If you’re looking for the chance to escape the resort for the day in search for a truly authentic Fijian experience, Sigatoka River Safari’s village visit is a must-do, writes I Do Fiji team member Bonnie van Dorp.
We arrive at Sigatoka River Safari HQ in the heart of Fiji’s rugby district, Sigatoka Town, where we are fitted into life jackets. The tour guide holds up a kava root and asks the group to elect a chief to present the offering to the village head when we arrive. The chief is usually the oldest male in the group and of a certain social standing, the guide explains. And it’s not long until we have chosen our leader; an American farmer in his 60s. He eagerly accepts his new position and we are split into two groups of 15.
The journey starts at the mouth of the Sigatoka River, the longest river in fact on the island of Viti Levu. Our tour guide doubles as the jet boat driver, and it’s not long before we are speeding along the river, bypassing villagers bathing their horses (they always stop to wave), farmers tending to their crops and children back-flipping off tree branches with the finesse of an Olympic diver. It’s a slice of real rural Fijian life, and I’m completely here for it.
We are regaled with tales of Fiji’s cannibal past (did you know the last recorded incident of cannibalism was 1860?) and the guide is happily answering every question, no matter how awkward it may seem on the outset. It is a history lesson as much as it is a tour. And Fiji’s history is a colourful one.
I am on the half-day eco/cultural village tour and we are on our way to Tuvu Village, a small farming community with a population of approximately 200 people. What makes Sigatoka River Safari such a great initiative is its commitment to minimising the impact of tourism on the village lifestyle. A different village is visited every day and a part of the ticket fee goes into supporting the village that you are visiting.
A young man in his early 20s meets us at the edge of the river, ready to welcome us to his home. The men in the group (led by our American chief with his gift of Kava) lead the way and the women follow dutifully behind. It’s an old-fashioned way of being, but it’s important to respect the cultural customs of any country you visit.
We arrive in the community church. A utilitarian structure with pews and a simple pulpit where sermons are delivered every Sunday. Christianity is the dominant religion in the country and worshipping at church is very much the norm for the villagers. Those of us wearing shorts are handing sulus (Fijian sarongs) to wrap around our waists before we enter the village as a mark of respect. Once we are appropriately dressed we follow the sound of strumming guitars and singing until we reach the community hall, where we are officially welcomed to the village by the local community.
The Kava is presented to the chief, and in front of our eyes, we watch as the root is ground and prepared to be shared. The singing continues as the Kava is prepared, and soon after it is presented to our American chief in a drink. He claps once with a cupped hand, yells “Bula” and shots it back in one gulp. He then claps three times and thanks the village chief for accepting us into their home.
We are asked to introduce ourselves, where we’re from and what we do for work. As the villagers are farmers, they are especially delighted to hear that our elected chief is himself a farmer as well. Then it’s music and celebrations. The villagers sing and one-by-one we pair off with a local member of the community for a little boogie. The visit ends with a simple lunch prepared by the women of the village. We eat cross-legged on the floor and we are told that the more we eat, the happier the villagers feel. I happily oblige.
The experience is a heart-warming one. And you can feel the bula spirit emanating from every person in the room. At the end, we are given the chance to present a small gift to the residents. Pencils, books, snacks, art supplies, toys are shared among the villagers and they seem extremely grateful for our gifts.
The Sigatoka Cultural Visit is a must-do for anyone who wants to experience a real slice of Fijian life. It gets a 5/5 in my books.