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.