Ni­cole Jef­fery ad­justs to the slow pace of life on the Samoan is­land of Savaii

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.poly­ne­sian­ www.vis­it­ www.samoa-ho­

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

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