Fiji – by kayak

My wake-up call at 5 a.m. is the most beautiful a cappella singing, bursting forth from the church close to where we have pitched our tents in the village of Nukandamu on the north coast of Vanua Levu, the second-largest but still undeveloped island in Fiji.

We reached this isolated community by kayaks dropped off for us by a chartered fishing boat at a remote beach where we assembled them. Daytime temperatures build rapidly even in late October so we put together the two-person, sail-rigged collapsible kayaks as early as possible that first morning, working in the shade of overhanging coconut trees.

The task is interspersed with dips in the turquoise water – cool in the morning but almost hot by nightfall.

Once we’ve assembled the kayaks, we pack up, carry the boats out to deep water and head to Undu Point where, the following morning, we have a magnificent vantage point for pre-dawn tea and a perfect prelude to breakfast. Sitting just east of the 180th meridian, we’re the first people in the world to watch the sunrise. We fall easily into a rhythm: light at 5 a.m., breakfast, hike, snorkel, lunch, sail, dinner, dark at 6:30 p.m.

By day two, we havsnorkelled, sailed and put the northeast wind to good use, aiming for another wild, sandy beach complete with swaying palms. Our route includes a brief visit to Nambouono at the northeast tip of Vanua Levu where we’re treated to green coconuts, which provide a welcome drink.

A village to raise a child
Our hosts lead us up the hill to the village itself, a cluster of well-kept houses amid bougainvillea in full bloom, dominated by a huge breadfruit tree. The women bring woven mats for us to sit on as we adjust our customary sulus (sarong). Conversation comes easily over tea and crackers, with much smiling and giggling on the part of our curious hostesses and their wide-eyed children.

In return for the hospitality, we present our own gifts to the elders of the village – a bundle of clothing and the almost mandatory package of kava.

We pull into Nukundamu at low tide and are met by the men and youngest children. Adults in Fiji display enormous affection for their toddlers; the little ones seem able to go to any lap – male or female – for a hug, a laugh or reassurance. From the age of six, children board at a central school in Lambasa throughout the week.

Again, out come the mats, tea and crackers. We inquire about a nearby abandoned copper mine and are invited to explore, share their evening meal and stay the night. This is a spontaneous gesture and definitely not part of the organized itinerary – but we know it will be a memorable experience.

We erect our tents under the watchful eyes of the villagers. They have never had “European” visitors before, and our high-tech camping gear is obviously fascinating. Next, it’s bath time, women first. We follow our hosts through the forest where a spring provides their treasured fresh water. There, next to squealing pigs suckling their young, we wash, hanging our towels, clothes and toiletries on the pigs’ bamboo palisade.

Clean and relaxed, we slip into the thatched-roof bure for the ritual kava ceremony. Kava (grog) is a completely non-alcoholic member of the pepper family. The root is pounded to a powder, kneaded, then squeezed through a water-doused cloth, gradually creating the strange liquid that leaves the inside of the mouth with an odd, almost anaesthetized sensation. With visitors in the village, grog drinking, singing and swapping stories can last well into the wee hours.

Grog is offered with grave ceremony to each visitor in turn, the highest ranking or possibly the oldest first, on down to the one perceived to be of least importance. The assigned kava-bearer draws a measure from the tanoa (a special ceremonial bowl) and approaches the recipient – not from the front but almost obsequiously from the side. He carries himself regally, exemplifying the gracefulness of these islanders. Making no eye contact, he offers the murky liquid.

It’s fascinating to watch how each person is chosen, how deferentially it’s presented, with no invasion of the individual’s space and very closely observed ritual etiquette.

Time for the meke
We’re served a wonderful meal of fish, cassava root, taro leaf and pineapple. In the time it’s taken us to hike to the spring and bathe, the women have cooked the communal meal and made salu salus (garlands) of intoxicatingly beautiful frangipani flowers. Then comes the meke – an evening of traditional Fijian music and dance.

And it’s the same entrancing a cappella singing that wakes me the following morning. After their church service, we’re served pancakes. We save the fresh baked rolls, slightly sweet and moistened with coconut milk, for a mid-morning snorkelling break. Once we’re packed, the entire community turns out for our farewell.

We sail downwind from Nunkundamu in brilliant sunshine to our next camp at Mbekana Island, and beyond that, the villages of Kendra, Silivakatani, and Tathilau on Kavewa Island.

The sea is calm as we sail from Kavewa with sufficient breeze for the jibs. It’s dark by the time the last kayak is pulled up onto shore for the night, the last tent erected. And, next morning we set out for Lambasa. It’s poignant returning to “civilization,” our first landfall a sugar-loading wharf beside a lumber mill. The river is not as sweet-smelling as the open ocean and certainly not as clean.

It seems almost unfair that our guides are moving on to their next adventure with a new group of paddlers, this time to ply the Yasawa Islands west of Vanua Levu. But we content ourselves that we have experienced the essence of Fiji as few visitors ever do; we are proud to have seen Fiji the way it ought to be.