Rural Viti Levu Travel Guide

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Given that Fiji is renowned for its tiny coral islands, many visitors are struck by the sheer size of its main island, Viti Levu or “Big Fiji”. Covering just over ten thousand square kilometres, it’s roughly half the size of Wales and offers a wide range of scenery, from sunburnt yellow sugarcane fields along the dry north coast to the verdant blanket of rainforest spread over the eastern half of the island. With the exception of the Nadi to Lautoka corridor and the urban sprawl between Suva and Nausori, Viti Levu is distinctly rural in character, with only a handful of small market towns along the coastal road circling the island. Most such towns are found at the mouths of rivers, which in turn connect the isolated and seldom visited mountainous interior.

Viti Levu can be hastily explored in two days, either by public bus or rental car, but a week is recommended to have a chance to meet some of the exceedingly hospitable characters who will welcome you along the way. More time will allow you to branch off the main roads to explore and hike amongst some of the most beautiful countryside in the South Pacific.

The Queens Road, the main artery connecting Nadi and Suva, travels along South Viti Levu, a relatively well developed tourist region. The first stop is the small town of Sigatoka, close to the absorbing Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park. Further east are the beach resorts of the Coral Coast and the adventure sports capital of Pacific Harbour. By contrast, North Viti Levu appears rather barren, its scenery dominated by sugarcane farmland interspersed with the market towns of Ba, Tavua and Rakiraki. Inland, however, is Fiji’s most attractive village, Navala, as well as the country’s highest point, Mount Tomanivi; offshore are the budget resorts of Nananu-i-Ra island. East Viti Levu is the least developed area on the mainland, still mostly covered in rainforest; its main attraction is the picturesque Tailevu Coast, accessed by remote dirt road.

Top image © Radek Borovka/Shutterstock

East Viti Levu

The hilly, tropical countryside of East Viti Levu is the least-visited part of the big island. Here you’ll find some of the prettiest roadside landscapes in Fiji, particularly around Viti Levu Bay along the northeast coast. South of the bay, from the village of Barotu, the Kings Road cuts 20km inland through deep tropical rainforest alongside the Wainibuka River. An alternative track from Barotu heads over the high Nakorotubu Range to the undulating hills and bays of the remote Tailevu Coast. The two roads meet again at Korovou town, from where the route descends into the fertile flat farming land of the mighty Rewa River, eventually rejoining the urban world at Nausori, just north of Suva.

The Tailevu Coast

The most scenic route between Barotu and Korovou heads along an 80km dirt track hugging the remote Tailevu Coast. With its lovely coastal scenery, secluded villages, hiking tracks and offshore dolphin-spotting, this seldom visited region is an exceptional place to explore. In the southern portion, 10km from Korovou Town, Natovi Landing is the departure point for ferries to Ovalau and Vanua Levu.

Exploring remote Viti Levu

Four less-travelled dirt roads provide a really genuine insight into rural Viti Levu. None of the routes mentioned here is served by buses, and although all can be navigated by a regular car with good suspension in good weather, 4WD is recommended. Before you leave, check your tyres (including your spare) and take plenty of drinking water – yaqona roots are also good to carry as a sevusevu in case you decide to visit a village. Each of the following routes takes around five hours to drive but there are overnight options in villages along the way and it’s worth taking longer to explore:

Nadi to Ba via Bukuya

Start from the Nadi Back Road, climbing into the grassy hills of the Nausori Highlands. The scenery is barren and very remote, with panoramic views along most of the road. The route passes through two fascinating villages: Bukuya; and Navala with over a hundred traditional thatch bures.

Navua to Suva via Namosi Highlands

Start from Namosi Rd along the Queens Rd, 11km east of Navua Town. The road meanders through dense tropical forest into the Namosi Highlands, past traditional villages with stunning mountain views along the way.

Suva to Tavua via Monasavu Dam

This route journeys through the heart of Viti Levu, past the lush Sovi Basin and Monasavu Dam towards Mount Tomanivi, Fiji’s highest mountain, before heading downhill into the farming valleys surrounding Tavua.

Korovou to Rakiraki via the Tailevu Coast

Travels along the secluded and winding coastline of Tailevu, passing rivers, seldom-visited villages and scenic bays.

North Viti Levu

At first glance North Viti Levu, with its rolling sunburnt hills and succession of dusty inland towns, might appear rather dreary. But delve a little deeper and you’ll discover some charming unexpected sites. The raw Ba hinterland boasts Fiji’s most spectacular traditional village, Navala, while further east and also inland is Fiji’s highest mountain, Tomanivi, which can be conquered on a pleasant but arduous half-day hike. Off the undulating coast of Rakiraki, the tranquil island of Nananu-i-Ra has fabulous diving and is a popular retreat with budget travellers. Further east, the most scenic roadside views in Fiji are to be found around Viti Levu Bay, with the high peaks of the Nakauvadra Range rising from the flat sugarcane fields.

Bure building

Traditional Fijian homes or bures are usually built communally by members of the same mataqali. The main wooden structure is made from a hardwood tree, often vesi. Bure shapes vary slightly between regions: most are broadly rectangular although in Lau they have rounded ends similar to those found in Tonga. The wooden posts are joined together with magimagi, a fibrous coconut string, rather than nails or bolts. There is no central post, ensuring a large open-plan living area and a high ceiling for ventilation. The walls are usually made from bamboo, sliced and woven together. A raised platform makes up the floor, and this is laid with straw as a cushion and woven mats for decoration. The roof is thatched using a reed called sina and lasts for around five years before being replaced. Across the top of the roof, or piercing either side, is a black post known as the balabala. This is the trunk of a fern tree and is decorated with white cowrie shells to indicate various forms of chiefly status. Roofs of lesser huts or kitchens are made from the leaf of the coconut tree and will last from three to ten years depending on the skill in weaving. Bures are usually laid out around a central rara, or village green, used for ceremonial events and daily rugby practice.

Mount Tomanivi

Mount Tomanivi, also known as Mount Victoria, is the highest point in Fiji standing at 1323m. Unfortunately, at this high elevation, the mountain appears to be nothing more than a hill, although the two-hour hike to the top is certainly strenuous. The trail starts from Navai village, 8km south of Nadarivatu. You’ll need to hire a guide (F$20) and pay a F$20 admission fee which goes towards village projects; you can also enquire in the village about homestays. The walk is best attempted on a dry day, setting off from Navai around 8am – any later and the trail becomes swelteringly hot, any earlier and the summit is likely to be obscured by morning mist. The lower part of the trail is extremely muddy, passing plantations and crossing a couple of streams. About halfway up, it enters the government-leased Tomanivi Nature Reserve, where you’ll probably see masked shining parrots, long-legged warblers and hear whistling doves. From here on up the route follows an exceptionally steep ridge over boulders and contorted tree roots – it’s quite a scramble but thankfully the trail is hemmed in by thick forest. There are a couple of clearings along the way with glimpses of the surrounding countryside, and the panorama from the top is exceptional. On a clear day you’ll see the stark contrast between the dry valleys in the distant north and the rugged tropical mountains draped in rainforests to the south.

Nadarivatu

The old colonial settlement of NADARIVATU, once the penal colony for Fiji, lies around 25km inland from Tavua and is one of the access points for climbing Mount Tomanivi. It’s a wonderfully cool and peaceful setting, located in a large depression surrounded by mountains and pine forests above the heat of the coast. The journey up here is quite spectacular, accessed 3km east of Tavua town via a dirt road. The trip can be done in fifty minutes but with wonderful views along the way, particularly on the steep ascent from pretty Waikubukubu village, it will probably take longer. Nadarivatu translates as “the stone bowl”, which refers to a small black stone found beside the road close to the health centre – legend tells of water sprouting from the stone in times of drought and its being the source of the mighty Sigatoka River.

Navala

Home to almost two hundred traditionally thatched bures, the village of NAVALA is an iconic symbol of Fiji. Back in 1950, the community decided to reject modern building materials and to encourage all school leavers to learn the art of traditional bure making. The result, sixty years on, is the last remaining thatch village in Fiji. The only cement structures are the church, school and a few generator huts.

To visit the village, introduce yourself to the first person you come across on the roadside – they will take you to the village headman where you pay a F$25 village entry fee. The money represents a sevusevu and helps with the upkeep of the village. Strolling around is a delightful experience. The chiefly bures have elaborately designed rooftops and are set in a neat line facing the village green. The more disorganized clusters of bures on the lower slopes of the Ba River are where the ordinary people live. The village is surrounded by grass-covered mountains full of secret caves where the people once retreated in times of war.

Pathways of the spirits

Viti Levu, particularly the grasslands between Ba and Rakiraki, is crisscrossed with ancient pathways known as tualeita. Dating back centuries before European contact, most of the paths run along the highest ridges allowing walkers to spot enemy war parties and to avoid being followed. The paths played an important role in the Fijian colonization of Viti Levu, linking pioneer settlements to the main chiefly villages. Before the widespread conversion to Christianity, tualeita also held a religious importance. It was believed that the spirits of the dead followed the trails on their journey back to their origins, and thence on to the afterlife. Most walking tracks today follow tualeita.

Tavua

A forty-minute drive east from Ba brings you to TAVUA, a smaller, more intimate market centre set slightly inland from the coast. The Kings Road passes straight through town, making it feel busier than it is. The roadside is lined with twenty or so tiny shops packed with all sorts of odds and ends while the cramped town market is found at the eastern end. You can easily spend an idle day here chatting with the locals without being pressured to buy anything.

Tavua to Rakiraki

The journey east along the Kings Road from Tavua to Rakiraki passes through the vast cattle farmland of Yaqara. The scenery here resembles a mini Wild West, with cowboys rounding up the herds and the rugged mountain scenery of the Nakauvadra Range in the background. Further along the coast is the small market town of Rakiraki, also known as Vaileka Town. Nearby is the pretty coastal setting of Volivoli Point and the beautiful offshore island of Nananu-i-Ra, both featuring some lovely holiday cottages.

The Nakauvadra Range and around

Around 25km east of Tavua is the turn-off for the impeccably sterile bottling plant for Fiji Water (w fijiwater.com), which since its inception in 1996 has become Fiji’s most recognized global brand. The company was set up by Canadian billionaire David Gilmour and sold for a massive profit in 2004 to an American investor. Water is sourced from an artesian well fed from the legendary Nakauvadra Range, said to be the home of Degei, the most powerful of Fijian gods.

Seven kilometres before Rakiraki is a fabulous roadside viewpoint overlooking the rocky volcanic plug of Navatu Hill with an ancient fortification perched on its summit – there’s a rough trail on the east side of the hill leading to the top with its panoramic view. The multi-unit hill fort was used as a defence from the fearsome Udre Udre, a chief from Rakiraki who folklore recalls ate nothing but human flesh. You can see Udre Udre’s grave beside the Kings Road, 100m on the right before the Nadovi Police Post – the 872 stones placed here supposedly represent the number of people he ate.

Rakiraki (Vaileka Town)

Vaileka Town, usually referred to as just RAKIRAKI, evolved from a tiny village site with the expansion of the Penang Sugar Mill, the oldest of Fiji’s four working mills, built in 1880. The town of around 1500 residents remains dominated by sugarcane farming and, apart from a small market, it has little to entice tourists.

Volivoli

The placid hills of Volivoli mark the northern point of Viti Levu and look out on the offshore islands of Malake and Nananu-i-Ra. Taking advantage of this serene landscape are two small resorts, both with good scuba diving operators. The beach at Volivoli Point at high tide is non-existent but as the tide retreats, an 80m-long sand spit emerges with a small area for sunbathing and bonfires.

Nananu-i-Ra

Fifteen minutes by boat across a choppy passage from Ellington Wharf takes you to delightful Nananu-i-Ra, a small hilly island surrounded by beautiful white sandy beaches. There are plans for luxury holiday homes and a Hilton resort development on the northern side of the island but until these appear it remains blissfully down to earth, with just three family-owned budget resorts.

Lomanisue Beach

The long curving palm-fringed Lomanisue Beach fronting the east side of Nananu-i-Ra is accessible along a two-minute trail from behind Charlie’s. Swimming on this side of the island is good but it’s constantly buffeted by winds; while this may not suit sunbathers, it’s probably the best spot in Fiji for windsurfing.

North side of the island

From the north end of Lomanisue Beach, you can walk around the rocky headland at low tide to the secluded bay on the north side of the island – the centuries-old stone wall formations lining the shore here were built to catch fish on the outgoing tide. From the bay several walking tracks lead up the lightly wooded hills and head back to Sekoula Point.

Degei, god of gods

Near the summit of Uluda, the northern peak of the Nakauvadra Mountains, is a cave. It is no ordinary cave, for it is said that Degei, the most important god in Fijian folklore, resides here. To the early Fijians, Degei was the creator of the world, creator of men and god of anger and war. He took the form of a snake and, when he moved, the earth shook. Noise irritated him so the bats were chased away from the cave, birds were ordered to sleep away from the summit and the waves crashing onto the nearby reef were silenced. Throughout Fiji, and particularly on Viti Levu, the snake god ruled supreme and was offered the first bowl of yaqona as a matter of respect. In the hills of Viti Levu you may still see the first bowl of grog poured outside in his honour.

South Viti Levu

The scenic Queens Road passes through countless fishing villages alongside the winding bays of South Viti Levu. A fabulous beach, Natadola, lies within an hour’s drive south of Nadi. To the east is the region’s main town, Sigatoka, a rather uninspiring market centre. However, in its immediate vicinity are several worthy attractions, including the Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park and Tavuni Hill Fort. Beyond Sigatoka the sunny climate and sugarcane fields give way to cloud-clad mountains, which descend towards the picturesque lagoons of the Coral Coast. Graced by white sandy beaches, this was where tourism first began in Fiji and it’s still home to a wide range of resorts, from large family-friendly complexes to budget resorts tucked away in secluded bays. Further east is Pacific Harbour, with the fabulous Beqa Lagoon offshore for scuba diving and game fishing, and the oppressive virgin rainforest of the Namosi Highlands offering remote riverside villages, pristine waterfalls and whitewater rafting. From here, the bustling, rain-drenched capital city of Suva (see Chapter 4) is just forty minutes’ drive along the coast.

Beqa Lagoon shark dives

Beqa Lagoon, 12km south of Pacific Harbour, is renowned for its shark-feeding dives, which attract divers from across the world. On a good day you may see up to a hundred sharks over the two dives, including reef sharks, silvertips, tawny nurse sharks, sicklefin lemon sharks, menacing-looking bull sharks and the occasional tiger shark, as well as schools of other large fish taking advantage of the free food (mostly tuna heads from a nearby factory). The best dive sites are on the western tip and north side of the lagoon, best accessed from Pacific Harbour, where accommodation is more affordable and dining more diverse than on the island of Beqa itself.

Dive operators

Both of the companies here claim an excellent safety record, but if you fancy a more sedate experience there are also soft coral and wreck dives available in the lagoon on the days that the sharks are not fed.

Aqua Trek Beqa The Pearl 345 0324, aquatrek.com. Professional dive operator with top-of-the-range gear and boats. Shark dives cost US$200 and depart Pacific Harbour 8.30am on Mon, Wed, Fri and Sat, with reef diving around Beqa Lagoon available on other days for US$130.

Fijian pottery

The single most important item identifying the migration of people across the South Pacific is pottery. For Fijians, the trail commences with the introduction of Lapita pottery, a distinct form of geometric patterning impressed on clay pots by finely saw-toothed blades prior to firing. The oldest examples of Lapita, dating back to 1220 BC, were found at Bourewa Beach on the southeast coast of Viti Levu. The highest concentration of the pottery is found at Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park.

In pre-European times, pottery formed the basis of Fijian homewares, with clay vessels used as water containers, yaqona bowls, and pots for baking, steaming and frying food. Today, potters around the islands retain traditional motifs, some using woven mats to create patterns, others using carved paddles or leaves. The potters, almost exclusively women, knead the clay with fine sand using the heels of the feet, beat it into shape using a wooden mallet, crudely fire the pots and then glaze them for waterproofing by rubbing over with the hot wax-like gum of the dakua tree which was also used as a candle in pre-European times.

Navua and the Navua River

Navua, 10km east of Pacific Harbour on the Suva side of the Navua River, is a dusty market centre with a mix of Fiji-Indian rice farmers from the delta and Fijian villagers from the highlands selling their produce. The only reason to come here is to catch a boat to Beqa Island or to explore the Namosi Highlands, which loom large above the river floodplain.

At the north end of town, between the market and bridge, longboats line the riverbanks and journey up the murky Navua River to the villages of the Namosi Highlands. A local operator offers guided longboat trips, and Rivers Fiji offers whitewater rafting through stunning scenery towards Wainimakatu; this remote region fronts the massive Sovi Basin, an amphitheatre of lowland rainforest surrounded by mountain ridges with an abundance of endemic birdlife – this is Fiji’s largest and most important protected nature reserve.

Pacific Harbour and around

Renowned as Fiji’s adventure sports hub, PACIFIC HARBOUR’s suburban setting seems rather dull on first acquaintance: the town was purpose-built in the early 1970s, drained from swampland and laid out meticulously with suburban driveways and intermittent luxury villas. The surrounding environment, however, is something quite special. The Navua River, some 10km to the east, offers stunning waterfall hikes and longboat excursions, whilst further inland, the high mountains of the mysterious Namosi Highlands offer fantastic 4WD driving, whitewater rafting and remote village treks. Offshore is the phenomenal Beqa Lagoon, with world-class scuba diving, including the raved-about shark dives, and serious game fishing.

Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park

Two kilometres east of Sigatoka Town, the Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park makes for an inspiring outing. The dunes cover an area of 650 hectares, stretching for 3km and petering out to a sand spit at the mouth of the Sigatoka River. In places they rise to 80m with fantastic views of the crashing surf along the beach.

The visitor centre has an informative display highlighting the fragile ecology and archeological importance of the region, and can also provide guides. There are two designated walking trails from here: an hour’s stroll through forest to the beach; and a two- to three-hour walk which takes you along the ridge of the dunes. Along the beachfront you’ll find plenty of driftwood and, if you look carefully, you’ll come across small shards of Lapita pottery, evidence of human settlement from over two thousand years ago. Unusually large human bones are regularly found here, suggesting that the fish diet and lifestyle of the early settlers was very healthy. Circling back round to the forest you’ll encounter “treehuggers” sculpted from dead wood, symbolizing the need to protect the environment, and there’s a clearing just beyond noisy with flying foxes.

Good surfing can be had around the Sigatoka River mouth at the southern end of the beach, although the sea can be ferocious at times with strong currents – locals can advise the safest entry points for both surfers and swimmers. You can rent boards at the Sand Dunes Inn.

The Coral Coast

Driving along the Coral Coast, loosely defined as the 60km section of the Queens Road between Korotogo Beach and Pacific Harbour, is perhaps the most pleasant drive in Fiji. The name, inspired by the exposed offshore reefs, was used to market Fiji’s first collection of tourist resorts, which were set up here in the 1960s. The Coral Coast begins in the province of Baravi, passing through the small settlement of Korolevu, where Fiji’s first tourist hotel once stood; along the coastline here are a dozen beach resorts. Beyond Korolevu, the scenery becomes more intense as the highway climbs inland over the mountains of Serua, which shield several deep bays with secluded budget retreats. There are few specific attractions on the Coral Coast apart from its scenery, but its situation, midway between the sites of Sigatoka and the activities of Pacific Harbour, makes it a good base.

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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