Beqa, Vatulele and Kadavu, the three main islands south of the Fijian mainland, present world-class scuba diving, hair-raising reef surfing and record-breaking game fishing. If that’s not enough to entice you, several of Fiji’s most beautiful beaches are located here, with shallow lagoons offering fabulous sea-kayaking and deep bays sheltering fishing villages.
The rugged island of Beqa is famed for its fire walkers and, just offshore in its huge lagoon, adrenaline-pumping shark dives accessed from Pacific Harbour. West of Beqa is the delightful limestone island of Vatulele, a centre for tapa cloth making and home to several unusual attractions including ancient rock carvings and a cave full of bizarre red-coloured prawns. The farthest of the southern islands from Viti Levu and the largest of the three is Kadavu, barely a forty-minute flight from Nadi, and closer still from Suva, but a world away from the tourist trail. With its twisting Astrolabe Reefand dramatic mountain scenery, this is the place to visit for adventure on the water, and to immerse yourself in Fijian culture.
If not shrouded by clouds, the roughly contoured profile of BEQA (pronounced “Mbenga”) can be seen clearly from Suva. It’s closer still to Pacific Harbour, from where small boats bump across 12km of open sea to reach it. The island is roughly circular in shape, with steep forest-clad mountains rising sharply from a meandering coastline. Its large lagoon, protected by a 30km-long barrier reef, is renowned for shark dives and deep-sea game fishing, as well as the famous surfing break of Frigates Passage opposite the small island of Yanuca; most diving and game fishing trips leave from Pacific Harbour and are covered in Chapter Three.
Beqa’s most distinctive feature is its fire walkers. You can often see them perform on Viti Levu, especially at the Arts Village in Pacific Harbour, but nothing beats witnessing the real thing on home soil – Rukua, Naceva and Dakuibeqa on the southeastern side are the main fire-walking villages.
The island’s 1400 inhabitants live in nine coastal villages. There are no roads on the island but several walking tracks between villages make for pleasant exploring. The easiest route runs from Waisomo on the northern tip of the island to Rukua along the west coast. You can also hike to one of the island’s three mountains – Korolevu (439m), towering over Lalati Village on the north coast, is the most challenging and highest. The best way to sample the coastline is from a kayak and Lalati Resort runs a delightful kayaking trip to tranquil Malumu Bay, which bites deep into the west coast, almost severing it from the main bulk of Beqa.
Unlike Hindu fire walking, Beqa’s fire walkers perform purely for entertainment rather than religious purification. The legend of how the islanders obtained mastery over fire has been passed down through the generations.
Once there was a famous storyteller named Dredre who lived in the ancient mountain village of Navakeisese on Beqa. His tales would captivate the villagers throughout the night and it was customary to bring small gifts as a token of appreciation. One evening, Dredre requested all present to bring him the first thing they encountered when out hunting the next day. The following morning, a young warrior named Tui went fishing in a mountain stream and pulled out what he thought was an eel from the mud. To his surprise, the eel assumed the shape of a Vu, or spirit god, and Tui knew that Dredre would be most pleased with his gift. The spirit god pleaded for its life offering all sorts of tempting powers but only when Tui was promised the power over fire did he succumb. The spirit god dug a pit, lined it with stones and lit a huge fire upon it. When the stones were white hot, the spirit god leaped in showing no effect from the heat. Tui followed and to this day his descendants from the Sawau tribe re-enact the same performance of walking on white-hot stones.
Yanuca is a relatively low island, with light forest, gentle hills and a solitary village on the east coast. The main reason to visit is the excellent surfing available at Frigates Passage, an extremely consistent and powerful left-hand break that’s one of the best surfing spots in the South Pacific; rides of 100m are not uncommon. Surfers can chill out at the excellent Batiluva Surf Camp on the island’s west coast; the coarse coral beach adjacent to the surf camp has lots of hammocks strung between coconut palms and a deep lagoon with good snorkelling.
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.
Life on the water is such an integral part of Kadavu that it’s little wonder watersports are the main attraction for visitors – in particular scuba diving, thanks to the phenomenal 100km-long Astrolabe Reef. Snorkelling can be arranged at your resort.
The Astrolabe Reef can be divided into two distinct sections: the 50km northern loop, forming a figure of eight shape, is all in open water, entwined with canyons, arches and other spectacular seascapes; while the section of reef hugging the east and south coast of Kadavu to Galoa Harbour has five rich current-fed passages all featuring a profusion of soft corals. There are strong drift dives at Naiqoro, shallow corals at Vesi, sharks at Nacomoto, fans at Soso and manta rays at Galoa.
Dwarfed by the Astrolabe, the equally impressive and diverse Namalata Reef off the north coast of Vunisea is used by Matana Beach Resort and Papageno Resort, which both operate their own private dive boats. Note that there are no independent dive operators for those staying in Vunisea.
The passages at Soso and Vesi have unpredictable but sometimes massive surfing breaks, most easily accessible from Matana Beach Resort on the southeast coast. The best spot for surfing, though, is off the western tip of Kadavu. Here you can surf the gnarly left at King Kong, or, if on the rare occasion it’s blown out, head around the point to Daku Beach where there are both reef breaks and a beach break for beginners.
It’s possible to kayak around Kadavu in nine days or Ono Island in seven days, camping on beaches, staying in villages or bedding down at a budget resort along the way. New Zealand outfit Tamarillo Tropical Expeditions (360 3043, tamarillo.co.nz; 7-day all-inclusive packages start from NZ$2295 per person) have well-organized itineraries and great contacts with the local villages, with guided two-person sea kayaks and support boats. It can be hard work, with a minimum of five hours of paddling in sometimes choppy seas working muscles you never knew existed, but it’s a great way to experience the island’s remote coastlines and villages. Less strenuous overnight packages and day-trips exploring the mangrove estuaries run on demand from the base camp at Korolevu Bay on the southeastern corner of Kadavu.
Game fishing charters using top-of-the-range gear are available from Matava on the southeast coast of Kadavu. You can cast in the surrounding reefs for Giant Trevallys or trawl between 1000m and 3000m of water for marlin, tuna and sailfish. More casual hand-line fishing can also be organized from all resorts.
Beyond Daku Bay lies the heavily indented coastline of east Kadavu, difficult to access other than by sea. Kavala Bay on the north coast and Korolevu Bay on the south coast form great basins surrounded by steep mountains. Their river estuaries are lined in mangrove forests and you can explore these incredibly peaceful environments by kayak. However, it’s the underwater spectacle of the Astrolabe Reef that attracts most visitors here; the reef hugs the southeast side of Kadavu all the way to Galoa Harbour and extends 40km north in open sea. Divers are well catered for at East Kadavu’s dive resorts.
Off the northeastern tip of Kadavu and surrounded by the Astrolabe Reef is Ono Island, home to two small villages and several beautiful beaches. Surrounding Ono Island are a dozen smaller islands including Vuro, where manta rays congregate.
The flat yet intriguing island of Vatulele, or “the ringing rock”, lies 32km south of Viti Levu. Covering 31 square kilometres, the island boasts ancient rock art, sublime beaches, a sparkling lagoon and four villages completely absorbed with making tapa cloth. Vatulele was first recorded in written history in 1799 when the American schooner Anne and Hope spotted villagers along its coastline. However, petroglyphs on the western tip of the island show evidence of human habitation for over three thousand years.
From sunrise to sunset, the deep resonating thump of wood beating against wood echoes around the villages of Vatulele. This is the sound of tapa cloth production, a fine paper made from the bark of the mulberry tree, or masi in Fijian. The cloth was traditionally used as clothing, wrapped around the waist and draped over the shoulder of people with chiefly status. It also represented a conductor between the spirit and living world, and was hung from the high ceiling of the bure kalou, or temple, and used by the priest to mediate with the gods. Today, it is used in decorative artwork and gift wrapping sold in boutique shops around Fiji.
The production of tapa is almost exclusively done by women. The first step is to slice and strip the long thin bark of the mulberry tree into single pieces which are then soaked in the sea for four nights. Once supple, the bark is beaten into a pulp using hardwood slabs and heavy wooden sticks and joined with other strips to make a single piece of cloth. Dried in the sun, the cloth is eventually decorated using patterned stencil designs depicting the origin of the artist and figurative icons relevant to a clan’s totemic god – often a turtle or shark. Once stencilled, the cloth is known in Fijian as masi. Only two or three colours are used – brown dye is obtained from the bark of the mangrove tree; the black dye comes from charcoal; while the red dye that is sometimes used is obtained from seeds. For the villagers on Vatulele, tapa is the main cash crop, generating an average annual income of F$2000 per household, although for some tapa artists this can reach F$6000, equalling the basic salary of a Fijian civil servant.