By Kate Stepan
While guiding rafts in Bali and other far-flung corners of the globe, Nate and Kelly Bricker saw plenty of what the U.S. river permit system was designed to prevent: overcrowding, overuse, and misuse by companies out to make a buck. When the Salt Lake City-based couple discovered a relatively untouched part of Fiji, they set out to bring tourism to the island nation in a way that would sustain its natural beauty and vibrant village culture. Rivers Fiji opened for business in 1998.
But running an American-style rafting company in a developing country is no small task. Though profits have been elusive, Rivers Fiji has been remarkably successful in protecting bird and fish habitat on Fiji's main island of Viti Levu. The company leases 12 miles of river corridor from native landowners. The arrangement keeps international timber companies at bay, sparing the river valley's old-growth mahogany trees from becoming furniture in distant executive suites. Employing more than 25 Fijians as guides, drivers, and office staff, plus dozens of equipment porters and trail workers, Rivers Fiji also contributes to water purification projects and organizes an annual village health clinic. All this while offering about 5,000 annual guests an inside look into what the South Pacific has to offer paddlers: stunning river gorges, splashy rapids, and an unrivaled warmth toward visiting foreigners.
When I visited Fiji in April, one of the raft guides, Mosese, invited me to stay in his native Nakavika village, nestled in remote misty highlands known as the "tropical Yosemite." It's the starting point for Rivers Fiji's premier trip, which consists of a village visit and an inflatable kayak tour down the nearby Wainikoroiluva River ('Luva for short). Wrapping a traditional sarong-like sulu over my board shorts, I followed Mosese past a smattering of dwellings hewn from wood and corrugated iron to the house of the village chief. Sitting on a mat of woven pandanus, I presented Chief Leo with a sevusevu, a ritual gift of kava root. The root is mixed with water for a mildly numbing, earthy brew that's shared at any Fijian gathering, casual or formal. When the bowl of murky yaqona was passed to me, I mumbled my introduction and downed it all, as is the custom. Though the concoction resembles something akin to an acid rain mud puddle, I wouldn't trade it, or that experience, for all the mini-umbrella cocktails on the island.
Two days later, I paddled the 'Luva to the coast. After a few rocky Class III drops, the run gives way to mellow Class II, and more time to ogle the steep gorge walls draped with tangles of jungle flora. Waterfalls tumbled from the volcanic cliffs while fruit bats swooped overhead. Arriving at the river mouth, tired and sunburned, I felt in tune with the island pace of life, though I didn't fully appreciate the true meaning of "Fiji time" until touching down in Los Angeles, and merging into rush hour traffic, on the way home.
This story first appeared in the July 2012 issue of C&K.