There's a rumble in the jungle

BEN GROUNDWATER
Last updated 05:00 12/07/2013
Fiji jungle
Getty

INLAND IDYLL: A village near Lovoni.

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There's a rumble in the jungle. And it's emanating from my stomach.

Breakfast feels as if it was a long time ago, which would explain the gurgling coming from my mid-section. And even then, it was only a few pieces of sweet roti and a slice of cassava cake. I've hiked for miles since eating it.

Perhaps sensing my hunger, or more likely hearing the evidence of it, Mr Epi stops on the jungle track and smiles back at me. ''Don't worry, Mr Ben, we will have lunch soon. Edible ferns, eh?''

Ah, edible ferns. My favourite type of ferns. At least for eating.

Mr Epi has been gathering handfuls of them from the side of the track, hacking at their base with his machete and tearing at their long green stems. He's got a pretty decent handful now, which he assures me will make a smashing salad to go with our yams.

Except we haven't found any yams. Mr Epi has been poking the ground and occasionally digging with a stick, but so far it's resulted in nada. We have, however, found a large mandarin tree, so Mr Epi suggests a jungle hors d'oeuvre. ''Do you want a mandarin?''

I nod, thinking he must have seen a fresh one lying on the ground. But no, the best bits of fruit are still hanging from the tree, high at the top of the jungle canopy. Mr Epi leaps into the branches and starts to shimmy up, eventually tiptoeing out on a tiny limb to pick the best specimens.

''Here it comes!'' he yells, hurling fruit down in my direction, expecting me to catch it. Soon it's raining mandarins, giant hunks of Fijian produce thudding to the earth around me. I don't know whether I'm being fed or attacked.

By now you're probably wondering pretty much the same thing I've been wondering: Where am I, and what am I doing here?

The first part is easy: I'm in Fiji, on the island of Ovalau, halfway up a steep hillside on an old walking track between Lovoni, a village in the centre of the island, and the town of Levuka on the coast.

The second part is more of a head-scratcher. Officially, I'm here for a hike, to experience life the way Mr Epi's fellow villagers did before the introduction of roads and cars, to tramp through the jungle on a track that used to be the only way to Ovalau's version of the big city.

Unofficially, I'm slogging it out through humid air and thick undergrowth for hours on end. But hey, this is something the Lovoni locals used to do every week, and that's why I'm giving it a shot.

Great travel should be about authenticity, and you can't argue with the authenticity of Mr Epi's tour. I just didn't expect it to be so hard on the knees.

We began this morning with a short tour of Lovoni, before sitting down on a mat outside Mr Epi's house to share a typically simple Fijian breakfast washed down with tea made from the leaves of the lemon tree growing right next to us.

Then we hit the track, stepping through streams and over tree roots as the jungle closed in above and the undergrowth started to thicken below.

Pretty soon Mr Epi's machete went from scary accessory to vital tool as he hacked us a path up the mountain. Ever since then Mr Epi has been passing on his jungle survival tips, explaining what you can and can't eat when hiking through nature's supermarket.

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Chew this if you have a headache, he says; boil this for a fever; only eat these when they've turned yellow; rub this on a wound.

The lunch we have planned for today is supposed to be jungle cuisine at its foraged finest: roasted yams with a salad of lemon juice and ferns.

Of course, we still haven't found yams, and Mr Epi is determined to hold out until we do, which is why my stomach rumbles are increasing at the same rate my enthusiasm for bush knowledge is starting to wane.

Finally, Mr Epi thinks he spies a yam plant. He throws his machete down, grabs a sharpened stick and starts hacking at the earth, emerging with two dirt-encrusted tubers in his fists. ''Lunch, Mr Ben,'' he smiles. ''Lunch.''

Soon there's a fire going and the yams have been roasted, Mr Epi has stripped the fern leaves and mixed them with lemon juice, and all is right with the world. We tear at the hot tubers with our hands; we shovel fern salad in as a chaser.

The result is a surprise. Authenticity might be hard on the knees, but it also tastes good.

Have you eaten wild food when travelling? What's been your experience? Leave your comments below.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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