The most remote of the Fijian islands, 43-square-kilometre Rotuma lies over 600km north of Suva in a lonely stretch of ocean south of Tuvalu. Its Polynesian culture and language are significantly different from that of the Micronesian Fijians, and the island is only part of Fiji at all thanks to an accident of history.
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In 1881, tired of internal friction, the seven chiefs of Rotuma decided it was in their best interests to cede their island to Britain, following the example of the Fijians. Unfortunately for the Rotumans, the island was deemed too isolated to justify its own governor. Instead it was decided that Rotuma should politically become part of Fiji, its remote neighbour to the south. On May 13, 1881, at a spot in Motusa marked by a stone wall embedded with a brass plaque, Rotuma relinquished its sovereignty to Fiji. Movements for independence from Fiji have been mooted since Fiji’s independence from Britain in 1970, but today, with over five thousand Rotumans based in Suva, Rotuma’s independence movement has little support. The islanders do, though, want to keep Rotuma free from mass tourism. In 1985, 85 percent of Rotumans voted to keep tourist development at bay, making the island a challenge to visit without a personal invitation.
Around the island
The government headquarters for Rotuma have been stationed at ‘Ahau since 1902. Colonial-style buildings house the hospital, police and judiciary as well as a small cement jail with two tiny cells. The island’s post office is also located here.
Rotuma is enclosed by a lagoon fringed by a reef and is almost completely surrounded by stunning white sandy beaches set off by jet-black volcanic rock. Two of the best are Oinafa Beach on the northeastern point of the island, which is also a good spot for body surfing and snorkelling in the turquoise lagoon around the twin islands of Haua; and isolated Vai’oa Beach, one of the prettiest in the South Pacific, and usually deserted, with towering palm trees and fabulous snorkelling.
A handful of impressive archeological sites can be found inland – including the ancient burial site of the kings of Rotuma on top of Sisilo Hill and an ancient stone tomb near Islepi Village – as well as over a dozen volcanic cones. The highest of these rises to 256m, protruding from the gently rolling hills which are extensively planted with taro, yams, kava and numerous varieties of fruit trees, particularly oranges.
Without doubt the liveliest time to visit is over Christmas, a period noted for the singing and dancing festivities of Fara. The party begins on December 1 (Dec 24 for Juju and Pepjei districts) and lasts until mid-January. Each evening children wander around their villages singing fara songs and clapping their hands for a beat. When the kids stop at a house, the family comes out to watch, rewarding them with gifts of perfume, talc and fruit, usually watermelon. If the singing is poor, water is thrown to chase the group away. As the evening progresses, the rest of the villagers join in, grabbing guitars, ukuleles and perhaps a bucket of orange wine. If you visit Rotuma during fara you will certainly be invited to take part.