Fiji Part 3: Around and about in Viti Levu
28 September - 6 October 2008: Viti Levu, Fiji
Our early return to Viti Levu meant we had a few days to explore the main island before Eleanor and Andy flew back to the UK. So we decided to rent a car for a couple of days and follow the coast road north and south. Eleanor really wanted to do a hike to some waterfalls recommended in the guidebook so we packed all our gear and headed north early on a Sunday morning. It was another wet and miserable day, so we decided to find some other distractions and wait for the rain to stop. As we drove through Nadi we stopped at the Sri Siva Subrahmaniya Swami Temple, built by the local Indian population in 1994 with the help of skilled workers flown in from India. The whole building is painted in a multitude of colours and covered in sculptors and geometric designs. It was a colourful monument befitting the active Indian community in the town.
From there we followed the main road north past sugar plantations and small farm holdings still being tended with an ox drawn plough. We stopped at the Vuda point marina, famed among yachties as the place where they bury yachts in the ground during hurricane season. We saw a few examples of yachts already in their secure resting place, their keels poking deep into the ground and only the hulls showing above ground. As we approached Fiji's second largest city, Lautoka, the industries sustaining the local population came into view. We passed a wood mill, where a mountain of wood chip was waiting to be exported to paper factories. We could smell the distillery that uses Molasses from the sugar mill to make rum, whisky, vodka and gin. Towering above all this was the Sugar Mill, one of the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. This is their busiest time, and on the drive up we came across endless lorries laden down with sugar cane, or saw farmers loading the cane onto the cane train. We parked the car outside the factory gates, amongst hundreds of lorries waiting to deliver their cargo to the mill. The 100 year old plant had broken down that morning, causing a backlog of raw cane to build up. The lorries came in all shapes and sizes, mostly old fashioned American or Japanese models, and the drivers could be seen in small groups sheltering from the rain under their cargo. At the back of this cane lorry park were the narrow gauge railway tracks of the Cane Train, a few engines idly scattered about waiting to do some work. I peeked curiously into one of the engines and the driver appeared from nowhere and gestured for me to climb into the cab. Before I knew it the four of us were crammed into the cab with the driver, who sounded two toots of the horn and pulled the engine forwards! We drove slowly along the edge of the factory, then at the end the driver changed gears, and raced backwards at full speed, bouncing along on the uneven track. It was so much fun I couldn't stop smiling!
The rain finally stopped so headed into the hills to try to find the National Park containing the hike to the waterfalls. Unfortunately our vague map failed us once we were off the main road, and we drove aimlessly through several villages following directions given to us by the locals ("go straight then up and left for a bit then this way and back again then ask someone else"… J). As we got nearer the roads stopped being paved and we made bumpy slow progress along dirt tracks in our low slung family saloon. After travelling up and down the same uneven road four times and still not finding any sign of the park we gave up and headed back to the luxury of tarmac and signposts. Moral of the story is: if you want to go off the beaten track in Fiji, rent a 4x4!
On the second day we drove south from Nadi, visiting the Momi Battery Historic Park containing two Boar War guns set up by the New Zealand Army to guard the pass through the reef during the Second World War. We were given a short tour of the site by the park keeper who then left us to admire the view of the outlying reefs and islands.
The coastal road south went through more lush vegetation and fewer farms and villages than the road north to Lautoka. Every so often the road would climb away from the sea around a cliff and we would get a glimpse of the tall mountains in the island's interior. After several miles of nothing but thick undergrowth and small brooks we came to another large town, Sigatoka, and turned up the eastern bank of the broad Sigatoka River towards the Tavuni Hill Fort archaeological site. The fort was established by a Tongan tribe that had settled in the area to protect them from attacks by neighbouring tribes. It was destroyed by the British during colonisation, but is still run and maintained by Tongan descendants from the nearby village. At the reception desk we were met by a cheerful old Fijian, who offered to give us a tour of the site. We accepted, and followed him up the hill to the forts ruins. The guide gave us a very good description of what the hill was like when it was inhabited, and of the fortifications that were built to defend it. He was a real character, and interspersed his historical patter with comments on Fijian and village politics, culture, sailors and more. It was hard to keep track of his ramblings, but fun to listen for the insights they gave us into traditional village life in Fiji. It was interesting to find out a little more about pre-colonial Fiji (including the gory details about cannibalism) and the hill offered great views of the river valley below.
From Sigatoka the road rambles on through endless villages and past the Coral Coast filled with large fenced off hotel resorts. I am amazed that Fiji can support such a huge influx of tourists in all these resorts, but there is obviously a demand, as everywhere we saw signs of new developments and property for sale. It seems that Fiji is to the Australians and Kiwis what Spain is to the British.
This was Eleanor and Andy's last day in Fiji so we sadly headed back to Nadi and dropped them off at the airport. Rahula seemed strangely empty without any guests, and as always we started thinking about moving on to new destinations. Unfortunately the weather had other ideas, and strong winds kept us in Fiji for another week. During that time I celebrated my birthday, and having been out for a lovely meal with Eleanor and Andy we stayed in and James cooked me a delicious supper. He also wrote Happy Birthday in balloons across the boat the night before after I had gone to sleep, which was a great surprise in the morning!
Finally the weather looked right for us to make the long hop to New Caledonia, so we provisioned, checked out (encountering more Fijian bureaucracy), hung around at Musket Cove for a couple of days, then departed, waving goodbye to the interesting islands of Fiji.