialized between us and the razor-sharp coral.

That night, under the enormous thatched roof of Matava's meeting house, I joined half a dozen other travelers in the Fijian ritual of drinking kava—a mildly narcotic pepper root drink that relaxes tired muscles and brings a heavy veil of sleep to those who overindulge.

Telling legends is another time-honored custom in Kadavu's villages and helps ensure that local lore is passed down from one generation to the next. Thus, over countless bowls of the murky brown kava, Matava's boatman, Gus, slowly unraveled the legend of the octopus god, which once resided at the mouth of the Great Astrolabe Reef, and told the story of how it defeated a man-eating shark god, which never made a snack out of another Kadavu villager after that.

Tall tales, myths and legends are so tightly woven into local lore that outsiders are sometimes left wondering if the stories are in fact true. My city-slicker senses were unappeased, though, and nighttime passed fitfully inside my bure, or sleeping hut. The air weighed heavy with the noise of insects, the high tide seemed to lap at my bedposts, and I was constantly serenaded by a troupe of tree frogs clinging to my rafters.

 

Jungle spoils
The following day, I enlisted the help of Rocko to guide me through the neighboring villages. At 190cm and a little over 100kg, he might struggle to get along a crowded city sidewalk, but on a narrow jungle trail in the Kadavu highlands he moved with the agility and sure-footedness of a bush pig. His home is Kadavu Koro, a rambling village surrounded on three sides by small jungle hillocks that resemble crocodile's teeth, and funnel cool sea breezes up from the lagoon in the evenings. Two hundred families share this tropical paradise.

We arrived just as a game of bush rugby was kicking off between the home team and a bunch of barefoot farmers and fishermen from a neighboring village. A lumpy sugarcane patch served as the playing field, the goal posts were bamboo and, finding themselves without a ball, the players commenced the match with a dried coconut.

Beyond the raucous hoots and cheers of big men sending each other into muddy nose-dives, smoke from a taro root burn-off crept down the hillsides. Yelps and shouts and the loud "clack! clack!" of a sele bush knife on hardwood suddenly erupted ahead of us, as five villagers with sweaty foreheads emerged from the smoke carrying two freshly-killed wild boars, their blood-soaked shirts bringing yelps of excitement from their pack of toothy hunting dogs.

The pig meat was wrapped in palm leaves and baked in a lovo earth oven of white-hot rocks—a process that can take up to four hours—before being served with breadfruit and dolo, a rich coconut sauce. "The feast of kings," Rocko said with a grin.

Bath time was in full swing as we ventured into the village, and the streams were brimming with small, shiny, brown bodies. While the children flipped about like panicked sardines, their mothers gathered downstream to wash clothes and gossip. At a stone crossing a little further downstream, the water suddenly turned red where a man was preparing a green sea turtle for the cooking pot. Fijian law prohibits the killing of sea turtles and issues hefty fines for infringements, but in villages like Kadavu Koro the practice continues as it has done for centuries.

Looming behind the village, a tiny crevice in a sandstone bluff hides the ultimate bathing experience. Centuries of raging mountain run-off has gouged a huge antechamber with a deep jungle pool where freshwater trout come within inches of your hands and a 30-meter-high waterfall cascades out of the jungle.

Rocko's two wily teenage cousins had joined us at the water's edge, and it was they who led our plunge into watery oblivion, leaping off a high precipice and into the foaming pool to get their end-of-day kicks. It's the kind of place that encourages your animal instincts and I too, with Rocko's encouragement, finally succumbed to the leap of faith into the lap of the gods.

 

Getting there
Air Pacific, Indonesia's international airline, flies direct from Narita to Nadi International Airport. See www.airpacific.com for schedules and online booking. Code-share flights can also be purchased via Sydney, Australia and Auckland, New Zealand. A four-month tourist visa is issued to travelers of most nationalities on arrival at Nadi. From there, Sunflower Airlines flies to Kadavu daily for about ¥5,200 one way. Contact Sunflower Airlines at (679)Ê672-3555; email: sunair@is.com.fj; or online at www.fiji.to.

 

Where to stay
Fiji's bure offer a taste of local culture. Matava Resort has a range of bure, from dormitory-style to private waterfront accommodation. Meals and dive trips to the Great Astrolabe Reef are also available at this all-inclusive budget resort. See www.matavafiji.com or call (679) 333-6098 for more information. For a comprehensive look at lodging options, see the Fiji Visitors Bureau at www.visitfiji.com.

Information
The best time to visit Fiji is in the dry season from May to October. The Fiji Visitors Bureau offers more travelers' tips, local guides and activity suggestions. Additional information can be found at www.tourismfiji.com.

Photo credit: Simon Rowe

B u y  i t  o n l i n e !
Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchhiking Japan

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Travelogue
HIS Experience Japan is offering tourists and residents of Japan a chance to experience “real Japanese culture,” in addition to the usual tourist spots. The company has nearly a dozen programs that allow participants to learn directly from professionals. Activities include sushi-making, yuzen silk-dying, calligraphy, karate and ninja lessons, taiko drumming and lantern-making, among others. Guides who speak English, Chinese, Korean and Spanish are available, and reservations can be made online at http://hisexperience.jp/. Further info is available in English by calling 03-5322-8988.

From August 26 through September 13 (excluding September 7-9), Tokyo Dome Hotel is offering a late summer accommodation promotion, in which rooms will be discounted by up to 45 percent. During the period, the rate is ¥14,000 for a single room, ¥18,500 for a twin or double and ¥21,000 for a triple. Fifty rooms will be available per day. A variety of events are being held at Tokyo Dome City during this period, including the 78th Intercity Baseball Tournament (August 24-September 4) and the popular children’s program The Jukensentai Geki Ranger Show will be performing on stage at Sky Theater until September 2. For reservations, call 03-5805-2222 or visit www.tokyodome-hotels.co.jp. CB

INT. TRAVEL ARCHIVE:
677: The Little Island
Escape the late-winter blues with a tropical blast from the past
675: Scenic Spirituality
Commune with religion and nature in an ancient land
673: Aoni Onsen
Return to a forgotten time at one of Honshu’s most remote getaways
671: The Golden Rock
One of Burma’s many splendid attractions hangs by a hair
669: Hida Takayama
For personal trips gentle to the soul, seek out the old-time charm of Hida Takayama
665: Okayama
A serene stroll through history awaits at this seaside retreat
663: Cruising the Bay
Ha Long Bay offers a breath of calm away from Vietnam’s urban rush
661: Agamachi
Fox fires and bar codes help a rural Niigata town reinvent itself
535: Hotel California
Mark Parren Taylor kicks up the desert dust in Palm Springs, the perennial Hollywood star retreat.
531: Race through time
The Xterra Saipan triathlon journeys through tropical jungle, up steep mountain paths and across the sands of history. Tama M. Lung joins the chase.
527: Bohemian rhapsody
No visit to Paris would be complete without taking in the Montmartre district. Bon vivant Simon Rowe dusts off his French to go exploring.
523: Slow Motion
Mark Parren Taylor touches down in the timeless former seaport of Lukang, Taiwan.
519: Rock of ages
From ancient times to the present, Gibraltar has always been an island of legends. Stephen Mansfield sifts through its history.
515: Go west, young man
Simon Rowe takes in the big skies and dust trails of Western Australia's East Kimberley region.
511: All mixed up
Mark Parren Taylor makes land on Macau and finds an enigmatic blend of cultures, cuisine and heated competition.
505: Earth, wind and fire
A historically imperiled town in Papua New Guinea holds the keys to a magical getaway. Carlo Niederberger splashes ashore.
501: Off the rails
Braving the 2,010 kilometers of Vietnam's Reunification Express from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi is quite the adventure. Simon Rowe goes along for the ride.
493: Rites of passage
From firecrackers and cheek piercing to divinations and buffalo races, Thailand's most colorful customs come alive at two annual festivals. Mark Parren Taylor joins the crowds.
489: Paradise found
Beaches, battlefields and a colossal casino provide tropical pleasures on the Pacific isle of Tinian. Carlo Niederberger touches down.
485: Through the grapevine
Stephen Mansfield drinks up the delights of the Château Monbazillac in southwest France.
481: Pleasure island
Saipan awaits the young and young at heart with its pristine beaches, pointy peaks, and perfect amount of entertainment. Carlo Niederberger checks in.
477: Reservoir of dogs
Simon Rowe visits the Kingdom of Tonga, where storms burst without warning and wild canines rule the night.
473: Into the bat cave
Sarawak’s Niah Caves are home to hairless bats, birds on the brink of extinction, and lots of bugs, according to Simon Rowe.
469: A fork in the river
Laos’ ethnic minorities battle the forces of time. Stephen Mansfield goes upriver in search of them.
465: Action scene
Sick of the short, humid Japanese summer? Tired of the winter? In NZ it’s summertime and the living is easy, the food and drink inexpensive, and the evenings long and lazy. Mark Devlin heads south to explore and party.
457/458: In living color
Simon Rowe soaks in the glow of Samoa's kaleidoscopic streets.
454: From Jamaica with love
Michael McDonagh soaks up the atmosphere in James Bond's balmy birthplace
449: See worthy
Dan Grunebaum drops oar in the stunning caves of Thailand's Phang Nga Bay
445: Great heights
Simon Rowe packs his hiking boots and sets out for Malaysia's Mount Kinabalu
441: Split personality
There are few cities with such an exacting dividing line between past and present as Lijiang in China's southwestern province of Yunnan
438: Fierce creatures
Simon Rowe introduces us to the untamed charms of Australia's Kangaroo Island
434: Leap of Faith
Simon Rowe dives into a tropical island paradise of waterfalls, reefs and bush rugby on the Fijian archipelago
430: A week in Provence
Stephen Mansfield explores the historic festival city of Avignon, a medieval diamond in the south of France
426: Outer space
Surreal sites, lunar landscapes and UFO sightings go with the territory in Chile
422: The Big Easy
The Moorish streets of Granada, Spain are alive with a new Bohemian rhapsody
418: Small awakening
Japan's microbrewers
414: Fowl play
The animal kingdom comes alive in the Galapagos
410: The river of spirits
Wading through soulful waters in Varanasi, India
406: Heading north
Marching to the beat of a modern drum in North Korea
403: Santa's lap
Santa's lap - enjoy saunas, Santa and sightseeing in Finland’s Lapland
399: Shanghaied
Seeking the past in China's megacity
395: Rising from the ashes
Mary King explores the rich history, culture and art of Croatia’s phoenix city, Dubrovnik.
391: The betels and the stones
Simon Rowe rolls with the tropical exotica on the obscure island of Yap
387: Prague
World heritage site
383: South Africa
Land of hope
381: Hawaii
Pearl Harbor
377: Salt of the earth
Tour the Uyuni Salt Pan
374: China
Suzhou and Hangzhou
370: The Nile
The river mild
367: Tibet
Top of the world
363: Laos
Memo from the Lower Mekong
360: Cuzco, Peru
Lost cities
357: Namibia
Call of the wild
354: Southern India
Mad about Madurai

ISSUES 349-   
ISSUES 299-

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