Nicole Jeffery adjusts to the slow pace of life on the Samoan island of Savaii
THERE could be few better transport bargains: the ferry from Mulifanua wharf charges the princely sum of nine tala ($4.50) to take passengers on the 90-minute journey across the 20km channel from the relative civilisation of Upolu to the big island of Savaii, reputedly the wild side of Samoa.
When I tell a Samoan friend of my plan to go alone to Savaii, she advises against it. She wouldn’t risk it and she is a local, not a palangi , or foreigner, a term derived from the description of the islands’ first European visitors in the 18th century as having come from the sky: that is, across the horizon.
But I place my faith in the Safua Hotel staff, who have promised to collect me from the wharf at Salelologa, and walk aboard with the assembled passengers. The ferry backs out gently into the channel and turns to face Savaii, which is lost in low clouds that bring a passing shower. Between the two big islands of the archipelago stand two smaller outcrops, Manono and Apolima, which slide in and out of the mist as the rain comes in across a gunmetal-coloured sea.
Manono is said to have been James A. Michener’s inspiration for Bali Hai, the mythical setting of his novel Tales of the South Pacific and the subsequent Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific.
The weather clears in transit, revealing the 450 or so volcanic peaks of our destination. We cross the fringing reef into bright aqua water and the ferry pulls up efficiently at the wharf, lowering its ramp to allow the throng of cars and passengers to tumble on to the shore. This is where Warren Jopling introduces himself and becomes my personal guide to the cradle of Polynesia. He is a spry retired petroleum geologist who left Sydney to wander the world 50 years ago and eventually washed up in Savaii.
He later admits that he is 77 and spending his retirement showing visitors the natural wonders of the island. He is in his element in Savaii, a geologically young island boasting an ancient culture that has kept alive its traditions, despite the threat of globalisation.
Volcanoes are Warren’s thing and he jokes that he is waiting for the next eruption, which he calculates is only 50 years away.
In the meantime, he shows visitors through the lava fields and tubes, craters, archeologi- cal sites (there is a step pyramid hidden in the jungle), rainforests, spectacular coastal cliffs and blowholes, beaches and waterfalls of this enchanting isle. Savaii’s volcanoes are strung across its middle like a necklace and have shaped the island’s geography and culture. The lava field in the northeast resulted from the most recent eruption of Mt Matavanu in 1906. The lava flowed down its seemingly benign slopes and 15km to the sea, filling the lagoon and destroying the coral reef.
The lava streamed through the village of Saleaula, reducing three churches to ruins. The village’s traditional fales , made of wood and thatch, combusted instantly. The molten flow created a desert of black rock stretching for kilometres, fractured only by the pressure of escaping gases and, later, the crowbars of locals breaking it up for building materials.
The church ruins have become a tourist site. The Congregational Church is the most intact, with all four walls standing and arched windows and doorways remaining. The site also includes what is known as ‘‘ the virgin’s grave’’, where there is a great hole in the basalt. According to Samoan legend, the gravesite belongs to a taupo , a ceremonial virgin, and the daughter of a high chief. She became a nun and when she died she was buried near the church. It is said that when Matavanu erupted, the lava flowed around her grave as a mark of her purity.
It is believed Savaii’s explosive past is responsible for the spread of Polynesian culture across the eastern Pacific, to Hawaii, Tahiti and the Cook Islands, among others. With each eruption, affected tribes sought out more secure ground, populating the surrounding islands.
The Polynesian tradition is alive here and has resisted much of Western culture. The pervasive Christian influence aside (the grandest building in every village is a church), communities are still structured in the traditional way of extended families ruled by a matai , or chief, who sits on the village council. Young men continue to submit themselves to the agonising rite of the waistto-knee tattoo to prove their character and courage. The rituals of becoming a matai are still firmly in place, as I witness at dawn one morning when attending a traditional ceremony where 25 members of one huge family are anointed.
You may think starting at dawn has some heavy symbolism, but you would be wrong. It is entirely an exercise in damage limitation. On becoming a matai , the new chief must give a gift commensurate with his status to every chief of the village who attends the ceremony. The more uncivilised the hour, the fewer chiefs will come, or so goes the theory.
At the ceremony I attend, the new chums are thoroughly fleeced, left with little more than a lava-lava to protect their modesty. That is highly symbolic of life as a matai, as it is one’s duty to provide for the family.
There is enormous community pride here. Each village, no matter how poor, is neatly turned out, with precise hedgerows of variegated crotons framing lush, welltrimmed lawns. In contrast to the orderly gardens and plantations, the livestock and wildlife roam without restraint. The obstacles to driving include pigs and piglets, hens with chicks, dogs, cats and small almost-flightless rails (like quails), which dart across the road.
The local buses can also be a hazard. Some are ancient and all are gaily painted and named with a sailor’s raffish flourish. Queen Maggie, for example, is bright pink and commands the eastern coastal route. Others boast names such as Princess Nora and City Boy. One particularly shiny vehicle is emblazoned with Trust Me on its boot. Its sister bus is called Cool and Unusual.
When the Iraq war began, there was even one called Saddam Hussein, which must have been an attempt at irony because it’s hard to imagine a place more distant in mind-set from the troubled Middle East. Checklist Polynesian Blue operates direct flights from Sydney to Apia. The Mulifanua ferry wharf is five minutes by taxi from Apia international airport and tickets can be purchased on arrival; it departs every two hours from 10am to 4pm Monday to Saturday (limited schedule on Sunday). www.polynesianblue.com www.visitsamoa.ws www.samoa-hotels.ws
Savaii survivors: From left, a blowhole on the Samoan island of Savaii; tour guide Warren inspects a lava flow on the volcanic islet; a farmer at work, top right; a beach fale , below right