Tropical paradise in Samoa

Bruce Munro goes looking for adventure on the wild and beautiful Samoan island of Savai’i. 

It is raining. I am in an unfamiliar country and might be lost. But I am grinning like a maniac.

Less than three hours after my first steps on Samoan soil, I have crossed by ferry from tourist magnet Upolu to the less-visited island of Savai’i, and am now driving up the east coast road during a late-afternoon tropical downpour.

The cartoon-style tourist map I am relying on is not strong on detail. The rain makes it hard to glean clues from the scant signs as my SUV rental takes me through a series of coastal villages. Have I already driven past my accommodation? I don’t think so, but I am not certain.

I also don’t care. I am too busy being excitedly distracted by sights, sounds and smells: beautiful coconut palm-fringed beaches; the distinctive tropical scent of humid decay, lush regrowth and perfumed flowers; laughing villagers playing volleyball in the cooling rain; yet, still, the constant, welcome warmth of a land much closer to the equator than New Zealand. All my senses are telling me this is indeed a new and exotic place.

Which is why I am here on Savai’i, the bigger, less-populated, wilder sibling to more-touristed Upolu, driving myself around an unfamiliar island: to have an adventure.

I will not be spending my whole vacation on one beach in one resort. I won’t be coached through a predetermined, multiday itinerary with minimum fuss and maximum opportunities to buy trinkets. No, I will go where I want, when I want. Explore, get lost, make discoveries.

The adventure began the moment I stepped off the plane and was embraced by a warm tropical wind, carrying on it the melodious voices of a trio singing a Samoan welcome to the airport’s new arrivals.

At the vehicle rental desk, I picked up the keys to a Toyota Rav4, threw my bags in the back, turned right out of the airport car park and within five minutes was at Mulifanua wharf queuing for the ferry to Savai’i.

Savai’i is the largest chunk of land in Polynesia after New Zealand and Hawaii. It is 190km in circumference. But with a population of only 45,000 and not being home to the island nation’s capital, Savai’i is a comparatively pristine backwater; a volcanic island of lush rainforests, postcard-perfect beaches, countless churches and smiling children. So my guidebook said.

My first two encounters with locals added texture to these basic facts. A businessman farmer in the vehicle queue expressed frustration at the inability to “get ahead’’ because of cultural expectations.

“I am gathering money for other people. That’s the only way I can look at it,’’ he said.

On board the vehicle ferry during the 22km journey across Apolima Strait, I chatted with a young man who was learning to become a ship’s engineer. Many of his fellows on Savai’i were underemployed because they could not speak English well, he said.

He was one of seven siblings. Two months previously, his youngest sister was sent to live with their aunt in Auckland where she would go to school and then hopefully get work.

“Everyone was crying that night,’’ he said.

Approaching dusk, I find my accommodation, Jane’s Beach Fales, in the village of Manase, on Savai’i’s northeast coast. The next day is Sunday, and the island is in effect closed for the Sabbath.

So the day is spent swimming in the blue, fish-filled lagoon whose waves lap at the white sand just a metre from my homely thatched fale, talking with fellow sojourners from around the globe and being enthralled by the beautiful harmonies of the villagers during a service in the simple village church.

Monday dawns clear, with a promise of heat. I decide to explore the south coast. Accompanying me are fellow Jane’s faleans, two young women from Europe.

The roads are in good condition but relatively narrow. Villages, complete with wandering children, inquisitive dogs and grunting sows with squealing piglets in tow, are never more than a few minutes away.

So despite being a little exasperating at times, it is for the best that the speed limit is 40kmh in residential areas and 56kmh elsewhere, and that speed humps mark the entry and exit to each strip of houses.

We stop in the island’s ragtag main town Salelologa to find the Land Transport Authority office which issues temporary drivers’ licences.

I’ve been driving without a Samoan licence because the rental company’s airport office had run out of forms. Five minutes after getting the paperwork sorted, as we drive out of town, we encounter a policeman stopping vehicles to check licences. Phew!

A dozen kilometres along the Main South Coast Rd, we spot the turnoff to the Afa-a-Au waterfall. The man waiting at the fale to collect our 5 Samoan tala fee ($NZ2.80) tells us a whole village depends on the income from their waterfall.

We enjoy a refreshing swim in the bush-enclosed pool that is fed by spring waters which cascade through a gap in the cliff-top trees.

Only a few metres further down the road is the turnoff to the mysterious Pulemelei mound, the largest ancient structure in Polynesia, according to Lonely Planet.

We drive along the dirt track but are thwarted by a recent flood which has washed away a river ford, and by the seeming reluctance of locals to tell us how else we might access the possibly sacred site. Tourists not welcome? Fair enough.

My French and German companions are unfamiliar with cricket. But when we pass through a village and spot the men playing a lunchtime game of kilikiti, Polynesian cricket, I convince them it is a good idea to stop and ask to join in.

Graciously, with broad smiles, the locals let the three palagi take turns hefting and swinging the large triangular bat as lavalava-clad bowlers make several swift deliveries.

At the southwestern corner of Savai’i, we reach Taga village, guardian of the Alofa’aga blowholes. We pay 5 Samoan tala each at an open-sided fale, drive another couple of kilometres parallel to the coast, and reach the end of the sandy track where a low stone fence bears a sign inviting us to pay a further ST5 to park inside the wall.

Parking looks just as good on this side, but I want the local guide’s co-operation so I opt for paying the fee. It seems to be the right choice as our guide, a mature Samoan woman, says yes she can demonstrate the coconut cannonballs.

The blowholes are tubes in the lava which turn the surging waves into powerful geysers. Tide and swells have to be just right. And our guide needs to lob the coconut into the blowhole mouth just after the water hits the low cliff a few metres away.

But when it all comes together, it is a tremendous sight; a high-pressure jet of salt water shooting tens of metres into the air, propelling a hapless coconut well out to sea.

Tuesday. Another cloudless day in paradise. I want to explore the northern coastline, especially the northwestern Falealupo Peninsula.

Today’s travelling companion is a semi-retired Timaru-born Australian. He is talkative. We miss the entrance to the peninsula, twice. But having found it, we make our way to the canopy walkway (ST20); a 9m-high swing bridge slung between a metal tower and a massive 230-year-old banyan tree, affording some broad vistas of lowland rainforest.

The headland has some of the most gorgeous beaches ever seen. But it also still bears scars of cyclones Ofa and Val which tore through here in 1990 and 1991. A hauntingly beautiful remnant is the ruined Catholic church where the original Falealupo village stood before the storms forced a relocation.

Back up at the Main North Coast Rd, a side road grabs my attention for no explicable reason. The road becomes a track that becomes a driveway which finally delivers us into an unknown seaside village.

A large village, with a school and a shop but no evident vehicles. It feels like we have stumbled through a rip in time and space into a place that should only be able to be glimpsed several decades distant in our rear-vision mirrors.

I fail to take any photos in this enchanted spot. But as we drive back to Manase, I think this is exactly how it should be. An adventure is not something that can be captured and displayed. It is best whispered, hinted at, taken up by a kindred spirit and sought out. It has to be experienced for oneself.

- Bruce Munro flew to Samoa with Air New Zealand. He visited Savai’i with the assistance of the Samoa Tourism Authority.




Things to see and do on Savai’i

Lava field

Volcanoes have played an important role in the history of Savai’i, even as recently as 100 years ago. At Sale’aula, on the northeast tip of Savai’i, stand the remains of churches destroyed by lava which flowed across a broad swathe of land between 1905 and 1911.

Mt Matavanu

It is 10km uphill from Safotu village to the edge of the precipitous Mt Matavanu crater. In dry weather, a high-clearance vehicle can make it all the way to the camp of the extinct volcano’s guardian Da World Famous Craterman (20 Samoan tala, or $NZ11.20), leaving a 2km hike to the lip of the broad and deep bush-clad crater.

A 4WD vehicle can make it within a couple of hundred metres of the destination.


Paia Dwarf Cave

Disappear down an unremarkable hole in the ground to discover a subterranean network of large caves. The Dwarf Cave is a large lava tube crossed by subterranean streams.

Look for signs at Paia, on the Main North Coast Rd. A guide (ST20) will lead you through the cave, but bring your own torch and sturdy footwear.

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