“In the olden days…” our guide grimly begins the tour. In the olden days brings to mind dull stories of epic walks to school in the snow and drab tales of when Michael Jackson used to be cool. My mind automatically shuts down and ignores the words. Instead I take in my surroundings. The lush, dense, greens of the jungle surround us while our raft floats, peacefully for now, down the Upper Navua River on the island of Fiji. Limestone canyons, etched with lines of history, rise above us as the river winds in between. Shades of every green imaginable come in forms of bushes, bamboo, leaves, grass and bark. I gaze around for any birds or wildlife even while knowing that Fiji has very few wild animals to watch out for. There are no monkeys or jaguars or anacondas (although the movie of the same name was filmed on this exact river).
Instead, I marvel at the thousands of bamboos lining the river bank, its leaves creating cover from the sun. Mahogany trees are pointed out and I recall the extensive forestry we witnessed driving in with majestic deep red logs lying on the side of the road. We paddle swiftly through a Grade 3 rapid and laugh with joy as waves pour over us mercilessly. Seemingly endless waterfalls splash down the canyon wall and I feel as if I’m in an ad for a bottled water company.
“In the olden days,” our guide Moses continues, ignoring my apathy to his stories, “We ate each other!” Excuse me? We ate each other? Intrigued, I turn towards the back where Moses sits commandingly and want to hear more. Instead, he yells, “PADDLE!” Awkwardly, I turn back and clumsily attempt matching the rhythmic strokes of my two fellow rafters seated in front of me. We immediately hit a swell of water that pushes us into an exposed, rounded rock on the right. Leaning into the rock so as not to be dumped into the unforgiving water, the buoyancy of our raft bounces us off only to again be pummeled with a forceful, rolling wave. We paddle hard and fast and make it through the rapid with all on board. There are screams of delight and calls for more. But not from me. Instead, I gleefully inquire “You ate each other?”
Moses smiles and slowly, enticingly even, licks his lips. Sure, maybe he is simply licking a water droplet from his face but more likely he is eyeing up my boyfriend who has some good meat on his bones. At any rate, he goes on to tell us tales of cannibalism in Fiji. Tales of death, dismemberment and devouring the enemy that only ended 70 odd years ago. Apparently, eating your foe is the ultimate insult and thus, the ultimate victory. One incident occurred in the 1860’s when a missionary, Rev Thomas Baker entered one village and unknowingly insulted the chief by touching his head. This taboo was immediately punishable by death and so, the Reverend was killed and eaten in the same day. To add insult to the already heinous death, the chief and villagers even attempted to cook and eat Baker’s boots. The boots proved to be unpalatable to their discriminating taste buds however and have ended up in the National Museum of Fiji instead.
All ears now, we are regaled with stories of bamboo guns, wild boar chases, Possums tails used as fishing lines, and two wives sharing a husband pushing each other off an otherwise peaceful waterfall. Although it feels like mere minutes, my grumbling stomach tells me it is lunch time already. Shortly after, we duck into a side creek that is flowing into the Navua, paddle upstream, and go around a bend. There, another waterfall drops from the entangled forest above. The sun casts rays of light into the steady stream of water, creating what seems to be an angelic porthole into another land. I don’t test this theory mind you. I am perfectly happy exactly where I am.
We pull our raft onto the rocks and Moses whips out a fold-out table. He whistles for Peter, guide #2, who has paddled beside us in an inflatable kayak the entire journey but who is now missing in action. Moses, with two fingers expertly positioned at the lips, whistles again. I can’t help but wonder if this is not a call, rather a code for, “Quick Peter! Bring the cannibal forks. I’ve tired them out, they’re weak, and I’m starving!” Bal, my boyfriend, does not look worried. He crosses the river laughing and joking with Moses, who, I am certain, is glancing at Bal’s thick calves. I used to check out his calves for a different reason but now just wonder if they taste like chicken.
Soon, Peter catches up and paddles in. All too aware that my ass would provide a good, meaty meal, I firmly place it on a rock and refuse to move. While everybody else assists in bringing the coolers and food from the kayak to our table, I stay firmly seated. Once the buffet style lunch is set, I make sure there are no cannibal forks lurking about and proceed to make myself a delicious sandwich of fresh ham, cheese, tomatoes and cucumber. With no forks on hand and my stomach satiated, my paranoia ceases somewhat. It helps that peanut butter appears to be the new carnivores treat as our two guides heap it unrelentingly onto their buns.
The afternoon raft brings more captivating tales, stunning scenery and thrilling torrents of water. We jump out of the raft for a little body raft down the river. Later, we stop at one of the largest waterfalls encountered and walk underneath. Any tightness or tension still in my body from work stress, thoughts of bills, or even cannibal paranoia, evaporates as the water pounds vigorously on my neck and shoulders. The force is so intense my hair elastic and bobby pins are swept instantly from my head. From under this water, I throw up my arms in delight and laugh with pure joy, while unintentionally choking down an instant litre of water.
The raft trip ends at a tiny village 24km from where we started and I never did see a fork of any kind. I do, however, look forward to the day when I am telling my grandchildren about our trip to Fiji. I will pull out my long-pronged souvenir cannibal fork, lick my lips in delight and begin, “In the olden days, they ATE each other!”