Gone native, no bula

Local heroes: Natalei Eco Lodge bures.
Local heroes: Natalei Eco Lodge bures. 

Ben Groundwater delights in a traditional lodge where the everyday is unbeatable experience.

The hunt is on. Joshua is crouched over the rock pool, deep in concentration, sliding the stem of a palm frond into the water as he spits chunks of half-chewed coconut flesh onto the surface.

"Ffft, ffft, ffft," he spits, as the river burbles in the background and the jungle rustles around us. Joshua pauses and then, with surprising violence, rips the palm frond out of the water, throwing himself backwards in the process, landing on his back on the riverbank with the palm frond in the air.

Tourists in a nearby rock pool.
Tourists in a nearby rock pool. 

There's a moment of silence as he stares at the empty stem in his hand, and then he breaks into a huge Fijian smile and starts laughing.

"I missed him!" he chuckles, getting up to crouch over the pool again. "I will get him the next time."

We're hunting prawns; freshwater prawns that lurk under rock shelves in the jungle above Nataleira, a small village an hour north-west of Suva. The hunters are two local boys, Joshua and Joshua, who are teaching me the basics of the trade. Cut a palm frond, strip it to the stem, tie a loop at the end of it, then attempt to ensnare a prawn that has been enticed out of hiding with some chewed coconut.

Village children.
Village children. 

We found the coconut on the forest floor during our trek into the jungle. While the boys studiously chew and spit, chew and spit, I've been doing only the former, absentmindedly devouring most of our bait without realising what I'm doing. In fairness, it does seem at this point I'll get more sustenance from the bait than our catch.

Eventually the two Joshuas give up and we trek up through the river, scrabbling over boulders and wading through the water until we reach a large pool below a waterfall.

"What do we catch here?" I ask. One of the Joshuas grins. "Nothing! We swim."

Friend and unofficial guide Joshua.
Friend and unofficial guide Joshua. Photo: Ben Groundwater

The pair rip off their shirts and dive into the cool water, making their way over to the waterfall.

It's paradise here - a simple life where you hunt or forage for your food and share it with your fellow villagers. It's basic and beautiful.

We'll eventually catch some prawns today and then we'll collect some other sustenance from the forest which we'll wrap in a huge palm leaf and carry back down to Nataleira. The locals will laugh at the sight of me, the rookie white guy, carrying an armful of jungle bounty back into the village.

This isn't a typical Fijian resort, but it is a typical Fijian experience. I'm staying at Natalei Eco Lodge, a tiny place owned and run by the 200 or so people who call Nataleira village home. It's not a hotel so much as an experience. You're not paying for your room but for the lifestyle.

My guides and friends for the next two days, Joshua and Joshua, are not tourism industry professionals. They're just two local lads keen to help out. Their job is simple: let me tag along with them for a few days. I won't be sitting down for any cultural demonstrations. I won't be told what locals do here and I won't be shown what locals do. I'll actually do what locals do.

That began with prawn-fishing but there will be plenty more. There'll spear-fishing off the beach, there'll be kava-drinking, there'll be cooking, and there'll even be a rugby game, during which I'll be resoundingly embarrassed by a bunch of kids in bare feet.

Nataleira is one of those idyllic island villages that sits at the end of a rough dirt road, a place of green grass and small wooden houses abutting a black sand beach.

Chickens cluck around with free-range abandon. Kids play in a clearing. The two best-cared-for features in Nataleira are the shrines to its main religions: the local church and the rugby field.

My abode is a small hut, or bure, by the beach, a single room with a tin roof and a mosquito net hanging over the bed. Rather than be given a concierge, or a bellboy, or even a tour guide, I'm given a couple of friends. Joshua and Joshua, both 19, both dressed in clothes that have obviously been donated from countries far away, tap on the door of my bure as I sling my bag to the floor. "Ben," the first Joshua says shyly. "We are going to the jungle to catch prawns for your dinner. Do you want to come?"

Of course I do. So the three of us set off into the jungle, returning a few hours later with our haul of prawns and edible plants. While the lodge staff are cooking that, the Joshuas and I have more work to do: spear-fishing. The boys grab a couple of heavily barbed spears and we wander through the palm trees and out to that black-sand beach.

The water is warm as we wade out and search for prey. Unfortunately, there's nothing much around today and the sun is slowly easing its way towards storm clouds that have gathered far out on the horizon. One of the Joshuas looks up.

"Hey Ben, we're going to play rugby, do you want to come?"

Of course I do. The three of us ditch the spears and head into the village, stopping at the rugby field, where a game is already in progress. There must be about 40 players, young and old, playing a game of touch with no jerseys, no shoes and no rules. Actually, there's one rule: if you get touched you hand over the ball. This results in a free-for-all of wild passes and darting runs, the sort of flamboyant rugby for which Fijians are famous.

I spend that evening in a wooden hut with the Joshuas and one of their friends, Abraham, drinking kava and chatting about life and rugby. As with any traditional village, alcohol is not allowed in Nataleira, although an exemption is made for lodge guests.

I'm choosing to forgo that for drinking the traditional Fijian brew with my friends.

I'm woken early the next morning by a soft tap on the door. It's Joshua No. 1.

"Ben, we are going to see dolphins in the boat and then fish. Do you want to come?"

Of course I do. We set out on Fiji's calm waters in an old fibreglass boat captained by one of the local villagers and his seven-year-old son. It takes about an hour to get out to Moon Reef, home to a colony of spinner dolphins which we see breaking the water around us. Joshua and I dive into the warm water and swim with the pod before the captain calls us back to the boat. It's time to fish.

You get the feeling we're not doing this because it's an amazing tourism experience but because the captain and his son have to eat tonight. It's not long before all four of us are dragging colourful reef fish over the gunwales, leaving them flopping in a bucket, destined for the dinner table. The captain's dinner table, and mine.

At the village, Joshua and I carry our fish up to the lodge's kitchen.

"We are going to prepare the fish for your dinner," Joshua explains. "Do you want to come?"

Of course I do.

The writer was a guest of Tourism Fiji.

GETTING THERE

Fiji Airways has daily flights Sydney to Suva, via Nadi (four hours 15 minutes). Melbourne has daily flights via Nadi except Sundays. Return economy fares from $1158. See fijiairways.com. Damasumu Bus Company runs three services daily from Suva airport. Alternatively, Avis has rental vehicles from $30 a day.

STAYING THERE

Natalei Eco Lodge is in the village of Nataleira, about an hour's drive from Suva. The lodge has packages for $75 a person a night. nataleiecolodge.com.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

fiji.travel

THREE MORE REAL FIJI EXPERIENCES

LAWAKI BEACHHOUSE

Owned and run by a Fijian-Swiss couple, this eco resort on the island of Beqa is all about sustainability. The bures are simple affairs, with mozzie nets over basic beds, and there's room to pitch a tent. Meals are made from whatever can be harvested from the garden and the sea.

lawakibeachhousefiji.com

LEVUKA HOMESTAY

This colonial-style home in Fiji's old capital is run by an Australian couple, John and Marilyn Milesi. They provide the chance to experience life in Levuka, whether it's relaxing on the verandah with a cold drink or visiting the heritage-listed town a few minutes away.

levukahomestay.com

DANNY'S VILLAGE HOMESTAY

Set in a village on Viti Levu, just a few minutes' drive from some of Fiji's luxurious resorts, Danny's offers a chance to view the "real" Fiji. This is all about interacting with the community, from school tours and church services to sharing typically huge meals with your hosts.

fiji-budget-vacations.com/dannys-village-homestay-namatakula.

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