Sliding Rocks survivor sounds the alarm bell

By Ivamere Nataro ,

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The Papaseea Sliding Rocks. (Inset) Survivor: Helen Gebel at the Leuaina Beach Resort yesterday.

The Papaseea Sliding Rocks. (Inset) Survivor: Helen Gebel at the Leuaina Beach Resort yesterday. (Photo: Misiona Simo)

A New Zealand tourist who had to be carried by rescue workers on a stretcher to the top of the Sliding Rocks at Papaseea has a sad story to tell.

While she is grateful to be alive, a trip to Samoa that was to celebrate her 35th birthday has quickly turned sour for Helen Gebel.

It all went wrong for Helen and her friend, Erica, when they decided on visiting the Papaseea Sliding Rocks on Wednesday. She was injured and she fractured her left foot and hand.

Speaking to the Weekend Observer, Helen said the Sliding Rocks is a dangerous place and visitors should be duly informed.

“Papaseea should not be open as it is. It is dangerous and life threatening, as well as difficult to access in emergencies,” she said. 

“It might be better during certain seasons and depending on the weather, but the current is so strong at the moment because of all the rain and it should be closed for now.”

Helen said nothing prepared her for what happened.

“When we arrived, there was no one else there; we were by ourselves, just Erica and I. We paid for our $5 tala entrance fee and we went down. At first when we looked down, the current was strong, so we just thought why not.”

She spoke of her experience, saying it was more of a helpless moment when she felt she had injured herself. 

“When we reached the slide, it was a bit scary, but then we thought, everyone else did it, why don’t we and the water was cool too.

“So I started sliding, I went down and the water was flowing quite strongly. I tried slowing down but I couldn’t, it was really quick, I hit the ground and I bruised my leg, it’s not broken, it was bruised and I stayed in the water for about 20 minutes because I was hoping the pain would go away and I was trying to cool the pain.

“When Erica thought that I made it and she wanted to slide down, I told her not to slide down, that’s when I was still inside the water. 

“There were two other tourists, a couple, when they came they wanted to help me and I told them I was OK and I told them not to go down the slide.

“Some other tourists came and asked if I wanted help to get out of the water, I said I was fine because I didn’t really think it was that bad and I was still hoping the pain would go away.  “There was another four or five boys, tourists as well and a guide, who came and they offered their help to take me out of the water into the small fale beside the pool. 

“So they told me to elevate my leg, but the pain became unbearable so I put my leg down again and we were thinking of ways to help me come up, because it is really steep place.” 

That’s when they decided to call the ambulance. About 20 minutes later, the Fire and Emergency Services Authority men arrived. 

“My hand was paining too because I hit it with a rock when I came sliding down. I tried putting weight on my foot, but it was too painful. I was more worried about my foot then my hand.  

“But everyone was talking to me and telling me to stay calm and making sure that I’m Ok. They tried bringing me up, but it was too steep and we had to call for help.” It was Helen’s first time to Samoa, having lived in New Zealand for four years, after migrating from Germany. The friends’ choice of the Sliding Rocks was of the recommendations and ratings they viewed on TripAdvisor. 

Helen said the sliding rocks was not safe and it needed to be developed or turned into a swimming hole to avoid such freak accidents from happening to another person. 

“I have suggested to the Samoa Tourism Authority (S.T.A.) to modify it to just a swimming pool with waterfalls or a water hole to take a dip and maybe offer mats or tubes for sliding down the smaller falls so people can be protected from rocks.

S.T.A SAYS IT IS SAFE: The Papaseea Sliding Rocks. Photo / Misiona Simo
S.T.A SAYS IT IS SAFE: The Papaseea Sliding Rocks. Photo / Misiona Simo

“They should also only open if the current is not too strong. The large falls need to be clearly labelled as dangerous and should be fenced off.”

Asked if she was advised by the Sliding Rocks operators of the dangers of the site, Helen explained: “All they told us was to be careful with the bags, there was no advice at all about the current, and it was only to look after the belongings.

“If I also knew that people get hurt there, I would have spoken to some locals first because when they asked me where I had injured myself, and I told them Papaseea, they said it was not a safe place.”

Helen commended the work of the Samoa Fire and Emergency Services Authority men who helped her getting to the hospital. 

“The fire guys who came down, the rescue team did a pretty good job. They brought a stretcher and put it me on it and they made sure I was tied on the stretcher so that I didn’t fall, and they had to keep changing the people carrying me because I was heavy and it was really steep and it was also narrow. 

“They did amazing. They checked my heart beat, temperature when we were on our way to the hospital.” 

She shared the staff members at the Leuaina Beach Resort, where the friends stayed, were great and the staff of the S.T.A. had also visited her.  “Erica has been really good and she was helpful. She knew what to do, who to call and she has just been a great friend.” 

Despite her awful experience, the friends plan to return to visit Savai’i and the other attraction sites they could not do in this trip. 

President of the Papaseea Women’s Committee, Marie Masoe Vaitagutu told the Weekend Observer that they advise all tourists who visit the Sliding Rocks about the danger zones.

She said there was also a signboard that informed visitors what to do and what not to do. 

“We also tell tourists to be careful, especially of their belongings because we’re not responsible for anything that goes missing, we tell them to put their stuff inside their car or if they take them down, then they have to look after them,” Marie explained. 

“Not many injuries occur here, it could be once a year, but not all the time, it does not happen often.”

She added: “We have plans to make this place safer. We have been asking the S.T.A. for assistance to help us, but still nothing. 

“We asked them for help to fix the railing after Cyclone Evan, but ever since then nothing, we asked them to fix the fence, they did not respond to our request, so whatever money we make, we try and develop the place.  There are pools there for swimming, but it’s when there is strong current that causes rocks to be washed down the slide.”

S.T.A. Public Relations Officer, Su’a Hesed Ieremia said it was unfortunate that Helen was injured at Papaseea and they had visited her to offer their assistance and also to get her side of the story.

Su’a mentioned they will consider Helen’s recommendations on how to make the site safe for people and to help them with future plans for the tourism industry. In terms of developing the Sliding Rocks, he told the Weekend Observer that they would work with the women’s committee on having more signs around the waterfall to indicate the safe and unsafe places.

“We also work with the New Zealand Government in terms of improving Samoa’s tourism industry, so we will definitely look into putting more sign boards and warnings and making the place safe for visitors, with the recent accident in mind, we will definitely use it to develop the site.

“Papaseea is safe for tourists and locals, people need to be aware of the safe place to slide and where not to, I guess that’s where we will need to work on.”

Su’a said attraction sites in Samoa are safe for tourists and locals and people need to be aware of signs and warnings around the various areas.

© Samoa Observer 2016

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