Down Under in Savai’i

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The Pulemelei Pyramid.

The Pulemelei Pyramid.

Pu’apu’a to Salelologa

When driving through this sparsely settled stretch of vine-covered forest north of Pu’apu’a you will see introduced Asian teak trees, rainbow gums from PNG and Pacific mahogany from the western Pacific. These were part of a large forest project abandoned because of cyclones and slow growth. The Pu’apu’a basalts of this area are less than 2000 years in age. 

Landscape changes abruptly on entering Pu’apu’a village to a wide lagoon and fales built on Tafagamanu sand surrounded by coconut palms and breadfruit trees. The next 19 km to Salelologa will be on Tafagamanu sand and weathered Mulifanua basalts, both supportive of garden crops. This is the Savai’i of tourist brochures. It is also the product of geology but there are few specific sites of interest. You might stop at Saipipi to photograph the four most easterly cones of the Tuasivi Ridge (a chain of cones aligned with Pacific Plate movement) and slow down where the road skirts Mt Asi at Fogapoa. This, the easternmost of Savai’i’s 450 cones, is 8 m high and would easily fit into a standard sized football field. 

This island tour ends with descriptions of two seldom visited remote sites then a final note about tapa making, an early Polynesian handicraft needing no geological commentary. 

Mount Silisili

Mount Silisili is a small cinder cone on Savai’i’s high central plateau. Its crest at 1863 m is slightly higher than the dozens of cones that surround it. As such, it is the highest point of the Samoan Archipelago. Access is from the sawmill 5 km west of Aopo by a recently constructed dirt road to within 6 km of the cone, but firstly enquire about the road condition. If walking from Aopo the uphill trek takes 7 hours then overnight camping. All hikers are accompanied by local guides. 

The Pulemelei Step Pyramid

Polynesia’s largest ancient rock structure is located in the abandoned Letolo coconut plantation 3 km from Vailoa village. It is 65 m in length, 60 m wide and 13 m high. Archaeological investigations between 2002 and 2005 determined two stages of construction, firstly between 900 - 1000 AD ( the time of Tongan occupation) then the upper steps between 1400 - 1600 AD. 

Thin surface beds of old Salani basalt have weathered into fertile soil leaving an abundance of loose, tabular blocks suitable for building. One of Savai’i’s few permanent streams flows through the area, an ideal place for early settlement. A large village was periodically occupied from 2000 years ago until abandonment in the late 1600s. 

Young ladies in dresses made of tapa (siapo).
Young ladies in dresses made of tapa (siapo).

Nothing has come down in legend about the function of Pulemelei. It probably had administrative or religious usage, but is unlikely to have been a burial site. A geo-radar survey indicated stacked rock layers but no inner or underlying chamber. It was built on a gentle slope overlooking Palauli bay so, apart from its main purpose, it would have been an excellent watch tower. 

Pulemelei is one of the Pacific’s most important archaeological monuments and has been considered for World Heritage status. It deserves recognition as one of Samoa’s prime visitor’s destinations but it is presently abandoned, vine - covered and impossible to find without a guide. 

Tapa Making

Tapa making using the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree was an early Polynesian introduction for making clothing. It is still worn at some formal functions, in decorating churches, in burials and as souvenirs in the tourist trade. Visitors can watch an hour - long demonstration of this entire fascinating process from the cutting down of a paper mulberry tree to the finished product. When driving through Vailoa village look for the road sign ‘Siapo Demonstration’, Siapo being Samoan for tapa. 

Travel Tips

Before leaving Salelologa ( or wherever you are staying) make sure you have a Savai’i road map in addition to the location map of this article. 

Road distance around Savai’i (including the loop road around the Falealupo Peninsula) is 202 km. The 40 km/hour speed limit should never be exceeded when driving through villages or on the narrow, roller - coaster north road between Asau and Sasina. 

Visitors wanting a satisfactory overview of the island should allow a minimum of two days sightseeing but preferably much longer. 

And wherever you go and whoever you meet you will be reminded that Savai’i is one of the most beautiful, most interesting and most friendly islands of the world.

© Samoa Observer 2016

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