A tour with Sigatoka River Safari includes a jet boat ride and opportunities for cultural immersion. // © 2016 Sigatoka River Safari
Feature image (above): Sigatoka River is lined with villages, and functions as one of Fiji’s largest interior waterways. // © 2016 Sigatoka River Safari
A soaring bluff along the Fijian skyline that was covered in a vivid green coat of South Pacific forest hurried toward us on the meandering Sigatoka River. The river is one of Fiji’s largest interior waterways and home to not only some stunning natural beauty, but also many remote Fijian villages.
The surrounding mountains, rainforest and small pockets of farmland are certainly rustic, with hardly any sign of contemporary or urban convenience, but the bright-red jet boat that our small group was hurtling up the river in made it tough to forget what year it was.
One of Fiji’s most popular activity options, a jet-boat tour with Sigatoka River Safari, might at first seem like a strange recipe, as it features one part jet-boat thrill ride and one part intimate cultural experience. But the uncommon combination has been highly rated on TripAdvisor for years, and after joining the fun during a recent visit to Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island, I had no trouble seeing why many families and honeymooners would thoroughly enjoy the half-day outing.
Having spent some time on jet boats elsewhere, I must admit that component of the excursion wasn’t as novel or thrilling for me, personally, but the rapid trip up the river was unforgettably gorgeous. The real fun began for me when we entered the remote village, a collection of simple cinder-block homes and meeting houses often topped with corrugated roofs and set in a lush clearing. As we arrived, a small troop of the community’s children, many of whom looked elementary-school age, watched our group intently from a safe distance before eventually crying out “Bula” while waving excitedly and breaking into curious, bright smiles.
Our first stop was a small village hall populated by male clan leaders, who sat on one end of the building around a large, wooden “kava” bowl. Kava is a drink made from the pounded roots of the kava plant, which are steeped in water, forming what tasted to me like a potent, room-temperature tea — one that made my lips go numb and brought on an unmistakable buzz.
Once our group was all seated in the small hall facing our male hosts, our guide began translating a ceremonial greeting and retold some of Fiji’s history, including the violence of the islands’ cannibalism traditions before Christianity was introduced in the 1800s. We also learned more about the little village, called Nalebaleba, which is home to about 45 families. Before long, we participated in formal kava protocol, wherein each member of our group took turns sculling pretty substantial shots of the stuff from dark coconut cups. Then, we were presented with leafy green garlands, each decorated with bright flowers, and our cheeks were painted in white powder, a nod to Fijian tradition and custom.
Now properly welcomed and adorned with flowers, we toured the town a little, meeting the children and others before gathering outside the village’s main hall. Inside, we were told, the rest of the small community’s residents had all assembled.
“Ready to meet the friendly cannibals?” our guide said with a bright smile and laugh.
We entered, and music began to play, featuring the warm voices of the village and familiar sounds of guitar. The hall was packed with curious onlookers, all seated on the floor and most offering smiles while clearly sizing us up. An impressive lunchtime spread had been prepared for us and presented on a colorful cloth at the head of the hall, so we sat down on the floor to eat, enjoying tasty fried chicken, tropical fruits and some delicious little cakes.
After lunch, more kava was served, and tour-goers were encouraged to mingle with the villagers. Perhaps not surprisingly, all sorts of dancing soon broke out, with some impressive performances by both the Fijians and U.S. travelers. And by the time our group of visitors needed to head back, the party seemed like it was just getting started for the villagers, as the kava was most certainly still flowing. But we said our goodbyes, took more group photos and were soon flying down the river again.
One bit of key advice for this excursion: Travelers joining the tour need to dress appropriately for getting wet — which might actually be a good selling point for most visitors because of the often warm and humid Fijian days. Although the jet-boat ride up the river to the village was pretty tame, despite speeding along at an incredible pace, the return trip was filled with many 360-degree turns that ended up absolutely drenching everybody in the boat and generating all sorts of laughter and squealing.
Sigatoka River Safari offers two, five-hour jet-boat and village tours daily. One begins around 8:30 a.m., and the other starts around 1 p.m.; both depart from the company store in Sigatoka Town. Pricing starts at about $120 for adults and $75 for children ages 4 to 15.
A portion of the tour price goes to the villages, according to company officials, to help with “water projects, electrification, concrete footpaths, telecommunications, education and health initiatives.” In total, Sigatoka River Safari works with 15 different villages, spreading visits throughout the separate communities on a rotating schedule.