In a single year 330 000 Australians will holiday in Fiji; and yet there’s a secret here so well kept that all but a handful of Australian travellers have ever done what I’m about to do.
While Fiji’s golden-sand beaches and its warm seas are what suck us in by the plane-load, I’d heard talk of a river rafting journey that’s every bit as enticing.
Locals call the river I’m set to traverse The River Of Eden. The Upper Navua River is one of the world’s most pristine rivers, protected by one of the most unusual conservation co-operations: land-owning clans (mataqali), local villages, a logging company and a rafting company came together 17 years ago to form the Upper Navua Conservation Area.
The Navua River flows for 65 kilometres from the highlands of Fiji’s largest island of Vitu Levu, to its south coast. While it’s been possible to take a shorter day tour rafting the river before, it has been impossible to stay overnight on the river – until now, that is. But tours go so infrequently that I’ve been told rafters on the overnight journeys still feel as if they’re doing it for the very first time.
I’m driven across a stomach-lurching roller coaster ride on a logging road that peaks and plunges through virgin forest in the highlands just north of Fiji’s ever-popular Coral Coast. We drive through mist, almost getting bogged in the muddy trails until we stop and walk instead along a narrow path through the jungle.
We reach a river dwarfed by rocky canyons with sheer cliffs that jut up 40 metres. Huge ferns and palms provide shade from the fierce Melanesian sunshine.
As we take to the river I instantly feel its pull spiral us swiftly downstream, past waterfalls and pretty white sand beaches. We stop to swim under waterfalls (there’s over 50 in this area alone). The scenery changes with every turn of the river, at times I bake in perfect sunshine, the next moment I’m dodging sudden bursts of heavy rainfall in a water ride through thick forest and green canyons.
We drift like this all day, swimming at waterfalls and sunning ourselves on beaches, until we reach our river camp in the late afternoon. Tents are set up just beside a bend in the river while a dinner of pork, chicken, taro and fish is prepared in a traditional earth oven by our local guides.
Just before the sun goes down, we take a flimsy wooden boat to a village nearby. There’s no TV or lights here, my path is lit by kerosene lamps and candles and electricity is supplied for just a few hours a week by way of a noisy generator. Kids play boisterous games of soccer between paw-paw trees. I’m allowed to enter the chief’s house where I sit with him and drink kava. When we’re done, I drift back down the Navua by moonlight, and eat a meal by starlight as the river rushes past us.
It’s a simple camp – though I do have mattresses and a fluffy pillow; but toilets are communal, and bathing comes courtesy of the free-flowing freshwater river. But in the morning when I wake at dawn to birdsong and a forest covered entirely by fog – which lifts as the heat of the sun burns it off – I doubt I’ve ever felt so spoilt in Fiji.
After breakfast we set back out on the Navua, passing villages rarely seen by visitors, and stopping to sit under a fast-flowing 30-metre-high waterfall.
I make it out near the Coral Coast, each corner of the river here brings with it vistas as picturesque as you’ll see anywhere in the Pacific. In 30 minutes I’m at a resort on Fiji’s always-popular Coral Coast – taking part in cultural nights and dancing displays and kava ceremonies with scores of other Australians on vacation; and the secrets of life as it always has been in Fiji on the Upper Navua seem a million miles away.