Racing round Vanua Levu – discovering the hidden beauty of Fiji’s North
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Racing round Vanua Levu – discovering the hidden beauty of Fiji’s North

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Northern Fiji is much less touristy than the Western and Central Divisions. It’s harder to get to, less developed, more remote. It’s also home to lush tropical forests, untold numbers of waterfalls, stunning soft corals, cloud-shrouded mountains, and beautiful, relaxed beaches. According to the locals, the Northern Division is Fiji’s crowning glory. “You haven’t seen Fiji til you’ve been to the North,” they’ve told me.

So when I got the chance to head north, I jumped at it. Owing to some work commitments, I didn’t have long to explore, and the somewhat awkward boat and plane timetables ended up cutting my trip even shorter, to about a week. I wouldn’t recommend covering as much ground in as short a time as I have, because it’s been very rushed and I’ve missed out on a lot. But if you are short on time as I have been, and you’re keen to cover a lot of ground and ocean, and see a lot of scenery, this is a pretty good way to do it. And heading north is very worthwhile.

I travelled by boat rather than by plane, which was an early start and an interesting, relaxed way to travel. There are several boats that transit between the major population centres in Fiji, carrying a mix of cargo and passengers. For some routes, you can buy a bus/boat combination ticket which involves a bus that drives straight onto the boat and continues your journey on the next island – don’t worry, you get off the bus while you’re on the ferry. Others go straight from port to port – it depends on which company you go with.

My journey through Vanua Levu (adapted from Google Maps)
My journey through Vanua Levu (adapted from Google Maps)

Dreketi

I started my dash round the north in Dreketi, on Vanua Levu, which is the second largest of Fiji’s 333 islands. This village is far off the usual tourist circuit – it doesn’t even rate a mention in my Lonely Planet-  but it’s quite a pretty area, with the village perched on the edge of the mighty Dreketi River, the deepest river in Fiji. It’s a farming area, and the lush surroundings burst with plants while pigs and chickens investigate the undergrowth.

I stayed at a guesthouse operated by one of the local churches. The facility is really well set up, with airy little rooms, cold water showers and a relaxed deck. My host, Atu, cooked up a Fijian feast for every meal – fresh pancakes with local honey, fish from the river with fresh coconut cream, and local pork stir-fry, just to name a few dishes. In the evenings the kava flowed freely and people talked long into the night. The charm of Dreketi is experiencing Fijian life away from the oceans, something most tourists don’t really see.  The guesthouse isn’t quite open to the public yet, but they’re looking at starting a community tourism type project in the near future. I think that would be amazing. If you want to stay there, let me know and I’ll get in touch with the guys who run it and see if they’ll take you. I’d recommend it if you’re passing through – it’s lovely.

Labasa

Ok, so Labasa doesn’t really have a great reputation amongst… well, anyone, if I’m honest. I’m actually yet to meet someone who sings the praises of Labasa, and I get why. It’s a more industrial town, focussed on sugar cane production. There’s no beautiful beaches or hiking or sights, and the town itself is dusty, hot, and won’t be winning any beauty contents any time soon.

Surprisingly enough, the main thing Labasa has going for it is the shopping. There are good second-hand shops throughout Fiji, but people I know always seem to have the best luck in Labasa. Maybe it’s because there are fewer people digging out the bargains, and most people are less interested in the difference between Cue and K-Mart than in places like Suva where the best finds are snapped up right away.

These are second hand shops on an industrial scale. The clothes are bulk-imported from Australia or New Zealand, often brand new and always in good condition, in every size and style imaginable. Most shops price everything the same, and if you’re in the mood to dig, you can find some amazing buys. It’s kind of hilarious to see a stunning black dress from Review next to a plain green shift from Supre both selling for $10, but that’s the way this works. (Sadly that Review dress wasn’t in my size – ah well.) I spent an afternoon happily digging my way through the options, and came away with a few good buys.

If that doesn’t sound like your thing, the Naag Mandir temple might be more interesting. A brightly coloured Hindu temple, the main attraction of Naag Mandir is the Cobra Rock, housed inside the temple and draped with innumerable  flower garlands. According to the local legend, the stone is growing, and roof has been raised several times to make room for the growing stone. It’s not just a religious pilgrimage – the Christians at Dreketi all recommended I go see this local curiosity. The bus ride to get there and back (about 40 minutes return) was really enjoyable too – full of local character. I saw the driver accept a mango as payment to take someone a short distance, and at one point I was mobbed by chattering, excited school children, all keen to practice their English with me and point out their homes and their friends homes.

The hotel I stayed at was basic and expensive by my standards, but there aren’t a lot of options. The best part was finding a Masterchef AU rerun on TV and watching it at the same time as my sister in Australia while messaging each other – sometimes it’s nice to feel connected to home like that.

Savusavu

$6.25 FJ is all it costs for one of the prettiest journeys in Fiji – the bus from Labasa to Savusavu. The winding road climbs towering mountains, passes waterfalls, and descends into misty valleys – it’s lovely. In typical Fijian style, it was pretty crowded and fairly uncomfortable – Fijian public buses typically seat five across and Fijians themselves tend to be big, and the buses are usually packed. But the scenery was so nice it was hard to care, and arriving in Savusavu was beautiful.

Savusavu is a tourist town, and it’s everything Labasa isn’t – pretty, quiet, green, airy, with several things to see and do. The town curls around Savusavu Harbour, and the marina in the centre of town is filled with white yachts – it’s a favourite with valagi (foreigners) making a tour of the Pacific, and more than a few decide to drop anchor for months or years at a time. Steep hills climb back from the water, giving the whole place a wonderfully green backdrop from every angle.

One of Savusavu’s unusual features is the hot springs. There’re no active volcanoes around Fiji, but a reminder of the area’s volcanic history and potential bubbles to the surface in a few locations around Savusavu in the form of boiling hot water, heated deep underground. I’m told locals use the springs to cook their food, though I was disappointed not to see this when I visited. Apparently you just throw some casava and chicken in a bag, pop it in the spring, and come back after an hour or so. It’s really handy for poor families if they don’t have the money for gas or kerosene that week, and it’s something you don’t get anywhere else. Volcanic chicken anyone?

Another one of Savusavu’s attractions is the excellent diving in the area, so it was with excitement that I donned some scuba gear and dropped below the surface with Colin and Janine from Koro Sun Divers. Sadly the weather was too rough to risk a journey out to the famed Namena marine park, but the diving just off the shore was surprisingly good, with big purple soft corals, tiny violet nudibranchs, and gently wafting anemones. I spied two beautifully graceful turtles, and a big multicoloured reef fish which was lying on its side on a rock for some reason.

In Savusavu I stayed with a friend, Peni, and he and his wife Make showered me with generous Fijian hospitality. I’m from the sort of small rural place where we don’t lock our door. Peni and Make take this a step further and don’t even close their door. It’s that sort of place. On Sunday evening, I was invited along to the church for a special event – the confirmation of two of Peni’s daughters, along with a number of others. Fijians are, as a whole, quite religious, and though I’ve mostly avoided going to church while living here, I felt like I should probably join in this time. It was really something. The bishop was present for the confirmation, wearing robes and a hat decorated with traditional masi-style prints. As I’d expected, the singing was wonderful, but the best part was the real feeling of celebration in the air.

After the service, everyone gathered in the hall. Sitting on woven pandan mats, we feasted on fish, curry, noodles, casava, dalo, ferns, coconut, and several things I don’t know the name of, along with platters of decadent cakes and slices for dessert. Children ran around making up games, and older women stretched out in a corner to smoke suki. The rest of us gathered around the kava bowl for what Peni called sigdrig – sing and drink. Two people produced guitars, and everyone sang long into the night. (Some people didn’t sleep at all. I did haha – I don’t do so well without sleep…)

Taveuni

Up early the next morning, it was time for another bus and boat combination through spectacular scenery. Peni’s parents and several other family members were heading home to Taveuni that morning, and they’d agreed to shepherd me along with them.

We boarded another crowded local bus to take us along the single track dirt “highway” to Natuvu, the tiny village that serves as the eastern port to Vanua Levu. While the bus ride was far from comfortable, yet again the scenery is wonderful – one thing Fiji is almost  never lacking is beautiful things to see out of a car or bus window, and that goes doubly so for the north. From here we boarded the Taveuni Princess, a small ferry which seemed dwarfed by the expanse of Somosomo Straight. Taveuni loomed out of the clouds in front of us – I hadn’t realised just how tall the mountains would be! Fiji’s fourth largest island, though much smaller than nearby Vanua Levu, Taveuni is mountainous and bright emerald green, known as the Garden Isle throughout Fiji.

Peni’s parents insisted on taking me home for tea, so once the ferry landed we boarded another bus (much less crowded this time), and headed a few kilometres south. Their home has an idyllic setting overlooking the ocean on a lush green slope surrounded by trees. It’s fairly big by Fijian standards, with an expansive tin-roofed outdoor area floored with pandan leaf mats, and exuding traditional style. A multitude of family were there to greet us, and we quickly settled to bowls full of lemon leaf tea (literally bowls full, along with some large mugs) and traditional style cakes made from casava and plantains. I really like the way Fijians relax at home – everyone lolls about, lying down on the floor and stretching in whatever way is comfortable.

Mid afternoon, I headed back to Waiyevo  to catch the bus round to the eastern side of the island. I was bound for Lavena, a village with a community tourism project and the home of the Lavena Coastal Walk, an easy hike with a number of waterfalls. We passed around the northern end of Taveuni, where the airport and most of the resorts are located. It’s the flattest part of the island, where the hills don’t climb so steeply from the coast. Prices here range from $17 a night right up to over $1000 a night – and even that’s nothing compared to nearby Laucala island, which charges up to $8000 US a night. It’s the second most expensive resort in the world. I’ve met a few people who’ve worked there and they say it’s really nice, but I just can’t fathom spending something like that on a single night of accommodation, can you? (Of course, if you’re offering… 😉 )

Anyway, as I was saying, the bus ride to Lavena was another lovely one, especially once we reached the eastern side of the island and entered more rugged terrain. The road passes through several villages and crosses narrow bridges over beautiful freshwater streams, and the ocean is often only a few metres from the bus. Sadly I wasn’t doing that well with weather and the ocean was a steely grey under an overcast sky, but you could see how it would turn aqua under the right sunlight. As we headed south again, the surrounding hills got steeper, shining a deep green through their misty shrouds. Finally, we pulled into Lavena.

Lavena Lodge is a very cute locally run guesthouse right on the beach at the edge of Lavena village. My hostess Leba explained that all of the profits go back to the village to help run the school, maintain the coastal walk, and do other projects as needed. The villagers take it in turns to cook for any guests who request a meal, making sure that each home gets a turn of being paid for the service. The guesthouse is light and airy, on a beautiful white sand beach where waves crash against the reef not far off shore. The village is mid-sized, with a little shop and a good sized school which serves the surrounding villages too.

The main reason for coming to the area is the gorgeous Lavena Coastal Walk, and it didn’t disappoint. I’ve already talked about my tendency to do things just because Lonely Planet tells me to, and they haven’t steered me wrong yet – Lavena was no exception. The walk is easy, winding its way along the coast past mushroom-shaped rocks, rushing waterfalls, stony creeks and beautiful, lush plant life. Passing villagers and village children greet you with a smile, and the atmosphere is entirely tranquil. At the end of the way, the trail turns inland, and after a small hill you find a stunning waterfall plunging into a deep, freshwater pool. You have to wade/swim the last 50m or so, and the water is cool and refreshing.

All too soon, I needed to head back to the west coast of Taveuni to meet my ship. I wanted to stay another day, but the next ship to Suva wouldn’t have been for another 5 days, and sadly I needed to get back to work. (On the plus side, my work is in Fiji, so I can’t complain too much!) Not trusting the local bus to get me to the wharf on time, I decided to book a taxi instead. As luck would have it, I landed an extremely friendly taxi driver named Suhk, who decided I needed to see more of the island in my limited time and pointed out more sights for me, making frequent stops for photos and telling me interesting facts about the local area. I got his number, so if you’re going to Taveuni and want a good taxi driver, let me know and I’ll pass you his details.

We took a detour to the 180th Meridian monument, which proudly delineates the line between today and yesterday. The 180th Meridian is otherwise known as the International Date Line, and it passes straight through Taveuni. Although the timeszone curves around Fiji and goes as far east as Tonga, Tokelau, Samoa and Kiribati, technically speaking it’s supposed to fall along the 180th Meridian, and if it was less confusing to have a country running on two separate days, it might actually do that. As it is, there’s a bit of novelty in standing on the line, and plenty of shops in the area are named “Meridian something”.

The wharf at Wairiki was bustling, at least as much as one can when there is only one ship there. Trucks carrying timber and other good were loading and unloading, and a group of women were selling roti parcels and fresh young coconuts near the water – yum. I boarded my vessel, the Lomaviti Princess, and waved goodbye to Taveuni, settling in for the 19 hour journey back to Suva via Savusavu.

My single regret about my trip round Northern Fiji is not being able to stay for a month. It’s a beautiful place and the landscape feels fresh and rugged. All the more reason to go back soon…

If you want any suggestions, ideas or advice about where to go or what to see and do, let me know. I’m happy to give you more details about where I’ve been and hook you up with people I’ve met who can help make your trip more awesome. Just sing out!

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4 thoughts on “Racing round Vanua Levu – discovering the hidden beauty of Fiji’s North

  1. Wow! Your trip sounds amazing. I’m going to Fiji in June; Savusavu and Taveuni look so beautiful. Hiking + waterfalls sounds like heaven. Did you have to book your transport in advance and if so how did you do that?

    1. Hey Kathryn! ? I booked hardly any transport in advance throughout Fiji – it’s a really easy place to just rock up on the day. For Vanua Levu, my colleague booked our initial ferry out of Suva. For the rest of the trip, I just showed up to bus stops and ferry terminals and was able to book on the spot. I would recommend booking any flights you’re looking at at least a day in advance – Turtle Airlines is a good one because their plane is very small and flies low, so it’s very scenic! And any accommodation on an island usually needs to be booked, as they will need to send a water taxi to come get you. But you could probably even just phone them on the day if you want! Have an amazing trip. ??

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