An Exercise in Mortality; By an Honorary London Gal:
The matter of how “country” I am is a bit of a grey area. Growing up in West Sussex, an hour south of London and an hour north of Brighton, up until I went to university I considered myself pretty cosmopolitan. My town has a Mc Donalds, and what could loosely be coined a by-pass. That makes me a townie, right? Apparently, wrong. To my West London friends at Uni, the fact I owned wellies for reasons other than festivals, and god forbid, had dog poo bags still in my pac-a-mac pockets, I was as “country” as a cream tea. I embraced this new found connection to nature, and put up with the subsequent three years of manure-and-tractor based teasing.
What’s all this got to do, however, with week 7 in Fiji? Well, thanks to my reinforced belief that nature and I were on a level, when rumours of a trek went round at the start of the week, I barely gave the notion any thought. Trek? More like a glorified walk. Nothing my Bronze Duke of Edinburgh awarded self couldn’t handle.
When the day came, an increasingly rare cloudless morning in this rainy season, I suncreamed up, actually undid and re-tied my trainers rather than pulling them on, and ate four buns for breakfast. ‘Come at me, Gau,’ I thought, ‘do your worst.’ I had a camera, and unshakeable self-belief.
It didn’t last long. After walking up to the school for our starting point, the first half hour was a near vertical (and at some points, I’m pretty sure actually vertical) ascent up a pine-clad ridge. It was less ‘tropical rainforest’, more ‘greek island’. Pine needles crunching underfoot and the most breathtaking views accompanied us as we huffed and puffed our way up to the fringe of the jungle.
This where it all (unfortunately only metaphorically) started going downhill. Here’s what I learnt, very quickly, about the beautiful Fijian mountains: The only way to survive the mud slopes is to basically snow-plough, spiders with bodies the same size and colour as green grapes do not like to be disturbed, and vines should never, ever be trusted. Ed likened me, in the nicest possible way, to the step-mother in The Parent Trap during the hiking scene, and that was the moment I realized; Damn. London got to me.
A wild dog chase, litres of sweat and an almost-tantrum later, we came to our first stop off point. Through all the jungle that was doing its best to kill me, an oasis. A clear stream, fast moving but shallow, provides the school and village with prawns, and a couple of the Kai Wai (Water clan) Mummas were there with snorkels, collecting basketfuls of the meatiest crustaceans I’ve ever tasted. We ate our packed lunches here; cassava, fish and paw paw.
Onwards and undoubtedly, upwards we went, this time wading towards a promised waterfall. This being a mountain stream, the bed was rocky and very uneven, and to any onlookers I would’ve looked like I was staggering home at closing time, so awful was my balance. Despite the sheer concentration it took to maintain my footing, I managed to appreciate the scenery surrounding me, the most vivid green flora, rocks slick with red algae and shallow rapids stirring the translucent water. After another hour, we heard the waterfall before we saw it. Water cascaded down from a good 10 metres into the plunge pool which was deep and cool. We all jumped in and let the thundering water pummel our aching limbs. Suddenly the whole trek was worth it; the bruised ankles, the precarious mud paths giving way to crevasses, the sweat. This was Fiji, and it was beautiful.
They say you should do one thing every day that scares you. Little did I know that on Thursday morning, what I was expecting to be nothing more than a “one hour” walk in the forest would push me harder than anything on this trip thus far. Collapsing through the door back in my village home eight hours later (that’s Fiji time for you) I was filled with a sense of achievement, pride, and a strong desire for a shower and some cocoa.
It is one thing to look at the stars, but another to want to be an astronaut. It’s the same with nature. I’ll keep reading my National Geographics, but I think I’ve filled my jungle quota for life. I may not be a full city-girl, but I think it’s safer if I stick to chartered territory for now.