MistyNites

My Life in Motion

An Education In Tokyo

If ever there was a trip years in the making it was this one. As part of my job, I have to continuously educate myself in an effort to keep up with an ever-evolving field, and how better to do it than at international conferences that combine my pursuit of further education with my love of international travel. Back in the Gold Coast, Australia in 2017, I learned about a future conference in Tokyo, Japan. I had fun dressing up in a sarong and posing with a ninja in front of a banner declaring the dates in 2019. I put the dates in my phone for future reference, eventually having the joy of booking my flights and securing the time off work. And yet I somehow booked the flight to Tokyo for the wrong day despite 2 years notice. I had entered the wrong dates in my phone’s calendar and used this to book my flights instead of checking the official conference website. Unable to get another day off work to leave on the correct date, I headed to Tokyo at the end of September 2019 having missed the first day of the 4 day conference. My flights had been frustratingly expensive because the conference planners had decided to set the dates to coincide with the 4-yearly Rugby World Cup which that year was in Japan, and I found myself in a middle seat (my most hated airline seat), sandwiched between a Welsh rugby supporter and an Australian rugby supporter. Both big lads, I felt rather sandwiched, and as the drinks started flowing with them and a bit of banter passed across me, I envisaged being stuck between a drunken brawl. Thankfully everyone behaved themselves and we landed in Tokyo, and I was hit by the complete madness that is Japan.

Everyone always tells you that Japan is a culture shock, and it most definitely is. I’d barely got off the plane before I saw my first robot, and although I had researched the public transport system in advance, I was still overwhelmed on reaching the transit hub that serves Narita Airport. For my particular plans, the much lauded JR Pass was not going to be worth the expense, so I obtained a top-up travel card that was the perfect companion for my trip. Armed with a pocket wifi that I had collected at arrivals, these two things were my best friends and were so handy for negotiating the train and bus system both locally and nationally. As a first-timer in Japan, they were a Godsend. Boarding the Narita Express into Tokyo, I booted up the Wifi, plugged in my destination and got real-time connection recommendations to get me to my hotel. The closer to the city centre it got, the more packed the train became, and I witnessed the first of what would become very normal train journeys crammed full of people. It was pitch black when I stepped out of Yotsuya station, somewhere in the middle of the city. It took a few wrong turns for the GPS in my phone to work out which way I was walking, but finally I arrived at my hotel and bunkered down for the night.

For your average tourist to Tokyo, Yotsuya has little to promote it, and indeed I felt surrounded by locals there, but it was within walking distance to the Hotel New Otani Garden Tower where my conference was being held. For the next 3 days, my days were filled with hours of lectures in opulent conference rooms, but during the breaks the hotel had one delight out the back: the most glorious of gardens, complete with waterfall and koi. Whether during the day or after the sun had set and the garden lights came on, it was a joy to wander round. Unlike other conferences I had been to, when breaks meant an all-you-can eat buffet and no need for dinner at the end of the day, this one was very regimented with its portion sizes, and I often left in the evening still hungry. But the bento boxes that were provided at lunchtime were both cute and delightful, and like the snacks at tea break, were an intriguing introduction into the world of Japanese cuisine, where textures were bizarre, tastes were unrecognisable and the visual appearance gave no clue as to what was being eaten.

 

That night, I wandered around the streets of Yotsuya getting hungrier and hungrier. I had tried to learn Japanese for several months ahead of this trip but found it to be one of the hardest languages I’d ever tried to learn. In the end, I felt ill-equipped to both read and speak the language, and felt mightily self conscious at the thought of going into a restaurant to order food. I’m both introverted and shy which doesn’t help, so sometimes it takes a bit for me to build up the courage to instigate an interaction with someone, and I was conscious of the fact that I would be overly reliant on English to communicate, something which I hate doing in countries where English is not their first language. It was also a Friday night, the end of the working week, and so the locals were also out in numbers. After traipsing round a wide arc around my hotel looking for somewhere suitable, I gave up and headed inside a 7Eleven to grab food from there. What I discovered was that the local Marts, be it 7Eleven or FamilyMart were actually fantastic places to eat from, with tasty ranges of sushi, sandwiches, meats, snacks and drinks. Here I was introduced to the array of flavours that foods I was used to in one choice only whilst at home came in such as the myriad of Coca-Cola flavours and KitKats. Among the snacks were dried foods I didn’t recognise and things that were a total novelty to try. And thanks to a Japanese travel forum on Facebook, I commenced a love affair with the 7Eleven’s humble egg sandwich, a divine concoction that was a staple food source throughout my trip.

Despite the next night being a Saturday, I was determined to be brave and pick a restaurant to eat in. I paced up and down the main street of Yotsuya, perusing menus and arguing in my head which one to go to. Eventually I plucked up the courage, and headed up the narrow staircase to a small room full of booths, half-filled with Japanese men. My presence was acknowledged by the waitress and I was presented the menu which was only in Japanese. Thankfully it was a picture book like is often the case there, and I was able to point at a beer and a bowl of wonton soup, and rapidly I was presented with both. Not a word of English was uttered the whole time I was there which was both exciting and unnerving. The waitresses attitude was a little intimidating but the food and beer were so delicious that it was easy to overlook it. I silently watched as the others around me ate, taking the opportunity to subtly people watch, a past time which I love to do, especially in foreign countries.

After the final day of the conference, I took my last wander around the hotel grounds before grabbing another 7Eleven dinner to eat whilst watching the Rugby World Cup on the TV. I’m not a particular fan of rugby, but I live in a rugby nation, and seeing as I was in the host country, it seemed only right to pay attention to the matches. I had an early rise the next day for my first proper day of my Japanese holiday. I had to do a hotel switch due to my current hotel being booked out for the rest of my Tokyo stay, but despite no longer being tied to this part of the city, my research had shown that Yotsuya station was really handy as a travel hub for my needs, and so rather than moving elsewhere, I opted to stay in the neighbourhood. In fact my next hotel was within sight of this one, simply across the road and along a block or so. Having eased myself into the perceived chaos of Tokyo life over the last 3 days, it was finally time to get out and explore and I couldn’t be more excited.

The Garden City in Bloom

September is one of my favourite months of the year in either Hemisphere. In my native Scotland, it often involved some lovely spells of weather as the leaves started to loosen, whereas in New Zealand, it signals increasing daylight, new life and the promise of adventures ahead. My home city of Christchurch is known as the Garden City and the arrival of spring means it really gets to shine. As the seasons turned from winter to spring in 2019, I had been keeping a half eye on the cherry blossoms around the city and park, awaiting the spell when they were in their full glory, and finally in the second half of the month, a sunny day corresponded with the peak bloom and a day off work. There were plenty of other people making the most of it too, and the path that hugged Harper Avenue was full of throngs of people admiring and posing with the pretty pink flowers. It was impossible to resist doing the same.

 

The Avon river snakes down the side of Hagley Park, and tearing myself away from the blossoms, I followed the river towards the Botanical Gardens, passing a pair of Paradise Shelducks with their fluffy offspring. Of all the ducklings that I have seen, I think theirs are the cutest. What I love about this stretch of the river is the giant weeping willows that gently sway in the breeze, and sometimes I like to run the strands through my fingers as I pass them by. I had lunch at one of my favourite cafes, Bunsen, which is nestled in the historic Arts Centre Precinct, and with the weather so nice, I sat outside where even there I was accompanied by wildlife as a sparrow joined me on the neighbouring chair. Once satiated, it was time to enjoy the Botanical Gardens in all its spring glory.

 

Immediately on entering the gardens, I was assaulted with the striking colours of the tulip beds that hugged the lawn borders near the peacock fountain. Returning to the Avon river bank once more, it was bustling with life with punting and kayakers moving lazily across the water. It’s one of those things I’ve never done because I’m a local and I always think of it as a tourist activity, but maybe one day I’ll take a paddle myself. About halfway up the gardens, an arched bridge crosses over to a meadow nestled between the river and the Christchurch Hospital. Here, a carpet of yellow and white daffodils spread across the area below the trees and I once more found myself ogling the flora that was blooming everywhere. I was not alone here either, with nearly as many people photographing the daffodils as there had been at the cherry blossoms. With the sunshine sparkling on the gently babbling river, it was hard not to lap it all up.

 

Back in the botanical gardens, there were flowers in bloom at every turn. This is my favourite time to visit, and there was so much colour everywhere. More cherry blossoms could be found lining some of the more private nooks and there were bees buzzing everywhere. For years following the earthquakes that rocked the city in 2010 and 2011, the conservatories in the centre of the gardens had been closed. Even when they reopened, it took me some time to visit them, and finally on this day, I stepped inside and was greeted by a hot house of tropical plants. It was lush with zaps of colour, and out the back there was a cactus room full of succulents. I took my time inside, continuing my meander through the gardens on exiting, and following the river past yet more cherry blossoms and returning to Hagley Park. Strolling in the sunshine through the park back to my car, I was happy and energised for the exciting weeks to come.

 

A Winter Weekend in Wellington

It’s always a good idea to take a break away from your home city once in a while. Gritting my teeth in earnest for the end of winter last year, I boarded an early morning flight from Christchurch to the country’s capital, Wellington. The last time I’d been there it had been a rather stormy New Years, and sadly the forecast wasn’t looking the best for this weekend either, but still, it was a break away and that was all that mattered. Taking off from Christchurch, the plane was quick to ascend above a thick cloud bank which covered the entire South Island, obscuring any hope of a view out the window. Just as we reached the Cook Strait, a few gaps in the cloud gave a brief peak down to the island slipping out of view. As we descended into Wellington, I was really confused by the sights that appeared below as we lowered back under the clouds. An island appeared and the coastline was unfamiliar and nowhere could I see the usual approach into Wellington. It turned out we’d flown up the south-western coast of the North Island a little before taking a wide arc back to approach over the harbour. It was as grey here as it had been at home but at least the water looked still so that gave hope that the city wasn’t living up to its Windy Wellington moniker that day.

The early arrival meant that we couldn’t check into our hotel yet, so we dumped our bags and went for a wander, first through the nearby streets, and then down to the waterfront. A few murals caught my eye but sadly we were soon joined by a drizzle as I went to explore an old boat that has been completely transformed into a floating mural. We continued towards Te Papa, at first circling around it past the statue of the naked man leaning over the water’s edge, but then briefly heading inside to escape the rain for a bit. The rain mainly remained at drizzle level thankfully, so even though it wasn’t completely dry, we were able to keep walking around the city streets, grabbing some food before taking the train out to Khandallah to visit a relative for a few hours.

 

I was woken in the early hours of the Sunday morning by a loud bang, followed by yelling and a general disturbance outside. We were several floors up, but the sounds from below still drifted upwards and they sounded urgent and distressed. I sleepily rolled out of bed, and pulled back the curtain to be greeted by smoke billowing up from below. I was jolted awake, aware there was a restaurant directly below, and in a panic yelled at my partner to get up. His voice of reason at the lack of smoke alarm sounding and the fire wall that would separate the eatery from the hotel did little to calm me, but there was no suggestion of anyone else in the building moving, and in little time at all, the fire brigade arrived and I was able to watch the light show of sparks that regularly flew upwards as they dampened down the flames. When we eventually got up properly and headed downstairs, we were greeted with the shell of a burnt out car in the hotel’s driveway.

A Sunday market was in full swing at the Te Papa car park, and it was packed full of locals buying their fresh fruit and veg. We were at that point weeks away from an indoor market opening in Christchurch, and I was secretly hoping we’d be getting something as good as this one. Wandering round food markets in any city in any country is always a cultural insight and something that I love to do. It’s a snapshot of local life, local cuisine, and local businesses. Thankfully it was dry as there was no cover whatsoever here, but it was quite windy and the sea in the harbour was showing a good bit of chop. After a while we headed off to spend the afternoon with some relatives near Mount Victoria. By the time we returned to our hotel in the late afternoon the burnt out car was still sitting there looking sorry for itself.

 

Another grey day welcomed us the next morning, and having checked out of our hotel and grabbed some breakfast, we caught the shuttle to Zealandia, the ecosanctuary that nestles behind the city. I’d been once before on the New Years trip, so was happy to go with the suggestion to go back. Despite the lack of sunshine, there were still incredible reflections on the lake at the bottom end of the park, and the nearby hillsides had mist trailing along them. We saw some spotted shag by the waterway, and beyond there some rotund takahe, one of New Zealand’s flightless species of birds. We took the walking track that leads through the forest and up to a dam in the middle of the sanctuary, before skirting round to return on the large loop track. The poor weather meant the bird life was relatively quiet compared to my last visit. Despite how successful the kaka reintroduction here has been, we didn’t see any. Nor did we see any tuatara as it wasn’t warm enough for them to be out basking and I was disappointed to see that the caves where the weta live, had been closed. But we did see the usual forest birds, including the ever inquisitive New Zealand robin who always loves to follow people through the trees.

 

When the rain drove us back to the visitor’s centre, we grabbed lunch before heading back to the city. Again we went into Te Papa to look at one of the exhibits before deciding to walk to the airport along the waterfront as we had plenty of time to spare. I love the walk round Oriental Bay, and on my first visit to Wellington back in 2012 I had continued into Evans Bay round the headland. The long stretch up towards the airport mainly hugged the road so was noisy but once we reached Greta Point, the parks and marina made it much more enjoyable. We had made good time to the airport so wandered among the World of Wearable Art exhibits that were dotted around the terminal. It’s a popular event in the Wellington calendar but never anything that excites me and I looked at the metallic wasp costumes with a raised eyebrow. Before long though, it was time to head south again and home.

Canterbury Tales

Having spent months recuperating from a back injury, and following a winter getaway to Samoa, there was still another 2 months of 2019’s winter to get through, and I was in need of a pick-me-up to help me through. As much as I prefer the New Zealand summers to those of my native Scotland, every winter, I pine over the lack of central heating and the absence of snow. I remember great dumps of snow and driving through blizzards where I used to live in Aberdeen, and as a result, one of the surprising things I come to miss from home, is those crisp winter days waking up to fresh snow fall. Year after year in Christchurch I’ve found I have to grit my teeth to get through the months of May to September, and so it was important I find something to occupy my days off work and make up for all the lost weekends earlier in the year. I created 2 random lists: a geographical breakdown of Canterbury, and a list of possible activities. Then, with the aid of a random number and letter selector, every weekend, I simply had the Internet pick a letter and number for me, and the rest was up to my imagination to combine the activity and the location.

First up was a scenic drive round to Diamond Harbour. The winter sunshine sparkled on the still water within the harbour and the surrounding slopes reflected through the gentle ripples. It’s a drive that always delights, and there’s so many scenic options to get you there. After stopping at a boat ramp to get some photographs, I headed back via Allandale Reserve where the receding tide exposed a mudflat, much to the delight of a myriad of wading birds that picked away for food. In the time that I spent there, the sun dipped behind the Port Hills and I could see as I headed home that a lot of cloud had moved in over the city. This created perfect conditions for a glorious sunset, and as the sun lowered in the winter evening, the sky turned an incredible orange. In a pre-COVID lifetime when planes still flew regularly, I watched as an Air New Zealand plane approached the airport from above my back garden, framed against a sky full of fire.

 

A couple of weekends later, I headed inland to Castle Hill Scenic Reserve, a little beyond Porters Pass on the West Coast road. It’s always a popular place to be, and now at the end of July, there was snow on the nearby peaks. It had been a while since I’d last stopped here, but there’s so many options for routes to take through the giant boulder field, and with a few patches of standing water around, there was some great opportunities to catch the snowy reflections. We skirted round the foot of them and round the side, past a boulder which has a graffiti inscription from 1869 on it. There were snowy peaks to be seen on the far side also, and we picked our way through the lower trails before climbing up onto the hillside at the back of the main boulders. A temporary tarn again provided more gorgeous reflections but we didn’t get such a beautiful spot to ourselves for long. With the sun low for the winter months, there were parts of the area in permanent shade and as we crossed one such spot I went flying, landing on my bum, having slipped on a spot of iced-up mud. With the boulders themselves casting a long shadow on the front side, I had to be so careful picking my way back down again so as not to fall flat on my face.

 

One of the great things about this adventure ‘game’ I was playing was that it led me back to some haunts I hadn’t visited in a while, as well as discovering a couple of new places. With another sunny weekend day the following weekend, my randomly selected region led me to a cute little wetlands on the edge of Lincoln, a relatively short drive outside of Christchurch. I previously worked in Lincoln for a short spell back in 2012 when it was just a little village, but in the years since it has expanded immensely with a plethora of new housing developments spreading out from the original core. The wetlands is right on the edge and was the location for me to practice a bit of macro photography. The waterway itself was still, reflective and surrounded by reeds and other typical plants, but I was on the lookout for flora and fauna that would allow me to practice my photography. As I walked close to the plants at the water’s edge, I found a jumping spider, the only arachnid that I like, and was quick to welcome it onto my hand to try and capture it’s cute little features. It would have been better to have my tripod and two free hands but I was able to get a couple of reasonable shots as it hurried across the back of my hand. On the far side of the wetlands, the shade meant there was some ground frost, and I probably looked a little weird to any passersby as I hunkered down on the wet grass to try and capture the water droplets.

 

The following day I took a drive to the far side of Lake Ellesmere via a nice cafe I hadn’t been to before, where the map suggested there would be a nice spot to enjoy the lakeside. I was hopeful to sit and do some wildlife spotting, but what I found was a gypsy camping site, and a rather flooded park. There was also no bird life to be seen so disappointed, I started to head through the back roads to come home, only to find myself at a ford. I just drive a little car so I wasn’t keen to drive through the river, and right on the far side were some workers doing some road upgrades, so I especially didn’t want to make a twat of myself by getting stuck in the water. It meant a massive detour to get back to the city, so I decided to make a drive out of it anyway, skirting round to the road towards Little River, but turning up Gebbies Pass and up onto Summit road. The weather was perfect for views down onto Lyttelton harbour and I was once more grateful to have so many beautiful spots within easy reach of the city. I stopped at several of the pull-ins to enjoy the view. I was already starting to get excited about the impending spring but there was still one more month of winter and one more adventure to be had before the promise of spring would come.

Circumnavigating Savai’i

About an hour of driving through a multitude of settlements eventually brought me to the turnoff for my next stop for the day. Down a rough drive with little space to pass another car, I reached a spot by the coast where I was stopped to pay the entrance tax before being allowed to continue. From here, the road quickly downgraded to a track that hugged the coastline, and it quickly became uneven and rough, with few places to accommodate anyone coming the other way. It was a sunny day, with the waves crashing on the rocks immediately to my left, but it took all my concentration to negotiate my rental car in a manner that kept the momentum going, with minimal risk of damage to the bodywork. It was manageable for a 2-wheel drive, but it was not pleasant, and I was glad to reach the car park at the far end. As I got out of the car I was immediately descended upon to pay another tax. I’d read about this in the guidebook, and had been resolute not to pay twice. When insisting I’d already paid at the far end of the drive, the locals were just as insistent that I had to pay again. The first tax was for crossing the private land on the upper road, they said. This tax was for the privilege of parking my car and having it ‘watched’. In the end, it was easier just to pay, but what I found was that it was not my car that got watched, but myself that was watched. I felt like my every move was under scrutiny, and I wondered whether walking too far one way would incur yet another tax.

But it was just a short walk to reach the Alofaaga Blowholes on Cape Asuisui, and the sea had enough chop on it from the prevailing wind to create some impressive waves and the intermittent burst of water through the holes in the rocks. As I stood minding my own business, I was approached by three local girls who asked if I minded taking a photograph. Not a problem, only as I went to take their camera to photograph the three friends, I was caught off guard by the realisation that they wanted a photo with me in it. They posed with me, making gestures towards me, and I couldn’t have felt more like a white foreign girl if I tried. Many many years ago, on my first solo adventure to Canada when I was 19, I was exploring Vancouver’s Botanic Gardens when I was approached by a Japanese man who was with his wife. In broken English he had asked for a photograph and I had once again been surprised to realise that he wanted to photograph me with his wife, rather than my assumption of me taking their picture together. I presume they thought I was a local Canadian, but once again I found myself bemused about someone wanting to pose with a complete stranger for a photograph. As a shy person who hates being in my own photos, it was a little degrading.

 

Having negotiated the drive back to the main road, and continued east, I eventually pulled in down a side street to an unassuming car park. Once more it wasn’t long before somebody made a beeline for me to get my entrance tax. A little further along the road I parked up and started a pleasant walk following the river upstream past a series of waterfalls. When I reached Afu Aau waterfalls at the trail end, there was just a mother and daughter there, and the three of us could enjoy some peace and tranquility as we swam in the dark pool at its base. It was impossible to see how deep the pool was but it was possible to stand up in bits of it. The sun’s position meant most of it was in shadow but it was a pleasant temperature. After a while, the mother and daughter left and there was a brief spell when I had the place to myself before others arrived. Approaching mid-afternoon and quite hungry, I felt the incentive to move on.

 

The interior of Savai’i is effectively inaccessible for the most part, so unlike on Upolu where a series of roads crisscross the uplands, Savai’i effectively just has a ringroad with a few short roads leading off from it. From the waterfall, I simply continued to circle the island in an anticlockwise direction, passing Salelologa where the ferry terminal is, and finding myself back on the same route I’d taken the day before. Although the water was a stunning blue to my right, there wasn’t really anywhere to pull over and enjoy it. With another full day on the island still to come, I opted to return to my own resort, gratefully finding a pizza parlour on route, and taking another swim in the harbour, this time following the sea wall where I found a bit more life than I’d noticed the day before. Still, I was again disappointed that I hadn’t made the time to get in the lagoon at the Aga Reef Resort on Upolu, but on such a gloriously hot and sunny day, any time spent in the water was just what I needed. After a walk in the nearby streets, I retreated to my over-water balcony to watch the sunset. After darkness fell it was once more cocktail o’clock and I found myself subjected to the bizarre Disney sountrack at the resort’s restaurant once more.

 

It was my last full day in Samoa and I was in no particular rush. After breakfast I took a meander around the resort, enjoying the early morning sun before the temperature got too oppressive. The water past the breakwater was still and calm and there was barely a soul about as I took my time ogling the tropical landscape. The day’s plan was to circumnavigate the island in a clockwise direction, and almost immediately after leaving Asau where the resort was, the coast road cut inland slightly to cross a rather featureless landscape. Suddenly my first stop appeared out of nowhere and I found myself among some chickens as I pulled up in someone’s front garden. A lovely lady greeted me, and led me down some steps to the hidden secret on her property: a lava tunnel that headed deep under the road. There is no escaping Savai’is volcanic origins – the solidified lava streams are visible across the entire island – and as she led me in, she told me about the birds that nested inside, pointing out some of the nests with her torch. It was lovely and cool in there, and the lady seemed to enjoy showing me around.

 

One of my favourite things about driving around both Upolu and Savai’i was spotting all the gorgeous churches that graced nearly every settlement. Sometimes there was a spot that I could pull over and admire them, and other times there was no such luck. At the most northern point of Savai’i there was a pleasant beach that I could park up by and enjoy. I went for a paddle in the shallow water, watching as others snorkelled just a little off shore. Nearby it was relatively busy given the proximity of two decent-sized resorts, but I didn’t have to wander far to get back to some solitude. Back on the road, the settlements came in quick succession until Sale’aula presented me with my next stop.

 

One of the island’s most popular sights, the lava field here is a remnant of the island’s volcanic eruption in the early 20th century. Several villages were buried under the molten lava that advanced from the interior’s slopes, and here the remnants of a church remains encased in its lava grave. It is only a short walk from the car park to the church which now has a giant tree growing inside its shell. A side track leads to an area known as the Virgin’s grave where a nun’s grave was encircled by, but never covered by, the advancing lava. A lot of vegetation is now springing up from the lava, and thankfully there were bursts of mature trees to offer some shade from the relentlessly hot sun. The church though was the most interesting feature, the doorways half buried but with enough room to climb inside where the lava bears the hardened imprints of the collapsed roof and various tree roots. Beyond here, the trail led down to a large lagoon. My attention was grabbed by a colourful pigeon that watched me from a nearby tree, and I sweated there, enjoying the shade and the vista of the water until some other people arrived.

 

The road continued to mostly follow the coast, through yet more settlements, and past yet more resorts. There was plenty of lagoons and reef visible to my left but few places to pull over. I had become a little wary of stopping in popular spots lest I get hounded for a tax. Samoans were incredibly friendly, but the way of charging tourists every time they stepped on a piece of land or parked a car was a tad off-putting. I stopped for lunch at the Amoa Resort, enjoying a lovely pasta dish and ice-cold coffee in a surprisingly empty restaurant. Crossing the road here afterwards, I realised there was no beach, and the coast from here round to Saleologa seemed less than inviting. As I completed my circumnavigation of the island, a haze had moved in, creating a fantastical sunbow as I followed the southern coast. I’d never seen a sunbow before, and it travelled with me for a large chunk of the drive back to the resort. Following a dip in the ocean, and a brief walk near the resort, I sat for my last Samoan sunset before heading to the bar for my last Samoan cocktail. Both islands had offered very different experiences but both had been very much worth visiting.

 

I had a mid-morning sailing to catch back to Upolu ahead of a mid-afternoon flight home to New Zealand. I set off early, following the south coast and once more being enamoured by the sight of pigs and cattle just wandering about in the villages. It was overcast on the western half of the island, but by the time I eventually reached the eastern half, the sun was blazing and it was a gorgeous blue sky that greeted me at the ferry terminal. Checked in and parked ready to load, I stood by the water’s edge watching the boat arrive. It was visible from some distance, and I stood among an increasing crowd as its hulk grew ever bigger. When I boarded, I was a little concerned to be guided into a position that looked like my car was jammed in a corner. I spent the whole sailing unsure how I was going to disembark without scratching the car’s bumper. It was a more pleasant sailing to Upolu than it had been on the way over, and I was shocked to spot a turtle as we sailed. There was only myself and a couple of others nearby that saw it, which made the moment feel special, and later on I spotted two exceedingly large and long fish that I suspect may have been marlins.

 

We made good time on the sailing, but after somebody failed to return to their car, there was a bit of a kerfuffle disembarking. The crew could only get a few cars shifted through the gap, and suddenly they wanted me to go next. I had little space to get out of my jammed spot and felt all eyes on me as I inched round the bollard that was in my way. Negotiating that blockage, I had just as little space to angle past the car that was blocking everybody in. Disembarking, I saw the exit gate and headed straight for it, only to be yelled at by the wharf crew for going the wrong way. Embarrassed, I had to reverse back to the ferry in front of everybody, and sheepishly made a quick exit. In the end I had some time to kill, and headed back to the Sheraton Resort to enjoy a snack and a cooling drink before heading to the airport. For the first time in a week, I connected my phone to the Internet and briefly connected with the outside World, sad that my Pacific escape was over. With rental car returned, and time passed in the departure lounge, eventually it was time to say goodbye to one of my favourite Pacific nations. There was some epic turbulence on the flight home, something which I actually enjoy (unlike many of the other passengers on the flight), and I landed in New Zealand, quietly dreaming about a return trip.

Upolu to Savai’i

I rose with good intentions. I had a bit of a drive ahead of me that morning to catch the mid-day ferry but I was still to secure the ferry tickets into my possession, a series of cock-ups resulting in me feeling a bit stressed as the need to have them grew closer. But I’d spent so long exploring Upolu and ignoring the resort’s lagoon, that I was determined to squeeze in a quick snorkel before leaving. I took my usual wander to the bridge that led to the breakwater, and as I idly watched the crabs below, waiting for the breakfast buffet to open, I was shocked to see a reef shark swim by. In all the previous days I hadn’t seen much fish from the surface, so I couldn’t believe there was a shark in the lagoon. This was of immense excitement as I’d swam with reef sharks a few years prior in the Galapagos Islands and the prospect of doing it again spurred me on to gobble my last breakfast down quite quickly. I stopped at the bridge again to gauge the tide before kitting up and saw a reef shark again swim underneath, but as I wrestled with my head about how much time I actually had to take a snorkel, my rushed intake of food and the background level of stress kicked in to a sudden onset of gurgling and an unwanted sensation in my tummy that had me rushing to the toilet instead of the lagoon. Clearly it was not meant to be.

I had the entire width of Upolu to drive to reach both the ferry terminal and the pick-up point of my tickets. It had been arranged to have them waiting for me at the Sheraton Beach Resort just a few minutes drive along the coast from the port, and I pulled up with plenty of time to spare and under a gorgeous blue sky. My stress was finally appeased as within minutes I had the much-awaited tickets and I was invited to use the resort until it was time to check-in for the ferry. The resort was simply stunning, being one of the island’s upmarket hotels. Walking through the complex and out the other side, I was confronted with a gorgeous blue swimming pool, complete with in-pool bar, and framed behind it was a beautiful blue ocean, greenery fringing the coast and a small palm-fringed beach. I could just about make out Savai’i, Samoa’s other main island, on the horizon and despite the glorious sunshine where I was standing, I noted the large gloomy cloud that shrouded my destination. Finding a nice spot in the shade, I passed the time on a sun lounger before it was time to head to the port.

 

Having kept away from Apia for most of my trip so far, I’d really felt like there weren’t many tourists on Samoa, and parked up waiting to board the inter-island ferry, I noted the same. The vast majority of vehicle and foot traffic appeared to be locals, and even though they were acclimated to the heat, we all shared the same desire to get out of the burning sun as we waited to get on the ferry. Eventually I was on board and as we waited to sail, a light drizzle started. For just over an hour we ploughed the waters of the Apolima Strait until we berthed at Salelologa under a grey sky. My accommodation was at the almost direct opposite end of the island so it was a simple matter of picking a coast to drive along to get there. There wasn’t much difference in time, but I picked the north coast and set off for the not-quite 2hr drive. Having missed out on the opportunity to snorkel at the Aga Reef Resort on Upolu, I’d decided to make snorkelling at the Va-I-Moana resort my main priority for that afternoon, so I just enjoyed the scenery on route but didn’t stop anywhere until eventually I pulled in at the resort after what seemed like forever.

This resort was so different to the one I’d been staying at the last few nights. It was much more spread out with a mix of fales and cottages, and an expansive lawn lay through the other side of the resort building, along side which was a beautiful small beach, and a volleyball court. It was a totally different vibe but I loved it all the same. I’d decided to splash out on a sunset cabin, which was effectively a fully walled version of a fale, and as I walked through the door to the giant bed with mosquito net, it was only a few steps onto the balcony which sat over the lapping waves. I was like a kid in a candy shop, and I couldn’t wait to chill out in the evening to watch the sunset. Once geared up I headed straight to the beach and into the water. There was a floating pontoon some way out near where a couple of boats were buoyed, but I started off having a bit of a snorkel around the bay, expecting to see a whole load of tropical fish and being left rather disappointed. The fish were few and far between and not particularly colourful. Eventually I ditched my snorkel gear and just enjoyed the swim. In hindsight, and had I known how things would have panned out, I should have gotten the later ferry and spent the morning snorkelling at the Aga Reef Resort.

 

As the afternoon headed towards evening, I took a walk towards Auala, the small settlement that bordered the resort. Just like on Upolu, I was entertained by chickens and pigs scurrying around the undergrowth and I continued the waves and smiles that had been a highlight of my time in Samoa. The vast majority of people were polite and happy and as the sun lowered, the locals were enjoying the water themselves at the end of the working day. As sunset approached, I hurried back to my fale to sit out on the balcony with the sea below me, as the light changed and the sun set on my first day in Savai’i. Dinner was quite a different experience at this resort as the constant soundtrack that played at the bar was the most unusual choice with a mixture of classics and randomly, quite a few Disney songs interspersed. The menu was a little more regimented but the cocktails were just as enjoyed here as they’d been each night prior. When I retreated in the darkness to my fale, and climbed into my gigantic bed, I came to realise that having the sea right underneath me was not conducive to a good night’s sleep. I’d always assumed the sound of the lapping ocean would have been a perfect remedy to a day in the sun, but instead I found myself shoving ear plugs into my ears and sleeping with a pillow over my head in an effort to drown out the noise of the waves whacking against the wooden posts.

 

It was a beautiful morning that greeted me and I sat out on the balcony for a bit before heading to breakfast. There was no rush, and it was an easy place to wander slowly among the palm trees to aid my digestion. Unlike Upolu, there are no interior roads, so there was simply the case of driving either clockwise or anti-clockwise to go sightseeing. I decided to do the south coast sights that day, and the north coast sights the following day, so I turned right out the resort and drove the short distance to the turn-off for Falealupo. My first stop was the canopy walk that was nestled among the thick vegetation that was typical of this part of the island. After paying the entry tax, I was pointed in the direction of a track leading into the forest, and after a short distance I came across a man sitting at the base of the tree that led me up the stairs to the swing bridge among the trees. I’m a total introvert and not the best at conversing with strangers, so I was relieved when he left me to it after initially climbing up with me. After the bridge, a wooden staircase wrapped around a giant tree leading up to a platform several storeys up. A couple were already there despite how early it was, but they left soon after, leaving me on my own. The landscape was so different to Upolu and appeared much more obviously volcanic, the last volcanic eruption being just over 100 years prior. A lot of the view was restricted by the foliage, but where I could see through, it was like a jungle. I was distracted briefly by a green lizard that joined me, and after it scurried off, I too headed off back down the tree.

 

Down the hill was one of the most underwhelming tourist sites on Samoa, Moso’s footprint. Effectively a sunken patch of hardened lava that was supposed to look like a giant’s footprint, it not only didn’t look like anything exciting, but my guide was a rather bored child who tried in vain to sound enthused as she relayed the fable on autopilot, whilst I pretended to be interested. She was more interested in knowing about me, which I politely obliged her with before moving on. The sandy track cut close to the shoreline and I found a spot to pull in and get out onto the beach to stretch my legs. Both the road and the beach were made up of a gorgeous white sand, but the sea did not look inviting at this most western point of the island. A couple of bends later was the tiny settlement of Old Falealupo and its shell of a church that had been destroyed. I contemplated getting out to have a nosy, but there wasn’t an obvious place to park and a lady was watching me from one of the houses in a manner that made it unclear whether I was unwelcome, or whether she was just waiting to grab me to charge me a viewing tax, so I decided not to stay.

The entry tax for Moso’s footprint had included the House of Rock which was only a few minutes further along the road. So used to being grabbed the minute I parked anywhere, it was strange to have nobody approach me for money and I felt like I was sneaking around as I followed the track into the trees that brought me past a couple of ponds and on to a small lava tube. There was no denying Savai’i’s volcanic origins – the evidence was everywhere – but compared to the giant lava tubes I’d walked through on Santa Cruz in the Galapagos Islands, this one was compact and full of spider’s webs, and had collapsed in places, leaving only the middle section still intact as a tube.

 

Beyond New Falealupo, the sandy road became a little rougher with some tree roots undermining it in places. My research had suggested this was a very passable route but being in a rental car, I had a brief moment where I contemplated turning back, before deciding to push on. Thankfully, the rough section didn’t last long, and although it remained a sandy track rather than a true road all the way to Cape Mulinuu and beyond, it was a gorgeous drive, nestled among tall palm trees, with the blue sky above and a gentle ocean close by. It felt like a total tropical island getaway and I barely saw another soul the whole time I was on the detour off the main coast road. It took over an hour to reach the next stop, but little did I know that my worry with taking the rental car down the sandy road was to pale into insignificance with what was to come.

Aquatic Adventures in Upolu

I simply couldn’t come to somewhere as tropical as Samoa and not go snorkelling. After previously having to replace a mask and then a snorkel, I splashed out on a brand new snorkelling set in the run up to my trip to Samoa, and I had grand plans to make use of them on my last full day on Upolu. The breakfasts at the Aga Reef Resort were the best start to my day, and I was able to sit out by the pool this day to enjoy it. Then I loaded up my car with my swimming gear and change of clothes and set off on the short drive west to one of Samoa’s most famous attractions, To-Sua Ocean Trench. By the village of Lotofaga, I pulled into the car park to discover I was the first one there. Another car arrived just as I was paying to enter, so I knew I wouldn’t have it to myself for long, but this was a great start nonetheless. It is a short walk through a tropical garden to view a sink hole, then beyond to the ocean trench itself. At 30m deep, the walls of the trench are green with vegetation hanging over the edge and down the side. Even with the impending arrival of other people I still took my time to walk the long way round to the access track, taking in the sight of the glistening blue water below.

 

Getting down into the hole involved a climb down a long wooden ladder onto a platform. From there you can either jump in or go down the ladder into the pleasant water. Despite a connection to the sea, the water was still and calm and a lovely temperature. I was quick to go for an exploratory swim before the voices grew louder and I was joined by a group of friends on holiday. For a long time it was just us though, and there was more than enough room for us to have some space. There were a couple of shoals of fish hanging around by the rocks on the edge, and the odd other fish munching away on the floor of the trench. I tried and failed to find the gap in the rocks that leads to the ocean. At the opposite end of the pool was a cave that led through to the bottom of the sinkhole I’d passed on route to the ocean trench. The bottom was littered with rock debris and again the walls were green with vegetation. I passed quite a bit of time simply enjoying the swim and watching the sunlight on the water sparkle in reflection onto the overhangs of the trench. I even took a few dives off the platform into the water, something I’m not normally keen on.

 

After a while, a few more people arrived. A trio of people who I assumed were Instagrammers or Influencers proceeded to pose a hundred ways at the top of the ladder, and half-way down the ladder. By this point, I was just treading water casually, leaning on one of the ballast ropes for the platform, day dreaming whilst idly watching them with amusement. I’ve often looked at some people’s Instagram photos and wondered how they actually enjoy a place when they have to set up the right pose at every famous spot they visit. I’ve also wondered how they looked to other people around them, but this was surprisingly my first experience of witnessing the behaviour that goes into getting ‘that’ photo. And suddenly my reverie was broken and I was left gobsmacked when one of them asked me to move because I was in the background of their photo. I obliged them but I was fuming. I was simply minding my own business, enjoying my dip in the ocean but yet I had ruined the aesthetic of a posed photograph. Although I stayed a little longer after that, when the next group of people arrived, it was starting to feel crowded and my mood had been tainted. I got out the warm water and climbed back up the ladder.

Back up top, it had become cloudy. A few steps across the grass led to a lookout area above the coast and the cliffs in either direction. Below me the waves crashed onto the rocks at the bottom. It was a beautifully maintained tropical garden with lots of places to sit and enjoy the view, and a path led down the seaward side of the cliffs to the rocks right by the sea. The waves had eroded some rock pools and rock arches, and as I stood listening to the noise of the waves, I was joined by a brilliant red bird that sat on a nearby tree. Hibiscus flowers always remind me of holidays on tropical shores, and here it was no different with an unusual bi-coloured hibiscus in full bloom in the garden. I meandered back round the edge of the ocean trench, taking my time to enjoy the view before leaving. By now late morning, there were more and more people arriving and the platform was getting busy with others in the water. I was immensely glad I’d arrived as early as I had.

 

The Main South Road cuts inland for a while before splitting to head west with a separate road cutting north. On this inward diversion I pulled in at the signs for one of the island’s many waterfalls, Sopo’aga. The access, like so many places on Samoa is on private land, in this case someone’s front garden, so I paid the entry tax, and after the lady spoke to me in broken English briefly, she left me to it. Her house stood off to the side, and her garden was divided into sections for growing edibles and those simply growing beautiful flowers. Wandering about were her chickens. As I followed the path across her garden, I was suddenly presented with a large gorge just beyond her property, from the edge of which I was looking directly across to the Sopo’aga Falls. And like all of Samoa’s waterfalls, it was gorgeous. Upolu is so incredibly green, and being slightly elevated and inland, it was especially lush here. As I stood there for some time, a light drizzle started which I was able to shelter from in the little hut that had been conveniently erected at the lookout. I amused myself by watching the chickens eat some coconut before finally pushing onwards.

 

Cutting north, the road climbed steeply and as it did so, it really started to rain. Every time I’d crossed the breadth of the island, I’d left the dry coastal climate behind for this humid and damp interior. It had rained every time I’d crossed over but this was the heaviest yet. But there was another waterfall to see so despite the rain I pulled into yet another person’s garden and parked up. With the rain rolling through, I sat in my car to let it ease, aware that the landowners were watching me from their house. Eventually it eased enough to get out and brave it, and I greeted the large family who welcomed me onto their land. Fuipisia falls had the highest entry tax of all the sights I stopped at in Samoa. It seemed relatively steep but I didn’t have the heart to barter, given that I was relatively rich to them. They pointed me down a muddy path and I set off in the remaining drizzle through puddles, to eventually find myself at a bit of a quagmire. The field was saturated in water and mud was everywhere. I carefully picked my way across to the edge of another gorge, and on hearing the sound of water falling, I spotted a waterfall that was barely visible through the vegetation either side. I felt cheated given the price I’d paid, so decided to follow the gorge edge to make the most of it. Luckily I did, because it turned out I’d spotted the wrong waterfall, and round a corner in the gorge edge, I found myself looking down into an expansive river valley with Fuipisia falls dropping down to my right.

 

The ground was very muddy and it looked like there had been a bit of land slip in one spot. The area that had an unobstructed view of the waterfall was in the process of being upgraded and it was just a giant block of mud. I noticed some shoes sitting a little way off and realised they marked a path leading into the trees. It was unbelievably muddy and it became obvious why other people had chosen to go barefoot here. I passed a group of people heading out as I headed in, and after a good bit of mud hopping, I found myself at the top of the waterfall with a face-on view of the valley spanning out below. Large rocks in the river meant it was possible to walk right up to the edge of the falls and almost look down. It was still raining but that didn’t make me want to leave any quicker as I stood enjoying the roar of the falling river. After a while though, I had to pick my way carefully back through the muddy path and across the quagmire field to return to my car and continue north.

 

I’d already been on this road before, but I was keen to have a swim at a local swimming spot on the north coast that had been closed the few days prior when I’d passed before. The Piula Cave Pools were inside the grounds of a school and as I pulled in and headed up the driveway, someone came chasing after me to collect the entry tax. It was such a random process at each place, often with no idea what or where you were going to get charged. There was an extra charge to park at the bottom of the hill, but I was fine to just walk down the steps. I headed off with my snorkelling gear, admiring the college buildings as I descended, and popping out at the bottom to a hive of activity. There were loads of locals enjoying some down time here, and almost as many tourists. I found a spot to leave my towel and shoes and headed to the steps into the pool only to slip and fall, stubbing my toe and breaking my brand new snorkelling set. I couldn’t believe it. I’d paid extra for a decent quality set after having two previous ones break and leak on me, so I was gutted to break them on their first day of use. My toe was throbbing as well and it was quick to swell up and turn an angry red colour. I wasted more time than I would have liked, trying to patch together the broken mask in a manner that would still allow me to use it, albeit with a bit of leaking and the need to hold onto the snorkel separately. Finally I was able to get in the water which was an amazing blue colour.

The pool was nowhere near as big as To Sua Ocean Trench but it felt like there was a lot more fish activity, even with the plethora of legs and bodies moving around them. The water was also an unusual blue colour, and on swimming into the cave at the back of the pool, the blueness became increasingly strong as the external light faded. I dodged kids on pool noodles and watched bubbles billow up from secret places on the sandy floor as I followed fish swimming erratically in search of food. Outside of the pool, many people were having picnics, and I hobbled along the breakwater watching the Pacific Ocean lapping the shore, as I contemplated whether my toe was broken. It was an uncomfortable climb back up the steps to the car, but the speed allowed me to ogle the buildings and surrounding landscape once more.

 

It was nearly an hour’s drive to my final swimming spot, heading west to the capital Apia, and skirting round the back of it. After a flurry of urban activity and traffic, I eventually found myself climbing up an unassuming road to Papaseea Sliding Rocks. It was mid-afternoon, and after paying yet another entry tax, I climbed the long flight of steps down into a gorge where tiered waterfalls spilled down the hillside. The novelty of these waterfalls was that the rockfaces were smooth enough to slide down the waterfalls, but signs and warnings at the top and in my guidebook implied of dangers if not careful. When the river level is too low, it’s not safe to slide here, and when the river level is too high, it can equally be dangerous. The upper tiers were low and thin with only shallow pools below them, but as I rounded the corner I found a family who were successfully sliding down one of the lower tiers. I watched the bravest of them a few times, and then they kindly gave me pointers on where to aim to stay safe. Another of the group was kind enough to film my first attempt, and with a bit of encouragement from them, I went sliding down the first slope into a narrow pool that I could stand up in. I was exceedingly wary of stubbing my already painful toe again, but once in the first pool, the only way out was to climb over the next ledge and slide down the next rockface.

 

As the family readied to leave, a few more people arrived and it became a very communal affair, with the new arrivals watching the rest of us to see where we slid, and us all sharing pointers on where to aim. Several people needed a lot of encouragement and it was a fun atmosphere. In the end I went down three times, worried about my toe every time, but thankfully doing it no more harm. Soaked through and tired, and with the closing time approaching, I started the long trek home to the south-eastern corner of Upolu. Rather than have dinner at my resort though, I decided to eat in a restaurant I’d spotted the signs for time and time again. Belonging to Seabreeze resort which was in between To Sua Ocean Trench and my cabin, it was a gorgeous spot overlooking a peaceful bay, and nestled among the trees of the coast. It was already getting dark when I arrived so I missed the full extent of the vista, but it was nice to get a change of scene and menu for dinner and their cocktails were just as good as the Aga Reef Resort. With another action packed day, I’d missed yet another opportunity to enjoy a swim in the lagoon outside of my cabin. This was to be my last night in Upolu, as the following day I was switching islands, so I vowed to get up and go for a snorkel in the morning, a plan that would ultimately be thwarted.

Across to Apia

I was clearly an early riser because I always seemed to have the resort to myself when I woke up. I took the now familiar walk from my cabin over the bridge to watch the crabs, and beyond to the breakwater where I had peace and quiet to watch the waves roll in and breathe in the morning air. Despite the delay in the sun reaching high enough to crest the steep slopes behind the Aga Reef Resort on Upolu’s southern coast, it never felt cold and I enjoyed my breakfast under the awnings of the resort building, near to the pool. I had a long drive ahead, but I was succumbing to island time, and lounged for a while to let the food digest before finally heading off to cross the island. With an urban speed limit of 40km/hr and a rural speed limit of 55km/hr, the distances on Upolu seemed further than you would expect but there was nothing taxing about the drives whatsoever. The interior of the island is lush and thick with green vegetation, and the coastal roads are littered with pretty little villages. With people and animals wandering along the road at regular intervals, the low speed limits are there for good reason. I enjoyed spotting piglets trotting along after their mother, chickens scattered into the bushes whenever I passed, and the villagers smiled and waved back when I waved in their direction.

 

After following the south coast for about half the length of the island, I turned north on the aptly named Cross Island Road. It started a steep climb into the interior where the clouds dropped low and the occasional drizzle fell. A few scattered residences were dotted around the place, but mostly this interior was wild and I loved it. About half-way across, a sign marked a pull-in to what seemed like an unassuming parking spot. By now so used to paying something every time I stopped, I was surprised that nobody was claiming this, because on reaching the barrier, the view was across to an incredibly tall waterfall that cascaded down the mountainside. The main viewing area was a little overgrown, but off to the side, there was a clearer view and here I was surrounded by butterflies flitting between the many flowers. I was joined at my car by a very friendly dog who looked like he was mooching for food. As a vet, I often struggle with the sight of stray animals when I’m abroad. Especially when I can see they have skin complaints or are malnourished. It’s part of the reason I’ve volunteered at vet clinics in poorer nations in the past. I really wanted to give this guy food and attention, he was such a lovely dog.

 

The road climbed a little more before cresting the top and beginning the drop back down the other side. As it did so, urbanisation began to creep in, and there was a winding drop down to my next stop. As a Scot, the name Stevenson is synonymous with lighthouses. There are many Stevenson lighthouses scattered around Scotland and they are a familiar style to anyone who travels that country’s coastline. To non-Scots, the name Stevenson is more familiar as the son of the lighthouse empire, Robert Louis Stevenson, who chose not to pursue the family business and instead became a writer, and a very famous one at that. Treasure Island, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, and Kidnapped are perhaps his most well known. What I only discovered as I researched my trip to Samoa, was that he had moved there and his house just outside of Apia, was where he ultimately died. Open to the public, this was my first stop on my day in Samoa’s capital.

The long drive brought me to a beautiful two-storey property in the middle of a large cultivated lawn. I was able to join a guided tour that had just started, and with shoes off to save the flooring, we walked around the various rooms, hearing stories of the author and the latter half of his life. It was strange seeing fireplaces in such a tropical location. Our guide told us they’d been built to make them feel like home, and indeed the layout and furniture reminded me of historical sites I’d visited in Scotland. His writing desk was laid out just like he’d left it and in a glass cabinet were original copies of his most famous tomes. The veranda outside of his office overlooked the manicured lawn and flowerbeds at the front of the building, as well as the hillside of Mount Vaea which was thick with trees.

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Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and Dr Jekyl & Mr Hyde, was born in Scotland into the famous Stevenson family who are responsible for a lot of Scotland's lighthouses. But Robert chose not to follow the family business and made his way to Samoa, where he died in this very house. The house and gardens are open to the public and if you don't mind walking up a lot of stairs in the tropical heat, you can visit his grave at the top of the hill through the forest. #gardens #historic #robertlouisstevenson #robertlouisstevensonmuseum #apia #upolu #samoa #beautifulsamoa #tropical #tropicalgarden #paradise #tropicalvibes #tropicalisland #pacificislands #southpacific #southpacificislands #traveling_oceania

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A series of bedrooms were filled with photographs, memorabilia and items from a former life in Scotland. If it wasn’t for the tropical heat blowing in the windows, and the sweat dripping off my back, I could have been back in my Homeland. It has been very well renovated and preserved, and downstairs there were his instruments and a variety of portraits and statues depicting his likeness. In December 1984, he turned to his wife and asked if his face looked odd, before he collapsed on the floor and later died. Our guide pointed out the spot where this is thought to have occurred and then the tour was over and we were free to wander around the grounds. Stepping out onto the well-maintained lawn, I took in the full view of Villa Vailima, a gorgeous white mansion with a red roof.

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The Stevenson family is famous in Scotland for their lighthouses. Lighthouses made to the trademark Stevenson design can be found scattered across the country. But Robert Louis Stevenson wanted to write books and instead became famous as an author. Books like Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde mean his name is still well known in the literary world and beyond. It was only when I decided to visit Samoa that I discovered he lived and died there. This portrait of him hangs in his house just metres from where he died. #painting #portrait #robertlouisstevenson #stevenson #rls #robertlouisstevensonmuseum #vailima #apia #upolu #samoa #beautifulsamoa #museum #pacificislands #southpacificislands #southpacific #oceania #traveling_oceania

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In the woods on the slopes of Mount Vaea, there are a few walking tracks, and despite the heat, I headed in to find the trail to the summit. Hiking in tropical temperatures was not the most enjoyable experience, but at least it was mostly in the shade. Up flights of stairs and winding tracks, it wasn’t till near the summit that gaps in the vegetation allowed a bit of a view. At 472m (1548ft), the tomb of Robert Louis Stevenson sits at the summit, with the ashes of his wife Fanny close by. Both had been given Samoan names, Robert being known as Tusitala (writer of books), and he had been well liked among the locals. Scottish people are well travelled in history – some by choice, and some by force, and it is estimated that 1 in 6 people of the World’s population can claim Scottish ancestry. But it was a strange feeling to stand by his tomb, a fellow Scot, at a location that was almost antipodean to our birthplace. Nearby, it was possible to look out over the Pacific Ocean which was breaking on the outer reef just offshore. Several locals appeared, seemingly on their lunch break, and it became surprisingly busy at the top. I headed back down the slope and wandered along one of the lower trails to a small pond and dam, before cutting back to the mansion and heading on into Apia.

 

Apia was a bit of a shock to the system after the rural vibes of the rest of the island, and despite spending the rest of the day there, I really didn’t warm to the place. Suddenly there was traffic and traffic lights and lanes to suss out as I made my way to the waterfront. Visiting in June 2019, there were roadworks as the city beautified itself ahead of the upcoming Pacific Games. I’d noticed on arrival into the country a few days prior that the city had banned plastic bags and plastic straws, and now that I was in the city, I could see signs painted in places about recycling and not using plastics. It was surprising but yet exciting to see that this island nation was being proactive, more so than the country that I live in. My first challenge was trying to find somewhere to park when I had no idea what the parking laws were and with areas boarded off whilst being upgraded. Eventually, after following the waterfront round past the marina, I was able to park at Vaiala beach where there was one of the many gorgeous churches that can be found on Samoa. Heading past the marina towards the city centre, the sea in the harbour sparkled blue and I could see across to the distinctive buildings that lined the promenade, including one of the city’s most famous and photographed buildings, the stunning Immaculate Conception Cathedral.

 

After failing to pick up my ferry tickets at the airport, my guidebook had listed the office as being near the Sheraton at Apia, so I headed past the gorgeous hotel only to not find it, doubling back after a while and eventually going into the hotel to see if it was inside. I asked at reception and they had no knowledge of it having been there, and after asking around, they assured me they were now just out the back of Apia and gave me directions. Passing the beautiful blue and white cathedral and on to the distinctive red clock tower, I cut up into the main thoroughfare where locals went about their daily movements. I kept going until I reached a main road out of the city and turned towards where I’d been told the office was, and continued walking, and walking, and walking. In the heat of the day, I was hungry and tired, and starting to get rather worried about how I was going to get my ferry tickets. Eventually I reached an intersection that took me to a road that lead back to the waterfront, and defeated I took it, eventually heading to the tourist office to get help. After several phone calls, it transpired that I was supposed to have collected my tickets not from an office at the airport but a person at the airport. Apparently, a company representative had been at the arrivals hall with a sign. After a bit of discussion and a good bit of gratitude on my part, it was arranged to transfer my tickets to a hotel near the ferry terminal which I could pick up ahead of the sailing. I was still a little stressed that the tickets were not in my possession yet, but the lovely man at the tourist office assured me all would be well.

 

I took my time to take in the view of the nearby cathedral before finding a spot for a late lunch. Despite having tired feet, I was determined to keep exploring on foot. Past the distinctive Government building and bank, I headed into the madness of the bus depot and market. Samoa’s buses are well decorated and full of character and colour. Riding one is apparently an experience in itself, but with my own set of wheels, I never needed to use one. But I loved the sight of them, and the bus depot felt chaotic as I walked through. At the far end was a parkland, beyond which a promenade walk led up the Mulinu’u Peninsula to the Parliament building. On the return leg, I stopped for a while to sit on the rocks and watch the crabs scuttling about. I was lost in my reverie when a man approached and engaged me in conversation. As a solo female traveller, I’m especially wary of men, and as an introvert I’m wary of engaging with strangers anyway, plus I was a little annoyed about my daydreaming being interrupted. It’s quite possible I miss out on some genuine connections with people because of this wariness, but its hard not to second-guess motives sometimes. He was polite enough, enquiring about where I was from, and telling me about how he’d lived in Christchurch for a bit too. Many Samoans emigrate to New Zealand either temporarily or permanently thanks to an immigration agreement between the two nations. So it wasn’t surprising to learn he’d lived there. But this same man had already tried to sell me something a couple of hours earlier as I’d passed, so I was just waiting for the sales pitch to start once the pleasantries were over, and sure enough, he finally got round to trying to sell me some bracelets.

 

Walking back through the park I noticed a recycled tyre pinned to a tree to form a sign. There was an increasing crowd as kids were playing in the park and adults were beginning to leave work to head home. The bus depot remained busy as I cut back through, and I trudged back along the waterfront once more, returning to the marina and eventually back to where I’d parked. Nearby was the Palolo Deep Marine Reserve, a sunken spot within the offshore reef. It involves swimming out a distance from the shore towards it, and although I was keen to see the marine reef, there was a chop in the sea that put me off. As much as I’m fine swimming in a pool, I’m not a confident sea swimmer, and after having a panic attack and nearly drowning whilst snorkelling in choppy water on the Great Barrier Reef a few years before, I’m a little scared of swimming in the sea unless the water is calm. So although it was open for another hour, I chickened out of going, instead opting to start the long drive back to my resort. I arrived back in time for cocktails, picking yet another colour off the menu to enjoy before tucking into dinner. Reflecting on what I still wanted to do on Upolu, I was beginning to realise I didn’t have enough time to do everything I wanted, but I still had another full day to pack in as much as I could before switching islands.

Tropical Paradise

It was only a short drive to the east of my resort, negotiating an area where a landslip had buried the road, to one of the most stunning beaches I’ve ever seen. I had read that the line between public and private land was blurred here, and that locals often charged visitors to park anywhere, or to access beaches that otherwise looked like they were open to anyone. I was intent on not upsetting anyone, and was after all a visitor to their country, but aside from what I’d read in the guidebook before arrival, the reality was not always so clear cut to understand the etiquette. Lalomanu beach is a long stretch of blissful white sand backed by beach fales. Many beaches in Samoa have these huts available for day rent or night rent and I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate to park or access the beach here. Instead, I parked at the far end of the village, looked around for anyone that wanted to charge me for the privilege, and when no-one approached, I walked to the beach from there.

 

The white sand was heavenly as I strolled the length of it in one direction then back again. A couple of families swum in the water, and although there was a light breeze, it was lovely and warm. Off shore, the water was a glorious blue and the offshore island of Nu’utele looked close. After getting my fill of the beach, I walked along the road to the turn-off for Cape Tapaga. Being a Sunday, many people were at church, meaning the streets felt deserted. I walked down the road towards the cape, but found myself in a cul-de-sac of private dwellings and I felt like I was at risk of trespassing. I didn’t want to be disrespectful and it was really difficult to know at times whether I was at risk of walking somewhere I shouldn’t.

 

I had read about a hike up the slope here, but couldn’t find the trail so continued along the road, passing a pig on the verge, and enjoying the changing view of Nu’utele as I wandered up the coast. After a while, I decided I’d wandered far enough, and returned on foot towards my car. The pretty church on the main road had emptied and families were returning for their Sunday feast. I found what I thought was the trail I was looking for, only to discover it led to someone’s house. I figured it wasn’t meant to be, and returned to the gorgeous Lalomanu beach.

 

For me, having a rental car was the best way to explore the island. I’d chosen a resort to stay at that was very out of the way, but Upolu is big enough to need wheels to do it justice, and I was very glad for the freedom to explore under my own terms. It was a big expense to add to the trip, but outside of Apia, I only occasionally saw a public bus. Being limited by their routes and timetables would have been very restrictive. I loved the myriad of villages that the main roads passed through. Some were small and understated, others had the prettiest of churches, and many were colourful and full of bunting ahead of the Pacific Games. I’m not religious myself, but I appreciate the architecture of many religious buildings and love a pretty church. There were so many of them on Samoa that caught my eye.

 

The road eventually cut inland and leaving the coast behind, I was surrounded by thick vegetation. This interior also tended to have its own micro-climate and on my various explorations, I regularly left sunshine on the coast to drive through mist and rain on these hill roads. After some time the road turned north, arriving back at the coast at Falefa. I discovered the pool I was planning on visiting was shut on a Sunday, so I decided to take a drive along the north coast to the west. Wherever I could, I would stop to watch the waves crashing on the rocky shore or admire a local beach. Parking and pull-ins were limited – this really isn’t a country that’s used to tourism and that’s frankly why it is so charming. It did mean that there were times I wished I’d had a dash cam to record the drive because it was simply so stunning.