Mention the name Fiji to most people and they immediately conjure up a vision of palm trees, azure seas and crystalline sands. Indeed, much of Fiji is made up of that idealised image, given that it is an island nation where the sea plays such an important part in its lifestyle.
But there is another Fiji, no less idealistic and unspoilt, but much less-visited and even less known about: the Fiji of the hinterlands, of majestic mountains, tumbling rivers, untouched villages and bone shaking roads yet, thankfully, hardly frequented by the plane loads of tourists who are disgorged, on a daily basis, from their 747s at Fiji's Nadi International Airport .
Having sampled life at a Fijian resort location the previous year I decided this year, on my way back from Europe and the US, to explore Fiji the traveller's way and, with my travelling companion, to head off into Fiji's interior in a 4-wheel drive jeep with our bags in tow and the endless blue sky overhead as our canopy.
The island of Viti Levu on Fiji has an adequate road system, if you are only travelling in an anti-clockwise direction between Rakiraki in the far North and Suva, the capital, in the South-Eastern corner. Beyond that, you are in for a rough time. There are a plethora of car rental agencies in Fiji and though it is theoretically possible to take your rental car to any place in Viti Levu, it is not actively encouraged by the rental agencies and I would certainly not recommend it for practical reasons.
To see anything that is potentially off the beaten track in Fiji, rent a Suzuki 4 wheel drive soft top and take the top off. We were based for the initial part of our stay near Sigatoka, on the Coral Coast, and from there we rented a Suzuki and made plans to do a clockwise circuit of the island. We initially headed inland up the Sigatoka valley, known commonly as 'Fiji's salad bowl' because of the profundity of its agricultural product, and the aim was first to reach Ba in the North of the island and thence Rakiraki which was to be our first night's stop.
The going rapidly became rough and stayed that way for most of the way to Ba, but the scenery was magnificent - you could say almost primeval - and every bend in the tortuous road held a new surprise in store. The advantages of having a 4 wheel drive are several: the high ground clearance of the vehicle makes negotiating boulder strewn roads much easier and with less chance of a broken exhaust or axle; although actual 4 wheel traction is not really needed other than in the particularly rough spots, I found that using low ratio 4wd made constant gear changing unnecessary and the traction on the road was greatly improved. In any case, our average speed rarely exceeded 30-35kph.
The road to the hinterlands is not a highway for the unprepared. There are no petrol stations, no refreshments areas as such, no vehicle maintenance depots and not many vehicles. There is plenty of dust and potholes. The drive took us up the valley passing Indian and Fijian villages where we were almost obliged to greet all and sundry with a big wave and a cheery 'bula!' The signposting is not good and most maps are not really adequate. The Lonely Planet's 'Fiji a Travel Survival Kit' is a recommendable companion.
We eventually arrived at the village of Navala which is the last remaining village in the whole of the Fijian archipelago where the houses are still built in the traditional thatched style of yesteryear. It is a marvellous sight. The chief is a feisty old conservative who insists on traditional ways and that means keeping tourists out. Just walking uninvited into a Fijian village is akin to having strangers walk into your living room unannounced, so some discretion is required when visiting these areas. Thankfully, fine views of the village can be gained from the roadside and the opposite side of the river valley in which Navala is situated. The journey to Ba, undertaken in a casual style, took five hours in all and was worth every bump and jolt.
Rakiraki is a small village in the far North of Viti Levu and is a convenient stopping off point for island travellers. It has the only hotel in this part of the island. From Rakiraki to Suva we travelled on what is grandly known as the King's Road. The brochures do not tell you that this is a rough road, but the scenery is worth the effort. Unlike the southern Coral Coast, Northern Viti Levu is mangrove and tidal flats country: unexploited and pristine. From Rakiraki to Suva is 157km of rough, dusty riding with unspoilt coastal views, mountains and valleys, jungle and cowboy country and finally the busy run into Suva from Nausori. It is exceptional countryside. Suva is busy and cosmopolitan after the North and I find it a most liveable town. From Suva one can visit one of Fiji's other secrets, the Colo-i-Suva National Park a half hour's drive away. It's a National Park with pathways, pools and picnic areas set in dense jungle. It's rarely busy, not so easy to find and almost never mentioned in the tourist brochures.
Away from Suva and closer to the Coral Coast resorts is undoubtedly Fiji's best kept secret: one of the finest beaches in the world and not a tourist hotel in sight. It's not signposted, a 4 wheel drive is desirable to reach it and finding it requires some navigating skill. It's called Natadola beach and it is about an hour's drive from Nadi airport. On a recent Friday morning we were the only people, apart from some local villagers, on this magnificent two kilometres of golden sand and opalescent water. Riders of the Coral Coast Railway are among the few tourists to have discovered this particular gem. There is, sadly, talk of development: if you are in Fiji, go to Natadola for an experience never to be forgotten.
The lure of Fiji will doubtless draw me back again and again: there is much to see, but for me the way to see the real Fiji is to do it myself in a 4 wheel drive as an independent traveller rather than a packaged tourist. Ni sa moce!
Paul Hellander is a lecturer in Modern Greek at the SACAE, Adelaide, Australia.
(c) 1989 Paul Hellander