Mt Tomanivi (4,134ft) – Highest Mountain in Fiji
Accompanied by guides Eli, Rameshio, and John
Oct 29, 2012
1-hour speed sunset ascent during a 20-hour layover in Fiji
“Hello, how are you?” the policeman asked, leaning through the window to shake my hand.
“Pretty good, how are you?” I responded, shaking his hand, not sure how worried I should be at the situation. There were two other policeman sitting in a special building just outside my car on the top of a blind hill, at the end of a blind turn in the road. One was taking notes while the other was scanning the road.
“Good, good. Could you please step out of the car?” he asked through the window. I didn’t like this trajectory. I already had a thin margin of error to make it to Navai village deep in the interior of Fiji before dark, and couldn’t afford the delay that was building. If I failed to make it to Navai village before dark, it was likely I would miss my chance to climb Mt Tomanivi, the highest mountain in Fiji and my goal for the trip. I stepped out of the car and approached the waiting policemen.
My journey started that morning 1500 miles away in Auckland, New Zealand. I found myself with a spare day on the front end of a conference and calculated that would be just barely enough time to add another country highpoint to the list. Research months earlier had eliminated the highpoints of Samoa, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Nauru, Solomon Islands, and the Federated States of Micronesia as most likely infeasible in a 1-day layover, but Mount Tomanivi in Fiji appeared to be possible. It was on the same island as the international airport, travel time from Auckland was only three hours, and the mountain supposedly took only most of a day to climb.
I got invaluable planning help from Australian fellow country highpointer Roland Handel through his website www.tomanivi.com and email correspondence. He told me the mountain was privately owned, required a guide from the local village and permission from the village chief, and that it was best to start early in the morning because the climb would probably take 5-6 hours. Unfortunately for me the flights worked out that I could at best hope to arrive at the trailhead at sunset, and have to catch another flight out the next morning. That somehow had to work.
My flight left Auckland at 9:30am Monday morning and touched down in Suva, Fiji three hours later. There are two major international airports in Fiji – Nadi and Suva – and Suva is definitely not the main tourist destination. Most people on the flight looked like local Fijians, and the airport was a small single-story building with one room for customs, one waiting room, and one one check-in/car rental room.
I quickly made it through customs and found the budget car rental counter. I already had my driving route planned out, but decided to ask about road conditions just in case.
“No, you can’t take the King’s Road on the East coast of Fiji. You’d need a four-wheel-drive high-clearance truck for that,” the rental agent warned me. “To get to Tavua you need to take the Kings Road west through Nadi – that road is very good.”
“Ok, thanks for the advice,” I responded. I had no intention of taking that advice, though, since taking that road would at least double my driving distance. It was currently 1pm and I needed to get to Navai village before sunset, since I was unsure if the village chief there would let me climb Mt Tomanivi in the dark. I decided it would be best not to mention my final destination to the rental car agent, since I was pretty sure the road from Tavua to Navai was an even rougher, legitimate four-wheel-drive road that I would still try to make it up with my two-wheel-drive rental car.
I took the keys, hopped in my white Suzuki Swift and took off. Fiji is left-hand drive so I carefully ignored my instincts to drive on the wrong side of the road. The only signs on the road are for cities, and for some reason the local spelling was completely different than the google-maps city spellings I had. Luckily I had loaded satellite images on my GPS and navigated out of the city of Nausori (where the airport is) to hit the Kings Road heading counter-clockwise.
The national speed-limit in Fiji is 80 km/h and I cruised through the jungles admiring the banana trees and flowers. Curiously after an hour of driving I came upon a taxi that was moving very slowly. We started climbing a hill and he slowed even more, pulling over to let me pass. I was going 70 km/h, well below the speed limit, but as I climbed up the hill I rounded a blind turn and was met with an excited police officer waving his arm for me to pull over. Dang it! That taxi driver had known about the speed trap. Apparently the speed limit had dropped to 50 km/h just before the blind turn, though I never saw an official sign that it had dropped.
I got out of the car and talked to the three policemen and they were extremely friendly, as I would find out is true of all Fijians I met. We talked about where I was from and what I was studying in school. One of the policemen was my age and he told me the road to Tavua was not bad and I should have no trouble getting there. They wrote my name on a piece of paper and said I owed a fine of 14 FJD (about $7 USD).
“Wow how many people have you caught so far today?” I asked the guy who was my age.
“Twenty-one,” he responded proudly, thumbing through his list. I suspect there’s not much crime in Fiji, so to keep occupied the police officers created this little unnecessary speed trap, then manned it with three guys when one would have been more than sufficient.
I paid my little fee and got back on the road. I could see the officers excitedly looking at their radar gun as the next car came around the turn, hoping to bump the list up to twenty-two.
I continued counter-clockwise on the Kings Road, driving through numerous construction sites with rough gravel sections, but generally on smooth paved road. There was certainly no need for a 4WD or high-clearance vehicle like the rental agent had suggested. By 4pm I made my first wrong turn of the trip, taking a left into Rakiraki at an unlabeled intersection. However, after asking some local school kids directions I found my way back onto the Kings Road towards Tavua.
Just before reaching Tavua I turned left following a gravel road into the interior, with a sign for Navai village 32 km away. It was already 5pm, and my hopes of hiking up before dark were growing slimmer. This road was rougher than any section of the Kings Road, and I’m sure Budget would not have been happy with me taking this turn. I weaved around potholes, through rural farms, and eventually started climbing into the interior of the country. The road got very steep in places, with loose gravel and rocks and I worried my wheels would start skidding. To maintain traction I sped up before the steep sections and tried to maintain momentum through the loose gravel. This strategy mostly worked, with very little wheel slippage and only a few unexpected scrapes on the undercarriage when I went over larger rocks.
No turns on this road were marked, but I had loaded the satellite images for this route on my GPS and expertly navigated the dirt roads, reaching my “NavaiVillage” waypoint at 6pm. The village consisted of a small collection of metal huts with palm-frond roofs, and numerous fields with locals tending their crops. A big hill loomed over the village to the left and I thought it must be Tomanivi.
I pulled the car over on the side of the road, hopped out and approached a woman working in the field.
“Hi, I’m hoping to climb Mount Tomanivi,” I started, pointing at the mountain behind me, not sure if she spoke English. “Do I need permission from the chief?”
“Oh yes, mount Tomanivi. Yes, I’ll bring you to the chief right now,” she responded, walking around a fence to meet me. I followed the barefoot lady into the village, along some narrow concrete footpaths, to a large metal-walled hut. We hunched over as we walked through a short wooden door to stand at the hut entrance. The hut was one large room, with palm-leaf mats covering the floor, and blankets hanging from the ceiling in the back to separate sleeping quarters. To the right was a nice-looking bed covered in a bug net hanging from the ceiling. A strong-looking man was sitting in the middle of the floor, wearing a traditional Fijian shin-length sulu. He motioned for me to come inside, so I took off my shoes and sat down.
“Bula, Daniel,” he greeted in a very friendly voice, sticking his hand out. Bula is the traditional Fijian greeting.
“Bula, Eric,” I said, shaking his hand heartily. “I was hoping to climb Mt Tomanivi tonight,” I started. “Would that be possible?”
“Oooh, tonight? What time is it now? Very late. You will climb it tomorrow morning,” he replied. More Fijians were slowly entering the hut, curious what this foreigner was doing in Navai village. A few little kids sat down beside me.
“I fly out of Fiji tomorrow morning,” I said. “I tried to get here early but driving took a long time. Is it possible to climb it tonight? I have three headlamps,” I said, making hand gestures for light coming from a lamp on my head. It sounded like English was a second language around these parts.
“Hmm. Hmm,” he said, contemplating. “What time is it?”
“6pm,” I said, looking at my watch. I wasn’t sure when sunset was but it was probably soon.
“Hmm… Ok, my daughter Elana will be your guide. It will take you three hours to climb and two hours to return. First you must drink some tea,” he said, motioning another lady to prepare some tea.
“That’s great! Thank you!” I replied. A young girl (Elana) got up and went behind the blankets to change into hiking clothes, and a lady soon came in with two steaming hot cups of lemon-leaf tea. The chief and I sat drinking tea as the little kids started playing in the hut. I tried to drink as fast as possible, but the water was boiling hot.
“You will need to give 20 dollars for the guide, and 20 dollars as a village contribution,” chief Daniel told me. I had already expected this based on another traveler’s report, and quickly produced the money. I had been prepared to pay much more than that if permission to climb at night had needed more convincing, and I was relieved that was not the case.
I gulped down the last of the tea at 6:25pm and quickly headed over to the car with Elana. All of the village kids were following us. I hastily stuffed several liters of water and a few granola bars into my backpack and we started walking up at 6:30pm. Three young boys tagged along with us, all barefoot except for me.
We walked through the village, ducked under a wooden fence, and started through a small cow pasture with a few calves tied up to the fence. Eli led the way, expertly avoiding the cow pies in his bare feet, followed by Rameshio, John, Elana, and me. All the Fijian kids were talking to each other in Fijian, so I had no idea what they were saying.
“Do many tourists come to climb Tomanivi?” I asked.
“Sometimes. A person from France came here last week,” John replied in English. “They only come in the morning when we’re in school. You’re the only person to ever come in the evening.”
“Think we can make it to the top before dark?” I asked.
The path left the cow pasture now and headed into the woods, gradually steepening. We were already walking very fast, but after this last remark Eli in the front started jogging. I could tell he intended to get to the top before dark. John, Rameshio, and I started jogging too, but Elana continued walking and started to fall behind.
After 10 minutes the path got even steeper, requiring us to use roots to pull ourselves up, and we eased off the jog for a quick water brake.
“We need to keep going,” Eli urged after about 30 seconds. I had passed out some water bottles to the other kids, which we quickly chugged before continuing on behind Eli. I had stupidly not eaten anything in the past 8 hours and was starting to lose energy, so I pulled out a granola bar and ate while walking.
The trail was very steep now, requiring us to climb over and under tree roots quite often. Suddenly I heard a yelp in the distance.
“That’s Elana,” Rameshio said. “She’s turning around to go back to the village.”
I looked down at my watch. It was 7:25pm and looked like just on the verge of sunset. The jungle was getting very dark, and at best I figured it’d take us another hour at least, based on the chief’s prediction. I paused to dig out a headlamp from my pack.
“No, we are nearly there,” Eli said, looking back.
I put my pack back on, walked another 30 seconds, and popped out in a big grassy clearing. We were on the summit! And somehow it had only taken 60 minutes. Clouds had rolled in so there was no real view, but it was still light enough to walk around without headlamps.
We posed for pictures at the summit, and I distributed my extra waterbottles and headlamps to the kids. John said we’d set a new record for the climb, and Eli and Rameshio agreed. I bet if Eli were by himself he could have even shaved another 15 minutes off our time.
My guides were anxious to get back for dinner, so we soon headed back into the jungle with our headlamps. We all slipped at least once on the steep muddy trail, but made it back uninjured an hour later, for a 2hr 10 minute round trip.
Back at the village I decided to give each of my guides an american gift for all their hard work. John got a nice petzle headlamp to replace his broken flashlight, Eli got a Boston USA T-shirt, and Rameshio got a boston keychain and a bunch of “cookies” (that’s what they called my granola bars).
Before dinner, though, we had to wash off all the mud in a stream behind the village. The kids said they were going to “take a bath,” but really it meant having fun playing in a creek. They invited me along and we took turns swinging off a vine from a small cliff to jump into the deep stream. There were probably 10 kids in all playing in the creek.
Afterwards we went back to the chief’s hut and he invited me to stay for dinner and to sleep in his guest bed that night. I gladly obliged, and his wife brought out several plates full of potatoes, cassava roots, and a sort of thin nan-style bread. We sat cross-legged on the ground and ate with our hands (no utensils) and it tasted very good. They taught me to say “vi-naka-naka-cana” afterwards, which means something like “thank you for the very good meal.”
I talked with his extended family afterwards, and then went over to another hut to drink some Fiji “grog” with some men from the village. The chief needed a ride into Nadi to visit a relative, so I offered to take him with me the next morning. After some debate among the family members we determined it would probably take 3-4 hours to drive to Nadi, so that meant getting up really early in order to catch my 9:45am flight.
It was 11:30pm by now, and I went to sleep in the guest bed of the chief’s hut. We woke up at 3:30am, ate a quick breakfast of cassava roots and lemon-leaf tea, and headed out at 4:30am. The chief brought his granddaughter Ana along for the ride, and helped me navigate the windy roads out of the village. We didn’t make a single wrong turn this time.
I dropped chief Daniel off in Nadi at 8am and had plenty of time to catch my flight back to New Zealand.