Sunday, September 23, 2012

Cycletouring Savaii

As the fish circled around for its final attack, my mind raced through all I'd heard about ways to fend off a shark attack. There was the "splash the water to create bubbles" theory, which hadn't worked. I could still feel on my arm where the sharp teeth had made contact in the first attack. All I had left was the "hit the snout and hope the jaws miss" theory. I lunged out with my fist and connected with the fish's nose. The 15 cm butterfly fish shuddered in the piscine equivalent of a shrug, then headed off in high dudgeon to find another snorkeler to harass.

I was off the shore of Apia, snorkeling on the edge of the Palolo Deep marine reserve, at the end of a week's cycling around Savaii, the larger but less populated island of Samoa. We had Ross Bidmead's  guidebook for the ride - though once we'd made the decision as to whether to go clockwise or anticlockwise, there wasn't a lot of navigation to do.

After our midnight flight arrival we had a leisurely morning at the Airport Lodge putting our bikes together - fortunately Samoa's Sunday close down meant that the first ferry to Savaii was not until noon. After a short pedal to the ferry we bought tickets for us and the bikes, and settled down in the aircon lounge for the one hour trip across to Savaii. At the other end, a short kilometre down the road to Luisa's Lagoon found us in a rustic chalet with a freshwater pool to rinse off in after our snorkeling excursions.

The key to riding in hot climates is to start early so after a swim and breakfast we were away at 8am for Lano - the anticlockwise approach had won out. First impression was the profusion of churches - not just that every settlement had at least three churches, but they were substantial concrete and masonry structures, several stories high. As the heat began to tell we stopped off at the John Williams memorial, commemorating the first missionary visit to Samoa - as well as the memorial and the substantial church, there was a freshwater pool to cool off in. I was a bit concerned that this might be reserved for baptisms, but was reassured later by locals that it was for ordinary bathing - they just aren't mad enough to go swimming in the middle of the day.
At Lano we settled in to our beach fale. These are ideally suited to beachside life: a thatched roof to keep off the sun, a wooden floor with a mattress and a mosquito net, and no walls to interrupt the cooling breeze.
There are mats that can be dropped down if you need privacy or weather protection. After recovering from the grueling 20km ride, we explored the lagoon, drifting over the blue-tipped coral forests and scattering the clouds of brightly coloured fishes with our shadows.

In the shallows, two lads practice rugby tackles - it's much too hot to exercise out of the water!
Next morning we breakfasted on papaya and pineapple topped off with Fruitloops, chatting to two German doctors volunteering at the local hospital but with ambitions to walk around Savaii.
We decided to stick with the luxury of cycletouring - good quality two lane sealed roads, with often a half hour or more between vehicles. When it appears the vehicle is often a colourful bus, loaded for maximum profit, and blaring Samoan reggae. Due to Samoa recently changing to driving on the left side of the road, helpful directional arrows are painted on the road every few hundred metres. And of course most of the way there's a view of golden beaches and the blue lagoon surrounding the island. While motorised traffic is light, foot traffic isn't, and at cycling speed there are plenty of opportunities to practice greeting with "Malo!" and "Talofa!".

When you do get into a built up area, it doesn't feel crowded - Samoan houses are well set back from the road, with immaculately weed whacked lawns leading up to the ancestral graves in front of the houses.

At Mauga the village is built around a crater, with a well and Kirikiti pitch. There's a legend that if the women of the village are unfaithful, the well will dry up. Apparantly the pumping station has recently been upgraded!
Savaii is essentially a set of active volcanoes, and the last major eruption in 1910 sent a lava flow from Mt Matavanu down to the north east shore. In the past hundred years vegetation has made only a little headway in colonising the slabs of solidfied lava flow, making a bleak landscape stretching down to the sea.
At Manase a tummy bug hits me, so I don't cope well with climbing to 200m at Aopo to cross the 1760 lava field. Eventually we flag down a truck that drops us at the Vaisala hotel, where I rest up while Marg snorkels in the lagoon, encountering a turtle. After a rest day, we head over to the west coast, where the sea beats in against rocky lava cliffs. The lagoon hasn't completely disappeared, though - we climb down the steep path for a swim at Faiaai beach, and then on to Satuiatua where the beach fales are clustered in the shade of set of ancient spreading banyan trees. 
In the evening we're looking out at the fishers in their canoes on the lagoon when I spot the tall sail of a windsurfer outside the reef. I'm wondering if someone is trying a windsurfing circumnavigation of Savaii, when the "sail" is followed by the massive body of a humpback whale breaching and crashing back into the water. There are two of them, entertaining themselves, and us, by slapping the water with their sail-like fins, breaching and blowing fountains of spray into the air. 

The last day of biking is a longer 50 km stretch back to the ferry at Salelologa. At Taga we make the 2km detour to the Alofaaga blowholes - even at mid tide the waves surging into the rock passages creates spectacular jets and rainbows. We decide to admire them from a distance, rather than get close and throw the traditional coconut into the hole to be spewed out towards Tonga.

By mid afternoon we're berthing at 'Upolu. On the wharf a pink snout peeks from the opening of a sack, attempting to wriggle to freedom, but it's firmly put back with the pile of supplies destined for Sunday dinner. We get a van from the ferry to Apia - the busy main road doesn't look like pleasant cycling. 

Our last day is the first day that it rains. Marg proudly breaks out her $2 shop poncho and we head off to Vailima, the mansion built by Robert Louis Stevenson when he settled here in the 1890s. A steep wet climb through the rainforest brings us to his grave on on Mt Vaea, and after a short break we can see Apia harbour as the rain clouds clear.
Down at the mansion, now a museum, we're shown around by Margaret from Lower Hutt - most Samoans we meet seem to have either lived in Lower Hutt, or have a relative who lives there. The house, which has also been the residence of Samoa's colonial rulers, has been restored to RLS's vision of a Pacific / Scottish baronial mansion, the mosquito netting shrouded beds beside the grand but unused fireplaces to remind him of the Scottish winters he was avoiding.

I hope we return to Samoa - we didn't explore 'Upolu Island properly, and of course there is a demented Butterfly fish off the Palolo Deep that I need to settle scores with...

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