To the south of Fiji's main island of Vitilevu lies the raised coral limestone paradise of Vatulele. Vatulele, often discussed but rarely visited, has figured prominently in Fijian legend because of its extraordinary red prawns. Known as urabuta (cooked prawns) or uradamudamu (red prawn!)they have to be seen to be believed.
Long ago a beautiful chief's daughter lived on Vatulele. All who attempted to win her hand failed. Her fame spread to mainland Vitilevu where the handsome son of a chief heard of her and determined that she would be his wife. He packed carefully for his trip, taking with him a bundle of giant prawns cooked in coconut milk and wrapped in leaves. Well received by the chiefs of Vatulele, he produced his trump card and gave the prawns to the princess. She was not at all impressed and ordered her hand maidens to seize him and throw him off the highest cliff on the island. As he fell down the cliff face his bundle of prawns fell from his hands and into the pool at the base of the cliff. To everyone's surprise he survived the fall and returned to Vitilevu to pine for his lost love. As for the prawns, well they came to life and to this day inhabit the pools at the base of the cliffs, while the leaves which wrapped the gift grow amongst the rocky crevices.
Scientists may not share this explanation of the origins of the urabuta but they remain fascinated by the environment in which the prawns live. Known as anchialine habitats, they are pools some distance away from the sea but which still maintain tidal influence. In actuality most of the pools are brackish due to interactions between the lens of freshwater under the island and the tidal influence. Linked with these anchialine pool is a great network of caves and passages, most of them virtually unexplored.
The islanders treat the prawns with great respect and are forbidden to kill or harm them in any way. Legend records that anyone who tries to take them away will suffer a shipwreck. While most of us treat such legends with scepticism, it may be noteworthy that on a visit to the prawns two people in the group took photos of the creatures. Neither shot came out. In one instance the shot was the last on the roll and was damaged in processing, in the other the camera back was opened by accident and the shot ruined.
Vatulele (Ringing rock) has much more to offer than its red prawns, extraordinary though they are. It is home to Fiji's most skillful makers of tapa cloth (masi) and one of the world's most exclusive resorts. The masi comes from the bark of the paper mulberry tree and all over the island there are small clearings in the forest which have been planted with this tree. A visit to any of the island's four villages will bring with it the unceasing and hypnotic sound of heavy wooden clubs striking repeatedly against something solid. If you pluck up enough courage to venture inside the tin shed from whence the sound comes, you will see a sweating woman pounding strips of bark, flattening and softening the fibres sufficiently to make into the highest quality masi. Nearby, giant cauldrons full of dye made from mangrove bark bubble quietly to themselves. Most of the traditional designs used in the masi incorporate triangles and this motif has become one of the symbols of the Vatulele Island resort.
The resort, consisting of 12 Santa Fe style villas roofed with traditional Fijian thatch and a central entertaining and administration area, derives its logo from another aspect of Fijian culture. The face which adorns the brochures, which is cast in brass on the wall of the dining area and which leers up at you from your shower grill, can be seen elsewhere. Vatulele possesses petroglyphs, early Fijian rock art, dated at 3000 years old. The face, with its 12 "hairs" is one of the most prominent rock paintings in a group only a kilometre from the resort.
And what a resort it is. Situated on one of the best beaches in Fiji, each 2000 square foot villa has its own private beach shelter complete with loungers. The nearest neighbour is just far enough away not to intrude, yet close enough to visit. No trees, apart from those on the site of each building, were felled to make way for the resort. The path linking the villas winds around and through the forest, providing a delightful nature walk on the way to breakfast or lunch. From the air, or offshore, the villas are almost invisible, a tribute to the excellent forward planning and design which allowed no mechanical aids in raising the giant beams which underpin the roofs.
The food is sumptuous and meals are normally communal, although those who wish to be alone can eat privately if they wish. Few do. It is an environment designed for relaxing, no phones in the villas and guests are discouraged from communicating with the outside world. Like-minded people gravitate to a resort like Vatulele so it is little wonder that lasting friendships are quickly forged. Manager Martin Livingston is partly responsible for the relaxed atmosphere. His rapport with the mainly local staff is evident and his quick wit no respecter of social status. There is no snobbery on Vatulele.
The resort site is leased from a group of native owners known collectively as the mataqali. The resort is a true partnership with two mataqali members being on the Board. In addition the landowners of the recently opened airstrip, the connecting road, and the resort site, all receive a percentage of the turnover generated.
Pride for their island is evident in the staff demeanour and the enthusiasm with which the natural wonders are demonstrated. A favourite walk for guests is a visit to one of the caves, complete with crystal clear and highly refreshing water. These caves, part of the same system which provides a home for the red prawns, host the tiny white-rumped swiftlets. The engaging little birds utilise echo-location to find their nesting and roosting sites deep within the cave systems.
If birds are your bag, Vatulele resort is the place to be. A giant fig tree in the courtyard of the central resort area is a magnet for doves and pigeons. The absence of cats and a totally non-threatening approach from staff and guest alike has induced a degree of tameness not usually seen amongst Fijian birds. Pacific pigeon will come and feed from the papaya blossoms while you enjoy your outdoor breakfast.
For larger birds, a visit to Vatulevu or Vatusewa is recommended. These rugged little offshore islets host breeding colonies of red-footed boobies, as well as occasional frigate birds and brown boobies. Extraordinarily tame, the nesting boobies will let you approach within a couple of metres before taking flight. However, Martin Livingston is very conscious of the impact regular visits to the colony could have and these are not positively encouraged.
Water sports and fishing are included in the tariff at Vatulele although scuba diving is extra. The scuba programe is relatively new but should grow rapidly. Vatulele has some of the best hard corals in Fiji only 800 m from the resort and because of the relatively low fishing pressure there are many more large fish than one usually sees in Fiji.
Seldom has there been such a happy marriage between development and local aspirations as can be seen on ringing rock island. The resort engenders a deep respect for the islanders and is instrumental in introducing guests to the real Fiji in a way never achieved by the larger and more impersonal resorts. Start saving now for the holiday of a lifetime.
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Last modified on Thursday, July 10, 2003