Getting on track in Fiji

The Ecotrax experience in Fiji’s Viti Levu is a fun, inspiring story on sustainability, writes Amrita Das
Last Updated : 29 June 2019, 19:30 IST

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Are those two bicycles? Are they attached to something? But where are the front wheels of the bicycle?” My friend and I discuss as Mandy de Vris briefs a group of 12 getting ready for an Ecotrax tour.

I am in Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu’s southwestern part where Cuvu is a fraction of the 80-km Coral Coast. Mandy de Vris and her husband, Howard, wrapped up their lives from Queenstown in New Zealand and made Fiji their home in 2016. “We had a client down here in the coral coast and came to love it here and its people,” shares Mandy, as we seat ourselves in a grungy greeting lounge which is a part of a defunct 100-year-old sugarcane factory, FSC Loco Shed.

The de Vris couple brought along with them many second-hand bicycles from New Zealand. These were repaired and handed out to the village kids for their use, but not until Howard’s engineering mind noticed the tramline in front of their village and decided a technique to use it. “He put the two forms of transport together and came up with this idea,” added Mandy. Initially, an outrigger was attached to one bicycle, where the wheels acted like a chain. “I said to him: wouldn’t it be great if we could ride side by side and talk to each other?” That was Mandy’s idea which gave birth to what they call the ‘velocipede’. Howard added a chassis, electrical equipments to run it, and a rare bench for elderly, disabled people or even, infant seats.

Once the first prototype was ready, they worked with Fiji Sugar Corporation, local fundraisers and churches to get necessary permissions and assess the tracks. Even though Fiji Sugar Corporation thought they “were crazy”, they secured a 10-year lease for a 28-km track running from Sigatoka town to Nadatola. It was only in January 2018 that they began operations.

I scrutinise the carriage in detail. These units have two bicycles mounted on a solid wooden plank. The front wheels of the bikes are taken out and replaced by small iron wheels that keep the entire carriage on the tram track. They run on batteries which are dually powered. One by the modified bikes’ pedals — the faster you pedal, the faster the carriage moves. The other is an easier option of a button accelerator adjacent to the handles. There are two brakes instead of four — one for each rider. At the rear, a lower wooden seat with armrests can accommodate a pillion (across age and physical abilities).

Driving through the 'tunnel of love' in Fiji
Driving through the 'tunnel of love' in Fiji

Quite a feat

As I marvel at this piece of engineering, I cannot wait to pedal and explore a part of the existing 11-km stretch. The track which begins in the sugarcane factory runs through mangrove river banks, quiet villages, romantic ‘tunnel of love’ (a natural forest passage), rock cuttings, Fijian rainforests and scenic coasts of South Pacific Ocean. My Ecotrax experience will be one-third of the complete tour and not conclude on the beach.

My friend and I mount a bike each and familiarise ourselves with its features. Mandy points out the brakes on either sides, the buttoned accelerator and speedometer — “Try and keep it under 20,” she advises. Nitesh connects the detachable solar-powered battery in the front trolley and hops onto the pillion seat behind.

In the initial few metres, we align our communication and ourselves to this mini-coach on narrow tracks. From the concreteness of the factory, the tracks were soon flanked by forests. In a matter of minutes, I notice we are pedalling on a wooden bridge that runs parallel to and above water. My field of vision widens as the track becomes perpendicular to the river with mangroves beautifully rooted in it.

We speed up once we are back on earthy tracks, shaded by stout trees. After a two-km ride, Nitesh physically turns the carriage on the track while I photograph the sparsely populated village around us. The route appears to be lusher on our way back. A little before our arrival to the factory, we press the brakes on either sides to slow down and stop. I animatedly share my feedback with Mandy, who adds in, “Howie and I used to wonder if people think it’s as cool as we do.”

But coolness is not all that there is to an initiative like Ecotrax. “Our philosophy is in making something that is sustainable.” The de Vris couple enable local communities along the Ecotrax trail by creating micro-businesses. “We believe that this is their backyard and we are the visitors here. If we prosper, everyone along should prosper” — with that Mandy summarises the central idea of Ecotrax.

They work closely with the villagers of Malomalo in various sustainable projects. One such includes 25 women who grow fruits and sell it to the de Vris couple at market price, as refreshments for Ecotrax tours. The couple is also aiding in the upgradation of Malomalo’s kindergarten, and sponsoring jerseys and equipment to children who aspire to play rugby.

As we leave Ecotrax Station, we have all our answers pertaining to this sustainable venture. Ecotrax affirms my belief that nothing meaningful is ever achieved alone.

Published 29 June 2019, 19:30 IST

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