NADI | FIJI
DURING THE GREAT AGE OF PACIFIC EXPLORATION THE FIJIAN ISLANDS WERE GIVEN A WIDE BERTH BY SAILORS SUCH AS CAPTAIN COOK BASED ON THEIR OMINOUS REPUTATION AS “THE CANNIBAL ISLES”. UNLIKE A LOT OF OLD SAILING STORIES IT WAS A REPUTATION WELL DESERVED. I FLEW FROM AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND TO LAND IN THE HEART OF FIJI, THE MAIN ISLAND CALLED VITI LEVU. I HAD FIVE DAYS TO STOP OVER HERE ON MY WAY TO MEXICO. FIVE DAYS TO AVOID ENDING UP IN A POT.
I found myself staying in a hostel on the coast of Nadi, a place called Smuggler’s Cove. You can’t come to an island paradise like Fiji and sleep in the town right? It’s a cheap and cheerful place, the beach called Wailoaloa, wouldn’t win many awards for “Best beach in Fiji”. A lot of the hostels along the beach here looked abandoned, while the “local” part of the beach was quite dodgy and was covered in a good amount of rubbish and glass. One evening while I’d gone for a walk I came across a bunch of local guys drinking. One guy got up and followed me around asking for weed, beer and money. He got quite aggressive too, so I decided to fight fire with fire. After a few comments about how “fat and juicy” he looked I found myself alone again. Alone and surprisingly hungry.
At the time I was there Fiji was undergoing one of it’s longest ever droughts. I had an image of Fiji as a lush tropical paradise. I’m sure many parts of it are, the area around Nadi at the time looked dry and bare, even the palm trees had turned an unhealthy shade of yellow. It was sugar cane burning season too, so most of the time the mountains along the coast were obscured by thick smoke. There was a mountain range close by town which looked like a giant lying on it’s back. Now through the smoke it looked like Darth Vaders funeral pyre.
Ok, so those are the negatives out of the way. Luckily I’m not much of a beach guy. I came here primarily due to my interest in Fiji’s dark history, a period of time the locals now refer to as na gauna ni tevoro – the time of the devil.
Warfare and cannibalism was a part of everyday life here in Fiji, many of the early missionaries in the 19th century found this out to their cost. One chief is said to have eaten over 800 people. He piled a stone outside his door every time he had a snack, today these are known as the Great Pyramids of Giza. Not far from Nadi lies a cave system known as the Naihehe caves. It was in these caves that Fiji’s last remaining cannibal tribe were killed when Fiji finally converted to christianity. I joined an australian couple heading for the caves, and after a few hours bouncing around dusty dirt tracks in our weird 4×4 vehcicle we arrived at what looked like a small farm.
Inside the farmhouse lived the local chief. We were expected to ask his blessing before we entered the Naihehe cave. In fijian the word “naihehe” means “a place to get lost”. Legend has it that if you don’t seek permission from the chief the angry spirits inside will ensure you never see the light of day again. As with everything here in Fiji permission is gained via the form of a kava ceremony. Kava is a local plant root, and when ground down and mixed with water it forms a mild hallucinogen. It’s ground down in a large bowl, which you then sip from, actually you down the mixture in one gulp otherwise it’s taken as an offense. Angry spirits are one thing, a hungry chief flanked by two bullish looking fijian minders is another. I downed it with gusto. It tasted like spicy dirt.
Everything in Fiji seems to revolve around kava, it’s the fijian equivalent of offering someone a cup of tea. Only drink enough of this particular tea and you might start seeing pink elephants. Strolling down the street in Nadi shop keepers bring you inside for kava, probably hoping to drug you enough that you’ll buy their crap. The Nadi area has a reputation as a resort town. However all the resorts are out by the beach. Nadi town itself is a run down dodgy place, populated by shifty guys on streets corners offering you their sisters. Literally.
Back at the cave entrance a strategically placed skull did little to calm the nerves. The cave was haunted by the Fiji’s last cannibal tribe, and even worse, it was flooded with about two feet of water – and I didn’t bring my sandals. I’d have to do this barefoot, but caves are usually smooth enough right?
For a cave perpetually under water the stones sure were sharp and jagged. I winced my way inside, each step more painful than the last. Our guide was explaining the various parts of the cave and the chambers but I wasn’t taking much of it in. There was the Pregnancy Stoop – a part of the cave in which an underhang made you stoop over a fallen log. If a woman was unknowingly pregnant she wouldn’t be able to pass under, and so was killed and eaten. Two for the price of one in Old Fiji I guess. There were various rooms and chambers were people were killed and the bodies were kept. We came to a formation known as the Cannibal Oven. It was a natural hole in the rock wall which created a chimney which was originally open to the air. Bodies and bones were cooked in here before being ritually eaten. Hell’s Kitchen essentially, which could only get worse if it still featured Gordan Ramsey.
I counted the seconds until I reached the open air so I could sit down and discover if my feet had been reduced to bloody stumps or not. Thankfully they were still intact. Lesson learned, in a place like Fiji always wear your sandals. And look unappetising. At least I had half of that down.
Back at the hostel beach life continued as normal. I had free kayak rental so every morning I went for a kayak around the beach. Later on one of the hostel staff would give a quick lecture about the history of Fiji. Sordid tales of cannibalism and black magic lose a bit of their morbidity when retold on a sunny beach after a few beers and using props from the gift shop. Still, it was interesting, and followed up with the usual “people say that in remote parts of the islands people still practice eating other people. So tip me generously…..or I might eat you!”. I never tip anyone who threatens to eat me. Never have, never will.
One of my favourite things about the Pacific Islands – at least from watching TV – are the dances and the firewalking. Probably the most famous of these dances is the Hawiian hula, here in Fiji it is known as meke, and both men and women perform it for a variety of purposes – war dancing, marriages and celebrations, or the fact you’ve just eaten your Aunt Pippa are all valid reasons for a good meke.
I booked a tour through my hostel to a place called Robinson Crusoe Island. It promised traditional Fijian dancing, firewalking and food. While on the bus to the boat the tour guide asked for volunteers. Our “tribe” would need a chief and an assistant to talk to the Islands chief and partake in the welcoming kava ceremony. Today was pick on the Irish guy day, so I became chief despite running an election campaign even worse than Cam Brady. As assistant I nominated Mike from Australia. Mike from Australia was visiting with his american girlfriend and I had gotten chatting to them at the bus stop. As chief it was forbidden for me to talk personally with the other chief. Mike from Australia would be my interpreter. With our boat (now christened Titanic 2) we washed ashore on Robinson Crusoe Island hoping the natives had enough food in the fridge.
As the palm trees parted and the chief’s compound came into view Mike from Australia and myself took our ceremonial seats in front of the big man and his two associates. I whispered our greetings to Mike from Australia and dutifully he relayed them to the chiefs assistant. After an awkward few seconds of comedic silence our greeting was warmly accepted and the people of Not Cannibal Island and the nervous people of the Titanic 2 were now firm friends.
While the food was being prepared the Fijians showed us their firewalking skills. According to legend the gift of walking on fire was given to Fijian warriors by en eel in exchange for it’s life. How an eel – an aquatic creature – would have this ability in the first place is never explained. Surrounded by flickering torches the warriors strode confidently over the fire pit, each successful walk accompanied by hooting and halloring, almost as if they hadn’t expected to make it across themselves. I was just hoping they’d washed their feet beforehand, the fire pit they were walking across was the same one that was cooking our food.
Dinner was a huge buffet of meats and local specialties washed down with some delicious Fiji Bitter beer. Just as I was about to offer Mike from Australia a permanent position as official translator the lights shut off and tribal music began.
The islanders reappeared in their traditional grass skirts and started meke-ing like their lives depended on it. Some dances were very Hawaiian, while others were more fierce and almost haka-like war dances. They performed dances from all over the Pacific including Tonga and even Rapa Nui – better known as Easter Island. One thing you are told as a kid is to never play with fire. Obviously this life saving information hasn’t made it to Melanesia yet because these guys can’t get enough of it. They swirled flaming sticks over their heads, under their legs, even climbing on top of each other to wave it. Even the women were at it out on the beach. One guy was doing it blindfolded. It was like watching a behing the scenes You’ve Been Framed video. On an island covered in straw roofed buildings this is an accident waiting to happen. I’m just wondering if that’s how cannibalism got started here. So many people must have been burned accidentally and the others thought “yeah that smells nice”.
With threats coming from all angles it was a miracle the passengers and crew of Titanic 2 made it safely back to Nadi. I’m positive it was only our good name that got us through. In the giftshop I bought myself a “neck cracker”. It’s an evil looking device that kinda looks like a wooden axe that’s been possessed by Satan. Initially I loved the Fijian designs on all this stuff, but now I felt like I needed it for protection.
From Fiji I had a stopover in LAX before flying into Mexico City. In terms of danger I tried my hardest in this article not to use the phrase “out of the frying pan and into the fire” but really nothing else seemed as appropriate.
Did you know you need a visa for a stopover in the US? I didn’t. Luckily a Facebook friend of mine was randomly talking about it a few days before I was due to fly into LAX. After a few minutes later on the ESTA website I was good to go. Heart attack averted. I’m not sure what would have happened in LA if I wasn’t pre-cleared on my ESTA, it’s weird the small things you overlook that can later cause huge headaches.
Next time: Stumbling into independence day into Mexico City and celebrating in the world’s dodgiest bar. Also : I eat a cookie.