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Donkin on Travel

1997, Fiji

Cook Islands

Shoals of sprats, attracted by the ship lights, were sacrificing themselves on the landing deck at the rear of the boat, allowing the captain to bait his hand-line for larger fish. A tall Australian, one of the passengers, eager to impress his new bride, scooped up a handful of the small fish and crammed them into his mouth, swallowing them live.

Most of those sailing on the Mystique Princess, a cruise ship operating out of Lautoka, Fiji, were on their honeymoon. It had been raining for three days in a part of the world where the brochure photographs suggest it never rains. The cyclone season should have finished - but it was raining and one was on its way.

Inside the dining room a Japanese woman joined our table with her husband. She was wearing a T-shirt with a photograph of herself in a bunny-girl outfit. "I got it in Las Vegas," she said. Her husband looked on proudly. Love and the weather makes people do curious things.

We worried about the cyclone. Many of the palm groves on the Yasawa chain of islands, visited by the cruise ship, were in tatters from a previous storm earlier in the season.

Cyclones apart, the Yasawas are far more hospitable today than they used to be. Captain William Bligh and his castaways sailed by there after the mutiny on the Bounty in 1789. They were fortunate to outsail two pursuing Fijian war canoes - double-hulled boats called druas. Capture by the Fijians was dreaded by European mariners.

The first missionaries to Fiji tended to get eaten. The tactic was to convert the chief before he converted you...into lunch. It was touch and go at times. "One missionary, called Thomas Baker was eaten whole," said Alan Florian, cruise director. "The only bits left were his shoes, which they couldn't chew."

John Williams, the first white missionary - the London Missionary Society sent converted Tahitians initially - lasted longer than most before he appeared on the menu. Some of the cannibalistic practices made grisly but absorbing reading for Victorians already primed on gothic horror.

Eating captives was routine for the average Fijian chief, sometimes raw and bit by bit while they were still alive and standing in his presence. One missionary, William Wyatt Gill, described the method of cooking thighs, the prime joint of human. The meat was wrapped in leaves and placed on preheated stones set in the ground in a lovo oven, the traditional cooking method of the Pacific.

It is no surprise to find that David Cargill, a Wesleyan missionary who established a written form of the language for the islands, was chosen to go there during a meeting held in his absence. The locals would play football with people's heads outside his house, just to unnerve him. He went mad in the end before he became yet another foreign delicacy to grace a Fijian chief's table.

All this was at a time when the British were colouring the world pink. Today Fiji is largely Christian, it has the Queen's portrait on its dollar notes and has just rejoined the Commonwealth after 10 years outside following a coup in 1987.

The Queen might view the request with mixed emotions. Initial elation will be tempered by the knowledge that rejoining the commonwealth would demand a royal visit, not itself an unpleasant venture. But the participatory feasting involves the compulsory drinking of Kava, called Yaqona in Fiji, a drink made from ground roots of a plant in the pepper family. It tastes and looks like diluted mud.

We drank the brew on a visit to Malakati, a village of about 250 people on Nacula island. It was raining so we were entertained to the local dances in a village hall. The dances included a version of the Meke or farewell dance traditionally performed by the wives of chiefs upon their husband's death before they were ritually strangled to keep him company in the spirit world.

That a few days in Fiji should be dominated by stories of death and strangulation might have had something to do with the influence on the psyche of the unseasonal rain and cloud. It was impossible even to lie under a coconut tree without a sense of unease.

Death by coconut is not unknown, according to Eroni Puamau, marketing officer for the Fiji Visitors' Bureau. "There was a chap killed by a coconut as he slept in the north of the island a while back. It is something we have to take seriously," he said. Most resorts now remove the coconut before they mature. Still, it is best to check the state of coconut emasculation before you rest your head for the afternoon on that palm-fronded beach.

The normally sunny beaches had been transformed into the sort that in Britain would be dotted by windshields and sandcastles. The snorkelling was fine because it was just as wet beneath the surface as above but the colours of the fish and corals were faded without the brightness of the sun.

There were compensations, however. One of the honeymooners, an American folk singer, was persuaded to forgo the odd early night to entertain the rest of us. I would like to say that we sang under a starry sky by swaying palm trees but we never saw the stars.

We escaped the hurricane with a few hours to spare, jetting out for New Zealand. The stop in Auckland allowed time for lunch at a vineyard. I ventured into a stretch of forest, this time coconut free.

"Watch your head," said my companion as we passed by a tall tree. Large tree orchids nestled in its branches. "They can kill if they fall on you," she said. "We call them widowers." I never knew that trees could be so hazardous.

© Financial Times

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