Jet­ting into ‘the real Fiji’

In Nadi, a high-speed boat trans­ports to a slower, gen­tler way of life - a Fi­jian vil­lage.

Sunday Star-Times - Escape - - FRONT PAGE -

McCon­nell

‘WGlenn

el­come 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.

Lo­cals tell me Nadi is de­vel­op­ing into a global city. Mid­dle East­ern and Asian in­flu­ences are spawn­ing vi­brant eater­ies and an eclec­tic mix of cul­tures is feed­ing a fledg­ing mu­sic scene. If you look hard enough, Nadi has it all.

But I’m short on time. I’m here for just four days.

It makes sense to get the most out of a short break, which is where the Si­ga­toka jet boat comes in. 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 wind pound their faces.

We roar through the blue veins of Si­ga­toka, a town 90 min­utes’ drive from Nadi. Si­ga­toka 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’’, claim­ing the moun­tain here was the ba­sis for James Cameron’s Avatar. I won’t vouch for his ac­cu­racy, but Freddy tells a good yarn.

He says in­vestors want to buy this moun­tain for its rock. If they buy it, then the moun­tain could be gone. He’s wor­ried about the fu­ture in Si­ga­toka, with com­mer­cial­ism is sweep­ing in.

That food for thought is blown away as we rat­tle on, head­ing for Naveyago.

Naveyago is a com­mu­nity of about 130 peo­ple. 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.

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.

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 is back at the hall where Naveyago has ‘‘wel­comed us as part of the fam­ily’’.

An aunt asks to pho­to­graph a young lo­cal be­cause ‘‘you look just like my niece’’. The truth is, most of us have taken pho­tos without ask­ing.

Ev­ery week Si­ga­toka River Sa­fari ro­tates to a new vil­lage. Its Aus­tralian own­ers say chang­ing vil­lages spreads the money across Si­ga­toka, lead­ing to bet­ter wa­ter and power sup­ply.

As we pre­pare to leave, the guides 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. Naveyago has hosted about seven tour groups this week.

Sud­denly board­short-wear­ing dads are in a conga line. A few Naveyago women coax the tourists to their feet, but the preschool­ers barely bat an eye­lid as this strange sight un­folds. ❚

The writer trav­elled courtesy of Fiji Air, the Hil­ton, Fiji and the Si­ga­toka River Sa­fari com­pany.

GLENN MCCON­NELL/STUFF

The Naveyago vil­lage church sits over­look­ing ev­ery other build­ing.

Boat loads of tourists arrive to see ‘‘the real Fiji’’.

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