Someone asked me last month, "When are you going back home to Australia for your break?", and I told them that I wasn't this time — "I'm going to Fiji!".
With many Fijian's dreaming of visiting overseas, a holiday in their own land will reveal some of the most pristine and marvelling sights of anywhere in the world. You can also get back in touch with the way old Fiji used to be with many of the outer island and interior mountain villages living relatively the same way since the time of their ancestors.
This is in stark contrast to the city dwellers of Suva and Nadi, with fresh healthy foods in abundance and a lesser reliance on Western canned and processed foods. I started the first of which I hope will be many Food Safari tours in Kadavu, one of the most difficult places to reliably get to. I really didn't realise how far away it is from the Mamanuca Islands, and the great distances locals travel to get to work on Vitu Levu.
One of Kadavu's most famous sons is Castaway Island manager, Lingo Reece. I wasn't interested in staying in fancy hotels and wanted a real Fijian village experience, so I enlisted the help of Lingo, fellow Kadavu villager, Tevita Lomani from Vacalea, and two of my staff members, Jone Soronavatu from Malolo and Semesa Bulivakarua from Nawaka. The Fijian's connection to their land is something so different for me.
In Australia we don't say which town we are from because we are not born to the land as Fijian's are lucky to be. We have to buy our land from someone else, and for a lot of overseas people, where we are born is not usually where we end up choosing to live.
I was surprised that the boys had not travelled off Viti Levu before, but I learned that many Fijian's rarely visit other places to experience how the rest of Fiji lives. Kadavu is one of those places that best shows how Fiji was before the British rulers and Indian labourers arrived. Its culture and traditions have remained intact for centuries, and it was like travelling back in time to see how Fiji was more than 200 years ago. Kadavu is the land that time forgot.
But getting there is not easy and my Food Safari tour was delayed for weeks because of the bad weather earlier in February. Plane and boat schedules were cancelled day after day, cutting the island, locals and tourists off from the mainland for long periods.
This is normal in Fiji and one of the reasons why Kadavu has been isolated from the ways of the city, a good thing I think!
Getting to the Suva wharf late at night, I watched as hundreds of people were loading their goods, tractors, trucks and food on to the ship, Sinu i Wasa. Oh my lord, this is an old ship! It reminded me of something you see in an old World War II movie with its rusting cast iron doors, huge steel cables and tiny crawl spaces.
This was going to be an adventure crossing the high seas!
Our cabin was essentially the old crew cabins for sailors, and you have to squeeze into your bed space between the bunks, careful not to smash your head if you are on the bottom.
You can't really sleep on this trip, as the rocking of the waves and uncomfortable surrounds keeps you wide awake. Maybe that's why there were so many grog sessions across the decks!
All our stomachs were rumbling too, after eating Chinese chop suey in Suva. I should have known not to buy food from the bain marie at night because you don't know how long it's been there, and if not kept at the right temperature, it's a recipe for a guaranteed running stomach. It's good to know that the Health Ministry is starting to clamp down on this but for us, it was bad luck.
Arriving at 6am, we were greeted by our previously arranged police escort, and as we disembarked from the ship you could see fibreglass boats everywhere picking up passengers, jumping straight off the end of the deck with their boxes and bags of food from Suva.
One of the strangest things I saw was a wild pig wrapped inside a flour sack, ready for transport back to the mainland. I thought it was dead, but as I approached to take a photo its eyes looked up at me as if saying "Why am stuffed in a bag like this?".
The police in Kadavu are very connected to the villages, and play a crucial role in serving the people with their needs and understanding the laws of the land. We were very lucky to have an escort to our first stop, Namuana village, the home to the famous Fijian story of the calling of the turtles.
Before heading off to the village to meet the mataqali, we stopped at the Kadavu police station to see the recent marijuana bust. Kadavu's fertile soil allows this illegal drug to grow fast, much as yagona grows quickly here too, but the locals are beginning to understand that while it might be easy money, it is also a one way pass to jail. Marijuana is illegal around the world and can have a devastating effect on local communities, especially the young.
Next stop was Namuana, and we were very fortunate to meet with the clan who are the protectors of the ancient story of the young woman and her mother who turned into turtles, and who's turtle descendants today can only be called from the sea by an enchanting song sung only by the women of Namuana. What is incredible about this legend is that this story is more than just a myth — it can be witnessed today.
Before the calling begins, the men of Namuana hold a special yagona ceremony in the bure while the women stand at the clifftop to perform a meke recalling the ancient story of a mother and daughter who turned into turtles.
Legend tells of a young woman who went fishing and was kidnapped by a neighbouring clan, and with her hands and feet tied, was thrown in the bottom of the boat for the trek back to their village. Crying and distressed, the girl magically transformed into water which released her from the bindings.
To the shock of the men, the water then turned into a majestic turtle, which they hurriedly threw overboard as some sort of magic was being played out before their eyes.
What I did not know from this story was that the mother also became a turtle back on the island. So heartbroken and deeply connected to her only daughter, the mother went to the water's edge and also transformed into water, sliding down the hillside cliff as she transformed into a turtle. I am deeply grateful to Mr Tamani and the elders of Namuana in allowing us to learn the true legend of the vonu, and I have made a promise to return there very soon to assist them in promoting this incredibly unique story so that the legend can be shared with the world.
We then began our journey by fibre to the food-rich settlement of Naivimagimagi, home to Sereli and Maraia Reece.
This place was truly heaven on earth, with its abundance of tropical fruits, root crops, nuqa fish, slipper lobsters and — yagona. I should have renamed my tour, a Grog Safari of Fiji, because I was about to taste the difference and feel the effects of yagona around Fiji! Kadavu's version is nearly pure white, and the boys describe it as much stronger and fresher than the variety we get in the Western district.
With a welcoming greeting from the people of neighbouring Lavidji village, it was a night of endless grog drinking, beautiful song and lots of dancing as they welcomed us to Kadavu.
We also learned why the Kadavu people cobo five times, instead of the usual three in the Western districts. The extra two claps are in respect of the twin brothers who were banished from the island groups, leaving Kadavu as their last contact with Fiji.
The village food prepared by Maraia was simply the best I have tried, and an example of how the locals here eat fish and seafood from dawn to dusk.
The naivi chestnut that grows in these parts had a pungent cheddar cheese smell which I loved and have incorporated on to my new menus this year.
Blessed with fish that swim all the way to the land, the Kadavu people probably have the healthiest diet in Fiji. Cut off from the temptations of Western junk and processed foods, the people here eat straight from the sea, land and trees. I am told by the locals that most people on Kadavu live to old age, with all their teeth intact, because of this healthy fresh food.
There's no doubt that the villagers of Lavidji looked much stronger, less overweight and more healthier than their mainland cousins. Instead of bread and Bongo snacks, the people simply climb the trees to grab a vitamin-enriched mango or pawpaw to fill their tummies.
And Maraia's roti recipe was simple and light, not the heavy dough that I have eaten elsewhere. I don't usually eat roti for breakfast, but smelling the wood fire and watching her roll out the flaky dough in the old way at 6am, with the early morning sun beaming into her open kitchen, just made me want to try them. Fish curry, vegetable qisi, fruits, roti and lemon leaf tea were my first true Fijian village breakfast, and a much more healthier and energy-packed way to start the day than eating a whole loaf of bread and butter.
After a few days in Kadavu we began our trek back to Vunisea, via Kavala Bay and across water that was as clear as a fish tank.
I have never seen such clearer ocean waters before, as huge pods of majestic dolphins swam past our boat to seemingly farewell us from this ancient island.
Our Grog Tour ended as predicted with a bilo on the edges of the bay as we awaited the arrival of the Lomaiviti Princess, a huge multi-level ship that was in huge contrast to the Sinu i Wasa that brought us here. The trip home was much more comfortable and having yaqona on the back of the ship was made even more special with some of Maraia's roti and fish curry to see us home.
My trip to Kadavu will not be the last, and I think that all Fijians no matter what their ancestry should take the time to visit more of their ancient lands to see how other Fijians are living. Only then can you get an understanding and appreciation that the outer islands of Fiji hold many of the answers to the health issues of the cities, and Kadavu is a perfect example of when you eat more fresh foods, you are naturally more healthy. Just like their yaqona!
*Next week, join Chef Seeto on his Food Safari Tour to the Vanua Levu town of Savusavu.