In a survey of the world’s finest travel writers the favourite destination was Fiji. It is also as far away from the British weather as possible. These seemed like two very good reasons for Philip Parr to head south (Pacific).
There‘s an expression known to aspiring freeloaders: Therouxed. This is the process by which the wandering North American (complete with his collapsible canoe) chooses his latest travel destination and writes one of those interrninably best-selling books about his experiences. Once a country has been Therouxed. the mere mortal travel writers can wave goodbye to cheap air fares. subsidised accommodation and hearty welcomes from smiling dignitaries. Last year. just when Qantas was on the verge of okaying my request for ajoy-ride to Fiji. ‘Paddling The Pacific: The Happy Isles of ()ceania' hit the book stalls. I haven‘t heard back from Qantas. but nevertheless I have done my own fair share ofpaddling the Pacific.
Fiji must be one of the tnost cliche- ridden countries in the world. Tourists throng into the international airport expecting nothing less than white sandy beaches. gently swaying palms. ripe coconuts and back-achineg hospitable ‘ natives the very instant they step off the plane. Ironically. for a country so synonymous with the term ‘paradise‘. the first emotion felt by most visitors is disillusionment. The airport is on the western side of Viti Levu. the main island of the 3(Xl-str‘ong Fijian group. This is rugged. dusty country. sheltered by the Nausori Highlands from the rain which drenches the rest of the island. There is also no beach to speak of. There are. however. natives aplenty. all with a taxi. and all offering ‘the best deal in town‘. Nothing unusual in that for a developing country. except that these natives are not Fijian but Indian. ()n this side of Viti Levu. Indians outnumber native Fijians by a ratio of two to one. a proportion that has contributed to the continuing constitutional crisis.
Virtually the only visible Fijians carry small canvas bags and approach the visitor with all the warmth and friendliness that one has been led to expect. Having shaken hands. you are asked where you have travelled from (a reply of ‘Scotland‘ is invariably greeted with a broad smile and a cry of. ‘Ooh. John Jeffrey. the Great White Shark') and how long you have been in
Fiji. The small talk continues for several minutes but. just as you are about to leave. a ‘sword' is whipped out of the canvas bag and offered as a ‘gift‘. Except. of course. that you are expected to pay. By this stage. the disillusionment is becoming over- powering.
Paul Theroux encountered these bag men and other less-than-welcome aspects of a voyage around Fiji; and anyone travelling. as opposed to remaining in one of the concrete eye- sores which masquerade as resorts. will also be unable to avoid them. However. ifyou travel round the islands for two tnonths. having dodged the touts on Viti Levu. provided a hearty dinner for mosquitoes on Taveuni and braved the toilets on one of the inter-island ferries. you still look upon the resort holiday- makers with absolute pity. For. in spite of its $3000 a week getaway villages and ‘Fiji Experience‘ theme parks. this is not a heavenly haven for the lazy sun-soaker. Fiji only really comes alive when Viti Levu is left far behind and the outer islands are explored.
The Fijians themselves make their way from island to island on ferries; generally retired remnants from Chinese or Japanese shipping lanes. The ship that links Viti Levu. Vanua Levu. Gau. Koro. ()valau and Taveuni is ominously named ‘Thc Spirit of Free Enterprise'. By the look ofthe rusting hull. it could be the same one. as well. The voyage from Viti Levu to Taveuni takes twenty hours ifevcrything goes according to plan. Everything never goes according to plan. But setting foot on Taveuni for the first time makes the 32-hour trip seem worthwhile.
Taveuni is in the northem group ofthe Fiji archipelago. It is big by Fijian standards — about 40 km long and l() km wide. and is quite possibly the most accurately nicknamed place on earth: the ‘garden island'. A taxi or. more entertainineg. the local bus will get you around the island in about six hours. and after the disappointment of Viti Levu the feeling of having discovered a personal paradise is overwhelming. The coast road (the only road) winds along densely vegetated cliffs which afford views of an ocean of such emerald green that it is literally breath-taking. Golden beaches curve gently along the shore while the
'TSRM"‘ ‘ ‘
coconut and mango trees provide a safe haven for parrots so tame that they happily eat out of your hand. Around the island. which is the plug of an ancient. massive volcano. there is such a profusion of spectacular scenery that any long-stayer can almost become blase. The onomatopoeic Boorna falls cascade 40 metres down a sheer cliff into a deep swimming hole which caters to locals and tourists alike. ()n the other side of the island there is a natural water slide. infinitely more thrilling than anything the Disney organisation has come up with. which speeds the slider down 50 metres of
hair-pin bends along smooth rock walls.
Then. ofcourse. there are the people. When one grasps that the Fijians live for friendships and socialising. one can begin to understand their apparently contradictory dual passions: drinking and religion. ()n a Saturday'night it seems that the whole of Fiji is out on the town, or. more often. the village. But the vast majority ofthern will be borne by midnight in order to get a good night‘s rest before the three or four-hour church services on a Sunday. Almost 90 per cent of Fiji is actively church-going with the predominant religion being rnethodisru. But ‘dour' is still a word which is absent from the locals vocabulary.
In my stay in the archipelago. three cyclones hit over a one month period. Maybe God was telling the locals something. but there was none of the self-pitying whingeing which characterised the Miami hurricane of two years ago or the British cyclone of I987. In fact. as ever. the Fijians simply shrugged their shoulders. muttered senganelenga (roughly translated as ‘don‘t worry. be happy') and got on with their lives.
Once you have experienced these people and their paradise for any length of time. you start to develop the same attitude.
Philip I ’arr ﬂew to Fiji with Air Paciﬁc who have regular ﬂights from
Alill’l’lt'll '3‘ West Coast and Australia.
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