Sorry, jazz fans, I'm not refering to that great tune by Elmer Berstein that the Buddy Rich Big Band performed so well. Nor is this post about sexual escapades as in the movie for which the music was written. I know some of you will be disapointed to read one or perhaps both of those statements, but better to do so now than halfway through the post.
This "walk on the wild side" is about hiking along the East coast of the island of Taveuni in the Fiji Islands, one of the most ecologically pristine islands in the world. It seems modern society has forgotten we are all a part of nature, not something separate from it. Nature is not something there for us to exploit or rule. The opposite is true, we are dependent upon its existence and to survive we must bend to its wisdom. We evolved from and are a part of and interdepent with the world around us. If it dies, we die. And by the way, so far, we're not doing so well.
It is on the island of Taveuni that you will find the Bouma National Heritage Park. While only a small percentage of the forests remain on other Fijian islands, having been logged for their mahogany and other beautiful woods, Taveuni's rain forests remain intact. The national parks cover 80% of Taveuni's total area, covering about 150 sq km (57 sq mi) of rainforest and coastal forest.
Taveuni is just 42 km (26 miles) long and 11.26 km (7 miles) wide but is host to many rare species, including the silktail bird, the Fiji flying fox, and Dakua trees, giants of the rainforest. Others, found only on Taveuni, are the Orange Breasted Dove, Fiji Ground Frog and the extremely rare Crested Iguana. There are in total, over 80 unique species of terrestial and fresh water birds on Taveuni. Fiji's national flower is the brilliantly red Tagimoucia that only grows high in the mountains of central Taveuni, which reach an elevation of over 4,000 feet. Taveuni is truly an ecological treasure chest.
The park is the result of cooperation between the New Zealand Fiji Ecotourism Program, and the Fiji Native Land Trust Board. Rather than sell off the forests for logging and some quick cash, as has happened all too often in other locales, they decided to preserve their forests - their heritage - for future generations to come. They have built trails, picnic tables, bridges and so on to make parts of the forest, waterfalls and beaches, accessable to hikers. They charge a modest fee to enter the park and offer native guides at addition charge. The money goes to maintain the trails and help the villages. One can do anything from a 15 minute walk from Bouma village to their beautiful waterfalls, to an all day guided hike deep into the forest.
So join me, won't you?, as we hike the coastal trail from Lavena Village to Lower Wainabu Waterfalls - a walk on the wild side!
Our check in point is the visitor center at Lavena Village, a 45 minute ride by taxi or public bus from the airport at Matei. There we pay our park fee of F$5, and sign the guest book, noting the countries of origin all around the world of hikers who have gone before us. We have already become familiar with Fijian customs with regard to behavior in their villages. This is private property after all and we are guests. The hike is relatively easy, but will take us about 2 hours each way allowing time for photography, meeting villagers, and swimming.
Path initially leads between the village and the beautiful white sand beach. There is a good view of the island of Qamea from here. On the other side of Qamea, out of view, is Laucala, small island that Malcolm Forbes, at one time one the richest people in the world owned. His remains are entombed there now, and his home is run as a hotel. About one hundred meters down the path, we reach Ucuna Point, a great spot for a picnic or swim, but we came early today and will wait. This is the area where the movie "Return to the Blue Lagoon" was filmed. A lousy movie perhaps, but fantastic scenery. (The orginal "Blue Lagoon", which starred Brooke Shields, was also filmed in Fiji, but on another island).
After 30 minutes or so we come to an area where there are rock pedestals rising above the reef, looking like giant mushrooms or perhaps aliens from another planet. They are the result of a lava flow and erosion. After a few photos we find the settlement of Naba (pronouced Namba). It is a small community of immigrants to Fiji from the Solomon Islands who have been accepted as an integral part of the Lavena community. The "one salt water" principle in action. We admire their crops of dalo, cassava, papaya and yaqona (kava). As it is not a school day, children come up to greet us with the Fijian greeting "Bula!" and ask us where we are from. At home, they speak Fijian, and at school they learn English, the official language of Fiji. Other people are gathering plants or walking on the shallow reef and picking up dinner. Don't be surprised to find that these people live in "grass shacks", think of them as practical, recyclable homes. And don't mistake their non-Western lifestyle for poverty. These people are wealthy in ways we of the so-called "first world" (Orwellian Newspeak) have forgotten long ago.
Another ten minutes and we find ourselves crossing the Wainisairi River which drains lake Tagimaucia at the top of the mountains, the largest lake in Fiji and home to the official flower of Fiji - the bright red Tagimaucia which grows only at that lake. We cross by means of a wood and cable suspension bridge. Woe be it to anyone who starts to whistle the theme of "Indiana Jones" while I am on the bridge.
The trail leads around a rocky point from there and finally up the riverbed of the Wainibau. Another 20 minutes and we will reach our destination. The going can get tedious on hot humid days (read: usually) as the trail goes up and down earthen steps. Strange calls of forest birds distract us from our efforts. Finally, we see our goal, the lower Wainibau Falls. Stripping down to swim suits, we are rewarded with a cool dip in the stream and swim between the rock wall of a narrow gorge into the main pool fed by the falls. Flag tail perch swim with us, but not to worry, they don't bite. We stay to the left to avoid the stronger current and find that there is not one waterfall, but two. Braver than I (how far are we from medical help?) some people climb the rocks and slide down the falls to the left, others jump off the higher falls to the right. I just swim and take in the sounds of the water and birds and sights of the surrounding jungle.
Resting on rocks, we unpack our simple lunch of fruit, sandwiches and juice, which looks like a feast now. I contemplate the wisdom of the people who chose to save this place. Here, at this moment, there are no politics, no religion, no job titles, and no status symbols. There is simply us and nature. We just are. I feel at peace and at home. This is,after all, the kind of place we all come from, the true first world - the wild side.