The Natives were Friendly

Leonard Lea Frazer

(1840 to today)

“Each island had its own peculiar beauty, and the eyes as well as mind felt more satisfaction in resting upon Ovalau, which, as we approached, had more of the appearance of civi-lization about it than the others; it is also the highest, most bro-ken, and most picturesque.’’

— Charles Wilkes, U.S.N. -1840

Sailing into the heart of Fiji’s Lomaiviti Group, a three-ship squadron, led by Commander Charles Wilkes, fol-lowed the western coast of Ovalau in a northerly direction. Eminent volcanic peaks, draped with a lush green tropical cov-ering that fell to the sea, cast their shadows on the cannibal inhabitants.

At last, an opening through one of the island’s protective reefs was located and the lead ship, U.S.S. Vincennes, entered into the shelter of Levuka’s “coral harbor”. An anxious crew watched the island shore in front of that primitive village. Suddenly an overpowering cho-rus of applause reached out to the men from a massive gathering of bare-skinned natives. The sailors of the Vincennes, dressed all in white, ran up the rigging and furled the sails. The ship glided slowly across the calm turquoise water into an anchorage position as the natives flowed like lava onto the beach.

When Harry and Gwen Partridge, of Valemount, arrived on the Island of Ovalau during the 1980s, they experienced a similar first impression of Fiji and its indigenous people. One hundred and forty years had passed since the arrival of Wilkes’ early American exploring expe-dition on the chores of Ovalau. When Harry and Gwen arrived they flew from Fiji’s capital city of Suva, in a nine-seat, Twin Otter aircraft. From out of a coastal coconut grove, below, a tiny opening had appeared and the plane landed on the Bureta airstrip. Soon the Golden Age couple was standing on the dirt tarmac, suitcases in hand. They had come to Ovalau to visit my parents, Leagh and Norah Frazer, who had retired there, 10 years earlier.

The Partridges spied a small group of male Fijians standing by the one-room “Fiji Air” building at the edge of the landing field. Harry was looking for any familiar faces in the crowd. He found none. Then, the group of natives started walking towards Harry and Gwen in an aggressive manner. Harry was concerned. The men were talking in a strange language. They kept say-ing, “BULA! BULA! BULA!”

“Do something,” demanded Gwen, as she cowered behind her husband and his suitcase. “Harry, for God’s sake, ask them what they want!”

Harry stepped forward and bravely addressed the Fijians. “Say there,” he remarks, “We’re looking for Leagh Frazer.”

By now the senior couple was completely surrounded by natives. One of the group stepped up to Harry and asked, “Mr. Leagh?”

Harry was amazed. “Yes,” he answered. “Mr. Leagh. Leagh Frazer.”

“Oh yes,” said the man, “We have come to collect your baggage and take you to Mr. Leagh.” (Fijians have trouble pronouncing “Frazer”) Then he repeated the strange Fijian words, “BULA, BULA, ni sa bula? This means hello and how are you?” he explained, “Welcome to Ovalau!”

In just a few short minutes Harry and Gwen were off in a big truck to begin a tropical adventure and visit with their Canadian friends.

Yes, folks, the natives were friendly. The group at the Bureta airstrip had been waiting for three days for Harry and Gwen’s arrival. But the long wait was not so unusual for Fiji and especially for Ovalau, a place where, some say, “time stands still.”

Ovalau, one of more than 300 islands in the Fijian archi-pelago, is a most unique South Sea traveler’s destination. The same protective coral reef, lush shoreline and mysteri-ous jungle peaks of the interior that were first sighted by early sailing ships, still welcome guests from abroad. The real metamorphosis, on Ovalau, today, comes to us in human form. The extraordinary transformation, from cannibals to Christians, has left the indigenous Fijians, a very giving race of people. Their village life is a simple, yet vibrant part of Fiji’s traditional culture.

Today’s travelers may choose to seek out and discover, as I did, a most fascinating South Pacific island.

Ovalau is an oval shaped island covering an area of 101 sq. km. The population during the mid 1980s was 6,660 with 88.3 percent indigenous Fijian and the remainder being made up of Chinese, East Indian, European and other South Sea island mixtures.

Levuka is still the only town on Ovalau (there are over 15 villages) and the time-warp factor is apparent. The wooden storefronts and sidewalk on Beach Street look very much as they did during Levuka’s early years.

Part of the dialogue from a recent promotional video on Levuka describes the old town in this way:  “In the turbulence of the early days, when Levuka was crowded with black-birders’, sandalwood gatherers, mer-chants, cotton growers and whalers, the town boast of more then 50 hotels and drinking bars.”

“It has been said that incoming ships could find their way through the reef passage by following the bobbing gin bot-tles.” The Royal Hotel is Levuka’s only hotel today.

Now, the boats that ferry passengers, vehicles and sup-plies to Ovalau arrive at Levuka’s port. Close by the main wharf, a modern tuna cannery, the Pacific Fishing Co., pro-vides work for 1,000 residents. Some of the $50 million (Fijian dollars) worth of fish canned each year in Levuka, eventually ends up in British Columbia supermarkets, through B.C. Packers.

Levuka’s residents are proud their town was once the original capital of Fiji. The new capital, Suva, was estab-lished in 1881, as Levuka offered limited expansion oppor-tunities. Levuka’s other “firsts in Fiji” include: First public school, opened in 1879; The Fiji Times newspaper, first published in 1869; first bank in 1876; first Masonic Lodge, opened in 1875; and first stone church in 1858 (the Church of the Sacred heart).

During the time (1820s) that wooden cargo ships sailed into Levuka’s natural harbor the sea-cucumber or sea-slug, an Oriental delicacy, was one of the main export items. For a short period of time cotton was grown and exported. Years later, coconut meat or “copra” was loaded on ships at Levuka and, still later, a shell button-factory was a local employer.

Today visitors to Ovalau arrive either by ferry at Levuka, from the large island of Viti Levu, or by small aircraft at the Bureta airstrip, from the Nausori Airport (near Suva). In Levuka and elsewhere on the island several levels of accommodation are available, from camping to guest hous-es, but visitors must be warned: On Ovalau there are no luxury hotel resorts with swimming pools and golf courses.

Ovalau offers travelers the opportunity to experience a slowed-down version of the South Pacific dream and a taste of the real Fijian culture.

Several boat trips and island tours are available. I would strongly recommend the overland hike from the coastal vil-lage of Draimba through the thick island jungle to Lovoni, an ancient village situated in the crater of a long extinct volcano, (you’ll need a guide for this one) The same trail was used by the fierce Lovoni people when, in 1841 they burned the township of Levuka and again when they raided Levuka in 1846, killing 400 natives in one hour.

By visiting Fiji today, one can absorb the excitement of cultural events such as native-dances, male and female choir singing competitions, traditional Fijian ceremonies and reef spear-fishing. On Ovalau, more isolated than the two main islands of Fiji, one can escape, transcend the “time barrier” and discover a paradise of your own.

Spear dancer performing at the model village of “Devokula” where traditional Fijian culture has been brought back to life.
Spear dancer performing at the model village of “Devokula” where traditional Fijian culture has been brought back to life.
 
Tapa cloth and a ceremonial fan. Tapa or “Masi” is made by pounding the bark of the mulberry tree. The fan, made from a palm frond, is waved over the body of a deceased person to keep flies away.
Tapa cloth and a ceremonial fan. Tapa or “Masi” is made by pounding the bark of the mulberry tree. The fan, made from a palm frond, is waved over the body of a deceased person to keep flies away.


A sunrise from the island of Ovalau. Both the sunrise and sunset here on Ovalau are incredible to watch and photograph.
A sunrise from the island of Ovalau. Both the sunrise and sunset here on Ovalau are incredible to watch and photograph.
 
A young Fijian girl models a “store bought” hula outfit. Dance in Fiji is called the “meke” where a line of male or female dancers sit or stand to perform.
A young Fijian girl models a “store bought” hula outfit. Dance in Fiji is called the “meke” where a line of male or female dancers sit or stand to perform.