HERE I find myself standing at the foot of sacred ground captivated by the immense structure before me and at the end of my seemingly endless trance; I pay my respects to the great beings that once graced these magnificent naturally sparkling walls. Where was I? Why am I in such a state? To answer these questions I have to start from the beginning of my journey to the Naihehe caves of the Sigatoka Valley.
My trip began at the invitation of the good people at the Sigatoka River Safari, earlier this year and ceasing this great opportunity, we arrived minutes before the Safari transfers were about to leave for the Valley at 8.30am. After a short briefing by Sigatoka River Safari Communications Manager, Angeline Lal, we followed the "AULE" through the Valley highway, passing through villages, farms and freshly dug embankments cleared by contractors currently upgrading the long stretch of road that runs simultaneously with the Sigatoka River.
After our 30 minute commute from Sigatoka town to the jetty located just outside Laselase Village, we were strapped into life jackets loaded into one of the famous Sigatoka River Safari jet boats and ferried across the river to another heavy duty vehicle, the All Terrain Vehicle (ATV).
On our ATV's we were treated to a 40 minute ride through rough terrains, thick lush forests, peaceful flowing streams and vibrant farmlands while passing through villages filled with smiling children, friendly elders lazing around and busy individuals going about their daily routines only pausing for a second to wave and say "Bula!" to the strange new people on the even stranger vehicles. It was near impossible not to acknowledge the friendly nature of the villagers towards my fellow companions from overseas. It was indeed humbling to hear their kind words about the people as they were treated to enthusiastic waves and warm smiles from in between tree branches, half open windows or doors and lonely figures on horseback making their to their plantation to tend to their crops.
The positive remarks continued as we reached our destination at a farmhouse near Natawatawa Village to present our i-sevusevu to the bete or traditional priest, Eneri Koroi, the rightful owner of the Naihehe caves. At the end of the formalities, we then took a five minute walk to the caves where whatever fatigue that built up during our almost one and half journey on three different vehicles completely disappeared as we came face to face with the skull of a horse used to mark the entrance of the cave. Nestled at the base of the huge cliffs tall enough to rival the Eiffel tower, every single person in the tour party could not contain their excitement at the prospect of what lay ahead.
Before entering, we were told of the obvious respect that the caves needed to be accorded with and the retelling of the age old story of Naihehe from our guides, Josephine Traill and Miri Kunavula.
According to our guides, the cave is believed to have been the site of Fiji's last tribal war before the country was declared a Christian state. It belonged to the Sawaitabu people, a proud and closely knit community that sought solace in the caves during the great measles outbreak of the 17th Century where around 50,000 people lost their lives to the illness.
Believing that the disease was brought by missionaries, the Sawaitabu villagers relocated to the huge tavern, fearing that they would too succumb to the great death wave that swept the country in the early 1800's.
They shunned the new lifestyle of the missionaries choosing to practice our old ways which in those times also included cannibalism. When word got out there were still a few "rebels" within his province, Sigatoka's paramount chief, the Na Ka Levu, took action and sent a few of his strongest warriors from the Sigatoka coastline to the highlands of Navosa with the intentions to "persuade" them into submission.
However, when only one of those strong warriors returned with the news that his comrades had met an untimely death at the hands of the Sawaitabu people, the paramount chief wanted to know why his finest warriors were killed by what he considered the weaker fighters of this rebellious village. Intrigued and obviously angered, the Na Ka Levu sent more of his warriors this time reinforced by the presence of soldiers from the Colonial army who they had formed an alliance with once they accepted the ways of the British.
What ensued was a battle where lives were lost and blood spilt over the terrains of the Sawaitabu cliffs. Seeing that the bullets from the white man's guns were killing more of his people faster than a spear or a club, the traditional leader of the clan made the heart wrenching decision to surrender his people to stop further bloodshed. This surrender held with it the significant turn in Fiji's history as it finally became a fully fledged Christian state.
After hearing the enthralling tale of the Sawaitabu people and their place of refuge, it was hard to not to feel a sense of loss that they suffered at the hands of popular culture and as we entered the outskirts of the tavern, the realization of an entire village existing within the confines of these walls sunk in slowly as we ventured deeper into the cave.
Wading our way through the soft stream flowing out of the mouth of the cave, we were greeted by the small clicking noise made by swallows. The creatures make their home at the entrance of the cave obviously taking refuge of the little openings within the cave walls just like their predecessors did.
Taking in the sight of the little birds flying above our heads oblivious to our presence we then came to the 'pregnancy gap'. The gap according to our guides, will allow anyone into the caves except women who are pregnant. We "all" went in safely much to the amusement of the female participants on the tour, however, we still found it difficult making our way through the gap as we had to crouch to enter.
This way of entrance into the caves conjured images of those unfortunate warriors from the coastline who had to contend with entering through the gap without knowing what to expect from the other side.
It was no wonder they were succumbed to an untimely death, as according to Ms Traill, warriors of the Sawaitabu people would perch themselves on a small cave situated above the pregnancy gap and attack any unsuspecting stranger trying to infiltrate their fortress. It is impossible to imagine anyone surviving such an atack.
Ignoring the ice cold trickle down my spine, we ventured further into the cave adjusting to the darkness
that covered us, unable to see beyond the light emanating from our torches. Our guide then treated us to games of figuring out what shapes were being formed through slow precipitation of minerals seeping through the cave walls. After our little games we were directed to the kitchen. This was no ordinary kitchen of course as it had a huge natural stone oven with its built in chimney.
We were told that the previous inhabitants after making their "kill" at the entrance of the cave, they would drag their carcass to the oven where they cooked the meat. The catch of the day was then taken to another chamber larger and spacious enough to fit more than fifty people.
Our guide, Ms Traill said this was the place where most of the women and children spent their day carrying out their daily chores. It was also the site where the secret entrance out of the cave was located.
Many of the women in those days would use the secret entrance by hoisting themselves forward using large vines. The women were usually the ones sent out to gather food and vegetables for the whole village.
Just beyond the "dining" chamber, we found ourselves taken to a much smaller yet significant part of the cave. Ms Traill called it the "love" chamber. It was obvious what this chamber was used for during those times - a place for couples to escape from the stress of their daily lives.
Next to the chamber is a small pool where according to our guide, is used only by women. This particular section of the pool was my favourite as we came to discover another formation that was both intriguing and befitting of such a place for women of the village. The formation we saw clearly was that of a pregnant woman lying on her back with her head towards the pool. Many of those passing through the caves would agree that it was astounding to find such a naturally built structure situated at the perfect spot.
As we made our way deeper into the cave we finally came to our final stop where the head of the Village and the Bete made their home. It was at this humbling spot where I was reminded of that heart wrenching decision that the chief of the Sawaitabu people to surrender their lifestyle, culture and most importantly their magnificent fortress to their enemies. It was evident that the village headman had to succumb to another power for the sake of his people and to prevent any further bloodshed. The half Nadroga person in me could not help but feel sadness for the people of Sawaitabu who were not only forced to surrender but also give up what they had known all their lives. Although there were certain aspects of our culture that we gladly gave up, there is still that sense of loss that we occasionally feel while thriving in this modern day and age.
However, despite the obvious significant turn of events that lay a pathway to our modern society, the cave, fortunately still belongs to the people of the Navosa Highlands. Regarded as one Fiji's most complex cave systems with pools discovered in the caves yet to be explored and their depths unknown to man, this spectacular structure is truly something to be proud of.
I highly recommend anyone reading this article to take some time and visit this beautiful piece of Fiji's history. It is definitely something that we as Fijians need to remind us of our rich history and culture and the battles and struggles we went through to ensure that richness remained instilled in our hearts.
The Off-Road Cave Safari operates Monday to Saturday with tours departing at 8.30am and 1.00pm.
All prices include lunch and for pick-ups from Coral Coast resorts adults are FJD$239 and children (4 -15yrs) are FJD$110. Prices for pick-ups from Nadi/Denarau resorts are adults FJD$260 and children (4 to 15yrs) FJD$120.