When most people think of Fiji, they think of crystal clear waters and white sandy beaches. The incredible coral and tropical fish beckon to divers while the constant breezes and friendly locals make tourists feel at home. Formally known as the Republic of Fiji, this truly is a friendly nation. The archipelago is centrally located amid the island groups of the South Pacific. To the east are Tonga and Samoa, to the northwest Vanuatu and the Solomons, New Caledonia lies to the southwest, and Australia to the west. Depending on how you define the word “island”, there are between 332 and 800-plus islands in the country. It’s also very diverse, with three official languages: English, Fijian, and Hindustani. Fiji is a veritable melting pot of indigenous Fijian, Indian, European, Chinese, and other nationalities all contributing to the flavourful mix. The Polynesian and Melanesian influences on the culture can be seen side by side with the ancient cultures of Asia and contemporary western influences. Land in the Fiji Islands is managed through three complementary systems- Native Land, Freehold land and Crown Land. Only Freehold land can be bought and sold. Native Land and Crown Land cannot be bought but is available on a leasehold basis, often with leases of up to 99 years. The greater Suva urban area is made up of Suva and the bordering towns of Nasinu, Nausori, and Lami. This area, known as the Suva-Nausori corridor, is home to over a third of Fiji’s population. Walking down Victoria Parade you may brush shoulders with Fiji National University students, Asian sailors, American Peace Corp workers, and Kiwi tourists. On the northern shore of Viti Levu, the largest and most populated island in Fiji, there is another population cluster around Lautoka, the Sugar City. Although many think that Sugar Cane was brought to Fiji by western explorers, it was actually already in use as roofing material when Europeans arrived.
Over 80% of Fiji is Native Land, and each village has its own protocols for hikers. Visitors interested in exploring the winding streams through the lush tropical rainforests can sometimes find themselves stymied by the varied requirements each locality has. Organized recreational groups, such as the Rucksack Club of Suva, have a list of contacts they have curated over the years. Serious trekkers can use the professional services of companies like Talanoa Treks to arrange for local guides and permission. But there is also an easy option open to those seeking a quiet spot of untouched nature without having to arrange a guide in advance. Colo-I-Suva Forest Park is an emerald hideaway located less than 20 minutes from the Suva Municipal market but mentally far away from the busy port and cosmopolitan denizens of the city. In comparison to the heavily advertised tourist activities closer to the shore, Colo-I-Suva Forest Park is hardly promoted at all. Its location away from the population center means that people’s impact on the area is not as visible as it is in the city parks. The park itself is home to all but two of the bird species endemic to Fiji and helpful and knowledgeable park rangers are almost always available to guide visitors through the park for a FJ$30 fee.
Pronounced tho-low-ee-soo-va, Colo-I-Suva is 2.5 square kilometers of national park land with over six kilometers of hiking trails. At 120m above sea level, temperatures often run several degrees cooler than the city below. Many locals come for the great swimming in the cool, clear, lower pools and in hot summer days, you may find a line of kids waiting for their turn on the rope swing.
There is far more to this park than interesting terrain, crystal clear water, and a rope swing though. Forested areas provide habitat for a wide array of unique birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. On a recent hike with Nunia Thomas, Director of Nature Fiji–Marequete Viti, we saw a variety of creatures making their homes in the forest, many of them unique to Fiji. As is true of most isolated island groups, Fiji’s terrestrial flora and fauna demonstrate a high degree of endemism, the unique occurrence of species within a limited geographic area. According to Nature Fiji–Marequete Viti, over half of Fiji’s 1,594 known plant species are endemic, with some groups, such as most native species of palms, completely or almost entirely endemic.
The day of our hike, Nunia arrived at Colo-I-Suva early and proceeded to pull a metre-long Pacific Boa out of her truck. The largest member of the genus Candoia, adults can grow to up to 1.5 m in length. Often referred to as “Fiji Boas”, most have some form of mottled or zigzag pattern on their back, and many from Viti Levu have a black stripe or check on their bellies.
While this wasn’t my first visit to the forest, it was my first visit with an experienced guide. What had before appeared as fantastical plants straight from the imagination of Dr. Seuss were explained as slow growing pandanus trees, the domesticated version of which provides the leaves used in the weaving of the mats and baskets found throughout the islands. When grown for weaving, the pandanus leaves are cut and laid outdoors to cure, stripped of their spiny edges, and boiled and dried. The dried leaves are scraped with the sharp edge of a shell or broken plate before being split into narrow strips to be woven. In order to create a contrasting color, leaves are buried in mud prior to being boiled.
The pandanus trees that we saw that Saturday were much spinier than the domesticated versions and provide ideal shelter for the Fiji Tree Frog, one of two species of endemic frogs in Fiji. Nunia promptly located two ‘Platymantis vitiensis’ specimens for us to study. Fiji’s endemic frogs are land dwelling breeders and don’t have tadpoles. Their offspring emerge as tiny froglets from the eggs the mother has laid. Fiji tree frogs often lay their eggs in the hollow between a leaf and the stem that supports it. As our hike was during daylight, we missed hearing the call of the Fiji tree frog but it is said to sound like a dripping tap and can be hard to hear when near the frog’s preferred habitat around river and streambeds.
Although we were a group of nearly 30, the magic of the forest and the skill of our guides quickly overcame our desire to talk. The youngest of our group ran on ahead, their voices quickly lost in the tangle of lianas, mahogany, wild orchids, and native ginger plants. We spoke only in hushed voices. At one point we stopped entirely and listened in silence as our guide pointed out a juvenile goshawk, around another bend we listened for the song of the Fiji Bush Warbler. We marveled at how much the Barking Pigeons really did sound like dogs, and learned about the threat these birds were facing from domestic cats. Many visitors enter the trails at the upper pools or from Prince’s Highway and then follow Waisila Creek down to the lower pools. After a refreshing dip in the pool, there’s a hearty walk back up Pool Road and onto Kalabu Road until it meets Prince’s highway again. Hot and thirsty visitors can find a cool beverage at the Colo-I-Suva Eco Lodge right across from the park entrance. Despite the name, the eco-lodge is not part of the forest park. In addition to family bures, studios, budget rooms and conference areas, the lodge is home to a bar and restaurant on the edge of a tranquil lake.
The seats next to the water have a small paper bag on the table. Inside are breadcrumbs. As you sit down you’re greeted by eager fish crowding the water at your feet, eager for the contents of your bag. As nearly every visitor gives in and tosses breadcrumbs to the fish, the tree branches over the water have their own set of feathered regulars that peer with eager eyes and sharp beaks into the water. I’ve yet to see the white collared kingfisher catch his dinner while I ate my own, but judging by his size he is often successful.
As I leave Colo-I-Suva each time I feel a slight twinge of sadness. Cities are wonderful, but it is while communing with nature that I am fully renewed.
Story and photography by Amerika Grewal. Amerika Grewal has lived and hiked in Europe, the US and now Fiji. She is the owner of International Transitions, a boutique business offering personalized relocation and career transition services. She can be reached at [email protected].
ISLAND LIFE MAGAZINE