Ba; gateway to the Fijian highlands; "Don't go out after dark"-Ba.
Ba Hotel, staff bunk room. Slept in my mossie net. Inadequate fan. Constant
covered by film of sweat. Troubled dreams. Woke at 6am. Someone tried
to enter, but I had barricaded the unlockable door with a pipe.
Eggs on toast for breakfast; not enough so topped up with 90cent wheatgerm
cookies. Chewy not crunchy. Got directions from receptionist, indicated
from picture of Ba in 1947. "The roundabout wasn't there in 1947. Go straight
ahead. You'll see the sugar mill. Take the "feeder road." Ask from there….
Through the town of surprisingly crammed-together shops; S.Kumar, Courts,
Chand's Grant's, Billimoria, Shiu's….no indigenous Fijian names in
sight…fastfood, clothes, wedding cards, bookmakers, sportswear, sarety
equipment……..past an open cafe with a big concrete Adidas football
with one door and no windows, closed; across a small tree-lined river,
where I'd seen a kid fishing the evening before, past a big mosque financed
by the Muslim league, out of the grasp of the shopping zone, past a monument
of the globe (4ft. diameter) on a pair of hands, to "that" roundabout
and across a sugar-train railway. "Don't cross the big river," I'd been
instructed. So I didn't. I didn't actually see it. I did see the sugar
mill and stopped to reconfirm the left turn with a friendly looking character.
The only character in sight.
Along the young-sugar-lined strip of tarmac I spun, meeting only the occasional
"carrier" (taxi pick-up with a usually-green canopy) or bus or car, until
the tarmac gave up after 6Km. I then had to choose my line more carefully
over rocks of varying sizes. So I was less able to heed the Mynah birds
(often perched on cattle or goats), small green birds with scarlet beaks,
white birds with crowns, and over-everything-see-everything kites.
I saw a mongoose streak across the road and dive in to the undergrowth
and tehn dolphin-leap in and out of the grass beyond till hidden. It brought
to mind snakes, but a football referee I met told me there were none here.
Nor dangerous spiders. [More recently I learned that the mongooses (mongeese?),
now very common, were introduced to do away with the snakes in the sugar
I gingerly crossed two or three rickety bridges; sugar-railway in the
middle and precarious wooden planks on either side with yawning, bike-wheel-gauge
gaps between. And no barriers to prevent a plunge into cloudy water below,
should I get snagged in a groove.
The gradient stayed friendly for a while. I created my own breeze and
couldn't feel the heat of the day building. Skirting a patch of tennis-ball-grade
stones, I swung to the edge of the road at one point and instantly a cloud
of tiny, yellow butterflies took form around me, off the still-moist mud.
I gave an involuntary exclamation something like a child does when watching
A few undulations gave views over the tops of the sugar cane, and the
odd rice paddy of peppermint green took part in the landscape. The land
beyond was lumpy, with aggressive escarpments and formidable heights overlooking
A fork in the road just after a police post was the signal to hang a right.
The duty officer inside called out, and I stopped to pay my respects to
an Indian-looking, young man in immaculate uniform. From a house behind
came a guy with what looked like a Sheffield United football shirt (red
& white stripes) on, and he beckoned me in to join him for a juice. Somebody
stop me!! I took the shade, and the weight off my legs, on a bench under
his carport outside his tin-roofed, concrete-block house. His father appeared,
and they introduced themselves as the Singhs from Punjab, though both
had been born in Fiji.
A cold jug of reconstituted orange juice loosened our tongues and I learned
that footy-shirt Singh was a footy referee (yes, the one of the mongoose
story) recently returned from a tournament in NSW, Australia. Indeed reffing
had taken him to many countries, and many more were planned. He also told
me about his sugar plantation and how a sizeable cyclone could third his
yield (from 350tons to 100) because of flooding. Harvest would be in November,
pesticide- and fertilizer-application was over and now just the growing
was to be done. So not much work to do. Waving goodbye, I said hello to
a road which was in a livelier mood as it lifted itself from the lowland
and presented a view of the Pacific; a narrow line of blue. And of clouds
threatening the tops over to left and right.
A horseman had to rein his horse hard to verge to prevent it spooking
at my own little iron pony.
Then the road got downright angry and bared its teeth with some vicious
ups. No zig-zag nonsense, just wall-like…er….walls. Fortunately
most (though unfortunately not all) of the steeper bits were surfaced
at least intermittently. And the heat struck. I dripped profusely, though
I hardly noticed as I glued my attention onto picking the best line.
Another horseman did the same as the last, but reached out his hand to
BULA! (Meaning Hello. Or literally; Life!)
Up and Down. Up and Down, etc etc. Fighting both. But there were plenty
of kind bus-shelters or meeting-spot shade-trees to seek refuge from the
high sun under.
In my hesitation to knuckle down to one scary climb and probably push
due to loose surface, I was preyed upon by an unusually belligerent Indian
guy and his obedient son, who commandeered me with the magic word, "Juice!"
ordering his daughter into the bushes for guava fruit and his son up a
palm for a coconut. There was no refusing his "offer" of a few paces on
ride on his horse either. Neither for me nor for the bony horse. My tender
bum bones rebelled, however, at the attempted separation by equine spine.
Growing gloom indicated a looming deluge and I had to cut short that encounter,
or else be truly trapped. Mercifully only the fringes of a shower doused
me. It cooled my overheating engine, but caused more rear-wheel slip and
posed new problems in my struggle with the steering.
The meat of the storms clung to the lofty scalps of green topped rock
which formed the arena for my unobserved, final battle of the day. White
foam streamers unfurled down the vertical stone faces in the upper tiers,
demanding that I elevate my gaze riskily from the road. Triumphantly rounding
a bend and a summit, a sight greeted me, the likes of which must have
struck the first occidental explorers with fear, trepidation, fascination,
wonder and excitement. A village of neatly ordered, large, thatched huts
with walls of woven panels, presented itself shyly from within a shield
of steamy, forest vapours. Tantalising, half forboding, half inviting.
Waiting, but unaware.
I observed from my vantage point and took time out to revel in my explorer's
illusion. My only advantage was surprise.
But this village was distinctly on the map and described in the guide
for the rough and lonely to the Centre of the Middle of Nowhere. And all
I would need to prise open the gates and maraud about their doorsteps,
would be F$15. Kind of takes the shine off the experience, but really
I wouldn't swap centuries with my predecessors.
On the descent to the wide river that guarded the hill on which the village
crouched, a horseman with an attention-grabbing machete, unsheathed and
in hand, greeted me , coming towards me. But he paid me little more regard
when I wouldn't wait for him to return from god-knows-where to guide me
Navala has a wire (some of it barbed) fence surrounding it, and a main
gate. Whether to keep people, horses and dogs in or out, I wasn't sure.
I shook hands with a few men who introduced themselves whilst passing
through the gate, across a muddy track. Out of a very fastidiously maintained
"bure" (traditional house), which seemed to be neither in nor outside
the village, came a woman who promptly took control in an experienced
After the "Where are you from?" the "Where did you come from today?" and
astonishment at the how (most people with bikes have come up by carrier),
my host-in-the-making moved on to establishing my credentials; "You have
kava? You have $15 plus $15 village fee?...Then you will stay at our home.
We have looked after people with bikes before. It'll be safe here. Take
your bags off there. I'll help you carry them in. Then you can look around
the village. Of course you have your camera with you, yes? My husband,
Pio, is asleep right now. You'll drink grog with him later on…"
"What about meeting the chief?" I questioned, hopefully, trying my best
to pronounce his Fijian title given in the guidebook. "We haven't had
a chief for twelve years," she said, matter of factly.
"Why's that then?"
"We just haven't decided to."
I couldn't argue with that, however shot-down-in-flames I felt. I needed
to save the argument for getting a shower before my tour, and for declining
to take one of the "young, single and beautiful Navala girls," who I was
told on the tour were in plentiful surplus.
But first for sweat-removal in the open air, open-for-viewing, cool, village
shower, and a lie down on a good straw-mat floor.
Location: Suva, Fiji Islands
Subject: Take Me To Your Chief