- INTELLIGENT RESISTANCE -
Free. Fair. Fearless. Intelligentsiya is made up of Fiji Islanders who are libertarians in their own way and who cherish the free flow of news, ideas and information and will peacefully resist any attempts by the country's military rulers to stifle free speech. intelligentsiya will also bear witness, report and discuss human rights abuses by the authorities.
SEVENS UP: Rugby is a recurring motif in Fiji culture.
My phone beeps while I'm driving along a muddy back road through a village in the south of Viti Levu, Fiji's big island, so I pull over to check it, then hear a knock on the car's passenger-side window. A local man is peering at me. "Can you take my father to town?" he asks. Sure.
He signals towards a nearby bus stop. An old Fijian gentleman musters some pace and climbs into the front passenger seat. A young woman follows and hops in the back. The old man speaks to her in Fijian then says in English: "She's going to the hospital, too."
Curiosity got me into this situation. After driving among the sparsely populated, fertile Fijian countryside, I've hit the bustling hub of Sigatoka, a clumsy conglomeration of cement, gaudy paint and Coca-Cola signs.
The town is on the winding Sigatoka River, just before it meets the sea. Not far from here is one of Fiji's natural beauties, the millenniums-old Sigatoka sand dunes. Yet the eye catcher is a huge, multimillion-dollar Hare Krishna temple, opened in 2010 on the hill above town.
Wanting a better look at its spectacular gaudiness, I cross the river, veer off the highway and follow a skinny dirt road in search of a vantage point. Then I see road signs for Tavuni Hill Fort and forget about the temple. It takes me a good 20 minutes of drive time to reach the fort, built in the 1800s by a Tongan prince, but once there I'm rewarded with an amazing view of the river.
It's on the way back from the fort that I become a local taxi service and by the time I return to Suva at day's end, I have given rides to three more women. I wouldn't welcome strangers into my car in Australia and there are plenty of safety warnings about travelling in Fiji, but I'm on this road trip to experience the "real Fiji", and what better way to get close to Fijians?
About 600,000 people live on Viti Levu, by far the nation's biggest island. The road that circumnavigates the island is known as the Queens Highway, despite it being two roads. The Queens Road runs along the south coast, from Lautoka on the outskirts of Nadi to the capital, Suva, a distance of about 220 kilometres. The Kings Road runs along the north coast, from Suva and back to Lautoka (265 kilometres). Until recently, a big section of the Kings Road was not sealed. Now it's possible to drive on a sealed road, albeit of varying quality, in either direction.
I have begun this trip on Denarau Island, the tourist hub near Nadi. It's hardly "the real Fiji", but I'm staying at the Fiji Beach Resort by Hilton, which is a great base from which to explore the region. Driving from Nadi, I'm soon in verdant lands dotted with brightly coloured houses, small shops and places of worship.
About 50 kilometres later, just before I drive through the front gates of the meticulously designed Intercontinental Fiji Golf Resort and Spa near Sanasana, I see a man and two small children riding a horse. They say a cheery "bula", from their mode of transport to mine.
Dichotomies abound in this nation, from the controversial rule-by-decree administration to the laid-back, warm people to the cornucopia of flowers, fruits and paradisiacal beauty to the obvious poverty of some locals. From the Intercontinental I head to Suva along the Queens Road, which follows the island's Coral Coast. A huge billboard appears on the horizon, showing three stars of Fijian rugby etched in full flight, advertising a telco. In each village I drive through, and there are many, I am greeted with waves, calls of "bula" and smiles.
It should take about 90 minutes to drive from Nadi to Suva, yet it takes me three times that, not counting photo stops - and there are many. The highway speed limit is 80km/h, dropping to 50km/h in villages and to 20km/h when driving over speed humps.
In the capital, I check into the Five Princes boutique hotel, the old family home of Harold Gatty, who founded Fiji Airways. He built Suva's first in-ground swimming pool and it's still here. But I'm not interested in lazing. I'm interested in the city, and its contrasts: loitering groups; serene-looking women selling iridescent-coloured flowers; and everywhere the sound of clapping churchgoers praising the Lord at the tops of their lungs. Undertaker's shops are ubiquitous, their signage forgoing Western sensitivities for matter-of-fact messages such as "Cheap coffin boxes" and "Discount hearse hire".
Leaving Nadi for remote Takalana Bay on the island's eastern Sun Coast, where I'm hoping to see dolphins, a wrong turn at Nausori has me heading inland on the Princes Road until I hit Coli-i-Suva Forest Park and realise my mistake. Oh, well. There really are no wrong turns on a Fiji road trip. Takalana is on a headland overlooking Moon Reef, where the dolphins play. It's a tiny, village-run retreat on a rocky, washed-away road that branches off the Queens Highway near Korovou.
After a night at Takalana and a beautiful day spent with the dolphins, I set off late for my next destination, Wananavu Resort near Rakiraki, in the island's far north. But should I continue north on the coast road or double back and rejoin the highway? It had taken an hour to drive to Takalana from the Korovou turnoff, along 30 kilometres of rough unkempt byway.
I have no reason to doubt it will take me at least the same amount of time to drive what appears to be an equal distance - on the map, that is.
Jay, Takalana's manager, affirms this. "An hour," he says. "A short cut. You'll definitely be on the main road to Rakiraki before nightfall."
The road to Takalana is straight and flat. Further north, however, I navigate switchbacks, steep ascents and descents and river crossings as the road hugs the shore and winds through a mountain range. None of this is outlined on the map. Then the car's petrol light blinks, as the road surface - more goat track than road - loses definition under the shroud of a moonless night.
Scarier is the way the road seems to disappear under encroaching greenery, too. I don't see a village or other signs of human life for an awfully long time and the roadside growth on the rocky, muddy, chopped-up excuse for a road I'm on scratches the vehicle as I pass, indicating not a lot of traffic has come this way in some time.
Alone, in the middle of nowhere, in darkness, with no petrol and no clue of what's ahead. But what's a road trip without a little drama? And anyway, I should have known better; should have fuelled up, not taken a short cut, and should have multiplied the time it would take. After a few tears, a lot of praying, then acceptance, I make it to the Kings Road, to a petrol station and on to the delightfully restorative Wananavu Resort in time for a late dinner.
I spend a couple of days exploring the out-of-the-way authenticity of Rakiraki and surrounds before heading back to Nadi on the Kings Road, along which is strung a parade of eccentric little businesses (the blacksmith is a highlight), 1970s cars, livestock, wildly painted churches, emerald mountains and jaw-dropping coastal beauty.
Someone has told me it will take 90 minutes to get from Rakiraki to Nadi. They're wrong and I'm grateful - by the time I reach a crest in the road from which I can see Nadi on the horizon, I'm sad that this journey is coming to an end.