Fiji has been an important Pacific crossroads over the centuries, and its culture reflects the manifold influences that have touched the nation. Indigenous island culture, based on the communal values of the village still holds sway, rubbing up against (sometimes with friction) the Indian culture brought by indentured labourers, and the influences of Western colonialists in everything from Christianity to rugby.
Since Fijian independence, there have frequently been tensions between Fiji's two main communities – those of island descent and those from the Indian communities who settled in the islands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These tensions have spilled over into disputes over who holds political power and whether all communities are equal in the eyes of the law. Until 2010, Fiji was divided into 'indigenous Fijians' and 'Indo-Fijians', with only the former officially allowed to call themselves Fijian. Under current law, all citizens are finally now referred to as being Fijian, with the appellation iTaukei used to refer to members of the original native community. According to the most recent survey, 57% of the population are iTaukei, 38% Indo-Fijians and the remainder a mix of Chinese, Pacific Islander and European.
Few visitors will spend time in Fiji without being offered to join a kava ceremony at least once. This drink (more correctly called yaqona, and colloquially called 'grog') is made from an infusion of powdered roots from Piper methysticum, a type of pepper plant. Before the arrival of Christianity, yaqona was a ritual drink reserved for chiefs and priests; nowadays gathering around a kava bowl for conversation with friends is an essential part of Fijian social life.
The ritual aspect of kava remains important. When visiting a village, you’ll usually be welcomed with a sevusevu ceremony, centred on yaqona drinking. Visitors sit cross-legged facing their hosts and a large central wooden bowl (tanoa). Never walk around across the circle or turn your back to it, or step over the coir cord that ties the white cowrie shell to the tanoa (it represents a link to the ancestors).
The powdered yaqona is wrapped in cloth and mixed with water in the tanoa. The resulting infusion looks a little like muddy water. You’ll be offered a bilo (coconut shell cup) with the drink. Clap, then accept the bilo and drink it down in one: bear this in mind if your hosts offer to fill your cup ‘low tide’ or ‘high tide'. On drinking, everyone claps three times, and the bilo is passed back to the server. You needn’t drink every bilo you’re offered, but it’s polite to at least drink the first. Bear in mind that once a kava session starts, it doesn’t end until the tanoa is empty.
Kava is only very mildly narcotic. After a few drinks you might feel a slight numbness on the lips, but stronger mixes can induce drowsiness (kava from Kadavu is said to be the most potent). In 2014 a local drinks company started selling Tăki Mai, an 'anti-stress' shot drink with kava extract. Some Fijians are skeptical though: if you really want to de-stress they say is to sit around all night chatting with your mates while drinking grog. Pass the bilo!
Traditional arts and crafts such as woodcarving and weaving, along with dancing and music, remain an integral part of life in many villages, as well as a draw for tourists. These traditions have inspired much of the small but thriving Fijian contemporary arts scene, of which Suva is the epicentre.
The University of the South Pacific’s Oceania Centre for Arts & Culture in Suva provides working space for artists, musicians and dancers, as well as regular performances. Suva is also the literary hub for Fiji, hosting occasional readings by members of the Pacific Writing Forum and poetry slams.
Pottery is thought to have initially been brought to Fiji by the Lapita people over 3000 years ago, and some modern potters still use traditional techniques. The pots are beaten into shape with wooden paddles of various shapes and sizes, while the form is held from within using a pebble anvil. Coil and slab building techniques are also used. Once dry, pots are fired outdoors in an open blaze on coconut husks and are often sealed with resin varnish taken from the dakua tree.
Traditional woodcarving skills are largely kept alive by the tourist trade, providing a ready market for war clubs, spears and cannibal forks. Tanoa (drinking bowls) and bilo (kava cups of coconut shell) remain part of everyday life. Tanoa shaped like turtles are thought to have derived from turtle-shaped ibuburau, vessels used in indigenous Vitian yaqona rites.
The best tanoa come from the southern Lau islands and are carved from a solid piece of vesi wood. They are traditionally the domain of certain Lau clans who are descended from Tongan woodcarvers who settled in the islands in the 18th century.
Masi is bark cloth with rust-coloured and black printed designs. In Vitian culture masi was invested with status and associated with celebrations and rituals. It was worn as a loincloth by men during initiation rituals and renaming ceremonies, and as an adornment in dance, festivity and war. Masi was also an important exchange item, used in bonding ceremonies between related tribes. Chiefs were swathed in masi, later given to members of the other tribe.
While men wore the masi, production has traditionally been by women. Made from the inner white bark of the paper mulberry bush that has been soaked in water and scraped clean, the cloth is beaten and felted for hours into sheets of a fine, even texture. The unprinted cloth is called tapa. Intricate designs are added to the tapa by hand or stencil and often carry symbolic meaning. Rust-coloured paints are traditionally made from an infusion of candlenut and mangrove bark; pinker browns are made from red clays; and black from the soot of burnt dakua resin and charred candlenuts.
It is difficult to see masi being made, though you’ll see the end product used for postcards, wall hangings and other decorative items. Textile designers have begun incorporating traditional masi motifs in their fabrics – or even using masi to make wedding dresses for fashion-forward brides who want to keep close to their traditions.
Mat & Basket Weaving
Most indigenous Fijian homes use woven voivoi (pandanus leaf) to make baskets, floor coverings and fine sleeping mats. Traditionally, girls living in villages learned to weave and many still do. Pandanus leaves are cut and laid outdoors to cure, stripped of the spiny edges, and boiled and dried. The traditional method of blackening leaves for contrasting patterns is to bury them in mud for days before reboiling. The dried leaves are made flexible by scraping with shells and then split into strips of about 1cm to 2cm and woven. Mat borders are now often decorated with brightly coloured wools instead of the more traditional parrot feathers.
Music & Dance
Traditional Fijian music blends Melanesian and Polynesian rhythms. Along with native slit drums, guitar and ukelele are widespread accompaniments. Many visitors will experience this by hearing a rendition of Isa Lei, the lullaby-like national farewell song, with which many resorts serenade their guests on departure.
Modern Fijian music has been influenced by the currents of reggae, rock and even hip hop. Hindi pop and Bollywood soundtracks are also heard everywhere due to India's deep influence on Fijian culture. Church music, particularly gospel, is also popular.
One of the most notable names in Fijian music include Laisa Vulakoro, the queen of vude, a genre blending old Fijian songs with modern R&B. Other names to listen out for include Lagani Rabukawaqa, Lia Osborne, Daniel Rae Costello (who makes a Fijian reggae blend), and bands such as Delai Sea and Voqa ni Delai Dokidoki. Rosiloa (formerly Black Rose) is one of Fiji’s most successful rock bands. For some Fijian musicians, success means moving overseas, such as for hip-hop artists D Kamali. However, in recent years there has been a move to rediscover the popular Fijian music of the 1960s and '70s and reignite the live music scene. Makare, a Lautoka-based band have been spearheading the revival: if you catch them playing oldies like the impossibly catchy Mai Gaga Voli (written by 1980s star Lela Seruvakula), you'll be humming the melody for the remainder of your trip.
Most visitors first encounter Fijian dance when they’re welcomed at resorts and hotels with meke, a performance that enacts ancient lore. Traditionally, meke were accompanied by a chanting chorus or by ‘spiritually possessed seers’. Rhythm was supplied by clapping, the thumping and stamping of bamboo clacking sticks and the beating of slit drums. The whole community participated in meke. In times of war, men performed the cibi (death dance), and women the dele or wate, a dance in which they sexually humiliated enemy corpses and captives. Dancing often took place by moonlight or torchlight, with the performers in costume, their bodies oiled, faces painted and combs and flowers decorating their hair.
Although famous throughout Fiji and performed in many of the Coral Coast resorts, vilavilairevo (fire-walking) was originally performed only by the Sawau tribe of Beqa, an island off Viti Levu’s southern coast. Traditionally, strict taboos dictated the men’s behaviour leading up to the ceremony and it was believed adherence to these protected them from burns.
Replaced by guitars and keyboards, traditional indigenous instruments are a rare find in Fiji these days. Yet once upon a time, nose flutes were all the rage. Made from a single piece of bamboo, some 70cm long, the flute would be intricately carved and played by a laid-back Fijian, reclining on a pandanus mat and resting his or her head on a bamboo pillow. Whether it was the music or the pose, flutes were believed to have the power to attract the opposite sex and were a favourite for serenading.
Other traditional instruments had more practical purposes, such as shell trumpets and whistles, which were used for communication. Portable war drums were used as warnings and for communicating tactics on the battlefield. One instrument you are still likely to see (and hear) is the lali, a large slit drum made of resonant timbers. Audible over large distances, its deep call continues to beckon people to the chief’s bure (traditional thatch dwelling) or to church.
Since colonial times some communities have grown to sizeable towns and small cities. Today these urban centres are more heavily influenced by modern building practices than rural villages, which still retain some aspects of traditional architecture.
Fijian villagers once resided in traditional thatched dwellings known as bure. In the past these homes were dark and smoky inside, with no windows, usually only one low door and hearth pits for cooking. The packed-earth floor was covered with grass or fern leaves and then finely woven pandanus-leaf or coarse coconut-leaf mats. Sleeping compartments were at one end, behind a bark-cloth curtain, with wooden headrests.
Traditional bure are usually rectangular in plan, with timber poles and a hipped or gabled roof structure lashed together with coconut-fibre string. Thatch, woven coconut leaves or split bamboo is used as wall cladding, and roofs are thatched with grass or coconut leaves. Most villages still have some traditional-style bure but, as village life adapts and changes and natural materials become scarcer, most Fijians find it easier and cheaper to use concrete blocks, corrugated iron and even flattened oil drums.
Historical Levuka was once the capital of Fiji, and a number of its buildings date from its heyday of the late 19th century, particularly the main street, which is surprisingly intact. In 2013 it was was given Unesco World Heritage status.
The British influence is particularly visible in Suva, which has many grand colonial buildings. The most celebrated is the gorgeous white edifice of the Grand Pacific Hotel, built in 1914. Other notable buildings include Government House and Suva City Library.
The best of modern Fijian architecture has sought to blend elements of traditional design with the best in current practice. Many resorts play with iTaukei themes, but the Fijian Parliament building in Suva, built in 1992, takes the bure concept and really runs with it – free tours are available if arranged in advance.
In the days of the old religion, every village had a bure kalou (spirit house), which was also used as a meeting house. These buildings had high-pitched roofs and usually stood on terraced foundations. The bete (priest), who was an intermediary between the villagers and spirits, lived in the temple and performed various rituals, including feasting on slain enemies and burying important people. A strip of white masi (decorated bark cloth) was usually hung from the ceiling to serve as a connection to the spirits. The construction of such a temple reputedly required that a strong man be buried alive in each of the corner-post holes.
Among the more colourful reminders that Indian communities thrive in Fiji are the myriad temples, mosques and family shrines. The architecture and rituals of the Hindu temples, Muslim mosques and Sikh gurdwaras are an integral part of the Fijian landscape.
A must-see is the extravagantly decorated South Indian–style Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami temple in Nadi. It's packed with brightly painted statues of Hindu deities and ceiling frescoes and is by some way the most colourful building in the country. A North Indian–style temple near Labasa on Vanua Levu boasts a large rock that devotees believe has been growing in the form of a snake, which is sacred to Hindus. Mosques are visually more restrained affairs, often with the simplest of domes and modest minarets, decorated with trims of green, the colour of Islam. Meanwhile, the major Sikh temples across Fiji follow Indian tradition and regularly offer free meals to all visitors and devotees.
While the large shrines are hard to miss, the red flags atop bamboo poles next to Hindu family homes are subtler. They mark tiny personal shrines which are often decorated with statues, marigold garlands and offerings.
Almost a religion among indigenous Fijians, rugby union is the one sport that has continually put Fiji on the world stage since the first match between Fijian and British soldiers in 1884. Fijian players are prized internationally, often having contracts in Europe, NZ or Australia that prevent them from playing for Fiji. Despite this, Fiji has won the most Pacific Tri-Nations titles and is a tough draw for any international side. Its rugby sevens squad is even more formidable. They were world champions in 2005, and won the series again in 2015, and are currently the top-ranked sevens side in the world.
The rugby season is from April to September and every village in Viti Levu seems to have its own rugby field – the abundance of giant bamboo means that even those with the most limited means can quickly put up a set of goalposts. Even if you’re not a footy fan, it’s worth going to a local Friday-afternoon or Saturday-morning match just to watch the excited crowd. During international tournaments, the whole country seems to grind to a halt.
Athletics is increasingly popular. The Coca Cola Games, a youth athletic championship, are held every April and attract national attention and widespread television coverage. School teams converge on Suva from across the country to seek glory.
Netball has the same popularity among Fiji’s women as rugby does with men. The national squad, known as the Pearls, consistently rank highly on the world stage: their 11th-place finish in the 2015 World Championships was their first time finishing out of the top 10 in 15 years, although they remain the reigning Pacific champions.
Since the 1830s Christianity has been developing in Fiji and is an important part of cultural and political life. Indigenous Fijians maintain their traditional culture, but practices such as cannibalism and ancestor worship were erased by Christian teachings long ago. Tongan missionaries were particularly important in bringing Christianity to the islands.
Today 60% of Fijians are Christian, the majority of whom are Methodist, and the church remains a powerful force in internal affairs. There’s a Catholic minority within this group of around 7%, and evangelical Christian churches are becoming increasingly popular.
Religion and politics have often gone hand in hand in Fiji, and church approval has been sought as a way of legitimising power structures, particularly after coups. Although there has been increased separation between church and state, religious leaders still carry a lot of soft power in society. Sunday is a day to worship and rest and a time spent with family. Most businesses close for the day and streets are deserted. If you find yourself at loose ends, consider attending a Sunday service. It is a real treat; Fijians love to sing and choir groups don’t hold back. Many resorts now incorporate church services into their cultural tours.
Around 30% of Fijians are Hindu, 6% are Muslim and nearly 1% are Sikh. Adherence to these religions helped unify the new Fiji Indian communities after indenture, and Hindu, Muslim and Sikh schools have often been some of the best-performing academies in the country. The remainding 3% are a mix of Chinese religions and non-religious Fijians.
Even though they are far away from the heartland of Vedic astrology in India, many Indo-Fijians regularly consult with pundits (priests) for readings and predictions about the future.
See Traditional Potters at Work
The late Epeli Hauʻofa, who died in 2009, was one of Fiji's most celebrated writers. Grab a copy of We Are the Ocean, an essential collection of his essays, short fiction and poetry.
Fiji’s Treasured Culture (www.museum.vic.gov.au/fiji) is an online exhibition of Fijian artefacts held in Museum Victoria (in Melbourne, Australia) and Suva’s Fiji Museum.
The village of Navala, nestled in the Viti Levu highlands, is an exemplar of traditional Fijian architecture. It’s the only village remaining where every home is a bure.
Fiji is more urbanised than many might imagine and two-thirds of the population now live in urban centres – principally Suva, the capital, and Viti Levu towns.
In most places you go in Fiji you’ll be met with a cheery ‘bula’ (cheers! hello! welcome!; literally ‘life’) and a toothy grin. It's your first introduction to the iTaukei language, the most important word you'll learn in Fiji. Foreigners (kaivalagi; literally ‘people from far away’) are welcomed warmly and openly, helping to give Fiji a reputation as one of the friendliest nations on earth.
iTaukei culture is based in Fiji's villages. Traditional customs, from drinking yaqona (kava) to village law remain crucial to maintaining iTaukei identity, even (or especially) in the face of globalisation and 24-hour media culture.
Village life is subject to complex rules of etiquette and land (vanua) is owned collectively by the community and cherished. Land can be leased but never sold – nearly 90% of land in Fiji is owned by the iTaukei and overseen by a government commission. These land leases help provide Fijians in rural areas with income to maintain their traditional farming and fishing lifestyles.
Clan chiefs still wield great influence in society. Unlike other Melanesian societies where chiefs are appointed on merit, in Fiji a chief’s position is hereditary (though the title may pass to a relative and not necessarily the chief’s own son or daughter). This is common in nearby Polynesian societies and illustrates how Fiji, as the crossroads of the Pacific, has been influenced by those around it, most notably the Tongans and Rotumans. Chiefs represent clans rather than villages, who elect or choose their own administrator (turaga ni koro) to represent them to the government and to visitors.
The Fiji Indians
The first Indians came to Fiji in the late 19th century, brought by the British who wanted indentured labourers to work on their plantations. Those who stayed on after their period of indenture settled as farmers or gravitated to the towns to open small businesses, and they helped transform Fiji's social and political traditions, as well as influencing the nation's cuisines.
The Indian nature of Fijian life was forged in the sugar-cane belts of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, and many of the large cane farms remain leased and managed by Indo-Fijians. However, as Indians have never been allowed to legally own land, many have faced eviction as their leases on native land have expired. The towns, particularly on Viti Levu are strongholds of Indo-Fijian life, even more so as younger generations follow the call of urbanisation. However, even in the countryside you can look out for roadside Hindu shrines and mosques that illustrate the deep ties that Indo-Fijians have to the soil.
Towns like Ba, Lautoka, Labasa and Levuka are still caught in a time warp with old-style shopfronts and aisles cluttered with Indian homewares, fashions and pantry essentials. Billboards entice you to shopping meccas like New Delhi Fashions and promise great deals from the Tappoos, Khans and Motibhais.
The explosion of Indo-Fijian commerce really happened when Indians from the state of Gujarat set up shop, tapping into the needs of the rural folk. Today they still own many of the shops lining the streets of Fiji as well as the upmarket malls in cities like Suva. Their business acumen has sometimes worked against them. During coups, nationalist leaders have harnessed anti-Indian sentiment by conjuring caricatures of stingy, acquisitive Indians about to take over the country.
An Australian of Indo-Fijian descent, Clement is a radio and television journalist specialising in Asia Pacific affairs. He has worked for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for almost 20 years.
Masala is a heady, aromatic concoction of Indian curry spices that can seduce, enthral and mystify the senses. Step away from Fiji’s laid-back resorts, languid beaches and villages and you get a sense that a lot of the country has been touched by some magical masala-wand. Indo-Fijian presence is almost everywhere, bringing colour, flavour and heat to most aspects of Fiji life. This is the legacy of Indo-Fijians living here for over a century, transforming Fiji’s social, political and culinary traditions.
The Milaap Project & More
There is now a growing volume of works in print, film and online reflecting the Indo-Fijian experience. Dr Satish Rai is among the more prolific producers. In his films he has documented the growing interest in ancestral history among Indo-Fijians as well as recorded testimonials and commentaries about Fiji’s recent political and social history. His films include Milaap: Discover Your Indian Roots (2001), Once Were Farmers (2004) and In Exile at Home: A Fiji Indian Story (2008). Other writers and raconteurs have posted stories on websites such as www.girmitunited.org, which is also a comprehensive guide to publications and films about Indo-Fijians.
The early indentured-labourer experience and post-coup reflections have inspired countless pages of Indo-Fijian poetry and fiction by authors such as Satendra Nandan, Raymond Pillai, Subramani, Sudesh Mishra, Mohit Prasad and Kavita Nandan.
To visualise the lives of Fiji’s early Indian settlers, visit the Fiji Museum’s Indo-Fijian gallery in Suva. It reconstructs the history of indentured labourers and their customs and traditions with the help of family heirlooms, artefacts and personal belongings.
The Land & Ocean
Fiji has long been defined by the ocean that surrounds it, and the vast stretches of the South Pacific have both protected and isolated the locals for much of their history. In Fiji’s vast territorial waters, laced around the hub of Viti Levu, are 332 other islands, of which 110 are permanently inhabited. These are fertile islands, with the richness of tropical rainforests - a richness mirrored below the waves by Fiji’s astonishing coral reefs.
Fiji owes its existence to plate tectonics. Volcanoes formed when the Pacific plate was pushed under the Australian plate, and it was these that gave Fiji its backbone and laid down the building blocks for the creation of further islands. Fiji’s oral tradition sees things differently. According to legend, the snake-god, Degei, created Viti Levu as a home for the two humans (and their progeny) who hatched from eggs he had found in an abandoned hawk’s nest. Degei now sleeps in Viti Levi’s Nakauvadra Range and it is the opening and closing of his eyes that prompt day and night.
Fiji no longer has any active volcanoes, but in Savusavu on Vanua Levu locals still tap into some of that geothermal energy by using the hot springs for cooking.
The geological uplift that raised Fiji left its islands surrounded by more reefs than it’s possible to count. The Coral Coast, which runs along the southern edge of Viti Levu, is a classic fringing reef, linked to the island shore, with sections exposed at high tide. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the long barrier reefs, separated from land by channels of deep water. Cakaulevu Reef (also known as the Great Sea Reef) is the world’s third-longest barrier reef, stretching 200km from the north coast of Vanualevu to the Yasawas; in the south the Great Astrolabe Reef circles Kadavu. Both hold a staggering amount of biodiversity.
On occasion, the combined actions of waves and wind on exposed reefs can produce coral islands. Beachcomber and Treasure Islands in the Mamanucas, and Leleuvia and Caqalai in the Lomaivitis Group are all examples of coral islands.
Like many isolated oceanic islands, Fiji’s native wildlife includes a few gems but is otherwise relatively sparse. Many of the plants and animals are related to those of Indonesia and Malaysia and are thought to have drifted in on the winds and tides.
The only native terrestrial mammals in Fiji are six species of bat. You’ll almost certainly see beka (large fruit bats or flying foxes) flying out at sunset to feed, or roosting during the day in colonies in tall trees. Two species of insectivorous bats are cave-dwellers and are seldom seen.
Over 130 species of birds live or pass through Fiji, making birdlife the main wildlife attraction; birdwatching is best during the dry season. There are 27 endemic, with members of the pigeon and parrot families well represented. The beautiful orange dove is particularly striking, as is the red-and-green Kadavu parrot – once highly threatened but making a comeback thanks to local conservation efforts. The collared lory is the most common parrot species, easily seen in the trees of most towns.
Fiji’s 27 species of reptiles are mostly lizards. The endemic crested iguana, a startling green lizard with white bands, is found on the Yasawas and on Yadua Taba off the west coast of Vanua Levu. Its ancestors are thought to have floated to Fiji on vegetation from South America. There are also two terrestrial snakes – a small, nonvenomous Pacific boa (gata) and the Fiji burrowing snake.
Besides the bats, all other land-dwelling mammals have been introduced from elsewhere. More than 3500 years ago the first settlers introduced poultry, Polynesian rats, dogs and pigs to Fiji. In the 19th century Europeans brought additional domestic animals and, inadvertently but inevitably, brown and black rats and house mice.
The common Indian mongoose was introduced in 1883 to control rats in sugar-cane plantations. Unfortunately, the mongoose mostly chose to eat Fiji’s native snakes, frogs, birds and eggs, while the rats continued to prosper. Mongooses are a common sight – keep an eye out for them scampering across the highway into the undergrowth. Taveuni and Kadavu are mongoose-free, making them the best islands for birdwatching.
Undaunted by the consequences of these early introductions, authorities imported the cane toad in 1936 to control insects in the cane plantations. Sadly, it too has now become a pest, preying upon native ground frogs in coastal and lowland regions, as well as competing with them for food.
In 2000 a small number of common iguana (known locally as the American iguana) were smuggled into Fiji and released on Qamea Island. They have since spread to several other islands, including Taveuni, although environmental groups working in conjunction with teams from the Fijian army are currently working on an eradication program.
Fiji’s richest animal life is underwater. There are hundreds of species of hard and soft coral, sea fans and sponges, often intensely colourful and fantastically shaped.
As coral needs sunlight and oxygen to survive, it’s restricted to depths of less than 50m. Corals on a reef break are generally of the densely packed varieties, such as brain coral (which looks like a human brain), which are able to resist the force of the surf. Fragile corals such as staghorn grow in lagoons where the water is quieter.
Fiji’s tropical fish are exquisite. Among the many you’re likely to see are yellow-and-black butterflyfish; coral-chomping, blue-green parrotfish; wraithlike needlefish; and tiny, territorial, black-and-white clownfish guarding their anemone homes. Fat-fingered blue starfish and delicate feathered starfish are common. Some marine creatures, such as fire corals, scorpionfish and lionfish, are highly venomous; if in doubt, don’t touch! And watch where you put your bare feet.
Fiji is also good for spotting sharks and rays. On the reefs, small black-tip and white-tip sharks are the most common, with the larger (and more aggressive) bull shark also frequently seen. The enormous and graceful manta ray, whose wingspan can reach 4m, can be encountered in several spots in the Yasawas and Kadavu.
Of the four sea snakes found in Fiji most are rarely seen, except for the dadakulaci (banded sea krait), which occasionally enters freshwater inlets to mate and lay its eggs on land. Although the dadakulaci is both placid and shy, and can’t open its jaws wide enough to bite humans, its venom is highly potent, so it is worth being careful if you spot one when diving.
Five turtle species are found in Fijian waters: the hawksbill, loggerhead, green (named after the colour of its fat), Pacific Ridley and leatherback. Traditional Fijian culture venerated the turtle as one of the few species that could bring together the land and the sea, and the world of the living to that of the spirits.
Most of Fiji is lush with fragrant flowers and giant, leafy plants and trees; 1596 plant species have been identified, of which about 60% are endemic. Many are used for food, medicine, implements and building materials.
Around 40% of Fiji is forested. Forest giants include valuable timbers such as dakua (Fijian kauri), a hard, durable timber with a beautiful grain used for furniture. Of the many different fern species in Fiji, a number are edible and known as ota.
You’ll see noni (evergreen) products – cordials and soaps – for sale throughout Fiji. Noni produce a warty, foul-smelling, bitter-tasting fruit, which, despite its unattractive properties, is gaining credibility worldwide for its ability to help relieve complaints including arthritis, chronic fatigue, high blood pressure, rheumatism and digestive disorders.
The tagimaucia, with its white petals and bright red branches, is Fiji’s national flower. It only grows at high altitudes on the island of Taveuni and on one mountain on Vanua Levu.
Not all Fiji's trees are native. The African tulip tree, easily spotted by its pretty red flowers, is spreading widely and out competing many native species. Wherever there are people, you'll see land that's been cleared for cultivation of the crops that thrive in the lush environment: cassava, dalo (taro), and the all-important kava.
Coastal & River Plants
Mangroves are the most distinctive plant communities along the coasts of Fiji. They provide important protection against erosion for seashores, and are breeding grounds for prawns and crabs.
Casuarina, also known as ironwood or nokonoko, grows on sandy beaches and atolls. As its name suggests, the timber is heavy and strong and was used to make war clubs and parts of canoes.
An icon of the tropics, the coconut palm continues to support human settlement. Coconuts provide food and drink, shells are used for making cups and charcoal, leaves are used for baskets and mats, and oil is used for cooking,lighting and as body and hair lotion.
Other common coastal plants include the beach morning glory, with its dawn-blooming purple flowers, the beach hibiscus, with its large, yellow flowers, and the night-flowering vutu tree.
National Parks & Reserves
Fiji has several protected conservation areas. Lack of resources means that conservation is often difficult, but the Bouma National Heritage Park now protects more than 40% of Taveuni.
Sigatoka National Park Self-guided trails along impressive sand dunes, blustery coast, rolling grassland and young mahogany forest. On the Coral Coast.
Koroyanitu National Heritage Park Easily accessible from Nadi, this park is rich with native forest and open grassland, as well as the peak of Mt Batilamu.
Bouma National Heritage Park A rainforest-rich park on Taveuni threaded with walking trails and dotted with waterfalls.
Colo-i-Suva Forest Park A small park just outside Suva, with lush rainforest and plenty of birdlife.
Other significant (but smaller) sites include Tunuloa Silktail Reserve near Navua on Vanua Levu, and Yadua Taba (off Taveuni), which is home to the crested iguana. Visiting requires permission from the National Trust for Fiji in Suva.
Fiji has several marine parks, with plans for many more. Its most notable are Waitabu Marine Park in Taveuni and Namena Marine Reserve in Vanua Levu. In 2014, the Shark Reef Marine Reserve at Beqa was declared a national park – the first dedicated shark-protection area in the country.
Respect & Protect
Many of Fiji’s endangered animals and plants are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Others are protected by national legislation. If you buy a souvenir made from a protected or endangered species and don’t get a permit, you’re breaking the law and chances are that customs will confiscate it at your overseas destination. In particular, remember the following:
- Tabua are tabu (sacred) – whales' teeth are protected.
- Turtle shell looks best on live turtles.
- Leave seashells on the seashore; protected species include giant clams, helmet shells, trochus and tritons.
- Tread lightly. Stepping on live coral is like stepping on a live budgie (parakeet): you’ll kill it.
- Many plants, including most orchids, are protected.
Trash & Carry
Your litter will become someone else’s problem, especially on small islands; where possible, recycle or remove your own.
Don’t Rush to Flush
Fresh water is precious everywhere, especially on small islands; take short showers and drink treated water or rainwater rather than buy another plastic bottle.
Top Birding Spots
Fiji is an archipelago of 332 islands and a further 500 smaller islets; they cover an enormous 1.3 million sq km, but only about 18,300 sq km of this – less than 1.5% – is dry land.
Suva’s beautiful (but underfunded) public gardens, opened in 1913, are named after botanist John Bates Thurston, who introduced many ornamental plants to Fiji.
Can’t tell a batfish from a butterflyfish? Tropical Reef Life – A Getting to Know You & Identification Guide, by Michael AW, gives an informally detailed overview of underwater life, plus photographic tips.
For more information on local conservation efforts, check out Nature Fiji (www.naturefiji.org), the island's only dedicated environment NGO.
Fiji's flying foxes
Fruit bats (flying foxes) are a pretty common sight, particularly when they take to the wing at sunset. Most of them are Pacific flying foxes, a species found across the region. Fiji has one purely endemic species, the Fijian monkey-faced bat, although you’ll be very lucky to see one, as they are restricted to just one area of montane cloud forest around Des Voeux Peak in the highlands of Taveuni. As its name suggests, the bat has an appealingly cute face, with large orange eyes. There are thought to be fewer than 1000 individuals extant, although their low numbers and remote habitat makes surveys a tricky prospect. The bat is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Faring a little better, but still under threat is the Fijian blossom bat, a species unique among fruit bats for roosting in caves. There are just four known roost sites in Viti Levu, putting it in a potentially precarious situation. Working with local communities is vital for their protection; at the Snake God Cave at Wailtoua, local guides lay down strict guidelines for visitors to avoid disturbing the roost – a good omen in a country with a tradition of hunting bats for food.
Along with other Pacific island nations, Fiji finds itself on the frontline of global warming. Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and unpredictable. In 2016 Fiji was hit by Category 5 tropical cyclone Winston, the strongest cyclone to ever hit the Southern Hemisphere. Rising sea levels also threaten coastal life, and increased sea temperatures have led to the phenomenon of coral bleaching. As the seas warm, corals lose the symbiotic algae that provide their colour and nutrition, which can lead to complete die-off. Two-thirds of Fiji's reefs have experienced large amounts of bleaching.
It's not all doom and gloom. On the islands, a reforestation program for the sandalwood tree, logged out by 19th-century merchants, is meeting with success. In many areas threatened by overfishing, Fijian environmental groups working in partnership with local communities are finding increasing success protecting fishing grounds by declaring them tabu (sacred) at particular times such as spawning season. On a larger scale, the Fijian government has declared its intent to protect 30% of its waters as marine parks by 2020 – potentially the largest marine park network in the world.
Although parts of Fiji – and particularly Viti Levu – are becoming increasingly urbanised, Fiji’s heart still beats strongest in its villages. If you get invited to someone’s village (it's rude to just turn up unannounced), you’re in for a treat. Life here is often governed by complex codes of behaviour, although Fiji’s famous hospitality is likely to shrug off with a joke any social faux pas you may accidentally make.
Finding your way around village etiquette may initially seem complicated, but the best way to gauge what is appropriate is to simply ask your hosts. The following tips will stand you in good stead.
Bring a gift Always offer sevusevu (gift) to the village headman (turaga-ni-koro).
Dress to impress Sleeves and sulu (skirt or wrapped cloth, worn to below the knees) or sarongs are appropriate for both men and women. Both sexes should cover their shoulders. Wear slip-on shoes: they’re easier to take off when entering houses.
Mind your head Fijians regard the head as sacred – never ever touch a person’s head. Take off your hat and don’t wear sunglasses pushed up on your head. Carry bags in your hands, not over your shoulder; it’s considered rude to do otherwise.
Keep it low Stoop when entering a bure (traditional thatch dwelling) and quietly sit cross-legged on the mat. It is polite to keep your head at a lower level than your host’s.
Photography Check with your host if you can take photos. It's impolite to take photos during the sevusevu.
Ask to be shown around Never wander around unaccompanied: gardens and beaches are all someone’s private realm.
Cover up If you’ll be bathing in the river or at a shared tap, wear a sulu while you wash. You will rarely see adult Fijians swimming and when they do they cover up with a T-shirt and sulu.
No kissing It is rare to see public displays of affection between men and women, so curtail your passions in public to avoid embarrassing or offending locals.
Camping If you’re staying overnight, and had planned to camp but are offered a bed, accept it; it may embarrass your hosts if they think their bure is not good enough for you.
Sunday This is a day for church and family, so avoid visiting then unless invited.
Fijians are early risers, and if you spend a night in a village, expect to hear the first clatter of pots and pans and hushed tones of conversation at around 5.30am. As a recipient of Fijian hospitality, you may well be given the best, and in some cases only, bed in the house (many people still sleep on woven pandanus mats on the floor).
Most homes are no longer built in the traditional thatched bure style but are simple, rectangular, pitched-roof houses made from industrialised materials requiring less maintenance. Rural homes may not have electricity or plumbing, and people wash and get water from a communal tap fixed above a concrete square. Cooking is done over small kerosene stoves. Toilets may be of the long-drop variety, usually in a row of tin sheds tucked away behind the houses.
The women tend to most of the domestic duties – washing, cooking, cleaning and looking after the children. Men spend their days farming, fishing and performing communal obligations. Evenings are often spent sitting in the chief’s (or another elder’s) house talking and drinking yaqona.
Fiji’s most common garden plant is the hibiscus. Its large, beautiful flowers only last a day but are in plentiful supply. You’ll find them everywhere – tucked behind ears, decorating tables and adorning pillows. Don’t be afraid to tuck one behind your own ear – you know you want to.
Legend has it that the plant that kava is made from sprung from the grave of a Tongan princess who died of a broken heart.
The balabala (tree ferns) of Fiji are similar to those in Australia and New Zealand; once used on the gable ends of bure (traditional thatched dwellings), the trunks are now commonly seen carved into garden warriors – the Fijian counterpart of the Western gnome.
Fijian villagers live in land-owning mataqali (extended family groups) under a hereditary chief, who allocates land to each family for farming. Land rights are central to traditional identity, and 'native' land can only ever be leased, and never sold. Village life is more conservative than its urban counterpart. Fiercely independent thinking is not encouraged and being too different or too ambitious is generally seen as a threat. Concepts such as kerekere and sevusevu are still strong, especially in remote areas. Kerekere is unconditional giving based on the concept that time and property is communal. Sevusevu is the presentation of a gift such as kava for, say, permission to visit a village, or more powerfully, a tabua (whale’s tooth) as a token of reconciliation or wedding gift.
Another important concept is solevu. This is a social gathering between two groups or villages: the hosts provide food, while the guests offer gifts that can range from yams and woven mats to gasoline. Once an important part of local political life, these days solevu tend to be restricted to the weddings or funerals of prestigious people.
In a Fijian village you will see few, if any, fences between homes, and children run from one home to the next at will and without thought. This communal sense of living forms the cornerstone of village life, and most Fijians would find it downright unneighbourly to erect a fence or wall between their homes.