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.