Across the strait from Vanua Levu, the smaller island of TAVEUNI is a stunning combination of luxuriant forest, soaring mountains and colourful coral reefs. Much of the island’s pristine rainforest is protected by the Bouma National Heritage Park and tourism is handled sensitively, making it one of the best places to sample Fiji’s varied wildlife. Geologically, Taveuni is one of Fiji’s youngest islands, and its dramatic volcanic scenery, wild flowers and laid-back atmosphere bring to mind Hawaii as much as Fiji.
Most visitors arrive at the small settlement of Matei on the north coast, home to the airstrip, plenty of accommodation and a series of pretty beaches. South of here, along the rugged east coast is the access point to the huge Bouma National Heritage Park, which features world-class birdwatching and hikes through a series of waterfalls. Just offshore are the thriving coral reefs of the Waitabu Marine Park. Across the knife-edge ridge splitting the 42km-long island lies the smoothly sloping west coast, where most of the island’s eleven thousand inhabitants live. Here, Somosomo, head village of the powerful Cakaudrove Province, merges into the modern trade centre of Naqara. The peaceful Catholic Mission at Wairiki lies to the south, with De Voeux Peak, accessible by 4WD or by a long trek on foot, towering high above. Close by, in the heart of the island, is Lake Tagimaucia. The west coast also has the most direct access to the phenomenal Rainbow Reef just across the Somosomo Straits.
Archeological evidence indicates that Taveuni was first inhabited around 250 BC and that ring ditches and hill forts around the volcanic cones were first built around 1200 AD. In 1643 Abel Tasman was the first European to record sighting the island, though he made no attempt to land. This is probably fortunate as the Taveunians were renowned as fierce warriors. In the early nineteenth century they sent great war canoes to help the alliance of Bau in its struggle with the Rewans. By the 1840s, they faced a battle on home turf as the Tongan Prince Ma’afu threatened to take over the island. Allegiances were split, with some Taveunians supporting the prince and the remainder sticking with the Tui Cakau, high chief of the island. In 1862, after much wrangling, Tui Cakau’s army defeated Ma’afu in a bloody sea battle off the coast near Somosomo.
Lured by the rich soils and gentle slopes ideal for growing cotton, Europeans soon began buying up large tracts of Taveuni’s west coast. After the collapse in cotton prices following the American Civil War, copra took over as the most viable cash crop and the organized lines of coconut palms still loom high on the west and south coast plantations. Some of the original colonial families remain on the island and have moved tentatively into the tourism industry; this in turn has attracted a growing number of expats.