“The Breakfast of Champions,” Drinking Kava, Fishing for Tuna and Talking Story with a Fijian Chief
by Owen James Burke
The author with “Big Chief” Thava. Photo: Owen James Burke.
I’d spent about 10 days on Fiji’s main island, and while short boat rides to iconic surf breaks and fishing spots around Tavarua and the Yasawa Islands were a real treat, I wanted to find somewhere that had experienced less tampering.
On New Year’s Eve, I found myself boarding a flight to Kadavu (pronounced “Kun-da-vu”). The first European recorded to have landed on Kadavu was none other than Captain William Bligh in 1792, and I’m inclined to believe that not much has changed since, save for a few power generators and a runway just long enough for a small prop plane to make a sheer landing in a notoriously foul wind vortex that has turned back many a flight. (If flying’s not your thing, then you could opt for the several-hours-long ferry ride from the capital, Suva–supposing you’re not prone to seasickness).
A quick visit to a small general store to pick up bread for the week and a 20-minute boat ride across a lagoon landed me at Matana Resort, a dive/eco resort geared toward the eco-conscious which backs up against one of Kadavu’s small, mostly autonomous fishing villages. The resort, which only runs electricity for about 3 to 4 hours a day, supplies the village with enough power to keep the fish in their few freezers chilled.
I dropped my bags off in a classically built Pacific island cottage with louvre windows and bamboo furniture and took a swim in the bluest, cleanest water I’d ever seen. I took a hike up the hill to the main lodge and dining hall where a man introduced to me as “Thava”, a village elder, was sitting with a guitar, drinking Campari and soda. We ate fresh fruit grown by the village and Thava told me how much he’d enjoyed a visit to my country, playing slot machines in Las Vegas and meeting Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. He was a jovial sort. I asked if I might go fishing and catch my first tuna. He told me he would have his nephew take me the following morning, and that because of the new moon, and the new year, he was sure I would catch a tuna.
Thava then politely excused himself and, saying he’d be back later in the evening, went down to the village for dinner.
He did come back that evening, but this time along with a few friends in formal Fijian dress, wearing sulus–similar to a sarong or pareau–and carrying drums, his guitar, and a few wooden bowls. All of a sudden he was being called Chief.
Chief Thava sat down and plucked through an old Kris Kristofferson tune as one of his nephews opened up a bag of what looked like dirt and proceeded to stuff its contents into a small dish rag, which he soaked in a wooden bowl and forged it into a muddy brew by hand.
Above: A bowl of Fiji’s finest. Photo: Gomoa.net.
Kava. I’d been warned about this stuff before. Kava, with its Latin name (Piper methysticum) meaning “intoxicating pepper”, is a removed cousin of the western pepper, a root coveted by many cultures in the tropics for its soothing, numbing medicinal effects.
The Chief initiated the ceremony and half a coconut shell filled with what looked like dishwater began making its way around our circle.
Once, twice, and, well, let’s just say that as the bowl went round and round and the brew grew stronger and stronger, the guitar changed hands and the songs got louder and juicier.
At some point around midnight, the power went out. We relocated to a thatched hut occupied by a family of five, right on the beach. Thava was the only other English speaker, and while my Fijian consisted of about 5 generic phrases, the children of the family got a real kick out of pouring all the kava they could down my gullet.
By now, I couldn’t feel the tip of my tongue or my nose. It was almost as if I’d been clocked in the nose, and not only could I not feel my feet, I could hardly find them. Still, inebriation would not have been the correct word for my kava-induced state. I felt as though my entire body had undergone local anesthesia, while my mind remained perfectly intact.
The next thing I new, I was being pulled to my feet and handed a super soaker squirt gun.
The New Year’s Eve tradition on Kadavu was to wait until midnight when more than half of the village was asleep, before gathering anything that could project noise or carry water – soaking as many people as you could with squirt guns and buckets of seawater.
Of course, many of the children were waiting with wide eyes by their windows, their own artillery locked and loaded. The kids couldn’t get enough of dousing me, the only foreigner some had ever met, and we chased each other out of the jungle, into the water, and back until my breath gave out, at which point a grand finale of waterworks landed on my shoulders.
The evening ended after a starlit swim in the shallows of the lagoon to wash away the sand and sweat. Chief Thava, gazing at the moon, assured me I would catch a tuna the following morning when his son, Cookie, took me out. I had already embarked on more tuna fishing trips than I could count, without so much as a bite, so my hopes were not high, but I told him I’d take his word anyhow.
That morning, after about 3 hours of sleep, Cookie rapped at my shutters with his small fiberglass skiff loaded and ready to go on the beach.
Twenty minutes later, still bleary-eyed while trolling just barely over the edge of the reef, the 50-pound handline I was holding grew tight and pulled my eyes wide open.
The fish ran straight out. I told Cookie I thought it was a jack, or maybe a giant trevally. Then it started to sound, using its broad shoulders to spiral deeper and deeper, as tuna do, and Cookie assured me that I had a yellowfin tuna on the line. Hand over hand, foot by foot, I brought the fish alongside his skiff, he stuck a gaff in its side, and tossed it to me.
My first tuna. Photo: Owen James Burke.
After a few pictures, we decided it was time for the first breakfast of the year. I cut a small fillet from the tail of the fish–usually I’d go straight for the belly, but with no ice or refrigeration aboard, and the midday sun fast approaching, opening the fish up near the visceral cavity would have caused it to spoil). I sliced off a few pieces of sashimi and marinated with a mandarin I’d plucked from the resort on the way out the door. We fished for another few hours without much luck, though I did see a marlin chase a mahi mahi off in the distance on the horizon. On the way in, Cookie’s line went. He picked up another yellowfin of about the same size.
A New Year’s Day breakfast to remember. Photo: Owen James Burke.
We pulled up on the beach, broke open a pair of coconuts and made kokoda, a Fijian variation of Latin American ceviche or Polynesian poisson cru, with coconut milk and chilies. Then it was time to retire to a hammock with a book and escape the noonday sun.
Several days later, and after many bowls of kokoda, it was time for me to bid farewell to Kadavu, the village, and Chief Thava, whom by then I was calling “Big Chief Thava.” Being a humble man, he saw himself as a low man on the totem pole and drew great pleasure from the distinction I had given him.
That morning as I was waiting for my boat to the next island, he met me in the dining hall. It was too early for a drink of alcohol, he said, “but it’s never too early for kava.” I indulged in him, boarded the skiff and propped myself in the stern quarter where, if I lost feeling in my feet, I’d at least not be tossed over the rail. “Ah, the breakfast of champions,” said Thava, polishing off his cup on the beach and waving goodbye as the engines cranked over and we pulled out. -OJB