May 12, 2008

Reality Fiji

Writer: Caitlin Cherry
For: NZ Sunday Star Times
Date: May 14, 2000

Most of us who travel to Fiji only see the tourist version - we stay at resorts and sit beside the pool drinking coloured cocktails.

Few get a chance to really experience Fijian culture. New Zealander Anthony Norris of Tamarillo Tropical Expeditions, has spent many months working closely with the locals on the remote Fijian island of Kadavu, to ensure the small groups they take kayaking around the island get a chance to experience the real Fiji.

Kadavu has no television, few roads and life is dictated by the tides.

The island is almost entirely surrounded by one of the worlds largest reefs - the Great Astrolabe, which protects the waters around the island from the massive Pacific swells, and makes sea-kayaking a pleasure.

Tamarillo takes groups of up to 12 people for an 7-day trip kayaking around Kadavu and nearby Ono, staying in small, simple resorts and in local villages. I took the trip with 2 Americans, an Australian and three other New Zealanders.

The first two nights were spent on Ono, at a small palm-fringed resort called Jona's Paradise. With a small coral reef right by the shoreline, the snorkelling there is amazing. This is where we had our kayaking training, and got a chance to walk with our Fijian guide Petero to the top of the island to see the lay of the land.

We began our kayaking trip on the third day - hugging the coastline we paddled around the southern coast of Ono, stopping for lunch at a beautiful bay where an old man, called Taito, with lots of stories to tell, lives on his own in the small bure he built himself. The support boat carrying our luggage arrived before us, and lunch was ready when we pulled onto the shore.

In the afternoon we kayaked for another couple of hours to the village of Naqara - all the children from the village were there to welcome us as we pulled in to the shore. Naqara is a very traditional village - which meant we had to change into more modest attire, covering our shoulders and legs.

After a lesson from Petero on village etiquette, we headed into the village meeting house.

Our guides offered the villagers a kava root on our behalf, which was ground up to make a huge bowl of kava - and the ceremony began. The taste of kava can be hard to get used to, but it is fairly rude to refuse it - at least not the first time. The four New Zealanders heartily drank every bowl until our mouths went numb.

We then were called away to another room, where the most incredible feast had been put on for us - prawns, stuffed crabs, fish - it is impossible to describe, except to say it was one of the most delicious meals I have ever eaten.

After dinner we returned to the meeting house for more kava and a Taralala - or dance - to music from three guitars. We all danced until the kava ran out in the early hours of the morning.

After a comfortable night in a bure, a delicious breakfast, and a fond farewell to the people of the village, we headed back around the Ono coastline, stopping for some more incredible snorkelling, another tasty lunch and plenty of strong (real) coffee. We then crossed the channel to Kadavu in the support boat.

We spent the night at another small palm-fringed resort - Alberts Place - and in the morning began the trip around the island of Kadavu.

This day was the highlight of my trip - as we rounded the eastern tip of the island we saw two humpback whales, a mother and her calf, just a few metres from our kayaks.

The view from a kayak is totally unique - you get to see the beautiful coastline, cruise through the mangroves, kayak over incredible coral reefs - I saw a reef shark, two rare sea turtles and more shades of turquoise than I knew existed.

We spent the next night at a resort called Matava - which runs diving expeditions out past the Astrolabe reef - and hires out all the equipment needed. It also has a bar - which was a welcome relief for many of the people on my trip.

The moment we arrived at Matava a marathon session of touch rugby began on the beach with some of the local Fijian lads from the area. This was of course followed by another incredible feast.

In the morning we set off in our kayaks on a day trip to the village of Nacamoto. When we arrived another incredible feast was laid out for us - crabs, prawns, eggplant - again impossible to describe - except to say I was in ecstasy.

All of us stuffed ourselves yet again, so we all keeled over for a nap, before taking a scenic walk, over the hills back to Matava, led by one of the villagers.

It was a chance to see more incredible views of the island and the roaring Pacific swells smashing onto the reef in the distance.

After a dip in a river swimming hole in another village along the way, we returned to Matava for our final night on Kadavu.

The following morning we took a boat trip to Kadavu's one small grass airstrip and flew back to the mainland, and Nadi's Tokatoka Resort.

Now this is the Fiji that I knew before - poolside bar, fancy cocktails, hundreds of middle-aged Australians wearing slacks and polyester summer dresses. But it all just seemed so tacky after the experience of the previous days.

What we experienced on Ono and Kadavu is not something a traveller could not do on their own.

Tamarillo have worked very hard to develop relationships with the locals on the two islands - so that we are welcomed into their homes, and looked after as if we were family.

Sea-kayaking with Tamarillo is an expedition for people with a sense of adventure - who want to really experience ALL that Fiji has to offer.

I would do this trip again in a flash.