Fiji Time: 3:34 AM on Tuesday 28 April

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Luke Rawalai
Sunday, January 27, 2013

IT was one of those evenings when everything was turning out as planned and excitement was like live electricity that seemed to buzz the whole atmosphere around me.

I knew that familiar feeling - something I always went through. A part of an emotional reaction building up to some great event that would greatly impact on me.

The Babasiga sun was wanning into a ferocious sunset declaring the fine day that we had just completed.

Minutes later I was shooting down the Labasa Seaqaqa highway on a lifetime visit to the bat caves of Nakanacagi in Seaqaqa for an experience that would stay with me for the rest of my life.

The Nature Fiji Mareqeti Viti (NFMV) team from Suva had invited me to be part of their trip to the bat caves which is shrouded by its own share of myths and legends. They seemed real at some point that one couldn't tell where the truth began and ended.

The Nakanacagi bats are one of the world's endangered species of bats belonging to the family Chaerephon bregullae or Fijian free-tailed bats commonly known in the native tongue as the bekabeka.

Nakanacagi is well known to researcher's the world over for being the habitat of a healthy population of the Fiji free tailed bat.

With the assistance of Annette Scanlon and Dr Topa Petit of the University of South Australia, NFMV has been providing information to the people of Nakanacagi Village about the significant bat population in their area.

NFMV officer, Kelera Macedru said, regular monitoring of the bats had been undertaken since 2009, where disturbances and threats to the cave site were documented, as well as changes in the population at different times of the year.

"Information on bat research in Fiji is very minimum with the last survey done on Fiji's six bat species seven years ago in 2005 by the University of the South Pacific," said Ms Macedru.

"NFMV is trying to record as much information on bats as possible, as four of Fiji's six species of bats are now highly threatened. Work currently done by NFMV is a follow-up inventory of bat cave roosts in Fiji."

This is followed up by the monitoring of the bat population that is known to be present in the cave roosting sites.

"A particular species of bats is the Pacific sheath-tail bat (Emballonura semicaudata), a cave roosting bat which was known to occur in many of the caves in Viti levu in 1985, but a follow-up survey in 2005 showed the absence of these bats in the known cave roosting sites.

"At this time, the Pacific sheath-tail bat is thought to have been extirpated from Viti Levu," she said.

Qara ni bekabeka is located above Nakanacagi village and on this particular visit to the site with the team from NFMV, the mountain seemed to be shrouded in cloud creating in me a fear that the trip would be impossible as nightfall crept into the hills.

However we made it as far as the Macuata Provincial council in the four wheel drive before walking the twenty minutes up to the mouth of the cave.

The darkening skies gave us reason to believe that the trip inside the cave was impossible and that we could only turn back.

With further coaxing by the village head of Nakanacagi village, Semi Luvuiwai we regained our faith and journeyed with him further.

The mouth of the cave was an experience I would never forget. Billowing from the cave like a dark smoke were thousands of bats and swallows that seemed to be making their way out for their feeding bouts.

The cave was amazing, traversing through its wet floors and bumping into the minute bats that seemed to hit us from the dark at any angle as we made our way down the cave.

Reaching the centre of the cave was an experience that would stick with me for a long time.

We entered the cave without any light, stumbling across and it was when we reached the centre that all lights were turned on.

It was like a great whirlwind as the sound of a million tiny wings flapped to turn from the intrusive light which it was not accustomed to.

We went through a lot of compartments noticing that the floor and the roof of the caves were littered with guano or bird droppings that kept control of the caves temperature which had two waterfalls.

We were told by our tour guides that further down the cave which extended to the base of the mountain there was another waterfall which had eels and prawns. They are white in colour because of their lack of contact with sunlight.

At a compartment of the cave that might have been wrongly taken for a cosy little sitting room, we rested while Nakanacagi village headman Mr Luvuiwai began his story.

According to legend, the cave used to be home to a gigantic serpent.

One day a mother and child from Nakanacagi were washing their clothes in the creek beside the cave. The mother had oiled her child with turmeric to protect him from insects and left him sitting at the mouth of the cave.

After her washing she discovered her son was missing and turned into a rage knowing that the serpent had eaten her son.

She sought help from the traditional rainmakers in Lutukina district within the district of Nadogo and it rained in the hills for a few days which resulted in a flood," he said.

The flood swept the serpent to sea and it was not heard of again until it was later killed in Dreketi by another woman.

Mr Luvuiwai said that the cave had also been used by his elders in the warring days as a refuge from enemies.

"The forests above the cave are lush with forests and logging has been posing a lot of problem for the cave as it is starting to give in to the heavy machinery works on the surface," said Mr Luvuiwai.

"Villagers are aware of the special bats that our village home hosts and we are putting up strategies and conditions to loggers regarding the protection of the special cave," he explained.

"With the help of NFMV, we are glad to know the value of these organisms and the need to preserve them," he said.

NFMV officer, Ms Macedru, said the bats were known to be faithful to their cave roosts.

"The cave disturbance may have caused the bats to leave their roosts, but because they have no other site to roost we may lose the entire species population and we are glad that the people of Nakanacagi are taking pride in their bats," she said.

Today, the cave has become the symbol of the Nakanacagi people. It has put the village on the world map, recognised by conservationists as the home of the Chaerephon bregullae or Fijian free-tailed bats.

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