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As Primal Urges Go, the South Pacific Is a Scream

April 01, 1993|T. JEFFERSON PARKER

To scream with happiness is a triumph over many things--fear, manners, lassitude--and surely a resource diminished by our notions of adulthood.

On a recent trip to the Fijian island of Taveuni, one of the five most beautiful places on Earth (my personal list would also include Lake Tahoe in winter; the Grand Canyon; the Wall off of Grand Cayman, viewed from 100 feet underwater, and Paris), I was given the opportunity for such a scream.

Traveling some 20 hours by air from Orange County might not seem the most cost-effective way to get in a good bellow, but there are certainly worse bargains to be made. (The price-inflated homes we bought here in the late '80s come to mind.) The real beauty of the happiness howl comes from the fact that it often hits when least expected, and although I was prepared for great diving, fishing and hiking on Taveuni, I had no idea that a one-hour attack of primal glee was in the offing.

After two days of superb scuba diving, we four intrepid tourists (three from Orange County; one from New York City) made the hike up to twin waterfalls on the eastern side of the island. We were led by a Taveunan named Wanni, who, incidentally, is of royal Fijian blood, and in line to become a chief someday.

Wanni stands about 6-foot-2, weighs probably 210, and excels at boxing and rugby. You would not want to have run into him, say, 200 years ago, in a bad mood, with a Fijian war club in his hands. He is an assessing and enterprising individual who, for all his humility and fine manners, gives off the distinct air of a man who does not suffer fools gladly.

The hike to the falls is billed as a one-hour journey, but this is based on Fijian time, which translates roughly to two hours American. We began the hike from the village of Lavena, where we donated to the chief a modest sum of money to help the village with its trail-improvement project. The trail is, for the most part, in good repair, and winds along the beach and through the rain forest as a ribbon of crushed shells and coral.

Fallen coconuts sprout new trees alongside the trail. The seedpods of various island trees do likewise, sending tubers down and lithe new treelets up, wherever the seedpods happened to land. This is a place with so much rain and sun and good soil that things don't just eke out a living, they multiply wildly. I had the thought that if I tossed a Vantage Ultra-Light butt into the forest, I could return the next day to find a fresh, plastic-wrapped carton sprung to life. (Eco-fascists take note: I put the butt in my pack and contritely transported it back to the hotel wastebasket.)

The trail ended at the river. We waded upstream for a few hundred yards. The water was cool, clean and sweet, thanks in part to a torrential rain the night before. The rocks were just slippery enough to send you ass-over-tea-kettle if you had the bad luck to hit a wobbly one, which was easy because you couldn't see them through the rushing dark water. When the river became too deep to walk, we stashed our perishables on the bank and swam another few hundred yards up.

The falls came into sight. We swam along slowly against the current, approaching a narrow opening framed by two massive outcroppings of smooth, black rock. There, where the river narrowed, we passed through, stroking harder against the cool, powerful water. Once past the towering gates of stone, we found ourselves at the far end of a round pool about 100 feet in diameter, fed by two waterfalls that roared off the rocks above as if some nearby dam had just been opened.

Beyond the rocks, the green forest jutted into a blue-gray sky. It was, quite easily, the most resplendent and inspiring place I had ever seen, and I responded with, yes, a scream that started far down against my diaphragm, charged through my swelling lungs, found purchase upon my throbbing vocal cords, and of course vanished instantly into the roar of the twin falls.

Handcuffed as usual by my tiny vocabulary, I yelled the first thing that came to mind--"Bitchin'!"--as loud as I could, but all I got from my nearby mates were the same wordless mouthings they had just gotten from me. For what it's worth, I now have an irrefutable corollary to the old "if a tree falls in the forest" conundrum, and will hereby confirm that if you scream in a forest but no one can hear it, you have still screamed in a forest. This, because all four of us were doing just that--screaming--and no one, I confirmed later, heard anything but the grand tonnage of water charging down on us.

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