A world away from the beach resorts of the Mamanucas and Yasawa Islands, the historically fascinating Lomaiviti and Lau groups radiate from the east coast of Viti Levu, eventually dissipating before a massively deep ocean trench separating Fiji from Tonga. Those who visit these enchanting islands step into the Fiji of old, where islanders fish the lagoons as a matter of necessity and travel the open seas in small boats.
As a tourist destination, the inner islands of the Lomaiviti Group are relatively developed, particularly Ovalau, home to Fiji’s charming former capital, Levuka. In comparison, the Outer Lomaiviti and the entire expanse of the Lau Group offer few facilities but will captivate the minds of the most curious of travellers. The area has a rich Tongan heritage and is popular with visiting yachts drawn to its spectacular limestone islands and bays. With over sixty islands to visit across a wide expanse of ocean, virtually no accommodation and limited transport, time and patience are the main requisites for successfully exploring this region.
The Lomaiviti and Lau islands played a key role in the struggle for supremacy over the Fijian archipelago. By the mid-nineteenth century the ruthless Ratu Seru Cakobau, high chief of Bau, had brought much of Fiji under his control. However, the Tongans held a long association with the Lau Group, which in most parts are closer to their islands than Viti Levu. In 1848, Enele Ma’afu, a Tongan prince, was sent to Lakeba in Lau under the guise of protecting the missionaries established there. By supporting Cakobau’s enemies and plying his own brand of fierce warfare, Ma’afu soon began to dominate the region, even gaining control of Vanua Levu and Taveuni. By the 1870s, Cakobau concluded that Ma’afu had the upper hand. Fearful of a direct confrontation he decided to cede Fiji to Britain, which he believed would halt the Tongan’s conquest. The British were reluctant to accept Cakobau’s terms as he didn’t represent the united people of Fiji. So, in 1871, Cakobau rallied a few white settlers in Levuka, and, with the backing of his allied chiefs, announced himself King of Fiji. After much debate and tension, cession to Britain was completed on October 10, 1874 and Levuka became the administrative capital of the new colony. Ma’afu, his aspirations of control of Fiji halted, reluctantly accepted administration over the Lau Group.
Like the flick of a paint brush, sixty tiny dots in a canvas of deep blue make up the LAU GROUP, a widely dispersed collection of islands forming the distant eastern border of Fiji. Only half the islands are inhabited and the people who live here are almost completely reliant on the reef-strewn sea that surrounds them. Cargo boats from Suva bring in essential supplies and connect the islands with the outside world. Otherwise, they remain untouched, undeveloped and seldom visited by outsiders. For those that do venture here, a warm welcome awaits as well as the chance to sample a unique culture – a mixture of Polynesian Tonga and Melanesian Fiji.
The Lau Group can be split into three regions: Moala, Northern Lau and Southern Lau. The three high volcanic islands of the Moala Group lie to the south of Lomaiviti and are the closest to Viti Levu and the least influenced by Tongan culture. Northern Lau is the region most appealing to tourists, thanks to the historic island of Vanua Balavu which has access to the spectacular Bay of Islands. Southern Lau is the most isolated part of the group, in places closer to Tonga than Suva. These islands hold the region’s seat of power at the traditional village of Tubou on Lakeba.
If you’re coming to the Lau Group, bring plenty of cash – there are no banks, only a handful of small village stores and food and fuel costs are inflated due to their isolation.
Before Captain James Cook chartered the island of Vatoa in Southern Lau in 1774, the Lau Group was a little-known group of remote islands where Tongans and Fijians traded, occasionally fought and often intermarried. The Tongans came for the giant vesi trees that flourished around the islands of Fulaga and Lakeba. These were hollowed out to make large double-hulled canoes used for exploration, trade and war around the Tongan empire. In 1800, the Argo, one of the first Western merchant ships to enter Fijian waters, was shipwrecked on the Bukatatanoa Reef east of Lakeba. Its survivors were rescued in canoes by people from Lakeba and became the first white people to live amongst Fijians. Items from the ship including ceramic plate and buttons moved briskly around the islands, providing much curiosity. Sadly the ship also brought with it a strain of cholera which caused many deaths throughout the group.
In 1835, two Wesleyan Methodist missionaries, the Rev William Cross from England and Rev David Cargill from Scotland, landed at Tubou on Lakeba, becoming the first missionaries to arrive in Fiji. The pair had already worked in Tonga for several years and were accompanied by several envoys of the Taufa’ahau, the Christian King of Tonga. During the great wars of the 1840s between Bau and Rewa, fierce Tongan warriors fought for both sides in different parts of the islands. By 1848, their reputation had begun to embarrass Taufa’ahau, so he sent the headstrong Prince Ma’afu to Lakeba to control his people. Ma’afu excelled at his task and soon began to dominate the Lau Group. He moved his seat of power to Lakeba and by 1869 had declared himself Tui Lau or “King of Lau”. With the islands pacified and a Christian ruler in place, European planters moved in, purchasing the fertile islands of Northern Lau to grow cotton, and later for coconut oil production. When the entire Fijian archipelago was ceded to Britain in 1874, Ma’afu was granted control of the Lau Group and remained here until his death in 1881.
Today, Lauans walk tall amongst Fijians, retaining much power in political life. Two of Fiji’s most revered figureheads hailed from Tubou on Lakeba: Ratu Sir Lala Sukuna (1888–1958), who paved the way for the nation’s independence; and Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara (1920–2004), Fiji’s first Prime Minister. The latter held the title of President from 1993 to 2000 before being unceremoniously deposed by the Speight coup.
An intriguing way to visit the islands of the Lau Group is to travel around the region by cargo boat. The round-trip journey from Suva on all routes takes between six and seven days, offering a wonderful opportunity to mingle with the locals and to get a feel for the vastness of the region. Although there is no fixed schedule, there’s usually at least one departure a week to the islands from Suva, with each boat visiting between three and eight islands before heading back to the capital. Three to six hours are spent at each port, giving you enough time to disembark and have a quick look around. It may be tempting to linger on an island a little longer but bear in mind it may be several weeks before the next boat turns up.
Conditions on board are basic. A few boats have cabins, each with five bunk beds, but these are often stuffy, stink of diesel fumes and come crammed with luggage. Instead you’ll probably be sleeping under the stars on the open deck. It’s wise to take at least a pillow for resting your head on and preferably a mat to spread out on. Note that meals provided on board are basic and it’s worth bringing plenty of drinks and snacks. Toilet paper is another necessity – and be prepared for the sometimes vile conditions of a cargo boat bathroom.
The people of Southern Lau are renowned as fine artisans, with the women skilled makers of tapa cloth and the men, particularly from Kabara, well-known as the best woodcarvers in Fiji. You’ll find examples of their work, mostly in the form of tanoa bowls, readily available in the handicraft markets around Suva or in the more expensive souvenir shops in Nadi. Unfortunately, most of the region’s hardwood vesi trees – the best species for woodcarving – have been cut down and the islanders are being encouraged to plant the faster-growing sandalwood, known locally as yasi, as an alternative.
As well as tapa cloth and woodcarving, Lau islanders produce the coarse twine known as magimagi. Commonly seen binding together bures, magimagi comes from the fibres of a coconut husk, baked in the sun, soaked in the sea and briskly rubbed together to make long threads. The threads are meticulously braided to form a strong twine, often several kilometres in length. Magimagi was once used to lash together the parts of a canoe, although today it is most often seen extending from a tanoa or kava bowl towards the person of highest rank, or attached to either end of a tabua or whale’s tooth.
Off the northwestern tip of Vanua Balavu is the pretty Bay of Islands, known locally as Qilaqila, a collection of deep indented bays, islands and islets, secluded beaches and limestone cave, with excellent snorkelling available in its brilliant turquoise lagoon. The bay makes an exceptional anchorage for visiting yachts between May and October (for permission to anchor, contact the government station in Lomaloma on VHF channel 16). The islands themselves are mostly impenetrable – difficult to approach by boat and covered in a tangled mass of shrubs and ironwood trees. However, there are a couple of walking tracks worth exploring, as well as easy access to Vale ni Bose, “the Meeting Place of the Gods”. This huge cathedral cave, over 40m high, is full of stalactites and has several windows letting in dashes of light – note that at high tide you’ll be wading chest-high in water.
The sixteen islands of the Lomaiviti Group form a neat triangular cluster in the heart of the Fijian archipelago, 20km east of Viti Levu and 50km south of Vanua Levu. In the nineteenth century the island of OVALAU became the centre of European trade, with whalers and merchants setting up camp beside the village of Levuka, eventually to become Fiji’s first capital. Levuka remains the region’s main tourist draw, yet visitor numbers are blissfully insignificant. Surrounding Ovalau, a handful of small islands lie within a 15km radius, entwined within stunning coral reefs and boasting secluded white sandy beaches and hillforts: Naigani is home to a small resort and several large hillforts, while a handful of beautiful small islands with backpacker resorts lie off the south coast. Further east, the Outer Lomaiviti consist of half a dozen high volcanic islands with virtually no tourist infrastructure.
There are a couple of worthwhile hikes around Levuka, including The Peak trail, an arduous two-hour hike through forest culminating in a panorama of the eastern coastline from the large hill which rears up behind Levuka. Hikes are available with the affable Nox, who is best contacted through Levuka Homestay (344 0777; The Peak F$25; plantation walk including information on local medicine and a swim in a natural pool F$20).
The Levuka Community Centre (Mon–Fri 8am–1pm & 2–4.30pm, Sat 8am–1pm; 344 0356) organizes ninety-minute walking tours (from F$10) on demand. A more impromptu walking tour is offered by Nox (book via Levuka Homestay on t 344 0777; from F$10), who will guide you round the less-explored parts of town.
The nearest diving operators are Leleuvia Island Resort and Naigani Island Resort. Otherwise, there’s excellent snorkelling off Caqalai Island, which can be visited as a day-trip from your resort.
During 1870 and 1871, Cakobau tried time after time to subdue the fierce Lovoni tribe who had been constantly menacing the European settlers around Levuka. Unable to break through the ring of defences protecting the village in Lovoni Crater, Cakobau sent a Methodist missionary to Lovoni, inviting the tribe to a reconciliation in Levuka. Tired of being pursued by Cakobau, the Lovoni chief consulted his priest and accepted the invitation. On June 29, 1871 the entire village came down to Levuka. A meal was prepared, but as soon as the tribe set down their weapons to eat, Cakobau’s warriors surrounded and subdued them. In time the majority were sold off as slaves and dispersed throughout every corner of the archipelago. Those that remain are a stoutly proud group, believing their village to be the only one in Fiji not to have been conquered by Cakobau.
Two small islands along Ovalau’s south coast, Caqalai and Leleuvia, possess beach resorts and are becoming popular with backpackers keen to avoid the increasingly commercial Yasawa Islands trail. The nicest is Caqalai Island, where at low tide you can wade out to nearby Snake Island, which offers good snorkelling and the chance to spot black-and-white sea snakes. Although they are extremely venomous, the snakes are so timid and agile that you will have little chance of getting near them. Even better snorkelling is available at Honeymoon Island, a sand spit 5km to the east where you’ll likely spot small reef sharks hiding amongst the coral.
The figure-of-eight coral reef that wraps around Makogai and Wakaya offers phenomenal scuba diving. Live-aboards diving the reef include Fiji Aggressor (aggressor.com) and the slightly more intimate Nai’a (345 0382, naia.com.fj). The exclusive Wakaya Club Resort also offers scuba diving.
Once a wild whaling outpost, diminutive LEVUKA is now a charming seaside town on the island of Ovalau. Its laid-back atmosphere is epitomized by its weathered yet colourful clapboard buildings, most of which now function as Chinese or Indian-run stores, so packed full of goods and groceries it’s difficult to poke around without bumping into someone. Outside, the pillared pavement is where the town’s residents meet for a gossip. The town has a rich Fijian and colonial heritage and the best way to learn about it is by walking and talking with the genuinely hospitable locals, either on a guided walking tour or on a home visit arranged through the museum at the Morris Hedstrom building on Beach Street.
The main thoroughfare of Levuka town, misleadingly named Beach Street, passes between the rocky seawall and the town’s most historic buildings. It’s a simple tar-sealed track where dogs roam and people wander back and forth unconcerned about the occasional carrier van that trundles along.
From the Bureta airstrip on the island of Ovalau, a dirt track winds inland, following the Bureta River to Lovoni village, one of the island’s star attractions. The village was made infamous by the fierce tribe who lived behind an impregnable hillfort in the centre of the volcanic crater here (they’ve since moved to a more practical location just to the side).
The easiest way to visit is by road with Epi’s Tours (763 7546 or 923 6011, owlfiji.com/epi.htm; F$45 includes lunch), although note that this involves a bone-crunching ride from Levuka in the back of a carrier van followed by a two-hour lecture on the history of Lovoni. A more rewarding alternative is to take a guided hike with Nox (see Activities around Levuka) starting from Draiba village, a few kilometres south of Levuka. This is the shortest trail from the coast but it still takes a tough couple of hours through thick rainforest before you reach the dramatic setting of the crater – arrange for a carrier van to bring you back by road. You can also approach Lovoni from Bobo’s Farm or Salana Village Stay, although these are both full-day hikes.