John Williams, a missionary from the London Missionary Society, arrived in Samoa in 1830, landing on Savai’i. High Chief Malietoa Laupepa was quickly converted to christianity. Naturally, a church has been built to commemorate the event. This is one of about three zillion churches on Savai’i; Samoans have embraced christianity with a zeal that can only be described as remarkable. Denominations of every flavour have flourished, as have their houses of worship in every single village.
One hundred and eighty six years after said Mr Williams brought the word of god to the good people of Samoa, this is how Libby and Michael land on Savai’i. With bicycles on hand. To ride around the 200km circumference of the island’s “lightly undulating coastal road with occasional steep hills”. Uh huh.
The first night on Savai’i is in the port town of Salelologa. A marooned fishing boat, presumably washed ashore during a storm or tsunami, dominates the gardens of our accommodation. But what is extraordinary is how far it is from the shore – many hundreds of metres!
Weilao is our Samoan support driver who will transport our luggage from place to place each day in his taxi (good planning Michael!). And scrape us off the road in the event of being squashed by other road users or, in a more likely event, collisions with the seemingly oblivious hundreds of roaming dogs and pigs and chickens hidden around every corner.
The speed limit in Savai’i is 40km/hour. I had taken this to mean that the roads would be bumpy, pot-holed and rubbish. We set off on our first morning of proper riding to find in fact the road is well maintained and wide, and drivers are considerate and careful. We’re heading to Lano, all coastal road, and it’s gorgeous. Drop dead gorgeous.
Weilao stays close the first day, and at John William’s church where we’ve stopped with drop-jaw amazement at the opulence and size of it, explains the etymology of the word for non-Samoans, “palangi”. Mr Williams, apparently, is the first white person ever seen on these shores. Presumably, he talks about god quite a lot, and possibly heaven. “Pa”, Weilao tells us, is the word for explosion. And “langi” means from the sky, or heaven. Thus, white people arrived as “explosions from the sky”. I learn from later research that in fact the source of the word is disputed, and the explosion bit might actually mean gates – thus white people arrived from the gates of heaven (ok, I acknowledge Wikipedia isn’t an authoritative linguistic source, but…).
We arrive in Lano, first night in a fale. WOW! We go for a walk and find the one and only coffee shop in any of the villages we stay in. It’s cool and rainy when we set off. Then the sun came out. We return to the fale looking like lobsters. But, the ocean temperature is perfect and having my first proper swim in the Pacific Ocean is heavenly. The reef, which rings Savai’i and makes swimming safe from scary Pacific Ocean creatures, is just a few hundreds metres off shore. There are storms at sea during the night and the reef sounds like a roaring jumbo. I love falling asleep to the sound of the ocean but I must admit I did wonder that night if we weren’t going to be washed away by giant crashing waves at any moment.
We’re heading to Manase. We ride through an incredible vista of barren lava fields, and visit another church in the village of Mauga. But this one is an abandoned ruin. In 1905 an enormous lava flow forced villagers to flee for their lives. The lava flowed through the church and across the village, destroying everything in its path. Weilao later tells us that the villagers ran into the sea to escape the lava. They were washed across the reef, and after what must have been an incredible struggle of endurance and survival, were washed ashore on the neighbouring (and main island of Samoa), Upolu. Years later, they returned to see what had happened to their village, making shoes from coconut husks to get across the incredibly sharp and spiky lava fields. “Clever, eh!!” Weilao comments. Yes. And resilient as all get out. They re-established their village amongst the lava, and today, their government district still includes the villages that they had established on Upulo.
The young woman who guides us through the church asks me how old I am. I tell her I’ve just turned 50. “What??” she exclaims. “In Samoa, by the time you’re 50 you’ve had it, too old and tired for anything”. I reflect, not for the first time in my life, how extraordinarily lucky I am.
I am astounded every day by the verdancy and lushness, all around, everywhere. Walls of green right down to the sea. And food growing, simply everywhere. Even amongst the lava. There are paw paws, bananas, breadfruit, mangoes, coconut, pumpkin, fields and fields and fields of taro… nobody could possibly go hungry here.
Snorkelling around the coral and reefs is an underwater seascape of wonder and plenty. There are schools of fish, big and small, bright orange and blue and green and yellow and iridescent, spotty and stripey and combinations of everything in between.
Riding is hard work. Lightly undulating is code for massive fkn hills, and steep hills is code for massive fkn mountains. But the reward is all around, in the scenery and in the views, and in the constant calling out of “bye bye, bye bye” from children, popping up in every building and from behind rock walls and trees in every village that we pass through. Adults that we encounter look unbelievably fierce and scary. Until they call out “malo”, and wave as we puff along. So mostly I keep a happy face.
We stay in a village called Vaisala, at the Vaisala Hotel. It’s a grand old wreck of a thing, and completely inexplicable. It was built in the 1930’s… why? it’s possibly one of the most remote places on earth! There are four or five different buildings with large hotel style rooms. Michael is happy to have a en-suite bathroom with a hot shower. I’m happy that there is a gorgeous beach with excellent snorkelling. The main building has a massive verandah overlooking a bay that is absolutely Pacific island fantasy. In its heyday it must have been so grand, each evening we expect to see Somerset Maughan type characters assembled for pre-dinner aperitifs on the verandah, but in fact we are two of only three or four guests.
Late in the afternoon I am down on the beach. I’ve been for a snorkel, the heat has gone out of the sun, and I’m just enjoying being in the world. A bunch of local kids arrive, rugby ball in hand. They all stare, and at first keep their distance. Then the boldest one comes over and sits next to me. Then I’m swamped with young Samoans, wanting to know who I was and what I was doing. I ask them if they’ve ever been to Upolu. Yes, most have, and in fact a few of them are going there next week, to Apia, for the Youth Commonwealth Games. Then another older boy arrives, and they’re off – time for beach rugby!
We are treated to a wonderful traditional Samoan breakfast at Vaisala… supo esi. It’s hot and a bit spicy, with chunks of paw paw and sago. Perfect fuel for a riding day.
On the way to Falealupo, the most western village in the world before the date line was moved in 2009, we head into a forest to climb a giant banyan tree. To get to it requires a walk across a suspension bridge, maybe 100 metres above the forest floor. Which is made from old ladders! Note the look of “I’m not looking down” on my face! And my riding attire – a skirt! Yep, modesty is a definite requirement… showing legs above the knees is completely taboo, and bike shorts I am told, are an absolute no-no.
There is evidence of tsunamis and cyclones everywhere we go. Ruined and abandoned churches and buildings destroyed by nature’s fury. This church succumbed to a giant tsunami a few years ago. Whoever built it sure knew how to create a beautifully framed view of the world…
Falealupo. My favourite place. In the world. We are the only guests here.
Except for the occasional curious pig.
Followed by my second favourite place, Satuiatua. This is Weilao’s home village. Fales under giant banyan trees. The most awesome coral beds ever, and the most awesome drift snorkelling you can imagine.
On Sunday, we go to a church service. We are both very keen to hear Samoan singing. It’s a visual and aural feast. Everyone is dressed in their best white lava lavas, and the older ladies all wear very fancy hats. Everyone looks completely gorgeous, and the singing gives me goosebumps and makes me a bit teary. But it’s a long service, and the preacher yells a bit, so I’m pretty happy when it’s over. Michael recorded some of the singing – https://soundcloud.com/mgorey/sets/satuiatua-methodist-church-samoa. The children also get their turn…https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2Aa5nn_SMk
We have a traditional Sunday lunch with the family who own the fale we are staying in. A feast. Lobster, fish, taro, noodles, palusami (coconut in taro leaves – YUM YUM YUM). Our host says “Ok, we’ve finished. You can go now. We have a family meeting”. We drag ourselves back to our fale and fall into the deepest sleep ever. Food coma.
We’re sitting in the kitchen hut later in the afternoon, overlooking the beach and reef. I am making coffee and hear Michael, in the most tentative voice I have heard from him, say “Do you have… whales… here? ” Our host is sitting at the next table. She says, circumspect and tentative, “Oh. Sometimes. There was one here this morning when you went to church”. I turn around, just as a massive humpback whale explodes out of the ocean. It is only four hundred metres or so away, just outside the reef. It hangs around, smashing it’s enormous tail and fins on the surface of the water. I am so awe-struck I can’t speak, except to exclaim repeatedly, oh my god, it’s a WHALE!
We spend the rest of our time in Samoa scanning the horizon.
As we are riding we come across several games of kiri kiri cricket. All men play, in lava lavas, young and old, and every village has a team. Weilao’s village had won the inter-village championships the previous week. There are about 20 players to a side, and the pitch is a skinny strip of concrete in a convenient place in the village. When the batsman hits the ball outside the field (boundaries are indiscernible – the road, the house over there, some spot that everyone knows except the casual observer…) the players on the opposite team start a rhythmic clapping, which becomes louder and faster and louder and faster – I didn’t quite get this, but it definitely made the game more interesting to me than other forms of cricket!
Michael is very keen to buy a bat, but no luck with that…
We visit unbelievable blow-holes and coastal landscapes…
This blow-hole was extraordinary. The sound is deafening and scary. The traditional Samoan story is that two fishermen drowned here… the sounds from the the blow-hole are their voices, letting their families know they are here. I was glad to hear this, because to me it sounded more like a monster roaring up through the ocean, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting passer-by… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4jcPSxFF3E.
After Savai’i we headed to Upolu. I fully expect that it will be much busier, but much to my delight it’s not. We are literally the only people on the road, and at most of the places we visited, for the time we are there, except for the occasional villagers passing by. And the road-side gardening crews, using whipper-snippers to keep the ever-encroaching creep of hysterically fertile plant growth from re-consuming roads and pathways.
On Upolu, the visual treat continues. Villages are beautifully kept, and all along the roadside is the most riotous, vivid, almost rude landscape of colour. There is nothing soft about the light in Samoa, and flowers and plants and trees are bright orange and red and pink and purple, every shade of green. At times it hurts my eyes.
We pass a small arrow sign that says “Waterfall”. I tell Michael that it’s hard to impress somebody from the Northern Territory with waterfalls, given Litchfield and Kakadu National Parks. Boy, how wrong could I be??
We swim in the rock pools at the top of the waterfall (well sort of – we follow an almost indiscernible path through the thickest forest imaginable, and then it’s a scramble/crawl to get over the rocks, which are absolutely covered in mossy, slippery green stuff into the pools. The water flow is incredible). The vista from the top, flowing into the most lush valley…
Upolu is home to To Sua Trench, the most visited tourist attraction in Samoa. We arrive early in the morning, expecting bus loads of tourists. Instead, we share the experience with just a few others. This incredible natural wonder is a huge lava tube, connected to the ocean through a cave-like entrance. There is a stern warning sign to not swim through the entrance on king tides or in stormy weather. Ok, no problem.
The trench itself is amazing, but so are the gardens and surrounding landscape… a place for quiet, if somewhat wind-swept contemplation.
It felt like most dangerous aspect of Samoa was the potential to die from too much friendliness, or possibly visual overload from entirely beautiful, surreal landscapes and seascapes. Everyone, everywhere, waves and calls out “malo”. In spite of their awesomely fierce appearance and historical tribal war-fare, Samoans are truly the most hospitable, warm, welcoming people I’ve ever encountered. May they always be blessed with awesome rainbows.