Cannibalism is a tragic footnote in the history of Fiji. It is a place that has historically been called, “Cannibal Island”. The last documented case of cannibalism took place in 1867 when a 35-year-old missionary named Thomas Baker made a cultural blunder and tapped a chief’s head with his hand. He and seven Christian companions paid the ultimate price for his mistake. The village responsible for this atrocity has been trying to lift a curse that fell upon them, ever since. Fijians say that the practice of cannibalism has ceased since that event.
When researching activities to do while in Fiji, I had an old, borrowed travel book that described a tour of what was dubbed as the “cannibal caves”. According to the book, the tour included transportation from our resort to the Sigatoka Valley, a river crossing on a raft, a tour of a large cave, and then lunch in the village with a “kava ceremony” and traditional dancing. There was no mention of what would be served for lunch.
I looked for a brochure at the tourist desk in the lobby of our resort, but I could not find one. I took the travel book to the representative of tourism and told her that we wanted to do this excursion if it was at all possible. She read the description with raised eyebrows before picking up the phone and making a phone call. She eyed us carefully as she spoke quickly in Fijian. Hanging up the phone she looked at me and asked, “Can you go tomorrow?”
“Sure,” I replied.
“You can pay me now. The transportation will pick you and your wife up in front of the resort tomorrow at 7:30 a.m. Don’t be late.”
I was so excited! I have always enjoyed exploring places that are off the beaten path. I have found that the lesser-known sites are often more interesting and lacking the commercialization of popular tourist attractions.
The following morning, Heidi and I were ready to go at 7:30 a.m. We sipped our coffee as we waited for the van to pick us up for our tour. We had our sunglasses, cameras, cell phones, sunscreen, and sandals. We were excited to get off the “resort island” and into the real Fiji. I looked around to see if there were any other tourists also waiting to go on this excursion, but we were by ourselves.
At 7:40 a.m. a dust-covered taxi pulled in front of our resort. I did not really pay attention to it, thinking we would be picked up by a bus or a van. The driver stepped out, “Matt and Heidi?!”
“That is us. Are we the only ones going?” I asked.
“I drive you to other city,” He answered.
Heidi and I laughed and piled into the back of the taxi. This was not what we expected, but we were ready for an adventure. One hour later we arrived in a city at the mouth of the Sigatoka River, where we stopped for a snack and were forced to visit a souvenir shop filled with overpriced wood carvings. While there, a man named Karavi approached us and informed us that he would be our guide and that we would be catching another cab from there to caves. It seemed odd, but his friendly smile and demeanor convinced us that this was all part of the plan. We asked him if anyone else would be joining us for the tour, once there.
“Not today. You are my exclusive guests,” he answered proudly.
I felt important, and I was impressed that we were getting the royal treatment. We slid into Karavi’s car and continued further out of town as he talked to us about rugby and the agricultural productivity of the region. The pavement ended and we began bouncing down the washboard and pot-holed road following the Sigatoka River. Limestone pinnacles jutted out of the jungle-like tropical forest, reminding us that this would be a good place to discover caves.
One hour later we pulled into a village of one room, cinder block homes. Mangy dogs wandered the streets. Half-naked children in tattered clothes gawked at us as we drove in. It reminded me of the mission trips I had been on where I had visited impoverished rural villages in Honduras, Haiti, Bolivia, and Papua New Guinea. At that moment it became clear to us that there were no other tourists around. I glanced at my cell phone. I had no service.
Karavi parked next to a house and announced, “Here we are!” Heidi and I stepped out into the muggy sunshine, squinting as we gained our bearings. Aside from the kids and the dogs, the village appeared to be mostly deserted.
“First, I will take you to the chief. He has arranged for the raft trip across the river.”
We followed him across a ditch of stagnant water, through a rusty gate, past a snarling dog, and to the front door of patchwork home of sheet metal, plywood, and cement.
“Remember, do not, under any circumstances, touch the chief on the head,” I nervously joked with Heidi as Karavi knocked tentatively on the front door.
A large woman with a big smile opened the door and invited us in. The single room home had mattresses stacked against one wall. A large, ancient television was on and showing the fuzzy reception of a regional rugby match. A two-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl shyly hid behind their mother and stared wide-eyed at Heidi and me.
The chief was a massive man, with broad shoulders and thick arms. He sat in a wheelchair in the middle of the room, staring at the television. He glanced at us blankly before speaking to Karavi. The woman served us cups of Tang which we cautiously sipped, uncertain of the purity of the water.
After a lengthy dialogue in Fijian, Karavi came back to us and told us that the rafts had been washed away during a flood this past week. The only way to cross the river now was to hire horses and additional guides. Each of us would ride on a horse while holding onto the guide as it swam across the flooded river. We were told to pay $50 cash to the chief for this service. I scowled back at Karavi, incredulous. I had already paid for this tour, and it was all-inclusive. It included all transportation, even the river crossing. I explained to him that I had not brought extra cash. I had no Fijian money, and only had $10 in U.S. dollars. “Does the chief take debit, Venmo, or Square?” I asked stupidly.
Karavi nervously went back and told the chief that we did not have the money. He apologized, but there was no hiding the fact that the chief was very displeased. This tour wasn’t very fun anymore. I was getting angry, feeling as if they were trying to squeeze from me for every dollar I had. Without any options, I spoke up, “Here is all the cash I have. Ten U.S. dollars. We were told this tour included transport across the river. You can have this, but I have nothing else to give you.” I handed the chief my foreign currency while feeling anger over his extortion.
Reluctantly, he accepted my money. I thanked him for the Tang and went outside to get some air while waiting for the next part of this wonderful tour. Moments later Heidi and Karavi joined me. I am not easily angered, but at that moment, I was trying to decompress my frustration.
We waited outside in the sun, anticipating the arrival of those who would lead us on this tour that now included a horse riding trip. Five minutes later, three malnourished horses came lumbering down the street towards us, ridden by three fierce wranglers riding bareback with loose reins in one hand, and a bamboo crop in the other. A small child appeared out of an alley and gleefully joined our group.
Just a side note. I am not a horse person. I have ridden horses on several occasions, but I have never “loved it”. I have always felt vulnerable and out of control while riding horses. I have never been thrown from a horse, but in this particular moment, I felt uncertainty knowing that the horse would be swimming myself and my guide across a river that was at its flood banks.
We mounted our horses and made our way down a muddy ditch of a trail towards the river. My confidence in our guides had vanished long ago and I tried to watch Heidi, eyeing her guide suspiciously. From the corner of my eye, I caught sight of the small boy from the village who still was trailing us.
Arriving at the riverbank, the muddy water was racing downstream in front of us. I could see where the raft had once been located. The twisted frame of the old dock was covered by mud and vegetation from last week’s flood. The raft was nowhere to be seen. I know that horses can swim, but can they swim with two adults on their backs? I was about to find out.
My horse gingerly passed through the mud into the water. The guide smacked it with the bamboo stick in his hand. I held on tight as it lurched into the river. We sank up to my thighs as the horse lost its footing and the current swept us downstream. With wide eyes, our horse paddled us forward, across the current. 100 yards downstream, the horse regained its footing and lunged up the steep riverbank, into the dense tropical forest.
I awkwardly grabbed the shoulders (waist?) of my guide in order to keep from falling off the back of the horse. We rode into a clearing, where we dismounted from the horses and began the hike to the “cannibal caves”. Looking back towards the river, I saw the boy emerging from the river, having swum after us.
After hiking for a half-mile, we arrived at the base of a limestone cliff. A small stream flowed from the gaping arch-shaped entrance into a dark cave. Karavi handed us small flashlights and led us through the mouth of the cave. The ceiling declined sharply, requiring us to hunch over as we waded through the stream. As we squeezed around a narrow corner, Karavi told us that this was called the “pregnancy gap,” – a part of the cave that one was not likely to fit through if one was pregnant.
Once through the gap, the cave opened into a large limestone cavern with beautiful formations of stalactites and stalagmites. Small alcoves, “rooms” and “shelves” were carved into the rock walls around the cavern. Karavi explained to us how the tribe could hide on the other side of the gap and slaughter their enemies if they dared to enter the cave. He pointed out the “ritual platform” where human sacrifices were made. I began to feel a darkness that was darker than that of the cave. As I looked around, I heard someone wading towards us. Out of the pitch black, I was surprised to once again see the child from the village. He had followed us into the cave.
“Now it is time to see the oven,” Karavi announced.
Walking deeper into the cave our guide pointed us to an amazing limestone formation that was used to cook the victims of the tribe. It looked like a beautiful wood-fired pizza oven. Karavi mentioned that the oven was still full of human bones, although the skulls had all been stolen or taken to museums. To our shock, at that moment, the boy crawled out of the oven with a large bone in his mouth, posing enthusiastically for a photo:
I asked Karavi, “So you are saying that he has a human bone in his mouth?”
“A femur to be exact,” was his response.
Karavi continued, “Now, I would like all of you to turn off your flashlights, to experience true darkness. Imagine how you would find your way out of here without light.”
“I would just follow the water,” Heidi announced. “It would lead us out.”
“Very good!” said Karavi, although I felt that he may have been disappointed that Heidi knew the answer to the riddle. We turned off the lights just long enough to experience the complete darkness of this place of historic bloodshed. At this point, I was ready to get out of there. I was eager for lunch, and I did not want to be lunch.
We followed the water with our guide and exited the cave into the bright light of the early afternoon sunshine. As we were reunited with our horses, I began to wonder if there had been more recent occurrences of cannibalism than the fateful incident with Thomas Baker in 1867. I knew that I needed to do some more research.
Once across the river, my cell phone vibrated as messages appeared in my inbox. To my surprise, I had picked up a faint signal and reception. I seized the opportunity and quickly Googled, “cannibalism in the world today”. An article popped up with the title: “Nine places across the world where cannibalism is still alive and well.” I clicked on it. Confirming my gut feeling and to my great alarm, there on the list was “The Naihehe Caves, Sigatoka, Fiji”. I read on: “The practices have almost died out in recent years with the exception of the Naihehe Caves, home to the last human-eating group on the island.” The article included a gory photograph confirming this allegation. https://www.thesun.co.uk/living/1467880/nine-places-across-the-world-where-cannibalism-is-still-alive-and-well/
“Oh my gosh!” I thought. “This is where we are. This is article is about the people we are with, right now. And they are taking us to lunch!”
Once off our horses, I quickly walked over to Heidi and showed her the article. She laughed, “You can’t believe everything you read on the internet.”
“But you can believe some things on the internet,” I rebuffed. After all, the evidence that these people had a unique taste in barbeque was starting to add up in my overactive mind. Our walk slowed as we made our way back to the village.
“We are going back to the chief’s house for lunch,” Karavi informed us.
“For lunch and traditional dancing, correct?” I asked.
There will be lunch. Maybe we will drink some kava.”
Kava is a traditional drink that also is a mildly narcotic sedative.
“No,” I thought. “They are not going to drug me and then bash me in the skull.”
Once again, we went across the ditch of stagnant water, through the old gate, and into the one-room house of the chief. He had not moved since we had left there, hours earlier. The chief’s wife welcomed us and handed us brown bag lunches. They consisted of egg salad sandwiches, potato chips, and a slice of watermelon. There was no dancing, no festivities, and no kava ceremony. The chief remained transfixed by the rugby game on TV.
I wondered what he was thinking. I wondered if he was hungry. I wondered when the last time was that he had tasted human flesh. I wondered how soon we could leave this village and I wondered if I could get a refund on this tour.
Ten minutes later, we expressed our thanks, avoiding touching the chief’s head, and loaded back into the cab. As we drove away, I noticed the boy standing in the middle of the road watching us as we faded into the distance. We had survived our visit to the “cannibal cave.”
“Be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.”
“Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you.”
• Discernment is the ability to recognize good and evil, and right and wrong. When have you had discernment and when have you failed to use discernment?
• Have you ever felt too close for comfort, to the presence of evil? How did you respond to what you were feeling?