They say ‘travel broadens your mind and widens your horizons’, and that you can learn a lot from a trip that you wouldn’t initially have accounted for. That’s certainly true of the tour I planned for my wife’s birthday with Nautilus Adventure Tours, a boutique tourism operator in Nadi.
Fiji is renowned for its stunning white sandy beaches and turquoise waters, however, we digressed to venture into the jagged interior of Viti Levu across the Nausori Highlands. The Nausori Highlands feature mountainous terrains, green moguls, spilling waterfalls and small villages smeared across the hills.
Our journey with Nautilus and Howard (Owner / Operator) undoubtedly brought to life a few learnings about how a business should approach its customers and how even a boutique operator can give back to the community it serves.
The Big Fella
Meeting Howard was an experience.
We had been told to expect someone from the company to pick us up at home for the start of the tour, and a large Ford Ranger pulled up at the stroke of 9am with an almost equally large man behind the wheel. Howard seemed to bounce out of the driver’s seat almost before the vehicle had come to a complete stop, and strode right up to us with his huge hand outstretched and a big, friendly grin on his face.
He knew both of our names without being told and seemed genuinely pleased to meet us. Howard chatted about what an absorbing time we were in for during the perhaps three seconds it took him to load our bags into the car with one hand and holding the door for us with the other. All the way out to pick up the rest of our party, he kept up a steady stream of talk about our plans and expressed a spirited interest in everything we told him about ourselves. By the time we convened with the others in our small group, it felt as if Howard was an old mate tagging us along on a friendly road trip.
That’s us below with the big fella.
Viti Levu is the largest island in the Fijian archipelago where low-lying coastal towns and roads give way to the interior of a lushly forested central highland that goes up as high as 1,300 meters. It’s not a long drive, but there is a lot to see on the way. At least, it seemed there was a lot to be seen, if only because Howard knew the history of every house and shrub on the route and kept us enthralled with facts and anecdotes about them all. Thanks to his encyclopedic knowledge of the terrain we were covering, we got to our first stop feeling like we’d lived in Fiji our whole lives.
Mulomulo Primary School
Our first stop came about 10 minutes into the drive, with a visit to Mulomulo Primary School. Fiji’s temperamental weather has done a number on this school’s buildings, and there isn’t much to observe from the outside. We certainly weren’t expecting to find a functional computer lab on the grounds let alone a powerful air conditioner that kept the inland summer temperatures in the tolerable-to-human-life range.
It turns out that this lab was part of the school’s reciprocal relationship with Nautilus. Howard had been leading tours along this road for many years, and he was always looking for ways to assist the people and places that made his tours worth taking. Not only did his company financially support part of the school’s upkeep, the tours acted as a form of showcase for travellers, many of whom would return to their home countries and send back their used computers and other equipment for Mulomulo and other schools in the area to use.
By offering a bit of local colour, Nautilus and the schools were successfully connecting Fiji’s children with the skills they will need in the global information economy.
After a few minutes of photos, we were back on the road up the spine of the mountains. Along the way, we passed huge cane plantations where Fijians from various backgrounds worked alongside each other. Listening to Howard describe these places, it seemed that each one was a time capsule for every wave of migrants Fiji has ever had. Whenever we passed a field of pines, which grow wild in the non-arable ravines of the hillsides, there seemed to be a tiny village full of local people who were always glad to see us.
Here are just a few shots of the local flora and fauna
A little while after we crested the central ridge, we pulled up to an oasis for lunch. Before the trip, we were given the option of having BBQ or a traditional lovo for lunch – lovo was the unanimous decision!
Lovo is the traditional form of cooking where the feast (chicken and fish on this day) is cooked in the earth – the same way indigenous Fijians have been cooking for over a thousand years. The highlight for all of us was the palusami (taro leaves with coconut milk + garlic, herbs and diced tomatoes)
Our return route took us down through Navala village in the Ba Highlands – one of the villages which lost several homes during Cyclone Winston. Navala village is one of the few villages which maintains the traditional form of living since the pre and post-Colonial era. Most homes preserve the traditional native ‘bure’ or thatched hut, however, the newer part of the village has integrated some of the western building principles with bricks and corrugated metal sheets inching into the mix.
We rounded off our trip with a short pit stop in Ba town at Bhikabhai for coffee and a few Indian delicacies.
Howard dropped us off that afternoon, back to the spot where he had picked us up 7 hours earlier. We were tired after the long trip, but I had a lot to reflect on. Meeting Howard, and seeing how he operated his business reinforced some of the key principles of customer experience which are often inconspicuous in the tourism industry.
For starters, Nautilus operates on a very small scale and never takes on a group that’s too large for an individual to manage by themselves. The personal touch this brings to every step of the tour made us all feel like we were welcome at every stop and that we were as much a part of the adventure as the locals are. The other major takeaway from the day’s tour was that even a small company can thrive as part of a larger community. Nautilus embraces the notion of corporate social responsibility by sharing its success with the economically vulnerable areas its visitors tour, and Howard’s ability to connect with his public builds links between needy schools and the guests who can assist from a distance.
By merging the small scale of their tour groups with the larger world of Viti Levu’s highlands, Nautilus has created a rewarding business that’s great for the whole community, and they have picked up a fair share of mates along the way.