Fiji firewalkers thrill the crowds

By Bob Schulman

 Photo of Fijian sunset by Bob Schulman.

Look at a map of the South Pacific, and chances are you'll be able to spot the Republic of Fiji's largest island – the one with the James Michener-ish name of Viti Levu. But it's unlikely you'll see many of the nation's 330 or so smaller islands, and certainly not a speck about seven miles north of Viti. That would be Beqa, home to some 3,000 villagers.

It's hard to imagine that Beqa is world-famous for something. But it is. Look up “firewalkers” in the global encyclopedias, anthropology journals and even on Wikipedia and you'll see how Beqa got its claim to fame.

A good number of Fiji's 660,000 annual visitors typically get a first-hand look at this amazing feat while they're there – at floor shows at resorts and at cultural theme parks around the islands. Bus loads of tourists, for example, come by the Arts Village on Viti Levu to see a troupe of barefoot firewalkers mosey over a big pile of steaming hot rocks.

During the show an announcer explains that the walkers are Sawau tribesmen from Beqa, and that their skill is handed down from generation to generation. How all this came about, he says, is told in an ancient legend.

The legend of the firewalkers

Firewalkers stroll across steaming hot rocks. Photo by Bob Schulman.As passed down over the years, the Sawau lived in a mountain village on Beqa called Navakeisese. When they weren't off to wars with other tribes (and chowing down on their prisoners), they enjoyed lighter moments listening to tales and legends told by Dredre, their tribal storyteller. In return, it was customary for the people of the village to bring gifts to Dredre.

One day, as the yarn goes, Dredre asked each person in the audience to bring him gifts of the first things they found the next time they went hunting.

A day or so later, one of the warriors called Tui-na-Iviqalita went fishing for eels in a mountain stream. The first thing he caught felt like an eel. But when he pulled it out of the mud, it turned out to be a talking, snake-like “Spirit God.”

Wow, what a gift that would be. Tui scurried off to present his catch to Dredre, but along the way the god offered Tui all kinds of bribes to let him go. Tui refused – until the god came up with this awesome offer: power over fire. That got Tui's juices flowing. But he wanted proof of the power.

No problem. The god changed form, dug a pit, lined it with stones, and then lit a great fire on the stones. When the stones were white with heat, the god invited Tui to take a walk on them – which he did, without burning his feet!

And of course Tui let the god go.

To this day, according to the legend, members of the Sawau tribe are able to walk on white hot stones, and direct descendants of Tui-na-Iviqalita still act as bete, or high priest, of the firewalkers of Fiji.

Getting there: Newly rebranded Fiji Airways (formerly Air Pacific) schedules nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Fiji's Nadi International Airport on Viti Levu. Flight time on the carrier's Airbus A330s is between 10 and 11 hours each way.  Other flights – roughly five-hour hops – serve Fiji nonstop from Hawaii.

One of Fiji Airways' new A-330 jets. Photo courtesy of Fiji Airways.

Staying there: Most guests on Fiji's 100 or so inhabited islands stay in 100-plus tourist-class resorts and inns. Among popular properties are Starwood Hotels'   (www.starwoodhotels.com) three resorts (the Westin Denarau Island Resort & Spa, the Sheraton Fiji Resort and the Sheraton Denarau Villas) on an island just off Viti Levu, and the sprawling, 40-acre Outrigger On the Lagoon    (www.outrigger.com) on Viti Levu.

Elsewhere on the Fiji archipelago tourists bunk down in boutique resorts peppering the out islands including some on or near Beqa. One such spot is the Royal Davui Island Resort (www.royaldavui.com) on a speck in the Beqa Lagoon where 15 luxury bure huts pop up out of the jungle.

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