Welcome aboard Sigatoka's culture jet
"Welcome to the real Fiji," announces my taxi driver as we scoot through Nadi.
It's Saturday morning and the markets' carparks are packed with locals fetching their essentials: kava, veges and eggs, my driver says.
No time to stop though. Our white van speeds past the mishmash of vehicles and people, stopping only for an original VW Golf as it bunny hops out of town.
Nadi is a cultural melting pot in the Pacific. It has the largest Hindu temple in the Southern Hemisphere, and an eclectic mix of Antipodean expats, Fijians and Fijian Indians call it home.
Locals tell me Nadi is developing into a global city. Middle Eastern and Asian influences are spawning vibrant eateries, locals and expats are banding together to create a music scene they say could rival Wellington.
If you look hard enough, Nadi has it all – weather, lifestyle and culture.
But I'm short on time. I'm here for just four days.
We're busy even when we're relaxing, that seems to be the way. It makes sense to make the most out of a short break away, which is where the Sigatoka jet boat comes in. It's a seemingly ingenious idea. Tourists pack into a red speed boat, the fastest boat around (built in Gore, it's like the ones you find in Queenstown). They don their yellow life jackets, sit back and feel the warm wind pound their faces.
We roar through the blue veins of Sigatoka, a town 90 minutes' drive from Nadi. Nadi is called the Salad Bowl of Fiji, thanks to its fertile grounds and the river, its lifeblood.
We hammer a turn. "Captain Freddy" sends the red ship spinning past protruding palms. Then we pick up speed. Ahead, is a green mound adorned with gnawed grass. We're playing chicken with a mountain. Freddy pulls a hard left while simultaneously cutting the engines, and we drift to the river bank because the captain wants to talk.
Freddy, whose village is just up stream, tells us about the mountain. He talks a bit of "bula-crap" and says the mountain here, with its sharp rock edges, was the basis for James Cameron's Avatar. Is it actually? I'm not sure, but Freddy tells a good yarn.
He says investors are trying to buy this mountain because its rock is so precious. If they buy it, then the mountain could be gone. Some of the mountain's owners have already sold their shares, Freddy says. He's worried about the future in Sigatoka, now that commercialism is sweeping in.
That food for thought is blown away as we rattle on, heading for Naveyago Village.
Naveyago is a community. About 130 people live here, all related in some way. The village has its own church: a concrete building that stands strong at the top of the hill. The cracking blue paint and burgundy crosses look over the village.The church is safe, it's a meeting place and refuge in case of flooding.
Below, in the village, grandchildren duel for their grandparents' knees. The elders gather in a tin hall as it's lunch time, for the tourists that is.
As us tourists trail off our jet boats, our guides brief us about the village. We can present gifts, if we have any. Otherwise, our presence is enough. Sigatoka River Safari pays the village hosting us.
Looking around, the divide between "the real Fiji" and "fake Fiji" is obvious. Naveyago takes extreme pride in its community; here, they say, everyone helps out. Their limited resources go into what will help the community, but even then the villagers make do with what they can.
For lunch there is two-minute noodles, fruit and sausages.
The village's elders and its preschoolers stay back from the food, chatting amongst themselves and watching on. A few cheeky toddlers manage to score a snack.
I head back to the kitchen, a shed. Its tin walls are warping out, the metal looks burnt, the ground is black with soot. Dirty pots have turned almost completely black and sit drying outside on a piece of old roofing.
The rest of my tour – a mix of Kiwi farmers, retired Americans and Australian families – are back at the hall where Naveyago has "welcomed us as part of the family".
They eat and joke about kava, laughing at "bula-crap" jokes and gushing over the toddlers who are adventurous enough to reach for a bite.
An Australian aunt asks to photograph a young local because "you look just like my niece". The truth is, most of us have already snapped photos without asking.
Every week Sigatoka River Safari rotates to a new village. Its Australian owners say changing villages spreads the money across locals in Sigatoka, allowing them to invest in projects such as electrification.
When we visit, it's Thursday. Naveyago has hosted about seven tour groups this week.
They've shown tourists around their homes, sung for them and posed for countless photos. As we prepare to leave, the guides come out with powder and announce it's time to dance.
The older men keep sipping their kava; their eyes still blank, they remain seated. This tourist attraction, also known as their living room, is nothing new.
Suddenly boardshort-wearing dads are dancing in a conga line. A few of the younger Fijian women coax the tourists to their feet, but the preschoolers barely bat an eyelid as this strange sight unfolds in their home.
More information: sigatokariver.com
Getting there: Fiji Airways flys to Nadi from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Up to 13 weekly flights depart Auckland from $650 return.
Staying there: Stay on Denarau Island with Hilton Fiji Beach Resort & Spa with your own beachfront villa from $380 a night. Sigatoka River Safari operates buses between Denarau and Sigatoka.
The writer travelled to Fiji courtesy of Fiji Air and the Hilton, Fiji. He visited Naveyago village courtesy of the Sigatoka River Safari company.
- Sunday Star Times