Taveuni

AS A COUPLE
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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.

Brief history

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.

Bouma National Heritage Park

Fifteen kilometres south of Matei is the northern boundary of the Bouma National Heritage Park, an important wildlife reserve, protecting forty thousand acres of ancient rainforest laced with waterfalls and home to rare birds and plants. The park was established in 1990 by the people of Bouma District, with assistance from the Fijian and New Zealand governments.

Within the park are four villages, each running a specific eco-attraction: Waitabu, the first of the villages encountered along the road from Matei, has a protected marine park; 4km further into the park, Vidawa offers a rewarding rainforest hike to ancient ruins in the hills; neighbouring Korovou (also known as Bouma) maintains the spectacular Tavoro Waterfall Trail through three sets of falls; and the last of the four villages, Lavena, 15km to the south and at the end of the road, has a beautiful coastal walk with kayaking and another refreshing waterfall at its end. Also within the park are Lake Tagimaucia and De Voeux Peak, although these are best accessed from the west coast.

Cakobau’s war canoe

Ra Marama, the last great double-hulled Fijian war canoe to grace the South Seas, was built at Somosomo during the 1830s to 1840s. The canoe, measuring 30m long and 6m wide, took seven years to complete and could carry over 130 warriors. At the keel-laying ceremony, several young warriors were clubbed to death to increase the canoe’s mana, or spiritual power; missionaries intervened at the canoe’s launch when more warriors were due to be sacrificed. The canoe was presented as a gift to Cakobau of Bau who used it as a powerful symbol of strength in his wars against Rewa which eventually crowned him King of Fiji. After Cakobau’s death in 1882, the canoe was returned to Somosomo where, beached, it perished to the wind and sea – no trace of it remains.

Kayaking around Lavena

A great way to explore the coastal scenery around Lavena is on a guided kayak tour (4hr; F$50, includes lunch), which you can arrange at Lavena Lodge. Experienced guides from the village will accompany you on a one-hour paddle south from Lavena before trekking inland to the falls for lunch. The guides will then tow your kayak back to the village, allowing you to return along the Lavena Coastal Walk. Keen kayakers can hire a guide for the day and paddle further down the coast where the cliffs become steeper and several waterfalls tumble directly into the sea – though note that it’s a gruelling six-hour trip across open sea to view this spectacle and conditions can be rough.

Matei

MATEI, jutting out on the northernmost tip of Taveuni, is the ideal base for exploring the island: lying midway between the Bouma National Heritage Park and Rainbow Reef, it offers plenty of water-based activities, pleasant beaches and a good selection of restaurants. This modern settlement of around five hundred people is a mix of old colonial families, Indian entrepreneurs and a new wave of foreigners living the dream in luxury oceanfront villas. The settlement stretches along the main coastal road either side of the small bluff known as Naselesele Point.

Two kilometres west of Naselesele Point is Beverley Beach, a deep sandy gem backed by lush hardwood trees. The coral reef here lies close to shore and offers great snorkelling along a 30m-deep drop-off, with reef sharks occasionally paying a visit. Confident swimmers can also reach the snorkelling reef off Natadrua Island, in the sheltered lagoon 700m off the north side of Matei, but it’s best to paddle out on a kayak.

The Ringgold Islands

Almost 30km northwest from Taveuni, the remote Ringgold Islands are a collection of small islands supporting thousands of breeding seabirds, including the red-footed booby and black noddy on Vetaua island. The only inhabitants live on rolling Yanuca island where farming is viable. To visit these enchanting islands you need to join the Tui Tai Adventure Cruise which spends a day exploring the sunken crater of Cobia Island with hiking and snorkelling in the lagoon. Nuku, an atoll surrounded by tiny coral islets, has some of the finest white sand in Fiji, where hundreds of sea turtles lay their eggs between September and January.

Rotuma

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.

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.

Fara

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.

Snorkelling, diving and ocean sportsaround Matei

From Matei it takes roughly forty minutes by boat to reach the superb dive sites along the Rainbow Reef off the south coast of Vanua Levu. The rich current-fed waters off Matei are also fantastic for big game fishing, with marlin, swordfish and yellowfin tuna plentiful. As well as the operators listed here, Makaira Resort can also organize game-fishing trips (US$360 per half-day) in a 24ft aluminium boat.

Operators

Jewel Bubble Divers Beverley Beach 888 2080, jeweldiversfiji.com. Diving and snorkelling trips. Two-tank dive US$120.

Swiss Fiji Divers Beverley Beach 888 0586, swissfijidivers.com. Long-established outfit offering diving and snorkelling trips. Two-tank dive F$150.

Taveuni Dive Waiyevo 828 1063, taveunidive.com. Diving and snorkelling trips to the Great White Wall on Rainbow Reef. Two-tank dive F$265.

Taveuni Ocean Sports Nakia 867 7513, taveunioceansports.com. Family-owned operation, offering snorkelling, kayaking, surfing, fishing and scuba diving. Activities cost from F$40 per day; 2-tank dive US$120.

The weeping Tagimaucia flower

The beautiful Tagimaucia flower – or Medinilla waterhousei – grows only at high altitude near water and, apart from at a few isolated locations on Vanua Levu, Lake Tagimaucia on Taveuni is the only place in the world you can see it. The beautiful flowers, which hang in bright clusters from a liana vine, have two red waxy outer petals and four white inner petals resembling a bell; they bloom in profusion between September and January. This being Fiji, there is a romantic legend attached: the tumbling flowers represent the tears of a maiden forbidden to marry her true love.

De Voeux Peak and Lake Tagimaucia

From Wairiki, a dirt road heads to the telecoms station at De Voeux Peak (1195m). If you’re fit it’s not difficult to walk to the top, but it will take a couple of hours from the turn-off just before the Catholic Mission. Once at the summit, the view overlooking Taveuni, Vanua Levu and south to Gau and Koro is incredible on a fine day. Be warned, though, clouds often obscure the peak and whilst it may be sunny by the coast, rain could easily be falling on the mountain. The birdwatching up here is excellent, with regular sightings of silktails and orange doves, especially in the nesting season (Aug & Sept).

From the summit, it’s possible to continue for another two hours, hacking through bush along the northern ridge to Lake Tagimaucia, a crater lake 823m above sea level where the endemic Tagimaucia flower blooms. A relatively well-maintained but arduous trail leads to the lake from Waiyevo (7hr return) – a guide is essential and can be arranged through most west coast resorts.

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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