Standing on a hillock, I look down at parrot green fields dotted with wild stallions and cassava and taro patches. I am in Sigatoka Valley, in the middle of the island of Viti Levu in Fiji. Once the stomping ground of tribal chiefs, today it is known as the “salad bowl of Fiji” because of its abundant fruit and vegetable gardens.
I am on my way to the Naihehe, one of Fiji’s most impressive cave systems, once home to cannibalistic tribes. After crossing the muddy Sigatoka River in a speed boat, a custom-made Land Rover takes me through the countryside on dirt tracks, passing huge limestone outcrops, lazing bullocks, lush vegetation, small villages with houses made of corrugated iron and timber, and children and adults shouting “bula”, or welcome.
The locals have a close relationship with Sigatoka, Fiji’s longest river, which runs from the hills of the Nadroga-Navosa Province down to the sand dunes in Kulukulu, providing residents with mussels, prawns, fish and eels for food, as well as water for irrigation. Many children swim across it to reach schools on the other side.
“Life is simple here. Cassava on the table from our fields, and no TV or internet,” says our guide, Tia. Sigatoka River Safari works with 15 villages along the river, contributing to their development and infrastructure projects, while minimising the impact of tourism on traditional ways of life by only allowing visits to one village at a time.
We arrive at Sautabu, whose village chief is the guardian of the Naihehe caves. We must get his blessing to visit them, in the traditional way. Slipping a sulu (sarong) over our dresses, we select a “chief” from our group, who presents a kava root wrapped in newspaper to the village chief and respectfully requests his permission.
We sit cross-legged on mats inside the community hall, women behind men, as is the protocol, and listen to the chief deliver a prayer and speech in Fijian, welcoming us to the village and proclaiming us family after this. A cup of kava seals the deal — the drink is formulated from the root of a plant in the pepper family called yaqona, brewed into a muddy liquid that tastes earthy and has a slightly calming effect.
We begin our journey walking through a thick jungle lined with African tulips, bamboo, elephants’ ears and flaming torch ginger. The narrow path ends at a huge limestone cliff face, with the entrance of the caves situated under a low, overhanging rock. I peer warily into the entrance, as Tia assures me that it is only a short crawl inside, and there are no bats or creepy crawlies, only a few swallows.
As we duck and kneel, wading through water, with miner-style LED lamps strapped to our foreheads, we enter a dark, gargantuan, cathedral-like space. Tia uses his torch to illuminate the walls and ceiling — and we catch sight of muddy brown, light pink and white stalactites and stalagmites, in myriad shapes. Some look like pointed daggers, others like stubby toes. The elongated forms are shaped by a combination of minerals and slowly dripping water, in a geological process that takes place over millennia.
“Naihehe literally means the place to get lost and even today, if you come here without a proper guide, you can get lost,” says Tia. Long ago, this space was a refuge for villagers looking to escape marauding tribes and then the Christian missionaries who tried to convert them — a safe fortress where they could subsist for months on the fish found in the small creeks within the caves and the yam and fruit that grew around them. In 1743, 100 people hid here for 79 days. It is believed that cannibalism ended in these parts in 1867, with the arrival of the missionaries.
Just as I think the worst is behind us, we come to a point where the ceiling drops almost to the ground, with a small space beneath called the “pregnancy gap”. Biting back my acute sense of claustrophobia, I crawl through the narrow opening, which earned its nickname because it was said that the gap would reveal if a woman was pregnant, as she could not make it through if she was. It also prevented attackers from entering this inner cave.
The view on the other side makes it worth the effort — a cavernous space like a Gothic cathedral, where a European couple have even exchanged vows, according to Tia, with 400 candles lit for eerie illumination. He shows us spaces that in the past were named after their use — the chief’s swimming pool, the priest’s throne and the cooking oven, a small recess in a large pillar formed by a stalactite and stalagmite.
Up above, near the ceiling, Tia points out two secret exits, now blocked, that were once used by the men to go outside secretly and procure supplies while their enemies waited at the cave entrance. Some of the walls have graffiti etched on them, the work of village boys who clambered into these caves as a dare and left their imprint here forever more.
We retreat back through the pregnancy gap and make our way out of the cave system, walking through the jungle to be greeted by a buffet laid out on tables by the villagers. Over fresh fruit, grilled eggplant, bread, barbecued meat and salads, we muse on our journey underground and the snapshot it provided of a tumultuous time in history far removed from the usual Fijian stereotypes of sun and surf.