The orange glow of the setting sun is reflected in the towering cliffs ahead. Darkness is gathering, and as the narrow road winds around another corner I wonder if we'll find the village we're looking for before dark.
Five hours ago we landed at Nadi Airport - Fiji, ready to begin a two week-long cycle touring holiday around Viti Levu, Fiji's main island. Our hastily packaged bikes survived the baggage handlers and after an hour of putting them back together outside the arrivals lounge we pedalled off into the sticky 30 degree heat in the direction of Fiji's second-largest town, Lautoka. It's market-day and the main road was hectic with buses, trucks, and the occasional cow.
From New Zealand we had ambitiously booked our first night to stay with a local family in a remote village on the fringe of Fiji's highlands. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but Abaca (pronounced am-bath-a), wasn't making itself evident and I was beginning to think we might meet our fate in the local tribe's cooking pot.
Thankfully the steep, stony road starts to flatten out, and finally we see a light in the distance. Relief! As we pedal the last few hundred metres up to the entrance we hear welcoming voices. By torchlight our hosts show us into the quiet village.
Abaca is on the edge of Koroyanitu National Heritage Park. The local villagers, with the help of government and regional incentives, have set up a grass-roots eco-tourism operation whereby tourists can visit the national park and stay in the village with local families - eating their food and sleeping under the same roof. It's a genuine cultural experience that is hard to beat.
After signing into the national park with the village chief we were shown to the small corrugated iron bure that we would be sharing with a family for the night. The hut is home for a family of eight people - over three generations. In total 86 people live in the village, in 14 houses and everyone belongs to the same family. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the bure, we share soup with breadfruit. Questions circulate as we talk of home and compare lifestyles.
After the meal Hana and I are offered the hut's only bed - a wooden bench with a thin mat, wide enough for two. It's normally reserved for the grandmother but as guests we are in no position to decline. The rest of the family lies down directly on the flax mat covered floor. All that's needed to keep off the cool night air is a single sheet and before long we are in a deep sleep. After sharing breakfast with the family and exploring the village we depart mid-morning - eager to discover more of Fiji. The village is at about 500 metres above sea level. The morning light reveals verdant jungle and an island interior of steep rolling hills- not unlike the topography of Canterbury's Banks Peninsula.
Our circuit of the Kings Road, Fiji's main highway, takes us anti-clockwise around Viti Levu and we knock out 60 - 80 km most days. Villages are small, but pass frequently and everywhere the locals are friendly. Bula, Fiji's standard greeting is forever part of our vocabulary.
As we pass from the western side ofthe island to the east, the mangroves and sugar cane fields give way to lush jungle and greater humidity. The Kings Road heads inland, following the wide and murky Wainibuku River. The road turns to dirt and the power lines stop. This is a quieter, more remote part of Fiji, despite being on the national highway, and cycling along beside the river is very scenic.
At the end of a long day we crest the top of a windy dirt-road climb and enter the small village of Dakuivuna. A congregation of villagers are pounding yagona root (kava) with a giant mortar and pestle outside the bus stop. We stop to ask if there is anywhere to stay. It turns out there is accommodation about 16 km down the road. As we make the decision to carry on, oneof the villagers asks us if we'd like to stay with him for the night. It's an offer we'd been hoping for and we gratefully accept. After dropping our bikes at his house (a corrugated iron hut), his kids take us to clean up at the local swimming hole.
In the evening we are fed, sedated with kava, and given a spot to sleep on the floor of the house. We are blown away by the generosity of our host Ben, who clearly owns very little. 13 children and twoadults live in hishouse. As we prepare to leave in the morning we offer Ben money for the food, but he won't accept it. We came to Fiji knowing that sevu sevu (donations) are customary, so offer him some toys we've carried for giving to children. We leave feeling humbled by the kindness of this family.
Half a day further on, we roll into Nausori for lunch and that night stay at a tourist lodge in the hills above Suva. For the first time we feel at risk from traffic on our bikes, and at times opt for the footpath to avoid the narrow, vehicle-choked road. Beyond Suva the hilly road quietens,and we enjoy flashes of golden sand and palm trees as we enter the Coral Coast. Tourist accommodation is more common here and it's almost a surprise to see Europeans again after the almost tourist-free northern half of the island. We base ourselves at a budget resort for a few days, only a long day's ride separating us from Nadi and the flight home.
Fiji is an excellent choice for a 10-day (or longer) cycle touring trip. Although golden sand beaches and warm water are nice when you've come from a New Zealand winter our conclusion was that Fiji is not a country you go to for the scenery or the food - for us the most enduring memories will be of the warm and generous people we met and the random interactions with locals that took place in the villages we stopped in.