It's a wet, soggy day as we bounce along the muddy dirt road from Sigatoka to Conua School, dodging potholes as we go. We pass two farmers riding horseback; one sporting a toothless grin. Further on, we see another farmer training two young bulls to use stocks. They all carry machetes. "For Fijian men, the machete is like a woman's handbag," Kini Sarai tells us. "Everyone has one." Kini points out an ancient Tongan fort high up in the hills overlooking the valley all the way to the Coral Coast where they first landed in the futile hope of expanding their territory. In the short distance we have travelled from the market town, I feel like we have wound back the clock 100 years.
We're travelling with Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort general manager Peter Hopgood and Kini, who is the five-star resort's activities manager. Seven years ago when the resort first approached Conua School, there were only 55 students. Hopgood was a guest at a ceremony on a rainy day. He was curious about why those in attendance stood to one side of the old hall, until it was pointed out that there were gaping holes in the roof. It was then a decision was made to help the struggling school.
Today, the school's numbers have swelled dramatically with 125 students and 25 kindergarten school children. Conua School not only boasts a large, dry meeting bure (built to cyclone-proof standards) but a new library, computer lab, and a newly opened kindergarten. The vastly improved primary school and its growing popularity is largely thanks to the resort's volunteer tourism initiative which not only benefits the small rural community of Conua but guests, the resort and staff, too.
It may be a rainy day in the thick of Fiji's cyclone season, but inside classrooms are clean and dry, and the welcome warm and friendly. We are ushered into various composite classes and introduced as special guests from Australia; thrilled when the students burst into song. Never have I heard such heartfelt renditions of Old MacDonald Had a Farm and If You're Happy and You Know It Clap Your Hands. My daughter Ella, 8, going on 9, and increasingly self-conscious, is blown away by the students' enthusiasm as they stand barefoot and proud, some in school uniform, others not, belting out songs in powerful harmony.
"What's been great is how guests that have visited the school have returned to help," Hopgood says as he shows us around. "We have young guests back in Australia fundraising to help the school, while last year the library was sponsored by an American guest."
The library is a heart-warming story. The American guest came to Fiji after her husband died. After visiting the school through one of the resort's community outreach programs, she decided to fund the refurbishment of the library because her late husband had been an avid reader. Today, the cosy library with its impressive collection of books is named after him, and is an inviting place for students to sit and read.
There are other inspiring stories, too. A father of one of the boys from Sydney's Newport Rugby Club, who visit the school annually and helped build a fence around the school's perimeter, organised the donation of laptops when the resort wanted to set up a computer room.
But my favourite story is of an Australian truck driver, a resort guest who came to Fiji for the first time with his wife and daughter. He has had a huge impact on the rural community. After two days lazing by the pool, the man signed up to the resort's community project at the school and got to work digging trenches. On the way there he saw a broken down tractor. He began chatting with a local man and volunteered to fix it. Every day for the rest of his holiday he returned to the village and worked on the tractor until it roared into action.
After returning home the man thought the farming community also needed a plough so they could make more of an income and, in turn, help the school. He asked around his home town in Victoria and, to his surprise, found plenty of unused agricultural equipment, including a plough sitting in a front yard as an ornament. The man collected everything from rakes, hoses, gumboots and a tractor, and paid for it all to be shipped to Fiji.
Chris Hamilton, the resort's executive assistant manager, said the voluntourism project is self-perpetuating. "The more we do, the more we get back," he says. "The community are happy, locals want to work for us because of the outreach work we do; it's great for marketing and it's a fantastic experience for guests with many saying it's the highlight of their holiday. All round, it's a win, win, win."
Construction will begin soon on two new classrooms at Conua School to help accommodate the growing roll. Apart from helping the school, the 16-year-old resort has opened a (well used) maternity ward, operating theatre and provided ophthalmology equipment for an eye clinic at Sigatoka District Hospital. It has also built a bus shelter in a remote village, is building a helipad at the hospital, opened a fish farm and upgraded Korotogo Police Station.
"We seriously feel that we are a part of this community and, speaking personally, it has been a great joy to watch these children grow and develop," Hopgood says. As Ella and I watch him chatting with some of the happiest school kids we have ever met, I would say the feeling is mutual.
Sheriden Rhodes was a guest of MyFiji.
MyFiji offers exclusive holiday packages to Outrigger Fiji Resort. Currently, it is offering a discounted package priced from $2090 a person including return flights with Fiji Airways from Sydney and Brisbane (slightly higher from other Australian hubs), eight nights in a deluxe ocean view room and $2000 in bonuses. Bonuses include a $FJ1000 wine, dine and spa credit, one of three tours, Mei Mei nanny package or two, one-hour Bebe Spa treatments, MyFiji VIP Concierge Services and transfers plus kids stay, play and eat free. Guests also receive a MyFiji beach bag including cap, beach ball and Pure Fiji gift pack. Book by March 31, 2017. For more information phone 1300 788 668. See myfiji.com/outrigger-fiji-beach-resort
Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort guests can visit the project on Tuesdays or Thursdays. It costs $FJ100 for adults and $FJ60 for children. The full-day excursion includes return transport to the school, lunch and a visit to the Tavuni Hill Fort on the way home.
FIVE MORE WAYS TO HELP FIJI
A portion of every entry fee to a lush plantation where actor Perry Mason once grew orchids, goes to the Fiji Society of the Blind. The visit is part of MyFiji's Nadi Cultural Heritage Tour (run by Tour Managers) which visits the Garden of the Sleeping Giant (the orchid garden), Viseisei Village, a Hindu temple and the Sobeto Hot Springs and Mud Pool. See MyFiji.com
Guests of the Shangri-La's Fijian Resort and Spa on the Coral Coast can help preserve and build the fragile coral reef ecosystem with the help of a marine biologist. See shangri-la.com/en/property/yanucaisland/fijianresort
Radisson Blu Fiji guests can help local school children through its Adopt a School program. The Denarau resort runs school tours every Friday (guests can either make monetary donations or bring school supplies and sporting equipment). It also runs fun, weekly fundraising events, and places a small (voluntary) charge on guest accounts upon check-out to fund school projects. See facebook/Radisson-Blue-Fiji-Adopt-a-School
Vinaka Fiji runs three volunteer programs in the Yasawa Islands – an education program (working one-on-one and with groups of children to assist with learning difficulties, in particular reading English); a sustainable communities program (working within remote island villages to help establish basics such as a clean and sustainable water supply); and a marine conservation program (especially suited to scuba divers and snorkellers with hands-on tasks to protect the marine environment). The Vinaka Fiji base camp is Barefoot Manta Resort where volunteers can snorkel spectacular coral reefs with manta rays, hike to lookouts, laze on the beach and enjoy the resort facilities in their spare time. See vinakafiji.org.fj
Competitors in AccorHotels Fiji Race to Survive to Cure Kids raise money for life-saving work in Fiji. Since the inaugural 2006 event (and every two years since), AccorHotels staff and supporters have raised more than $FJ2.5 million for Cure Kids Fiji, which conducts rheumatic heart disease screening of Fijian children. The charity has bought neonatal and paediatric intensive care equipment, and funded annual visits by kidney specialists and medical teams who carry out cleft palate and harelip surgeries. Last year competitors in the gruelling five-day event also installed water tanks at the remote Kesa Village in the Yasawa Islands following Cyclone Winston. See facebook.com/racetosurvivefiji
Listen: Flight of Fancy - the Traveller.com.au podcast with Ben Groundwater
Australia vs the world: Rules and cultural misunderstandings
To subscribe to the Traveller.com.au podcast Flight of Fancy on iTunes, click here.