The Firewalkers of Fiji have long baffled scientists with their feat. It is my chance to get to the bottom of this, so to speak, as the chief's son Madigi obligingly raises his ample barefoot in front of my camera before the fire walk. This shy, lanky 22-year-old chuckles and nods in agreement to my request for anther photo after the fire walk.
The Island of Beqa (pronounced mbenga) the home of the legendary fire-walkers looms off the coast of Viti Levu, the largest Fiji Island and where this ceremony is taking place at the Pacific Harbour Arts Village. Members of the Sawau Tribe of Beqa have, for over 300 years, been passed from their forefathers the uncanny ability to walk on scorching rocks.
Spectators fill the stands facing the large circular mound of rocks piled with blazing logs that have been heating the rocks for four hours.
Joseph, our MC, recounts the lore of how this mastery over fire began long ago with a famous story-teller Dredre. "It was customary to trade gifts for stories. When asked by villagers what gift he'd like, he said each should bring the first thing they caught hunting the next day. For one warrior this was an eel, which assumed the shape of a spirit god. In return for being freed, the god promised the power to rise unscathed from a four day burial under hot coals. Finding this too frightening, the warrior
said he was satisfied to just walk on the burning coals without injury."
"Two weeks prior to the fire walk, the participants do not eat coconut and have no contact with females," Joseph says. Audience hands shoot up. "I know, I know what you're thinking with ceremonies every week," he chortles. "The good news is since Christianity was introduced these taboos have been replaced with prayers before and after."
The crowd hushes as Chief Rusiate Roko Tavo strides onto the grassy stage. He lifts his arms and bellows the age old chant that Joseph translates, "as long as our blood flows we can walk on fire" whereupon five young men from this bloodline run out to join him. A row of sacred bala bala leaves form a band of green around the waists of their straw skirts that fall to mid-calf. And if this is not enough to conjure up images of fuel for a flash fire, around their ankles is a band of tinder-dry tree ferns.
The young men using poles clear the burning logs from the rocks and then level the rocks so they will not tilt when tread upon. They bring leaves to place around the edge of the circle.
The chief thunderously calls forth the spirit god. A thick vine hoisted on the shoulders of two men walk on either side of the pit enticing the spirit into the circle, where he will stay until the leaves are removed.
First to step onto the white hot rocks is the chief, who walks slowly to the middle and lingers holding up his arms to the crowd before crossing to the other side. I cringe, thinking of my furious hobble to get off a bit of hot beach sand, yet see no sign of discomfort on his face. One by one the young men follow suit. Lastly, the leggy Madigi leaps up with his size 12's and sashays around the sizzling rock bed for longer than I can hold my breath.
After the fire walk the women entertain us with a traditional Meke dance. The men then charge out enacting two rivalling chiefs in battle. The looser is dragged to the victor's house and if this had taken place during the island's cannibalistic days the defeated chief would have been part of the glory feast, but not in a good way.
At the end of the show, Madigi appears along a side path with a dimply grin and points to his foot. I hurry over. As he bares his sole, I peer closely at only the same bit of grime accumulated from barefoot walking as before. I click my camera to capture for posterity the inexplicable fact that his slow dance on the searing rocks had no ill effect. And leave wondrously mystified.
Irene Butler writes for Canadian and US newspapers and magazines. She has trekked thru 69 countries with a focus on culture and history and off-the-beaten path travel.
If you go
Fiji is composed of 333 islands in the South Pacific, 1305m (2100km) north of Auckland, New Zealand. The population adopts you the minute you arrive and the islands confer a rare tranquility, being that the total population numbers less than 900,000. Viti Levu, the largest island is known for its sandy beaches, rainforests, swaying cane fields and vibrant towns. Fiji's adventure activities such as safaris to a Fijian village, diving, white water rafting, hiking, and fishing can be enjoyed all-year-round as the maximum temperatures rarely move out of the 79°F (26°C) to 88°F (31°C) range, the winter months of May -November are the driest. Accommodations range from 5-star resorts/spas to staking out a Robinson Crusoe experience on a remote island.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/
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