Out of Fiji: It's a long, long wade to Nadi

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SUVA - A 'slow-moving depression' had settled over Fiji, according to the newspaper in a weather report that might have doubled as a socio-political commentary. Anyway, it rained. For four days.

For the Fijian boys it was fun. Stripped down to their shorts, they rushed out to play football on the field in gleaming chocolate flashes of backs and limbs, their arms windmilling to keep balance on the slippery grass. The girls in their school uniforms walked home barefoot, black leather shoes dangling from their hands so they didn't get muddy.

But the rain kept falling and the less playful Indian businessmen shook their heads as they looked at the weather map and muttered darkly of floods and more damage. (Fijians and Indians each make up about half of Fiji's population - the Fijians more laid back and less entrepreneurial than the Indians.)

By Friday night, the river flowing through Nadi, the main town on the west coast, was starting to swell and at midnight it burst its banks, sending floodwater down the main street. The Indian shopkeepers worked furiously in the dark to carry their goods from the ground-floor shops to safety upstairs. The floodwaters in Nadi reached their highest level in living memory.

In Suva, on the other side of the island, none of this was known as I set out early on Saturday on the three-hour drive to Nadi by running cab. (A running cab is a taxi shared by five passengers - when I asked about the name, I was told: 'You should see them run - like madmen.')

It was raining most of the way, but the real trouble started about two miles outside Nadi where a long tailback of traffic had built up. We worked our way to the front, only to find that the road was flooding. An enormous body of water, like several Amazons, spread across the sugar-cane fields as far as the eye could see and swept across the road like a tidal current.

The choice was simple: a three- hour ride back to Suva or a long wade to Nadi. With an Indian passenger from the running cab, and with trousers rolled up above our knees, we slopped into water the colour of milky coffee. There was a small string of people ahead of us, all moving parallel to the telegraph poles so that they did not stray into a ditch. The water flowed quickly and by the time it was over our knees it became difficult to stand.

The road dipped and the water became too deep to walk through. We turned across a field. In bare feet we struggled through the mud, up to our waists in water. The more nervous my Indian acquaintance became the broader he smiled. He worked in a shop in Nadi and pressed forward only because he was afraid of the damage to his shop. We reached a small group of people and just as I felt a shooting pain in the sole of my foot, a young boy helpfully said: 'Mind the barbed-wire fence.'

Wet and limping, I reached the outskirts of Nadi, having lost my companion in the confusion. By now the water was chest high and the shops were deserted, as if after some holocaust. A few boxes were floating out through broken windows, and a leaking tank at the petrol station contributed a pungent petrochemical glaze to the surface of the water.

In a surreal moment that seemed at first inspired by the petrol fumes, a Fijian appeared around the corner riding a horse. The horse trotted easily through the flood and, with a grin, the rider pulled me up behind him. We set off at a fair pace for the other end of town, water flying on both sides of us. The spectacle attracted shopkeepers on to their second-floor balconies.

All went well until we reached a crossroads, where the water was considerably deeper. The horse shied and pitched the two of us, along with my bag, into the water. The audience on their balconies cheered. Misery combined with absurdity and the laughter became infectious.

Finally I reached the end of the town where an Indian friend lived in a three-storey building overlooking the river. This had become a raging torrent bearing tree trunks and other debris down from the mountains. One person was washed away and the next day three people drowned.

And yet there were people frolicking in the water, being swept downstream with exultant screams until they could catch on to a tree and wade ashore. One youth turned up with a surfboard. 'Those Fijians are crazy fellows, but damn strong,' said my friend from the safety of his balcony. It started raining again and we withdrew to wait out Nadi's historic floods with a bottle of whisky.