by Kathy Marks
It was just a rock, at the edge of a fairly nondescript beach, with an view of nothing in particular - just ocean. I was determined to climb that rock, though. How often do you get the chance to perch on the westernmost point on the planet and gaze into tomorrow?
I was at Cape Mulinu'u, on Savai'i, the largest island in the Samoan group. Samoa, in the South Pacific, is the last place on Earth to see the sun set; the International Date Line is barely 30 kilometres from my rock. If you want to experience the giddy but euphoric feeling of standing there, you'll have to hurry: Samoa plans to hop over the Date Line in December, becoming, instead, the first place to greet the new day. (Its close neighbour, American Samoa, will then be the last.)
It will still, however, be worth making the trip to Cape Mulinu'u, a wild, beautiful spot that feels like the middle of nowhere. In fact, the whole of Savai'i - larger, more remote and less visited than Samoa's main island, 'Upolu - is fascinating, with its spotless traditional villages and its varied landscapes, which include rainforest, waterfalls, volcanoes, mountains and beaches.
Mount Matavanu, 402 metres high, in northern Savai'i, has not erupted since 1911, but the destruction it wrought is still visible today. Driving along the northern coast road, you cross the dark lava field. Sale'aula, one of the villages in the volcano's path, is blanketed in black rock, out of which, incongruously, sprout bushes and trees. Its ruined white church, with its thick, cracked black carpet, is an eerie sight.
Driving up the bumpy road to the top of Mount Matavanu, we were greeted by an eccentric bearded character, Seu Api Utumapu, who guards the crater on behalf of its traditional owners and maintains the jungle tracks. "Da Craterman", as he calls himself, led us through a tangle of tropical vegetation, where giant ferns grew and also, unexpectedly, orchids - there are more than 50 species in the area.
Soon we reached the volcano's rim, where I peered rather nervously over the edge. "Anyone Fall Down Sorry No Rescue" stated a sign put up by Mr Utumapu. "Don't worry," he said, cigarette hanging from his mouth. "If you're still alive, I'll throw you a coconut." A bigger peril seemed to be snakes, although Da Craterman - who casually killed one as thick as his forearm - assured us they were not poisonous.
Samoans believe an ancestral spirit dwells in the 200-metre-deep crater. More legends are recounted by a Savai'i elder, Kogo Senitofo, whom I sought out at Cape Mulinu'u. As we walked with him through the forest, he told us about the "half-human, half-ghost" figures who, in bygone days, would hold meetings in a canopy-shrouded clearing, then bathe in a rock pool at the nearby beach. One of them, Vaie, turned into a mountain; his brother, Vaatausili, became enormously strong after sleeping in a forest cave for three days.
For a more conventional insight into Samoan history, I visited the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, just outside the capital, Apia, on neighbouring 'Upolu island. The Scottish novelist, poet and travel writer spent three years wandering the Pacific before settling here in 1889, building a plantation-style villa where he and his wife, Fanny, entertained Samoan chiefs with the help of servants clad in Royal Stuart tartan.
Although the warm climate agreed with his health - he had been plagued by lung problems since childhood - the author of Kidnapped, Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde died just four years later, and is buried in a hillside on his former Vailima estate. The house is now a museum, and a guide takes groups through the airy rooms, including Stevenson's library, where he wrote an astonishing 13 books. You can also climb the steep, thickly forested trail up to his tomb, which is worth the hike, not least for the views of Apia and the ocean. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Savai'i.
Stevenson is still held in high esteem by the Samoans, who called him "Tusitala", or storyteller. He was profoundly interested in their culture, and he energetically championed their independence struggle. Although the Polynesian nation ended up colonised and divided - the United States got the eastern half (now American Samoa), Germany the western portion (now independent Samoa) - his efforts have never been forgotten. "He's one of our heroes back in the olden days, and he's still 100 per cent admired," says Iulai Lesa, a guide with the Samoa Tourism Authority.
Apia itself is a buzzy little town, with good restaurants and some interesting colonial architecture, including the old courthouse and clocktower. It also has a great flea market, selling the best wooden carvings I've seen in the Pacific. One of the capital's hotels, Aggie Grey's, is a landmark in its own right. It started out selling hamburgers and coffee to American soldiers during the Second World War; Aggie, whose heirs still run it, was reputedly the inspiration for Bloody Mary in James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific.
From Apia, you can take a "half-island" tour, which heads east along the coast, climbs through a dramatic mountain landscape, then descends to south-eastern 'Upolu and the beaches of Lalomanu, considered Samoa's finest. This was the area hit by a tsunami that killed nearly 200 people in late 2009; however, the resilient locals quickly rebuilt their fales (beach huts), and there is little sign now of the disaster.
The heavens opened when we were at Lalomanu, so I swam later instead, at the wonderfully named Togitogiga Waterfall, one of several en route. Another popular swimming spot is a cave pool called Sua Trench, which requires a rather vertiginous climb down a swaying rope ladder. Returning to Apia, you cut through the sparsely populated, rainforest-clad middle of the island, passing Vailima.
Samoa's natural beauty is one of its main attractions; the other is its traditional culture, which has survived colonial rule and the advent of missionaries virtually intact. A good place to witness it is tiny, idyllic Manono island, which lies between 'Upolu and Savai'i. You can walk around Manono in a couple of hours, catching glimpses of village life: a woman weaving mats from pandanus leaves, children playing volleyball in front of a whitewashed church. I saw one family cooking dinner - breadfruit and freshly caught fish, wrapped in banana leaves - in an umu, a ground-level oven of hot rocks and coconut husks.
In Samoa, communities consist of a network of families headed by matai, or elders, who sit on a village council. In Manono, I met Leota Tini Leiataua, a local matai, who told me that the two key features of Samoan life are religion and the family. (Samoans are devout Christians.) "Unlike some other places in the Pacific, our culture is still very strong," he said.
Manono has no roads, no cars, no dogs. I had the feeling that little had changed over decades. And I suspect nothing will change in years to come - even when tomorrow becomes today in Samoa.
If You Go
Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) offers return flights to Sydney starting from Dh6,715, including taxes. Polynesian Blue (www.polynesianblue.com) flies between Sydney and Apia, with prices from A$399 (Dh1,529) one way
In Apia, stay at Aggie Grey's (www.aggiegreys.com) from NZ$236 (Dh650) for a double room, or at the Tanoa Tusitala Hotel (www.tanoahotels.com) from NZ$186 (Dh513) for a double. On the southern coast of the main island, Upolu, a beautiful hotel is the Sinalei Reef Resort (www.sinalei.com) from US$265 (Dh973) for a luxury cabin. Regular ferries, taking both cars and passengers, run between 'Upolu and the island of Savai'i; on the latter, stay at the Le Lagoto Beach Resort (www.lelagoto.ws) from 546 Samoan tala (Dh847). On Manono, the Sunset View Fales (www.samoasunsetview.com) is basic but clean; the nightly tariff of 130 tala (Dh202) per person includes dinner and boat transfer from 'Upolu.
Source: The National