It feels counterintuitive to be watching the turquoise blue of the South Pacific disappear in the distance as our rickety old minibus bounces and lurches deeper into the heart of Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu. The red-clay road is potholed and winds steadily upwards into the verdant highlands. We’ve left behind a beach bar with buckets of beer and a perfect palm-fringed, fine-sand beach where I’d made myself all too comfortable the previous day. But it isn’t Fiji’s beaches that have lured me here, rather a chance meeting a few months earlier with an American whitewater rafting pioneer named George, who told me, wide-eyed with excitement, of a tropical ‘Grand Canyon’ slicing its way through the country’s lush interior.
“It will blow your mind!” George had exclaimed. “Ya just gotta do it! It’s the real Fiji!”
It is a phrase I will hear often as we raft down the Upper Navua River.
“Bula!” screams the genial Moses, our head guide, as the minibus grinds to a halt. We’re four hours deep into the jungle. It’s hot and ?the only sound is a low rumbling roar.
“The river!” declares Joe, another guide with a smile almost as wide as Moses’. His energy, like all the guides, is infectious. It was obvious when we first met at the Rivers Fiji head office in Pacific Harbour that they were just as excited as we were about the two-day journey ahead.
“This river is the highway of our ancestors,” Joe later explains as we cool our feet. “We are honoured to be allowed on it.” With a flick of his oar, he splashes me with refreshing cold water, laughs and tells me to pay attention as he takes us through a quick safety briefing.
The rapids of the Upper Navua at this time of year are moderate at best (class II to III) and apparently never reach the magnitude of the much more famous runs on the Colorado or Nile rivers. It’s my first-ever whitewater rafting trip, however, and I’m content with a gentle initiation. But within a minute of pushing off, we drop nose-deep into the first rapid. Adrenaline kicks in as the cool water drenches us, increasing tenfold as we paddle around the first bend.
We are in a gorge about four metres wide with 50-metre-high black volcanic rock towering on either side. It could easily be the start of a Disneyland thrill ride themed on a cross between The Lord of the Rings and Deliverance. Waterfalls shower sporadically from the jungle above as the sun shines through the spray and mist. I stare up in awe. It is surreal and, much to Joe’s amusement, I almost fall in as we bounce off the rock face and into another rapid. “Paddle left!” Joe yells. “Harder, harder! Ok bula!” We all high-five with our oars.
The river snakes through towering cliffs, and Joe makes a point of directing our raft under the heavier of the waterfalls, laughing hysterically to himself. There are more than 50 waterfalls along the Upper Navua in the dry season (May to October), and double that in the wet (November to April). We’re catching the tail end of the wet season and I lose count after an hour. Joe points out a thin waterfall almost 50 metres high cascading out of the jungle fringe, and tells me it is the tears of a heartbroken lover. Local legends, I learn, are plentiful on this river. Almost on cue, guide Pita, paddling solo in a kayak, breaks into a mournful local love song that echoes through the canyon. He only stops when Moses splashes him with an oar.
After a well-earned riverside lunch we raft out of the gorge and the river widens, winding through dense green jungle as far as I can see. There is no sign of anyone else, save for the odd piece of clothing hanging from a branch, caught during a wet-season flood. We stop along the way to swim, drifting along with the rafts and jumping off ledges as high as we can climb along the river’s edge. Joe takes us for a river ‘massage’ and I lie on a rock ‘massage table’ under the full force of a small but powerful waterfall. I can just hear Joe crying “bula” from under the pounding water as I clench to avoid an enema.
As the sun sets we pull up at a ready-made camp site just downriver from Wainadiro Village. The daytrippers (we are on a rare overnight adventure) are bussed out and we stretch out by the river, listening to the sound of the flowing water and laughing at the day’s adventures. The Wainadiro villagers invite us over for a traditional kava ceremony. This isn’t manufactured. It isn’t in the brochure. It is a genuine traditional welcome, and I feel honored to be sitting with the village elders. This is real. They are clearly proud and very welcoming, but perhaps a little overly generous with the kava. The trip back to camp is somewhat unsteady. The night is as bright as the moon, stars shine without artificial competition, and I’m asleep almost before my head hits the pillow.
I wake early to a thick morning mist. A white-collared kingfisher darts above the water as a canoe full of children motors past. The Navua is still a highway for the local villagers. The guides have cooked breakfast and pumped up kayaks for us to tackle the rapids of the lower Navua. It is still a leisurely paddle and for the first half of the day villages are few and far between. The odd rapid keeps us alert, as do the ever-playful guides.
Saving the best for last, we pull our kayaks ashore and trek up a tributary to a waterfall almost 40 metres high and easily 10 metres wide. The noise is deafening. The guides set the pace and disappear into the thundering wall of water, but not before looking back and waving us in. The power of the water is intense and unrelenting and I’m flattened within seconds. I resort to crawling on my stomach commando-style through the pounding torrent. Winded and disoriented, I make it through. Sitting against the smooth, black volcanic wall, I watch the cascade power down in front of me. Whoever’s tears these are, they are seriously bawling.
Back on the Navua we laze in the water waiting for a longboat to arrive and take us on the remaining leg of our journey. A large tour group wanders out of a village down river and piles into a longboat of their own. They head south, not realising they’ve missed out on the incredible waterfall we’ve just experienced. We overtake them later that day as they head up man-made steps to a viewing platform to see what looks, by comparison, like a trickle of water dribbling down the rock face. As we chug along the river, the jungle slowly recedes and signs of industry start to blot the landscape.
Later, I am told there is no chance of any industry making its way into the pristine Upper Navua. Thankfully, in 2000 a conservation area was declared to preserve the region. In a unique first, a lease was signed between Rivers Fiji and the local landowners to prevent any logging or mining occurring within 200 metres of the river, thus establishing the Upper Navua Conservation Area. The landowners were convinced the long-term tourism benefits would far outweigh any short-term riches to be reaped from plundering the area for resources. Apparently an American whitewater rafting pioneer named George Wendt helped set the wheels in motion back in 1998.
And, by George, he was right. The real Fiji sure did blow my mind.
Fiji Airways flies direct to Nadi from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Pacific Harbour is about a four-hour drive from Nadi.
Beach bures and villas are available at the Uprising Beach Resort on Pacific Harbour, about a 2.5-hour drive from Nadi. With its own private beach and personal service, it’s a much better option than any of the mainstream hotels.