It's been a while between drinks...
International trips have been few and far between for me in recent years, and the need to hand over a passenger arrival card to a smiley customs officer at Nadi Airport in Fiji catches me off guard.
In a fluster, I apologetically rummage through my carry-on bag. Before my flight, I was told patience is a virtue which all Fijians are born with. They commonly refer to this trait as 'Fiji Time' and in what feels like actual slow motion, I finally locate my immigration card, scrunched up in my back pocket.
The officer scrutinises it for only a second, then his face lights up once he learns where I'm headed. "My friend, you're about to experience the real Fiji," he says.
It's mind-blowing to think that Fiji, a mere smudge in the South Pacific, is actually an archipelago of more than 330 different islands. The Vanua Levu group, which borders the Koro Sea in the South Pacific, makes up only eight of these, but is home to some of the most spectacular coral reefs and rainforests.
This micro archipelago boasts a colourful Fijian culture which I'm told by 'Mr Customs' I will fall in love with.
Vanua Levu attracts a passionate diving community, and with some of the best marine parks in the world, why wouldn't it? For this cautious adventurer, who's barely ventured more than a metre below sea level, I'm determined to uncover what else the region has to offer.
It's now 5:30am, and the breathtaking sight of first light peeks above the horizon and bathes the unmistakable Vanua Levu landscape in a warm glow. My first stop is Taveuni Island, Fiji's third-largest island, often referred to by its other name, 'Garden Island.' An enormous range of tropical plant species found here makes Taveuni the envy of any indoor houseplant enthusiast. Palms, ferns, hibiscus and Devil's Ivy – something that you'd pay just shy of AU$100 a pot in a Toorak plant store – seem to blanket the entire Taveuni landscape.
As we traverse the island’s rugged roads, I'm fortunate to be joined by a local, Akanisi. She was born and raised on the Island and handles a 4WD with rally-like precision as she races up the steep terrain leading to Bobby's Farm.
Bobby is a conservationist on his 100-hectare property, which manages to pack in a rainforest, a farm and marine park. He runs agritourism adventures that he assures me will engage all my senses today. Bobby has a deep connection to the land. Whether sucking on fleshy cocoa seeds, munching on a germinated coconut, or rubbing leaves to create a soapy lather, the aim of his tours is to link Fijian culture and nature. This isn't difficult – the two seem to go hand in hand.
I'm still rubbing my eyes awake one early morning when Bobby points, hawk-eyed and alert, at a seemingly innocuous tree. I do a double-take. "That dove can't be orange?"
He smiles. The orange dove is endemic to Vanua Levu and to catch a glimpse of one is a rare and beautiful experience.
The Tagimoucia flower is another unexpected sighting. I'm told that the only place in the world where this crimson and white blossom grows, is on Taveuni's highest peak, Des Voeux Peak (which is also Fiji’s second highest mountain). It blooms between October and December.
The elevation of Des Voeux Peak is close to 1,200 metres above sea level and offers spectacular 360-degree views of the island. A four-hour hike to the peak amongst machete-toting farmers and a few opportunistic Fijian street dogs makes for a livelier than usual hike. Des Voeux Peak now has a dirt road for the less agile, thanks to a phone tower installation; however, the drive is not for the faint-hearted.
On this trek, I learn of a local in the village of Lavena who takes tourists out waterfall spotting on a small fibreglass fishing boat. Simi, the Taveuni native, is part of a small community run business called Lavena Ecotourism Tours which offers waterfall adventures along the Lavena Coast and can be organised through any resort in Taveuni.
Most locals on Taveuni know Simi's number and within moments of my brief phone call to Simi, I'm on the water exploring the southeast side of Taveuni, unreachable by land.
Ducking and weaving through mangroves, we reach Wainivakaca Falls, a three-tiered waterfall cascading from the spectacular mountains of the lush Bouma National Park. I'm ready for a dip. As hundreds of freshwater fish swim rampantly through my legs, I take a moment to appreciate this remote paradise, far away from reception, Wi-Fi, traffic or troubles.
I take a quick ferry ride (and I use the term ‘ferry’ very loosely) across to mainland Vanua Levu, this time finding myself in the charming village of Vunikura. The locals gather shoreside to greet us with a welcome song and an enthusiastic, "Bula!" This is the second time this has happened today already, but goosebumps still shoot down my now tanned arms as I listen to locals sing and strum their ukuleles with glowing smiles.
Tradition dictates something known as a 'Sevusevu' to be performed before visitors can enter a village. It involves a presentation of a bundle of Kava roots to the village chief. It's a gesture of respect and establishes a meaningful relationship between the host and visitor. With the chief's blessing, I'm swept up by the village locals, eager to show me around their home.
By the time we reach a small community shelter, the entire village has congregated in traditional Fijian dress to perform a traditional Fijian folk song and dance. It seems all Fijians are born with the gift of music and dance, a trait made only more impressive to someone who inherited two left feet and a tuneless singing voice.
The music ends and the high tide still hasn't arrived to take our humble fishing boat home, and I'm again reminded by the locals of 'Fiji Time.' And what else does one do when waiting on Mother Nature's Uber in Fiji? Bring out the kava bowl, of course. The bowl is used for mixing a sedative drink made from the kava plant's roots. It's the perfect end to a rigorous day and the perfect way to forget about time.
As the villagers pass around a coconut cup filled to the brim with kava; the local joy for life once again becomes apparent. Local crooners now serenade us with smooth, contemporary Fijian love songs whilst children play rugby on the village pitch.
It is all infectious and heartwarming. And as the last light dips below Buca Bay (while I’m still drinking kava and waiting for my boat) I realise that Fiji is not just about the sea, the sun or the sand; it's about joy, its people and their own sense of time.
get in the know Vanua Levu was once known to European traders as Sandalwood Island for its abundance of the handy timber.
With direct flights from Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane, Fiji Airways is our preferred airline to Nadi, Fiji. From mainland Nadi, Fiji Link, a subsidiary of Fiji Airways, is the only domestic carrier that offers daily flights to Taveuni. However, don’t expect VIP lounges or air conditioned food courts. Flying domestically in Fiji is, for lack of better words, an experience. For those feeling adventurous, the perk of flying a TWIN-OTTER is low altitudes which offer breathtaking aerial views of mountainous ranges and coral reefs.
Picking the right resort in Vanua Levu will really enhance your cultural experience. Most of the staff live in neighbouring villages so my hot tip would be to make friends with as many of the staff as possible. Who knows where that’ll take you. Here are a few resorts I’d recommend:
TAVEUNI DIVE RESORT
Owned and managed by American expats Carl & Murielle, they’ve deliberately maintained a smaller profile than their larger resort counterparts. You won’t find a kettle or a Wifi single much further than the restaurant and bar. This fosters an engaged community of enthusiastic divers who share stories of their daily marine sightings over the dinner table. All bures start at FJD$500 a night.
Spectacular Taveuni ocean views. 9 free moorings for all you diehard yachties and a foot rub on arrival. Paradise Resort is just that, paradise. They offer state-of-the-art facilities and exceptional sea and land experiences with a considerable dive focus. The blowhole tour is a must.
THE REMOTE RESORT FIJI ISLANDS
The name says it all, really. Situated on mainland Vanua Levu and with each stylish-designed villa generously spaced out from the others, you’ll feel like you’ve carved out your own secluded slice of paradise all for yourself. Remote offers bespoke romantic dining, signature off-the-beaten-path experiences, and the Vunikura village tour, the best in Fiji! Villas start from FJD$1,500.
At the end of the day, you could sit by the resort pool sipping frozen Pina Coladas with the other Aussie you met at the bar the night before, but then, can you say you’ve been to Fiji? It’s part of Fijian culture to help, and the Fijian staff or locals are more than approachable.
Immerse yourself in the culture and check with your resort which experiences they offer. Vanua Levu is a small place, and word gets around quickly, so if there’s something that’s not on the “menu” that you want to experience, then just ask someone! Next minute, you’ll be whisked away to the local village for a kava ceremony.