By Sera Tikotikovatu-Sefeti
When Jay Whyte was 13, he befriended a security guard at the Shangri-La Fijian Resort in Sigatoka, who introduced the Australian visitor and his family to an authentic Fijian experience up in the green terrain of Navosa.
It was an experience that will forever be etched in his mind and heart.
More than 30 years later, that curious, bright-eyed boy is the owner of the famous Sigatoka River Safari, and his business partner is that same security guard, Pita Matasau.
Whyte recalls of their first meeting: “He was doing one of his rounds and he was wearing a little pin on his shirt that made it stand out; it said Bendigo, which is where my mom was from in Australia. So we started talking, and I followed him around the resort for the next few hours.
“He told me all these wonderful stories about Fiji, about his village, and he is a great storyteller, so I was just captivated,” Whyte continues.
The bond between them was further solidified when Matasau invited Whyte and his family to his village. “We organised a minivan and went two hours up into the Sigatoka valley, and once we got there, they welcomed us like we were long lost family.
“I just fell in love with Fiji, the people, the culture, and we went horseback riding to a waterfall, went swimming in the river, and I was captivated, hooked; it was like living the real deal,” Whyte says.
Fast forward a few years, and Whyte was an adult, stuck in traffic on his way to work as a public servant in Australia. He remembers feeling unhappy, contemplating what to do, and yearning to be back in Fiji.
“I remember saying to myself, I’d rather live my life knowing I have taken a chance, then wonder 10 years down the track, ‘What if?’
“So I decided to follow the dream; thankfully, I have a very supportive family to go live in another country and start a business,” he said.
One of the first things he did was research boats and write a business plan. He decided the boat had to come from New Zealand, as that was the home of jet boating.
He flew over Neil Ross, a well-known Kiwi jet-boat builder to inspect the river, and shared his dream and vision. The next step was to connect with his pen-pal. Matasau advised him how to approach the village chiefs, the traditional custodians of the area.
“I did everything the traditional way first and then the bureaucratic side second, so to me, I was just doing what I knew to be the right thing,” Whyte says.
“It was a wonderful experience in the sense that I had my spokesman, and he would relay the story to the chiefly houses, saying, ‘This is Jay, we’ve known him since he was 13, he visits the village every two years, and we have seen him grow up.’”
Once the chiefs heard of that long connection, and Whyte’s dream of connecting visitors to authentic Fijian experiences, “they were completely onboard and supportive”.
After getting approval from the chiefly villages along the Sigatoka River, Whyte started working on business requirements, getting the necessary licenses and training his crew.
Sigatoka River Safari is now well established and well respected and has added to its fleet. Whyte is also a well-known figure in Sigatoka and was heavily involved in helping establish rugby associations in the town, and the now-famous Coral Coast Sevens.
As a businessman, he strongly believes that “if you are going to do something, you want to do it right; do not take shortcuts, and understand it is a marathon, not a sprint.”
This article first appeared in Fiji Traveller, April-June 2023.