Fiji’s Treasure Island

Volcanic jungles, underground cooking and sunrises that torch the ocean—Taveuni is home to tricks of time.  
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In Fiji, coconut is the tree of life and all parts of the tree and fruit—shell, leaves, meat, milk, husk, water, and oil—are honoured in daily use. Photo by: Don Mammoser/shutterstock

Chapter 1

Broken Clocks and Other Magic Things

When it happens, I am riding shotgun with the long blue kaftan of the Pacific rippling in the rear-view. To my left, I have the hills of Taveuni island, a knocked-over chessboard of taro trees, plantains, and hot-pink hibiscus the size of beagle ears. I am tracing the Lavena Coastal Walk—a five-kilometre trail that winds past beaches and villages, all the way up to the island’s rainforests. It is reflexive, the stray tear down the cheek. Embarrassing too, because Duncan Osborne, my drive-around mate for the day, catches me flick it away. “I’m not sad. Just very, very happy,” I mumble. “I get it. You feel lucky to see beauty,” he nods. I know it’s a matter of seconds before his mouth curls into the fluorescent Fijian smile one can expect anywhere in the archipelago of 330 islands.

It’s been half a day since I’ve set foot on this South Pacific speck. 16.8414° S, 179.9813° W, as the map tells me. The fact that the volcanic ‘garden’ island is documented in coordinates is important. It tells me that the sights and sounds that brought out weepy existential girl are not part of an enchanted sleep. I am moving around a landmass that looks like an infinite tree tunnel. These fields of pineapple, combed school-ready by the ocean breeze, are real. The crimson ginger blossoms, and the prayer circle of periwinkles by the lagoon too, exist. “They filmed Return of the Blue Lagoon here,” remarks Duncan. I am not surprised. Much of Taveuni wears the look of a trickster that’s managed to short-change time. Look in the path of pawpaw and wild mango trees gnawing out of hills, and you know how.

Time, for its part, has pulled a number on the island. As we roll past backpackers’ shacks scattered with divers, Duncan mentions that the 180° meridian and the International Dateline cut through Taveuni smack dab. Which means technically, Taveuni is suspended between today (west) and yesterday (east). The islanders follow uniform time, but you can make your way to a hilly ledge in Waiyevo—Taveuni’s administrative centre—and stand between two no-frills plaques marking this rare limbo on land.

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The writer clambered over mossy boulders, tailing guide Paul (bottom left) to reach the Wainibau falls; Sunrises (right) here are like live theatre, lashes of pink hammering the sky; A plaque (top left) marks the International Dateline splitting Taveuni between today and yesterday. Photos by: Sohini Das Gupta (man), Don Mammoser/shutterstock (sign), Photo courtesy: Taveuni Palms Resort (beach)

There’s a lot to soak up, and two days to my name. For now, I am content to lock eyes with the island sun that’s marinating my brown skin browner by the minute.

 

Chapter 2

Summer in the Rainforest

I leave Duncan and his car at the edge of land to take a boat to the start of the hike in Bouma National Heritage Park, which protects over 80 per cent of Taveuni’s land, including its rainforest. (I’m cutting short the six-hour-long Lavena trail to cram in other experiences.) My companion on water is local guide Paul, who’s unfazed by the afternoon swell that flings our vessel around. I’ve made the mistake of showing up in flip-flops, so when we clamber over rocks stained with lichen, they feel cold and wet as a frog’s tongue under my feet. The trail moves through knots of coconut palms, breadfruits and monster ferns, the greens darkening as we are sucked into the forest’s sunless stomach. Where the stone cracks hide wildflowers, my heels tickle. A loose step sends me hurtling, and jungle mynas cackle. But between a sighting of the “very shy, very rare” orange dove, and the water’s xylophone upping its volume, a bloody toe seems acceptable.

Paul grants me huff-and-puff time, dragging his stride to accommodate second glances at fallen frangipanis. When we come to the bend beyond which the mighty Wainibau Waterfall rages, I don’t want to move. It is that old longing to delay what could turn out to be a quantum moment; stretch it out, so you can keep it around a little longer. But like sun through gin-clear water, my moment passes, and I wade in. “Can’t swim well?” “Can’t swim,” I yell through the mist that levitates between us; Paul has already made his way to the deeper end of the rock pool. When he comes back for me, I am sure he’s misunderstood. “Can’t,” I shake my head stupidly. “Ride my back and don’t drag me down.” And just like that, I am piggybacking a man I’ve met less than two hours ago into the gaping swirls. He deposits me on top of a boulder, Spidermans up the ridge and wrecks the water with a—splunk!

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Waterfalls (top) curtain a world of island flora such as breadfruit, taro and guava trees; The tagimoucia flower (bottom left) grows only in Taveuni, on a single highland ridge beside Lake Tagimoucia; Keep an eye out for birds such as collared lory (bottom right), Taveuni silktail and the very rare orange fruit dove. Photos by: Kristen Elsby/Moment/Getty Images (waterfall), BIOSPHOTO/Alamy Stock Photo (flower), Photo courtesy: Taveuni Palms Resort (bird)

A boat ride back to Duncan and a quick car haul leads us to Bouma’s other big trail of the Tavoro Waterfalls. A 10-minute walk through flatland floras lets me linger at the first and the biggest of the three cascades along this route. Here, in the achy afterglow of swims, I listen to the lore of the Tagimoucia. Fiji at large boasts some 800 species of plants found nowhere else in the world. But the ruby-and-milk flower embossed on the nation’s FJD50 note is precious for growing almost solely along the shores of Taveuni’s Lake Tagimoucia, untouched at an altitude of over 2,600 feet. My disappointment at not seeing the volcanic crater dissolves when Paul tells me that the flower makes a fleeting appearance through November to January. Like all good legends, the legend of the Tagimoucia has several versions. In one a lovelorn princess escapes to the highlands when the man of her choice is vetoed by elders, slipping into tired and tearful sleep (tagi: cry; moce: sleep). Another recalls a little girl who lay crying by the waters after being scolded by parents—the tears of the broken-hearted transforming into Fiji’s proclaimed national flower.

That is one too many sad women for my liking, but I note the same cynical enchantment that passes over me when Paul points to a white horse in the wild and says, “Look, it brings good luck.”

 

Chapter 3

The Little Girl in Kingston Town

When I first meet Una, she is running around in a frock that holds all the colours of a tropical fruit platter. I wonder if the eight-year-old knows how much she resembles Moana, Disney’s warrior princess from Polynesia. Duivosavosa, a rural settlement in northwest Taveuni, seems to be made of one giant family. The patriarch Bill Seru walks me through it, pointing out painted, triangular houses that belong to various brothers, nieces, cousins and nephews. I am careful not to pry, but crosses and rosaries hanging from asbestos walls inside hint at Taveuni’s history—a wartime turnaround of faith from paganism to Catholicism in the 19th century. Tiny islands, it would seem, have enough room for old gods to exist alongside new ones; ditto for old traditions. I am now privy to the island art of coconut husking, leaf basket weaving and lovo or earth-oven cooking.

Bill’s brood of nine kids and sixteen grandkids rallies around, guiding me through their self-sustained life. When prawns fished out of the village stream are dunked in palm-squeezed coconut milk, I tell a gaggle of aunts and grandaunts how my lunch tastes a lot like chingrir malaikari, an East Indian staple—and eyes widen. Lunch also consists of sweet potatoes, yams and tapioca, steamed lovo-style. The prepping of lovo, a subterranean cooking method widespread in the Polynesian islands (hangi in New Zealand, umu in Samoa), is quite the spectacle. Earth is dug up, and within it, white hot stones entrusted with the job of cooking feast-scale food. The food, anything from tough meat to vegetable or fish, is bundled up in banana and pandana leaves and placed over coals. “You can cook a whole goat, a whole pig or a whole buffalo in one hour. You can cook a whole elephant too, but no elephants in Fiji,” Bill howls at his own humour.

As the chords of Fijian farewell song “Isa lei” fall from the guitar, Una monkey-hugs me for reasons known only to her. I ask the guitarist, one of Bill’s daughters, if she can play something familiar. A stanza of “Jamaican Farewell” and some wordless goodbyes later, my heart is down. The head too, is turning around, because Duivosavosa, by some afternoon spell, has turned into my Kingston town.

 

Chapter 4

Rainbow Under Water

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A cultural tour of the Duivosavosa village acquaints one with island music (top left) and speciality cuisine such as lovo (top right) or earth-oven cooking; Diving in the Rainbow Reef (bottom left) off the coast of Taveuni comes with prize sightings of technicoloured reef fish, and corals (bottom right) in the shape of cabbages. Photos by: Sohini Das Gupta (food, people), Photo courtesy: Taveuni Palms Resort (diving, corals)

Don’t mind the friendly sharks.” Aaron Peckham is a fine instructor but I fear shark jokes aren’t going to help my case. Neither will the clunky fins glued to my feet, but that one’s on me. I’m on a speedboat parked along the Rainbow Reef, a globally renowned dive site in the Somosomo Strait, between Taveuni and Vanua Levu islands. If my first-ever snorkelling experience must be in the open ocean, I might as well do it in the soft coral capital of the world, with a grand witness of over 1,200 species of fish. The prospect of meeting a Nemo or Dory down there makes it better, but reef sharks? Thank you, next. With limited water skills, my faith is tied to the rope I’ll grab onto, which in turn, will remain tied to the boat. There’s also the diving mask and the life jacket. And there’s Aaron, who waits patiently as I sit on the starboard sounding like a phlegmy dragon. Breathing through your mouth, it would appear, isn’t easy.

With a tug of jacket and a squeeze of lungs, I’m in. Pushed up almost immediately, I cannot wait to look back. In the few splintered seconds I’ve seen what could be Dalí’s underwater gallery and I need more. Fresh visions glide in front of my goggles. Here, an anthia the colour of Alphonso. There, a ballet class for sea anemones. Clumps and clumps of sea fans. Leather corals that motion like dervishes. Cabbage-frilled hard corals. “As above, so below,” I breathe, grateful for the chaos. Most of the fish I cannot identify, and there are so many. Fat, fearless ones that move in violet shoals, solo-tripping introverts that avoid eye contact. When it’s time to come up—we are cut short by a change of current—Aaron laughs at my indignation. “Look at you, mermaid.” Mermaids I don’t know about, but back on the boat, everything I’ve seen down there seems far out already, like folklore fading into time.

On land, I am out of time. I have not seen it all at all. I’ve not entered the Holy Cross Catholic Church, with walls
of baked coral, and stained glass shipped by French missionaries. I have not picked up taro fritters from the shack that brags longitudinal rights to being the ‘world’s first shop.’ I haven’t even watched a game of rugby, venerated as Fiji’s “fourth religion.”

But that’s alright. Because I’ve felt Taveuni. Water, earth, air and all.

Essentials

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Rugby, dubbed Fiji’s “fourth religion,” is equally popular among kids and adults. Photo courtesy: Mark Snyder/Fiji Tourism

Getting There

There are no direct flights from India to Fiji. Flights from Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru to the gateway city of Nadi on the archipelago’s Viti Levu island involve one or more layovers at Southeast Asian cities such as Singapore and Hong Kong, or stops in Oceanian capitals like Melbourne, Brisbane and Auckland.

There are two or more direct flights to Taveuni every day from Nadi International Airport.

Free entry visas are granted on arrival for a stay of up to four months to nationals of select countries, including India. Travellers must possess a valid passport and a ticket for return or onward travel to another country they are authorised to enter.

Stay

The author stayed at Taveuni Palms Resort (doubles from $1,635/Rs1,14,700 including all meals, activities such as reef snorkelling and kokonda cooking class, and taxes; www.taveunipalms.com) and Taveuni Island Resort & Spa (doubles from $625/INR 43,600 including all meals, return transfers to the airport and taxes; www.taveuniislandresort.com). The Lavena Coastal Walk and motorised boat activities usually come at additional costs.

It is recommended to explore Taveuni’s natural and cultural experiences with the help of resort guides, as there are limited options of independent tour operators on the island.

Tip

While travelling to villages such as Duivoisavosa, it is advisable to dress modestly (covered knees and arms) and refrain from wearing hats as a sign of respect to native customs.

 

  • Sohini Das Gupta travels with her headphones plugged-in and eyes open. While this doesn't stall the many accidents that tend to punctuate her journeys, it adds some meme-worthy comic relief. She is Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.

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