Admire the unparallelled beauty of Coral Coast national park
FORMER Fiji Rugby International Kini Sarai is reminded almost daily of the intense fitness training sessions he had to complete in the unforgiving Sigatoka Sand Dunes.
Now creeping closer to 50, he almost cringes as he recalls running up and down the beige-coloured dunes where each step swallows you up past your ankles like quicksand and burns the calves.
But there is method to the madness, as older Australians may recall.
Relentless sand dune training is what eccentric coach Percy Cerutty put Herb Elliott through in the lead-up to his 1500 metres victory by the largest margin at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
These days, Kini is able to conquer the dunes of this Coral Coast national park at a more leisurely pace as Outrigger on the Lagoon Resort activities manager.
The still deceptively fit former fullback likes nothing better than to introduce resort guests to the wonders of the 650ha park that lies only a few kilometres west of Sigatoka town and his resort.
The highest dune is said to be 60m but, as Kini says, it is hard to measure because of the ever-changing typography of shifting sands - the result of the fierce south-east trade winds.
Today on his group walk, Kini is accompanied by National Trust of Fiji community ranger Mereia Inoke - a veritable encyclopaedia of knowledge on the area.
Like Kini, she is passionate about the delicate ecosystem and its conservation and calls the national park her "safe haven".
She greets us at Sigatoka Sand Dunes Information Centre - the starting point for our morning commune with nature.
The information centre has evidence of the ancient Lapita people on display, and remnants of their daily lives more than 2600 years ago are still being uncovered in the sand dunes.
As we survey the coastal panorama from Yataga Lookout above a grassy firebreak track, Mereia tells us that outside Australia and New Zealand, this is the largest and most significant archaeological site in the Pacific.
She confesses she took two years to see her work here as more than a job. But now she loves it and enjoys sharing what she has learned.
"We have to protect what we have and to try to appreciate what nature has provided and what we have around us," she says.
The last time I ventured here, my surf-mad family dragged me over the scalding midday sand dunes with our ranger guide Sisa leading the way to the consistently good shorebreak near the mouth of the Sigatoka River.
Today, we take a less direct but far more scenic and pleasant route.
Throughout the 4.5km circuit, we move through ever-changing scenery from dry beach forest to open coastal heathland, up and down little Sahara dunes to the foreshore and finally through the secondary forest of exotic mahogany trees planted in the 1960s to halt sand encroachment on the nearby Queens Highway.
I am happy to see that nothing has changed in the ensuing eight years, with the same tranquillity and Robinson Crusoe feeling as we walk the black mineral-sand beach strewn with driftwood and stroll barefoot in the cool, clean waters of the foreshore.
Apart from a "runaway" horse dragging his master's rope and his companion dog on the beach, plus a few bushwalkers in the park, our group has this national treasure all to ourselves.
Kini and Mereia point out bush-medicine remedies, talk about plant pests and stop here and there to highlight specific trees and plants, insects and birds.
But the most unusual inhabitants we encounter are the "tree-huggers".
Made from vines and branch litter, these two characters have been born of Mereia's artistic creativity to highlight the park's ongoing community and global programs covering everything from reafforestation to volunteer work.
They help Mereia tell the story of the world's first recorded tree-huggers - 363 villagers in Rajasthan, in the Indian Himalayas, who sacrificed themselves in 1730 to protect khejri trees (that their community depended on) from loggers.
More than 240 years later on March 26, 1974, Gaura Devi and 27 other women from Reni - another village in India - confronted loggers and hugged trees to prevent them being axed.
More villagers joined the protest and after four days of stalemate, the loggers left empty-handed.
When the chief minister later ruled in favour of the villagers, the Chipko movement was born and inspired people around the world to take a stand against environmental destruction.
Now, nearly 40 years on, Mereia and Kini are doing their bit to create a new generation of tree huggers in Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park.