Sanctuary in the original bat cave

The entrance to Tau's hidden limestone caves, where villagers retreated during dangerous periods in the island's history.
The entrance to Tau's hidden limestone caves, where villagers retreated during dangerous periods in the island's history. Jim Eagles

AS we approached the top of the steep limestone bluff, a great chattering broke out above.

"Our burglar alarm," said Ratu, who was guiding us through this tangled mix of stone and tropical forest.

"Those are the bats. They smell strangers when they approach. So we always know when there are intruders."

That would have been useful in the years of Fiji's vicious tribal wars because the huge cave Ratu was taking us to see was the place where the people of his Tau village have sought shelter for hundreds - possibly thousands - of years.

Carbon dating of recent archaeological finds has indicated that Tau was one of the first places humans settled when they arrived in Fiji and the cave would have made a great home for people newly arrived in a strange land.

The steep access track, slippery from recent rain and in places squishy with fallen mangoes, certainly looked easy to defend.

But once inside, the cave is surprisingly spacious, with a lofty vaulted limestone roof above a flat area lit by several openings where, according to Ratu, "the people went about their daily living, meeting each other, preparing food, cooking and eating".

He showed us a deep vomo pit "excavated by archaeologists from the university" strategically placed under one of the openings "so the smoke could go straight out and not suffocate the people". Next to it was a circle of stones which acted as the fireplace.

Further into the cave, separated from the living area by a low stone barrier, was a smaller flat space "where children could play". Further in again was an unlit cavern "which was the sleeping area".

As we walked into the darkness of the sleeping area, a sort of clicking noise, which had been going on in the background, suddenly gained in volume.

When a torch was shone on the roof, we saw a seething mass of bats and birds - swiftlets - circling above. There must have been tens of thousands of them.

"There weren't so many here when the caves were lived in," said Ratu. "They have moved in since the people left."

Ratu walked across to a corner of the cave where a great mound of brown material ran almost to the roof. "Droppings," he said. "From the birds and bats."

When we got back outside the bat alarm was in full swing. The sky above the cave was black with excited bats. "In the village they will know we are here," said Ratu.

"If we were here without the proper permission they would come up and check."

There are three significant caves on this limestone outcrop.

The cave we visited - called Oho or "occupied cave" - was for many generations the dwelling place of the Tau villagers. "Many people lived in the cave, sometimes as many as a hundred," said Ratu, "and others built houses up here on the side of the hill".

Not far away - but closed to outsiders - is the cemetery cave where generations of Tau people have been buried.

And finally, its location kept secret even today, is "the refuge cave", where the villagers would take sanctuary when they were attacked. "Tau has never been defeated. Even when the whole of this province was conquered, they could not defeat Tau."

These days, the village of Tau is down on the flat and, as we walked back down the steep, winding path - once marked only with secret signs cut into the tree bark, but today lined with white stones - Ratu explained that the village had occupied three sites over the centuries.

First there was the cave. Then when Fiji became more peaceful, a traditional village was built at the bottom of the limestone outcrop. And finally, as the village grew in size, it shifted to its present site where there was more flat land for expansion.

At one point, there was a limestone processing plant here and its huge abandoned chimney towered above the access track like an ancient temple.

When we reached the village, preparations for an important funeral were under way. The younger men were building a huge temporary shelter to accommodate the expected influx of visitors and the older women were setting out woven mats on the floor of the chiefly bure, distinguished by its traditional thatched roof and raised above the other houses to signal its occupant's higher status.

A silver-headed patriarch explained, through my Tourism Fiji guide Thomas, that the funeral was for a high-ranking man who had been about to be installed as the village chief when he unexpectedly died. Then he told a youngster to take me to the bure where the women enthusiastically posed for photos and then unrolled the huge tapa cloth made in the dead man's honour.

After that, I was invited into the village's meeting hut to join the older men for a few bowls of kava followed by a feast: delicious fish in a wonderful coconut milk, onion and chilli sauce, coconut cream wrapped in young taro leaves, cassava, chicken and slices of mango.

As I ate, the kava drinkers kept calling out - according to Thomas - "Eat more, eat more", but there was still masses of food left when I stopped.

"Sorry I can't eat it all," I told the smiling woman presiding over the food. "That's all right," she replied. "The men will finish it off when they stop drinking kava."

>> Read more travel stories.

Topics:  fiji travel travelling

Stay Connected

Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.

Lockyer Dirt Track Kart Club back on track for new year

CELEBRATIONS: Members of the Lockyer Dirt Track Kart Club at their final meeting of 2016 in December.

The club is gearing up for the first meet of 2017 on February 12.

Lockyer Valley Council searches for signs of unusual crime

STOLEN: A Lockyer Valley Regional Council sign promoting Australia Day was stolen from a billboard along the Warrego Highway at Prenzlau. Pictured is an example of what the 6x3m vinyl sign shows.

Lockyer Valley Regional Council's Australia Day sign was stolen.

New sign in Lowood for natural disasters

Member for Ipswich West, Jim Madden, with the new LED sign for Lowood.

A new sign in Lowood will help in emergencies.

Local Partners

'What a wonderful 40 years'

AN EMPLOYEE working anywhere for the majority of their life is extraordinary, and Nancy Murray is no exception.

Puppetry of the Penis secrets revealed ahead of show

The famed Puppetry of the Penis is coming to the Sunshine Coast for shows in Noosa and Caloundra.

WARNING: This interview contains adult themes and traces of nuts

Noll meltdown won't affect Gympie Oz Day concert

Shannon Noll

Photo Contributed

Shannon Noll is still expected to perform in Gympie next Thursday

The surprising problem police face at Woodford Folk Festival

STREET SCENE: Woodford Folk Festival 2016.

The biggest issue for police at Woodfordia is not what you'd expect

Madonna hopes for election unity

Madonna hopes Donald Trump's election will "bring people together"

JK Rowling rules out Cursed Child trilogy

JK Rowling has ruled out a 'Cursed Child' movie trilogy

Buckley's chance in psychological thriller

James McAvoy and Betty Buckley in a scene from the movie Split.

Broadway veteran back on big screen with James McAvoy

Daniel MacPherson: acting’s a bit like channel surfing

Australian actor Daniel MacPherson in a scene from the American TV series APB.

THE Aussie export talks about making his mark in the US.

Shopping isn't fun if you can see dead people

Lisa Marie Woodham will be giving readings in Gladstone until Saturday January 21.

Shopping isn't fun if you can see dead people

Buderim man strips off for speed dating with a twist

RAW AMBITION: Buderim local Jackson pictured with his blind date Candice in a scene from SBS's new dating show Undressed.

People have done stranger things for love

By the water's edge

Secure your seachange

HOT PROPERTY: Money to spend on land, buildings

File picture.

Sale, leasing of industrial real estate picks up in Mackay

Collapsed Coast company could owe up to $5 million

Staff, ATO, landlords among those out of pocket.

Ipswich block of dirt sells for $582 a square metre

JUST SOLD: A property on the Brookwater golf course sold for a record-breaking $612,000.

Property smashed 2007 record by close to $100,000

Sunday auction for historical home

Former Catholic school sure to attract spirited bidding

Ready to SELL your property?

Post Your Ad Here!