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Fiji unpackaged

It’s a Fiji you rarely glimpse in the tourist brochures or on the TV travel shows, with their soft-focus images of evenly tanned vacationers lying on palm-fringed beaches, snorkeling along coral reefs through schools of tropical fish, and gazing wistfully into the sunset as they sip their umbrella drinks. 

Sure, the island of Ovalau has tropical vegetation, beaches and snorkeling.  And you can buy a cocktail at the bar of the colonial-era Royal Hotel.  But in every other way, it’s a world away from the Fiji most tourists see. 

Most of the 400,000-plus tourists who visit Fiji every year arrive at the international airport at Nadi, on the west coast of the largest island, Vita Levu, and head out to the Mamanuca and Yasawa groups, a string of islands stretching to the north.  Paradise is carefully packaged, with accommodation in traditional bure thatched huts, island excursions and visits to Fijian villages where locals serve kava—a mild narcotic made from the root of pepper plant—in “traditional” ceremonies.

Beach north of Levuka

My wife and I took a day trip from Nadi to a small, palm-fringed island, which looked like any other small, palm-fringed island, except that it offered an endless supply of beer.   We ate lunch, snorkeled, and then watched our Australian companions try to beat the island record for the number of “stubbies” (the local name for a half pint bottle of Fiji Bitter) to be drunk in four hours.  They came close (the record was 46), and the boat trip back was mildly raucous.

We hadn’t picked Fiji as a destination.  I was running a workshop for journalists from the South Pacific, and we figured we’d stay on for a couple of weeks and take a vacation.  But after too many off-key renditions of Waltzing Matilda and the Maori fight song on the boat trip back to Nadi, we decided to get as far away as possible from the package tours.

So while tourists headed out for the islands and more stubbies, we took the local bus along the magnificently named—if unevenly maintained—King’s Road that runs along the north coast of Vita Levu.  The King’s Road twists and turns for 100 miles between the sea and the mountains before cutting inland through the dense mountain jungle, with heart-pounding crossings of narrow wooden bridges. 

Ovalau, the largest island in the Lomaviti group, lies east of Vita Levu.  From the deck of the ferry, the views of its rugged volcanic landscape and sharp peaks were magnificent.  Most of the passengers worked in Suva, Fiji’s capital, and were going home for the weekend.   On the car deck were trucks bringing supplies for the stores in Levuka, the island’s tiny capital.  Apart from a church youth group from Suva, we met no other visitors.

It’s a bumpy 40-minute ride on gravel roads from the ferry dock on the west side of the island to Levuka, on the east, and it was after dark when the bus dropped us off at the Royal Hotel.  The weatherboard building is the oldest hotel in Fiji, and its colonial ambience—wood-paneled rooms with slow-moving ceiling fans, cane chairs on the porch and a royal portrait or two—more than make up for the slightly tatty accommodation.   

Levuka was Fiji’s earliest European settlement.  From the early 19th century, whalers and sandalwood traders were stopping at its sheltered harbor to pick up supplies.   Foreign merchants followed, intermarrying with the local Fijian population and building the trade in beche-de-mer (sea cucumber), turtle shells and coconut oil.  By the 1870s, Levuka was a boom town, with a population of about 3,000 Europeans, over 50 hotels, and a reputation for drunkenness and violence. 

The British restored order when Fiji became a colony in 1874, and they made Levuka their first capital.  But it soon became clear that the town—sandwiched between the sea and the mountains—could not grow, and was too remote from Vita Levu for effective administration.  In 1882, the government was officially moved to Suva.  Commerce followed, and Levuka began a century of gradual and genteel decline.

Anglican church

Although the northern end of town was swept away in hurricanes in 1888 and 1905, many of the boom-time buildings remain.  Today, Levuka still looks like a gold rush town, with a main street of Wild West storefronts and a sidewalk that could have come straight out of a Hollywood studio lot. 

Unlike Nadi, the west coast tourist center, Levuka is a working town.  The tuna cannery employs over 1,000 people—about 30% of the island’s working population.  Many of the stores, selling groceries, clothes and hardware, are owned by Indians who make up about 45% of Fiji’s population and have traditionally been shopkeepers and traders.  There’s a cinema, two restaurants with excellent Fijian and Asian dishes, and a couple of pool halls.  Fiji’s oldest trading store, Morris Hedstrom, is now the tourist information center; next door, a couple of expatriate Germans run the local deep-sea diving and snorkeling company, which doubles as Levuka’s only Internet café. 

You can see most of the sights in an easy day’s walk.  Start by climbing the 199 steps of Mission Hill for sweeping views of the town, the harbor and waves breaking on the coral reef.  Pass colonial houses with colorful gardens of hibiscus and bougainvillea.  Look up at the cannon ball scars on Gun Rock, a large volcanic outcrop at the north end of town.  In 1849, a U.S. exploratory expedition led by Commandant Charles Wilkes took a break from its chart-making to bombard the rock to impress the local chief.  Wilkes wanted to send a message after a nasty encounter in the Mamanucas where several Americans, including Wilkes’ nephew, were killed in a dispute; in retaliation, the expedition burned two villages, killing more than 50 people.

Back in town, visit the site of the formal cession of Fiji to the British by Chief Cakobau in 1874, and the old town hall (1898), built in honor of Queen Victoria’s silver jubilee.  Next door is Fiji’s first private club, the colonial-style timber Ovalau Club.  There’s an English bowling green with a rundown clubhouse.  On weekends, there are rugby matches; we watched the locals take on a touring British army team. 

Over half Fiji’s population is Christian, with the Methodists commanding the largest following.  Levuka has some of the oldest churches in the country—the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart church with its timber interior dates from 1858, while the tiny Gothic-style Navoka Methodist Church was built from coral and stone in the 1860s.  The stained glass of the Anglican Church of the Holy Redeemer (1904) was brought from Europe. 

The best thing to do on a Sunday in Fiji (even if you’re not a believer) is to go to church.  The singing is enthusiastic and the congregation welcoming.  We accepted an invitation from the leader of the youth group we met on the ferry to join them for morning service at a small beachside resort north of Levuka.   When we saw the group gather at the swimming pool, we thought it was time for a post-worship dip.  We were mistaken.  It was baptism time—full immersion for two of the teenagers.

Religion pervades almost every aspect of Fijian society and politics, exacerbating   historic rivalries between indigenous Fijians and the Indo-Fijian population, the descendants of indentured laborers brought over by the British to work in the sugar plantations.  Banned by law from owning land, Indo-Fijians became prominent in trade and transport.  Indigenous Fijians, fearful of the growing economic power of Indo-Fijians, have used politics and the military to maintain control.

In 1999, that control was threatened when Fiji elected its first Indian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudry.  A year later, nationalist George Speight staged a military coup, holding Chaudry and 30 other people hostage in the parliament building.  Although the military intervened and the hostages were released, Chaudry was forced from power. 

Extremist Methodist factions supported Speight and the nationalists and Levuka did not escape trouble.  Behind the main street lie the charred ruins of the South Pacific’s first Masonic Lodge, built in 1875.  The building was torched by a mob of Speight supporters from Lovoni, a large village in the center of Ovalau, reportedly with the encouragement of local Methodist leaders.  They had long claimed that the Masonic Society was in league with the devil, and that a tunnel led from beneath the lodge through the center of the earth to Masonic headquarters in Scotland. 

Today Levuka is a peaceful place, with no apparent signs of ethnic or religious tension.  Most of the population (under 4,000) is of mixed Fijian and European descent, with some Indo and Chinese-Fijians and a small expatriate community.  On market days, Fijian villagers selling fruit and vegetables on the main street mix easily with the Indian traders, while their children play together on the beach.  This is Levuka at its best—welcoming, laid-back and unpretentious, without the carefully packaged and priced tropical paradise delivered by the tour operators.  Levuka is simply paradise unpackaged. 

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