05/27/2014 07:42 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

On the Rocks With the Firewalkers of Fiji

Look at a map of the South Pacific, and chances are you'll be able to spot the Republic of Fiji's largest island -- the one with the James Michener-ish name of Viti Levu. But it's unlikely you'll see many of the nation's 330 or so smaller islands, and certainly not a speck about seven miles north of Viti. That would be Beqa, home to some 3,000 villagers.

It's hard to imagine that Beqa is world-famous for something. But it is. Look up "firewalking" in the global encyclopedias, anthropology journals and even on Wikipedia and you'll see how Beqa got its claim to fame.


Firewalkers from Beqa stroll across red-hot rocks. Photo by Bob Schulman.

A good number of Fiji's visitors get a first-hand look at this amazing feat at floor shows at resorts and at historic theme parks around the islands. Among popular attractions on Viti Levu, for example, is a cultural village that features barefoot firewalkers moseying over a big pile of steaming hot rocks.

During the shows an announcer explains that the walkers are Sawau tribesmen from Beqa, and that their skill is handed down from generation to generation. How all this came about, he says, is told in an ancient legend.

It's said the Sawau lived in a mountain village on Beqa called Navakeisese. When they weren't off to wars with other tribes (and chowing down on their prisoners), they enjoyed lighter moments listening to tales told by Dredre, their tribal storyteller. In return, it was customary for the people of the village to bring gifts to Dredre.

One day, as the legend goes, Dredre asked each person in the audience to bring him gifts of the first things they found the next time they went hunting.

A day later, one of the warriors called Tui-na-Iviqalita went fishing for eels in a mountain stream. The first thing he caught felt like an eel. But when he pulled it out of the mud, it turned out to be a talking, snake-like "Spirit God."

Wow, what a gift that would be. Tui scurried off to present his catch to Dredre, but along the way the god offered Tui all kinds of bribes to let him go. Tui refused -- until the god came up with this awesome offer: power over fire.

That got Tui's attention, but he wanted proof of the power.

No problem. The god changed form, dug a pit, lined it with stones, and then lit a great fire on the stones. When the stones were white with heat, the god invited Tui to take a walk on them. He did it -- without burning his feet!

And of course Tui let the god go.

To this day, according to the legend, members of the Sawau tribe are able to walk on white hot stones, and direct descendants of Tui-na-Iviqalita still act as bete, or high priest, of the firewalkers of Fiji.

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