Slow-go zone

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

Taste of the trop­ics: A young Samoan shows off his wares at a lo­cal food mar­ket ver­sion of the tra­di­tional Samoan house, the fale. It is an open-sided wooden build­ing with a roof, usu­ally of cor­ru­gated iron, sup­ported by col­umns. Some of the roofs are peaked; oth­ers are bull-nosed or mimic a con­quis­ta­dor’s hel­met.

In the fale­fono , de­ci­sions are made by a coun­cil of chiefs as part of the highly com­plex and strictly hi­er­ar­chi­cal tra­di­tion known as fa’a Samoa. Tra­di­tional fales , with brightly painted poles hold­ing up the roofs, are still com­mon, al­though West­ern-style homes are in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar. Blinds can be low­ered to keep out the wind and rain, but most of the time fam­ily life goes on in full view of the neigh­bours. Samoa’s Big Is­land of Savai’i is just 11/ hours by ferry

4 from Upolu’s north­west­ern tip. One main road skirts the nar­row coastal fringe, which falls away from a se­ries of vol­canic peaks at its heart. An al­most un­bro­ken string of vil­lages runs along the east and north­east coasts.

The mid­dle of the day is re­served for kirik­iti , the dash­ing Samoan ver­sion of cricket. As many peo­ple as wish to play can take the field, which usu­ally com­prises a patch of ground (of­ten in­clud­ing the road) around a con­crete pitch. The hand-painted, three-sided bat looks like a waddy and is wielded like one against a ball made of rub­ber wrapped in pan­danus leaf; there is lit­tle place for de­fence in kirik­iti .

Rugby is the other

great sport­ing love. Driv­ing around Savai’i, I pick up a cou­ple of hitch­hik­ers. One climbs into the front seat be­side me, wind­ing down the win­dow to puff at the tiny rem­nant of cig­a­rette pinched be­tween his thumb and fore­fin­ger. The other slides into the back, fill­ing my rear-vi­sion mir­ror with his bulk.

The front-seat passenger is Joe and he in­tro­duces gi­ant, si­lent Bob: ‘‘ He is No. 8,’’ which seems to ex­plain ev­ery­thing. I ask Joe, ‘‘ Where is your vil­lage?’’ He says he and Bob are bound for Foailalo, about a kilo­me­tre away. ‘‘ Where is your vil­lage?’’ asks Joe in re­turn. ‘‘ Aus­tralia,’’ I re­ply, and Joe just nods.

Mt Mata­vanu’s long erup­tion be­tween 1905 and 1911 cre­ated a vast lava field in the is­land’s north­east cor­ner; the black ex­panse comes as a sen­sory shock af­ter the rich greens of the rain­for­est. It is a brit­tle land­scape that crunches un­der­foot and is hot to the touch. Some hardy ferns have mirac­u­lously emerged from frac­tures in the lava that also re­veal caramel-coloured rock be­neath the sur­face. On the fringe of the vol­canic fields at Sale’aula, be­hind a vil­lage of fales perched un­com­fort­ably on lava rocks, are the re­mains of three churches con­sumed by lava. The vil­lage women’s com­mit­tee co-or­di­nates vis­its to the ru­ins and a woman col­lects the custom fee and leads me to the skele­ton of the Lon­don Mis­sion­ary So­ci­ety church. The con­crete shell is largely in­tact, al­though the roof has col­lapsed and the im­print of its cor­ru­gated iron can be seen in the lava, which flowed through at a depth of 2m. I ask to see the other churches, Catholic and Methodist, but my guide, who is sit­ting in the shade of a tree and puff­ing from the ex­er­tion of the walk, is re­luc­tant. ‘‘ Too far away,’’ she says, flap­ping an arm. ‘‘ Too same.’’ She does, how­ever, take me to the Vir­gin’s Grave, a pit in which a vaguely hu­man shape is strangely un­touched by lava.

Tourism in Samoa, and on Savai’i in par­tic­u­lar, tends to be char­ac­terised by an en­dear­ing am­a­teurism. At the Alo­faaga blow­holes, waves race into a shat­tered black lava coast­line and emerge through fis­sures as pow­er­ful plumes. As I watch the show, a man ap­pears from a nearby fale clutch­ing an arm­ful of co­conuts. He urges me past the white safety line painted on the rock near one of the blow­holes and drops a co­conut through the gap. A split sec­ond later, with a mighty whoomp, a fierce col­umn of spray pro­pels the co­conut 50m or more into the air. It lands back on the rock with a sat­is­fy­ing crack. ‘‘ How many peo­ple get hit by fall­ing co­conuts?’’ I ask. ‘‘ Not many,’’ he an­swers.

The Falealupo canopy walk­way is a 20m-long swing bridge perched 9m above the for­est floor that leads to a tree house in a tor­tured and twisted banyan tree said to be 225 years old. You can stay overnight here, sup­plied with a sleep­ing mat, blan­ket, mos­quito net and food. Af­ter my visit, the vil­lage chief is­sues me with a re­ceipt he says is good for en­trance to the nearby Rock House. I drive through an hon­our guard of co­conut palms and fol­low a crudely writ­ten sign­post to the Rock House. I present my re­ceipt to the woman who greets me there. ‘‘ We are not al­lowed to ac­cept this in my land,’’ she says, ask­ing for an­other 10 tala and as­sign­ing a cou­ple of chil­dren to lead me to the Rock House.

We walk through a dry man­grove for­est to a 20m-wide lava tube with a neatly cylin­dri­cal roof like a war­time Nis­sen hut. I do as I am told and sit in a rough­hewn stone arm­chair while the elder of my two guides, a boy, shows off his skill in beat box­ing: boom-chi­boom-chi-doof-doof.

In tiny Paia vil­lage there is a sign to the Dwarf’s Cave, said to be the home of a tribe of lit­tle peo­ple skilled in magic. A short way up a bumpy road a man meets me, sig­nals and climbs silently into my car, ges­tur­ing for me to drive. Af­ter a while we stop and walk to the cave en­trance, lit­tle more than a hole in the ground. My guide points at the hole and waves me on. Be­low, the dark and slip­pery main cave stretches for more than a kilo­me­tre. My guide points out a rock shelf in a cav­ern and, be­com­ing pos­i­tively vol­u­ble, says it is where the dwarfs eat their meals. ‘‘ Dwarfs there last week,’’ he tells me. ‘‘ Last week?’’ ‘‘ Yes, last year.’’ It seems pru­dent not to in­quire fur­ther so we con­tinue, stop­ping at a murky-looking pool into which he en­cour­ages me to dive. I de­cline, but he leaps in, clearly re­proach­ing me for my timid­ity. Silently, of course.

Check­list

Vir­gin Blue has a stay five nights, pay for only four Samoa of­fer; from $932 a per­son ex Syd­ney, $968 ex Bris­bane, $1088 ex Mel­bourne. For sale to the end of March for travel to June 30. More: 131 516; www.vir­gin­blue.com.au/Hol­i­days.

www.samoa.travel

Pic­ture: Photolibrary

Film set: Re­turn to Par­adise Beach is named af­ter the movie

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