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by Irene Butler
For Travel Writers' Tales

The Firewalkers of Fiji have long baffled scientists with their feat. It is my chance to get to the bottom of this, so to speak, as the chief's son Madigi obligingly raises his ample barefoot in front of my camera, while he and his two companions chuckle at my request.

My wristwatch, mistakenly an hour fast, resulted in my early arrival at Pacific Harbour's Arts Village and in a serendipitous encounter with this shy, lanky 22-year-old firewalker who had come out to the bleachers to meet his friends before the firewalk began. As Madigi leaves, he nods in agreement to my appeal for, "Another photo after the firewalk please."

South Pacific, Firewalkers. Fiji
Before the Firewalk

The Island of Beqa (pronounced mbenga) the home of the legendary firewalkers looms off Pacific Harbour Bay of Viti Levu, the largest Fiji Island. Members of the Sawau Tribe of Beqa have for over 300 years inherited from their forefathers the uncanny ability to walk on scorching rocks.

Spectators soon reach the rafters of the stands facing the large circular mound of rocks covered with blazing logs that have been heating the rocks for four hours.

Joseph, our MC, recounts the lore of how this mastery over fire began long ago with a famous story teller Dredre. "It was customary to trade gifts for stories. When asked by villagers what gift he'd like, he said each should bring the first thing they caught hunting the next day. For one warrior this was an eel, which assumed the shape of a spirit god. In return for being freed the god promised the power to rise unscathed from a four day burial under hot coals. Finding this too frightening, the warrior said he was satisfied to just walk on the burning coals without injury."

"Two weeks prior to the firewalk the participants do not eat coconut and have no contact with females," Joseph says. Audience hands shoot up. "I know…I know what you're thinking with ceremonies Wednesday to Saturday each week," he chortles. "The good news is since Christianity was introduced these taboos have been replaced with prayers before and after."

Levelling scorching rocks

The crowd hushes as Chief Rusiate Roko Tavo strides onto the grassy stage. He lifts his arms and bellows the age old chant that Joseph translates, "as long as our blood flows we can walk on fire" whereupon five young men from this bloodline run out to join him. A row of sacred bala bala leaves form a band of green around the waists of their straw skirts that fall to mid-calf. And if this is not enough to conjure up images of fuel for a flash fire, around their ankles is a band of tinder-dry tree ferns.

The young men using poles clear the burning logs from the rocks and then level the rocks so they will not tilt when tread upon. They bring leaves to place around the edge of the circle.

Chief Tavo Goes First

The chief thunderously calls forth the spirit god. A thick vine hoisted on the shoulders of two men walk on either side of the pit enticing the spirit into the circle, where he will stay until the leaves are removed.

First to step onto the white hot rocks is the chief, who walks slowly to the middle and lingers holding up his arms to the crowd before crossing to the other side. I cringe, thinking of my furious hobble to get off a bit of hot beach sand, yet see no sign of discomfort on his face. One by one the young men follow suit. Lastly the leggy Madigi leaps up with his size 12's and smiles in my direction before he sashays around the sizzling rock bed for longer than I can hold my breath.

Sawau Tribe, Fiji, Bega Island, Legends
Madigi Leaps Up

After the firewalk the women entertain us with a traditional Meke dance. The men then charge out enacting two rivalling chiefs in battle. The loser is dragged to the victor's house and if this had taken place during the island's cannibalistic days the defeated chief would have joined the glory feast, but not in a good way.

At the end of the show Madigi appears along a side path with a dimply grin and points to his foot. I hurry over. As he bares his sole I peer closely at only the same previous bits of grime accumulated from barefoot walking. I click my camera to capture for posterity the inexplicable fact that his slow dance on the searing rocks had no ill effects. And leave wondrously mystified.

South Pacific, Firewalkers
After Firewalk

For more information:
Arts Village is located on the south side of the Fiji island of Viti Levu. As well as cultural attractions and shows there are 50+ shops and 14 eateries in its grounds covering 25 acres.

Photos by Rick Butler:

1. Madigi before firewalk
2. Levelling scorching rocks
3. Chief Tavo goes first
4. Madigi leaps up
5. Madigi after firewalk

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