I am on all fours, dragging my knees through water the colour of troubled thoughts. Inside Naihehe caves—a grin knifing open the garden-sweet rainforests on Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu—it is important to watch your step. Especially if you were a woman of the Navosa tribe in 19th century Fiji, quips my guide Bella.
Bella is chatty, and on the morning of my excursion, puckering her painted red lips. The kind of swinging presence you’d feel safe following into a cave with a cannibal history. Hands on hips, surveying my gecko-crawl through a particularly narrow chasm, she tells me about the ‘pregnancy gap.’ Back in the day, when the cave was a tribal fortress, women had to squeeze through the be-careful-or-hit-your-head slit to prove that they were not with child. I am not and yet I struggle. Mostly because the water is cold enough to make bones clink like Chardonnay glasses. Naihehe, I am told, can only be entered in good faith, its secrets entrusted to a guardian priest from the nearby Sautabu village. You may approach Fiji’s largest cave system, swaddled in the Sigatoka Valley, only after you have shed your foreign gaze. Like most pre-Christian rituals of the land, there is a method to this communion with nature. I have sought permission from the high priest with a sevusevu (traditional gift) of kava, my intentions behind the visit translated over ceremonial swigs of the heady drink.
There’s only so much your mind can stray in a cave full of tales, narrated in echoes bouncing off sabre-toothed stalagmites and stalactites that drip drip drip. During Fiji’s wet season, especially around November, the pathway is flooded. But right now, it is easy to get sucked into stories of Navosa women and children living in the caves as civil warfare threatened the valley tribe. Clutching Bella’s hands, I am the flappy, fly-away half of a two-woman paper chain, moving sideways into the main chamber that opens up to reveal astonishing room. We hobble past flowstones that have turned the cave walls into ten-rupee marble cakes, red and brown water squiggles visible through the dark. And right there, Bella points out, is the lone ‘secret passage’ residents used to clamber up and out. “To hunt for yams and tapiocas, ya know?” Strategic formations lent themselves to different purposes of tribal life; separate hollows, identified as warrior’s chamber and the chief’s swimming cove, the latter sacred and still off limits. Unless you’d rather meet the fate of “the man who went swimming and came back blind.” But nothing holds my attention like the cannibal oven, used to cook, well, what cannibals cook.
“Head and heart for the chief, for wisdom; arms and legs for the warriors, for strength; stomach and back for the women, for fertility,” Bella explains.
Off-roading back to Sautabu on a big red ATV, I wait for the water on my skin to dissolve like the wind in my hair. Bella stops to pick up a white lily off the forest floor, also overrun with ginger and rosemallow blooms. “Tuck it behind your right ear if you taken; behind the left if you single.” My embarrassed silence, haunted by cicadas’ chirping, receives a quick fix. “Both ears then, if it is so complicated.” There it is, that full-throated laughter you can follow safely into caves. Now almost dry, I join in. (offroadfiji.com/safaris.)
Jay-Z speaks longingly of his hometown. Not New York, but the Mamanuca islands, a part of the Fijian archipelago off the western coast of Viti Levu. My tandem parasailing instructor is no less studly than the rapper, some might argue more. I tell him how my home in the Indian city of Calcutta is annoyingly east of Mumbai, where I work. “Mumbai. Shah Rukh Khan?” For the first time since I’ve allowed myself to be hoisted up 330 feet in the air—balloon-strung to a white speck boat by a rope and a harness—I laugh.
Perhaps Shah Rukh Khan is appropriate conversation for a parasailing rookie and her instructor, dangling above waves. Below me, the water along Natadola beach is blue as can be, hyphenated by hiccups of mint and violet. “Violet. The water is violet!” I point out the obvious. Jay-Z laughs and says something about ocean algae. If I fail to register, it is because my eyes are peeled onto what looks like a bed of giant silver eels wiggling across the Pacific in a migration spectacle. Really, they are just crests of surf catching the sun’s silver, but what’s 20 minutes in the sky without some imagination?
Imagination comes with its banes—I cannot stop picturing myself unconscious and hanging limp, saved from a fall, but not humiliation, by the darned harness. “Close eyes, let loose,” Jay-Z offers. I obey, slackening the grip on my chute. As if on cue, the wind picks up. But I don’t panic this time. Eyes closed, I only see an infinite loop of silver eels wiggling across the ocean. Parasailing, I decide, offers a decent high. In more than one way. (fiji.intercontinental.com/recreation-golf-breaks-diving-snorkeling/dive-water-sports-in-fiji.)
My throat’s dusty, my calves screaming. The sun belching out a mid-March afternoon on the sand dunes isn’t much help. But young ranger Ifereimi’s knowledge of the 390 acres of peppery, vine-laced Sigatoka Sandunes National Park—established in 1989 and Fiji’s first—is persuasive.
“Look at the sand rising and falling. Keep walking for an hour, you will reach the ocean.” True to Ifereimi’s words, the two-hour trek across the monoliths, brought to life by the erosion of the coastal hinterland over thousands of years, takes me to the Pacific coast. Our way to the dancing waves is through grey dunes marked by wooden trail signs. The landscape, adding massive drama at the mouth of the Sigatoka river, refuses to behave like a textbook desert. Instead, it rebels in flares of morning glories, feral pinks here and greens knots there, screw pines splashed across miles and miles of what looks to me like a scrunched up tie-and-dye bedsheet.
But the treasures above earth are nothing compared to those under our feet. “You are standing above human bones and artefacts buried here from the time of the first human arrival in Fiji in 1,100 B.C.,” Ifereimi declares. My mind harks back to the specimen of pottery, ceramic shards and pots or bowls from over 2,600 years ago, that I’d seen back at the visitor’s centre. When wind blows in the right direction, it lifts the lost years off these archeological treasures still being excavated.
The waves are racking up a din but you’d want in on their noise.
Bonfire-sized heaps of driftwood dot the shores leading up to a mahogany forest planted in the 1960s to stem the dune’s erosion. This finger-snap shift in landscapes takes away some of the exhaustion, replacing it with the thrill of meeting a Fijian swallow-tail butterfly or a Pacific boa between the trees. We make our way into the forest through screeches that belong in a budget Hollywood horror (fruit bats) and a distinct dip in temperature. At a clearing, I stop and commit to memory the image of sun sliding off a tree-slung spider web. We have reached the close of our trail.
I thank my guide and ask him the meaning of his sing-song name. “It is word in ancestral tongue, I don’t know meaning,” Ifereimi shrugs. “But it is old, very old. Like the dunes.” (www.fiji.travel)
“Don’t worry about derailing. But when you come to the bridge, remember to—” “Decelerate,” I parrot under my breath as Mandy Heron watches over. We are on the Coral Coast, which stretches between Sigatoka and Suva in southern Viti Levu. If wilderness is essential to Fiji, in Sigatoka it is the fourth element. And a teaser ride on “the world’s first” rail-mounted, electric-assisted pushbikes, jouncing along 12 kilometres of abandoned sugarcane railway, promises a lot of wild.
The actual three-hour tour of the tandem buggies is booked-out for the day. Mine is a shorter demo cruise, courtesy Mandy, wife and business partner of Eco Trax inventor Howie de Vries. The Kiwi couple—green crusaders and train geeks by admission—took this rusty piece of Fijian history and turned it into a revamped velocipede ride in 2017. Mandy, seated beside me at the very grungy, garagesque safety briefing ‘shed,’ tells me about the way ahead. That we are plonked on old airplane seats used on the sets of American series Wrecked should be thrilling enough. Throw in an impending brush with jangling river bridges; rainforests laundered by recent drizzles; salted rockfaces; goats, horses and mongoose running wild. On the extended (90 minute) route, the shuffle would include milky coasts, hill fortresses, mangrove foliage, high-fives on the go (when children from passing villages greet you with big bright ‘bulas,’ you’re expected to ‘bula’ right back), and even a tropical beach picnic. But time is of essence.
Having said that, on a run across beaches and vine flower tunnels—Mandy calls it the ‘Tunnel of Love’—time is as easily immaterial. Hair whipped around by the wind, palm on the accelerator button by my handlebar, I’ m sure I can fly. A storm of sights and sounds surround me. Crashing waves, rails that rattle like dida’s ill-fitting dentures, golden leaves drizzling from boughs overhead. At almost 40 kilometres an hour (stick to 20, kids), they register as a mix tape sweetening the motion picture of my flight. “The bridge, the bridge. Slow down!” an Eco Trax crew member hollers me back to reality.
Accelerate. Pedal if you please. Decelerate. The family-friendly push biking is no rocket science. But in this faraway nook of the world, it feels extraordinary. Like a faint dream rushing back to mind. (www.fiji.travel.)
There are no direct flights from India to Fiji. Flights from Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru to the gateway city of Nadi on the archipelago’s Viti Levu island include one or more layovers at Southeast Asian cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong, or stops in Melbourne, Brisbane or Auckland. It is a one-hour drive from Nadi to Sigatoka via the hibiscus-and-frangipani-frilled Queens Road.
Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is former Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.