dabs of grue banner

  PHOTOS     MAPS     FIJI pages     CONTACT  

  LANGUAGE TIPS     HOME  

LAUTOKA! LAUTOKA!
continued


To return to intro & index click HERE


Tip:   To look up a subject or name use your browser's "Find" feature (in the "Edit" menu). Preferably enter one word only.


Historical notes

According to legend the first Fijians, led by Chief Lutunasobasoba, landed at Vuda Point, on a beach between Lautoka and Nadi where the First Landing Resort now stands. The fable puts the date of landing at around 1500BC, but scientific evidence suggests the actual time was probably some 2000 years earlier. Some research even suggests that man was in Fiji long before this. The most widely held view appears to be that there were probably at least two or three waves of migration from Melanesia, the later ones perhaps occurring around 300BC and 1400AD, give or take a few centuries. Probably later still, there was another influx from Polynesia, creating the colourful indigenous culture we now see.

The naming of Lautoka is the subject of another legend. Lau-toka means something like "spear-hit" or "strike to conquer". The story goes that within the bounds of the present city of Lautoka there lived two tribes who didn't get on too well with each other. One day, at a place now known as Farquhar's Point, an argument erupted, resulting in a fight between the two tribal chiefs. When one of the chiefs managed to spear the other, he yelled out in triumph "Lau-toka", and the phrase became attached to the locality henceforth. Presumably this is a comparatively recent tale, as it appears to be widely believed that once upon a time Lautoka was called Namoli, a name now given to a Fijian village and mixed industrial/residential precinct within the city bounds.

The first European to land in Fiji was the Dutch navigator Abel Tasman in 1643, but it was not until 1789-92 that Fiji’s shores were charted by William Bligh, of mutiny-on-the-Bounty fame. Bligh is credited with being the first European to sight Lautoka, at dawn on 7th May 1789. The first trading with Fiji was in sandalwood, found along the south-west coast of Vanua Levu, between approximately 1805 and 1814. In 1820, trading in beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) commenced, and in 1830 the first Christian missionaries (Tahitians) arrived, followed by Methodist missionaries from Europe. Before long most of the people of Fiji had been converted to Christianity. Other Europeans arrived between 1860 and 1870, many of them settling in Levuka. At this stage Lautoka held little significance for the outside world.

The period from 1840 to 1874 was an agitated phase in Fiji’s history, when the country was ravaged by numerous bloody tribal quarrels. It was brought to an end by the persistent efforts of Ratu Cakobau, king of the Bau tribe, who in 1858 made Fiji a British protectorate, and in 1874 ceded the country to Great Britain.

The subsequent history of Lautoka, at least up until the events of 1987, is closely tied to the development of the sugar industry in Fiji. Following the cessation of Fiji to Britain, plantation workers were needed to work the sugar cane estates, which were being established mainly in the northern region. Solomon Islanders and Chinese had proven unsuccessful in this regard, so it was decided to import labour from India. Thus began the Indenture system, the first shipload of Indians arriving in 1879. These labourers had signed a contract (known as Girmit) to work for 5 years, after which they could return to India if they wished. Most of the girmitya, however, chose to stay, and by the end of the Indenture period in 1916, there were over 45,000 Indian immigrants in the country.

At first a number of sugar companies were operating – British, Australian and Canadian – but the smaller ones were soon absorbed by the largest, the Colonial Sugar Refinery (CSR Co Ltd). Conditions were poor, the work strenuous and hours long. CSR wielded considerable political as well as economic power. The main cane growing area was the flat, drier coastal belt between Rakiraki and Sigatoka, centred by Lautoka where CSR established its largest mill, opened in 1903 (four others were in Labasa, Rakiraki, Ba and Nausori, but the latter was closed in 1950 as cane growing in this area was never very profitable.)

Throughout the first half of the last century, many small trading stores were set up in Lautoka by free immigrants from India, mainly Gujeraties. Two important trading companies became established by Australans in Fiji, with stores in Lautoka and elsewhere. These were Morris Hedstrom, then generally known as “Morris” and now called “MH”, and Burns Philp (South Pacific), known as BP, which no longer trades in Fiji. For many years Burns Philp was the dominant retail business in Lautoka, occupying the massive building currently used by MH as well as the rubble block across the road (Naviti St), still vacant after the building on that site was destroyed by fire. The MH Lautoka store was formerly located at the site now occupied by Carpenter’s Motors, near the Fisherman's Wharf, but was relocated to the BP building after BP closed down. The BP furniture business was bought by Courts (Fiji) Ltd in 1998 (see "Merchants and Trading Companies").

In the 1920s the estate system of cultivation changed. The estates were split into blocks of 10-12 acres which were leased to the farmers. However, overseers still controlled the farming operations according to the dictates of CSR. On the flat lands, cane was transported to the mill by steam powered trains running on a narrow gauge rail, still in use though the engines are now diesel. For some time the trains also carried passengers and goods, CSR providing a free twice-weekly service. With the increase in motor transport, it soon became possible to extend cane growing to the hillier areas, which could be reached by truck, though the roads were very rough as they still are in many areas. In 1969 CSR handed over operations to its subsidiary, South Pacific Sugar Mills Ltd (SPSM), and in 1973 the newly created Fiji Sugar Corporation Limited (FSC) took over all milling operations.

Since 2002 there has been a rapid increase in the use of mechanical harvesters - mainly second-hand equipment imported from Australia - and manual harvesting (now often done by indigenous Fijian labourers) may soon become a thing of the past. The little railways will doubtless become defunct, as mechanical harvesting uses only trucks (see photos). However, mechanical harvesters cannot work on steep grades, so unless cane growing again becomes confined to the plains, cutters will still be needed to work the plantings on the inland slopes (see further remarks under "Industries").

Lautoka has not escaped the impacts of the double coup of 1987 and the attempted coup of 2000, but it seems to be the general opinion that this region of the main island has been less seriously affected than Suva and the south-east. It could be said that life has returned to something approaching normality. (But since this was written there has been yet anothet coup - December 2006.) Much has been written about these events: an excellent brief summary (origin unknown) can be found on numerous websites, such as Fiji Islands - History, which also contains some information on the Chinese community.

People and Housing

Demography

In the last thirty years the population of Lautoka has grown rapidly, and in the last twenty years it has also changed dramatically in structure. In the early 1970s the population was estimated to be about 12,000, the vast majority of inhabitants being Indian, as would be expected considering the early growth of the city was entirely associated with the sugar industry. About half of the present Indian inhabitants are descendants of the early girmitya. According to the Bureau of Statistics, in 1986 the population was 39,000 and in 1996 almost 43,000, but it is not clear exactly how the boundaries of the urban area were defined at either of these censuses. In 2005 the population including the suburban zones was probably about 50,000, occupying a total area of about 1600 hectares. With neighbouring rural districts included, the population is approximately 80,000. But much of the recent growth of the city itself has been due to indigenous Fijians moving into the urban area, resulting in an increase in the proportion of Fijians to about 30%. The following table gives the population breakdown by districts (actually "medical zones") in 2004-05.

POPULATION PROFILE OF GREATER LAUTOKA (2005)*

District

Fijians

Indians

Other

Total

Lololo

2195

3963

58

6216

Waiyavi

2461

5706

252

8419

Namoli

2152

3929

719

6800

Natokowaqa

3098

4173

433

7704

Kenani

3717

8004

438

12159

Vitogo

2728

6433

170

9331

Saru

2766

3476

154

11396

Navutu

2126

3754

118

5998

Natabua

1850

4351

234

6435

Veiseisei

1787

3341

7

5135

TOTAL

24880

52130

581

79593



The continuing flow of indigenous Fijians into the city is largely due to Government policies following the events of 1987 and 2000, including steps to encourage Fijians to join the workforce and the transfer or expansion of several government functions and offices, customarily dominated by Fijians, from Suva into Lautoka. At the same time the post-coup situation has led to many Indians leaving the country, creating opportunities for Fijians to replace them. Fijians can now be seen working in a wide range of occupations, such as taxi driving, building, the wood-chip industry, store management and even sugar cane cutting, almost unheard of twenty years ago. However, a casual visitor to the town centre might hardly notice any difference, as the street crowd is still predominantly Indian. The change is most noticeable to those who stay in certain suburbs, and unfortunately it is here too that the signs of past and continuing racial tension are all too obvious. Security measures have reached alarming proportions, with most corner shops and many homes resembling prisons. For the most part, however, the people of Lautoka remain as friendly, tolerant and generous as ever.

About one third of Lautokans are under the age of 15. The birthrate among Fijians is somewhat higher than among Indians. The life expectancy of Lautokans is about 68 years, with Indo-Fijians living slightly longer than Indigenous inhabitants. Most deaths are strongly related to dietary factors (see Health section below). Much work is going into awareness and prevention of HIV transmission, even though the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is probably less than 0.2% and contributes little to the mortality rate. The intention seems to be to nip it in the bud!

Housing, renting and land ownership

Although Lautoka has neither squalid slums nor opulent mansions, there is an enormous range of quality and styles of housing in the region (see photos). While there is a lot of high-standard housing and a number of enviable residences in the city, it must be said that the majority of Lautokans live in modest dwellings, often built to standards that would be unacceptable in more developed countries, while in the surrounding country areas many of the houses are of an even lower standard. (New housing, however, is generally built to a higher standard than older dwellings.) Furthermore, the living conditions of many indigenous Fijians appear to be worse than those of most Indo-Fijians.

Most city house blocks are of a reasonable size, though generally smaller than in Australia and New Zealand. In many suburbs, however, a high proportion of blocks look as if they are on what might be called "easements" in other countries, i.e. the houses are stacked two or three deep back from the street and are accessed by unsealed lanes, paths or rights of way through other properties. An "average" house - if one can contemplate such a thing - is of concrete block construction, usually with unlined walls and with an uninsulated iron roof. Typically it has a patio at the front, louvre windows and security screens, and it is sewered and connected to town water and power supplies. The internal electric wiring is frequently exposed. Usually there is an internal toilet, but no air conditioning or ceiling fans and no hot water system other than (sometimes) an instant heater for the shower. Simple cooking facilities usually run on bottled gas.

The most popular floor covering is a kind of thin vinyl; tiling is common and rugs are also used. Large carpeted areas are rare, as you'd expect in a hot, dusty environment. Furnishings vary and are generally more sparse in homes occupied by Fijians than in Indian homes, as it is the Fijian custom to sleep, lounge and eat at floor level. Apparently most residents have refrigerators, phones (cell phones are popular), TVs and stereo systems, some have microwaves and washing machines, very few have computers and virtually none have vacuum cleaners. Lawn mowers are rare, as very few properties have formal lawns. Grass and shrub cutting is done with petrol-driven brush cutters or by hand using a machete.

Most areas of Lautoka have a continuous, clean water supply, but in a few areas the supply is intermittent while in some other areas the pressure is sometimes on the low side (see Services). The power supply is quite reliable, nominally it is 240 volts and power points are the same as those in Australia. However, many of the electrical items sold in shops are imported from Asia and have a different style of fitting. Appropriate adaptors are available in all electrical stores.

A high proportion of residents live in rented homes. Often these are flats made by dividing up, or adding onto, the original building. Sometimes these flats have shared facilities. The average cost of renting is high in proportion to wages. (The theoretical minimum adult salary is $3.28/hour.) Rents have increased sharply over the last 15 years, due mainly to the influx of government personnel during this period. Rents typically range from $150/month for a small unfurnished flat, to $1200/month or more for a furnished executive residence. A "western" visitor can manage quite well in an unfurnished flat for around $300/month or in a small furnished house for around $600/month. If able to live outside the city suburban area, cheaper (but usually inferior) accommodation can be found, and life will be much quieter. City centre furnished flats at around $1000 tend to be very noisy and in general cannot be recommended.

Be very wary of agents - at the time of writing there are virtually no laws governing the activities of real estate agents. There is no system of deposits into trust funds, and few agents look after the ongoing interests of either the landlord or the tenant. However, this situation is apparently about to change, as the government has said they will introduce laws in the first half of 2006 to regulate the activities of real estate agents.

The main factors to consider in renting accommodation in Lautoka are security, heat, noise and cleanliness. The importance of security is evident everywhere. The norm for homes with anything of value in them is a security fence with padlocked gate, high quality security screens and double deadlocked doors. Guard dogs are common on any type of property, and alarm systems are often installed in higher class houses. (Before the coups all this was unheard of.)   People from cooler climes wishing to stay long in Lautoka would do well to look for a house in an elevated, breezy position or on the coast, with high ceilings and insulation. Low-ceiling, iron-roof homes can get unbearably hot, even in the cool season.

Noise is very hard to avoid anywhere in suburban Lautoka. Because windows are always left open, there is no barrier at all to external noise. Irritating noise problems include vehicles (4-wheel drives, vans and trucks are commonplace), barking dogs, clanking gate chains, radio music of all kinds, screaming babies, kids shouting in the streets, neighbours engaged in late-night arguments, religious ceremonies and church services, the dawn azan and even mynahs and bulbuls kicking up a racket. A particularly irksome nuisance is the habit of taxi and van drivers of tooting their horn repeatedly to alert the people they've come to pick up. (They have no alternative, as of course the gate is locked!) Finally cleanliness: local renters almost never leave places in a clean condition, so you're bound to have to do a thorough clean-up before moving in. But when inspecting any property, be sure to check the bathroom and toilet facilities. These are often an instant turn-off.

When buying a property in Lautoka or elsewhere in Fiji, one has to deal not only with real estate agents but with the complicated rules of the extraordinary land ownership system. There are three types of land tenure in Fiji: Freehold, Stateland and Native land. Freehold titles are held exclusively by the owner and may be disposed of at any time without restraint. Stateland is subdivided into five categories: Schedule A, Schedule B, State Freehold, State Foreshore and Stateland without Title. The first two kinds are held by the State in trust for indigenous landowners. Native land is held by Fijian communal units such as tribal, clan and family units, or by the tribal chief or the descendants of a chief. 83% of the total land area of Fiji is Native land, while only about 8% is freehold. The Native Land Trust Board currently administers about 28,700 native land leases, half of which are agricultural leases and 38% are residential.

The message to non-Fijians is: only consider buying property that is on genuine freehold land. Actually non-freehold land can be a problem even when letting a property. It's possible to get stuck with a house that cannot be legally let - not, at least, to anyone you like. Be aware that there is an ongoing land-lease dispute, though this affects mainly cane growers. The land ownership fiasco is considered by many to be the main constraint on the expansion of Fiji's economy.

Port facilities

Lautoka, along with Suva and Vuda Point, is a major sea port in the Pacific islands region, and the principal port for exporting and importing cargo, chiefly bulk commodities, to and from the western side of Viti Levu. It comprises two main sections - King's Wharf, constructed in 1952, and the larger Queen's Wharf, constructed in 1981 - along with some smaller wharves. Queen's Wharf, operated by the Maritime and Ports Authority of Fiji, handles container ships, vehicle carriers, vessels importing dry bulk materials such as fertilizers, international passenger liners and smaller passenger vessels and cabin cruisers. Also near the wharf there are large storage tanks for petroleum products and LPG, with permanent pipelines to the wharf for receiving supplies from oil tankers. These facilities are largely shared by Shell, BP and Mobil.

South of Queen's Wharf there's a section used by the Fiji Sugar Corporation and Tropic Wood Industries, equipped with conveyors for loading sugar and wood chips and a pipeline for loading molasses. To the south of these wharves is the Fisherman's wharf and small harbour providing safe anchorage for local fishing boats, together with a boat-yard run by the Fisheries Division of the Ministry of Fisheries and Forests. Next to this is another, privately operated wharf for ferries and freight carriers servicing the outer islands.

At Vuda Point there are more port facilties, including a marina and more petroleum and LPG receiving and storage facilities. The marina is privately owned and caters for about 300 pleasure craft annually, from small yachts to large cabin cruisers, mainly internationally registered craft. There is a "dry" maintenance facility for repair work. The petroleum facility, a landmark clearly visible from the air and certain points along the main road, is one of the largest in the Pacific Islands region and functions similarly to the one at Lautoka, except that the pipeline extends some distance into the ocean.

Of course Lautoka's extensive port operations are well supported by shipping services such as customs clearance and logistics (see below).

Industries - a selection

While Lautoka is famous as the sugar capital of Fiji, the city has a number of other significant industries, including timber and pine chips, fisheries, brewing and distilling, garment manufacture, furniture manufacture, tourism, building materials and construction, boat building, steel fabrication, poultry farming, subsistence agriculture (root crops and vegetables, tropical fruit, goats etc), foodstuff blending, packing and bottling, packaging materials, paints and chemicals, soaps and detergents and jewellery manufacture.
Tourism is discussed under a separate heading.

Sugar industry

"Things are getting tough in the Sugar Capital when the annual Sugar Festival parade
doesn't include a sugar industry float"

The FSC Lautoka mill, said to be the largest sugar mill in the southern hemisphere, is situated near the wharf on the western side of the city and employs about 1300 people. Associated with the mill are the FSC head quarters and modern dockside loading facilities. The mill commenced operations in 1903. A brief history of the industry is given under "Historical Notes" above. The Sugar Cane Growers Council headquarters are also in Lautoka, in Drasa Avenue.

Sugar is the second most important industry in Fiji's economy, after tourism. The industry is going through a rather bad phase. The land-lease crisis has resulted in farmers leaving the industry as their leases expire, and very few of the Fijian owners taking over the cane growing operations. Travelling through the countryside around Lautoka, you can see many former cane fields now growing nothing but grass and shrubbery. Many of the fields still under cultivation are not being managed properly: instead of being replanted at proper intervals, the old cane is left to re-shoot, which means lower quality cane and less sugar. Crop rotation, known to improve the yield of cane, is not carried out. Cane burning, another practice that is apt to reduce quality, still goes on much to the dismay of FSC, though the pundits say that quality would be maintained if the cane could be crushed within 1-2 days of harvesting. FSC has recently revitalised its field services to procure a better response from farmers and to open up new areas for cane growing.

The Prime Minister, Hon. Laisenia Qarase, recently said of the sugar industry: "It is outdated and inefficient. One estimate puts annual losses from poor practices and lack of productivity at close to $50 million a year". Although the Lautoka mill was recently revamped at a cost of around $10 million, output is said to be considerably lower than before and problems with maintenance have continued. A not uncommon sight is a long queue of trucks waiting at the mill entrance while repairs are being undertaken. Critics say the FSC's incredible management stuff-ups in its mill operations are the nucleus of the sugar industry's problems.

Still, the industry apparently continues to meet export quotas for sugar, including 190,000 - 200,000 tonnes annually to the EU at preferential prices (about three times the world price!) Sugar is also exported to Portugal, the UK, the USA, Japan, Malaysia and other countries. Total annual production is between 300,000 and 500,000 tonnes, of which the Lautoka mill handles up to 30% (?)

This year (2005) the sugar industry with the help of the Fijian government made approaches to India for assistance in rectifying inefficiencies in productivity and in adopting up-to-date technology. A full report on the sugar industry and the recommendations of the Indian Technical Mission has recently become available online. It is:   Oxfam Briefing Paper no. 77:   The Fijian Sugar Industry: investing in sustainable technology. Oxfam International, September 2005.

On the face of it, the world situation with sugar presents an alarming picture for Fiji. As people become more health conscious, per capita consumption of sugar is on the decline. Production in developed countries, especially from sugar beet, is increasing and the move towards free trade will inevitably mean that producers like Fiji, the Caribbean and African countries will not always get the preferential treatment they currently receive. Indeed the price cuts have already begun, with 5% being slashed off the 2006 price. If these developments spell disaster, then Lautoka will be the worst affected centre. But all is not lost. The saving grace could be the price of oil and the long overdue global upsurge in concern for the environment. Ethanol! Admittedly ethanol production doesn't require a sugar refinery, but at least it utilises cane, so this commodity could be the answer to the cane growers' prayers.

Timber and pine chips

Pine (Pinus caribaea) and mahogany were originally planted in the 1950s-60s, as an experiment by the British administration. The plantations have a chequered political history, which will not be recounted here, except to say that they are blamed for initiating the attempted coup by George Speight in 2000. By that time exports of pine products accounted for over 50% of all timber exports, by far the most important product being pine chips, exported mainly to Japan. Other products include plywood, veneer, mouldings and furniture. The plantations are owned and managed by Fiji Pine Limited (believed to be an almost 100% government-owned company, although according to one source Fiji Pine is "a public company incorporated in 1990 as part of the corporatisation of Fiji Pine Commission"). During the 1970's, Fiji Pine carried out plantings in the Drasa area, east of Lautoka, as well as other northern areas, and these forests are now a prominent feature of the countryside (see photos). In the early 1980's Fiji Pine set up the Forest Development Service Ltd (FDSL) to administer the timber-processing plant at Drasa. FDSL later changed its name to Tropik Wood Industries Ltd, which is currently responsible for harvesting and processing the timber. Tropic Wood is three-quarter owned by Fiji Pine, and the Commonwealth Development Corp also has shares. The head offices of these companies are in Vakabuli Village Road, Drasa. Most of the pine is apparently harvested at a much younger age than is ideal, leading to fears that the industry is not sustainable.

For visitors to Lautoka, the most noticeable monument to the wood-chip industry is the enormous, pyramid-shaped pile of chips at the wharf. It has been there so long (in form if not in substance!) it has virtually become an icon.

Fisheries

Fish and fish products are Fiji's fourth largest export sector. Total fish production is worth about $130 million per year, and includes a high domestic consumption of over 50kg per capita per year. The main export items are canned tuna (chiefly skipjack and yellowfin) and chilled fresh fish such as deep-water snapper. Other products include bottom-living fish, mother-of-pearl shells, trochus shells, beche-de-mer and shark fin. Aquaculture, including tiger prawn culture, is increasing in importance.

While Lautoka has no cannery, it is an important centre for a large number of smaller fishing vessels. Small scale fishing accounts for almost half of the total catch in Fiji waters. In recent years, domestic longline fishing for tuna has been especially rewarding. The Lautoka-based vessels operate from the Fisherman's wharf/harbour next to Queen's Wharf.

Fisheries are administered by the Fisheries Division of the Ministry of Fisheries and Forests. Lautoka accommodates the Western Divisional office in town and a depot and boat-building shed at the wharf. The fishing industry is encumbered with indigenous rights issues similar to those affecting the sugar industry - not to mention the problems of foreign vessels operating in Fijian waters. The Fisheries Act "recognises the Fijian people's customary right to fish in traditional fishing grounds and allows the owners of customary fishing rights to advise the Fisheries Division which commercial fishermen shall be allowed to fish in their area". Inshore fisheries are in fact largely administered by traditional bodies while the Fisheries Division handles the deep-sea fisheries.

As has been mentioned, Fijians eat a lot of fish, and they are strangely proud of the quality of their fish and cooking methods. Certain fish dishes are indeed very tasty. However, visitors to Fiji might find that the quality of the fish served in most homes and restaurants is poor (it's dry, tough or boney, or all three). In some restaurants it is also as cheap as chips, and the quality is little different to anywhere else in the islands. Travellers to Lautoka should be aware of the danger of Ciguatera poisoning (see Health section below).

Brewing and distilling

In the same region as the sugar mill is the South Pacific Distilleries Ltd complex, which in fact uses molasses from the mill as the raw material for most of its products. The distillery produces and bottles the well known and prominently advertised Bounty Fiji Golden Rum, Old Club Whisky, Booth’s Gin and Cossack Vodka, as well as industrial alcohol. Tours can be arranged in working hours. There is also a brewery in Waiyavi where the famous (and very good) Fiji Bitter is bottled. I wonder if there are signs of expansion of the brewing industry in Lautoka, as it seems that Fosters (Pacific) recently acquired a block of land here, purpose undisclosed.

In 2005 South Pacific Distilleries merged with Carlton Brewery (Fiji), based in Suva, the merged companies now operating as Fosters Group Pacific Limited. The Australian Fosters group is the majority shareholder. The merger is intended to put the Fiji businesses in a better position to grow locally and as an exporter.

Garment manufacture

This industry was once very important to Fiji's economy, but in recent years the number of factories has declined. There are several manufacturers in Lautoka, including the Duranbah Garment Factory Ltd, Kalacraft (Fiji) Ltd, Overalls & Raincoat Manufacturing Co, BOC Fiji Ltd, Fabcraft Clothing Ltd and Danam (Fiji) Ltd.

Although there's a considerable export trade in clothing, Lautokans themselves often buy Chinese-made garments or second hand clothing imported from Australia. There are many retail stores in Lautoka dealing in these markets (see "Merchants and trading companies" below).

Furniture manufacture

Manufacturers of high quality furniture in Lautoka include Prestige Furniture & Joinery Ltd, Popular Furniture Ltd, Vinod Furniture & Joinery Ltd, West-End Industries and Cheer Industries Ltd.  Popular Furniture, one of the best known and most respected firms, has had more than its fair share of bad luck: its premises have twice been destroyed by fire, in 1994 and on the morning of 2nd October 2005 - (just after I began working on this article).

Some other industries

With the recent rapid expansion of the city, building construction has grown in importance. Some of the many builders in the area are listed below. An important supplier of building materials is Australian-Pacific Building Supplies (Fiji) Pty Ltd. Associated with the construction of industrial buildings and civil engineering works are steel fabricators, such as C R Engineering Ltd and All Engineering (Fiji) Ltd, and paint and chemical manufacturers such as Resene Paints (Fiji) Ltd and APCO Coatings, a joint venture company with Asia Paints (India) established in 1978.

Some of the building construction engineers based in Lautoka:

Aziz Construction, Drasa Avenue
Country Wide Construction Ltd, Nasir Place
Downer Construction (Fiji) Ltd, Royal Palm Street
Hemans Construction & Joinery Works Ltd, Namoli Avenue
Jaruda General Building Works Ltd, Vitogo Parade
K P Builders Ltd, Kuila Place
N N J & Associates, Tukani Street
Pacific General Builders, Namoli Avenue
Regional Building Industries, Leonidas Street
R S Naidu's General Construction, Kashmir Street
Star Builders, Vomo Street
Tulsi Construction Ltd, Ruve Place

On the farming side, the Lautoka region is important as a producer of eggs and chicken meat, and as such has hatcheries, brooding and growing facilities, cage production units, broiler sheds and limited processing facilities. Locally the main players in the industry are Crest Chicken Ltd, Western Hatcheries Ltd, Ram Sami & Sons Ltd (probably better known for its advertising jingle on the radio than for its eggs!) and Akriti Poultry Farm. It is said that 80-90% of poultry meat processing is handled by Goodman Fielder International (Fiji) Ltd in Suva.

Other industries based in Lautoka include Packaging manufacture, represented by Combined Manufacturers Ltd, which produces up to half a million cartons per month, the Multi Packaging Group Co, Flexible Packaging (Fiji) Ltd and Punja & Sons Plastics, which is the largest manufacturer of plastic bottles in Fiji, producing about 7 million/year. Bottling - Punjas bottle a variety of products, and there is also a Coca-Cola Amatil base in Vesi Crescent, Waiyavi, but I'm not sure whether this is for manufacture, bottling, distribution or all three. Boat building - Lal's Boat Building Co, The Better Boat Co Ltd, Pacific Marine Yacht Consultants. Soaps and detergents - Ocean Soaps. Flour milling (see Punja & Sons Ltd under "Merchants and trading companies"). Printing - The most advanced printer, Universal Printing Press in Nava Street, is said to have "an impressive array of equipment, including a four colour Heidelberg press, a two-colour Roland Offset, and a five unit web Offset"; also Gokul Printing Press.

Merchants, trading companies and retailers - a selection

The largest trading company in Fiji, well represented in Lautoka, is the Carpenters (Fiji) Group. Carpenters (Fiji) appears to be Australian based with a Malaysia-based parent conglomerate, MBf, which has a variety of international interests, mainly amongst ASEAN members, as well as a strong presence in finance and property within Malaysia. Carpenters (Fiji) itself has a wide range of interests in a number of countries in the Pacific region, and has been operating in Fiji since the early 1920's. The group includes Morris Hedstrom, Carpenters Hardware, Carpenters Motors, Carptrac, Carpenters Shipping and Carpenters Engineering. Its interests include the wholesale and retail trade, automotive and heavy moving machinery trade, ship repair, shipping agency and associated services, manufacturing, air freight forwarding and property development.

The Morris Hedstrom business is a recent acquisition. The large MH Hypermarket occupying the triangle between Naviti, Vidilo and Tukani streets is by far the most comprehensive general merchandising store in the city, in addition dealing with whitegoods, electrical goods and home furnishings in its "Homemaker" department. This building, together with a building (destroyed by fire) which formerly stood on the empty block on the opposite side of Naviti Street, was once the domain of the world renowned Burns Philp organisation. Other Carpenters trading sites include Carpenters Hardware between Vuniwai Lane and Saqa Street, Carpenters Motors in Waterfront Road and the shipping office within the MH building.

Punja & Sons Ltd is probably the largest privately owned, family-run company in Fiji. Through their many brand-named products and their generous involvement in community affairs (including rugby sponsorship), Punjas have become a household name throughout the islands. Their new flour mill on the Queens Road approach to Lautoka is set to become a national landmark, and their Head Office at the corner of Vitogo Parade and Namoli Avenue is possibly the swishiest office building in the city. Their main trade comprises importing, milling, blending, packing and bottling, re-exporting and wholesale. Punjas have an extensive network in the South Pacific and export approximately $2 million worth of goods annually to the region. They have won the Prime Minister's Exporter of the Year award several times. Punja labelled products are sold in every store in the country and they are sole distributors of many other store items, such as Anchor milk, Berri juices, Tiffany biscuits and various alcoholic beverages. Punjas boast an ISO 9002 rating for all their manufacturing plants. The Swiss-built, fully automated flour mill is actually a joint venture between Punjas and several local and overseas investors.

Supermarkets

In addition to Morris Hedstrom (mentioned above), Lautoka has spawned a large number of other "supermarkets", though not all of them merit that name. The widest range of goods is probably to be found at the relatively new RB Patel supermarket (opened in February 2002) next to the Sri Krishna Kaliya Temple on Tavewa Avenue. RB Patel Trading Ltd, with head office in Suva, describe their principal business as retailing and wholesaling of general merchandise, and they operate supermarkets in most major centres in Viti Levu.

Other supermarkets are operated by Rajendra Prasad Limited (Rajendra's Foodtown - Yasawa St, Rajendra's Food Plaza - Naviti St, Rajendra's Foodhall - Naviti St), CP Patel (New World, Vakabale St), Satend Food & Liquor Land Ltd - Vitogo Pde, Food 4 Less (Yasawa St and Market place), Rajendra Prasad with Ramesh Investments Ltd (Super Foods Supermarket, Tukani St) and the New Star Supermarket (?). (NB - there has been much recent development, shifting and re-naming of supermarkets, more or less coinciding with the completion of the Sugar City Mall, so this list is almost bound to be inaccurate and incomplete.)

In Fiji a supermarket is essentially a grocery store where you select your goods off the shelf, instead of being served. Be aware that in some "supermarkets" the range is so limited you can't even buy a loaf of bread, a carton of low-fat milk or a mousetrap. Visitors - if you want all three, plus your morning muesli at a grossly inflated price, you'll have to go to Morris Hedstroms. Also be aware that many supermarkets (like most other trading places in Lautoka) do not accept credit cards, or only do so grudgingly. Eftpos debit cards are more readily accepted, but not much used by locals. You can use a credit card at Morris Hedstrom, but the palaver that it involves makes it hardly worth while. When you use a debit card, you might have to go through the unusual procedure of signing the docket. (Be aware of security issues - please read the section on
banking).

As hinted at the top of this webpage, visitors to Fiji cannot expect the same cheerful customer service in the supermarkets here that they are used to back home. Many checkout operators are brusque in the extreme and if they happen to catch your eye, the look on their face will tell you that they hope your day is going to be as bad as theirs. Having snatched the $20 notes from your hand, they slam down the change on the counter in front of you. Floor staff are apt to be rude, barging around customers as if they didn't exist. The size of the store is not a factor in this behaviour, but the cultural background of the staff obviously is. This is one thing that has to change if Lautoka wants to attract more tourists.

Hardware

The principal hardware stores are Carpenters Hardware in Vuniwai Lane close to the Lautoka Hotel (behind the ANZ bank) and Bombay Trading, a bright yellow building at the eastern end of Naviti St. Others in the city centre include Vinod Patel & Co Ltd in Yasawa St and Lautoka Hardware Co and Mitre General Hardware in Namoli Ave. A problem you might find with Carpenters is their indifferent service, in particular a curious habit of doing their accounting as you leave the store. It took me one minute to find a paint brush and about 10 minutes to pay for it, although there was only one person in front of me in the queue at the cash register. By contrast, Bombay Trading are helpful and fast, but probably more expensive on average.

Homeware centres

The main retailers of furniture, whitegoods and household electrical appliances are Courts Homecentre in Naviti St, Morris Hedstrom (Homemaker Centre - see above) and Subrails Furniture Centre Ltd, based a little way out of town at Vitogo.

Courts (Fiji) Ltd, whose parent company is in the UK, first opened shop in Samabula, Suva in 1971 and came to Lautoka in 1974. In 1998 Courts acquired the Burns Philp chain of furniture "Homecentres" in Fiji, giving it a 60% share of the furniture retailing market. Currently it operates at least 25 Homecentres throughout Fiji, trading in both imported and locally manufactured articles. Their big, bright yellow and blue stores are a feature of every major town. They run a very effective promotions campaign based on extensive TV advertising, prizes, community involvement and sponsorships.

There are several stores dealing in homewares other than large furniture and appliances. In this category one cannot ignore Rups Big Bear, yet another bright yellow building in Naviti Street where you can get all kinds of soft furnishings, kitchenware and general household merchandise at reasonable prices.

Jewellers

Lautoka has significant interests in both the retail jewellery trade and jewellery manufacture. The main retailers are all in Vitogo Parade, namely Anita Jewellers Ltd, Prouds, Rupam Jewellers, Bhakti Jewellers and Madhavji Pala Jewellers Ltd. In Naviti Street there are Nav Durga Jewellers and Anjila Jewellers. Anita's, Rupam, Bhakti and Nav Durga also make and repair jewellery. Gold items are the most popular. Tourists should be very discerning and use their bargaining powers. Lautokan jewellers appear to be honest and helpful, but still, intending purchasers might be advised to take a magnet along with them! Some jewellers, such as Anita's, accept credit cards but for many it's cash only. For genuine Indian handcrafted dress jewellery, Fiji's jewellery and clothing stores, as well as the general public, could do no better than to enquire at Trendysetter.

Pharmacies (chemists)

Probably the best stocked pharmacy with by far the best service is Thakorlal's Pharmacy Ltd on Vitogo Parade near the connection with Yawini Street. Others include the Sugar City Pharmacy Ltd in Naviti Street and Chovhan Pharmacy in Yasawa Street.

Visitors from overseas will find that many pharmaceutical products - even those that have been imported from their own country - are much cheaper than back home. Strange, considering most other imported items are more expensive; it makes you wonder about the profits made by chemists in places like Australia and many EU member countries. Some items that would require a prescription overseas have "pharmacy only" status in Fiji, so it's a good opportunity to pick up a few items for the medicine chest.

Second-hand clothing, recycled books and oddments

A number of shops deal in second-hand clothing imported mainly from Australia, as well as second-hand books and other oddments. Two extensive chains of stores have their base in Lautoka: they are Bargain Box, whose main Lautoka store is in Bila Street, and Bula Bargains, midway along Vitogo Parade close to the Vodaphone shop. Bula Bargains has a total of nine outlets throughout Fiji. Other dealers in this trade are Paddy's Market in Nasoki Street (?) and Value City in Vitogo Parade.

Some of the items in all these stores have apparently been steeply marked up, i.e. it is said that they have been bought from Australia at 50c-$1 each and are put on the shelf for $5-12. The proprietors are a tough bunch and it's very hard to negotiate a lower price. (It would be interesting to know the source of some of this clothing. Virtually all Australians dispose of their unwanted clothing to charitable organisations, and their expectations would be that it would be resold through appropriate outlets.)

Other shops

In Vitogo Parade and Naviti Street there are dozens of shops dealing in gifts, watches, cameras, small electrical goods, musical equipment, drapery, clothing and footwear. There are also a number of music (CD) and video stores, one of which earns my vote for "coolest shop" - this is the Movie House video store on the outside of the Sugar City Mall (Yasawa Street side, on the corner with the bus stand). Its "coolness" refers not only to the climate (it is beautifully airconditioned) but to the nice variety of stock and the slick, knowledgable service.

A remarkable non-feature of the Lautoka shopping zone is the complete absence of any bookshops. Well, there are two or three shops that call themselves "bookshops", but take a look inside and you'll soon find they are stretching your imagination. In fact you can't find a single good book in town, except possibly by rummaging through the miniscule collections of second-hand books sold at inflated prices by some recycling stores. This total absence of books is reflected in almost every Lautokan home. It's a lamentable situation, especially for the kids. Where on earth are they supposed to get their information from? How are they supposed to broaden their minds? The stuff they get taught in school can't possibly fill the void. Wake up, Lautoka, and do something about it!

Banks, money transaction facilities and how to use them

Normal banking hours are from 9.30am to 3.00pm Monday to Thursday, and 9.30am to 4:00pm on Friday.

The ANZ Bank has a high profile in Fiji, and the large Lautoka branch is modern and efficient. It is located on the western side of town on Vitogo Parade, on the corner with Tui Street bordering Shirley Park. It has ATMs inside and next to the bank; in Yasawa Street next to Rajendra's Foodtown; in Namoli Avenue next to the Village 4 Cinema complex; and near the MH hypermarket at the western end of Naviti Street. Visitors (and locals, for that matter): if you want to withdraw a large sum of money quickly and safely, don't join the queue at the ATM outside the bank; go inside where there are a couple more ATMs, and a high level of security. After logging on, disregard the small dollar withdrawal options and hit "Withdraw cash" instead, then enter a whole number of dollars - no decimal point and cents. Each withdrawal with a foreign credit or debit card will cost you about $5, charged to your card. The same advice applies to major Westpac branches, but I know nothing about the Colonial banking system. (See further notes on security below).

Westpac is also popular and has a new Lautoka branch and ATM located slightly out of town at the western end of Vitogo Parade, between the Council building and the Shell service station. There's also an ATM just outside the Sugar City Mall on the Yasawa Street side. (I can't recall any other Westpac ATMs.)

A bank with more ATMs than any other in Lautoka is the Colonial National Bank, which claims to have 12 ATMs located throughout the city. The bank itself is located at the corner of Vidilo and Bila Streets. Many Lautokans will know the chequered history of CNB. Originally it was the National Bank, established by the government in 1974 out of the Savings Bank of Fiji and operated by the government until it was brought to its knees in the 1990's by politicians and Fijian chiefs who siphoned off about $220 million, at the tax-payers' expense. The government was successful in squashing all public enquiries and prosecutions. In 1998 the government bailed out, drawing on the Fiji National Provident Fund to cancel the bad debts. In 1999 Colonial Ltd, an Australian company whose main business was life insurance, came to the rescue, acquiring a 51% stake in the bank. It was then that it changed its name to the Colonial National Bank. In 2000 the Commonwealth Bank of Australia took over Colonial Ltd, thus acquiring the 51% stake in CNB. The CBA now appears to direct the bank, considering it to be their "Fiji retail arm".

For those with Indian connections, one of the most respected banks with branches throughout Fiji is the Bank of Baroda, which came to Fiji in 1961 and opened the Lautoka branch in 1973. The Bank of Baroda Lautoka branch recently moved to Tukani Street (formerly at the corner of Vitogo Parade and Vidilo Street). Another bank with a small branch in Lautoka is the Habib Bank (Pakistan). The Merchant Finance & Investment Company Limited (formerly the Merchant Bank of Fiji), which specialises in vehicle finance and only accepts relatively large deposits, is apparently not represented in Lautoka. City Bank also used to operate here, but closed its Fiji operations in 1978.

When it comes to exchanging money, teller service in banks can be a hassle and hotels won't give you a good rate. The most convenient place to change foreign currency in Lautoka, with an excellent commission-free rate, is the little red Money Exchange booth with the "pound, yen, dollar" logo in Naviti Street, near the corner with Vidilo Street (I'm not sure which finacial organisation operates this). The ANZ Bank also has a convenient money exchange booth outside the main bank, next to the ATMs. There is also a money changer (Lotus) in the Sugar City Mall.

Unfortunately Lautoka has more than its fair share of dishonest people. Even the top banks are reputed to harbour the odd dishonest teller. When handling money, the answer to this problem is to keep other people out of the equation as much as possible. Make withdrawals at secure ATMs (see ANZ Bank above). When making over-the-counter deposits, always ensure your receipt shows the correct amount, and check your account later to make sure it all went in. Don't use internet cafes to make transactions or even to check your balances. Only use a home connection.

Relatives living overseas: if you send money to Fiji, think twice about using a courier service of any kind. Preferably make a direct deposit using the internet. Most banks now charge only $20 for this service. If you must use a courier or other money-sending service, be sure to first tell the recipient how much you are sending (in Fijian dollars), as there have been instances where people have been badly short-changed by the receiving bank. If you believe the recipient can manage their finances well, send infrequent large amounts rather than frequent instalments, as this will reduce your transaction costs. By using the internet you will minimise these charges and possibly get a better exchange rate as well. Note you will have to register with your bank to be able to use this service.

Using credit cards in Lautoka is dodgy. For one thing, many businesses won't accept them, and if they do, you run the risk of fraud. Never let your card out of your sight and if you see any unusual behaviour (such as an attempt to swipe the card a second time in another machine) immediately ask for your card back, no excuses accepted. Try to ascertain whether the transaction went through and, if not, be prepared to pay cash instead. (Visitors to Fiji can safely settle their accounts by credit card in most reputable 3-star - 5-star hotels on the main island and at the well-known island resorts.)

Whether you are a visitor or a local, the answer to handling money in Lautoka is simple: withdraw cash from a secure ATM using a debit card (Visa or Maestro) and pay for everything in cash. Visitors - be sure to carry debit cards from at least two banks in case you lose a card. Tourists - there's no need to bring travellers cheques with you unless you don't like using ATMs.

Services and media - a selection

This article will briefly mention only a select few of the many government and community services available in Lautoka. The general level of infrastructure in the city is quite high, although it has shown little improvement over the last 20 years.

Lautoka City Council

Lautoka has had its own council since 1929. The Council administration is housed in the impressive Lautoka Civic Centre, pleasantly located between Vitogo Parade and Shirley Park. The current Lord Mayor of Lautoka is His Worship Cr. Bijesh Chand.

The Council's functions cover everything that you’d expect of a major council, falling under the broad headings of city development and engineering works, health and sanitation, general services and administration, and revenue collection and finance. Its responsibilities include town planning, rezoning, subdivision and building inspection and permits; city roads, footpaths, street lighting, signage, stormwater drainage and parking control; parks and gardens maintenance, markets and public amenities; refuse collection and litter removal; environmental pollution and sanitation; libraries; rate payments - and so the list goes on. The Council has the formidable task of managing this huge variety of tasks with an annual budget of around $4 million and an assets base of around $10 million. (To put this in perspective, this is about two thirds of the budget of the Lort Smith animal hospital, a non-profit organisation in Melbourne.)

A wise, if not altogether popular, policy of the Council has been the move towards contracting out most of its hands-on functions to the private sector, while retaining its core administrative functions. Thus over the last twenty years it has cut back its labour force by about 250. The Council has also made use of the free consultancy scheme operated by the Australian Executive Services Overseas Programme and funded by the Australian government. The expert volunteer assistance provided to the Council through this project has included advice on drainage, traffic management, sporting facilities and job evaluation. The Council is currently developing sporting facilities at Nadovu Park and recently completed and staffed a modern tennis centre there (see Recreational Facilities below).

The Council's plans for the future* are said to include the construction of a sports stadium at Nadovu Park, acquisition of the Lautoka golf course and leasing back to the Golf Club and extension of the bus station and construction of a multi-storey carpark. Further down the track there are proposals to re-establish the sugar museum, to open an art gallery and cultural centre and to construct a public swimming pool and spa. As well as its own projects, the Council has input into various commercial projects, the most ambitious of which appears to be the development of a 164 Hectare ocean-front site at Saweni as a massive resort with hotels, condominiums, prestige homes, a shopping centre, aquarium, heritage centre and train connecting with Lautoka. (*This list is probably out of date.)

Government Facilities

Many Fiji Government functions and services have improved in recent years, but none more so than those which have been privatized, such as Nadi Airport operations. On the whole the people of Lautoka have benefited from these improvements, as they can now access more services in their home town rather than having to go to Suva. On the other hand, the increased numbers of government personnel in the city has contributed greatly to the rise in the cost of renting houses. It must also be said that some important government facilities, such as hospitals, are unsatisfactory, and as bad as or worse than they were many years ago.

Most of the Government buildings, including the High Court, are located in Tavewa Avenue, on the hillside west of the road. Most government functions are represented here, and some of the buildings are quite impressive. The majority of Lautokans, however, will only need to know about one place, namely Rogorogoivuda House, opposite the RB Patel Supermarket. This houses the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages (up the stairs to the first floor) and the Immigration department (ground floor), where you can apply for or renew a Fiji passport. Several other government departments can also be found here.

Roads, traffic and public facilities

Roads within the city area are mostly wide, well drained, well lit at night and well maintained, and driving conditions overall are good, but minor roads in non-built-up areas outside the city are often unsealed and in rather poor condition. A one-way traffic system operates in the town centre. There is metered parking in the main shopping streets and time limits apply, but (tourists note!) the fine for parking illegally is only $2. Main approach roads to the city (i.e. Queens Rd and Kings Rd) are single lane each way and quite dangerous, as many drivers exceed the speed limits and fail to adjust their driving to suit road conditions. The traffic flows well throughout the city, except at busy periods along Naviti Street, when it becomes lethargic. Unlike Suva and Nadi, which suffer from appalling rush-hour jams, there are rarely any major snarl-ups in Lautoka. (Beware of driving out of Nadi towards Lautoka between about 4.30pm and 6.00pm - you might face long delays on the stretch between Nadi town and the major roundabout near the airport. Always use the Nadi back-road bypass if possible, as the traffic flows more freely along here.)

Most of the parks have benches to sit on, but no barbecue facilities. The main bus stand has ample seating, but there is little seating in the shopping streets. Although public conveniences are not too difficult to find anywhere in the city centre, they are not kept very clean. The main conveniences are in the Sugar City Mall, in Shirley Park and at the north-west and south-east corners of Churchill Park.

Electricity

The Fiji Electricity Authority (FEA), a government-owned concern, is responsible for the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity in the country. Its head office is in Lautoka, towards the Naviti Street end of Tukani Street. Electricity bills can be swiftly paid here.

Probably about 95% of Lautoka's homes are connected to the national grid - a slightly higher proportion than the national average of around 90%+ for urban dwellings and 50%+ for rural dwellings (the date of these estimates is unknown). The power supply appears to be reliable, though the voltage may not always be up to par.

Up until the early 1990's, about 90% of Fiji's electricity was supplied by hydro-powered generators. Currently only about 50% is produced by this method, the rest being generated by diesel. Although the cost of electricity is now obviously higher than it was, the price to the consumer is actually lower. The FEA has recently undergone a number of reforms.

Water

The main water supply is perfectly safe to drink (some overseas travel advice documents might make you think it's risky). In most areas the supply is reliable, although in some homes the pressure appears to be low. The main problem (at the time of writing) is that in some areas of the city, such as upper Simla and the hospital zone, the supply is intermittent: the water is only turned on for 2-3 hours early in the morning and again for about 2 hours in the evening. (In parts of the Suva-Nausori and Rakiraki districts the water situation is much worse!) This has been going on for so long that many houses have installed tanks, which fill up whilst the water is on. In this way they can get a constant low pressure supply of water. Some of the systems are quite ingenious, with automatic change-over between low and high pressure. Devices like instant water heaters only work correctly when the pressure is high. Although under the Rabuca regime water rates came in for a 40% hike, the price of water in Lautoka is a mere fraction of the price in Australian cities. The price increases sharply with increasing usage (why Australia can't introduce a similar pricing structure God only knows). Water supply is controlled by the Fiji Public Works Department and rate payers are billed separately for water usage and town rates.

Sewerage

Within the city and suburbs, almost all houses (99%) are sewered and, to my knowledge, there are no smelly open drains. In this respect Lautoka is well in advance of many cities in other developing economies.

Garbage and litter

In the urban zone, garbage is collected twice weekly. Domestic garbage can be left in bags at the curbside. Surpisingly, the roaming street dogs seem to take little interest in it. In country areas there is no garbage collection service, and I'm puzzled as to where country-dwellers dump their refuse (they keep it secret!).

The city centre is much cleaner than it used to be, due to cleaners continually at work and regular garbage collections. In some suburbs, however, there's a lot of litter lying around. An observant long-term visitor might get the impression that there's a distinct difference in littering behaviour between Indians and Fijians. The former are often careless enough, but the latter appear to show no concern at all for their environment - they tend to chuck rubbish anywhere and everywhere. This practice (like spitting in the street - a mainly Indian habit) disgusts many tourists and is likely to discourage them from ever returning, though some tourists are just as bad. A strong campaign of education and deterrence needs to be urgently initiated by the City Council (indeed by the government, as it is a Fiji-wide problem).

Telecommunications

Telecom Fiji operates an extensive, efficient telephone service, with automatic telephone exchanges in all the main towns and international direct dialling capability. Virtually all urban dwellings have access to the system if they want it. Telecom Fiji owns the only "public" phone network and is the sole provider of national phone services. International connections are handled solely by Fintel, a joint venture owned by Cable and Wireless (49%) and the Fiji Government (51%). Phone booths, which accept only phone cards, are plentiful throughout the city and suburbs. Telecom cards for local and national calls, in denominations of $2, $5, $10 and $20, are readily obtainable in many city shops and most suburban corner stores. Cards for overseas calls are difficult to find in Lautoka. Prouds, at the corner of Vitogo Parade and Vakabale Street, appears to be the only source, and not a very reliable one.

To use a local card, dial 101 first, then the card no., then the phone no. To use an overseas card, dial 108 first, then the card no., then the country code, then the area code and phone no. You can make overseas calls with your local card, but they will cost about twice as much. Standard overseas call rates are very high.

Many Lautokans use cell (mobile) phones, in addition to their fixed line phone. Cell phones are provided by Vodafone (Fiji) Ltd, jointly owned by Telecom Fiji (51%) and Vodaphone UK (48%).

Internet connections in Lautoka are currently tedious, dial-up being the norm and maximum download speeds generally only 28.8kb/s. Domestic internet usage is low, as set-up costs are at present prohibitive, but there are several internet cafes in town. The most reliable of these, in Namoli Avenue next to the Village 4 cinema complex, uses a dedicated cable instead of dial-up. Even this only works well in non-busy periods, e.g. early in the morning. Cost at the time of writing is $2/hour, with lower rates for bulk usage. Home internet connections are uncommon.

Fintel has now acquired technology which should soon see broadband usage on the increase. Their broadband deals use speeds from 256kb/s to 2048kb/s and unlimited downloads, but international coverage is limited. Optical Fibre transmission is gradually being introduced by Telecom, while for its overseas connection Fintel uses the Southern Cross Cable, employing a third-generation optical fibre system with a total capacity of 240Gb, upgradable to 480Gb. The network is "self-healing" to avoid drop-outs in the event of cable damage. As well as cable, Fintel uses a satellite (standard A Earth station) employing the INTELSAT digital system.

Radio

Lautoka is in the reception zone of numerous local radio stations, as well as Australian (ABC) and UK (BBC) news services. The recent history of broadcasting in Fiji is virtually unfathomable to an outsider, but the current situation appears to be as follows. A couple of radio stations are apparently based in Lautoka, but their status is unclear to me. Pacific Broadcasting Services, a subscription satellite service offering a number of TV channels (see below) and at least two radio channels, does have its Western Division base in Lautoka. Most stations, however, are based in Suva. Five stations (including FM96 and Viti FM) are operated by one player, Communications Fiji Limited, who broadcast from a large building in Waimanu Road. (Tours of the building are possible, during which you can have your own say on air and have your favourite number played.) Most of these stations specialise in certain types of popular music, Fijian, Indian (mainly Hindi) or English.

Fiji Broadcasting Commission Limited (FBCL, established 1954) apparently also runs up to five stations - three commercial stations in each of the three languages and two government stations broadcasting in Fijian and Hindi. (It's possible that one or more of these was recently sold off or contracted out to CFL. It also appears that FBCL was for a time called Island Network Corporation. It's also possible that the BBC and ABC services are broadcast indirectly through FBCL. Help please!) There are also at least four evangelical stations. Most stations are supported by advertising. Both FBCL and CFL have transmitters in Lautoka. To my way of thinking, there is very little of any cultural value to be found anywhere on the airwaves. It's nearly all third-grade slush and political nothingness.

Television

Lautoka, like the rest of Fiji, has access to only one free-to-air channel, Fiji ONE, operated by Fiji Television Limited, who also operate the satellite subscription services SKY Fiji and SKY Pacific. In March 2005, Pacific Broadcasting Services Ltd (PBS) also commenced operations, offering 15 channels of satellite TV and 15 of radio. Its main base is in Sydney, but they do have premises in Lautoka, in Tavewa Avenue. Subscriptions for either Sky or PBS are in excess of $1000/year.

The quality of Fiji ONE programmes leaves a lot to be desired. But one of the most annoying aspects of TV-watching in Fiji is the huge difference in sound volume between programmes and ads, including Fiji ONE's own dreadful jingle, which alone is enough to deter you from turning on the TV. Really, something has to be done about it.

Newspapers

The three English language dailies in Fiji are the Fiji Times, the Fiji Sun and the Daily Post. The Fiji Times was established in Levuka in 1869 and is now owned by News Corp and based in Suva. This press also produces two weeklies, Nai Lalakai in Fijian and Shanti Dut in Hindi.

The Fiji Sun (Sun (Fiji) News Limited) is privately owned and claims to be "Fiji's brightest and only independent daily newspaper". Indeed it does seem to express itself a little more freely than the other papers, especially the Post. While based in Suva, it has its western region office in Lautoka, in Vitogo Parade roughly opposite the mosque.

The Daily Post is (or was?) jointly owned by the Government and Colonial Mutual Insurance, but it has met with financial difficulties and I am unsure of its current ownership. It lacks the sparkle of the other dailies.

In some of the columns of certain papers the standard of English writing is unimpressive, sometimes verging on "Hinglish" (see
Languages, especially second para from end).

Postal and courier services

Post Fiji, owned by the Fiji Government, delivers mail locally and internationally and is supposed to be Fiji's sole provider of letter (but not parcel) delivery services. As well as the normal mail service, Post Fiji operates a very economical, versatile special delivery service called EMS Courier Post. They also run a bill payment service (BillPay) and the Postshop retail business. All these services are available in Lautoka at the main post office at the corner of Narara Parade and Tavewa Avenue and at the Postshop in Yasawa Street.

The post offices open from 8.00am to 5.00pm Monday-Friday, and 8.00am to 11.00am Saturday. Postage rates are low compared with many other countries, e.g. within Fiji 18c for letters, 9c for cards, 46c per 250g for parcels by airmail; and overseas 31c for letters up to 20g, 65c up to 50g, $2.08 for small packets up to 1kg. A serious drawback with the system is that mail is not delivered to your home. You have to rent a postbox at the post office for $35-80/year.

As an alternative to Post Fiji, a popular courier service is CDP Services Ltd, who have an office/depot in Waterfront Road. Their charges are a bit steep, but they do appear to be able to deliver almost anywhere in Fiji, as might be gathered from the prevalence of their yellow trucks all over the islands. Another good courier service with an office in Lautoka is The United Parcel Service (UPS).

Schools, colleges and universities

Fiji has a good education system and a high density of excellent schools, of which Lautoka has its fair share. The standard of primary education in particular is high. There are both state and private schools, i.e. schools run by the government and schools run by churches and other non-government organisations, each type providing both primary and secondary education. There are also a number of kindergartens. Although education is not compulsory, almost all children attend primary school and a considerable proportion go on to high school. Probably almost 99% of Lautoka's children over the age of 15 are literate.

The Fiji school curriculum is derived from the New Zealand education system, but Fiji now has its own School Certificate examination system. The government supposedly provides free education for the first eight years, and offers only very limited financial assistance for tuition in years 9 to 12. In reality, although a high proportion of the government budget goes to education, the government's contribution towards the cost of schooling appears to be low compared with what families ultimately pay, and most parents struggle to keep their children in school. Many children are denied the opportunity of higher education because it is well beyond the parents' means.

Although the number and standard of schools as such is impressive, many Lautokans appear to be unhappy with the quality of teaching, saying they would rather send their children to high schools overseas. The impression obtained from people who have experienced both the Fijian education system and Australian or other overseas systems is that the level of discipline in Fijian schools is higher but education standards are lower. It's true that there are often some astonishing gaps in the knowledge of people who have passed through the secondary school system. Nonetheless, Lautoka has some secondary schools with a very good reputation, in particular the Natabua High School. (For a related item see this link to Footnotes on language difficulties.)

By far the most important university in Fiji, recognised as the leading university for the Pacific islands region and as yet the only one with any standing overseas, is the University of the South Pacific (USP) in Suva. However, Lautoka can now pride itself in having its own university, the University of Fiji at Saweni, opened in February 2005. This is a private, non-partisan, non-profit making establishment, being developed with the support of various stakeholders. Courses are offered in its three Schools: Commerce and Economics, Science and Technology and Humanites and Arts. Lautoka also has an impressive new teachers training college at Natabua.

Below is a list of schools and colleges in and around Lautoka. The list is almost certainly incomplete and schools have not been sorted as to type (primary/high, state/private, boys/girls etc). Infant schools and kindergartens are not included.

        Schools:

Amichandra Memorial School, Tavakubu Back Rd
Ba Provincial Secondary School, Saru Back Rd
Central College Lautoka, Hospital Rd
Deshbandhu Vitogo Primary School, Vitogo Pde
Drasa Avenue School, Drasa Ave
Drasa Indian School, Drasa
Dreketi Sangam School, Saweni
Gandhi Bhawan Primary School, Tavakubu
Intellectually Handicapped School, Evans St
Islamia Institute & Orphans Home, Drasa Mosque Rd
Jasper Wiliams High School, Wainunu St
Jasper Williams Primary School, Drasa Ave
Lautoka Andhra Sangam School, Field 40
Lautoka Central School, Hospital Rd
Lautoka Chinese School, 2 Namoli Ave
Lautoka Fijian School, Mission Place
Lautoka Muslim High School, Vomo St
Lautoka Muslim Primary School, Mana St
Lautoka Primary School, Dravuni St
Lautoka Sanatan Primary School, Banaras
Lovu Sangam School, Lovu
Natabua High School, Vitogo Pde
Qalitu Primary School, Qalitu Rd
St Thomas Primary School, Saqa St
St Thomas High School, Natabua
Saru M.G.M. School, Saru
Sathya Sai School*, Johnson Rd, Drasa (see photo feature)
Seventh Day Primary School, MT Khan Rd
Tilak High School, Vitogo/Drasa
Vaivai Indian School, Vaivai
Vakabuli Indian School, Vakabuli
Viseisei Primary School, Vuda
Vishnu Deo Memorial School, Saweni
Vitogo District School, Vitogo
Vuda District School, Viseisei Back Rd
Wairabetia Muslim School, Wairabetia
Yasawa Centenary Junior Memorial School, Yasawa Is

        Business and trade schools:

Aptech Computer Education Centre, Tukani St
Australia Pacific Tertiary Institute Ltd, Namoli Ave
City Educational Institute, Yasawa St
CMTS Training Centre, Vidilo St
Computer Studies Centre, Bila St
Fiji Institute of Hairdressing Health & Beauty Therapy, Narara Pde
Lautoka Hospital, Hospital Rd
New Horizons Computer Learning Centers, Naviti St
New Zealand Pacific Training Centre, Vakabale St

        Tertiary education:

Teachers Training College, Natabua
University of Fiji, Saweni


Library

The Council operates a barely stocked library in Tavewa Avenue, a short way past the fire station. You'll probably notice the brightly coloured steam-roller in the front yard before you see the library sign.

Health, hospital & medical services

Lautoka is a relatively clean city, there are good sewerage and drainage systems, and no open drains carrying foul water. The tap water is treated and, according to most sources, perfectly safe to drink, although a minority opinion refutes this. There is either no risk, or only a low risk, of contracting any of the dangerous exotic diseases found in many African and Asian countries (such as malaria, yellow fever, cholera, rabies, polio, brucellosis, encephalitis, schistosomiasis, trypanosomiasis and bubonic plague).

However, Fiji is not entirely free from tropical diseases, as the travel brochures imply. There are occasional outbreaks of the mosquito-borne dengue fever, mainly in the rainy season. This still causes deaths in Fiji, sometimes at a young age. Filariasis, also borne by mosquitoes, occurs all year round. Sporadic outbreaks of typhoid and Ross river fever occur and there is a considerably higher risk of contracting hepatitis A and B and influenza than in Australia.

A particular hazard, of which many travellers appear to be unaware, is ciguatera fish poisoning which can result from eating reef fish such as barracuda, snapper and grouper. These fish contain a species of marine algae, Gambierdiscus toxicus, which produce the toxins and which are not destroyed by cooking. The symptoms of ciguatera include nausea, vomiting, a tingling sensation in the fingers or toes and a reversal of thermal sensitivity (hot things feel cold and cold things feel hot). Ciguatera poisoning is quite common, symptoms may last from days to years and there is no cure.

Ocean swimmers, snorklers and divers should also be aware of nasties such as jellyfish, sea urchins, sea snakes and sharks (similar hazards to those confronting Japanese visitors to northern Queensland, who are rarely given advance warning of the dangers by the Australian travel industry).

For the locals, the main health issues are related to diet. Obesity, diabetes and circulatory problems result from high intakes of carbohydrates and fats and poor use of fresh vegetables and fruit. Indigenous Fijians suffer from these problems more than Indians, who eat less cassava, pork and coconut cream. However, the incidence of diet-related diseases, especially diabetes, is much lower than in some other Pacific Island nations (notably Tonga).

Lautoka has a large hospital, quite well equipped and staffed. It was originally built in 1925 but the existing main structure, a four storey building, was built in 1975 with British government aid. It has about 375 beds and serves the entire western side of Viti Levu - a population of about 320,000. Its main areas of specialisation are in Accident and Emergency, General Surgery, Medicine, Pathology, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Orthopaedics, Paediatrics, Radiology, Dentistry, Ophthalmology, Physiotherapy and Tuberculosis control. A new health centre has just been completed at the hospital with a considerable investment by Ba Provincial Holdings.

The hospital phone no. is 660 399, normal hours are 8.00am to 4.30pm daily and emergency services are open twenty four hours. The General Outpatients Department operates from 8.00am to 4.00pm, patients are seen on a first-come first-served basis and waiting times can be very long. The immediate service provided in General Outpatients is said to be similar to that provided by GPs in other countries, culminating in treatment (if the case is simple), issue of a prescription or referral to a specialist. Funding and facilities are limited and the number of patients large, so the hospital encourages continuing care by relatives at home.

The author of this article fortunately has no first-hand experience of the hospital's services, but he has heard many reports from both local and overseas patients. The general opinion is that the hospital environment is, to say the least, dismal even by hospital standards. Maintenance and hygiene are poor. Waiting times in Outpatients and elsewhere can be extremely long. Although most of the doctors are quite good, offering the best help they can in the circumstances, some apparently don't do their job properly, handing out prescriptions without even glancing at the patient, let alone carrying out any kind of examination. Perhaps they simply have too many patients. In-house patients often need care from relatives, as nursing care and equipment (even down to the provision of bed-sheets!) is inadequate. Most of the nurses (particularly in Outpatients) are said to be unpleasant, uncaring, unmotivated and indolent. Not that it's their fault. These quite serious attitude problems need to be urgently addressed during nurses training and by the hospital's nursing management. Obviously every patient needs to be treated with respect, kindness and concern. (The same criticisms have been levelled at the Suva public hospital, and the worst of the lot is reputed to be the Ba Mission hospital.)

Lautoka hospital is a teaching hospital, so there are always a lot of student nurses etc there. Considerable funding and support comes from outside Fiji, from both government and voluntary sources. An example of this is the Indooroopilly (Brisbane) Rotary Club's funding of the "Eyes for Fiji" project initiated by Dr Bill Watts, a Brisbane opthalmic surgeon.

There are about twelve GPs in the city and they definitely do not all provide the same quality of service. Lautokans have their personal favourites, but visitors should pay little attention to the recommendations of the locals. Some of the treatments prescribed by certain GPs are roundly condemned by other GPs. Clinic opening times and waiting times vary enormously, sometimes depending on whether the doctor bothers to turn up.

Lautoka also has a large clinic run by the J P Bayly Trust, located at the corner of Nede Street and Vuniwai Lane. For information on the Bayly Trust's operations in Lautoka see "Welfare Organisations" below. Lautoka also has an effective ambulance service. Also see Pharmacies under "Merchants, trading companies and retailers".

My advice to overseas visitors who contract anything worse than a cold - go home!

Bus services

The local bus services, and those who operate them, without doubt constitute Lautoka's finest social asset. You might think hospitals, schools and welfare organisations are more important, and in a certain sense they are, but many of these services are on a downhill slide. The buses are what keep the people moving and Lautoka alive, and they do it admirably well. True, the transport system in this city displays none of the formal flashiness and creature comforts of the sytems you'll find in more advanced countries, but it possesses the kind of uncompromising character you associate with the most successful enterprises - the perseverance of a rugby team, the patience of a mother, the purposefulness of a guided missile, the inevitability of the sunrise, the adventurous spirit of a jungle explorer and, above all, an exceptional ability to meet the needs of individuals. And it's all done on fares that wouldn't feed a goldfish on ants' legs (though some locals complain the fares are too high).

Doubtless part of the effectiveness of the bus services is due to the intense competition. The number of bus companies using Lautoka bus stand would be difficult to count on two hands and two feet, and many of them ply the same routes. The main companies offering local services are probably Pacific Transport, Kadar Buksh, Lautoka General and Fiji Transport. It would be a brave person who would dare to single out any one "brand" for honours. They are all good.

The buses might look a bit rough, they might rattle and grunt, but that's hardly surprising when you consider that they venture along tracks that no sane vehicle would ever dare to go. If you live out in the sticks, a bus is going to find you there, even if it has to clamber over rocks and swim through rivers of mud. Where else in the world can you find a bus that does that for you? On most routes, you don't even have to stand at a bus-stop to catch a bus - you just wave at it and it stops. Not like in Australia where the bus-stops are so far apart you need a horse to get to the nearest one.

The drivers drive well and seem to have more patience than a fox waiting for a rabbit in Naviti Street. Traffic and road conditions or disgruntled passengers never seem to rattle them. They wait for slow coaches to amble aboard or for alighting passengers to make their way from the back of the bus after it stops. They give ignorant tourists a pitying look, but tolerate their questions, their incomprehension and vacillating ways with an air of dumbfounded resignation. But come what may, the drivers invariably keep their buses on schedule. It's quite rare for a bus to be more than five minutes late.

All local buses have rows of five seats across, not four as in Australia, NZ, UK etc. This might seem cramped but it's tolerable for short distances and has the advantage that more people can be seated during busy periods. Tourists, when you want to get off the bus, pull the bell cord about 50 metres before your stop, then don't even think about leaving your seat until the bus has come to a complete rest. Chances are you'll fall over or hit somebody if you and the bus are both moving at the same time! One problem for tourists is the lack of printed timetables. You'll have to find out bus times from locals or from an appropriate driver.

Congratulations drivers! - you keep Lautoka running on time, and with attitude! What a pity your passengers are so unappreciative they don't even say "thank you" when they get off. Come on, you locals, why not help to make their day as happy as you'd like yours to be?

Intercity buses

Buses operating between Lautoka and Ba or Nadi are mostly similar to those that serve the metropolitan area and surrounding villages. They usually have glass windows, rather than open sides with storm-blinds. Some of them are marked "express", which means they only stop at scheduled points, not on demand (unless you're lucky). It also usually means they get to where they're going quite a lot faster.

There are also long-distance express buses going to Suva via Queen's Road, and to Rakiraki (or further) via King's Road. These services are run mainly by Sunbeam, Pacific Transport and Akbar. In Lautoka you can get timetables for these services from the Sunbeam and Pacific Transport offices in Yasawa Street, close to the bus stand, or from the driver of an Akbar bus (as this company has no office in Lautoka). The following table shows summary timetables (as at September 2005). Please do not rely on this table: check with the relevant bus company before finalising travel plans.

INTERCITY EXPRESS BUS TIMETABLES (Sep 2005)

Sunbeam

Lautoka

Nadi

Sigatoka

Navua

Suva

Monday only

3.15am

4.00

5.05

6.45

7.30am

7 days

8.30am

9.30

10.50

12.45

1.30pm

7 days

9.30am

10.10

11.20

-

1.35pm

7 days

10.10am

11.00

12.20

2.10

2.55pm

7 days

11.10am

12.00

1.20

3.10

3.50pm

7 days

12.40pm

1.35

3.00

5.00

5.40pm

7 days

2.15pm

3.05

4.15

6.20

7.00pm

7 days

3.15pm

3.45

5.05

-

7.20pm

Pacific Transport

7 days

6.30am

7.20

8.45

10.35

11.20

7 days

7.00am

7.50

9.10

11.20

12.05

7 days

12.10pm

1.00

2.25

4.15

5.00

7 days

3.50pm

4.40

6.00

7.50

8.35

Friday only

5.00pm

5.50

7.15

9.05

9.50

7 days

5.30pm

6.20

7.45

9.35

10.20

Friday only

6.00pm

6.50

8.10

10.00

10.45


Sunbeam

Suva

Navua

Sigatoka

Nadi

Lautoka

Monday only

3.45am

4.25

6.00

7.10

7.55am

7 days

7.30am

8.15

10.25

11.35

12.15pm

7 days

8.45am

-

11.10

12.20

12.50pm

7 days

10.00am

10.45

12.45

2.00

2.55

7 days

11.10am

11.55

1.50

3.05

3.50

7 days

1.15pm

2.00

4.10

5.15

6.00

7 days

2.15pm

3.00

5.15

6.15

7.05

7 days

4.00pm

-

6.25

7.35

8.05

Pacific Transport

7 days

6.45am

7.35

9.35

10.50

11.35am

7 days

8.30am

9.15

11.15

12.40

1.30pm

7 days

9.30am

10.20

12.20

1.35

2.20pm

7 days

12.10pm

1.00

3.00

4.15

5.00pm

7 days

3.00

3.50

6.00

7.15

7.55pm

Friday only

5.00

-

7.30

9.05

9.50pm

7 days

5.30

6.20

8.20

9.35

10.20pm

Friday only

6.00

6.50

8.45

10.00

10.45pm


Sunbeam

Lautoka

Ba

Tavua

Rakiraki

Korovou

Nausori

Suva

7 days

6.15am

6.55

7.25

8.30

10.55

11.45

12.15pm

7 days

6.30am

7.15

7.50

9.00

11.25

12.05

12.35pm

7 days

8.15am

9.15

10.00

11.00

1.30

2.10

2.40pm

7 days

12.15pm

1.00

1.40

2.40

5.15

6.00

6.25

Sat/Sun only

2.15pm

3.30

4.20

5.55

9.00

10.00

10.35pm

7 days

4.30pm

5.15

5.50

6.50

9.20

10.05

10.30pm

Akbar

Not on Sunday

10.45am

11.30

12.05

12.45pm

-

-

-

7 days

11.10am

12.00

12.45

1.45pm

-

-

-

Not on Sunday

2.15pm

3.05

3.45

4.30pm

-

-

-

7 days

3.30pm

4.20

4.50

5.35pm

-

-

-

Not on Sunday

5.10pm

6.00

6.35

7.25pm

-

-

-


Sunbeam

Suva

Nausori

Korovou

Rakiraki

Tavua

Ba

Lautoka

7 days

6.00am

6.35

7.25

10.10

11.05

-

12.10pm

7 days

6.45am

7.15

8.00

10.35

11.30

12.05

12.45pm

7 days

8.15am

8.55

9.40

12.30

1.20

1.55

2.35pm

7 days

12.00am

12.40

1.25

4.05

4.55

5.35

6.15pm

7 days

1.30pm

2.05

3.00

5.30

6.25

7.00

7.40pm

Sat/Sun only

3.00pm

3.45

4.45

8.15

9.25

10.10

11.05pm

7 days

5.15pm

5.45

6.30

9.05

10.00

10.35

11.15pm

Akbar

Not on Sunday

-

-

-

5.45am

6.45

7.15

7.50am

Not on Sunday

-

-

-

6.15am

7.15

7.50

8.35am

7 days

-

-

-

6.45am

8.05

8.40

9.20am

Not on Sunday

-

-

-

9.30am

10.35

11.10

11.50am

7 days

-

-

-

12.35pm

1.35

2.10

2.50pm


These long-distance buses cannot be recommended, especially for the long haul from Lautoka to Suva or vice-versa. Although some (all?) of the buses are air-conditioned and superficially more "modern" than local buses, they still retain the five-across interior layout, which is much too cramped for long-distance travel. Leg room for tall passengers is also insufficient. The buses operating between Suva and Lautoka are invariably full, so it's no use hoping you'll get a double seat for yourself, or a triple seat with only one other person sharing. In fact, the operators of at least one of these services are quite ruthless and are not averse to overbooking, which means there may be people sitting on the floor too. The services are cheap enough, but you'll travel in much more comfort in a tourist-style coach, if you can afford to pay about twice as much.

Taxis and vans

Other forms of transport in Lautoka are poorly regulated, which is a boon for travellers but bad news for the large number of taxi owners and drivers operating in the city. Taxi drivers in Lautoka rarely charge according to the meter, and tourists as well as locals can haggle for a better fare. Locals are inclined to jump into a cab without asking questions, knowing that they will be charged reasonably. Tourists, on the other hand, know there's a high chance they will be taken for a ride in more senses than one, so they must try to get the best deal. The best way of doing this is to ask several drivers how much they'll charge to get you where you want. In any event, you hardly need to worry - the fare will be much lower than you'd have to pay in your own country. Most drivers are very reasonable, polite people - not like taxi drivers in India or Egypt, for example, who, after much argument, will agree to a fare and then change it when you reach your destination, causing another argument.

Instead of hiring a taxi, you can often get a lift with a "running" cab, which is a taxi that takes as many fare-paying passengers as it can on a fixed route between two points. It might pick up and drop off passengers anywhere along the route, much the same as a bus, and usually the fare charged is the same as, or a little higher than, the bus fare. It is entirely at the driver's discretion whether he'll take you or not, as his only aim is to run his operation so as to maximise the total fares taken in one complete trip.

As well as official taxis there are numerous illegal carriers operating in and around Lautoka. Most of them have "vans" (people carriers) and they use them just like taxis, except that, because of their larger capacity, they are more often used in "running" mode rather than "hire" mode. Their fares are usually a bit lower than taxi fares. Many people use them instead of buses for longer distances, as they are quicker. Although theoretically illegal, the law turns a blind eye to them. Keep in mind that the operators are probably not insured for carrying paying passengers, and their driving skills are often pathetic. I'd advise short-term tourists to use licensed taxis.

Shipping services

Lautoka has a number of agencies offering shipping services offering assistance with customs clearance and all logistical aspects of importing and exporting. For freight to and from the islands or overseas there are Carpenters Shipping (MH building), Campbells Shipping Agency (Waterfront Rd), JAIV Clearance & Logistics (Royal Palm Rd), Williams & Gosling (Navutu Industrial Estate), Fijian Shipping & Freight Logistic (Queens Wharf), Western Shipping (Fisherman's Wharf), the passenger services mentioned below and several others.

Passenger and cruise services to neighbouring islands are of greater interest to most people. There are three main providers with offices in Lautoka - Beachcomber Roro Shipping (also known as Adi Savusavu), Patterson Brothers Shipping and (for tourists) Blue Lagoon Cruises. You can't miss the colourful Beachcomber building on the corner of Walu Street and Vitogo Parade on the western side of town, and the very smart Blue Lagoon Cruises office is close by, but Pattersons is harder to find, upstairs in a building in Tukani Street, opposite the bus stand and close to the junction with Vidilo Street.

The Beachcomber office deals primarily with bookings and transfers to the Beachcomber Island Resort, and their passenger and vehicle ferry service operating between Suva, Savusavu and Taveuni. At the time of writing this article the ferry was out of action, but normally it was doing three round trips weekly. However, a new timetable was in in preparation. Undoubtedly Beachcomber runs a quality service, but tourists might be advised to travel first class.

Blue Lagoon Cruises operate a fleet of luxury vessels each holding up to 72 passengers, accommodated in cabins, and their island-hopping itineraries to the Yasawas are for 3-7 days. These cruises offer a wide range of activities as well as good food, relaxation and sight-seeing. Click on the above link for details.

Patterson Brothers: (NB - Since writing the following paragraphs, I've been told that Pattersons have a brand new fleet, destinations and itineraries. I can find no information about these developments, so if you want to use their services you could phone their Suva office: 3315644.)

Pattersons operate a ferry service calling in at Ellington Wharf (Rakiraki), Nabouwalu (west Vanua Levu), Natovi (east coast of Viti Levu opposite Ovalau island) and Buresala (west coast of Ovalau), with bus connections to Lautoka, Labasa, Levuka and Suva. They also run services to Koro and Kadavu and can book sea connections from Savusavu to Taveuni. Pattersons don't have a printed timetable - not even for their own use (in the Lautoka office). You have to ask lots of questions. Departure times are not guaranteed and last-minute cancellations sometimes occur, forcing travellers to change plans or fly to their destinations. Pick-up is normally only from the specified departure points. They will sometimes agree to pick you up from other points along the route, but this is risky, as communications within the organisation appear to be extremely poor. If you do decide you want to be picked up somewhere, be sure to reconfirm at least twice. The timetable for the most popular journeys was approximately as follows in 2005 (information obtained mainly by word of mouth). On no account rely on this timetable as actual departure times vary.

Patterson Brothers – partial timetable and fares*
Towns/ports and approximate
departure/arrival times*
Days of
departure
One-way
fare
Return
fare
Boat-only
fare
(approx)
Labasa - Nabouwalu - Ellington - Lautoka
5.30am     10.30am     2.30am     5.30pm
M Th $60 $100 $39
Lautoka - Ellington - Nabouwalu - Labasa
3.30am     7.00am     11.00am     3.00pm
W Su $60 $100 $39
Suva    -     Natovi  -  Buresala  - Levuka
1.30pm     3.30pm     4.15pm     5.30pm
M T Th F S $24 $48 $12
Levuka  -  Buresala  -  Natovi  -   Suva
3.30am     5.30am     6.15am     8.45am
M T W F Su $24 $48 $12
Suva    -     Natovi  -  Nabouwalu - Labasa
4.30am     7.00am     11.15am     1.45pm
W F S Su $45 $90 $25
Labasa  -  Nabouwalu - Natovi   -  Suva
5.30am     10.00am     2.00pm     4.30pm
M Th F S $45 $90 $25
* Discounts are generally available if doing more than one leg. Please do not rely on this timetable; it is
only a rough guide and times and days of departure may vary.

To be truthful, although the Patterson Bros service is extremely useful, it's about as rough as they come. The vessel is in dire need of maintenance and upgrading, and the connecting bus service isn't much better: seating is uncomfortable for the long rides involved, and there is no proper storage for large baggage, which is simply heaped in a pile at the front of the bus. Overall, this service cannot be recommended for any tourists except backpackers and others willing to suffer a bit of discomfort. But locals who use the service reckon it's just fine!

Apart from Beachcomber/Adi Savusavu, other passenger services to the eastern islands are based in Suva and don't have offices in Lautoka (e.g. Consort and Suilvens). The quality of these services is quite good, especially if you travel first class. There's also a daily bus/boat service operated by Grace Shipping from Savusavu to Waiyevo on Taveuni, via the dilapidated Natuvu jetty on the eastern end of Vanua Levu, facing Buca Bay. The one-and-a-half hour bus ride to the jetty is rough and can't be recommended for people with bad backs. While the 2-hour sea voyage in a small boat with a low roof is usually calm, sometimes there's quite a swell and the crossing takes longer.

Air services

Lautoka does not have an airport. The nearest airport (domestic and international) is at Nadi. The national carrier is Air Pacific, which is predominantly government-owned. The main domestic airlines are Air Fiji, Sunflower Airlines, Vanua Air, Turtle Airways and Air Wakaya, and there is a helicopter service operated by Pacific Crown Aviation.

Charities and non-profit community organisations

The city is very fortunate in having a large number of social and community-help organisations. Perhaps the two most important of these are the Red Cross and the J P Bayly Trust, both enjoying considerable national and international recognition.

The Red Cross* (Lautoka Branch) office is at the corner of Vomo Street and Drasa Avenue. On these premises, besides the office there is a small kindergarten operated by the Red Cross. The president of the Lautoka Branch is Mr. Rajendra Patel, and the predominantly voluntary staff are headed very efficiently by Mrs Nisha Khan. There is no need to explain the role of the Red Cross in general, as it is known to almost everyone, but the Lautoka Branch runs a number of specialist projects, in particular an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign in the local community. One of the techniques they use in this programme is puppet shows, which are presented in schools and at various outdoor functions. The Red Cross Lautoka Branch holds its annual door-knock appeal in September (see photo feature). The response is usually quite good, and it's amazing to see even the poorest people donating to this charity - the very people that an outsider would think should be on the receiving end.

At the time of writing, the capabilities of the Lautoka Branch appeared to be hampered by a shortage of funds, poor facilities and the lack of autonomy from the Fiji headquarters in Suva. The latter situation has recently improved, but funds and better facilities are desparately needed. The staff there are dedicated and some of them are exceptionally talented, but there are no fully paid workers (unless you call $F10/week "fully paid"). The office is a single, small room, cramped and noisy (often too much street-noise to make a phone call). On the wall near the entrance is a plaque commemorating the completion of the first stage in September 1985. Actually the first stage was never properly completed, the facilities are pitiful and, 20 years later, the second stage looks like never happening. This is an absolute disgrace for Fiji's second largest city.

In comparison, most Australian Red Cross facilities are palatial, and some of the domestic activities performed by volunteers in Australia could only be called "cosmetic pampering" by comparison with the work done in Fiji. (This is not to detract in any way from the outstanding work performed by the Australian Red Cross in gruelling disaster situations overseas, as well as a number of significant projects within Australia.) The Red Cross Brisbane Branch has just sold its grand old HQ building in Adelaide Street for $15.2 million and rehoused itself in an enormous, swanky, four-storey air-conditoned building in Park Road, Milton, at a cost of $6.8 million plus the cost of modifications still in progress. Much of the space inside this building, re-named Humanity Place, will apparently lie idle most of the time. (When I visited the building in early November 2005, the personnel there were complaining they still couldn't find their way around.) Financially this seems a good move, and admittedly the Brisbane HQ handles projects, both domestic and international, worth tens of millions annually, while the Lautoka turnover is only in the thousands, so you'd expect there to be a significant disparity between facilities in the two countries. Still, the extravagances of the new Brisbane set-up compared to the plainly inadequate, woeful conditions in Lautoka comes as a tremendous shock to a Lautokan or any outsider who visits both sites. Something is evidently very wrong: the Red Cross appears to be failing to apply its fundamental principles of impartiality and universality within its own organisation. Though the powers that be may not realise it, they are simply promoting the wealth/poverty divide.

The J P Bayly Trust (Lautoka), including the Bayly welfare, medical clinic and education operations, is housed at 5 Nede Street. The trust was created to assist underprivileged residents of Fiji, by providing food, clothing, medical aid and school materials. The clinic utilises the services of doctors and dentists who pay a subsidised rental and agree to provide consultations for only a nominal fee or free of charge. Prescriptions are paid for by the Trust. The Lautoka centre is run by a paid almoner (Mrs Sarojni Michael), part-time employees and volunteers, and there is also a committee chaired by Mr Natwarlal Vagh.

Other social welfare organisations operating in Lautoka include:
    The Salvation Army, Lautoka Corps, with an office upstairs in a building in Tukani Street, opposite the
    bus stand.
    The Salvation Army, Saweni Corps, has a small office at Saweni by the side of the main road.
    The Fiji Crippled Childrens Society, in Hospital Road.
    The Foundation for the Rural Intergrated Enterprises & Development.
    YWCA, in Drasa Avenue.

There are also some homes and hostels serving those with special needs. Among these is the so called Natabua Old Peoples Home, which actually houses not only elderly people but other disadvantaged people of all ages, such as blind, physically disabled and mentally handicapped persons. And the residents are from various backgrounds and ethnic groups. The excellent staff at this home have their work cut out handling so much variety (see the featured photo gallery). The home is managed by a committee headed by Mr Kanti Punja (President), with Mr Sunil Raniga (Superintendant) in charge of operations.

Recreational facilities

Lautoka has plenty of sports, leisure and entertainment facilities and social clubs. There are sporting competitions and events at all levels, from primary school to international. The quality of the sporting facilities here is borne out by the fact that Lautoka hosted the 2004 Fiji Games, which included 28 different sports as well as athletic events and games for the disabled. Lautoka has also hosted several international rugby and football matches.

The oldest sports facilities are at Churchill Park in the city centre, south of Narara Parade. Here one can find three football grounds including a soccer/rugby football stadium, a Multipurpose Court used for tennis, basketball, netball and volleyball, and a large, level park area where school sporting events are held, including track and field. The same area is used for various festivals held throughout the year. It will set you back $3 to see any of the games held by the Fiji Football Association - very popular with locals. Some international events have been held here, most recently India v Fiji in the International Football Series (Fiji won all three games!).

Newer facilities have been developed at Nadovu Park, at the back of the sugar mill, off Mill View Road. Here one can find three grounds used mainly for rugby and also for soccer and hockey. Nadovu Park is also the site of the Dr Robin Mitchell Regional Tennis Centre, which was used in 2004 for the South Pacific Junior Championship. A pleasant feature of this park is the row of shady Vaivai Trees. Some of the schools, notably Natabua High, also have good sports fields, and there are also several other fields around the city (e.g. Kamikamica Park in the Kashmir region and the Drasa Vitogo ground near the Tilak High School in Simla).

The Lautoka Golf Club (address: P.O Box 597, Lautoka) has an undulating course on the hillside south-west of the city centre, off Tavakubu Road, with a 15th hole that is said to be one of the hardest to crack in Fiji. (That's strange, I was under the impression it was only a 9-hole course! The best course in Fiji is probably the one at Pacific Harbour, closely followed by the Denarau golf links near Nadi.)

Other sporting clubs include:
    The Lautoka Bowling Club, south of the sugar mill, between Veitari Street and Waterfront Road
    The International Tennis Federation, 5 Morris Place

Pool is also popular and one can find small tables at various clubs and even outdoors, under canopies. For children, there are play centres throughout the city, the most obvious one being the Lautoka City Council Childrens Park in Tavewa Avenue.

Lautoka used to have several cinemas (movie theatres), but all the older ones have now been displaced by the prominent new Village 4 complex in Namoli Avenue.

Night clubs include the Great Wall Of China Restaurant & Nightclub in Naviti Street, The Zone Nightclub also in Naviti Street and, with a dubious reputation, the Ashiqi Night Club in the Lautoka Hotel complex at the corner of Tui and Naviti streets - you enter here at your own risk!

General social clubs with recreational facilities include the South Seas Club on the waterfront at the end of Nede Street, the Lautoka Club at the end of Baravi Lane, also on the waterfront, and the Northern Club opposite the Cathay Hotel in Tavewa Avenue.

The Fiji Labour Party, with a meeting place at 17 Tukani Street, is one of the most active political societies, and there are also numerous church organisations, some with extremely alarming names like the Child Evangelism Fellowship and the Evangelism Explosion, others such as the Sathya Sai Service Organisation with community help in mind.

Annual events held in Lautoka include the July Farmers Fest, whose main activity is a carnival in Chuchill Park with stalls, fairground attractions and lots of food; and the Sugar Festival held in September, culminating in the crowning of the Sugar Queen and a parade with floats. There are religious festivals on at various times of the year, and some visitors to Lautoka may have the opportunity to see firewalking (vilmiilarevo, performed ceremoniously rather than as a mere spectacle for tourists), as well as other activities performed by members of certain Hindu sects.

Climate, attractions and the tourism industry

(Tourists - for money issues please see the banking section)

Climate

The Lautoka region probably has the best climate in Fiji, and for most of the year it is one of the best in the world. Suva is wetter and has much more frequent cloud cover, while Nadi tends to have greater extremes of temperature. The Coral Coast experiences conditions intermediate between Suva and Lautoka. The wet season runs from November to April, most of the rain falling as short, heavy showers. The rest of the year is sunny and warm, and pleasantly cool at night in July and August. Weather forecasts and detailed recent historical information can be found at this Weather Underground site.

Monthly climate data for Lautoka region*
Average reading: Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Max temperature: 30 30 29 29 28 27 26 27 27 27 28 29
Min temperature: 25 25 24 24 23 22 22 21 22 23 24 24
Rainfall: 290 300 320 160 80 60 50 60 80 100 140 160
Days with rain: 18 18 19 12 7 6 5 5 6 9 11 13
* Approximate values, obtained by combining tables. There are some inconsistencies
in the published data and a shortage of historical data for Lautoka.

Fiji's characteristic weather pattern can be explained in terms of a global phenomenon called the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ, pronounced "itch"). The ITCZ is a ragged belt of low atmospheric pressure running around the Earth close to the equator. This low pressure belt, together with the Earth's rotation, causes the Trade Winds. The Northeast Trade Winds meet the Southeast Trade Winds along this belt, and where they converge moist air is forced upwards. As the moist air rises, it cools down and water vapour condenses, resulting in rain.

Thus the ITCZ is a band of heavy rainfall around the globe. This band always forms where the surface of the Earth is warmest; therefore it moves seasonally north or south of the equator, depending on the position of the sun. This movement is much more noticeable over land masses than over the sea, because the temperature of the sea doesn't change so much from season to season. Still, the seasonal movement of the sun causes the rain to intensify in the ITCZ, the rain being heaviest when the sun is at its hottest.

In the western South Pacific region there's a persistent, quite "vicious" arm of the ITCZ stretching in a band, about 300km wide, from the Solomon Islands through Fiji, Samoa and Tonga. This arm is called the South Pacific Convergence Zone (SPCZ), and it is at its most intense over Fiji from October to April. This explains why it's wet in Lautoka at this time of year. However, because the Trade Winds blow from the Southeast, the heaviest rain falls on Fiji's southeastern shore and the southeastern slopes of the mountains. Which explains why Suva is wetter than Lautoka. And why Lautoka is the sugar capital of Fiji, because sugar cane prefers the sunnier climate without excessive rain.

Attractions and sight-seeing

Parks and Gardens - Churchill Park and Nadovu Park are where most of the action takes place (see Sports). However, Shirley Park, with its peaceful view of the waterfront, is a more pleasant place to relax. In the evenings some locals take the opportunity of strolling along the Marine Drive, which runs along the bottom of the park. The park has some benches and shady trees, and a nice little cafe. Sometimes the top end of the park is used for various functions. Shirley Park is behind the Civic Centre, besides Tui Street. Often Fijian handicrafts are on sale along the Tui Street edge of the park, usually at a fraction of the price you'd have to pay in Nadi or Suva. But "mean" tourists would do well to ask a local to do the buying, as they could get ripped off. The quality of the craftwork is often poorer than that found in tourist-orientated craft shops.

The Botanic Gardens are a little disappointing - more like a park, really - though much better than Suva's so-called Botanic Gardens, which is definitely nothing but a park. The main feature is a large, regimented grove of palm trees, and there are a number of ornamental shrubs. Although there are very few flower beds, the gardens are a very restful place, surprisingly little used by the locals.

Streets - In times gone by, Lautoka's finest feature was the magnificent Queens Road approach to the city. The road was lined on both sides with huge fig (?) trees which formed a shady arch overhead. This was one of the best examples of man working together with nature to be found in the Pacific region. Alas, the road was moved and many of the trees have been toppled by cyclones or chopped down because they were getting too dangerous. However, you can still see this avenue of trees, running parallel to the road on the left hand side as you approach the city, and it's still worth stopping to go and stand between the two rows.

Luckily, the city still has Vitogo Parade, with its long rows of tall Royal palms running between the road and the railway line. Possibly the most effective stretch is not right in the city, but between the sugar mill and the start of the city centre.

Countryside, trekking and views. If you go up into the hills around Lautoka you will get some magnificent views. Unfortunately the Council and Chiefs have not built on this, and there are few places where you can easily get to the top of a hill, and few people offering guided walks.

One vantage point you can easily reach is the relatively low summit of Reservoir Hill above Kashmir. One way of getting there is by taking a bus up to the end of the sealed section of Field Forty Road, then follow the track that is actually a continuation of the road. Soon you will see a steeply sloping concrete path on the left, doubling back up the hill. Follow this to the top, where you will find a pinnacle. (On the way up, please take care not to interfere with the gardens of cassava planted by locals.) There are good views in all directions - over the city, the ocean and towards the mountains. From the pinnacle you can return by a different path - if you can find it - leading down into SM Koya Road. There's a bus stop just down the road near the corner-shop. Alternatively you can go past the small reservoir at the top of the hill and scramble along the track running along the back of it until you come to a rough path leading steeply downwards into one of the outer suburbs. After that you might have to ask for directions to the nearest bus stop.

For visitors without much time to spare, a much better idea is to take the 4-wheel "ecotourism" drive to Abaca Village, at the base of Mt. Evans in the Koroyanitu Range, which is largely within the boundary of a National Heritage Park. The tour leaves from the Cathay Hotel, where you can also make a booking. The village, 40 minutes drive out of Lautoka, has been set up as a joint venture between the Fiji Government, the New Zealand Government and the Native Lands Trust. There are hiking tracks and a viewing platform leading from the village, and you can actually stay there, in a dormitory constructed for visitors. There are also other trekking excursions that take you to points in the Nausori Highlands, offering fantastic views and good walks. In the hot season, however, walking can get a bit sticky and tiring.

Another, very economical, way of seeing some of the countryside is to take any of the local buses that venture off the main highways. There's a bus going from the bus stand to Saweni Beach, well worth a visit, and another that goes along Johnson Road, on gravel roads through picturesque, undulating countryside and back past the Drasa Indian School onto the main road at Drasa, thence back to town.

There are also quite pleasant views at points along Queens Road between Nadi and Lautoka, and especially along Kings Road between Lautoka and Ba and, of course, further on towards Rakiraki, if you want to go that far. (However, if you're really looking for great views from a bus, go to Vanua Levu and take the ride from Labasa to Savusavu!)

Market Place - Even if you're not hunting for food, the Market Place is an interesting place to visit. In size (almost 60,000 sq m) it vies with Suva, and naturally Lautokans claim theirs is bigger and better. (I agree - the Suva markets are going down hill.) Here the tourist can purchase fresh tropical fruit and vegies, fish and Indian sweets at rock-bottom prices. Most vendors clearly label their little heaps of provisions with the price, so you won't even have to haggle. Almost everything costs between 50 cents and $2. Fijian artefacts are also on sale in or near the market. (Also see Parks and Gardens.)

Temples and Mosques - The Sri Krishna Kaliya Temple, just past the RB Patel Supermarket in Tevewa Avenue, is a quiet, fascinating place to visit. Inside there's a wonderful sense of space and peacefulness and there's some splendid artwork around the walls. If you're feeling hungry but poor, you can get a free vegetarian meal here at mid-day. Two other temples worth seeing, close together at the Namoli end of Drasa Avenue, are the Lautoka Sikh Temple and the Vishnu Mandir. In the centre of town you cannot miss the main mosque, known as the Masjid-ul-Anwaar. Further afield, on a hillside overlooking the ocean, there's a huge modern church (Pentecostal, I believe), which can be reached by a bus going along the Saru Back Road.

The small islands. The traditional role of Lautoka in tourism is as a jumping off point to the nearby islands, especially those in the Mamanuca group and the beautiful Yasawas (see Blue Lagoon Cruises). Apart from Bekana Is (described under Hotels), most of them are too far away to be considered in this article and, besides, there is heaps of information available on the internet and in brochures as they are extremely popular tourist destinations, both for short stays and for one-day cruise excursions. They are mostly very relaxing places to be and well worth visiting. Treasure Island is reputed to be one of the best of the closeby islands, but staying at the resort there will set you back $525/night. Some excursions take you to several islands over a few days.

Lautoka is also a convenient starting point to reach the eastern isands, such as Vanua Levu and Taveuni, by bus and ferry (see Patterson timetable above), and for going on fishing excursions. For those interested in boating the very fine Marina at Vuda Point is probably the best place to start. You can also go diving in the Mamanucas, by taking one of the excursions from this Marina. There are some resort-style hotels nearby.

Other attractions in Lautoka include the various events held throughout the year (see Recreation). There are also other interesting places to visit, such as the Sugar Mill and the South Pacific Distilleries (tours by arrangement - see Industries), and, as well as Abaca village, there are other Fijian villages you can visit - you might have to ask a travel agent!

Hotels

The low value of the Fijian dollar in 2010, along with real FJD rate reductions by some hotels in response to depressed tourist figures due to the recent GFC and other factors, has resulted in some exceptional accommodation deals for tourists in and around Lautoka, especially for Australians with their relatively strong currency.

The Tanoa Waterfront Hotel is Lautoka's only hotel rated with more than three stars. It is located on Marine Drive just past the north-west corner of Shirley Park. At approximately $115/night (65 AUD) for a standard double room including breakfast, any tourist requiring a bit of quality and security would choose to stay here. Amongst its facilities it has a pool, fitness centre, conference room, safes and internet. It is quite close to the Post Office, ANZ and Westpac banks and the cruise jetty, and a short walk to the central shopping area. It has an excellent restaurant with a water view; the menu is flexible and pricing is very reasonable for tourists but a bit steep for most locals.

The Lautoka Hotel is well known for its restaurants with lounging areas and TV and its night club. It is always busy at weekends. The rooms, however, are of very variable quality - some standard rooms are not too good - noise and ventilation can be a problem and security is poor. The best air-conditioned rooms in the new wing are $80/night (double). Budget rooms are $35-60/night while for backpackers there are some cheap dormitories for $15.50/person. Facilities include a small pool, Sky TV, internet and a tourism desk (Ateca's, the best travel agent in town for all your local needs - see below).

The Cathay Hotel probably represents Lautoka's best value in accommodation, if not the best value budget accommodation in Fiji. The hotel is located in Tavewa Avenue just past the Methodist church and on the same side of the road, so it is close to the Post Office, banks and government buildings, an easy walk to the hospital and very handy for events at Churchill Park. Most of the rooms are clean and spacious. Most air-conditioned rooms also have a fridge and tea-making facilities. The internet price of an ensuited twin room is a mere $37/night. There are also dormitories with 3-4 beds, at around $15/person/night - a top deal, as the chances are high that no-one else will be staying there. The hotel has a decent swimming pool, a bar and TV lounge and a spacious restaurant offering quite good meals, though the menu is very limited.

One's confidence is also heightened by the strategically located security cameras, which are recorded on a 24-hour basis. Don't let these lower your vigilance! I have a couple of reliable (verbal) reports of theft from rooms in this hotel. In both cases the patrons were travelling alone and in both cases suspicion was directed at the room service staff. However, it would be foolish to think this could only happen at this particular hotel, and I have no reason to suppose the Cathay is any worse than any other hotel from this point of view. Your motto when visiting Fiji should be "Trust no-one", and you should take extra care with your cash and valuables. Never leave any valuables lying around, particularly when you are just having a shower or if you leave the room briefly because of some distraction, such as a phone call from the desk. And don't forget your travel insurance.

The Sea Breeze Hotel, on the waterfront at the end of Bekana Lane, is another hotel offering good value for money. It is the closest hotel to the market place, bus stand, Sugar City Mall and and most other shopping areas. A double room facing the ocean (no balcony) is around $75/night, while one without a view is $68. The rooms are comfortable and clean, there's limited, convenient undercover parking and there's a security guard at night - the locals can sometimes get a bit rowdy. The upstairs restaurant with water views offers a skimpy breakfast (only), and the service is typically Fijian - friendly, laid-back and very slow.

The RSL Hotel.  Further up Tavewa Avenue than the Cathay and on the opposite side, this "hotel" offers inferior accommodation at a relatively inflated price. Unless the place has been renovated since I inspected it in 2005, the rooms are very run down, facilities poor and service seems to be almost non-existent. Why would anyone want to stay there? (well, you might be able to think of a reason!).

The Saweni Beach Apartment Hotel, located about 12km south-west of Lautoka, describes itself quite accurately as "a peaceful and secluded retreat for the independent traveller, located on the only white sand beach in the Nadi/Lautoka area. The perfect place to get away from it all ..... Please note that due to Saweni's secluded and quiet location, this property is not recommended for people looking for a party scene". So if that's really what you're looking for, this budget-priced hotel is a fabulous place to stay. Operated by the same group that runs the Cathay Hotel, it has copped some poor reviews by travellers who have stayed there, but maybe they didn't know what to expect. It is in an out-of-the-way place at the end of a long, bumpy gravel road (but there is a regular bus service there). The self-catering rooms are well equipped, but perhaps a little overpriced at around $119/night. But if you're really budget-minded and want a tip, you could book a dorm initially for only $26 per person. The dorms and kitchen facilities are great and the chances are high that you won't have to share with anyone else. Like the Cathay, this hotel also has security cameras and there appears to be a high level of watchfulness for trespassers. Please read the website before booking.

The Bekana Garden Island Resort is on a small, uninteresting island just 5 minutes off-shore from Lautoka. You get there by a launch which you board from a ramshackle old jetty at the Namoli end of the Lautoka shoreline. The arrival jetty, beautified with a little bure-style shelter, is in much better shape. The resort is a nice place for a day out, lunch included for about $25, but there's not very much to do here (well, if there is, they make no attempt to inform you). In particular, there's no good coral viewing, and the narrow beach is contaminated with a kind of black scum, presumably cane waste from the sugar mill, whose smoking stack is clearly visible on the opposite shore. (But they do make an effort to keep the beach clean.) Day visitors can't even use the dingy, surprisingly cold little swimming pool. The lunch is good, the service adequate and friendly. No music here, like you get on most other island resorts.

For those who've been persuaded to stay here, the principal accommodation consists of separate, rather small, beachfront bures, quite nice inside, for the seemingly exorbitant price of around $260/night (double - accommodation only, tariff as at 2005-2010), or you can pay considerably more ($330) for a split-level bure. Internet advertising describes the resort very optimistically as "nestled amongst 54 acres of lush tropical gardens and coconut palms. Bekana boasts 500m of golden sandy beach which fronts the beautiful sheltered blue waters off Lautoka". You will probably spend the first half hour or so hunting for the lush tropical gardens, the golden sandy beach and the blue water. However the view across to the mountains on the mainland is admittedly "gorgeous". On the other hand, people staying in the bures say you can hear the racket from the sugar mill throughout most of the night (so, if you must stay here, at least avoid the cane harvesting season). They also say the water is unsafe and the power supply is cut off for 10 hours each day. This backwater has no resemblance to the fine resorts on the Coral Coast, and, though it's undoubtedly a relaxing place to stay, all in all it has to be one of the worst value Fiji destinations you could end up in (the others, though much less expensive, are all on the frightful muddy beachfront strip north-east of Nadi, at the back of the airport).

Nadi hotels - the Capricorn International

Almost every traveller to Fiji passes through Nadi, the nearest town (9 km) to the international airport. So, although this is not a Nadi travel website, it seems appropriate to mention something about accommodation in the Nadi region. Tourists on their way to the resorts have good reason to stop for a day or two in this town - perhaps with an excursion to Lautoka - for shopping, local sight-seeing and trips to the nearby islands. The question is - which hotel? In my opinion, for the budget-minded traveller there's only one sensible answer - the Capricorn International Hotel (a nice new website here, spoilt by its Indian-English text). Although an older hotel, and modestly self-rated at only 2 1/2 stars, it has some important features lacked by its competitors.

I must begin by saying that there have been a number of negative reports about this property, so clearly it is not the kind of place that suits everybody. Certainly you wouldn't come here for your honeymoon or a long family holiday! The Capricorn makes no pretences of being a resort, but for a pleasant, economical stop-over or convenient base for travellers without unreasonably high expectations it has a lot going for it.

For a start, it is in a prime location, midway between the airport and town centre, with local and tourist buses, taxis and running cabs passing the front entrance. Next door is a huge new R.B. Patel supermarket, service station, ANZ ATM, fruit stall and new shopping complex including a pharmacy, coffee shop and cake shop, while across the road is the incredible Sitar Indian and Thai Restaurant (sister to the award-winning Brisbane restaurants of the same name). A little further up the road in Martintar there are more budget-priced restaurants and shops.
Tomo band thumbnail
Night-life at the Capricorn - Tomo & company
(Click on image for more photos)

Unlike some of the featureless concrete block hotels nearby, the Capricorn has a distinctly Fijian ambience, with its high raked ceiling foyer and dining areas, thatched walkway, and swimming pool and spa in a garden setting. Three nights a week you can listen to Tomo and his group whose repertoir extends well beyond the traditional Fijian songs. Their musical offerings are interspersed with swigs of kava and their singing seems to be much better than their playing, which relies heavily on karaoke-type backing. But you can see from these photos (slideshow) what an enthusiastic bunch they are. A slideshow of the hotel itself, taken on a previous visit in 2005, can be found HERE and there are more photos on the hotel's own website.

The Capricorn's rooms are variable in quality. Although all are kept reasonably clean, some standard rooms are showing their age, have a poor outlook and are more likely to have minor maintenance problems. I strongly recommend the deluxe garden rooms as representing great value for money. These rooms include a safe and a patio with table and chairs, as well as a queen-size bed, air-conditioning, fridge, tea and coffee making, phone, TV, clock-radio and daily servicing. The inroom safe is more-or-less essential, as the door locks on all rooms are not the best. However, the hotel appears to be located in a relatively safe area.

Most bookings include a continental breakfast which is quite adequate but don't expect the extras that you might get in a 4-5 star hotel! A limited menu is available in the dining area round the clock and there's a well-stocked bar. The Capricorn does not claim to have a top-class restaurant, and it hasn't. Still, we ate several quite good, very reasonably priced meals there and had no complaints at all. Occasionally certain ingredients may not be available, but at least they tell you beforehand so you can change your order. (Not like the 4-star Tanoa Plaza in Suva, for example, where we were bitterly disappointed with the menu, food quality and service - see below.) Anyway, if you're unhappy with their menu, there's always the Sitar across the road.

Although the Capricorn is Fiji-Indian owned and managed, the staff are a mixture of ethnic Fijians and Indians. (Is this now a Government requirement?) In my experience (and at some risk of sounding "racialist"), the two races tend to bring different attributes to any kind of service employment - the Fijians smiling and polite but often sluggish and forgetful, the Indians efficient and knowlegable but with no idea of the hospitality and manners demanded by "western" tourists. Having a balanced mix is good, because the better qualities of each type of personality tend to rub off on one another. Some of the staff at the Capricorn appeared to be students, but this usually did not show in the standard of their work. The little Indian girl that often served us in the restaurant was a model of politeness, correctness and consideration (but the same could not be said of a couple of the others in the dining zone). Again, one of the Fijian waitresses went well beyond the call of duty in assisting my wife with her affairs. The girls looking after the tourism booth were all very helpful (and the adverse remarks below concerning Lautokan travel agents certainly do not apply here). But top marks must go to one of the receptionists, Renjita, whose smilingly efficient and accommodating approach would place her in good stead for a front-desk position at the upper end of the tourism industry in any country (though, as a university graduate, her ambitions appeared to lie elsewhere).

No-fuss internet facilities are available in the foyer for $2 per 15 minutes, but over in the coffee shop in the shopping centre you can go online for $2/hour.

Currently (May 2010) the deluxe rooms sell on the internet through wotif.com for 50AUD (approximately 90FJD) per night including a light breakfast. Grab this deal, because the official walk-in rate, or a direct rate quoted by email, is considerably higher, and you may find yourself engaged in a battle to get the internet rate at this point. This is extraordinary, when you consider that wotif.com is probably taking a 10% cut, so the hotel should be able to offer you an even lower direct rate, say around 80FJD for the same class of room. In Australia, hotels willingly match the lowest rate you have been able to find and generally prefer you to book direct to avoid the internet agency commission. So why not in Fiji? The Capricorn is certainly not alone in its ludicrous pricing policy, which presumably has short-term benefits, but in the long term can surely only be damaging. If the management shows signs of obstinacy on this issue, threaten to go to one of the run-of-the-mill establishments on either side, where the room rates are slightly lower. Incidentally the internet rate is supposed to include a free airport transfer. Be sure to phone the hotel as soon as you've passed through customs, as they are quite likely to forget. Alternatively, just get a taxi - it should only be around $5.

There are few hotels in Nadi to compare with the Capricorn. You could go to the Mercure (formerly the Dominion), 150m closer to the airport, very similar in concept but admittedly of a higher standard. But would it be worth it? I was quoted $125 for a standard room plus $25 per person for breakfast, making the effective price twice as much as the Capricorn. Sorry! Further away, you could try the Grand West Villas as we once did - nice rooms in a characterless cube in a poor situation, but with a great bar and pool area and, at the moment, cheap - an alternative worth considering. Or you could book in at one of those so-called resorts in Wailoaloa Beach Road on (possibly) Fiji's worst beach. Stay at home! If you want a resort holiday, go to the coral coast or one of the small islands. If ever you have to stay in central Suva, Heaven help you! Be sure to avoid those unspeakable budget apartments such as the Sunset and the Elixir. You'll probably end up at the Holiday Inn, paying up to four times the Capricorn price (including breakfast), or worse still about three times the price (again including breakfast) in a concrete block called the Tanoa Plaza, which could be anywhere in the world, such is its lack of character - not to mention the little double beds and lack of sound-proofing. As for the Tanoa's restaurant - well, I've rarely seen poorer choice, had a worse hotel meal or experienced poorer service than in here. (Thank goodness for the cheap cafe court just down the road on the corner of Carnarvon and Kimberly.) It all goes to make you realise what excellent value the Nadi Capricorn provides.

The Capricorn International Hotel is on Queens Road at Martintar, Nadi, phone +679 672 0522.

Travel agencies

There's only one word to describe the travel agency business in Lautoka - abysmal. The agents need to take a long, hard look at themselves and their operations. In general they are rude, totally incompetent, unhelpful, sometimes dishonest and without the slightest idea of the meaning of customer service. Far from obtaining more business for the hotels, resorts and tour operators, they seem to be positively at war with them - especially with the proprietors of budget hotels and hotels that are slightly off the beaten track. Hardly one of these providers wants you to book through a local agent, because they think of travel agents as simply ripping 10% commission out of their prices, which for many equates to about half of their net profit. (All Lautokan agents take a deposit of 10% on any accommodation. This is in fact their non-returnable commission.) Everywhere you go, the hotel proprietors say "book direct, or through an internet agent if you must". There are exceptions: each travel agent appears to be tied down to a small core of accommodation and tour providers with whom he/she presumably has some special deal going. But if you're looking for anything beyond that tiny circle, you're probably better off going to the nearest cake shop or shoe repairer. At least you'll be greeted with a degree of courtesy there.

I couldn't find an agent in town who could even provide me with a brochure of accommodation. How on earth are you expected to pick a hotel that suits your needs? Certainly, one or two agencies are better than the rest. In particular, Ateca Raica (Ateca's Travel Services) at the Lautoka Hotel is extremely helpful and seems able to book you in almost anywhere without too much fuss. Like many other Fijians, she is reticent and laid-back, but once you start asking questions (and ask you must) she has most of the answers and some useful tips. Although she now apparently has other girls helping her, while I was in Lautoka her desk was unmanned for long periods, and even when she was there she tended to ignore potential customers. But these faults apply to most of the other agencies too - they simply disregard the golden rule that "the customer comes first".

There's a bunch of travel agencies just on the town side of the ANZ, in (or just off) Vitogo Parade. All of them are discourteous (by western standards), they can't book you in to budget hotels or anywhere off the beaten track, except, if you're very lucky, to one or two places on their extremely restricted lists. One of them appears to be dishonest, likely to book you in at a rate that's lower than the hotel will honour and/or exaggerating the services that the hotel can provide. At the other end of town there's an agency with staff who are quite courteous, but who seem to be completely ignorant and unable to find out what you want - unless you undertake to make your booking through them. Booking for what? - they can't provide you with the information on the basis of which you could book something. Go to Nadi where you'll get much better service.

What needs to be done?

Lautoka has the potential to attract many more tourists. The main obstacle to developing the tourism industry is the attitude of the people - all the people, not just those in the business of tourism. You local people are off to an excellent start with your friendly, relaxed approach to visitors. But to attract more tourists to the city, everyone must realise they are an essential part of the tourist scene. It's all about bringing trade and foreign cash to your city, and improving your lifestyle, so think of it as a business and an investment in the future! You need to muster all your patience and tolerance when confronting tourists, many of whom are sometimes inconsiderate, impatient, conceited, mean, unduly fussy, aggressive or disregardful of local customs.

Well, we all know that elderly American tourists, in particular, tend to be rude, impatient and arrogant - they think they own the place and tend to get upset when they find things don't work just like they do back home. Whatever you might think of these visitors, you need to become aware of the things they like and dislike, for example you need to avoid littering the streets and countryside. Although the city centre is much cleaner than it used to be, there are some places where tourists go, such as the area near the end of the road at Saweni Beach, which are very untidy (see section on Garbage and litter.)

Fiji Indians in particular need to learn to say "please" and "thank you", which are the minimum requirements for any courteous interchange with western tourists. Most visitors from overseas don't realise how difficult this might be for you, as they don't know that your language doesn't contain commonly used words for please and thank you. Nor do they care much if you've got a bad headache or you're worrying because your baby is sick or your business is in tatters. Remember, they're here just to have a good time and, with any luck, transfer cash from their pockets into yours.

Those who work in the tourism industry, or who depend heavily on tourism, should take extra care to be courteous and avoid doing things that might be off-putting. Taxi and van drivers, for example, should stop their silly habit of tooting at any white person they happen to see in the street. Taxis are everywhere in the city and if a person needs you and your cab they will soon let you know. Then you can try to rip them off! (Also see remarks under Supermarkets.)

Another obstacle to making Lautoka more attractive to tourists is lack of funds. The Council needs to develop a plan that will attract sponsorship and/or investment by the private sector. A central feature of this plan must be one or more attractions (existing or new) that will cause all tourist coaches to stop here, entice tourists to come "the wrong way" out of Nadi, and get all those cruise ship passengers to empty their wallets here.

Although parts of Lautoka are already quite attractive, a number of improvements could be made to the appearance of the city and the way it is used by shoppers and tourists. Some of the shops need a facelift, and it would help if there was one street comprised almost entirely of gift shops and cafes, with quaint, tropical-style shop frontages, wide, interesting pedestrian zones, benches and attractive features such as fountains, flower-beds and especially Fijian features such as bure-style thatching. More cafes could be set up with alfresco dining facilities, and more conveniences, seating and drinking fountains are needed. Maybe the Council could send a deputation to somewhere like Montville or Eagle Heights in Queensland, Heidelberg in South Australia or shopping centres such as Pacific Fair on Queensland's Gold Coast, to pick up a few ideas with a view to adapting them to Lautoka conditions - and preferably ignoring some of the more "tacky" developments in these places!

Fijian chiefs in the vicinity might consider relaxing the rules for tourists wanting to walk on their land. They could develop some of the tracks going up into the hills and provide maps to make it easy for them to go "bush-walking", so they can appreciate the fantastic views and the beauty of the countryside.

All travel agents operating in Lautoka should be licensed, and a condition of holding a licence should be that they have attended a reputable travel agents course, orientated towards the particular needs of visitors to Fiji. And somebody should publish a brochure that's relevant to the area, and areas further afield for which Lautoka is a starting point, e.g. Rakiraki, Savusavu and Taveuni, as well as the popular offshore islands. The brochure should cater for backpackers and budget-minded tourists as well as those who can afford high quality accommodation and services. Somebody should also do something about the war going on between Lautokan travel agents and accommodation and tour providers.

The Council should encourage the construction of at least one new, high quality hotel, in or near the city centre. It should construct new flower beds in the Botanic Garden so that it looks more like a garden and less like a park. It should also enforce stricter regulations on littering and try to modify the way people use parks, conveniences etc so they can more easily be kept clean and tidy. It could also revitalise the sugar cane train to carry both tourists and locals, not just for sight-seeing and the novelty of the ride, but to carry people to useful places. The Council would then need to follow up with strong promotion campaigns, both in Fiji and overseas.

Snippets

Did you know it takes approximately 9 tonnes of cane to produce 1 tonne of sugar?

Did you know that approximately 445,000 people visited Fiji in 2004, one-third of them coming from Australia?

Did you know Fiji has suffered four coups in the last 20 years (in May 1987, September 1987, May 2000 and December 2006)? All of them were staged by indigenous Fijians and were aimed mainly at reducing the power and rights of Fiji Indians and increasing the political power of the Chiefs and the Methodist Church.

Did you know Fiji was not a member of the Commonwealth between 1987 and 1997?

(Interesting facts connected with Lautoka or Fiji would be very welcome for this section - preferably one-two lines only, please.)

*Acknowledgements

I am indebted to Mr M.A. Sahib for some of the historical information. Mr Sahib’s forebears settled in Lautoka under the Indenture system in 1910. He was born in 1929 and attended the Drasa Indian School, Lovu Sangam School and Natabua Secondary School. After obtaining high qualifications overseas, from 1969 to 1974 he held the post of Government Statistician (head of the Fiji Bureau of Statistics).

The Lautoka region population statistics were extracted from information kindly provided by the Lautoka Ministry of Health (Western Division) Clinic, located near the ANZ Bank in Vitogo Street. These statistics are clearly the outcome of much painstaking survey work.

Street names on the City Centre map were taken from various maps and other sources (including the streets themselves!) and checked against a map obtained from the Department of Lands, which appears to be the authoritative source.

I am also indebted to:

       Mrs Nisha Khan, Administrator of The Red Cross (Lautoka Branch), for her kindness in
       allowing me to familiarise myself with some of the excellent programmes being
       undertaken by that organisation

       Master Ram Narayan, Principal of the Sathya Sai School for his invitation to visit this interesting
       school and take photographs in the grounds and classrooms

       Mr Sunil Raniga, Superintendant of the Natabua Old Peoples Home, for providing the
       opportunity to meet with the wonderful staff and residents and allowing me to take
       photographs inside the home

Disclaimer and requests

While to the best of my knowledge the factual information in this article was correct at the time of recording it, much of the information was acquired indirectly and I cannot accept responsibility for any inaccuracies. However, all opinions expressed are mine, and they are often highly subjective and based on limited information. Any person intending to act on the basis of any statement or opinion recorded herein is strongly advised to first seek confirmatory information from alternative sources.

Corrections, relevant additions and comments will be very gratefully received. Please send by email to
this address.

To return to page 1 click HERE


...................................................................Dave Robinson..........23/11/05