From a cannibal history to wild horses, off-roading in Fiji's hidden valleys is a sensory journey through a tempestuous past.
“We have four main religions here: Christian, Hindu, Muslim and…rugby!” quips our driver Joe. His face is deadpan, but his eyes smile audibly. We brake as a group of runaway horses with flailing tethers gallop by. Two blue pinafore-clad schoolgirls watch on, unperturbed—clearly, just another day on Viti Levu.
On our off-road cave safari we drive through the Sigatoka Valley. Producing 70 percent of the nation’s produce, it’s dubbed ‘the salad bowl of Fiji’. Kumara, taro, cassava, peanut, pawpaw and mango plantations make up the fields, as does the ubiquitous coconut palm.
After a jet-boat transfer across the Sigatoka River, we board our custom-built 'all terrain vehicle', and bounce through the heart of Fiji’s crumbling tracks, interrupted only by flowing streams and wild ponies. Driving through Mavua village, children race from thatched houses to high-five us, packing an impressive punch.
Reaching his family bure (wood and straw hut) in the lush highlands, we don our sulus (a traditional Fijian skirt) to meet Priest Jo. He accepts our sevusevu (gift) of the traditional kava drink, and then invites us to share in a customary kava-drinking ritual. Ben, our tour guide, is assigned group chief, so he consumes the first bowl of the narcotic drink on behalf of our tribe. With all tongues and tonsils suitably numbed, we’re ordained as Priest Jo’s extended family, and granted permission to enter Naihehe Cave, of which he is the traditional custodian. Through a jungle of banana trees, ferns and bamboo, we reach the well-hidden cave, frenzied by swooping swallows guarding nests. On go the head-torches.
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Inside, we squat, tracking a bamboo handrail, and crabwalk beneath a low serrated passageway named ‘pregnancy gap’. It was believed that if a girl hid her pregnancy, she’d become stuck here. Emerging into a cathedral-like chamber, ghostly faces appear carved into the walls.
“This cavity was used as an oven for cooking humans," says Ben. In the eerie silence of the chilled air, we learn about Fiji’s tribal warfare days, when the fortress-like cave hid cannibal tribes. Viewing a sacrificial ledge, we struggle to imagine the turbulent times of Priest Jo’s ancestors.
Christianity was introduced to Fiji during the mid 19th Century. Chief Na Kalevu preached for all to convert, but the local Nabuavatu clan of the Sautabu people complied reluctantly.
In July 1867, English missionary, Reverend Thomas Baker, arrived with a group of local missionaries. After being ambushed while walking between towns, he was killed and eaten. From the somber light, our guide blows into a conch to thank the cave’s spirits for keeping us safe.
We return to Priest Jo’s home for a feast of a more tasteful and peaceful kind. Upon his family’s fields of pumpkins, long-beans and sweetcorn, we enjoy a barbecue lunch of Fijian sausage, salads and garden-fresh fruits. Water buffalo laze in the distance while children play hide-and-seek between washing lines of swaying clothes, content in the harmonious village life they enjoy today.