Simple life on the Sigatoka

IT ISN'T often you're asked your age when on a tour in front of 20 other guests. But in this case it was an honour, and fortunately, it wasn't me the question was directed at.

“How old are you, sir?” our guide, “Captain Jack Sparrow”, asked my husband.

Captain Jack Sparrow is the name Josh Ratukuna has given himself and he does look like a dashing Johnny Depp wearing his bandana.

“Is there any man older?” Jack Sparrow then asked the group on hearing my husband's age. A white-haired man put his hand up.

The oldest man in the group, you see, would have the honour of presenting the village chief with a special package: twisted, dried kava roots.

We were on the banks of the Sigatoka River in Fiji, about a 30-minute drive through jungle-like landscape from the Coral Coast about to board a fast boat, the Sigatoka River Safari, for a wild spin along the river to a village.

The package of roots, a worthy gift, was to be presented to the village chief from the oldest man in our tour group, himself chief for a day. The villagers along the river live by tradition, and if we were about to enter their village, tradition must be adhered to.

The women tour guests were given sulus (sarongs) to cover their knees; both men and women were told not to wear hats, an honour permitted only for the village chief.

So we donned lifejackets and took off at thrilling speed along the winding river bordered by lush vegetation.

After Captain Jack Sparrow had skimmed us around bends and curves in the river, stopping to point out villages among the green landscape, delivering information with knowledge and humour, we arrived at our designated village.

Women and children splashing in the water's edge cried out “bula” and beckoned us up the steep steps to the village. Our sulus firmly tied around our waists, hats removed, we were given a tour by one of the village leaders.

“We have no money, not even electricity but we have the happiest life of any people anywhere,” the leader told us. “We eat what we grow. We have some pigs and chickens and when we have a celebration we eat those. We share everything. If we want something, we can just walk into our neighbour's house and take it. Everyone is safe, everyone shares.”

Then it was time for the presentation of the kava root by the oldest man in our group.

The kava roots were handed over, pummelled in a wooden bowl and water added.

A lot chanting later and much straining of the liquid through cloth, the kava was ready and passed to the highest-ranking village member first.

As each member drank there was chest-thumping, singing and warlike shouts.

Eventually we all downed some of the muddy liquid, and with our lips and tongues numbing, the dancing began.

Some time later we were farewelled with joyful cries of “bula” and exuberant waves.

Ann Rickard was a guest of Sigatoka River Safari.

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