Fabulous Fiji

Last updated 05:00 21/03/2011
Fiji
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IDYLLIC: Despite Fiji's political instability it is still a favourite with tourists seeking a sun and sand combo.

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An English missionary, Thomas Baker, committed the unforgivable and, as it transpired, fatal sin in 1867 of touching a Fijian chief's head, then lost his own over it.

The cannibals who killed, cooked and ate him, with seven others, also consumed parts of his boiled boots and those uneaten remains rest in a museum in Nadi on Viti Levu, the archipelago's largest island.

Acting with respect among people in far-off lands is clearly a wise course for travellers, lest they become the main one. When invited to share company and generosity, one must embrace local customs as a common courtesy. Inappropriate behaviour can cause great offence and have drastic consequences on occasion, as Baker's extreme example proves.

Aware of such conventions, I reluctantly accept appointment, being the oldest, as representative "chief" of our tour party at an inland village on the Sigatoka River, which flows for 120 kilometres to Viti Levu's Coral Coast. It's a benign role during a worthy meet-the-locals tourist stop that involves sitting cross-legged before my local equivalent, his family, elders, friends, wives and children at a kava ceremony. Made from the roots of the kava plant, this tooth-numbing muddy brew is central to many Fijian cultural and community rituals.

Sweating profusely under a tin roof in the merciless midday sun, I mumble my few lines nervously and rehearse my actions, trying hard to remember them, as a bilo (cup) is presented. All I have to do is clap my cupped hands once, say "bula" (life or joy), accept the offering, drink its contents and then clap three times and repeat "bula". But somehow between reciting, forgetting and reaching too soon for the bilo, it splashes to the grass floor.

Aghast, I look with apologetic alarm at the assembled group across the room, some of whose faces register shock but not detectable anger.

There are some mutterings and I shudder. Instead of a war club, however, another bilo is presented and the process is repeated.

"Don't worry," whispers our tour guide, Pau, "we have another thousand litres where that came from."

What Baker would have given for a seat in the 500-horsepower jet boat that transported us up the Sigatoka River on this safari, although, for him, the exhilarating high-speed turns on our return trip might have been superfluous to his needs.

Descending to Nadi Airport the evening before, I spy the edge of a long reef jagging the surf and enclosing a jade lagoon smeared with crimson coral. Cultivated fields appear, then a church, a graveyard and a rugby field. Each reflects much of what I'll later realise Fiji is: beauty, farming, religion, sport.

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An hour later, I'm easing into the Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa, swishing a Cointreau and ice and sampling canapes of duck-liver pate, peppered prawns with nam jin sauce and kokoda cevishe (marinated raw wahoo).

Such luxuries serve to secure tourism as the islands' lifeblood. Attracting visitors has been crucial since the 2006 coup by the armed forces chief, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, triggered years of fluctuation in Fiji's political, economic and international status.

Fiji was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2009, News Limited has sold its controlling stake in Fiji's daily newspaper and in November lucrative bottled-water company, Fiji Water, closed after the government announced a huge tax increase.

Despite these crises, Fiji remains a popular destination for tourists, with 288,884 Australians visiting in the 11 months to November and more than 23,000 visiting in that month alone. This is a 30 per cent increase on the same period in 2009; half of Fiji's total international arrivals are from Australia.

Next morning I shadow the Sofitel resort's New Zealand-born executive chef, Brendon Coffey, at Nadi market. Cooking in the tropics, he says, requires more creativity and resourcefulness than might be imagined. "Consistent product is difficult [to find]," he says, a little surprisingly, as we wade through a riot of scents, leaves, roots, stems, claws, fins and feathers, many moving.

Coffey selects rosella leaves and taro (a tuberous root), three bags of mussels, a "string" of land crabs and sea grapes to soak and then fry with tomato, coconut, onion, chilli and tuna. "I'll go back and have a play," he says of a bag of tiny shrimps. Around us, stalls bearing cinnamon, mustard seeds, cumin, garam masala, turmeric, dhal, split peas and chickpeas reflect the rich Indian influence in Fiji.

This stroll hardly earns a 50-minute traditional "bobo" massage later that day, before pre-dinner drinks in the Breeze Bar. At the resort's Mandara Spa, a peaceful, fragrant villa complex, I feel like old Sol, in the 1973 doomsday film Soylent Green, who volunteers for euthanasia and is granted screen glimpses - set to soaring symphonies - of how beautiful the now-poisoned Earth once was as his last wish before he dies.

My masseuse, Tumeri, once massaged a New Zealand All Black rugby player, whose body, she says, felt like stone. Tactfully, she resists making any comparisons with her task at hand.

Our transfer the next day to the MV Reef Endeavour, a 73-metre, 3000-tonne ship built by the Suva shipyards in 1996, begins a three-night voyage with Captain Cook Cruises. The vessel has 75 cabins, a pool, spa, sauna and gym, library, boutique and a bar serving cocktails as colourful as the tropical fish I long to see.

Prone to seasickness, I nervously await "bilge belly" as we steam to the southern Yasawa Islands, 40 kilometres north-west of our launching point at Lautoka, but nothing disturbs my equilibrium. The only detectable roll is a gentle pitch later at dinner, a convenient tilt that helps tip a glass of wine to my lips.

With ample activities on offer to work up a hunger, the menu is varied and plentiful: coconut-crusted fish, marinated kabir chicken, peach rolls, fruit platters, fried breakfasts, curries and much more.

What I hunger for is healthy coral reefs, vivid tropical fish and crystal waters; I find them all at Malolo Island and the next day at Sacred Island.

As I snorkel, I will myself to dwell on these vast underwater spectaculars but they're dazzling, overwhelming. I'm lured randomly from one technicoloured vision to the next, though it's an iridescent green fish with black and brilliant pink stripes that keeps appearing. I follow it through busy coral suburbs and before I know it the shallows end abruptly at a drop-off, beyond which is a darkening, disappearing blue wilderness.

Strolling later on a rib-shaped white beach, I count a mess of shore-line litter: plastic bottles, a computer-chip board, takeaway coffee cups, a tub of shampoo. A pair of eastern reef egrets stand hunched in the rocky shallows, their backs turned to the shore, seeming as disappointed as me at the rubbish.

For the most part, though, I ponder how little these passages have changed. We pass near Bligh Water, where the captain of the Bounty's mutinous crew evaded cannibals on his long voyage to Timor.

On Sunday afternoon I attend a church service at Nalauwaki on Waya Island, where the tiles on the Methodist church's floor - financed by visiting tourists' donations - cool my feet beneath fans struggling in the heat. A choir of mostly women in white, holding frayed hymn books, sing with eyes closed. I shut mine and imagine such sweet voices a century ago trailing offshore to reach a passing vessel, songs of warriors' wives or religious conversion. Then the lay preacher fires up.

Hands clasped on the lectern, face turned to the roof, he blasts the Lord's word in a rapid-fire sermon; I learn later that part of his message is that God brings tourists and our money.

After almost an hour, and not detecting the chief purser of the ship's pre-arranged signal to leave, I follow from the chapel a long electrical lead that powers an old amplifier plonked outside near a sleeping dog, where some parishioners recline on the grass.

Our final afternoon is spent at Namara village school on Waya Sewa Island, another set-piece visit but one crucial to its four teachers and 82 children, many of whom perform songs and dances. Every cent donated by tourists goes directly to the school.

The phrase "God Save the Queen" is pinned to a blackboard, along with classroom rules that forbid playing inside, fighting, stealing, singing in class time and touching the teacher's table. "Hope is the last thing we lose," another message advises. Children being the same the world over, Namara's students are scholastic replicas of those in any classroom. "Should play less and work harder," a teacher writes in a report. "She needs constant attention and support," another says, while another's parents will be told, "Has done exceptionally well for her age." The insignias on their bags reflect commercial realities: Spider-Man, Thomas the Tank Engine, the Cookie Monster.

A 22-year-old volunteer teacher from England, Emma Gibbons, cites resources as their biggest need - when the photocopier broke, it took three days for parts to arrive from another island. The students, she says, who arrive on foot or by boat, are keener on school than in her homeland. "They're happy, they want to be at school and they are not naughty," she says.

Gibbons loves the island lifestyle. "There's no stress, it's friendly and the locals are welcoming."

Berthing back at Lautoka, we disembark after dawn. On the drive to the airport we pass Fijians on their way to their farms and children waiting for school buses. As we pass Sharma's Grog Shop, I'm reminded there's still much to investigate in Fiji.

Steve Butcher travelled courtesy of Tourism Fiji, Captain Cook Cruises, Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa and Sigatoka River Safari.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Air Pacific has a fare to Nadi for about $860 non-stop from Sydney (3hr 45min) and Melbourne (4hr 40min). Fare is low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. Jetstar and Pacific Blue also fly non-stop to Fiji. Australians obtain a visitor permit on arrival.

Staying there

Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa has 296 rooms and beach frontage among 10 hectares of lush gardens, with views across Nadi Bay. Resort-view rooms cost from $F369 ($197) and studio suites from $F519; see sofitel.com/Fiji-Denarau.

Touring there

Captain Cook Cruises has weekly three-, four- and seven-night Yasawa Island cruises. Early booking fares for a three-night southern Yasawa Island cruise cost from $959 a person, twin share, which includes accommodation, all meals and activities.

Sigatoka River Safari has half-day morning tours from Monday to Saturday from $F225 for adults and $F110 for children (4-15 years), including transfers from the Coral Coast, Nadi and Denarau resorts; see sigatokariver.com.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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