Biking in Fiji: A Spin Around Historic Levuka
Biking in Fiji: A Spin ‘Round Historic Levuka
By Rick Millikan
Cruising into Levuka’s harbour, my wife and I realize why this port was so popular with early sailors. Snuggled on eastern Ovalau Island, its protective reef offered tall ships two wide openings for sheltered entries and exits.
At the dock we greet George Gibson, Levuka’s former Lord Mayor. Last year he led us into Levuka’s extraordinary past. Telling him our plan to cycle, George calls it “…our historic spin!”
Chitchat ends as fellow passengers arrive for his walking tour. We overhear George describing how early merchants purchased sandalwood from Fijian chiefs to trade with China. Hanging around a little longer, we hear our favorite local story:
“In the 1820’s, enterprising sailors discovered the profitable beche-de-mer, or sea cucumber, a relative of the sea urchin popular in Asian markets.”
“In 1828, David Whippy was dispatched here to investigate cured sea cucumber supplies. Nobody came back for him. Stranded, Whippy married a local woman and developed a shipyard that survived until the 1990’s.”
Signs of Levuka’s past enterprises remain. Immense copra (dried coconut meat) warehouses from the 1930’s still surround the wharf. In the 1860’s, Levuka became copra’s ‘stinking’ distribution center.
The manager Elena from Ovalau Watersports meets us dockside, leading us to our metal steeds. Pretty Elena instructs us on rental return times in what seems a timeless paradise. Chris receives a shiny new mountain bike; I get a rusty clunker.
Elena’s shop shares space in the once-thriving Morris Hedstrom building. Built by local families in 1868, the spacious trading store now encloses the community center, library and museum. Here elaborately carved war clubs, decorated cannibal forks, whale-tooth hair ornaments, period photos and a remarkable sitar reflect Fiji’s fascinating history.
A clever machine exemplifies another creative business, punching out pearly buttons from shells. Fiji’s first printing presses stand beside framed articles chronicling Levuka’s turmoil, unrest and violence: “every shed a grog shop.”
One item in the 1872 Fiji Times declares, “Roguery and scheming at every hand… and no government to enforce laws or clean up the brawling settlement.”
Queen Victoria and Prince Charles
Our well-tuned bikes hum along the main road. We soon pass the Pac Co tuna cannery, the mainstay of today’s local economy. Exchanging cheery “Bulas,” three smiling boys pedal along with us to Nasova Park.
With legendary friendliness and curiosity my bicycle buddies pose with me next to three stones commemorating Fiji’s handover to Britain. They’ve learned in school that debt and early lawlessness haunted King Cakabau. After uniting this island nation and making Levuka the capital, he ceded Fiji to Queen Victoria in 1874.
They also knew that almost a century later Prince Charles declared Fijian independence at this same Cession Monument. One grinning lad adds, “My grandpapa told me the prince stayed in that thatched bure across the street.”
We bid them farewell and meander northward. Small cinder-block homes stand behind large pink and red flowering hibiscus hedges. Off shore, Fijians fish from the rocks with hand lines; others cast nets into the turquoise sea.
A gravel road twists along Ovalau’s coast. Changing gears is hardly necessary. Seldom encountering motorists, we concentrate on avoiding potholes and appreciating exotic surroundings. Tumultuous greenery borders the route.
Brought to Fiji to control coconut pests, Australian magpies fill the air with curious melodic songs. Scrutinizing palm groves, I remember reading that coconuts cause ten times more fatalities than sharks. Could there be a strong case made for wearing bicycle helmets here?
Riding to a cluster of thatched bures, we pause to reflect on the villager’s turbulent history. When the U.S. Civil War created high cotton prices, Fijians refused to become menial labor on local plantations. Black birders sailed out, enslaving Solomon Islanders to pick the cotton. Their ancestors live in Wainaloka Village.
Lawless Frontier Tales
Retracing a shady route back into town, we arrive in the late afternoon. It’s easy to imagine the old capital’s early shops, boarding houses and 52 bawdy saloons sprawling along Beach Street.
Painted clapboard and coral-rock buildings evoke lawless frontier tales. In today’s Levuka, children in school uniforms walk purposefully homeward. Men and women stride peacefully on sheltered boardwalks to and from jobs. Some climb wooden stairways to work at balconied restaurants.
We veer left onto a narrow gravel lane. Ahead the coral-stone of the Marist Convent School sprawls dazzling white against a backdrop of emerald mountains. Once a girls’ boarding school, these days it provides co-ed day classes. Nearby, Levuka Public School provided Fiji’s first formal education, schooling the elite for a shilling a week, six pence for additional children.
Across a bridge, we speak with a shipmate who grew up here. About to enter Fiji’s oldest social club, Allan points out, “Even if you’re not a member at the Ovalau Club, you can have a drink and talk over old times.
Lots of interesting stuff happens in this neighbourhood. Next-door stands Levuka Town Hall, finished for Queen Victoria’s silver jubilee in 1898. On the next lot stands an even older Masonic Lodge, a stone skeleton since it was torched during the 2000 coup attempt…”
Just beyond sun-bleached government offices, courthouse and weather beaten police station stands the Royal Hotel, Fiji’s oldest. Exotic blossoms cascade from antique vases on little side-tables, polished hardwood floors, vintage photos, high ceilings, lazily whirling fans and century-old billiard table conjure up bygone days.
Stopping to renew our acquaintance with the owner, we find Nikki in the kitchen. Her great grandfather had built this hotel in the 1850’s. She winks, “So you’ve come by sea this time. Well, sea captains used to like the upstairs rooms facing the harbour, not for the spectacular views, but to keep an eye on their ships.”
A short block inland we find Navoka Methodist, Fiji’s oldest church and the 199 steps leading up Mission Hill. Beautifully preserved colonial homes nestle along the luxuriant hillside.
We proceed to the town boundary where a bridge crosses into Levuka Fijian Village, where chief Tui Levuka once extended generous hospitality to early settlers.
Leaning our bicycles against a fence around the nearby cemetery, we read the early settlers’ headstones. Next to a trickling creek remains the humble 1869 Methodist Church where Cakabau worshipped.
Returning along Beach Road, we climb Niukaube Hill where Cakobau’s courts and parliament once stood.
Looking along the waterfront, we can only imagine the wild north end. A hurricane left only the sturdy stone Church of the Holy Redeemer, now enjoying centennial celebrations. Intricate stained glass windows memorialize early settlers.
Today exotic greenery mingles with one-story pastel painted schools, an open market and a row of shops. In Levuka’s center stands Sacred Heart Church. Atop its stone tower, neon lighting forms a green cross, beckoning to ships at sea. The distinctive French clock has gonged village time hourly since 1858.
Riding between timeworn colonial buildings and the Royal Engineers’ century old seawall, birds chorus raucously in orange-blossomed tulip trees. Wearing floral sulus and carrying string bags stuffed with local vegetables, women call out “Bula! Bula!”
Returning our rental bikes, we mosey off toward our ship. Chitchatting with a family awaiting a taxi-launch, we learn that Cakabau’s great grandson heads a commission to make Levuka the first World Heritage Site in the South Pacific.
Near the quay a small drinking fountain marks the first ‘airmail’ service at Pigeon Post. George had told us, “Carrier pigeons took 30 minutes to Suva. Mail delivery seemed much more reliable then!”
Easy, Breezy Cycling
Common sense resists unnecessary transport. Motor vehicles are conspicuously absent. Walking epitomizes convenience. Local folk hike up paths fanning inland to homes dotting the lush surrounding hillsides. Canopied trucks, buses and water taxis shuttle islanders to outlying villages.
Easy, breezy cycling presents another possibility in Fiji. Perhaps next time we’ll take an “eco-spin” ’round lush Taveuni.