Suva side trip
A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to go on a Fiji history trip with five other yachties from Vuda Point Marina, and it was a delightful getaway from the boatyard. I left Wayne behind working in the engine room, or so he told me, but I have a sneaking suspicion that he and Barney had a wild bachelor party. Ruby may have been dancing on the table, or so I hear.
Simon works at the Boatshed Restaurant as waiter and entertainment manager (organizing trivia contests, frog and crab races and other events), and he and the folks on Elysium had cooked up this idea to hire a van and take a group to Suva to the national Fiji Museum and to stop at Simon’s village on the banks of the Sigatoka River to spend the night. Simon set it all up, and so it was that I met up with Dave and Wendy off Elysium (USA), Danielle and Greg off Mary Madeleine (CAN), and John off Hinetoa (NZ).
Simon is a great character and fun guy to travel with. He also excels at taking selfies with his crew.
Our first stop was at the Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park. It is the only national park in the country, although they have quite a number of national forests. The park area is located about 3 km. west of the town of Sigatoka and they were formed by erosion and deposited there by the Sigatoka River, the largest river in Fiji. The dunes range from 20-60 meters high, but mostly they are covered with grasses that prevent them from shifting too much.
According to the park ranger who guided us on our walk through the park, what makes the dunes of so much interest to archeologists, is that they have found pottery and grave sites from the Lapita people who were the first people to inhabit these islands around 3000 BC. The Lapita originated in Papua New Guinea and spread throughout the Pacific leaving behind their pottery with very distinctive geometric patterns stamped into the clay. They probably settled at the mouth of the Sigatoka River because there is also an abundance of red clay in the earth there, and today, Fijians in the area still make pottery.
Out on the beach we saw evidence of all the driftwood debris produced by Cyclone Winston.
The rangers had used lots of the wood to make these little teepees for the white tourists who get out there and need a little shade after climbing the dunes to hike out to the beach.
From the beach we headed inland on the circular trail and walked through the mahogany forrest.
Our ranger guide Simon was very accommodating when we asked to smell the blossom from the pandanus tree. He told us that Fijian women used the flowers to scent coconut oil and then using a long tree branch he pulled down one of the large blossoms.
It wasn’t overpowering. I liked the scent. I’ve known that the leaves of the pandanus are used to weave mats here, and in the Marshall Islands pandanus juice was on the menu – made from the large fruits. Now I’ve seen the flower.
When we left the Sand Dunes, we continued on to a lovely spot on the side of the road now called Maui Beach – ever since a guy from Hawaii bought the property and named it after the Hawaiian island. The greater area of Maui Bay Estates is an area of freehold land with very expensive vacation homes, clubhouse, etc. However, our spot with the pier was ocean access left open to the public and we had great views as we munched on the salads and sandwiches Simon had brought for us.
After lunch we drove on into Suva. Although the total route from the marina to the museum is only 210 km. the trip takes about 4 hours because you end up behind slower vehicles unable to pass, and then there are villages all along the route with slow speed zones.
At the Fiji Museum we learned much more about the early Fijians and the colonial years. Yes, the indigenous Fijians were cannibals — and the whalers and explorers and missionaries and colonialists were all fairly brutal in their own ways, too. As the British were trying to get all the indigent chiefs to convert to Christianity, the locals were fighting back. Finally, the local governor just issued an edict—convert or be hanged. Lots of fascinating stuff there, not the least of which was the fellow standing guard outside.
Then we were off driving back to Sigatoka to our digs for the night at the home of Simon’s uncle in the village called Laselase that was just across the river from the larger city, but still remained very similar to the villages one sees on the outer islands.
By the time we arrived it was after dark and we saw the fire burning along the side of the road. That was where they were cooking our dinner in what is called a lovo. This is the earth oven. They still line the pit with leaves and add stones to the coals and then put all the food on the stones. The more traditional way is to wrap the food in banana leaves, but these days it was tin foil.
And instead of shoveling dirt over the food, they place a piece of corrugated metal over it.
I can’t begin to list all the members of Simon’s family we met that night. There were cousins and aunts and uncles galore and everyone was so kind to us. One entered the house into the kitchen which had a table and chairs, but everyone prefers to sit on the floor in Fiji. The mat on the one side of the kitchen was where the ladies sat as they worked on preparing our meal. The adjoining room was like the living room, and there were three bedrooms off that. The children had given up their rooms for the guests, and I slept on the floor in the living room (thank you my friend Philip for your much appreciated Thermarest camping mattress).
Here Greg is walking around trying to get a signal for his cellular router to connect his iPad. Most Internet here in Fiji is cellular, and I had a good connection there at the house.
The meal was superb! We ate lovo-baked tuna, chicken, cassava, and palusami (taro leaves cooked in coconut cream). After dinner, the kava drinking started. Kava (also called yaqona) is made by pounding the dried roots of a pepper plant into powder and then squeezing the powder inside a cheesecloth bag until all the juice has been extracted. This produces a mildly narcotic drink that numbs the lips a bit like novocaine. You have to drink LOTS to get a buzz, and Fijian men do! There is a ceremony involved with clapping before drinking from the half coconut. To say how much you want you ask for low, mid or high tide. One of our hosts asked for tsunami. I only drank one bowl as it tasted to me a bit like muddy water, but I do think it helped me sleep on that concrete floor.
When we awoke the next morning, a fog had come down the river, and we ventured out for a walk around the village. After a breakfast of “Fijian pancakes” (more like dumplings) and bananas, we set off to visit the Tavuni Hill Fort inland and perched on a hillside overlooking the Sigatoka River Valley.
This was another archaeological site of the location where in the early 1800’s, a Tongan chief who was trying to escape the missionaries in his own islands, fled with his clan to Fiji and they settled up the Sigatoka Valley. They managed to fend off the Fijian clans by taking this high ground. There they built houses on stone foundations the way that Polynesians do.
Here the archeologists have placed posts to show the area that would have been the house. The story goes that the Tongan chief attacked the next village up the valley and stole a young girl and made her his new bride. Then he hit up the down river village and took another bride. Eventually, both Fijian clans attacked and the Tongans were routed. The girl from the village down river was returned to her home, but she later gave birth to a child. Our friend Simon says she was from his village at Laselase.
After a quick trip to see the fresh fruit and vegetable market in Sigatoka, we hit the road and drove back to the marina. We made it back by 2:00 and we all congratulated Simon on showing us a great time. We learned lots and made new friends. That’s what cruising is all about.