Fiji is a fascinating place.
When people think Fiji, I think most people think of relaxing on a white-sand beach with a coconut cocktail in hand, and that’s certainly a big part of what Fiji has to offer, but there’s so much more to see when you set foot outside the resorts. Fiji’s rich village culture and incredible inland landscapes have so much to offer. They aren’t nearly as accessible as the sand and pretty fishies, but don’t worry – there are amazing people like Epi who can make things easy for you.
Epi’s Midland Tour is old-school, genuine local tourism at it’s finest. An independent solo operation, Epi has been taking visitors through the Ovalau highlands and up to his home village of Lovoni for around 30 years. Every trip is customised to the group, the weather, and what’s going on that day, and everyone comes away smiling – it’s hard not to, since Epi’s positive attitude is pretty infectious.
I’d been wanting to explore Ovalau for a while, and when my friends Hannah and Tom announced they were coming to Fiji for a visit, I grabbed the opportunity and suggested we go have a look at Fiji’s fifth largest island. It’s not too far off the beaten path, but does require a bit of thinking to get to, located off the east coast of Fiji’s largest island Viti Levu and accessible by plane, local ferry or water taxi. Home to the original Fijian capital of Levuka, Ovalau and it’s villages are steeped in history, and there are sites of national significance dotted around the coastline, such as the site of the cession of Fiji to the British in 1874. The whole island is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the lovely Levuka township certainly shows why – it’s easy to imagine you’ve stepped right into a late 18th century whaling town as you look at the old-fashioned wooden facades down the main street.
Now, Epi’s tour has a FANTASTIC reputation that is very well deserved, but I’ll be frank with you – it’s not that easy to book. Epi doesn’t have a current website (though you can find a bit of old information if you google him) and finding current contact info for him is hard. I tried calling a few numbers I found for him and sent an email or two, but got no response. We had sort of given up on the idea of being able to do the tour when we found a sign in the foyer of the Royal Hotel in Levuka. It wasn’t exactly clear on the booking process, but I decided to ask around.
That’s one of the best travel tips right there – if in doubt, start asking. Often people are really keen to help you out, or just know stuff that isn’t in any guide book or brochure.
The staff at reception said Epi usually stays at a nearby hotel, and to ask for him there. So I stopped in, and talked to two boys playing soccer. One proudly told me he is Epi’s namesake (ie, named after him, a big deal in Fiji), but that he didn’t know where he was, but maybe he’d be back in an hour. An hour later I went back, but there was no sign of anyone. Another half an hour later, as I was walking down the street, a man stopped me and said, “You were looking for me?” It was Epi – he’d found me.
Fiji is that kind of place.
Epi’s Midland Tour usually involves a hike over the mountains to Lovoni, but we were hindered by very miserable, wet weather and a poor choice of footwear – somehow Hannah and I had managed to leave any decent walking shoes in Suva and had only rubber thongs (aka flip flops to any non-Aussies reading this), so we weren’t that keen on a proper hike. Epi assured us that was fine – we’d get to Lovoni by taxi and just do an easy walk around the village and surrounding hills. We agreed on a price and a place to meet the next morning, and that was it – all organised.
(Is it just me, or does anyone else get slightly weirded out by booking processes that don’t involve the internet? I know it’s been done that way for nearly all of human history, but it still just feels a little weird to me not to have a confirmation email and receipt in my inbox! But there’s something wonderful about getting somewhere without any technology too.)
The day dawned wet and misty – not wonderful hiking weather, but certainly pretty as the mist rolled around the hills. Hannah, Tom and I piled into the back of the taxi Epi had organised, and we were off on our journey.
The great thing about Epi is his talent as a story teller. He knows his history, and he has a way of spinning a story that makes you feel present and almost involved. Born in Lovoni and raised with many siblings by a determined and resilient single mother, Epi’s knowledge of local and national history is surpassed only by his ability to tell it. He tells the events of 150 years ago like he was there, with an account so much more thorough than any museum. (Not that the Fiji Museum in Suva, or it’s regional arm in Levuka, aren’t good! They just aren’t as good as Epi.)
With Epi already spinning tales, our taxi driver took us on the bumpy, circuitous road around Ovalau island and up into the highlands. Ovalau is an ancient volcano, with a classic round and steep volcanic shape. It’s villages are spread around the shores, with only one village – Lovoni – inland. It’s right in the centre, in fact, in the middle of the ancient caldera. As we drove, it rained on and off, and the car slipped in mud every so often. We were pretty glad we’d taken the soft option and gone for the taxi rather than the hike this time – though I’m sure the hike is wonderful, in dry weather, because the lush green scenery we passed was stunning.
Lovoni is a peaceful, beautiful little village surrounded on all sides by steep mountains – which form a vital part of its history, and the history of Fiji in fact – due to its position inside a caldera. The grass is electric green, the houses neat and tidy, and there are quite a few traditional-style bure (pronounced BUHR-ay, huts made of traditional materials). This makes Lovoni fairly well-off by village standards, as making traditional bure is very labour-intensive so they are quite expensive these days. We wandered through the village, greeted by smiling villagers who are pretty used to seeing tourists in Epi’s company.
Side note: As tempting as it might be, DO NOT come here by yourself. Fijian village etiquette is NOTHING like European or Asian village etiquette, and villages are in no way public spaces open to anyone who wanders through. Basically, a Fijian village is a communal home to a group of families. Entering a village without being invited is basically like bursting into someone’s kitchen, stark naked. Fijians just DON’T do it, and neither should tourists. It’s fine to wander round towns like Levuka or Suva to your heart’s content, but you MUST be accompanied to a village.
We saw a European guy at our hotel at breakfast who was travelling by himself. He said he’d been up to Lovoni. We asked him if he went with Epi, and he said no, he just went by himself. He didn’t care at all that it’s considered extremely rude. I mentioned this guy to Epi, and he scowled. Tourists shouldn’t do that, he said. It makes people very angry, they come to resent tourists, and the tourists disrespect the Fijians.
It’s an important reminder that just because things look familiar, doesn’t meant they are the same. They might both be called villages, but you can’t treat a Fijian village like you would a village in another country – it’s not a public space, and as tourists you need to respect that. Villagers most likely won’t say anything to the offending tourist, since Fiji is a really indirect culture where silence can be very aggressive, leading some tourists to assume no one is upset by their actions, because no one is yelling at them. That’s not the case, they’re just too polite to say anything. Please – only go to a village if you are invited.
But back to the tour. Epi led us on a walk into the hills around Lovoni. We stopped every ten metres or so for Epi to tell us the uses of every plant we saw – and he knows them all! This one eases childbirth, that one is for colds, this one is known to cure breast cancer – just ask his wife, it cured her! (And she’s English and usually prefers modern medicine over traditional medicine, he said.) The breadth of his knowledge is incredible. He explained he knows so much because as a kid his family could never afford much, but his mum taught them all sorts of bushcraft.
And it’s not just medicines – he knows how to make rope, how to build shelter, how to open a coconut without a machete. He showed us a plant that curls up when you touch it, and explained to us how Fijian soldiers fighting in World War Two in Papua New Guinea gained a reputation for their skill as jungle trackers and fighters – by noticing the plants that curled up, they always knew if Japanese soldiers had passed by recently, and were never ambushed. (Did you realise Fijians fought in WW2? Me neither! But as a British territory in the Pacific, they were in the thick of it against the Japanese.)
We followed the river back to the village, watching kids swimming and trying not to fall over as we waded across the wide rushing stream. Lunch had been prepared for us, and in traditional Fijian fashion, it was a glorious spread. Eggplant fritters, dalo leaves with lolo (like a spinach with coconut cream), dalo roots (like a yam), kokoda (fish with coconut cream and lime), and all sorts of delicious things, served on a beautiful woven mat on the floor in one of the village houses. We washed it down with hot lemon leaf tea, and sat back, our bellies full, to hear more of Epi’s stories about the history of Fiji.
All too soon, it was time to leave the village, and head back to the ocean. We piled back into our taxi, and on the way back to Levuka, Epi talked about how he had come to operate his tour. He has been doing it for over 30 years, and is one of Fiji’s most well-known tour operators. But he also likes the simple life – his tour is still a one-man, independent operation, and he takes bookings on an ad hoc, informal basis. Like I said at the start, this is old-school tourism. It’s genuine, it’s real – he’s showing his home to visitors from around the world, and sharing his culture and its stories. And its great.
If you want to experience Fiji beyond the white sand and coconut cocktails, Epi’s Midland Tour should be at the top of your list. You’ll see gorgeous South Pacific jungles, you’ll learn things you never knew plants could do, you’ll get a real feel for local culture and customs, and you’ll eat delicious food while being regaled with stories by one of the Pacific’s finest story tellers. What more could you want?
How to get there:
Epi’s Midland Tour operates out of Levuka, a township on Ovalau, Fiji’s fifth largest island. You can take a local ferry from Suva, you can fly from Suva or Nadi, or you can take a water taxi (small boat) from the mainland or a nearby small island resort such as Leleuvia or Caqalai. It’s not close to the tourist meccas of the Mamanuca and Yasawa Islands, and will take a bit of planning to get to, but it’s worth it.
How to book:
Booking in advance will be difficult, but if you want to try, contact your hotel in Levuka and tell them you want to do Epi’s tour to Lovoni. They should be able to arrange it for you. Don’t be too stressed if you don’t end up with an official looking confirmation – this is Fiji, and things are relaxed away from the main tourist centres. If you’re already in Levuka, just ask around. Start with your hotel staff, and go from there – eventually, Epi will find you.
It cost us $70 FJ per person for the three of us, including the taxi there and back and a buffet lunch. That figures goes up or down depending on the size of your group, but that should give you a ballpark idea. It’s not the cheapest of tours, but it is excellent, and Epi is upfront about the cost.
Have you met Epi and taken his Midland Tour? What did you think? If there’s anything else you want to know, post a comment and I’ll try to find out the answer for you.