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Tribewanted's Virgin Footsteps, a Trek in Vanua Levu

FIJI | Friday, 22 August 2008 | Views [1835]

Junior and I on his maiden trek into Vanua Levu!

Junior and I on his maiden trek into Vanua Levu!

On Friday the 22nd of August 2008 a group of tribe members and a certain mister Ben Keene left Vorovoro for a mini-adventure, trekking into the interior of the northern Fijian mainland island of Vanua Levu.

We didn't just decide we'd go and do this on the spur of the moment, it was all part of a fledgling business idea of Save's brother, Junior. This came about after the recent initiative from Ben to help local entrepreneurs with their business ideas in order to win a government grant to help start-up.

Ben, myself, Sue, Moya, Hassan, Geoff, Ed and Kristin all boarded the boat on Friday afternoon with our small back packs and set off for Labasa and into the unknown...

Our guide for the weekend, Junior, met us at the Grand Eastern hotel and we had half an hour to kill before we needed to be on the bus which would take us to our first stop, somewhere in the interior of Vanua Levu. Most of us took the opportunity to pop into town (downtown LA) to fetch some munchies for the long bus ride ahead and (Hassan) to visit the internet cafe to check emails.

Whilst waiting for the Best Dressed Man on Vorovoro to come back from the internet cafe, the rest of us walked to the bus station to save some seats on the bus, which was leaving at 3pm. This was an interesting spot to sit for twenty minutes, as the bus was near full, with confused patrons clambering on and off of a host of buses trying to find their route, meanwhile a (literally) crooked peanut salesmen wandered around in the smog of the bus fumes selling bags of monkey nuts for 50 cents. Moya and I obliged him and the nuts were good! (Phew! ;))

Shortly before 3pm and with a near full bus, Hassan arrived with Junior and Ben and we were all seated and underway before the scheduled departure time! This generally does not happen in Fiji, hence the phrase 'Fiji time', however having just pulled out of the bus station, the bus was abruptly brought to a standstill by several pairs of hands thumping on its sides and the last few passengers loaded their casava roots underneath the bus and climbed aboard, putting the bus journey bang on schedule! The buses here have open holes where the windows would normally live, so we had good air conditioning and lots of dust for the near three hour journey after leaving the tarmac of Labasa behind after only a few miles of travel. We amused ourselves on the bus with snacks, conversation and the usual sprinkling of humour that is traditionally associated with anything 'tribewanted'. Jazzy Geoff (off of painting Api's house fame) was on form and struck up a lengthy conversation with an elderly Fijian chap for much of the journey. On route we saw yaqorna trees growing along the green road sides, which produce the Kava root that the whole of Fiji drinks (the now infamous 'grog'). Partway through the trip the bus stopped outside a little shop for a five minute stretch of the legs and a cigarette break, which was appreciated by a couple of our group. There were also several stops along the way to let passengers off, some of them with no obvious destination in sight, literally being set down in the middle of nowhere. The people that live out here in the sticks do a LOT of walking!

Somewhere between five thirty and six we arrived at our stop, a junction called Coacoa Road. There wasn't much to see, apart from dense green bush and the red muddy tracks splitting at this point. We waved farewell to those left on the bus and picked up our bags ready to walk... somewhere. Junior had organised an evening meal and accomodation for us, but had not told us quite how far we'd be walking to get there. He did suggest that torches were a good idea! I'd estimate a 4-5 kilometer walk along a battered pick-up truck smashed track through the jungle, with "this is the last hill" being uttered several times over! It was soon dark, and a few of the group were in their thongs (flip-flops!) and were starting to feel the strain underfoot. If you ask a Fijian "how far to go" or "how much longer left", you'll be greeted with the answer "not far/much" regardless of how we might perceive it and so the beach footware remained for those wearing them for the rest of the walk. Rain helped us stay refreshed for some of the night walk, which was actually quite welcomed.

We arrived at our destination around seven thirty, not knowing where we were or in what environment, only that we'd gone up hill much of the way. As is customary in any Fijian home, we were made to feel very welcomed and were introduced to the men who were sitting around the grog bowl on their breezy porch, and the women who were busy inside the house preparing our feast in their tiny kitchen. The ladies went to freshen up inside as the guys sat down around the bowl and presented a sevusevu and sunk a few bilo's. The ladies joined us and after a quick freshen up we were invited to go inside to eat in the kitchen. The dining table was full of taro in various guises and some casava. We tucked in and took in our new environment in the kitchen with its walls covered in posters from what looked like a typical western style sunday supplement with pictures of gourmet menu items including steaks, cheesecakes and other delicious looking fare! Ben did point at one item and request it from the kitchen, which was met with plenty of hearty laughter by the ladies. After we'd all filled up on the delicious food, we took more grog on board before settling down for the  night in the spacious rooms inside the large house. We literally slept on the mats on the wooden floor, with blankets and pillows. I slept surprisingly well, no mean feat considering the added disruption of pretty much everyone snoring thanks to the nasal canals being full of dust from our bus journey earlier in the day! [Junior won the snore-off by the way, its a family trait to be good at snoring I think! ;)]

Early next morning we woke one by one and walked out onto the porch to be greeted with our first sighting of where exactly we were in the world. The house was atop one side of a huge valley, which was as green as you could ever imagine... in the distance were large impressive hills and peaks with a green textured blanket as far as the eye could see. In the beautiful gardens surrounding the house several dogs and one large pig pottered around sniffing for scraps. We were in a small settlement of only a few homes, called Ba-Acu, which literally translates as 'wooden gate', and we'd been graciously put-up at Semi's home for the night, even though he wasn't actually there (his brother had played host). After a seriously strong and sweet coffee and some casava cake (its pretty good actually) we took ourselves down into a stream nearby for a 'shower' under a running tap into a huge water butt and brushed our teeth here too. It was very refreshing and had everyone suitably awake to prepare themselves for a day of walking.

We took a few pics and took our time to say goodbye to everyone at the house before leaving and walking into the green hillside. The walk was headed up by our host from the evening before, who also carried lunch and Junior brang up the rear of the group. The pace was steady and pretty relaxed, with a view to taking everything in and enjoying the walk, and not drenching ourselves in unnecessary sweat. The first part of the walk was on a similar track to last nights effort, although it was a track less travelled by vehicles and was a little more overgrown. Two of the young Fijian men we drank with the previous evening caught us up equipped with boots, head cover and machete's, taking a short cut behind us to go ahead and help cut an easier path through the overgrown and rarely trekked jungle ahead of us. We reached our junction along the track (which goes on to the local school) and took five minutes to drink some water and rest, before heading off down hill into the jungle proper.

The pace remained sensible and Junior filled us in with some info about the species we were seeing on route. The jungle was dense in places and it was a fairly typical jungle walk, stepping over fallen trees, brushing aside vines and treading carefully on mud and slippery roots. Some of the steeper downhill sections were slightly more precarious, but everyone faired well and enjoyed the walk (including 'slippery Sue' who introduced the jungle floor to her backside in style just the once!). We could hear wild parrots shouting at each other in the hills, but unfortunately weren't able to sight them during the walk. We were also afforded some amazing views when a suitable gap in the trees allowed so before descending too far down the hillside into the valley, including seeing the ocean on the south side of the island. At the bottom of the hill we came across a wide river, low due to the dry season and this was our stop for lunch and a well earned rest. The bed of the river was rock with some huge rounded bolders lining the banks. It was nice to get the shoes off and dip the feet in the cold water and have a little splash around here. We ate sandwiches prepared by the ladies at the house this morning and rested and reflected here for a while. This was where we were told that no white men have taken this path or walked this river, which gave me an inflated sense of pride and made us feel slightly more adventurous than we already did. The next part of the walk was along the river itself, which was quite good fun hoping from rock to rock until we came to a track alongside the river and got back into the greenery.

The group were pleasantly surprised when we reached the outskirts of the Nakura Settlement near to the coast, as some of Juniors extended family were waiting for us with a mat, lots of packs of biscuits and some fresh cooled juice. We sat in a wonderful setting, on the grassy banks of the river where it opens out into a large pool which is used by the settlement for washing and fun and games. There was a huge tree on the opposite bank to where we sat with the thickest rope I'd ever seen, hanging from it as a swing over the pool. The water was too low for us to easily swim here though, and after the break we walked on down into the settlement with an ever growing entourage of Fijianas across a field housing their cattle and stepped out onto the most fantastic piece of coastline I've ever stepped on to. We lingered here for a while and spoke with the family whos house was literally right on the beach edge and took photos with the excited collection of kids.

Beach walking has never been so pleasurable... we walked with lots of the family from the settlement with more joining us from along the beach at our destination village, on beautiful fine warm golden sands being lapped by a warm high tide, the entire coast fringed with palms, reaching out over the water as far as they could possibly stretch. We stopped before our destination village, something which we later learned (days after the trek) that wasn't the best etiquette on our part, instead we should have arrived, presented sevusevu and THEN gone back along the beach to play. I guess we thought it better to bath in the sea and play games with the kids out of sight of the village in case we upset anyone accidentally in doing so. Anyway, it turns out that no one in the village was upset by this, but we have learnt for future trips! We took the opportunity to swim in the sea, relax and play some games with the kids on the beach. Ben started them off, playing rugby with a coconut and then having races and running gym-style circuits with them, much to their amusement. More and more kids arrived, news filtering through that we were there, and we played French style boules with coconuts, had a three legged race, sprinted along the beach and generally had a blast with them, taking lots of pictures along the way (which of course added to the entertainment as they got to see the pictures of themselves doing all these things too).

Naboudini Village was our destination for the evening, and after the fun and games we made our way down there. We were staying in Junior's deceased grandfathers house, which has prime spot over looking the ocean at the front of the village. One of the lead chefs from Vorovoro, the wonderful Va, hails from this village and her house is right behind the one we stayed in (in fact, the girls from our group slept at Va's house in the end). We relaxed here for a short time and had a little venture into other parts of the village to have a look around before we were invited to one of Juniors Aunts house for a late lunch. The room was clear and clean and they had laid out lunch on beautiful cloths on the floor. We ate a huge lunch of traditional Fijian food and then headed down to some benches on the beach to relax and take it all in. When we got back to our accomodation there were several men from the village in there with Junior, mixing a bowl of grog to welcome us [instead of the more traditional carved wooden tanoa, they had an old sea buoy with its top cut off and used as a stand for their tanoa]. The chief of the village arrived and we all sat, drank and chatted and told stories for hours, although the time simply flew by. It grew dark outside and only 3-4 hours after eating a huge feast for our late lunch we were informed that dinner was ready! We went back to the house we ate in earlier, although not entirely enthusiastically, and were greeted with another huge spread. They'd made a dish which we eat a lot on Vorovoro, papaya curry, but this one was pretty spicy, there was also a delicious mash potato with garlic and chilli in and a very tasty coconut soup with onions and chillis, plus some nice crisp crunchy salad. Suddenly everyone was into eating again, as it was all so nice! We rested and nattered by the sea after tearing ourselves away from the Shrek movie which the kids put on while we were finishing up our meal, and then wandered back to our accomodation to join the grog session.

We had to hunt for the grog session, as they had vacated our room by the time we got back. After a walk through the village and a quick chat with a few familes along the way we found the gang. They'd holed up in what we later found out was called the glass bar, or something similar. There were a lot more men from the village in on this session, and they welcomed us on to the mat and started filling the glass(!) bilo for us to drink. This was odd in two ways from what I've seen so far during my time in Fiji, firstly you could see the colour and amount of the grog all too vividly inside, as opposed to just seeing the light shining off of the top of it in a coconut bilo, secondly, the bowl was always wet on the outisde as it didn't have the natural drop-off on the bottom like the coconut bilo, so grog went everywhere, dripping down the arms and onto the sulu. It was messy, lol. It was also messy as it was bloody strong! They mix it a little differently in this place, I guess they are a tad more flippant with the vast supply of grog they tend to in this part of the country! Each round was broken with a song and a new amount of ground kava being mixed into the huge bowl with a few more bilo's of water... it seemed to keep getting stronger all night! We sat there in a grog-enduced daze for the night before the Fijians themselves gave up and pronounced the session over.

After a much better (grogged?!) nights sleep we arose to wash and ready for our departure. I took a freshwater shower (trickle) in the house bathroom but the girls got the inside scoop from Junior and wandered off to a local river and creek to wash in that! From what they tell me it was like something out of a TV advert for a tropical hair shampoo, yes, that scene in your head right now... With the guys not-at-all-jealous, we all headed over to the Aunt's house for a breakfast of freshly baked scone 'slabs' and caramelised coconut rolled cake, both of which were amazing! Washed down with lots of cocoa and tea meaning we all had to reach for the tooth brushes again before leaving.

Our send off was wonderful, even with the church running a kids club that Sunday morning, we had a lot of the village stood watching us board the pickup truck and waving us off. The pickup truck was driven by a blinged up Indian lad and had some great welding 'scars' in the floor of the back (where we had our feet), which would fail in an annual Motor Ordinance Test in the UK in a second flat! He drove very considerately of his live-stock though, which was no mean feat considering the dirt tracks we took. Junior suggested we took a different route back to Malau, via the south coast and an interior dissecting 'short-cut' where we could see more of the countryside and some more settlements on route. The views of the coast and the interior were stunning, and even though we got our bums bashed on the hard wooden bench for some three hours, we enjoyed the journey taking several breaks, and stopping to talk to a few random people out in the middle-of-nowhere too, all of whom were delighted to see us. Junior enjoyed showing us (approximately) where we were on his new map of the island, which made me laugh at one point as we all poured over it on the bonnet of the pickup at one stop, seemingly studying the map to work out our route... we were on a single mud track, that went straight through the middle of the island, heheh.

Just before we got back to Malau we stopped at a shop and Moya treated us to ice creams and we took a break. Ben called to arrange our boat transfer back to Vorovoro and we were in the strange place of ending our adventure, but looking forward to getting back 'home'. Johny was waiting for us down at the dock in Malau and before we got off of the pickup Hassan collected a donation from us all as a tip for Junior. It was his first trek, and his costs pretty much ate up all the money we gave him to go on it in the first place... a harsh learning curve, but it only needs to happen that once. He was touched by the gesture and we all had hugs for the man and left him waving us off on the dock after a very good two days in his company.

The whole trek went very well from beginning to end and everyone enjoyed it, even Junior who had a look of concern for much of the weekend what with it being his maiden voyage. Every person we met on route was warm welcoming and freindly, and genuinely interested in meeting us. Junior learnt a lot about how to run this kind of event and should hopefully go on to develop the idea into a decent little business for himself with Bens expert assistance. Since the trek some of us met with Junior on a recent town trip to provide feedback about the two days and he has some more ideas himself about routes and activities too... I'm sure I speak for everybody that has met the man when I wish him the best of luck in his venture!

Here's to the next 'Juniors Trek', I'll be there for sure as long as I'm still in Fiji...

Pics are over on facebook, here and here!

Vinaka Vaka Levu


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