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A day in the life of a hunter

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Nakauvadra Range is shrouded in myths and legends. Its misty mountains have long been linked to the original inhabitants of this country.

Mystery, awe and a touch of the unknown raise these majestic mountains overlooking Ra into something of a natural wonder. Features Editor FRED WESLEY takes us on a journey back in time, into the lush, wild jungles of Nakauvadra, accompanied by experienced hunters from the village of Narara who own part of the mountains.

Semi Cagicaucau, 74, cuts an unassuming picture. An old golf shirt hangs loosely over his slight frame. It's turning out to be one of those hot sunny days at Narara Village, a few minutes drive from Vaileka, the urban centre for the province of Ra.

It's a little after 8am. The early morning mist over parts of the Nakauvadra Range overlooking Narara have been dulled by the rising sun.

There's peace and quiet. The rolling hills below Nakauvadra, swept by a light wet coat, are shaded by the looming images of mountains stretching along the road that cuts the lowest edges, heading East away from Vaileka before turning right, making a beeline in a southerly direction to Narara.

Nakauvadra looms in the distance.

It cuts through Ra in a westerly direction, holding pride of place.

Nakauvadra holds different meanings for different people.

It is shrouded in history and mystery.

Legends place Nakauvadra as the home of the original Fijians.

Unexplained incidents, and unusual works of what can probably be described as art to the untrained eye, have added to the mystery surrounding Nakauvadra.

The high altitude saps the energy levels and dense jungle stands as a testing obstacle for the uninitiated in this inhospitable terrain.

It's easy to get lost at Nakauvadra.

But this is home for Semi and his fellow villagers.

It's where they throw away their inhibitions, discard their worries and fears and blend in with nature.

The jungle is their playing field.

Semi reads the trails and tracks in this terrain like a book.

He's been hunting wild boars in these parts since he was 19 years old.

He's roamed the width and breadth of Nakauvadra. He can read the tracks of wild boars to the tiniest of details - how many went past, when, and whether one or two had an itchy back and scratched it using a tree trunk, or whether one cleaned a tusk or two.

They are qualities of a man who can out-walk the toughest in this terrain. Good peripheral vision, light feet, confidence and an intimate knowledge of these parts have long served Semi well.

Early morning grog

I'd made the journey to Narara with my colleagues Anare Ravula, Atu Rasea and Aisea Nailago. We were on a journey of discovery.

The little early morning yaqona ceremony did not prepare us for what would turn into a tiring and energy-sapping eight hour walk in thick jungle over some of the mountain's highest points.

The slight physique of the villagers belied an inner strength we would later marvel at.

A different world

We picked up the change in mood as the jungle swept in around us.

As the going got tough, and the sun could just barely make inroads into the dense jungle, the hunters of Narara came into a world of their own.

They understood and read every sound that reverberated through the jungle.

As we slipped and slid in the heavy undergrowth, these light-footed hunters were easily picking their way through, occasionally turning to lend a reassuring hand.

I pondered on images of the original inhabitants of these mountains — the original Fijians.

They'd probably lived off the land, dissecting these very mountains with ease, leaving behind many reminders that still puzzle those of us who have been fortunate to witness some of them.

Questions of origin will remain long after our generation.

For people like Semi, it's not about where we originated from. It's about ensuring the young of Narara know and understand their mountains.

It's about ensuring continuity in the passage of knowledge down to the young.

For that to happen, it means taking the young out to the jungle.

Semi's walked through the jungles of Nakauvadra for over 50 years, yet he remains in awe of this majestic wonder of nature.

The hunt

We were headed for a series of caves deep in the jungles of Nakauvadra. Only three men alive today at Narara have seen them.

Apart from two of the men, no one else in our party of 26 has seen or walked on terrain we were about to cross.

Deep in the jungles of Nakauvadra, after about eight hours of walking, the first thing that gets to you is the fact that there are no mosquitoes and the cold digs deep into your bones.

You learn to appreciate the air you breath and taking rest stops.

You forget any inhibitions about fashion and cleanliness. You become one with nature.

Tiredness forces that on you.

This is no terrain for designer label sneakers.

A feeling of loneliness gets to you. And there's a sense of been stuck under a vast canopy of green.

Could this be how our ancestors lived? How they saw their surroundings? Could this be a world they knew and understood?

As the afternoon drew closer and dark clouds crept across the mountains, a quick meeting decides the next course of action.

It's when Semi and a group of four men branch out, armed with knives and seven hunting dogs.

Their task — to hunt for our dinner. We'd have to spend the night in the jungles of Nakauvadra. It was late and the weather was changing.

It wasn't a pleasant thought at first for three members of the party.

Semi had spotted tracks.

He'd picked out four tracks — three light tracks, a heavy set and tell-tale marks on a nearby tree trunk.

He knew where a family of wild pigs were headed. The dogs were set and the chase began.

About an hour later, a sound pierces the jungle.

There was a successful kill.

Night in a cave

Food tastes heavenly when you are in the bush. It's probably because of the tiredness that envelopes you after a long and tiring walk over mountains and across streams.

My friends Lemeki Soso, 49, and Tito Rasoni, 23, mentioned something in passing that made me realise how prepared hunters were every time they walked into the jungles of Nakauvadra.

They said every hunter had to prepare for the worst every time he left the village.

We marvelled at the extent to which these happy hunters prepared for a night in the jungle.

As night loomed, out came a basin from a backpack of one of the hunters.

Another threw over two bilos, one a mixing cloth and one a plastic bag full of yaqona.

Water came from a stream near our camp site and the yaqona session was in full swing as the young men in the party prepared a lovo for the wild boar.

It was my first taste of yaqona in the wild, under the stars and with no other house or human company for miles, except that of my companions.

Light came from a lone candle stick and bamboos.

Cooked wild boar taken off a lovo leaves a special taste in your mouth.

The meat is soft. There's no fat.

You can almost feel it melt in your mouth. Dipped into a mixture of wild lemons, chillies and salt, it takes on an added flavour when you eat it with cassava, lifting this dinner into one I probably will find hard to forget.

The clear fresh spring water in the wild does make the yaqona taste different, which probably adds to making it a memorable experience.

A mat of leaves in a cave served as a mattress for the party.

It was another first for me and my colleagues — sleeping in a cave in the jungles of Nakauvadra. As rain fell outside that night, the cave stayed warm.

Long journey

Heavy rain greeted the party the next morning. It wasn't a pleasant sight.

We'd have to brave the conditions to get back to Narara and on to Suva.

Every little bit of food, including cassava gone bad was packed.

As turaga ni koro Sevuloni Vanavana said, "until we reach the village, food is important and must be kept."

Nothing is thrown away until the village is in sight.

It was basic jungle survival talk.

The young had to learn that quickly.

It was another tip for the rookie hunters. Nothing edible was thrown away. And that included the left overs from dinner.

An early morning breakfast of left-over cassava washed down with cool spring water and biscuits would have to hold us on the long journey back home.

A rock formation, in the lines of Stonehenge in the United Kingdom pricks the imagination deep in the jungles of Nakauvadra.

Twelve rocks, each planed smooth on the sides, like the foundations of a house, surround the 13th rock which is the largest.

Semi jokes that it depicts the 12 disciples surrounding Jesus.

Whoever left these behind probably had a reason.

But the formation leaves many questions. How were the huge rocks dragged up the mountain side, miles away from the streams? Who dragged them up? Was there a reason? Could this be a marker of some sort? Was there a reason they were in line with the caves we'd just left, miles down the slope?

And why were they left in such a formation, with the largest rock sitting in the middle?

Could there be a reason for the drawings we'd just witnessed in the caves and these rocks? Could there be a link? Semi says the formation had been there before he was born.

Misty mountains

Nai Lalakai Editor Robert Matau had warned me about getting off the mountain before the third cloud crosses Nakauvadra.

We couldn't. And the experience will stay with me for a lifetime.

One minute we were walking through thick vegetation, the next we were in the middle of a misty mountain.

Visibility was down to about ten metres. The world had turned white, and very cold.

The mist hugged the floor of the jungle and crept up along the trees, drifting slowly in and out of the thick vegetation.

We were in unfamiliar territory. I'd stuck to Tito like glue, taking every step he took and holding on to every branch he gripped on the way down.

End of the road

Fresh mangoes and guavas along the way washed away the tiredness and added energy to our step, coming before a little yaqona session to round off the trip.

It had been the longest 16-hour walk I'd ever taken in my life.

But if there is anything that should stand out, it should be respect and awe for these simple hunters of Narara.

They stand out as apt reminders of an era gone by, carrying on the legacy of prehistoric hunter gathers — our ancestors.

Semi was rejuvenated on the jungle trail. He had the confident step of an experienced jungle man. He brimmed with confidence.

This is life for the old hunter. His wife died 18 years ago and he lives with family members in Vaileka. He's number three in a family of 11 siblings. As the years pass into oblivion, Semi takes comfort in the knowledge that the young of Narara, like his grandson Maika Cagicaucau Nasara, 18, are carrying on a legacy of hunter gatherers in this region.

The passage of time can easily be a killer of traditions. It's a fear he probably harbours. But it can also be a catalyst in the revival of traditional knowledge. In the end, it can have a hand in guaranteeing the survival of traditions, and intimate knowledge of the jungles surrounding their village.

The young will be left behind to ensure the important role the hunters of Narara Village play in the mechanics of life in this province.

Only they can roam portions of the dense jungles of Nakauvadra that belong to them with ease and confidence.

The jungle is now their book. They have the important role of ensuring the instincts of the Fijian hunter survives well into the century.

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