IT’S raining a sigh of relief on this humid day, which heralds the official turf turning ceremony at the Conua Primary School Kindergarden project. And aside from providing a welcome reprieve from the mugging March heat, it’s seen as good luck. I’m in Fiji’s Sigatoka Valley, hunting and gathering stories on the community tourism projects in which the Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort plays a critical role. And the new kindy is just the latest in a long line of voluntourism activities available to the resort’s guests.
This is a story about hope, community, cyclones and courage. The cyclone component was never meant to be a part of this tale, but when Mother Nature speaks, she cannot be ignored. In late February, just weeks before my visit last week, Tropical Cyclone Winston struck Fiji, killing 42 people, completely flattening more than 108 villages, leaving more than 80 schools without roofs and causing more than $1 billion damage to infrastructure and crops.
While the Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort was relatively lucky, weathering only superficial damage to things such as thatching on bures and destroyed gardens, its sister property Castaway suffered more serious damage and will be closed until mid year. Castaway guests were relocated to the Outrigger and everyone was placed in lock-down for six long hours while the cyclone raged. But Winston forgot he was dealing with Fiji. And despite the destruction, it’s still open for business with Fiji rapidly launching a fearless campaign #strongerthanwinston
These are warrior people from a warrior nation and aid is flooding in from around the world. But tourists don’t have to wait for something as devastating as Winston to help Third World nations such as Fiji. Since 2010, Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort has been involved in community projects and in 2014 it introduced the concept of “voluntourism” to its guests. Under the scheme, visitors are invited to become involved in a variety of projects from coral planting on the reef to visiting local village church services.
Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort General Manager Peter Hopgood has been instrumental in driving community tourism in the Nadroga province in which the resort is located.
“In my first year as GM I visited the 168 schools in the province and gave every kid a green shopping bag to take home to their parents to be used instead of plastic bags,” Hopgood says.
“We are now three months away from the introduction of Local Government legislation banning plastic bags in the province.
“It is still so pleasing, five years on, that every time I go into town I still see the green bags. Everyone has got one.”
And there are some big projects too. Last November, the resort opened the
$128,000 village meeting and school hall bure at the Conua Primary School in the Sigatoka Valley. The project took 14 months and the assistance of 80 volunteer guests to complete. The latest project is the construction of a $51,000 Kindergarden at the school. When finished in November it will accommodate 30 children. For the first time, the kids will have outdoor playground equipment.
Perhaps one of the most crucial projects about which he is most passionate in the new $384,000 maternity ward at the Sigatoka Hospital, built by the Coral Coast Hotels Association of which Hopgood is chair. The Association includes Outrigger, Intercontinental Fiji Golf Resort and Spa, Shangri-La Fijian Resort and Spa, Warwick Fiji, The Naviti Resort, and Fiji Hideaway Resort and Spa. Outrigger visitors can book a half-day tour every Tuesday and Thursday to tour the Conua School Kindergarden project, Sigatoka Maternity Ward, and local produce markets. Money raised from tour fees (Adults $64/Children $41) is used to purchase building materials.
Hopgood says while there are many areas of need in the province, the hospital was “diabolical”.
“There were no birthing facilities in this province. Because of the distance, the mortality rate was horrific,” he says.
“Health is the biggest issue in Fiji without a doubt. We do a really good job here on the Coral Coast but we can only really target our area of responsibility. You go outside the province and you see how harsh it is.
“It took us five years to build the facility, now it’s the best in all of Fiji. The reality is Fiji is still Third World but we have a very good hospital.”
The resort also enables 20 international professional eye surgeons to come to the province each year, who restore sight to between 80 and 100 people. And every year, former champion Australian swimmer Shane Gould is invited as a guest of the resort to teach village children, who have to cross the Sigatoka River to get to school, how to swim.
“It just can’t be a hand out to the community. We help those who help themselves. They have to contribute both funds and labour,” Hopgood says.
“From a tourism perspective this is what all the other resorts in the area need to do…engage and bring guests into the community.
“It’s almost like every western child should experience this.”
Fiji may be the occasional cyclone, but it is overwhelmingly warm waters, sizzling smiles, aqua oceans and white sand. These are fresh fruit, frangipani and hibiscus flower days. It’s local seafood washed down by cold beer. Champagne and sunsets. Fire dancing under crescent moons. Shuffling hermit crabs and kids who play outdoors. It’s warrior dances and sanguine smiles. Bold singing and big hearts. Humility, humanity, resilience, family, community and courage. Above all else, Fiji is courage.
The Global Goddess travelled as a guest of the Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort – http://www.outriggerfiji.com
The resort has established a Cyclone Appeal to assist people living in the north of the country. The bank account details are:
Account Name: Outrigger Fiji Beach Resort
Bank: Suncorp Bank; Gold Coast Business Banking Centre
AT first I was afraid, I was petrified. Gloria Gaynor is trying to lure me into the Outrigger on the Lagoon Fiji’s Vakavanua bar where a group of merry Maoris is staging a post-wedding party. Before I have time to ponder my comparative lack of rhythm (play that funky music white girl), a woman – twice the size of me and my mate – yanks the two of us onto the dance floor. We are too afraid to protest and frankly, our South Pacific sista has all the moves. It’s only later, when we see her with another woman in an affectionate head lock, we realise how lucky we’ve been.
I’m on this island nation’s Coral Coast but it’s not the usual picture-postcard experience I’m enjoying. Sure, there’s coconuts, hammocks, swaying palm trees, and merry marriage-makers, but there’s just one of Fiji’s fabulous faces. This journey begins in the Sigatoka Valley known as the “fruit bowl of Fiji” which rests inland from the Coast through a lush tropical valley. I’m on the Sigatoka Cave Safari in a bouncy off-road vehicle which makes me wish I’d worn a sport’s bra. Never mind, there’s too much to see as we carve our way through traditional villages before arriving at our destination, and besides, with my bra-less breasts I feel like I’m embracing the inner islander I’m convinced lays inside every uptight white person.
At this stage, I should point out that The Global Goddess is not very intrepid. I’m clumsy, I slip, I trip, and I break bones in the most unlikely of scenarios. I’m talking situations so incredulous, that I have to sometimes lie to emergency room doctors about how events unfolded. But on this occasion, I’m in good company with a group of new friends for whom strange things also seem to happen. And thus we march bravely forth.
“You’re in the jungle now,” our host says simply and with that, we begin a muddy trek down to the Naihehe Cave where the Sautabu people used to eat their enemies. Little white girls like me wouldn’t have stood a chance. We wade through cool water and pass through three chambers including a tight spot known as the pregnancy passage – if you get stuck, it means you are pregnant. Thankfully, there’s none of that here today. Unfortunately, for my friend Laura, who has indulged in a fake tan before her Fiji trip, the cave water does act like a paint stripper, and she emerges looking part Pointer Sister and part Scissor Sisters. Chantay is convinced there’s a (harmless) bug in her hair, I’m thinking about sex, and Shannon is already talking about what she wants for dinner.
Back in the village with the chief and a group of his men, I introduce myself as The Global Goddess and they nod like it’s the most natural thing in the world as we share a sacred cup of kava and partake in this honourable tradition. I only wonder what he makes of me and my motley crew of mates.
The next day I meet Fred, Fiji’s rare crested iguana at the Kula Ecopark Fiji. This is Fiji’s only wildlife park and facility for the breeding of endangered species as well as the only free environmental educational facility for school children. Lounging lizards not your thing? Well you can also cuddle a boa constrictor, or simply wander through this lush acreage punctuated with turtles, birds and bats. Chantay wraps the baby boa around her arm and it gives her a little nip, Laura has gone all jungle-girl in leopard print and lipstick, I’m thinking about sex, and Shannon is talking about lunch.
We spend the afternoon in the Bebe Spa Sanctuary – I told you we were hard core – where I have booked the Ultimate Bebe Fijian Polish. This two-hour treatment includes something called a Dilo (I swear I read dildo) and leaves me scrubbed seashell-smooth and relaxed. At the end of the two hours my therapist looks puzzled and asks whether I have another treatment booked. I reply in the negative and look at the piece of paper she is clutching in her palm. It says simply “back wax.” First I escape the Maori wedding, only to have a close call with a back wax.
We amble back down the hill to the resort. It’s dinner time, Chantay now has pretty pink nails, Laura has survived the massage she had originally feared, I’m thinking about sex and Shannon is talking about food.
The Global Goddess was a guest of Outrigger on the Lagoon Fiji – http://www.outriggerfiji.com. Guests who stay in the resort’s bures and suites enjoy a daily Talai butler service where an attractive Fijian arrives daily with champagne and canapés at cocktail hour. It’s a 24-hour service you can enjoy.
Later this month, the resort will open its exclusive adult’s only pool and poolside bistro called Vahavu which means to “chill out and relax”.
Also check out: Bebe Spa Sanctuary – http://www.bebespafiji.com; Off Road Cave Safari – http://www.offroadfiji.com; Coral Coast Tourism – http://www.coralcoastfiji.org; and Kula Ecopark Fiji – http://www.fijiwild.com.