Bush hikes and waterfalls - the real Fiji
Man-made bures drape the rolling highland hills of the Nabutautau Village.
It's far from the sandy white beaches and poolside pina coladas one would expect of Fiji but the views are breathtaking to say the least.
The only way to access the 150-year-old village, deep in the lush bush of Viti Levu, is by four-wheel drive.
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We arrive in the late afternoon, in the middle of November – it's a tropical 30 degrees and I'm pouring with sweat before we've even begun to hike.
Marita Manley and her husband Matt are the directors of Talanoa Treks, the only hiking company in Fiji.
The plan is to stay in the village overnight, then get ready for a six-kilometre hike through the bush surrounding the village, first thing in the morning.
The bures are man-made and the detail is spectacular. They're shaped like teepees and the roof is made with soft, flax-like grass that keeps the villagers warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Unlike the coastal regions of Fiji, it's cool at night in the highlands.
The village was relatively untouched by Cyclone Winston – two bures were completely lifted by the cyclone and relocated to the other side of the village but no one was injured.
When the roof is lifted from the walls of the bure, it can easily be put back in place thanks to the lightweight materials.
Mr Roko is the chief of the village. He welcomes us – myself, Repeka Nasiko – a reporter from the Fiji Times, and Robert Nicole – a senior lecturer in politics at the University of the South Pacific.
There are around 100 people who live in Nabutautau. It's a communal way of life, the villagers cook together and eat together and, apart from the solar panels used to power lights and phone chargers in the community hall, it's a simple way of life.
I have never met children so content and happy – it's a life to be envied.
There is however, one complaint – I gained at least 5kg on what was supposed to be a two-day hiking trip. Even though I'm still not sure why breakfast crackers are dipped into hot drinks, I fell in love with fried cassava leaves, and wild pineapples and guavas were abundant in the village and free for the picking.
This is the real Fiji.
When Marita and her husband moved to Fiji 10 years ago, they were both doing other things. Marita was working on a food security and climate change adaptation programme, and Matt was working on migration issues – but they were keen hikers.
"One of the first things we did when we arrived was go exploring and try to find hikes in Fiji. In that process, we got to know one community quite well, that was Nabutautau," she said.
"Over the years, we took groups informally from Suva, just through a local hiking club there.
"They were really keen to try to give it a go as a tourism venture. We were quite reluctant and tried very hard to link to tourism sector players because we were public sector people through and through – I didn't know a thing about operating a business.
"Our role is to get people to the community and then the community take over and do the accommodation.
"One of the things that people get when they come on a hike on the treks that we do is to get an opportunity to spend a night between each day of walking in a rural community – it's a unique insight into Fijian culture. If you spend your whole time in a Fijian resort – you won't get that same experience.
"While we're predominantly hiking, it's also a really rich cultural experience. They often reflect a lot on their own lives as it's a very communal way of living, so you have a lot of time to talk to people."
Talanoa means to chat and tell stories, so it was a fitting name for the hiking venture that Marita and Matt are now operating fulltime.
"Where possible, we're trying to support communities to become independent. In our early consultations we wanted to make sure we didn't want to interrupt the community. "
The Nabutautau Village is not just rich in culture, it's rich in history.
More than a century ago, a 35-year-old missionary, Rev Thomas Baker, was murdered, cooked and eaten, while trying to spread Christianity through the highland villages.
Mr Roko explains that the Sussex-born minister broke taboo by taking a comb from a chief's hair
The reverend became the only white man to be eaten in Fiji, a country that was once known as the Cannibal Isles.
He and his men were ambushed as they left a village early one morning.
The village's history is fascinating, and Mr Roko tells us that the village hosted a forgiveness ceremony 14 years ago, to ask for forgiveness from the reverend's relatives.
After a night of eating, talking and more eating, we set down to sleep. I did intend to sleep in a bure, but the centipedes on my pillow said otherwise. A young child, amused by my anti-centipede dance of jumping and flinging my hands in the air, led me to the community hall, where I slept soundly, with no centipedes in sight.
The next morning, we set off on the six-kilometre hike.
Mr Roko and Etu, both villagers, were our guides or the day. They took us through the rugged terrain, through the Sigatoka River, and showed us the spectacular sights from the hilltops.
There were wild guavas along the way, ready for the picking.
But the highlight of the trek was the natural rock water slide – a welcome stop on a hot hike.
Although it was bush, there was plenty to see, including the old village site. When the chief dies, the village moves to a lower settlement. There have been two previous settlements.
The hike itself is best done during the Fijian "winter" months, from June to August. Talanoa Trek closes during the hottest months, from December until March.
The first five kilometres were relatively easy – what I did not expect was the steep hike to the top of the hill and back to the village. It was 200 metres of uphill torture, I must admit, but what a feeling getting to the top of that hill.
And that view would give the peak of Mt Everest a run for its money. Mr Roko says his ancestors thought they lived on an island of their own because there is no coastline to be seen, even from the highest peaks, just rolling hillsides.
But the highlight of my trip, were the people. The people of the Nabutautau Village are beautiful, hospitable and they can tell a good yarn – what more could you want?
If you intend to visit Fiji, and want an authentic cultural experience with hospitality that is second-to-none, I suggest you take the time to travel to the rolling highlands of the Nabutautau Village.
MORE INFORMATION: talanoa-treks-fiji.com
GETTING THERE: Fiji Airways operates daily non-stop flights from Auckland to Nadi. Transport for the Talanoa Treks can be arranged from your accommodation. See fijiairways.com
STAYING THERE Day trips start from around $160, and four-day hiking trips start from around $950. All meals and beverages and accommodation in the village is inculded. See talanoa-treks-fiji.com
The writer travelled courtesy of Fiji Airways and Tourism Fiji.