MistyNites

My Life in Motion

Archive for the tag “South Pacific”

Central Chatham Island

Despite the confused looks of the people that lived there, I had decided to forego the expense of another day of car rental and explore the island on foot. Public rights of way are a little debatable on the island, in fact, the majority of the place is privately owned, but I could see on the map that there was a road that would lead me round the expanse of Lake Huro and past the western end of the giant lagoon that sits in the middle of the island. It seemed feasible to walk the circuit in a day, and the map suggested public access. Despite that, I was never quite sure if I would meet with any hostile reception, or just a raised eyebrow at the absurdity of walking such a distance.

After breakfast down at the Hotel Chatham, I walked down to the port along the waterfront, past the weekday goings-on of the people that lived there. A few solemn-looking fishing boats sat in the bowl of Petre Bay, and the cloud above my head was grey. A track led up the cliffside which had no suggestion of private property at the bottom. Hoping for a view at the top, I clambered up the rough ground to discover I was in the middle of a cattle pen, and realised I was in the holding pen for stock to be driven down the hill and onto the ferry. I was quick to head back down, worried I was trespassing.

Options to stock up on food for lunch were limited, so I grabbed a mid-morning snack at Waitangi whilst I could before following side-roads in the town, eager to get some kind of viewpoint, and generally just being a little nosy. From the point of leaving Waitangi behind on route north to the next settlement of Te One, I was an object of curiosity to the locals. Out of the settlements, the roads are unsealed and there is often little in the way of verge and certainly nothing resembling a pavement. In essence, nobody walks here. So I spent a large part of my time walking this main road fielding offers of a lift. Island life can sometimes be a little insular, but it’s also great for community spirit and support. It was lovely that so many people offered, but I was out for the exercise and the self-exploration, and I suspect my refusal was a little confusing and odd for those that stopped for me.

For the most part, Chatham Island appears predominantly flat, but as I left Te One to continue north, the road lifted a little providing a view across to the opening of the large expanse of Petre Bay to the west. Once at the crown of the ridge, I took the road directly east, which took me away from the regular flow of traffic, and out into a World of solitude. I used to work on a farm during my university years for a bit of spare change, but over the years, I’ve forgotten a lot about the cycles of the year that dominate farming life. Also down here in the Southern Hemisphere, everything was up on its head. As it was February at the time of my visit, mid-summer, I passed large fields full of rolled up hay bales, waiting to be bagged and stored.

 

It didn’t take long for the proper road to peter out at the farmhouse, but just past here the road became a track, passing through a gate that suggested public access was okay. I was effectively walking through the grazing fields though, with cattle spread out around me, watching me as I walked. After passing through another gate and finding myself a little elevated, I was startled by the sight of emu across a fence. This was the last thing I had expected to find out here on this little island deep in the South Pacific Ocean, but here I was with three emu running around next to me. It turned out they were being farmed here, just another Chatham Island oddity.

 

As the track turned south, it was now sheep keeping me company, and I could see across the sheep pastures to the large lagoon in the middle of the island, and even beyond there to the Pacific Ocean itself. As the track dropped down towards the lagoon, the occasional angled tree and lack of high vegetation hinted at the exposed nature of the landscape. It was a relatively settled day though, and I had good visibility. Passing through a couple more gates I came across a small group of cottages, and I felt a little self-conscious, unclear whether I was trespassing or okay to keep going. But by this stage I was approaching the far side of Lake Huron, and with nobody around anyway, it made more sense to continue as I was, than to back track. Stock tracks led down to the water’s edge where I could see a plethora of birds from swans to lapwings and the occasional heron.

I passed some horses as the track climbed up a little, leading me away from the lagoon, and eventually bringing me to the main road that leads to the east coast of the island. It was a worse grade of road than the main north road, and trying to keep to a verge made for quite uncomfortable walking. Once more, I was a curiosity with people slamming on their brakes to stop and offer me a lift. The southern end of the island is where the main elevation of the land is, and this road was much hillier to walk on than anything I’d come across so far. I was also tired and hungry by this point but determined to walk the rest of the distance.

I passed the entrance to the Marae, the centre of an important event that was happening whilst I was on the island. Since moving to New Zealand back in 2012, I’ve learned a lot about colonisation, Maori history and Maori land rights. But here, there were the descendants of Moriori, Polynesian settlers that developed their own culture independently of the Polynesian Maori settlers of mainland New Zealand. I’d never heard of them before arriving on Chatham Island, but that morning, before setting off on this hike, I’d visited the local museum in Waitangi, which was compact but crammed full of antiquities and information about the history of the people of the island group. Whilst I would not like to attest to being fully aware of what happened here, I learned that a party of invading Maori from New Zealand committed genocide of the Moriori in the 19th century, even committing cannibalism, resulting in the death or displacement of 95% of Moriori. A Hercules plane had landed on the island that day to deliver a Government-led apology and reparation for crimes committed during this time. With several of the islanders I’d spoken to being descended from the genocide survivors, this event was a big deal.

As I descended back down the hill towards the road that leads back to Waitangi, I found myself having to make way for a flock of sheep being led along the road. They can be such flighty animals, and I had to cling to the fence line to keep out their way and not spook them any more. By the time I made it back to the settlement, it was dinner time, and I parked up at the Hotel Chatham, effectively the only place to eat in the area, for my glass of wine and whatever meal was on offer that night. Although the menu was limited, they did a good job of altering the offerings despite being restricted by supply. They did, however run out of white wine partway through my stay which was amusing, but just part of island life for the locals.

I’m not an overly outgoing person, and won’t easily communicate with strangers, but by now my third night hanging out at the hotel, I was being greeted and chatted to by more and more people and I was beginning to really feel enveloped into the community, even if just on a miniscule scale. The guys I was sharing my accommodation with were also good banter, and I caught up with their fishing adventures before retreating to my room. There was nothing like a good dose of fresh air and exercise to lead to a good night’s sleep, ready to get out and explore all over again the next day.

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.

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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