Discovering Fiji: Nawaikama – A dip in Gau’s ‘burning water’

Three women from Gau but live in Suva wade through Nawaikama’s hot pool. Picture: JOHN KAMEA

The two hot springs in Savusavu and Sabeto in Nadi have become major tourist attractions in Fiji.

The one in Nadi, in particular, lures from all over the world, people who love the warmth of a mud bath and wish to find good health restored to their skin conditions, muscular problems or joint pains.

Savusavu hot springs on the other hand, pulsate with boiling water and can cook food within minutes – not the kind of natural spa where you’d like to have a rejuvenating dip.

In Nawaikama on the island of Gau, a similar but lesser-known hot pool has been in existence for centuries under the shade of coastal shrubs and trees, and within the reach of gentle sea breezes.

A plaque by the hot pool
commemorates the work of
the Department of Culture
and Heritage in maintaining the area. Picture: JOHN KAMEA

Off the beaten track, it is a rarity when one considers its secluded island location and distance from Viti Levu and the nearest town of Levuka.

Nevertheless, it favours the odd visitor who likes to hit the road less travelled and discover the wonders of island life and tranquil beauty. Not many locals and tourists have seen to the pool, which makes being there both a uniquely satisfying and extraordinary journey.

A cement monument in
Nawaikama in memory of Gau islanders who lost their lives during a boat tragedy in December
2018. Picture: JOHN KAMEA

According to scientific literature, hot springs can form in several ways. The common one is when groundwater is heated up when it comes in contact with rocks that have been heated deep beneath the earth’s surface.

This hot water searches for cracks to escape to the outside world. Another type of hot spring forms when rainwater flows into the ground and is heated by the radioactive decay of elements present in the rocks and soils that it flows through.

To visit the hot spring at Nawaikama, which literally translates to “the burning water”, The Sunday Times travelled from the village of Levuka, where the team was billeted for two nights.

Ilisoni Tavaga points to where coconut trees used to grow when he was a child. Now the area is under water. Picture: JOHN KAMEA

Nestled near the towering Delai Voda, Delaco and Qila mountain ranges, Nawaikama is home of the Gone Turaga na Matanavure and the ruling clan of Vuniutoloa.

Nawaikama is also the host village to Gau Secondary School, located at Naivilali, and one of the island’s two government jetties.

To village elders, a detailed account of their point of origin does not clearly exist, as is the case with most societies without a written history. However, a few stories, on their ancestral migration, have been told and retold.


The main footpath  that cuts across Nawaikama Village. Picture: JOHN KAMEA

One account talks about a migration that from Moturiki, another from Bau, while in another interpretation they arrived on the island following the great migration from Waimaro in Naitasiri. One of its yavusa, Najale, is believed to have originated from Naitasiri.

Five yavusa (Burei, Navure, Nayavutoka, Burelevu and Najale ) make up Nawaikama Village, which come under the district leadership of the Takala-i-Gau, who resides in Sawaieke.

Which is their true place of origin? That can be the bone of contention for another day.

Visitors on the foot bridge  get to view Nawaikama Bay at various places including this spot. Picture: JOHN KAMEA

Nevertheless, after the presentation of sevusevu to Nawaikama’s high chief or any elder in his absence, visitors are given a guide and the freedom to visit the hot pool for a tour or for a soothing warm dip.

From the village, a 30-minute walk on a footbridge that crosses a mangrove swamp, end up on a coastline of mineral-rich black sand. Alternatively, it can be reached from the public works deport or the school, just outside the village.

Prior to the construction of the footbridge, the village children of Nawaikama crossed a 110-metre walkway made of felled palm tree drunks and bamboo railings, for some five decades.

This was necessary to get to Nawaikama District School, established in 1952, a few kilometres away from the village.

“When the school was first built, elders agreed that each household should come up with eight students to fill up the school and keep it open,” said Ilisoni Tavaga, Nawaikama villager and my guide for the day.

Visitors follow a coastal trail that leads to the hot spring and pool. Picture: JOHN KAMEA

Today, NDS is the only school on the island whose students all come from a single village.

Unlike the situation 50 years ago, today Nawaikama’s coconut and bamboo foot crossing has been replaced by a permanent and safer timber footbridge funded by the kind gift from the Japanese government.

This project ensures students and the community at large can reliably access the school and its facilities, and at the same time, visitors like myself may find a tour to the Nawaikama hot springs an effortless breeze.

“There is no known legend that confirms the origin of the hot pool,” Tavaga said, “All we know is that it has been around for generations and it was how we got the name of our village.”

According to one historical account, however, the hot springs were discovered by ancestors when they were residing where the village was first settled.

Before the hot spring was dug out and made into a pool, which is the form it has today, some children at the time were playing when they accidentally stepped in a hole on the ground.

It gave off steam so they called their parents to investigate why mysterious smoke came out of the ground.

A Nawaikama villager gets back from the plantation with food for dinner. Picture: JOHN KAMEA

The elders in the village came, dug around the smoky area and found hot water boiling in the ground.

Since that discovery ancestors of Nawaikama had moved three times, finally settling down at the current coastal area north of the hot water pool.

A few years ago, officials from the Department of Culture and Heritage funded the fencing of the hot spring pool area and landscaped it with native flowers as a way of protecting the place and making it more attractive.

“Our ancestors did the original pool design,” Tavaga said, “They dug out huge rocks and used them to build a barrier on the side of the pool.”

The other story about the hot springs delves into the world of myths and legends. Two female ghosts generically referred to as “marama rua” were flying over Nawaikama when children teased and called them names.

The two were so annoyed that they let down a few drops of hot water they were carting to their destination. The droplets formed the hot springs.

A dip inside the Nawaikama pool is a must for any first-timer. Merely admiring the forest vistas means missing out on getting a natural spa treatment.

A foot bridge that takes
visitors from Nawaikama
Village to the hot spring cuts through a mangrove swamp. Picture: JOHN KAMEA

Its only challenge is various spots on the way still have trunks as a crossing. Having well-secured walkways right to the pool, hopefully in the future, would bring the natural spa more prominence and safety features.

The entry point adjacent to the gate is lined with stones but a large area of the pool is covered in hot black mud which villagers believe, having therapeutic qualities, is good for the skin and blood circulation.

The people of Nawaikama have used the healing waters since it was first discovered, joining millions of people around the world that have enjoyed the healing powers of mud and hot springs long before the birth of modern health saunas and spas.

“Sitting in the pool for a while removes cold, helps heal arthritis, joint and muscular ailments, asthma and skin diseases,” Tavaga explained.

I took my time in the pool, making sure every nerve in my body took in the heat I needed. On Tavaga’s advice, I applied thick black mud on my face and body hoping to get my skin glowing (as they say) before diving in like an unsinkable floating device. It was an enjoyable and revitalising experience!

Getting out, you can actually feel the work of heat energy and minerals on your body. The longer your dip the more exhausted you’d become. A cold shower quickly puts you to sleep almost immediately.

While the Nawaikama hot spring and pool provides the people of Gau with something to brag about, although many do not know how lucky they are to have been favoured by geothermal energy deep under the earth’s crust, a new threat is slowly dawning.

A few metres from the pool, the waves of climate change are slowly inching in on Nawaikama’s vulnerable coastline, just in the same way the beachfront of Levukaigau and Nukuloa, among others, have been subtly but surely spoilt over many generations.

Spaces that were once lined with trees decades ago are now underwater. Posts used to build pig pen fences are now fully grown bushes, battered and at the mercy of rising sea level.

Nobody knows what will happen when the waves of Nawaikama Bay, with all its wrath and power, finally reach the rare spring.

Will it be warm still? Will it still possess its therapeutic properties? Will the story of its wonders and magic continue to be told?

Your guess is as good as mine! And again, that’s a story for another day but if you have the opportunity to travel to Gau one day, make sure Nawaikama’s hot spring and pool is in your itinerary.

And if like me, you are from Vanua Levu, being there is not just an adventure but a great moment to discover that our tauvu from Gau have a lot to natural and beautiful offerings to compensate their “lailai na dina” tag. Kere ore! 

  • History being the subject it is, a group’s version of events may not be the same as that held by another group. When publishing one account, it is not our intention to cause division or to disrespect other oral traditions. Those with a different version can contact us so we can publish your account of history too — Editor.


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