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Written By : SUN FIJI NEWSROOM. Oh, Ovalau
Relax, time has stopped in Fiji’s colourful first European settlement
By PHILIP GAME
writing for the Sun-Herald
The Twin Otter descends over the unspoilt forests and mangroves of Ovalau, a verdant island formed by a volcano. The golden light of early evening infuses the grassy landing strip. Taxis hover in a clearing from beyond which a gravel track winds into the grass. This is going to be my kind of place. Weaving around the coast road for nearly an hour, the minibus bumps past the unscreened lights of huddled hamlets before we pull up at colonial-era weatherboard shopfronts along the Levuka waterfront.
Fiji’s first European settlement is a 19th century trading port preserved in aspic, a veritable Cannery Row whose lifeblood is the stream of fresh-caught fish disgorged into the cannery, the only substantial employer. Today it’s a peaceable community whose bloodlines blend Melanesian, Polynesian, European, Indian and Chinese.
Hopes for the future rely heavily on the town’s application for World Heritage listing as a drawcard for visitors.
In the 1870s Levuka was a boisterous haven for hardliving planters, whalers, traders and sailors. Where one hotel remains – the Royal, Fiji’s oldest – there were once 52 scattered down Beach Street.
It’s Saturday night fever – Disco Nite at the Ovalau Club, an antiquated colonial watering hole. Hell-raisers step into a stark room of tongue-and-groove planking and unpolished floorboards. A few sepia portraits of naval officers and their commands, of George VI, his Queen and their young princesses, are joined by the faded pennants presented by visitors.
To order a Bounty rum or a Fiji Bitter we must squeeze into a rather forbidding hatch. Half a dozen crewmen march through the door in fresh-pressed T-shirts and jeans. One swaggers up to an island matron of uncertain age with dark tresses falling to her waist, ankle-length Mother Hubbard dress and vaguely Polynesian features. For 10 minutes they rock and roll to the beat of the ghetto blaster, until she retreats, giggling, to the comfort of familiar faces.
By 10pm I call it quits and stroll back down the lane to the seclusion of my unadorned room at the Royal Hotel. Downstairs, the main bar echoes emptily, in spite of the complimentary three-legged bowl of yaqona (Fijian kava) on the bar.
The sun rises over Wakaya, a distant island graced by an exclusive resort. Fleetingly the light illuminates the peachy pinks and lemon yellows of the weatherboard shopfronts on Beach Street. Simple colonial architecture includes the police station and Nasova House, once a governor’s residence, with their top-hinged windows propped open. In the window of the old Morris Hedstrom trade store sits the Fiji Times printing press from the days of Ratu’s short-lived kingdom.
Up the coast road the white Italianate cupola of the Bishop’s Tomb commands a spur between two bays, while St John’s College, erected in 1894, stands amid the playing fields.
The history of Lovoni, a village at the centre of the island, is unparalleled in Fiji. Never defeated in war by the great 19th century chief, Ratu Cakobau, (pronounced `Thakombau’), its people were subdued by treachery and sold into slavery. Around the coast, the costumed warriors of Devokula cultural village welcome visitors – but never on Sundays.
Just up the beach the white-bearded, Austrian-born Arnold Ditrich, a post-war immigrant who found Australia too hectic, tends his 20 hectares of kava bush while his wife and daughter very capably manage the Whale’s Tale, Levuka’s smartest cafe (Yep, Levuka’s only smart cafe).
Twenty-four hours later and again we’re watching that golden light fade, waiting for the plane. Any serious delay means another overnight lay-over. Yes, I could cope with that.
Getting there Air Pacific operates nine daily services to Nadi. See www.airpacific.com. Pacific Sun and Northern Airline flights depart Nausori, 20 kilometres north of Suva, daily. Staying there Levuka Ovalau Tourism Association lists plenty of options. See www.levukafiji.com. Levuka Homestay is run by Australians John and Marilyn Milesi. See www.levukahomestay.com. More information Ovalau Watersports offers diving, kayaking, cultural tours and low-key resorts. See www.owlfiji.com.
This feature is part of a special promotion from the Sun-Herald and Fiji Islands Visitor Bureau.