The World’s Toughest Race: Eco Challenge Fiji – waterfalls and flying pigs

Written by Joji Tamani. Photos courtesy of Brian Finestone.

Looking back, it now seems like a lifetime ago. My time scoping out the course for the The World’s Toughest Race: Eco Challenge Fiji with the coordination team is a bit of a haze: weeks in the bush, a fair bit of kava and newspaper rolled tobacco, sore legs, split shins, but always amazing fun! I saw parts of Fiji’s interior that I’ll probably never see again. This would be one of the highlights of my life. After professional rugby that is.

Meeting the production and race course coordination team for the first time was something I was anticipating with a bit of fear and loads of excitement. Having arrived late at the Grand Pacific Hotel, I aimed for the first empty chair only to be met with a “‘Who are you?”; “I am Joji”, and I mumbled rather incomprehensibly that I worked with Matt, pointing him out as he had been in the meeting when it started. The questioner was Scott Flavelle and next to him was Kevin Hodder, fist extended for a fist-bump. There was going to be lots of that fist-bumping thing. This was my first introduction to the race course team leaders, along with Phil Gautier and Ryan Vrooman. Brian Finestone joined us a week or two later.

These were the guys that I had the opportunity to adventure with during the initial scoping of the 671 kilometres of the Eco Challenge Fiji race course. Over the next few weeks, the race coordination team would paddle, sail, hike, bike, and rappel every meter of the race course. It needed to be tough, but not impossible!

Matt and I had done some pre-scoping stuff earlier – lots of testing and mapping of different options, and a lot of working out which sections of dense forest were just too dense. Old logging tracks and the knowledge of pig hunters proved to be invaluable in working out different routes. An area that we had pre-scoped, but was not used during the race itself was the old track from Navilawa up to Mount Batilamu, then off track via a hairy waterfall descent to Abaca village.

It was pretty tough going even with Pauliasi from Navilawa and Abaca resident helping us to find our way in the bush. I think we managed about 1.5km/hour pace! I remember telling the guys how at night, I would wake myself up because I was still swinging my cane knife in my dreams. Too much cutting if you ask me.  

The toughness is hopefully obvious for anyone who’s had chance to watch the show. But it wasn’t all tough! There were also many highlights of this assignment or, as Scott corrected me, “expedition”, and those highlights were generally signalled by the guys coming back to the vehicle with a ‘yay’-like smile.

A small team had come at the beginning of the year. My role gradually changed from just driving the team around to playing more of a liaison role and getting to hike and test out the course with the team. It was hard trying to keep up with Kev. The Namosi / Naitasiri border is definitely on the wet side of the island – dense rainforest, gorges and waterfalls. There was a lot of slipping on the rocks, banging your shins for most of the day, but I also got to see some incredible waterfalls that can only be accessed on foot.

The pig hunters seem to float on these slippery rocks – definitely a sight to see and envy. At the time, in the rain and with night closing in, the fire the guys from the village got going was very much welcomed. We got ourselves and our clothes as dry as we could ahead of our next challenge. 

Another day, another waterfall. By now our shins were sore and swelling and getting on a pack raft was a welcome relief. I was not familiar with pack rafting and was finding it hard going, slowing down the team. Looking for another option, I remembered that the pig hunters mentioned tracks along the river. I found one and hiked the rest of that section. Kevin was concerned and asked whether an athlete from the US would find the track. I joked, maybe a Kiwi would, if they asked the right questions to the villagers. 

The next day we were on to the dry side of the island and testing another long hike. But, even on the dry side, there are still plenty of waterfalls! At the next one I did my first abseil/rappelling. It was awesome! Kevin was asking the landowners if there were any significant stories about the falls. I think he meant whether there were any legends or stories of cultural significance.

Anyone for a SUP? Photo courtesy of Brian Finestone.
Anyone for a SUP? Photo courtesy of Brian Finestone.

Instead, they told us a story about a goat that had got stuck at the top of the falls. Freeing itself the goat fell into the pool below. The guys ran to the bottom of the falls to check it out and by the time they got there they were surprised to discover that the goat was gutted, cleaned and was ready to be cooked. Their message – the falls provide.

Later, I was chatting with the guys from the village when I hear a “thud”. In one quick movement, one of them got up, grabbed a cane knife leaning on a log, and was off. I followed not sure what was going on, but seeing some movements in front of him as he whacked what I thought was an eel, it turned out to be a pig. The pig had fallen from the top of the falls. I yelled out, “Kev true story, the falls provide!” showing him the pig. Unreal.

Looking back, what stands out is that we were always having fun, whether it be trivia questions during the long drives, favourite bands or the like. Towards the end of our scoping, we were on a hike and knowing that Scott and Kevin were always asking about mobile reception, I asked the villagers if there was anywhere nearby. They pointed us in the direction of “Facebook rock”.

Scott asked me to head up to the rock so he could try it out signal. We started joking around and acting silly, “Hello?”, “Who’s this?”, “Pizza delivery”. Kevin gives us a withering look and mutters, “and they’re entrusting us with this production”. We all cracked up as we tried to catch up with the rest of the team.

It was all serious stuff, but to not have a laugh every now and again would be a bit boring I guess. It was after this hike that Scott and Kevin gathered everyone around and talked to us about us being the only ones who know the entire race course, what the athletes will have to go though, and how everything now changes as we go from a crew of 5 to 500. It dawned on me then, how big Eco Challenge Fiji was going to be.

Joji Tamani is the Trip Coordinator at Talanoa Treks. He’s always happy to meet up for a coffee or a bowl of kava and help others plan their adventures. Photos are courtesy of Brian Finestone, the mountain bike coordinator for Eco Challenge Fiji.