Fiji is synonymous with white-sand beaches, island archipelagos and tropical cocktails—but of course, that’s never the whole story. There’s adventure to be had here—miles of it—as travel writer Sadie Whitelocks found out on a pre-pandemic hiking trip in paradise.
The clock struck midnight and I was sat on the ground in a tin shack, drinking kava—a mildly narcotic drink made from powdered plant roots—with a group of six men. The brown mud-colored liquid served in a coconut shell wasn’t having much effect on me, other than to make my lips and tongue numb.
We were celebrating climbing Fiji’s highest peak, Mount Tomanivi (1,324 meters), but the kava was making me feel a little drowsy. I bid my fellow hikers goodnight, dodged a gaggle of chickens, and made it back to my village homestay for a well-earned snooze.
This little nook of Fiji was a world away from the honeymoon vision of the archipelago I’d had as a child. Of course, Fiji is awash with white-sand beaches and glistening blue waters but the interior is strewn with lush jungle waiting to be explored. Which is what I came for.
Two of the people who have helped pave the way for adventure tourism in Fiji are Matt and Marita Capper who founded Talanoa Treks in 2013. They’d moved here from the UK and, frustrated at the lack of hiking possibilities, decided to set up their company.
Matt says it was slow starting out, but they went from zero to hosting 400 clients a year as the concept of getting off-grid in Fiji gathered momentum. They employ Fijian staff and also work with remote communities, showing them ways they can host visitors to earn an income.
“It was a fundamental principle of the way we set up Talanoa Treks that we wanted people from the villages that we partnered with to guide guests on our treks,” says Matt. “It is about providing income, but it’s also about respect, and respecting the deeper level connection between Fijians and their land.”
“It’s the land where they grew up,” he adds, “the fruit trees they climbed and rivers they played in as kids, and where they now farm and fish.”
In 2019, the 300-mile endurance trek, Eco Challenge, even returned to the main island of Fiji, Viti Levu, with Bear Grylls heading up the race as part of a 10-episode TV for Amazon. Matt and many of his team members helped with the logistics.
“Initially, some of the guides found it strange that people chose to hike over long distances,” Matt tells me, “and that they’d be interested in things that they thought of as everyday and pretty mundane, such as banana trees or spectacular waterfalls!”
The views were often, literally breathtaking, as we ascended higher, while a carpet of undulating green stretching towards the coastline with no human presence visible for miles around.
Traveling solo and keen to see the heart of Fiji myself, I’d booked on an excursion with Talanoa Treks, to climb the country’s two highest peaks. It was January 2020 before the onset of Covid-19, but the island was pretty quiet following Cyclone Sarai in December 2019, which left two dead and caused thousands of evacuations.
There was just one other traveler on the two-peak trek, a well-traveled chap called Jaime from Lisbon. He’d gotten “fed up of staying in the Hilton” and wanted something a bit spicier.
With our Fijian guide, Meli Senimasi, we started out by tackling Mount Tomanivi. It was no easy feat. The humidity caused us to sweat buckets, the unkempt vegetation required machete skills, and near-vertical stretches of rock-strewn with roots demanded a little bit of smart footwork.
Around two-thirds of the way up, Jaime decided to turn back, defeated by the heat and unforgiving incline. I ventured on with Meli.
When a rare Fiji Goshawk swooped overhead, I was particularly relieved I’d carried on climbing. The views were often, literally breathtaking, as we ascended higher, while a carpet of undulating green stretching towards the coastline with no human presence visible for miles around.
Eventually, we reached the top with a ramshackle sign to take a picture next to where it’s hard to resist the ubiquitous summit selfie.
“Like many small tourism operators, we’ve had to walk a tight line between minimising costs, spending enough to keep things ticking over so that we can start up again, and looking to other sources of revenue to diversify.”
Matt Capper, Talanoa Treks
That evening, Jaime and I stayed in the village of Navai at our guide’s family house. Meli’s mother Paulini rustled up vegetarian treats on a kerosene stove, including roro, a dish containing spinach-like taro leaves and coconut milk, fried aubergine, and chunks of creamy cassava, a staple root vegetable in Fiji.
We chatted about life in the village; this one was home to seven different clans and many Fijians live in tribal villages headed by chiefs. Church is a big part of life for many Fijians and Navai has four churches. The farming of taro is the main source of income.
Since COVID-19, Matt and Martita Capper say that business across the archipelago has been heavily affected with border closures. Prior to the pandemic, tourism accounted for around 40 per cent of Fiji’s GDP. Thankfully, many local people reliant on tourism were able to return to farming, and living off the land has provided a sustainable income in lieu of tourism.
In terms of their business, Matt says: “Like many small tourism operators, we’ve had to walk a tight line between minimising costs, spending enough to keep things ticking over so that we can start up again, and looking to other sources of revenue to diversify.”
They’re also facilitating conversations about tourism, through their sister enterprise, as a result of scaling down actual tourism operations.
It was an early start the next day and a bone-shaking drive on unsurfaced roads led us to our next point of call, Mount Batilamu (1,110 meters).
Our new guide Joji Tamani, a former Fijian rugby player, assured us that this climb was easier with a more gradual incline. A refuge hut at the top of the mountain—built when the Koroyanitu National Heritage Park was established in 1992—also meant we could break the trek up over two days.
As we hiked, we found the vegetation was also more manageable—a well-trodden path always makes life a little easier. Lepani, another of our guides from the tiny village of Abaca, walked ahead, barefoot, pointing out various plants as we trekked. One, he warned, would cause us to have a burn-like rash—he’d once sustained a burn that lasted for years.
After several hours or so of hiking, we finally reached the top of Batilamu. Thick fog shrouded the summit, something of an anti-climax, but the next morning made up for it as I watched a cocktail of colors emerge while the sun rose over the gaping landscape below.
On our descent, the adventure continued. We cliff-jumped into a cooling plunge pool and walked behind the Tunutunu waterfall on a carpet of mist-sprayed moss. This was a Fiji that was a world away from the resorts and picture-perfect beaches.
It’s also one that more Fijians are experiencing. Like many nations, the pandemic has also offered a chance to explore home turf. “Fiji has a good-sized middle class who would, in normal times, look to holiday or visit relatives in Australia or New Zealand,” says Matt. “So it’s been great to see people taking the opportunity to explore their own country, discover its hidden corners, and find out just how much Fiji has to offer.”
Sadie Whitelocks is a travel writer and photographer, who's lived between London and New York. She has traveled to over 60 countries from Kashmir to Kazakhstan to the Canadian Arctic, and holds a Guinness World Record for attending the highest dinner party on Everest at 7,056m. She's a member of the Explorers Club and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.