January 28, 2016
Today was one for the ages. If you are ever in Fiji and want a real native experience, read on. We met Moses a couple days ago in Sigatoka near our resort. We had talked with him about a non-tacky, real village visit. The way this played out is unbelievable.
The morning of the visit we hunted down some inexpensive school supplies for children in the school we would be visiting. A couple bags of pencils, pens, paint, glue, protractors and other assorted goodies for elementary age kids were procured. We also picked up supplies for a traditionally cooked Fiji meal. Chickens and lamb shanks would be the entrees. I encouraged Moses to get plenty because this was once cannibal country. He laughed.
Fifteen kilometers on a good road got us to the place where good Kava root was sold. It is customary to bring Kava root to the village chief according to Moses. The pavement puttered out and we were on gravel for another 5 km to reach the school. The school serves several villages. The teachers live in teacher housing on the campus much like we used to do in Alaska. We gave our donations to the Head Master and visited some of the classrooms. We enjoyed classic songs like BINGO and lovely kids. The teachers were patient with us. We backtracked over the rough and hilly track in our two wheel drive compact rental. We managed to keep the oil pan in place despite a few close encounters with a variety of boulders.
We took a rougher road to Moses’ village. It was dicey in our tiny car but 4 wheel drive was not necessary. After another 5 km or so we crossed a little river with a large bull standing in the middle. We were shown a “meeting” room with mats on the floor and a couple of older men sitting around on the floor with crossed legs. We removed our shoes and hats. Hats are not worn as they show disrespect to the chief. That was easy. What followed was incredible. More and more men of all ages poured into this room where a fresh bucket of Kava was being made. The roots are ground into a powder and then added to a cloth bag that is dredged and squeezed in the water bucket. Then the fun begins.
The Kava ceremony starts with some melodic chants with incredible bass harmonies. With 15 to 20 singers in a small room it was amazing. I must point out that the men were not in costume but were wearing their normal village clothes, holes and all. After several speeches we were given our first of many cups of Kava. As previously related, the Kava is not alcoholic but contains a mild narcotic that relaxes you. I doubt that it will gain widespread popularity outside of Fiji. There is too much ceremony and not enough punch for Western sensibilities. We could moderate the amount served in our turn by asking for a “low tide” coconut cup full vs the “high tide” measure. After an hour of Kava drinking, meeting each other and laughing, we were ready for the trip to the water falls.
Dreke enjoys a river with a waterfall that is located some 15 minutes by horse. Three young village men accompanied us and helped with the horses. I kept looking for stirrups. There were none. If fact the saddle was a couple of blankets and a pommel consisting of a rolled up rag. We were essentially riding bare back. This might be fine on a level trail but flat is unknown in the Fijian backcountry. After crossing the river the conditions changed. Not only were we riding in the jungle choked with bamboo draped across the trail, we were also heading up 60 degree muddy slopes. The horses were slipping and sliding and we were holding on to the manes and doing our best to stay upright. We managed with the help of the young men who would occasionally leap up behind Peggy and Bobbie and provided assistance. None of the guys rode with me going uphill as the horse had all he could handle with just me on board. We finally reached the falls. Both us and the horses were happy.
The falls consisted of water cascading over a natural dam into pool. We slid on our rears into the pool and were immediately refreshed. We later got adventurous and stood under the waterfall. Make no mistake, this was not Yosemite or Angel Falls. It was where the village water supply was collected above the falls. We weren’t contaminating the drinking water. We just shared the place with frogs and our guardians who kept us from falling on the slippery rocks. It was picture perfect and we were alone.
The ride back down the mountain had its challenges like sliding in the mud and seeing the horse pick its way through boulders. I kept thinking that mules would be better but it was too late to turn back. Upon reaching the village we dismounted and were ready for some more Kava. By this time the village pastor what joined us and gave us a prayer of thanksgiving. It was well received by all.
The women had been preparing our meal of chicken, lamb, taro root, and numerous vegetables while we were riding and drinking Kava. After some more ceremony and Kava, we were ready for the meal. We ate first with the use of utensils. Fijians are more hands on. Our plates were cleared and the closing ceremonies commenced. There were songs and chants and speeches all around for at least a half hour. There was still Kava that we avoided taking while the good old village boys continued the ritual. Guests are expected to make a small speech. we found it very easy to give the village thanks for a unique experience. Bobbie related that their story was now part of our story.
Our 20 mile ride back to Sigatoka was uneventful with the guidance of Moses’ eldest 16 year old son and his six year old son that squeezed in the back. After reaching town, we said good bye and went back to the resort to collapse.
The entire experience was authentic. The village is attempting tourism on a village scale. The conditions are as they would be naturally. No tour company has gussied up the buildings or made sure that the villagers had scenic costumes. The horse ride was not for the squeamish but certainly not dangerous. We discussed and debated amongst ourselves about possible refinements but concluded that the untouched should remain as it is. Naturally, this is none of our business and we wish the village well. We witnessed one of their discussions about the horses and us vintage travelers. Whatever they decided worked out well for us.
I am going to make this a public post in the hope that there are other adventurers out who want a real experience unlike the packaged village tours. If you are interested in visiting Dreke, you can email Moses at email@example.com and discuss an adventure. I would think that the ideal group size should be no more than six. We are in our late 60’s and the experience was great. I think the key is having an open mind and liking people as they are.