ALL it took was a whisper on the breeze. Little more than a rumour. But that was enough.
Land needed to be cleared, shelters erected, floral decorations created, colourful straw baskets and shell jewellery made for the market, celebratory music and dancing organised, not to mention a formal welcome.
Had United Nations ambassadors been arriving, they would have been greeted with no greater joy or hospitality than that awaiting us. We just didn't know it yet. Had we known, we would have at least dressed for the occasion in our best sulus. Captain Cook Cruises' first ever circumnavigation of Fiji's second-biggest island, Vanua Levu, in June in the MV Reef Endeavour had been five years in the making.
Captain Chris Marshall told the 70 passengers at the first night's welcome dinner that we were on an adventure and, to a certain extent, so was the Reef Endeavour crew. To his knowledge, no one had ever taken cruise passengers to the western side of Vanua Levu and so we were in somewhat “uncharted territory”.
Even CCC managing director Fiji Commander Semi Koroilavesau, who was instrumental in liaising with chiefs and putting together this Discovery Cultural Cruise, didn't quite know what to expect from each village visit or if we could keep to the daily schedule.
So here we were on the fifth day of the seven-night sojourn, exploring Vanua Levu's largest town, Labasa, with its thriving sugar cane industry, sprawling markets of fruit and vegetables, fish, poultry, goats and spices.
Lying on the delta of the Wailevu, Labasa and Qawa rivers, Labasa put on its friendliest face for the 120 passengers and crew, draping a red, white and blue welcome banner across the main road, sweeping streets, and putting on an Indian cultural show for our visit.
Police officers donned ceremonial uniforms. Colourful Fijian singing groups and young warriors greeted shoppers as they bought up big on handicrafts and souvenirs.
After returning to the ship for our buffet lunch and cruising the 70km down the coast to anchor just outside the mouth of the Dreketi River, the ship's schedule was running about an hour behind.
The tender boats finally hit the water about 4pm for the planned river safari – snaking part-way up Fiji's deepest river, which courses 65km into the island's interior with a majestic mountain backdrop. For the best part of an hour, we breathed in the fresh air and relaxed while being guided by the tall, thick mangrove vegetation and occasional stand of palm trees on either side of the bottle-green waters.
Just before sunset, we received word from our long boat up ahead that we were only two minutes from a village: Nabavatu.
Three days earlier, the villagers had heard that Captain Cook Cruises may pay them a visit.
Now they were ready for us – so ready that they had been awaiting our possible arrival since noon, five hours earlier.
They had prepared plates of breadfruit and fish “sandwiches” and waited patiently to welcome their first cruise ship tourists.
They wanted to show their appreciation to the company for having faith in Vanua Levu as a tourist destination and the opportunity to share their culture, sell their wares and invite new friends of the Pacific into their lives.
On arrival, we sat cross-legged on dried-grass mats under the newly erected shelter and watched the sevusevu ceremony as the locals curiously surveyed us from afar under the trees.
A little overwhelmed by the welcome, Reef Endeavour hospitality manager Florian Haber sincerely thanked the villagers before inviting us to mingle and talk to the locals.
Then the party started.
Western music bellowed from a sound system. Cherub-faced children surrounded us and took us by the hand for our first taste of breadfruit, washed down with tea and coffee.
Smiling mothers and grand- mothers with toothy “Bula” welcomes and ready hugs showed us market goods hanging from washing-line rope. We needed little encouragement to buy.
With no electricity and only lamps to light our celebrations, we let down our guard and allowed the love in that park to wash over us. As our procession of boats motored through the dark expanses of the river, with only the stars and three-quarter moon to guide us back to the ship, we shared melting moments in this amazing cross-cultural exchange.
I still smile when I recall dancing with the local police officer, Timothy, and being surrounded by a horde of children joining in a bum-slap dance.
We would be late back to the ship. But no-one cared.
As Florian commented when the last few exhausted but happy passengers took their seats at dinner: “Today, a 10-minute delay on (Sydney's) CityRail is a drama. But the dramas here turn out to be very special.”Our Dreketi River adventure was typical of the warmth, friendliness, and generosity we encountered from these people from the north.
Not only had we been welcomed into the Reef Endeavour family by a very special crew, we had been embraced by the Vanua Levu family, too.
SEVEN-NIGHT DISCOVERY CULTURAL CRUISE
THE next Captain Cook Cruises’ seven-night Discovery Cultural Cruise, circumnavigating Vanua Levu, is on August 2. Others this year will be held on October 4 and December 6, with the first for 2012 on February 7.
Early Booking Saver fares start from just $A1399 per person twin-share and include shipboard accommodation, all meals, guided village and island tours, glass-bottom boat excursions, on-board entertainment and use of the ship’s facilities including a swimming pool, spa, sauna, sun deck, cocktail bar and much more.
Air Pacific flies daily from Sydney to Nadi (from $468 return per person, excluding taxes) and Brisbane (from $448 return per person excluding taxes). For more information or to book your flight, call 1800.230.150 or visit Air Pacific.
In Nadi, stay at Novotel Nadi – a newly transformed four-star resort-style hotel.
The hotel is conveniently located 3km and only a few minutes from Nadi International Airport, Nadi Town, and Denaurau Island/Port for transfers. It is set among 17ha (42 acres) of stunning tropical gardens in the Namaka Hills.
As well as having 127 spacious rooms, the hotel offers an indoor/outdoor dining experience, Talei Bar, boutique shops and day spa, a nine-hole golf course, pool and tennis court.
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