KADAVU (pronounced “Kan-davu”) is the fourth-largest island in Fiji, snaking 57km from east to west with a rugged coastline littered with deep bays. The island is divided into three sections, each connected by a narrow isthmus. West Kadavu is dominated by the volcanic cone of Nabukelevu at its western end while to the east is Kadavu’s only expanse of flat land, taken up by the small airstrip and the government centre of Vunisea. Central Kadavu, east of Vunisea, has the island’s best beaches, as well as the fantastic Namalata Reef off the north coast. East Kadavu overlooks part of the immense Astrolabe Reef and is home to a handful of dive resorts backed by steep tropical rainforest and a sprinkling of waterfalls. The resorts will be able to arrange a guide to help you spot Kadavu’s four endemic bird species: the Kadavu Fantail, Kadavu Honeyeater, Velvet Fruit Dove and Kadavu Musk Parrot.
There are just over ten thousand inhabitants on Kadavu, primarily engaged in subsistence farming and fishing, making it one of the best places to immerse yourself in Fijian culture. Most of the 75 coastal villages are hidden in bays or amongst mangrove estuaries and obscured from view when travelling along the coast by boat. Every third village has a primary school and all are connected by walking trails.
In 1792, William Bligh became the first European to chart Kadavu and its dangerous coral reefs, but for the next few decades the islanders had little contact with the outside world. This peaceful isolation was shattered in 1829 when the island was conquered by warriors from Rewa from southeastern Viti Levu. As such, Kadavu was brought under the influence of the powerful Burebasaga Confederacy and forced to assist Rewa in the 1840s war against Cakobau.
Thirty-five years after Bligh’s encounter, French commander Dumont d’Urville almost ran aground on the reefs north of Ono and so named them after his ship, L’Astrolabe. After publishing his journals which described the discovery of endless supplies of the Chinese delicacy bêche-de-mer (sea cucumber), Kadavu began to attract overseas traders. Galoa Harbour, on the southern side of present-day Vunisea Town, became a busy port and it wasn’t long before American whalers moved into Tavuki Bay on the north coast. Land was briskly traded with the locals for firearms and alcohol and Chinese and European merchants set up stores and began planting cotton. Galoa reached its peak in 1871 but within a few years it had become a virtual ghost town when Levuka, backed by Cakobau, established itself as the main port for trade.
Many of the Chinese traders remained, marrying into local Fijian families, and the Chinese link remains strong today. Kadavu’s largest export is kava, reputed as the finest and strongest in Fiji. The fourteen provincial chiefs on Kadavu remain relatively autonomous from the Burebasaga Confederacy and are amongst the most powerful local chiefs in Fiji.