Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park is not just an oceanside ecosystem. It’s also the site of major archeological discoveries that link Fiji to East Asia.
The lovely view of the Korotogo lagoon from the house at which we stay in Fiji extends to the Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park. On a clear day from the top of the hill here, we not only hear the roar of the surf as it breaks along the Coral Coast, but see the breakers crash against the sand in the distance, raising all sorts of spray.
Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park was established in the late 1980s as Fiji’s very first national park, and has been proposed as a UNESCO heritage site. Its fragile ecosystem supports a variety of wildlife and flora, including a second growth forest of mahogany trees just inland from the dunes’ ridgeline.
Legend has it that the sand dunes were formed when two spirit gods, Tamaku and Vodovata, came to this area because it was famous for rich clay soil and peaceful people. Tamaku stole some of the valuable clay and put it in a basket. When confronted by Vodovata about his theft, Tamaku dropped his basket of clay into the ocean, forming Vatulele Island (about 25km off the Coral Coast). Tamaku then flew back toward the land and began to throw sandstone rocks which fell along the coastline. The largest of these was crumbled by Vodovata over the coral coast, forming the dunes.
The mouth of the Sigatoka River was attractive to ancient people of the Lapita culture, who had come eastward beginning around 3000 years ago from Southeast Asia and the Philippines to New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago. Their migration spread from the South Solomon Islands and Vanuatu to Fiji and New Caledonia, and then beyond to Samoa, Tonga and the Marquesas. The Sigatoka delta provided Lapita artisans with the raw materials to make their intricately designed pottery, as well as fertile soil for growing food and rich marine life.
Archeological excavations beginning in the 1960s have revealed a burial site here which dates from around the 1st century. Containing the remains of more than 70 individuals beneath and around existing coral mounds, this site is the largest of its kind and age in the South Pacific.
On a recent visit to Sigatoka Sand Dunes, we walked the shorter of two loop trails beginning from the Visitors Center on Queens Highway.
Cheerful reminders about personal safety were posted at various locations.
The trail descended over the first ridgeline to the dune area beyond. The dunes, which range from 20 to 60 meters high, are creeping inland at the rate of about 3 meters per year.
The shorter loop veers westward along the shore to an activities area. There was a stark vibe as we moved among the driftwood tipis and gathering circle constructed by children’s groups. The Park has a considerable number of programs designed for schools and special interest groups. It was easy to imagine similar structures sheltering new arrivals to this place eons ago.
Pete thought it might be fun to camp overnight in one of these tipis. I disagreed. I felt a sad sort of presence here. UPDATE: October 12, 2015. On our flight out of Fiji today, the airline magazine referenced an additional myth. There is a small valley in the dunes which Fijians refer to as “Nadrio” (“darkness”). Their belief is that this valley is a portal or gateway to the underworld. Their legend says that Degei, the snake god, became angry and sent a huge wave which buried a village in the sand. The neighboring villagers in Kulukulu believe that the spirits of these dead can be heard within the dunes.
The trail turns inland here, and there is a clear demarcation where visitors aren’t allowed. The sand was undisturbed and looked like it must have centuries before.
The path leads into a second-growth mahogany forest planted in the 1960s. Along the way there are places to rest and reflect.
Along the forest path we encountered ghostly little tree huggers the children had built. We thought these whimsical apparitions made a perfect artistic statement as to the importance of nature to the people, as well as mahogany to the Fijian economy.
Walking this route had me thinking of home. I spent my childhood summers playing at the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Monument, which has its own native legend, and other dunes along the shores of Lake Michigan. As well, the satisfying crunch our footsteps made on the leaf-strewn path had us thinking of other autumns in the American Midwest.
Our walk on the short loop took us about twice as long as the hour which is typically estimated. We ambled slowly, taking our time. While there were other visitors to the park, we seemingly had it to ourselves, encountering only the one ranger away from the Visitor Center. That’s about as perfect an experience you might hope to get.
Tips and Practicalities:
The entrance to Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park, which is managed by the National Trust of Fiji, is located on the Queens Highway ten minutes west of Sigatoka (about 90 minutes from the international airport in Nadi). Two trails, the short loop (about one hour) and the long loop (about two hours), lead visitors through a variety of ecosystems. Some elevations are steep. Open daily 8am – 5pm. Admission is $10FJD per adult. Bottled water, other beverages and ice cream available for purchase at the Visitors Center.