Up to speed with the locals

The last thing Katrina Lobley expects after a wild river ride is to be welcomed as one of the family.

Their farewell undoes me. One minute I'm thinking what fun it has been hanging with the residents of Mavua, a remote village along the Sigatoka River, which snakes from the heart of Viti Levu, Fiji's largest island, to the coast, where its sediments have piled into towering dunes. Over several hours, I've drunk kava from the same coconut shell as them, been fed, serenaded, even been caught up in a little wild dancing inside the community hall.

Then comes the unexpected moment: we're urged to stand for the finale and mimic the seated villagers' movements. When they wave goodbye, we wave back. It's hard to know what gets me: the faces smiling just minutes earlier that now look genuinely glum, the soaring voices filling the hall and carrying on the perfumed breeze or simply the wrench of leaving a new "family". Whatever it is, I'm the most surprised person in the hut when my throat tightens, tears well and it's all I can do to keep it together.

It's this sort of warm communal embrace that changed the life of Jay Whyte, the former Sydneysider who began Sigatoka River Safari in 2006 so visitors could share what he experienced in Fiji as a 13-year-old. The teenage Whyte was holidaying in Fiji with his family and another in 1991 when he befriended Pita Matasau, a security guard at his hotel along Viti Levu's Coral Coast. Matasau eventually invited his constant shadow to his highlands village. The two families piled into a minivan for the bumpy two-hour drive to Draiba and felt transformed by their time there.

A year later, Whyte was enjoying a jet-boat ride in New Zealand when the lightbulb went on: why not blend the two experiences to give visitors to Fiji an adrenalin rush as they race along a river and an insight into traditional culture?

As Whyte grew into adulthood, he held on to that dream. He put his idea to Matasau, by now living in Geelong, and to village chiefs throughout the fertile Sigatoka Valley, known as Fiji's salad bowl. Keenly aware that too many visitors could lead to tourism fatigue (Whyte's brother is an anthropologist), his jet boats vary their visits among 14 villages strung along the shallow Sigatoka. Seven are visited during the wet season; the other seven during the dry.

The adrenalin rush starts long before the river, when a minibus driver fetches us from the Sofitel Fiji Resort & Spa on Denarau Island, once a mangrove swamp 10 minutes' drive from Nadi that's been filled and prettied up to house a string of luxury hotels, a marina and a golf course.

As we zoom south past sugar-cane farms, leaning power poles (a deadly cyclone swept through here five days earlier) and stalls selling pineapples, mangos and freshwater mussels from the Sigatoka, the exuberant rally-style driving and overtaking make me increasingly tense. Halfway through the hour-long drive, the white-knuckled Las Vegas honeymooners next to me whisper that they're on edge, too.

We stop at safari HQ in Sigatoka, where we're breezily asked to come in and sign our lives away. Once the paperwork's done, women receive a sarong to wear while in the village. Back in the bus, it's another 15 kilometres from town to boat ramp. Hang on.

Our tattooed, bandanna-wearing jet-boat driver fancies himself as a Fijian Johnny Depp, asking us to call him Captain Jack Sparrow. He promises not to drench us until the return trip, so we can keep our cameras out. There's plenty to snap: children frolicking along the shore, grown-ups fishing, washing and lolling, horse-riders ambling through shallows, a farmer leading bullocks to water. After twisting upstream past mountains and grassy fields, and with the sun sparkling on the water like a handful of scattered diamonds, we turn back and make for Mavua.

They know we're coming: it looks like half the village is waiting on the bank, along with resident guide Gus wearing a flower behind each ear.

We remove our hats in the village while Gus shows women how to knot the ankle-length sarongs at one hip. He urges us to take as many photos as we like as we're shown the two avenues of houses (greeting everyone with a hearty bula, or hello), the pewless Methodist church where everyone sits on lino for Sunday services, the lali drum - a hollowed log - beaten to summon the 150 residents to important occasions and, finally, the corrugated-iron community hall.

Inside, our group's "chief", Wayne - who runs a scaffolding business in Tannum Sands in Queensland - hands a ceremonial bunch of kava roots to the villagers sitting cross-legged at one end. It's blokey in here but in a good way. Elders lean against walls cradling babies and toddlers in their laps. We're shoeless at the other end on woven straw mats.

Kava powder is poured into a fabric bag and pummelled in water until it turns the same muddy shade as the Sigatoka. Before receiving a shell of kava, villagers adorn us with leis and wipe baby powder down our cheeks. The explanation is we'll be treated as though we're one of their babies: with tender loving care. The special care starts with the kava: a mix that's only slightly mouth-numbing.

The women in the corner who've been flicking tea towels at flies lay out their wares: fried eggplant, beans, boiled taro and cassava, wilted greens with tuna in coconut milk, platters of fruit, jugs of juice. Fingerbowls arrive which means, yes, the dining is with fingers, not forks.

With lunch over, tablecloths are cleared from the floor to make way for formal introductions. The Mavuans want to know names, professions, where we're from. Occasionally, they ask women if they're married or single. Those who nurse, teach or work in tourism generate rumbles of approval (one villager thumps his heart when the Vegas newlywed says she's a teacher). Silence greets news that one of us is a "project manager".

Now we know each other, it's time to boogie. Villagers who are musically inclined strum acoustic guitars or tiny ukuleles and the vocally gifted raise their voices as one. The rest of the villagers grab us as dancing partners.

A matron starts a wacky conga line that snakes outside the hall and back in again. She makes us sit, wave our hands in and out and shake them all about, before flopping backwards on to the floor to signal the end of the shenanigans. We're all out of breath, laughing at her craziness. We've fallen hard for our new Fijian family.

Katrina Lobley travelled courtesy of V Australia and Sofitel Fiji Resort & Spa.


Getting there

V Australia flies to Nadi non-stop from Sydney (3hr 55min) for $290. Air Pacific flies non-stop from Melbourne (4hr 40min) for $290. Fares are one way including tax.

Touring there

Sigatoka River Safari runs tours (pictured above) on Monday-Saturday at 8.30am and 1pm from the Coral Coast for $FJ210 ($118) adults and from Nadi or Denarau Island for $FJ230, including transfers from hotels. See sigatokariver.com.

Staying there

The 282-room Sofitel Fiji Resort & Spa faces Nadi Bay and claims it has the Pacific's largest lagoon-style pool, with a children's waterslide at one end. There's also a watersports centre, shopping arcade, indoor and outdoor dining and an oceanfront spa. Rooms from $FJ309, see sofitel.com.