23 December, 2009

Footy stars Andrew Johns, Wendell Sailor Nigel Vagana and Roy Asotasi help out in Samoa

Exclusive by Nick Walshaw
From: The Daily Telegraph
December 23, 2009 12:00AM

ANDREW Johns is reading a book he knows will never be finished. Knows because The Commissar is sitting partially submerged in a boggy wasteland.

All muddy pages, fading type and cover ripped away. Opened eerily at Chapter 19 like, maybe, after a daytime nap, its owner will be returning to this wartime tale.

But no one is coming back to Salani Surf Resort, on the Samoan island of Upolu's south-east coast.

Nothing for anyone along this battered stretch of coastline save the concrete rubble and twisted metal currently being piled high by two orange Hitachi excavators that now call this stretch of devastation home. Them and the ghosts.

Gone are those dozen Salani beachside bungalows with sweeping Pacific Ocean views. Gone, too, the manicured gardens. Even the restaurant bar where owner Nick Shannon once downed Vailima beers with Johns has been swept away with 180 Samoan lives after an earthquake-triggered tsunami.

And in its place is mud, some splintered timber and uprooted concrete pylons. That lonely coconut tree, too, from which Shannon clung horizontally while hammered by a wave locals insist was sent by Satan himself.

"Frightening," Johns murmurs as, finally, he looks up from the book no one will finish to a landscape he no longer recognises. "Absolutely frightening."

This is why Joey Johns is back in Samoa. Back on this favoured holiday isle where a family friend is among the dead. Where three mates' resorts are part of the $170 million damage bill. Where some 50km of carnage will be visited over the next three days with fellow NRL stars Wendell Sailor, Roy Asotasi and Nigel Vagana.

They'll hold coaching clinics on a Poutasi field still covered in ocean rocks. Donate their NRL bounty to children boasting only the shirts on their backs.

And visit beachside schools that, physically, no longer exist. And everywhere they will hear the stories. Like that of the heartbroken father who stood in the churning whitewater with three children and only two hands.

Or the little schoolgirl who refused to leave her ageing grandmother's side, refused her order to run, until that surging wall of blackness simply took her anyway.

It's why Sailor will disappear to walk the battered coastline alone. Why Johns reads from The Commissar while Vagana, a chief in his mother's village of Fasito'o-Uta, seems transfixed by one mangled wheelchair sitting alone among the rubble - facing the Pacific like a trusty old hound awaiting its owner's return.

And from their grieving comes the giving. Of Sailor explaining his footy secrets to kids who've run 7km to hear it. Or Vagana distributing NRL clocks, shirts and caps. Footies, boots and mugs. Asotasi throwing Souths Cares packages from the mini-van while Johns hands over even the Nike hat from his head.

And, sure, none of this compares with those Aussie doctors who, in the 10 days after the tsunami struck, conducted 1060 emergency operations. Their bounty also paling in comparison to those 200 tonnes of stores shipped in by HMAS Tobruk.

"But this is the eighth aid mission I've been involved with," Samoan rugby legend Stan To'omalatai says. "And the first that has made these children smile."

NOTHING defines Lepa village quite like the road leaving it. Not the South Coast tourist drag. That winding strip of bitumen, which for years has delivered Johns to this peerless Pacific utopia. No, instead we're talking a road all rough dirt and rocky corrugations.

Rising quickly, steeply and desperately into the mountain behind. Scores of hastily hacked trees still laying fallen by the roadside in testimony to the chaos in which they were cut.

"Incredible," Asotasi deadpans as we slowly climb. "It's like this entire road is saying, 'See ya'." Indeed, back in September this road was little more than a jungle track into the tarot plantations where the Lepa villagers have forever made their living. Now it's the only way to find them. The sole link to this community who lost 46 souls when that September 29 tsunami struck.

Who headed for the hills and, 24 hours later, were still being found huddled together in tiny groups. Crying, shivering, terrified.

Three months on, they're still refusing to go back. Won't even erect their donated Rotary tents in view of the ocean. "And these are people who've survived on the Pacific for centuries," says Aussie big wave surfer Dylan Longbottom. "That's why, personally, I wanna get them down that hill."

One of four surfers on this tour as part of the Waves Of Hope charity, Longbottom not only tames waves bigger than those three 30-foot monsters that struck Samoa, he understands their fear.

Longbottom's brother Darren, you see, was carving waves when a freak accident saw him crush both his C6 and C7 vertebrae. Rendered a quadriplegic overnight.

"So, of course, you fear the ocean when you're best mate can't hold a fork," he shrugs. "But what happened to my brother, what happened here, mate, freak accidents. That's the truth that takes you back."

It's also the heartbeat of this trip.

Why acting Prime Minister Misa Telefoni greets Johns with that Wordsworth line about the best portion of a man's life being "his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love".

Why, too, five Samusu builders will never forget the day Roy Asotasi stopped a mini-bus to personally hand them Rabbitohs backpacks.
It's Vagana deliberately searching out those kids with the sadness in their eyes to comfort in Samoan.

And Sailor, just before disappearing through customs, calling back to assure that all Australians will soon know that beautiful Samoa is still open for business.

But mostly it's that crumbling building on the road near Saleaaumua, where the only standing wall has been scrawled upon in bright red. Like the author wants every Samoan to read his message of RIP Y'all ... and beneath: Life Goes On.