Mount Victoria

IN HIGH PLACES

By: Burton "Kava Head" Falk


Just outside the village of Rakiraki, on the north shore of Fiji's largest island, Viti Levu, lies the tomb of Ratu Udre Udre, a late 19th century Fijian chief famous for his appetite for human flesh. Surrounding this monument are 999 stones, one for each of the carefully prepared (infused with a raspberry/ chipotle marinade and served on a bed of polenta, perhaps?) carcasses the gourmandizer is said to have enjoyed. Presumably, the good man ran up an enormous tab for toothpicks.

And that was only one of the gloomy tidbits that our driver imparted to my wife, Jo, and me on our 2-1/2 hour night drive from Fiji's International Airport in Nadi (pronounced Nandi), to our lodgings at the Wananavu Beach Resort, just a few klicks beyond Rakiraki. Other information designed to increase our apprehensions involved the recent destabilizing coup in the Fijian Parliament, the tensions between the lazy indigenous Fijians and the noble hard-working Indians (our driver, by the way, was an Indian), and, of course, the latest outbreak of cholera. When we finally did arrive at the resort at 11 p.m., we were issued an aerosol can of ant and roach spray, and then escorted to our darkened seaside cabana by an armed guard.

The next morning, however, with bright sunshine pouring down through the lush tropical foliage, and a gleaming white strand of beach just a few yards beyond our lanai, it was time to take stock of the situation in a more positive manner.

Prior to leaving the States, I had been unable to glean much definitive information on climbing Mt. Victoria (Tomanivi), Fiji's 4,340' high point. The Fiji Tourist Bureau web site, for instance, referred me to another web site in Nadi, and the latter never responded to my inquiry. My copy of Lonely Planet's Fiji-A Travel Survival Kit included only one paragraph on the mountain, reading in part:

"Three large rivers originate in the shadow of this mountain-the Sigatoka, and the Wainimala and Wainibuka, which eventually join to form the Rewa River. The bridge at Navai Village is where the trail begins. . .The top is almost continuously cloud-covered, so don't expect a great view.. .Allow five to six hours for the climb. Guides are available in the village."

My travel agent, Lora, at Trips & Tours in Fallbrook, CA, a company that specializes in Micronesian and Fijian destinations, was a bit more helpful. She forwarded me the following information that she received from her associate in Fiji: "The climb is in the bush (like a jungle), off of the Kings Road, out of Tavua. It takes about 3.5 hrs to claw your way to the summit, and about 1.5 hrs to come down. A guide can be hired in the town at the foot of the mountain, where there are no phones. Mr. Falk will need to hire a 4-wheeled vehicle to get to the village. It's customary for Savusavu (paying homage) to take place prior to the hike up. Mr. Falk would just have to pick up some Kava and bring something from USA (kids bubbles, a solar calculator, batteries, a ball cap, etc. - just one or two things that would survive a village lifestyle) to give to the chief. The Falks can spend the night in the village for USD$20.OOpp, including food, bath, and bed. The guide should be paid FJD$25.00. The mountain range that Mt. Victoria is in is shrouded in clouds most of the time, as it is so high."

"Well, okay," I thought, as I sat enjoying a breakfast buffet rich laden with fresh island fruit that first morning. "Tomorrow, I'll rent the resort's 4x4 Rava, get up early, and make the climb. What could be easier?"

And then, of course, I had second thoughts. "Hold on. Sure, I've got a map, but I've heard that the roads aren't well marked. I wonder how much trouble I'll have finding the village below the peak? Also, if I do find the village, will the chief there be able to speak English? Yeah, and don't forget the kava. Where can I buy it and how much should I buy?"

So 1 inquired of Lisa, the twenty-something daughter of the New Zealand couple who own and operate the Wananavu Resort, regarding the possibility of hiring a guide as well as a car. An hour or two later, she tracked me down and said, "I've found an outfit in Rakiraki that will provide you a 4x4 truck, a driver and a guide for $150 Fijian (about US $100) for the day. If you want me to make the arrangements, I can have them pick you up here at 6 a.m. tomorrow morning."

"Wait a minute," I said. "I thought you told me it would cost $150 Fijian a day to rent your Rava. Are you telling me I can get a car, a driver and a guide for the same price as the car alone?"

"That's what I'm telling you," Lisa replied.

Boy, talk about an easy decision!

But before considering the climb, let's review a few essential facts about Fiji.

1. The former British colony, independent since 1970, lies about half way between, and at the same latitude (18 degrees south) as, Papeete, Tahiti and Cairns, Australia. Most all of the nation's 300 islands are of volcanic origin.

2. Ethnically, the first Fijians were of Melanesian origin. Based on archeological evidence (primarily pottery), it appears that the islands were settled in three waves-1600 BC, 400-100 BC and 1000-1800 AD-by people immigrating from what is now Papua New Guinea. Because of various incursions, however, especially by the Tongans, many Fijians of today combine Melanesian physical characteristics (short stature, dark-skin and fuzzy hair) with those of the Polynesians (tall, muscular, fair and straight hair).

3. Cannibalism was deeply ingrained in the Fijian culture long before the birth of Christ. Indeed, the custom was an important aspect of the Fijian religion in which the great warrior-gods were themselves cannibals. The prime (U.S.D.A.?) idea behind this gruesome practice was to consume those who were captured in battle, because, as Rob Kay, the author of Fiji-a Survival Guide, points out: "Eating your enemy was the ultimate disgrace the victor could impose, and in the Fijian system of ancestor worship this became a lasting insult to the victims' families." Not surprisingly, as Kay continues, there was a good deal of "vicious infighting, internecine warfare and vengeance-seeking that went on in pre-Christian times."

4. In 1874, when Fiji became a crown colony of England, it was decided that substantial economic development was necessary. Concluding that the production of sugar cane would be just the ticket, but unwilling to exploit the indigenous Fijians, the governor at the time, Sir Arthur Gordon, decided to import workers from India. To that end, beginning in 1879, and continuing until 1916, some 60,000 Indians were brought in to tend the fields. By 1999 almost half of Fiji's total population of 850,000 was of Indian origin, and, as a result, Mahendra Chaudhry was elected as Fiji's first Indo-Fijian prime minister. Unfortunately, because Chaudhry endorsed land reforms (previously only indigenous Fijians could own land), and a social justice bill that reduced government programs for the "native" people, in May 2000, in a coup during which four rebels were killed, both he and his government were overthrown. Shortly thereafter, in yet another destabilizing twist, the insurgents themselves were ousted, and in August 2001, new elections were held. Today, still facing seemingly intractable problems, it remains to be seen how the current government will fare.

5. Perhaps the most famous Fijian social custom involves the drinking of kava, a concoction made by mixing ground, dried kava roots, a shrub related to the pepper family, and water. The resulting beverage, which is served in a large wooden bowl, looks very much dirty dishwater, and has a peculiar, but not unpleasant, taste. In older, pre-blender days, the roots were chewed to a pulp by young virgins, whose saliva, it is said, somehow reacted with the root's active ingredients, thereby intensifying the buzz the kava drinker might feel.

But, so much for background. Let's get back to the climb.

At 6 a.m. the following morning, Saturday, March 8, I was picked up by my Fijian guide, Uraia Waqa, and his Indian driver, and, in a 4-door 4X4 pickup truck, we set off west along Kings Road-the paved highway that follows Viti Levu's north coastline-back toward Nadi.

Our first stop was at the open market in the village of Vaileka, near Rakiraki, where I purchased FJD $5 worth of dried kava roots. We then continued another 25 miles west, until we reached an intersection, about a mile east of Tauva, where we turned south and headed for the mountainous interior of Viti Levu.

Although both the Lonely Planet Guide and the information I received from my travel agent averred that a 4X4 vehicle was necessary for negotiating this road-which, by the way, cuts across the entire island-it wasn't. In fact, the well-graded dirt thoroughfare was in excellent condition, and was even paved on its few sharp switch-backed turns.

After gradually ascending a long, fertile valley, we began to gain altitude more rapidly, and 18 miles from Tauva, we came to the village of Nadarivatu, situated among rolling forests of nonindigenous pines. Continuing on for another 3 or 4 miles, at 8:30 a.m. we arrived at the village of Navai, whose elevation, I'm guessing, is about 2,500'. Including our short stop to buy the kava, it had taken us 2-1/2 hours to make the drive.

We parked, Uraia inquired as to where we could find the chief, and soon we were being led through the small community-parting a small crowd of curious kids, chickens, dogs and even piglets-crossing a stream, and finally approaching a small, well-maintained bungalow.

Removing our footwear first, we entered the one room structure, which, except for a futon-like bed in one corner, some pictures on the wall and the matting covering the floor, was unfurnished. After proper introductions were made (all in Fijian), the chief, Apishome Rasau Yawa, two or three villagers, Uraia and I all sat down on the floor cross-legged (which for me, with a fake hip, wasn't easy), at which time the solemn negotiations began (again, all in Fijian).

I have no idea why it took Uraia so long-2 or 3 minutes-to convey the simple message that 1 was there to climb the mountain and that I wanted to hire a guide. I do know that, in obvious respect for the chief, Uraia kept his head down and spoke to the floor while making the request. I'm also at a loss as to why it took the chief equally as long to consider my application and to give the idea his blessings. It was apparent, however, that the man, middle-aged, solidly-built and dressed in an aloha shirt and shorts, considered the matter to be of considerable gravity. After he announced that the climb could be arranged, everyone joined in a bit of cadenced clapping (although somewhat arhythmically in my case). The chief then, in a shorter speech, accepted my gift of the kava roots, whereupon even more clapping took place. In a whispered aside, Uraia explained that the deal was I would be expected to donate FJD$30 to the village improvement fund, and, in addition, pay my guide FJD$15. I, of course, agreed.

And that was that. Within 10 minutes, my guide, Manasa-perhaps 20 years old, and muscular-and I were hiking away from the village and into the thickly forested mountains.

At first, the wide, weed-choked pathway was only slightly inclined, but, a mile or so out of the village, it took a right turn-to the south, I think-narrowed and steepened sharply. And then it started to rain.

Manasa, barefoot, wearing only a T-shirt and shorts, and carrying a bob knife, had yet to say a word. I, struggling to keep up with his brisk pace, was garbed ma Gortex jacket, a long-sleeved shirt, shorts, boots, and was carrying a light pack containing my camera, two bottles of water and a turkey sandwich.

About an hour into the hike, while taking our first rest break in the midst of a dripping rain forest, I offered Manasa one of my two water bottles. The gesture was all that was needed to break the ice, and after that, although still silent, he was much friendlier. In fact, he insisted on carrying my pack from that point on, and later gave a hand on a couple of slippery class 3 moves involving wet, mossy rocks.

We reached the top of Mt. Victoria precisely at 11 a.m., 1 hour and 50 minutes after leaving the village. Although the rain had stopped, the surrounding cloud cover prevented us from seeing very much. I split my sandwich with Manasa, took a couple summit photos, and then we started down.

Arriving back at the village at 12:45 p.m., we found Uraia and our driver, along with the chief and about seven other village men, sitting cross-legged on the matted floor of the sheet metal community center building. In front of them sat a large wooden bowl filled with kava. It looked as if a celebration was in the offering.

"Uh oh," I thought, imagining masticating virgins. "I wonder if they expect me to join in on this." Unfortunately, as Uraia informed me, they did. As the first coconut shell full of the cloudy liquid was presented to me, I glanced around at a roomful of expectant faces. It was decision time. Was I going to drink it or not?

Well, I did, and not only that, after I finished it off, I smiled and smacked my lips appreciatively. Following my quaff, everyone else, in turn and using the same cup, also took a drink.

Manasa then made a short speech (in Fijian), in which he said, according to Uraia, "He may be old, but he's strong," after which yet another riff of cadenced clapping ensued. Nothing could have pleased me more.

There was enough kava left for another round, and I downed the second cupful with no qualms whatsoever. Although we couldn't communicate in so many words, the room was full of wide smiles as I crawled around, attempting to keep my head below the level of the chief's, shaking hands with each and everyone. What a great ending for a great adventure.

On our way back to the Wananavu Resort that afternoon, we passed by Chief Ratu Udre Udre's monument once again. Mellowed by the enjoyable mountain climb and cross-cultural experience, rather than being appalled by the long gone cannibal, I merely wondered if the good chief had, on his Dr. Atkins-like high protein diet, been able to loose any weight.


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