I’ve always been really bad with directions. As soon as someone begins to give me step-by-step instructions on how to get somewhere, my mind goes fuzzy. Probably because deep down I assume I’ll get lost anyway.
And that’s what happened yesterday morning as I stood in the Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park visitor center as a young guide tried to explain the park’s best hiking route. As he pointed to a series of colored lines on the map, I tried to remember if I had put an extra granola bar in my backpack or not. He seemed to be finishing up, but I couldn't tell.
“And be sure to take a walking stick for the wild dogs”.
Excuse me? That certainly got my attention.
“What? Do they play fetch or something?” I asked.
He chuckled. “No, they’re much less likely to attack you if you have a stick in your hand”.
Well that was unexpected, I thought to myself as I gathered the map and my water bottle. I walked to the trail head, taking my time selecting a formidable-looking walking stick from the pile next to the entrance sign. Then I walked into the forest.
There wasn’t another soul in the entire park; the early hour and a rainy morning had likely driven off other hikers. It was like all of Fiji had been presented just for me. I spent the first hour walking slowly across the hill crests, soaking in the 360 degree views of western Fiji’s forests, farmland, and coast line.
But my appreciation for the park was a little bit tainted. Every time I looked through my camera lens I found another invasive species. The park was riddled with attractive but extremely harmful invasives, including the bright African tulip tree that’s considered one of Fiji’s peskiest invaders. On the first lookout point alone I could see three different species of invasive plants (that I know of!) in one photo.
The trail continued on, leading me up a steep sand dune and down to the water’s edge. Strongly-worded signs discouraged swimming due to big waves and rough currents, stating at the end that “Your safety is our concern but your responsibility”. The morning’s storms had left the sea a foreboding shade of midnight blue, reflected in the sky by dark clouds.
I sat on a pale piece of driftwood. The seascape was framed by the towering sand dunes behind me, leaving me feeling thrillingly and horrifyingly small.
I’m not sure how long I spent by the water, but the quickening winds and light rain ultimately led me to gather my things and start walking. I realized that I had forgotten my walking stick somewhere down the beach, so I quickly grabbed a piece of bamboo from the large piles of driftwood.
As I searched for the sign leading me back to the trail, I finally saw evidence of the wild dogs. There were a series of paw prints leading up the dune….a lot of paw prints. I snapped a few photos of the sand, thinking this would be great for the blog. But my finger froze on the shutter as I heard a growl behind me. Then another, and another, until the ground seemed to rumble with the noise.
I turned slowly to see eight ragged dogs staring at me, looking pissed. My mind jumped to the advice my dad gave me when I would walk around the neighborhood alone: If a dog ever threatens you, don’t run. I stood with every muscle locked into place, one hand on my camera and the other on my walking stick. The standoff lasted for about fifteen seconds (was it only fifteen? it felt like an hour) before the largest dog turned and trotted up the dune and out of sight, quickly followed by the rest of the pack. The last straggler turned at the top of the hill and barked at me, almost as a warning to not come back on their turf.
I didn’t need telling twice.
The last leg of the hike was through a mahogany forest that was planted in the 1960s to stop the encroachment of the dunes onto nearby villages. It was lovely, to be sure, but I was a little preoccupied ensuring my four-legged friends were safely behind me. I emerged back at the visitor’s center twenty minutes later, sweaty but safe and clutching my walking stick like a prize.
I told the ranger what had happened and he seemed oddly surprised. “Did you have a walking stick?” he asked. I nodded. “Well that’s why they didn’t bother you. They’ve learned to respect people with walking sticks”.
As I walked back to the car, I promised myself that I would always, always listen to the advice of park rangers. I even promised myself I’d pay more attention to the directions too, just for good measure.