MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the month “June, 2020”

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

After a while, my stomach began talking to me, and I turned round and went in search of food. Many of the villages are quite understated and it wasn’t always obvious where the eateries were. Every village had its own small store which varied from a window in a wall with an attendant to a walk-in store. But I wanted more than just snacks, and after not really finding anywhere that looked open, I decided to pull into a resort in Faleapuna. As a non-resident, I was only allowed access to the bar and restaurant, and I had it almost to myself. It was a very late lunch, but they were more than happy to serve me, and as I had the choice of tables, I sat down overlooking the ocean. Almost immediately a cat appeared and looked longingly in my direction. Soon after a second one appeared and I found myself with a hopeful audience as I tucked into my fish sandwich.

Samoa’s steep interior results in a plethora of waterfalls. Satiated from lunch, it was only a matter of minutes to reach Falefa falls. Access was down the back of the local store, and once I’d paid the entrance tax, I headed down through a beautiful tropical garden to reach the river edge just in time for rain to start. Thankfully there was a shelter at the bottom and I was able to ride the worst of it out under cover. A concrete path by the water offered a couple of vantage points of the falls which were actually quite a bit upstream from here. I could just about make out the ocean in the other direction and with the mixing of fresh and salt water in the river, there were plenty of crabs hanging out at the side of the path. These ones were much smaller and flatter than the ones I’d seen at the resort that morning and they were very flighty, scurrying away with every movement that I made.

 

Just a little up the road I realised there was a lookout right at the falls so got out to explore. I’d only been there a matter of minutes when one of the villagers came over to get payment. I had assumed it was part of the entry tax I’d already paid but as it turned out repetitively over my time there, the locals appeared to take ownership of a patch, and even if those patches were to look at the same thing, it would be expected that you paid per patch. It was a mild nuisance and at times confusing, but at the end of the day, as a tourist, I was comparatively rich to many of them and in the end it also offered a bit of interaction with the villagers that I probably wouldn’t have had otherwise. This spot was right where the water tipped over the rocks, and although a little hidden by the vegetation, it was nice to get the different aspect.

Heading back inland, instead of following the road back to the east coast, I took the turn-off to Le Mafa Pass where it climbed up into the hills and once more became surrounded by mist and rain. But it was deliciously green and thick with vegetation and there was a viewing area at one point where I could see back towards the coast as some cows watched me watching them. I had planned on stopping at another waterfall on the way back, but being on private property, I had missed the opening hours and so pushed on back to the south coast and returned to the Aga Reef Resort where I was staying.

 

To stretch my legs after the day of driving, I walked from the resort along the road to the west and cut down onto Saleapaga Beach which was almost deserted. I had hoped to see a sunset but discovered that just like the sunrise, it was just out of view over the steep hillside. I walked till the beach ran out, then cut up to the road to head back. As the light faded away, it was the perfect time to sit by the pool with a gorgeous cocktail. The wind began to whip up as I sat there and I was eventually forced inside. It was another delicious dinner before returning to my cabin to plan for the next day. I was supposed to have picked up my ferry tickets to Savai’i at the airport on arrival but couldn’t find the office. My guidebook showed they had an office in Apia, my destination for the following morning, so I was content that all would be fine. Instead, Apia had other plans for me in store.

An Introduction to Samoa

Before the thought of moving to New Zealand had even entered my head, I had held a desire to visit Samoa. I’m not sure where it came from, especially living in Scotland at the time, almost as far from there as I could possibly be. Living in the Southern Hemisphere now, especially in New Zealand, the Pacific Islands became much more accessible, and with the Cook Islands and Fiji having been visited before, I had my sights set on another island adventure. A tropical island getaway seemed like the ideal antidote to the cold South Island winter. As much as I love the summers of New Zealand, I find the winters harder to bare than those of my Homeland, with short days and cold temperatures having none of the Christmas and snowy vibes that I’m used to from my previous life in Aberdeen. With the anxiety that has become a constant companion for me in these last few years, my solo trip away couldn’t have come at a better time.

Following a domestic flight from Christchurch to Auckland, I spent a few hours on the international leg of the flight with a mix of apprehension and attempts to tell myself it would be alright. Two decisions I’d made in the last few days before leaving were to result in me having a rather stressful arrival in the country, which had a knock-on effect of causing me some stress a few days later too. I’m someone who lives by my debit card, or when abroad, my foreign currency card. I’ve gotten into the habit of using my foreign currency card to withdraw local currency from the ATM at my arrival airport. But when I arrived, having decided not to bother getting the local currency whilst still in NZ, the arrivals hall had no ATM and the currency exchange counters were adorned with cash-only signs. Knowing that I was going to be spending my first few days in rural Samoa, not having cash was less than ideal. Unsure what to do, I joined the customs queue and got myself into the country first.

Thankfully, once through into the main terminal hall, I found an ATM. Next challenge was to pick up my ferry tickets. I was spending the first half of my week on Upolu, and the second half of my week on Savai’i, and had to collect my tickets ahead of the crossing. I’d been given instructions to visit the ferry company’s office at the airport, but after going round in circles in the small terminal, I couldn’t find it. Deciding to deal with it on another day, I headed to the car hire office to pick up my rental car. I’d realised in Auckland that I’d forgotten the PIN number for my credit card. A call to the bank whilst still in NZ was fruitless – all they could do was post me out a new one which was pointless, and I’d spent the whole flight to Samoa wracking my brains for the lost memory.

I was confident I’d eventually worked it out, and with car hire always requiring a credit card for a payment hold, I went in to the office, a little hot and stressed, but confident I’d worked out the problem. Only my card declined: not activated! I tried my foreign currency card: not accepted. I tried my NZ debit card: funds not sufficient. I offered cash: not accepted. I tried to get onto my Internet Banking: no signal. During all this, the lady helping me started serving other people, as I started sweating profusely, internally panicking. My entire trip revolved around me having my own transport. Not being able to hire a car was a major problem. In any other country, I’m sure I would have had to leave the rental shop empty-handed, but I was incredibly grateful to the woman in that office in Samoa who eventually came back to me, saw my distress and eventually let me have the car anyway. It was a stressful start to the trip, and I finally got out the airport, paying the cash toll at the exit, and headed off… albeit in the wrong direction.

But I was off. With no cellular connection, I quickly decided to put my phone on flight mode and keep it that way for the whole week. I’d downloaded Google Maps of the islands before arriving so that I could navigate, and once I turned around to head the right way, I was soon in awe of the lushness. From the airport, I headed towards Apia but turned off before reaching the country’s only city, and from that point onwards, I was in rural Samoa, and the vegetation around me grew thick and green. The speed limit on open roads is only 55km/hr, and 40km/hr in inhabited areas, and the whole way through my trip it was obvious why. Animals roam free in the areas around villages and even in some areas that seemed away from habitation, I came across horses at the side of the road or the occasional pig. I was quick to realise that everybody waves in Samoa, and this was something that I grew to love with each passing day. Although many of the teenagers were either shy or aloof, children and adults alike broke into a wide grin when I waved at them on passing. There was a lot of people out and about in the multitude of villages I drove through on route. Visiting in June 2019, it was the final build up to the Pacific Games, a regionalised version of the Olympic Games, and everywhere was being decorated with bunting and colourful posts. I was quick to find Samoa stunning, and these decorated villages were a glorious sight to see.

After over 1.5hrs of driving, I found myself at a ford. The afternoon was pushing on towards evening and there was no way I wanted to take the hour detour to avoid it, but it hadn’t been mentioned on Google Maps and I was fully aware I was in a rental car. I watched another car cross and realised it wasn’t too bad as long as I didn’t cause too much of a wave in the water. Beyond it, the road turned to sand in places as I hugged the south coast. I was immensely glad to pull into the Aga Reef Resort, my home for the next few nights where I was warmly welcomed and taken to my cabin where towel elephants greeted me from the bed. It was a bit overcast here and exposed to the wind which wafted through the complex, but I quickly came to love this resort and will absolutely stay here again if I ever make it back. It was rather out of the way, not even attached to a village, and having a car to be based here was an absolute must, but it turned out to be exactly what I needed.

A short walk from my cabin was the lagoon and the resort’s small swimming pool. A breakwater had been put in to allow for some over-the-water cabins that had direct access into the lagoon. A wooden bridge connected the breakwater to the mainland near the pool, and I parked up on one of the loungers to absorb the warmth a little. After resting for a while I took a stroll on the deserted stretch of beach to the east of the resort, circling back and finding a spot near the pool to start a nightly ritual that is the perfect end to every night in a tropical paradise: cocktails. There was a delicious cocktail menu to work through every night, and the staff at the resort were oh-so-obliging and friendly. I seemed to intrigue them being a solo traveller, something that I don’t think they get that often there. The resort would make a perfect romantic retreat and as I watched the other guests at dinner, it was a mix of couples and grown family reunions. I read magazines about hiking at dinner each night whilst I enjoyed the most delicious of meals.

 

I slept delightfully well and woke up ahead of breakfast, giving me time to take a wander around the complex. The sun rose just round the corner, keeping the resort in shadow for the first few hours of the day. It meant it was a very pleasant temperature to walk around in, and hardly anyone else was awake. I greeted the staff in the basic Samoan that I knew and took a wander to the bridge out to the breakwater. The concrete pillars were teeming with large crabs which offered a lot of entertainment as they skirted around each other, dodging the lapping waves. Out on the breakwater, the wind was strongest, and I walked to the pool and bar that was at the far end as my hair whipped around me. There was a rock pool here, a more rudimentary version of the swimming pool higher up, and I had a good view along the coast in both directions. To the east, the main view was of Nu’utele, a small but distinctive island just off the coast by Lalomanu.

 

The buffet breakfasts were as glorious as the dinners were, and I indulged in everything that was on offer from the fresh fruit to the baked goods. They set me up perfectly each day for the explorations ahead. I had originally planned these action-packed days but I was quick to accept the speed of island time, and relished the morning relaxation, eating slowly, and getting going only once I felt satiated. By the time I was ready to get moving, the sun had finally reached over the high hillside behind the resort and cast the place in warm sunshine. I eyed up the kayaks on the way back to my cabin, telling myself I’d use one later in my stay. I never did. There was just too much to do and with a rental car at my disposal, I had the freedom of the whole island, and was determined to do it justice. I’d divided the island into segments that I planned on exploring each day, and so I set off towards what I would discover to be one of the most stunning beaches I’ve ever seen.

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