22 August, 2012

Blown away by Samoa

By Chloe Johnson

The ocean grumbles beneath volcanic rock before spewing water high into the air.

Like a humpback whale, the sea releases its salty water through blowholes as spectators flinch with fear at the unexpected and ferocious blow.

We're wisely standing several metres away from the Alofa'aga Taga blowholes where the ocean swells push water 60 metres skyward.

But the brave locals do things a bit differently.

A Samoan woman dressed in black shorts, a white cotton shirt and jandals walks up to one of the blowholes with coconut in hand.

She listens for the ocean's grumble and waits until the water gains pressure beneath the rock before throwing the coconut into the hole. It shoots up into the air, disappearing into the blue sky before crashing down on the rocks.

Its hard shell fails to crack rolling off the surface into the hungry ocean below.

The blowholes are just one of the many natural fascinations on Samoa's island of Savai'i.

It's the third largest Polynesian island behind Tahiti and New Zealand, but fewer than 44,000 people live spaciously on the land which spans 75 kilometres long and 50km wide.

Its raw beauty, natural history, and lack of commercial development attract hundreds of tourists each year - but it's so spacious you would be lucky to see them.

The island is only an hour's ferry ride away from the main island of Upolu and can be explored in less than a week.

Tour guide Warren Jopling, an 82-year-old Australian geologist who has lived in Samoa for 20 years, says cycling has become popular with tourists who can leisurely pedal around the island's 180km - and only - road in just a few days.

It's an adventurous idea but unfortunately time isn't on our side so we have borrowed the trusty wheels of a Samoan Tourism Authority people mover for two days.

With more than 450 volcanoes on the island and a passionate geologist as our guide it's not a surprise our first stop is the Saleula Lava Fields.

Our van parks on the side of the road next to a scruffy plantation, a sight commonly seen along the northeastern coast of Savai'i.

Behind the thin wall of overgrown trees is 100 sq km of cooled black lava which flowed from Mt Matavanu during the nation's largest eruption, between 1905 and 1911.

The sun's intense rays beat down on the black charcoal rock, once the town of Saleaula and home to five different villages.

Vegetation has begun to grow in the cracks where the lava has broken down into soil providing nutrients and a birthplace for nature to flourish.

Different patterns decorate the lava rock including roped braids and hollow tubes.

Warren says the patterns indicate different types of lava flow and the times they have taken to cool.

He points out pieces of broken up lava rock which pepper the field.

"The locals smash this up and use it to decorate their houses," he says.

Mt Matavanu can be seen in the distance but the volcano doesn't have steam pluming from a large cone and there is no lava bubbling inside.

Instead, it's a relatively small grassy hill rolling peacefully alongside its brothers and sisters. It's hard to comprehend how such a small hill caused this much devastation.

A Methodist church and graveyard which stood in the pathway of the lava flow remains half buried in molten lava rock.

The Samoans say the lava covered all the graves except one which belongs to a virgin nun.

It's true, the lava has flowed around the nun's grave leaving a gaping hole in the ruins.

We throw a flower on to her grave to pay respect before Warren kills the magnificent myth.

"Of course there is a scientific method behind the way the lava has flowed, but the myth is more exciting," he laughs.

With only a few hours of sunlight left and a calm ocean on the doorstep of our accommodation, we cool off before relaxing to traditional entertainment at Tanu Beach Fales.

The fale accommodation is one of the most popular on the island after growing from one beachside hut in 1990 to 25 today.

The family business is owned by Taito Muese Tanu but run by his children, including daughter Freda.

Made from wooden poles and thatched coconut leaf roofs the fales are a traditional way of sleeping in Samoa.

There is a thin mattress inside covered by a large mosquito net and one thin sheet. With 30-degree weather during the dry season there is no need for heavy blankets.

A single light bulb is the only source of electricity in the fale and toilets and showers are located in a clean communal block just metres away.

The still ocean is like bath water which gets cooler the longer you sit in it. The sand is gritty but the fine texture massages, and slightly tickles, your feet.

As the sun goes down the water shimmers like glitter as the fading sun catches the delicate ripples.

Lipstick pinks and blood orange close in on the blue sky, eventually turning palm trees into silhouettes.

Later that evening we join the other fale guests for a traditional dinner of breadfruit picked from the trees behind us, beef curry, yellow fin tuna and rice.

Our meal is complemented with home-made lemon tea made from the leaves of a lemon tree.

A group of young Samoan men dressed in lavalavas harmonise to the sound of their musical instruments.

Most of their songs are soothing Samoan tunes but the guys know how to entertain their guests, who are largely from New Zealand, by adding in a few Maori waiata.

The familiar songs entice guests on to the sandy dance floor led by the hip-swinging barefoot business woman Freda.

It's a pleasant evening apart from the mosquitoes who have decided it's time for their evening meal, settling on fresh European blood.

While some people are happy to do the swat dance to kill off the critters, I opt to hide under the mosquito net hanging inside my fale.

Warren picks a red hibiscus flower and, as the only woman on our tour, hands it to me.

"It's for your hair," he says.

"Does it matter where I wear it," I ask sticking it behind my right ear.

"Well are you married? No, then it goes on your left," Warren says.

The flower behind the ear has been a long-standing symbol of whether you are available for men, like a wedding ring but less formal.

It doesn't really matter for our next visit though, which is to see women make tapa.

Tapa is a cloth made from u'a, the paper mulberry tree, and used for clothing, blankets and artwork.

The craft is practised by women only and skills and knowledge are passed down from mother to daughter.

Tapa maker Faapito Salu begins by peeling the outer bark layer off a branch of the tree. She uses a knife but traditionally this is done with the women's teeth.

She then stretches the fibre by scraping it against a piece of wood with water and the rough edges of a shell.

It's back-breaking work which requires strength and speed.

Faapito hands me the shell to see what it's like to stretch the fibre. Within seconds, I'm starting to break out in a sweat and can feel my lower back ache.

The flower in my hair has started to come loose with the aggressive movements of scraping the bark.

Faapito praises my technique but laughs at my lack of strength and speed. She takes the shell from my hand so we aren't there all night waiting for the final product.

Once the fibre is stretched she repeatedly folds the cloth, banging it against a piece of wood with a club. This continues to stretch the bark into a wafer thin material.

Her mother-in-law, Faamuli Salu, takes over by patching up tiny holes in the cloth before decorating it with Samoan designs. Faamuli has been making tapa since she was a little girl and passed down her knowledge to Faapito.

She lays the cloth over a board which has been carved by the men of the family and uses powder ground down from an oa tree to hand paint flowers and Samoan designs - a dried frayed fruit from a banana tree serves as her paint brush. The cloth can then be glued together with others to create a wall-sized blanket.

At the end of the session I decide to part with 40 tala (NZ$21) in exchange for one of these beautifully hand-made local craftworks.

It is the largest amount of cash that has left my wallet while visiting the attractions, and that's the beauty of Savai'i. It's inexpensive, it's natural and it's entertaining.

Perhaps next time I will spend a few tala on coconuts to throw into the ferocious blowholes.

Getting there: Virgin Samoa operates flights from Auckland to Samoa every day except Thursday.

Where to stay: Try sleeping in a traditional fale at Tanu Beach Fales on Savai'i. For something a bit more luxurious, try Sinalei Reef Resort & Spa on the main island of Upolu.

Further information: See samoa.travel.

Chloe Johnson travelled courtesy of Samoa Tourism Authority on Virgin Samoa.

Source: NZ Herald

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