Fiji: Island custom worth its salt
A RAISED pathway led across the mudflats to where four large ponds had been dug in the mud and surrounded by low dirt walls.
The water in the ponds was thick and oily-looking, though, surprisingly, there were quite a few small fish swimming around.
"It's very salty," said Michael Croker, the man behind this traditional Fijian salt-making venture, scooping some up in his hand and giving it a lick to prove the point. "Have a try."
I scooped up my own handful and it was indeed extremely salty.
"We leave the seawater here to concentrate," he explained, "then we take it to the kitchen" - he gestured to a cluster of bures behind us - "and boil it down."
As if on cue, a woman arrived with a bucket which she filled from one of the pools, then carried down the pathway into one of the huts. Inside, a large black cauldron was bubbling away on a small fire and she topped it up from the bucket.
"We keep the fire going 24 hours a day and cook the seawater until it's almost pure salt," said Michael. "Then we pour the salt mix into the aluminium liners of milk packets and put them on the fire for the final bit of cooking.
When the salt solidifies, we take the packet off the fire and tie it."
This kind of salt-making - the milk packet liners apart - has been practised in Lomawai Village for hundreds of years.
In recent years, it fell into disuse - "people thought it was easier to buy their salt in a plastic packet from the shop" - until Michael got the idea of incorporating traditional salt-making into an eco tour he runs in this southwestern corner of Fiji.
The tour takes in Tau Village and its ancestral limestone caves, a kava ceremony and feast, the World War II gun emplacements overlooking nearby Momi Bay, and now the salt-making.
When I visited, the men of Lomawai were working hard, under the supervision of their chief, to put the finishing touches to the salt-making facilities: thatching a couple of newly built bures, creating walls with woven mats and putting more mats on the floors.
Meanwhile, the women of the village were busy actually making the salt - fetching buckets of water, keeping the fire going and packing the finished product.
When I asked if they had any salt on hand, one woman rummaged in the back of the hut and came up with a large heap which showed up starkly on her brown, work-hardened hand. "Most of it has been packed," she said. "Only this is left."
To give them a traditional appearance, the finished packets of salt are wrapped in containers woven from slices of young mangrove root.
An older woman quickly demonstrated how this was done, picking up a machete, chopping a root from a nearby mangrove, slicing it into strips and twisting the strips together. The resulting packet of salt was very heavy and surprisingly neat.
Michael hopes the village's salt-making will prove doubly beneficial. "The tourists we've brought here to watch salt being made in the traditional way have been interested," he said, "so I think it will make a good attraction.
"But as well we can sell the salt - maybe to the resorts - so they can use traditional Fijian salt in their restaurants instead of imported salt. It should be win-win."
Jim Eagles travelled as a guest of Tourism Fiji.