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