Are you staying or are you planning on staying in Fiji’s Coral Coast? Would you like to see a little bit of Fijian history? Then I might have just the right thing for you. The Tavuni Hill Fort can be easily reached from most Coral Coast properties and is a fine example of Fijian culture and history. Why you should visit? It’s not just because of the views but because I think that this place is pretty special indeed.
I have to admit that I am not the kind of person who can happily spend an entire week drinking cocktails around the pool. I have a severe case of itchy feet, and I need to explore my surroundings as thoroughly as possible. Travel for me is always an opportunity to discover new and exciting places. My poor husband is quite the opposite in that regard, but once in a while he will give in and join me on my “adventures” around my travel destination.
When staying in Fiji’s Coral Coast I was almost dying of cabin fever. We had been a bit unlucky with the weather and had been restricted to our hotel room for a couple of days. So as soon as the weather forecast promised half a day of sunshine we set off.
Our day trip destination was to be one of the most untainted, raw and intimate archeological sites you could ever imagine, the remains of an ancient Fiji-Tongan hill fort: Tavuni Hill Fort. It is located just 4km north of Sigatoka town on a 90 metre high limestone ridge and is easily accessible by taxi.
A raw site, untouched by archeology
In the past I have seen many old structures, such as Edinburgh Castle, the Alhambra, the Coliseum, Ephesos, and Ancient Olympia. And as awe-inspiring each one of them might be, they had all one thing in common. They all had been studied and analysed, preserved for the future, curated by historians and opened to the public with a predominately educational intention. With Tavuni this is different.
A little bit about the history of this ancient site of Tavuni Hill Fort. The hill was originally settled and fortified by a Tongan clan under chief Maile Latamai who occupied the hill in 1800. According to oral tradition, the young and powerful Maile Latamai had left Tonga after a dispute with another family. After a voyage that took him to many other places (details here vary from legend to legend) he had come to settle in this very spot.
The area around Tavuni was of course already occupied by Fijian people, so over time the Tongans assimilated into the Fijian culture. Back in the day there was already a steady cultural exchange between Fiji and Tonga, with many young men changing islands to learn the art of warfare. Quite surprisingly, to this day descendants of the great chief can still be found in the neighbourhood of Tavuni Hill.
The fort was destroyed in 1876 together with other forts nearby which ended a rebellion by the local tribes (the Kai Colo) against the British. The rebellion was called the Colo Wars. In 1874, coastal tribes had signed the Deed of the Cession to Great Britain which resulted in an upheaval by the inland tribes. The Kai Colo had been overlooked in the process and hadn’t been part of the negotiations. The coastal tribes had been foes to the Kai Colo for generations, so this move didn’t help in the peacemaking process at all.
When a measles epidemic broke out a year after, killing around a quarter of the indigenous population, the Kai Colo people considered this a strategic manoeuvre of the British occupiers. The Kai Colo went on a rampage through the valley, destroying many villages in their way. The British acted swiftly and crushed the uprising by attacking and destroying military strongholds including Tavuni Hill Fort.
The villagers as caretakers of Tavuni Hill Fort
Today’s descendants now live in the village of Naroro to the foot of the hill, which you will pass through on your arrival. These villagers are now caretakers of the site, which is great as they have such a strong connection to it.
So if you would like to visit Tavuni Hill Fort, your guide might be a lovely local woman from the village who knows all the stories about cannibalism, rebellion, and human sacrifice. She is also an excellent guide when it comes to the native plants, pointing out curry leaves here and bush chilli there.
What makes this site so special in my view is that besides the guide there is no other way of telling that you are in one of the most significant historic sites of Fiji. There are no elaborate signs here, hardly any explanations. Yet, our lovely guide helped us understand and read the site so that it all came alive in front of our eyes. There are no signs of archeological diggings here, nothing is done to preserve the condition of the fort.
At Tavuni you will walk on hundreds and thousands of sea shells – quite obviously a regular part of the former inhabitants’ diet. To think that these shells have been lying around here for more than a 100 years, untouched, is quite remarkable.
You can also make out the foundations and the raised platforms of the houses. Thanks to the knowledge that has been passed down within the village community our guide was even able to point out the locations of the former chief’s house and the priest’s house.
There’s also the killing stone, in clear sight, though now split in two due to weathering. Our guide is more than happy to explain how enemies and other unlucky individuals were clubbed to death here. At least there could be worse spots to kick the bucket – the stone is perfectly located to overlook the surrounding countryside. Possibly this was an important part of the ritual.
Amazing views of Sigatoka River
So yes, there are plenty of great lookouts here at Tavuni Fort, from the picnic area which is next to the caretaker house to the site of the chief’s house. There is also a patchwork construction of a timber lookout point that we’d rather not tested for sturdiness. We’ve been told that couples have already tied the knot here. It’s an amazing moment, standing on the hill which dominates the surrounding lush countryside, with the broad Sigatoka river negotiating its way through the hilly landscape. You can make out a bright and colourful Hindu temple from here, and when you listen carefully you can even hear voices and music from the nearby village.
Tavuni Hill Fort is no longer a complete site. Rain, wind and sunshine definitely will continue to erode the structures at a steady pace. Standing here under the tall trees, surrounded by stone remains and sea shell middens, it is hard to imagine that this place used to be home to around 56 dwellings. It has been reconstructed that there have been a number of ring ditches protecting the village as well as a ring of thorny citrus trees. You can still make out earth ovens, and some of the trees still standing here used to be used for ritual purposes or food.
In the 1980’s a surveyor team came to the conclusion that this hill fort must have been just one of many heavily fortified settlements in the Sigatoka Valley. Due to the deeply eroded landscape this part of Fiji was ideal to build defensive structures without the need of much earthwork. So when you think about it, this fort is just exemplary for a generations of people who have been living in this valley for centuries.
Tavuni Hill Fort, as it turned out, was a fantastic place to visit. Such a great way of seeing the real Fiji, not the carefully crafted tourist experience in a five-star resort but an unfiltered view into the culture and the history of this fascinating South Pacific nation.
What was your favourite historic site so far? Let me know in the comments. And please do make sure you scroll to the bottom of the post for more stunning photos of the site!
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