When you paddle with Warren in Fiji, it's always downwind!
That's how I had planned to start this story about a multisport trip to Fiji, but that was before I met the children of Malake Village, who touched my heart with their warmth and playfulness. That was before I met mountain guides Kali and Poli, who almost literally hauled me up the 3,600 feet to Mount Batilamu, and kept me laughing all the way. That was before we visited the thatched village of Navala, where people live as simply as they have for a hundred years, but the son of the turaga-ni-koro, village headman, was preparing to go to Iraq to provide security for U.N. personnel.
Don't get me wrong; kayaking with Warren in Fiji is an experience not to be missed. And it is mostly downwind. Warren Francis owns Safari Lodge, www.safarilodge.com.fj, a watersports center near Rakiraki, on the north side of Viti Levu, Fiji's main island. His guided kayak trip to Malake Village was the first step on our 10-day multisport adventure trip. I was traveling with Douglas King, my husband and photographer; Karen Prell, an adventurous vacationer from Cincinnati; Jonetani Tavigetaua, from the Fijian Ministry of Tourism; and Robin Maivusaroko, our trip leader, from Southern World Fiji. The adventure trip, organized by Outdoor Travel Adventures in the United States, follows in places the path of the 2002 Eco-Challenge Fiji, and includes sea kayaking, mountain biking, trekking, and whitewater paddling.
After an 11-hour flight from Los Angeles, we arrived in Nadi, the international airport, at 5:30 in the morning local time, and were met by Warren, Jon, and Robin. A few hours later, we were checking out the big Perception tandem kayaks at Safari Lodge, and sorting out who would paddle with whom. "This is the front?" Jon asked, fiddling with the rudder on one of the kayaks. I decided I'd take the stern and steer. Jon turned out to be a strong and enthusiastic paddler, given to raising his paddle in the air each time we caught a wave.
With the wind at our backs we paddled to the island of Nananu-I-Ra, where we lounged beneath palms and snorkeled around a coral reef dotted with vivid blue fish, yellow-striped fish, and bright blue sea stars. At the end of the afternoon, a support boat carried us back against the wind to Rakiraki.
The next day we paddled with the wind to Malake Island, cruising among the mangroves near Volivoli Point and stopping once again to snorkel amid the coral that juts out from shore. We lingered beneath the palms and red bead trees, waiting for the tide to come in enough so that we could paddle into the harbor at Malake Village. There we were greeted with the offer of a hot shower (the only one in the village) and a formal Fijian welcoming ceremony. We gathered in the village meetinghouse and shared a bowl of kava with the locals. Kava is a mudlike drink made from the powdered roots of the yaqona plant and is a mild euphoriant.
In the dusk, we walked up the hill behind the village to get a closer look at a fire that appeared to be burning half the island, to no one's great concern. Field fires are common during the dry season, and we were to see many throughout our trip. Some children broke off from their play to walk with us, and we watched in amazement a boy who zigzagged down the grassy slope on homemade skis, neatly skirting our group.
After a lovo feast-dishes of fish, chicken, dalo (taro) leaves, cassava, and more, baked in the ground all afternoon-we returned to the meetinghouse for more kava and an impromptu meke dance performed by some of the village youths. We lingered late as the men broke out their guitars, and traditional Fijian songs were interspersed with American pop tunes like John Denver's "Country Roads."
When we paddled into Malake Village, my first impression was one of poverty-a collection of tiny corrugated-tin houses huddled haphazardly around the harbor-but in the day and a half that we spent there, I learned that the people of Malake are rich in community and hospitality. Most of the land in Fiji is owned communally by local clans and villages, and while many indigenous Fijians live at subsistence level, it seems that few in the villages go hungry or lack a place to live.
The homes in Malake Village are very simple, often with just one or two rooms. Floors are covered with soft grass mats, and most family life takes place with people seated on the floor. Women cook over fires outside, then serve meals on beautiful cloths laid out on the floor. During our 10-day trip we spent the night at two villages and visited two others. While each was different, they all shared the same warm hospitality.
We spent the night in one of the village chief's homes-he has three-and the next morning walked through the village at dawn and met a few families returning from fishing. Often they'll go out for a week at a time, Warren explained. They can sell their catch on the mainland and bring in $250 Fijian-worth a little more than half that in U.S. dollars. Gardens surround the village, and much of the food is locally grown. Some of the residents work at resorts on the mainland, living in town for several weeks at a time and returning for weekend visits, bringing more cash into the local economy. The school goes through eighth grade, then children stay with friends and relatives on the mainland while attending high school.
That morning Warren offered us a choice: to paddle back across the wind to the mainland, or to have the support boat carry us back. We were still getting to know each other, and no one wanted to be the wimp who asked for the boat, so we set out again in our kayaks for the crossing. After paddling into swells and crosswinds for an hour or so, Jon and I were happy to see guides David and Nasim approach in the support boat. We caught on and held tight for a wild ride across the waves until they deposited us near the shore, then returned to pick up the others.
We only scratched the surface of Fiji's sea kayaking opportunities. Other island chains, notably the Mamanucas and the Yasawas, also have sea kayaking operations. The area around Rakiraki, however, has fewer resorts and fewer tourists, and visitors are welcomed like family. In addition to the trip we took, Safari Lodge offers kayak trips ranging from one to nine days, and visits to five different villages, each with its own personality.
But we had more adventures ahead. From Rakiraki we drove to the town of Ba. Scott Graham and Nicole McGuigan from Wacking Stick Adventure Tours met us with a truckful of mountain bikes, and we headed up into the Nausori Highlands. This was part of the route followed by the Eco-Challenge racers. We had the option of riding in the truck with Bibi, the driver, for any or all of the bike route, and I spent more time in the truck than on the road. Bouncing through the Nausori Highlands with the Fijian band Doki Doki on the tape player is a good way to spend a sunny afternoon. Scott worked with the media during the Eco-Challenge and had many stories to share. He had good things to say about Mark Cosslett, whose photos from the Eco-Challenge appeared in Canoe & Kayak in May 2003.
Our day's ride took us to Navala Village, cradled in the mountains on the banks of the Ba River. In the 1930s the village chief decreed that there would be only traditional houses, and today, some 800 people live here in bures-one-room houses with thatched roofs. After a welcoming kava ceremony, the chief's wife invited the ladies in the group to join her for tea. We sprawled on soft mats in her home, at ease after our journey into the mountains. That night we slept there, again the beneficiaries of Fijian hospitality.
From Navala we set out once more in Bibi's truck to a place in the highlands that looked out over the Sabeto Valley. Our goal this day was the Stoney Creek Resort, and Scott and Nicole led us to a point where it was a long downhill ride to our destination. After regrouping at Stoney Creek overnight, we set out the next day for the Batilamu Trek.
The trek begins at Navilawa, where village leaders performed the kava ceremony but suggested that we leave the actual kava drinking for the mountaintop. We set out hiking nearly straight up through dry grasslands toward a forest looming above. I was hot, I was tired, and I was not sure I could finish the hike. Our guide, Kali Marawa, was reassuring. "I have taken many people up this trail, and you look about right for this part of the hike," he said.
"How about the next part?" I asked. "Is it as steep as this?"
"It is not steep," he answered confidently. By this time, Kali and the other guides, Poli Ratuka, Mereoni Robe, and Naomi Marawa, had taken most of our gear. As we entered the forest I was still lagging, and Poli had me follow him and hold on to the back of his pack to keep moving forward as the path continued to climb. They don't seem to believe in switchbacks in Fiji.
Then we reached the ropes. "Not steep?" I said to Kali, and he chuckled. "I did not want you to be discouraged," he said. The trail leads up through a wedge in a cliff face where Kali and Poli had anchored ropes in the rock to enable trekkers to pull themselves up. The rope climb turned out to be a lot more fun than walking uphill. And once we had hauled ourselves up, the trail leveled out and we walked along the same ridgeline that the first Fijians had followed after they landed at Vuda Point, near Nadi. We were in the heart of the Koroyanitu National Heritage Park, created by the six villages surrounding the mountain to protect the native dakoa (mahogany) forests from logging.
We spent the night in the Mount Batilamu Trekking Hut, at 3,600 feet the highest overnight lodging in Fiji. And yes, we drank kava at the mountaintop. The next morning we watched the sunrise stretch across the land below, and then hiked down the other side to the village of Abaca, where we swam in a clear river and drank kava again with the villagers.
Our last big adventure was a one-day whitewater trip through the Navua River Gorge with Rivers Fiji, which I wrote about in Whitewater Paddling 2004. We based ourselves at Crusoe's Retreat on the Coral Coast for two nights, and spent the day between paddling through a gorge of black volcanic rock some 120 feet deep and in places less than 20 feet wide. A prolonged dry spell had left the water level low, accentuating the multiple layers of the gorge. There was still plenty of water to make the rapids fun-indeed, the rapid named Snake bit two of our party and sent them swimming down the river. Waterfalls punctuate the canyon and green ferns cascade over the edges, softening the blackness.
From there we caught an Air Fiji flight from Suva to the island of Kadavu, and spent two nights at the Matana Beach Resort, www.matanabeachresort.com, where 10 thatched bures are hidden by palm trees and Zylo keeps the drinks flowing at the beach bar.
The primary attraction is diving, but we took kayaks and snorkel gear and explored the coral reef right off the resort. Miles of white-sand beach fringed by coral invited further kayak exploration, but after eight days of high-energy activity, Karen and I opted for the beach chairs. It was the perfect capstone to 10 days that had brought us into a Fiji we otherwise would never have discovered.
Information about this and other Fiji trips is available from Outdoor Travel Adventures, www.otadventures.com; (877) 682-5433.
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