There’s an extended passage in Apocalypse Now where, on his mission to terminate rogue colonel Walter E. Kurtz, Martin Sheen, as Captain Benjamin Willard, travels up the (fictional) Nung River in a journey that intersperses deep reverie with visceral action.
Absent a tiger attack, visiting Playmates and the descent into madness of Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War masterpiece, my own white-water rafting journey down Fiji’s (very real) Upper Navua River mirrors this mix. Throughout my two-day trip, adrenaline-spiking exhilaration will blend with passages that seem purpose-built to encourage self-contemplation.
The adventurous/contemplative combination begins from the get-go with the bone-rattling 4WD bus ride along logging roads from our base at Pacific Harbour deep into the highlands of Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu (adventurous for those of us who like to wonder if we’ll make it around the next hairpin bend; contemplative for those considering whether breakfast was a good idea).
The trip’s dual character is further emphasised when we reach our rafting jump-off point — the pristine rainforest of the Upper Navua Conservation Area, a sparsely populated area of ethereal beauty that exists through a unique partnership between locals with an interest in the region and our guides for this trip, Rivers Fiji. By the water’s edge, enveloped in the cacophony of the forest, we can only contemplate what awaits us . . .
And around almost the very first bend, under towering, claustrophobic cliffs, comes our initial taste of heart-bursting excitement as we plunge into churning, roiling rapids. “Left paddle, left paddle,” our guide Joe yells, reminding me to plunge my blade deep into the river. “Right paddle, right paddle,” comes Joe’s voice again as my rafting compatriots take their turn at navigation. And just like that we pop free, damp from spray but upright and grinning wildly.
Heartbeats have only just slowed when more white water appears. That’s perhaps the greatest appeal of the Upper Navua — while its rapids top out at grade three, its 26-kilometre length means it’s never long until “paddles ready!” is the cry.
Of course, for every perilous section, there comes a time when you’re free to drift with the current, free to listen to your fellow rafters’ tales, free to lose yourself in your own thoughts, whether lying back in the warmth of the boat, or overboard in the refreshingly cool river waters.
That’s our recipe for day one: white-water thrills; laid-back chills. And it sees us through to the pop-up riverside campsite where we’ll spend the night.
Here, the day’s thrills give way to a far slower rhythm with a visit, in the company of guides Joe, Pita and Moses, to the village on the opposite shore. There, in the company of the village chief and his elders, kava is (repeatedly) passed and drunk and introductions and explanations are made. Outside, the night comes alive with sound, while inside the low murmur of conversation (and, no doubt, the kava) lends a semi-hypnotic air to proceedings. It’d be easy to lose ourselves here, but eventually it’s time to return to camp where a traditional pit-cooked dinner awaits.
Whether it’s the kava, the feast of pig, chicken and fish I demolish, or the day’s exertions, I sleep deeply and wake only as the last remnants of overnight fog burn off to reveal the single-person inflatable kayaks we’ll use to complete our trip.
Flying solo requires more physical effort than yesterday. This, plus the need to avert kayak-meets-riverbank collisions, also means fewer occasions for self-reflection, and it seems no time until we reach our off-water side trip — a trek to the most powerful waterfall to spill in the Navua. We hear this mighty beast long before we see it. But then we break free of the canopy and before us rears a torrent, bursting over cliffs to plunge 30 metres onto broken rock.
We stand in silent awe. Not Joe, who scampers fearlessly over the moss-clad surface and vanishes behind the falls. And then he is back, trailing a rope attached to the rock wall. It’s our turn to follow in his footsteps. If navigating the Navua was a challenge to the senses, this is a different level entirely: an unrelenting assault on sight, sound and touch as I enter this roaring, pummelling, battering wall of water. But then I’m through and only the thunder of the falls inches in front of me remains. Now this is white water!
Ultimately, though, I have to brave a return trip. No time for contemplation; just grab the rope and go, go, go!
Safely back at our kayaks, it’s only a final, short paddle past rolling green foothills to our rendezvous with the pencil boat that will effortlessly ferry us on the last leg of our adventure.
And it’s here that my split-personality journey comes full circle as, to the pulsing throb of our transport’s engine, I take one last chance to lose myself in contemplation . . . contemplation of how fortunate it is that places such as the Upper Navua Conservation Area exist, and of how fortunate I was to experience it in the company of locals who take such pride in ensuring it remains a place where adrenaline and escape mix so easily.
Top and tail your on-river exertions with a relaxing beachside stay at the Uprising Beach Resort in Pacific Harbour (uprisingbeachresort.com).
Fiji Airways (fijiairways.com) flies from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane direct to Nadi.
Overnight rafting safaris will run from February, departing Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The minimum number of rafters is four and the maximum is 26. Visit riversfiji.com for more information.