Fiji’s best kept secret

Lonely Planet’s “The Travel Book’ sits on my coffee table back home, along with “1000 places to see before you die, a traveller’s life list”. Not a week goes by where I don’t sit down with a cup of tea and indulge myself, even if only for a few minutes. It was on page 543 of the second book that I first read about SavuSavu. I now know why Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of the famous explorer and oceanographer, Jacques Cousteau, chose this place to build his resort. Writing this post has been harder than I’d imagined, I really want to give it the credit it deserves.

Surrounded by green hills and glimmering azure waters, sailing boats congregate together in the harbour, a popular stopover for sailors making their way across the Pacific. Located on the large volcanic island of Vanua Levu, north east of Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, you will find this unspoilt paradise. When I asked my kids to describe the island to me in a few words, here’s what they had to say: exotic, tropical, a simple but efficient lifestyle, living sustainably, using only what they need and taking no more. I think that’s a perfect description and I was proud of their perspective but I’d like to add that the inhabitants are incredibly hospitable, a visit here will enliven the travelling spirited and you may never want to leave. A few of the cruise passengers we spoke to that evening told us they’d consider moving there with their families for a year.  They said they longed for a simpler, less complicated life.  They felt like their children would greatly benefit from this lifestyle, I had to agree, it was one where family, community, faith and nature were central to daily life.

With our limited time on the island, we’d worked out that the most popular things to do here included a swim in a waterfall, a visit to a local village and some snorkelling. We decided we’d do all three (on our own), so we headed out to the main road to find a taxi. The first guide we met wanted to charge us $140, so we kept walking until we met a wonderful man called Roheat who offered to take us wherever we wanted to go for $80.  Roheat was not a licensed taxi driver, just a local, looking to capitalise on the cruise passengers’ arrival in his home town. Impressed with his entrepreneurial spirit we decided to give him a go.

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Our journey began with a scenic drive into the hills. As we reached for the seatbelts we realised none of them worked, Roheat did his best to reassure us that they weren’t necessary in Fiji. My kids are not used to this level of unconventionality, so imagine their surprise when an Australian family of 6 raced past us on the back of a ute (that’s an Australian word for utility van, you know the ones that people load things on the back of?). Having grown up in Africa, I spent a fair bit of my childhood on the back of utes, not something I’m promoting but exhilarating none the less.

Roughly halfway to our first stop, a hard to ignore clunking sound started emanating from the rear left-hand side of the car. I couldn’t remember where I’d heard that sound before. My husband jumped out to have a look and noticed some of the wheel nuts were missing from the tyre, the ones that were there, were loose too. I remembered now……as a young child I’d heard a similar sound just before mum’s car lost her tyre, sending us skidding along the road on the back-wheel axle. I kept thinking, ‘well, you wanted to show the kids what third world country living was like and now you have it!’. He reassured us he would fix the tyre at the next stop, which he did, much to my relief.

Roheat made a left turn down a dirt road to the quaint Vuondomo village which consisted of just 15 houses, belonging to only 3 families (each house built different to the next). Upon arrival, we were met by one of the residents who gave us a walking tour of the area. Our guide’s mother was selling fresh coconuts for $2 each and these were simply too good to pass up, so we stopped for a refreshing drink in the shade while the curious village children came over to say hello. Through funds raised by a Canadian Rotary club and from visits like ours, the village was able to install a 10,000 litre rainwater tank and a basic bathroom in each house. The traditional Fijian Lali Drum lies next to the church, in the centre of the village. At 10am every Sunday morning, as the drum is beaten, the villagers make their way to church to worship together. 

The village owns the surrounding land and the nearby waterfall and for a small fee you’re able to visit and swim in it. A ten-minute walk, up a gently sloping hill and a few stairs, leads you to the spectacular waterfall and an idyllic swimming hole. The villagers have built an excellent pathway using large boulders which they’ve laid by hand and a handrail made from rope. Fruit trees line the way and the villagers said, ‘if you find a ripe banana, please feel free to pick it’.

The local children seemed excited by our presence. Our kids joined in as they played together for quite some time, racing bougainvillea flowers down the stream and jumping from rock to rock. It would have been fantastic to spend a few days here, at the very least.

We had hoped to have lunch at Cousteau’s Resort, opposite Split Rock, a popular snorkelling spot. Unfortunately, as it was high season, the resort was closed to cruise passengers. We ended up at a nearby resort which was more like a backpacker’s, but the views over the bay more than made up for it.

We made our way back to Split Rock for some snorkelling. The marine life here was abundant and the reef, vibrantly coloured. Unfortunately, I never ended up making it out to the best part of the reef about 30 metres offshore but was told it was something special. I had managed to slip and cut my feet on barnacles while rock hopping with my son. I had over a dozen small cuts on the bottom of my feet. I was amazed when I watched the locals walk over the barnacles without a problem. I joked that perhaps my first world feet needed a bit of toughening up.

Before leaving to head back to the ship, our driver invited us to his house to meet his family and have a cold drink. We were really touched by his generosity and happily accepted his offer. His house, although not big, sits high up on a hill and has magnificent views across the bay, over to all the islands. The driveway to get there would unnerve even the most experienced drivers and he reversed up it with ease! I had to close my eyes as I couldn’t watch. His family were as kind and gracious as he was and we felt privileged to have met them.    

Keeping in contact with people we meet on our travels is now much easier thanks to social media and I am so thankful for this. I made three new friends in SavuSavu. I look forward to sharing our different cultural experiences and catching up again on our next visit to this magical place, they are lucky enough to call home.

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