Meet the locals on a river safari to Natawatawadi village
To travellers, Fiji is synonymous with friendliness. Resort employees are praised for their warmth, helpfulness and smiles, their child-minding prowess and their ever-enthusiastic greetings of bula! (“hello!”). Even though I’ve visited Fiji before, I am surprised when, as my airport transfer van pulls into the driveway of Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort, I’m greeted by the loudest, longest, most uproarious “BUUUULLLLLAAA!” I’ve ever heard. And that’s just from the security guard at the front gate. Over the next three days, he will try to outdo himself every time we enter or leave the resort.
Open, interested, welcoming kindness is the Fijian way of life, as is a twisted sense of humour
During our stay, many Fijians joke about having once been cannibals – but “not now, haha!” The fact that popular Fijian souvenirs are replica weapons such as “neck breakers” and “back breakers” shows that tourists merrily accept Fiji’s dark past, too. Happily, that’s all long ago. To get to know Fiji today, I recommend visiting a local village, and on the Coral Coast, Sigatoka River Safari lets you do just that.
When I set out on this morning’s jet-boat ride, I didn’t expect an authentic Fijian experience; I was anticipating noisy, pointy boats zipping recklessly up riverways, ruining the tropical calm of the Coral Coast countryside. But as we putter relatively quietly and slowly up the pretty winding Sigatoka River, we are waved at by fishermen on the banks, giggled at by kids splashing in the water, and stared at by grazing horses and stock-still cows. At one point, the boat stops so we can watch fishermen pull their huge, shiny, silver catches up on their lines. Twenty minutes further on, we dock alongside a muddy hill, to a welcoming party of colourfully dressed kids. The posse of children – aged from four to six – leads us up the hill and along a dirt road to their village, the excellently named Natawatawadi, where women hand out sulus (sarongs) to cover ourselves up (due to the heat we’re all wearing singlet tops and shorts – our legs are far too bare).
Natawatawadi is a small community with brightly painted, concrete-rendered, open-doored houses set on a steep, grassy incline. At the very top of the hill, more kids’ faces peer out of the windows and doorways of the communal hall. Once the oldest member of our 30-strong group is identified, he becomes our rag-tag clan’s “chief” for the day. We’re led into the hall and sit cross-legged on the floor for an authentic kava ceremony. After both groups’ chiefs pay each other their respects, we’re presented one by one with bowls of this drink, which is purported to reduce anxiety (kava is also used as a bush anaesthetic).
The muddy liquid is not as disgusting as Aussie travellers often make out, although it does make my lips numb
After the ceremony, the room is cleared out, plastic drop sheets are laid on the floor and plate upon plate of cooked vegetables, meats and fried custard treats are brought out for lunch. The villagers sing and smile, toddlers and babes in arms play staring games with us, and the men knock off the rest of the kava as we eat and drink from jugs of sweet pink cordial. After lunch, one of my travel buddies gives a girl a pen and we soon wish we’d all brought gifts. The excitement shown by the girl brings a crowd of other kids, and we are soon opening our bags and giving them pencils, pens and notebooks. The girl’s mother points across the valley to the little house across the river where kids go to school. There’s no bridge; they must swim across the often-flooded river. As we leave, many of us leave our sulus with the local women. While they would make a lovely souvenir back home, they will be better utilised as everyday clothing here.
On our trip back down the river, the jet boat picks up speed. Every time we near a curve in the river, the driver stalls the boat and spins the wheel, hurling us around in a series of 360-degree spins. We’re drenched, shrieking and laughing. It’s a fun way to end the tour.
While you’re here
Hike: Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park is a beautiful dune park fronting the ocean and has a series of hiking trails. Book a tour through Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort or go to nationaltrust.org.fj/sigatoka_sanddunes
Learn: Tavuni Hill Fort is an archaeological site 4km west of Sigatoka, with preserved fortifications dating from the 1880s, including a killing stone, hilltop graves and building foundations. Ask Outrigger’s concierge to arrange a tour here for you; coralcoastfiji.org/activities/tavuni-hillfort
Shop: To be sure wooden souvenirs and artifacts are properly treated so as not to be confiscated by customs, go to a reputable store such as Jacks of Fiji on Main St in Sigatoka Town. They also have an outlet at Outrigger; jacksfiji.com
Stay: Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort, Sydney Dr (off Queens Hwy), Sigatoka, Coral Coast. Tel: +679 650 0044; outrigger.com/explore/Fiji
Do it yourself
Sigatoka River Safari: Book a tour through Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort, or go to Tappoos Sigatoka Store, Main St, Sigatoka Town. Tel: 0800 6501 721; sigatokariver.com
Note: This story originally appeared in Jetstar Australia’s inflight magazine