For Want of Water: A Voyage of Fortune and Discovery into Fiji’s Forbidden Realm

Nem, a crewman whom we've renamed Sugar Bear, sturdy with a pronounced buddha's belly looming happily over his stout legs, casually wearing an unknowing smile that cancels the threat of his giant's frame, effortlessly raises the boat's 40 horsepower prop so that it barely skims the ocean's surface. The tide is dangerously low; a thin veneer of water just covers coral heads sprouting out of sandy keyholes, and our skiff hovers precariously over the reef. We sit quiet and unmoving as wispy patches of clouds intermittently block the full moon and the humming propeller cuts a slow path. Betraying my instinct to let go of this incredible experience, I take one last glance at the island. In the small church the lanterns still burn dimly, the voices still harmonize into a single profound song. The bright sounds fetter us to the village, but we reluctantly push away.

Our group is an unlikely patchwork of professional surfers and photographers brought together by our Fijian guide Ian Ravouvou Muller, and we had been summoned to the village this evening to meet the local people of Matuku. Five days ago we gained permission from chief Ratu Alipate Baleilakeba to surf this island's forbidden reef passes, a collection of virgin waves that no expedition had fully uncovered. Tonight we had come to extend our own offering: a black garbage bag teeming with clothing, sunglasses and footwear, a box of medical supplies, a modest stack of books and magazines, a haul of photographs, and snacks for the children. An hour before, this assortment of gifts had looked substantial, but as the villagers, hundreds of them, poured through the church doors to sit with us on the frond-covered floor, the plastic sack seemed pathetic and inadequate.

As weak light from oil lanterns cast dancing shadows on the church's four walls, and we took seats on the floor with the local people, they introduced themselves for the first time, admitting that they'd been watching us surf for days from the secret windy heights of their verdant island.

They plied us with kava, a drink of silt water distilled from a native yagona root, equal parts ceremony and sedative. They offered coffee and cakes. And then they sang—first one lone tenor, then an erupting chorus of baritone measured by synchronized hand claps resonating throughout the church. I turned to Ratu Alipate. I asked him what the song meant. "They sing of Matuku. The song says we are good, we welcome people. Come to Matuku." He is over-exuberant and thirsty for more visitors like us to infuse the island with new life. A plastic bowl separates our party from four plump women wrapped in grass skirts, wearing lavishly crafted leis around their necks and vibrant headbands in their hair, sitting cross-legged on the thatched mats of the church floor, performing the meke, arms dancing across their giant torsos. One by one, we take turns depositing our Fijian bills into the suppliant dish, bridging the cultural divide with each slip of paper currency we offer. The sound is beautiful, the sentiment lovely.

Before long, we've given all we can. An island with a history of resistance has proven itself unequivocally generous, and we've returned in kind, but the 21st century can't be ushered in overnight. As the charming nuances of island life unveil themselves this evening, it's apparent that these people never knew the resources that existed in their waves, and are excited at the thought of more benevolent journeyers like us.

Alipate speaks to his people in Fijian. The room settles, his voice the only sound. Occasionally, he taps me on the knee as though in explanation. I pick out the word "magazine" and understand. His islanders, and he himself, haven't seen outsiders on Matuku before.

Too soon, it's 11 o'clock, time to begin our long northern voyage back to Viti Levu, Fiji's main island. I glance around the room one last time. The oil in the lanterns low, the light weak. The people thank us, the songs continue.

Barefoot, I walk outside, across the tall grass, the wind carrying on it the scent of the ocean, refreshing after the stuffy heat of the church. Soon we're on the beach, exchanging goodbyes, wading through knee-high water, sinking in the sea grass, feeling with our feet a way to the boat.

Aboard the skiff, prop whirling dutifully, my heart sinks. I look at Sugar Bear—tall, thick, strong, scarred, amiable—looking every bit worth his name. He smiles faintly, and queries me. "Good?" I nod in agreement. Good indeed.