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The floating island

Luke Rawalai
Wednesday, September 13, 2017

IT sits silently on a sodden swamp mirroring the remains of the small islet with the natural scenery beside the pond and the sky.

To any passerby, the place may look like nothing but a forgotten swamp overgrown by kuta reeds and weeds which is a common site among cane fields in the Wainikoro area in Labasa.

Those who know the tale of the legendary floating islands of Nubu will revere the place for its sacredness for this is the home of the legendary Waqa Qele or earth boats.

The reputation of the place has been long forgotten and only remembered by a few, mostly the elderly people of Nubu and Wainidrua, a village close to the home of the Waqa Qele.

Many people who know the story of the infamous Waqa Qele say that it has lost its manna and it can no longer be used as a vessel like their ancestors did once.

This is despite stories from people in the area who claim to have ridden the Waqa Qele in the late '90s.

Waqa Qele

The three islets known endearingly to the people of Nubu as Waqa Qele were presents from the gods to the people of Nubu as a mode of transport to the sea which is situated miles away from their home.

According to Nubu elder Ilibani Rova, there were originally three islands which had names known to their elders.

Mr Rova is an elder from the Mataqali Bukawaqa within the Kedekede clan.

He said they had forgotten the names of the two other islands.

"However, we know of the main island, the biggest of three which still moved back in the late and early '90s," he said.

"The name of the island is Vanalato which literally means, 'Mast of Lato' for the Lato (pandanus tree) is the only tree which grows on the island with kuta reeds.

"The elders thought that the Lato trees growing on it were like masts which helped float the ship.

"As intended by the gods, the boats served as a vessel for our ancestors, which they used to travel or to wage war on neighbouring coastal areas and even to catch fish out at sea."

Mr Rova said the islets were usually controlled by its bete or priests who knew the chants which moved the island as they commuted with the god who is supposed to own the island.

"Sadly this chant has been lost too for us as we embraced Christianity which denounced it as demonic," he said.

"They would sing the chant and the island would move to wherever they willed it to move.

"The lake on which the three islets used to be has shrivelled to a mere swamp while the three islands had been beached up on dry land as the lake dried up.

"In the old days the elders used to find mangrove leaves and even rays in the lake as it was still connected to the sea."

Bad luck befalls the three islets

In the past, the lake used to drain out as a river into the sea.

Now another tribal god who used to reside at the mouth of the river used to see the people of Nubu travel up and down the river making their way to the islands and he desired to have one of the islands to himself.

The day came when he could not contain his desires and approached the people of Nubu to ask for one of the islands.

"The chiefs of the district convened a meeting where they all agreed that they would not part with the islets as it was a gift given to them only by the gods," he said.

"When the god or vu was told that his request has been refused, he got angry and thought of taking vengeance upon the people of Nubu.

"Therefore, he began planting the kuta reeds along the river way to block the path normally taken by the three islets.

"Seeing that they have been sabotaged, the people of Nubu could only wait for the worst as the river belonged to the god."

To this day the river way is marked by a field of kuta reed which stretches right to sea located miles away from the lake.

Mr Rova said when it rained, the place would overflow with water which was evident that it was once a waterway.

"However, if you visit the lake which has shrivelled to a swamp, you will identify the three islands with the patches of Lato trees which grows on them," he said.

"One cannot make the other two islands as they have been beached up in dry land and taken over by forest and bushes.

"However, the patches of Lato tree will distinguish them as the two islets despite the bushes that have overtaken them.

"The three islands are reminders to our people of the mana and the powers that our ancestors once wielded having earth boats that would transport them on the waters."

In a jovial mood, Mr Rova said nobody would have refused an offering such as floating islands which would enable them access the sea which was the only mode of transportation back then.

Recent experiences

on the island

Despite claims that the small island of Vanalato has become immobile, there have been some very rare circumstances when the island has moved in the swamp.

Kritesh Prasad said last year, while still working for this newspaper, he visited the island with a few friends and family members.

Mr Prasad claimed when they got on the island, the pundit or local Hindu priest began praying when the island moved about three metres away from the swamps bank.

Shocked, he said, he told the priest that he was worried the island may never return and it stopped there and then.

"Later the island started moving back to the place where we had boarded it," he claimed.

"I was frightened that it would never return to the side of the swamp and something might happen.

"There was a second time we were on the island when it moved again."

Sarmend Bhan, who accompanied Mr Prasad, said the pundit had begun praying and after a while the island started moving.

Mr Bhan said the experience was surprising.

* NEXT WEEK: More personal stories about the island

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