13th August 2005: Savaii - Seldom seen Samoa - and danger from an unexpected source
One of the delights of cruising is the people we meet. In the last 2 days in
Apia we had a breakfast meeting watching the Police Band with Jan Alan, a volunteer
vet from Australia working in Samoa, and Craig her partner, went to the
Australian High Commission Billabong night, spent Saturday at the South
Pacific Touch Rugby Championship with rugby friends, a party on Convergence,
a custom made 65ft yacht with wishbones instead of booms sailed by Randy Mr
Westmarine (who owns about 60% of all
marine stores in the USA), chart swapped with Chris and Heather on Halo, had
traditional Sunday lunch with Samoan friends high up in the hills above
Apia, then BBQ Mahi Mahi on Intrepid in the evening with Andrew who is the
Chief Engineer for Polynesian Air in Samoa, and Kimmie his partner.
It pays to slow down, the longer we stay in a port, the more we
get to know people, and work out what happens when. We have been in Apia
Harbour for 9 days now, and are confident about the first of every yachtie's
worry: Will my anchor drag in a storm? In other words, can I leave the boat
without casting an anxious glance boatwards every 5 minutes. Every time we
go to the dock, we take 3 20 litre water cans to fill, this is the only
practical way to get water. Opinions are divided as to whether it is OK to
drink the water - its not treated or only marginally so. But we are likely
to meet far worse in future, so try to accustom our stomachs to whatever
bugs there are (aka adventurous imbibing).
Whereas the French have focused the
Polynesians onto exotic Carnival like dances for Bastille Day, the Samoan
men help you realise what it must be like to be in the front row of battle against Samoan
warriors.........Scary.......and that's just the shrieking, eye rolling and
tongue pointing, to say nothing of the 6 pack chest muscles and war clubs.
Siva's bar trains young Samoans in fire dancing and has a demo every Tuesday
Samoans are skilled at embracing Palangi (white people, named somewhat
unflatteringly after a type of White Taro root - we may taste like it for
all I know) into their extended family. This is said to have happened to RL
Stevenson. They genuinely regard 'good' and 'generous with money' as the
same trait. And you can see their point - jobs are difficult to get, a
teacher or policeman will get perhaps Talla 80/week max ($30) school fees
are 60 Talla/term/child ($25) and many families have 4, 8 or 10 children.
Most churches read out how much each family contributes each week and shame
non-contributors in front of the
congregation, and cyclones come round every 5 years or so, flattening entire
hillsides and traumatising families. So a Palangi who contributes something
is welcomed, and subtle hints made that James might find Rosina's sister
very attractive (she is). We try to be generous with gifts without
distorting values - 60-80 Talla for a meal for 2 'as a contribution to school fees'
We were invited to lunch by Rosina, the wife of Peter the Fishing Boat
Skipper we met in American Samoa. Peter was surprisingly home, the propeller
had fallen off his fishing boat (I kid you not - I said maintenance money was short!).
The traditional meal was cooked by her sister Aleola in the umu (over
hot stones) in the outside kitchen, her husband (who works as a chef) cooked
the palasami (leaves and coconut sauce - delicious). This same husband has 3
times run amok with a machete after drinking bouts - the last time Rosina
calmly disarmed him as he was waving the 2 foot long cutter around. Samoans
have a reputation for alcohol related,violence, often in the family, but to
strangers as well - underneath this well ordered very friendly traditional matai society
there are tensions.
In American Samoa, my arm had again swollen up. Denis used to be
Professor of Immunology before he became CEO of a drug company, so a useful
person to have on board. He steered me to the main (rather haphazard)
Lyndon B Johnson hospital in Pago Pago, where I had to fill in a form, including
who to inform in case of accident etc. Since Denis was with me in the
waiting room, I gave his name. After paying a $10 fee, I was seen (within 20
minutes) by a young American doctor from Chicago. He checked my arm,
listened to my account of recurring infections, looked carefully once again
at my form and the next of kin, prescribed an antibiotic for anaerobic
(deep-seated) bacteria, then proposed that I have a test for
Now I usually do what doctors suggest, and I didn't want to waste his time
by arguing, so he gave me complicated
directions to the Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) clinic. Perhaps in
order to avoid embarrassment, this was tucked away in a far corner of the hospital
with no sign. Therefore I had to walk round the hospital asking everyone
where the STD clinic was, with Denis alternately walking with me, trying to
pretend he didn't know me, and hiding behind nonexistent trees. Finally to
Denis's relief we found it, I had a 5 minute account of what the test was
(the first (Eliza) test takes a week, and is 98% accurate, but if positive they do a 2nd shape test to confirm -
this has to be done in Hawaii), they agreed to email me the results, took a
test tube of blood and that was it. I paid for the antibiotics ($9 for a 10
day course - Denis told me it would cost $60 in USA).
Denis more or less invented the Eliza test, so I asked
him all the questions I could think of. We agreed that the doctor probably
had jumped to the conclusion we were gay (!) (much mirth), but heterosexual
contact is now the main carrier - especially in Africa and Asia. Denis also
said that although HIV can be carried for 10 years or more before it starts
to seriously affect the body's immune system (ie AIDS) and the carrier is
infectious for all this time, the usual symptoms are viral, usually
pulmonary (breathing) infections, not bacterial infections. Antiviral drugs can enable people to live a more or less normal
lifestyle - for example basketball's Magic Johnson, or Chris Smith who used
to be Minister for Arts in Tony Blair's Government. However you have to take
a cocktail of drugs, and they cost about $30,000/year.............
Anyway, back to Intrepid, told Nicky and Elaine, more laughter at the
'diagnosis'. Then no email for a long while until after 16 days I emailed again asking for progress, and
...........................the administrator had been on a conference, hence
the delay, the email came back with the result: Negative, confirmed no HIV.
And by now the arm was fine..
It also illustrated some of the issues facing medical staff in 3rd world
countries. God knows, American Samoa is hardly 3rd world - its practically
USA territory, but the hospital was so short of drugs that an emergency
$0.5million appropriation was needed to keep it operational. In independent
Samoa there are Government Hospitals but only about 1 doctor/20,000 people
(in Savaii for example) so all medical drugs are for sale without doctors prescription - we bought antibiotic pills from
the Chemist over the counter.
Before we could officially leave Apia, we first had to
get a letter from the Prime Minister's Office, authorising us to cruise
Samoan waters, then we saw Customs and paid 33 Talla, ($12) but then they
realised we had to see Immigration first, so walk downtown, another form, then back
to Customs, and finally we were clear to go as we had already paid US$50 to
the Harbour Master for using the harbour.
Samoa is basically 2 largish islands, Upolu with 130,000 people and the
capital Apia; and Savaii, about twice as big (35 miles by 25) 30 miles to the west but only
40,000 people in the whole island. Savaii is right on the edge of the
Pacific Geological Plate where it is going under the Australian Plate, and had huge
volcanic eruptions in 1905, which caused half the population to evacuate to Apia
(most are still there) and left Savaii with massive lava fields which flowed
through churches, houses and fields alike. There are very few anchorages in
either island, and we had to sail 50 miles to find even a 'marginal'
anchorage on Savaii. So at 6.30am we half deflated the dinghy and lifted it
on board, and sailed out of Apia Harbour into a ....flat calm. Oh well,
motor until the wind came, and charge batteries yachties' other worry. We
also fished, and caught a 7 foot long sailfish (released) and a dorado.
Matautu Bay is a 'marginal' anchorage ie OK at times, not at others. Not a
place to inspire confidence particularly as the charts are based on an old
German Navy survey when Samoa was a German Colony 100 years ago, are very
inaccurate and the pilot books say they should not be used for navigation; it also has a GPS error of
+/-0.5 mile, inner and outer reefs and is open to the north. But its near
the lava fields of the last eruption which we were keen to see, so we s l o
w l y went in, and found what is actually a well protected anchorage with
hard sand which gives good holding. We also found Tiny Bubbles.
Only about 150 boats cross the Pacific each year, and we have seen some of
the biggest ones - 80 -100 feet plus, crews of 12 and /day operating budgets
in excess of US$6000. Tiny Bubbles is 24 feet long, no motor, 2 people on
board, left the USA with $250, and still have $170 left.
Thursday we dinghied ashore and paid 10 Talla ($4) to leave our dinghy on
the beach of Salevi Tiatia who is built like a rugby forward, with
traditional Pe'a tattoos all the way from the waist to knees. All land
including beaches and bays in Samoa is 'owned' by someone or a village. Unfortunately
in Savaii, there is a naive tendency to take a wild guess at what they think
the visitor can afford, which leads to resentment on both sides, so 10
Talla/week, became 10/day then 20/day - we stuck at 10/day which seemed right.
Apart from volcanic eruptions, the main events in Savaii are cyclones - 2 massive ones hit in 1990 and 1991,
deforesting much of the island with 6 metre waves, 180 mph winds, and salt
that coated trees and killed them because the cyclone takes all the moisture
from surrounding air, and it didn't rain for the next 2 months.
So the first response of the community leaders was to ..................rebuild the
damaged churches. For example 3 million Talla for one Congregational Church,
the community is still paying off the debt. Funny priorities to have 200
churches for 40,000 people, and 2 doctors. But to Savaiians (and to English
people for 100's of years - think of all the churches in England) it makes
sense - religion always has been so central to their community. Indeed in
Savaii we went to the largest step pyramid in the Pacific, Pulemetai, 65
metres x 60 square at the top, about 100 metres x 100 at the pae pae (lower
platform level) 14 metres high, with a sunken entrance stairway, all hand built of
lava rock, probably when the Tongans occupied Samoa in about 1200 -
1500AD. 30,000 cubic metres of rock, I guess church building came naturally
to them when the missionaries first came ashore in 1830.
As we toured Savaii, we found almost every village playing Krikiti all day,
practicing for the big tournament in November. 9 ways in which Krikiti
differs from cricket (or baseball).
1. The bat is the size and shape of 3 sided war club, 4 feet long.
2. Its played on a concrete strip
3. Usually the rest of the field is sharp lava rocks, sometimes cow pasture.
4. The players usually play in bare feet.
5. The ball has to be made of rubber, so it floats, as Krikiti is usually
next to the sea and otherwise they lose too many balls - 1 fielder is
usually positioned in the sea.
6. The wicket keeper (catcher) bowls (pitches) the next ball back to the
hitter at the other end as soon as he has it, (cricket could copy this - it
keeps the game much faster).
7. More or less all the men of the village play - grey haired patriarchs
swing their warclubs with the village youth.
8. There is no sense of defensive play - each batter has a wild swing at
every ball, and usually sends it 60+ metres.
9. The side in the field perform extravagant synchronised handclapping and
jigging under the direction of their leader.
And one similarity:
If the ball hits the stumps or the ball is caught, the batsman is out.
Its all great fun, and probably excellent practice (or a substitute) for
The biggest blow-holes in the South Pacific are also in Savaii. We tossed
coconut husks in to the Alofa-aga blowholes, and the incoming waves blew them 60 feet up
into the air - and this was a calm day! We toured all round Savaii with
Warren Jopling an oil geologist who retired here in 1981 and started Safua
Tours as a hobby (tel 51271, 120 Talla/day/person ($45). He also sponsors 20
Savaiian children through school, and 2 (now in their 20's) act as his
helper on tour. Excellent guide. Safua Hotel where Warren is based is itself
in the '1000 to see' book - its a classical laid back open air hotel for
backpackers owned by a lady Matai (very unusual in Savaii).
Saturday we walked up to the Vaipolu Teacher Training College near the lava
fields with Faa'pisa a 16 year old Samoan girl who attached herself to us
and practiced her English. The college was smart, well maintained, with
motivated students. The Avau village plantations were above the College,
each family has about 5 acres to tend where they grow coconuts, taro,
sometimes cattle. Faapisa's father was elected Ali'i (High Chief) of Avau
for the next 5 years, and we met the family (9 daughters, 2 sons) and were
invited to Church next day (Sunday) and to lunch. Mind you, I had to earn my
lunch by doing Faa'pisa's business studies homework completing a profit and
loss statement for a Samoan Car Rental business.
The Congregationalist Church in Avao was where the only bible in Samoan was
translated (in 1895, from Hebrew via German - Samoa was a German Colony
then - to Samoan ). The Church was 2/3 full of men and women in white, the women with
white hats, a very self assured pastor gave a service mostly in Samoan, we admired
the 2 part harmony singing, had coffee with him after, then a tasty lunch of
taro, breadfruit, pig and turkey tails (a Samoan delicacy) with Faa'pisa's
family which her mother had cooked in the umu. We gave our usual contribution to school fees (Talla
After our slight disagreement with Salevi, we left our dinghy at Langota
Beach Falles - the NE part of Savaii all has yellow sand beaches and there
are lots of beach Falles for visitors - Langota is a bit up market
($100/night for a 2 person bungalow), but what other hotel has a piglet
that runs along the beach, round people's toes and on to the next Falle at sundown? We
also met Jim Palm a retired builder who sold his house in Brisbane, built a
bungalow here on land given by a local family and lives here on his pension
of Talla 450/week ($180) plus a bit of other income and is a rich man here -
he more or less supports the entire family of 10 whose mother died recently.
Unfortunately the sea is brown coloured - Jim and the owner of Lagota are
worried and Nicky spent 1 hour consultancy over sundowner cocktails
explaining ground water movement, and the latest in biodispersal techniques.
Faa'pisa looked on - maybe a scientist in the making.
We were delighted that Jan, (the Australian volunteer vet in Samoa) and
Craig were able to come with Intrepid from Savaii to Tonga, about a week in
all. Intrepid is a sociable girl and likes company (although short interludes are
also nice). The usual problem is arranging how to meet - since its usually
somewhere neither of us have been. We chose Asau on the NW of Savaii, where
a clever engineer had built an airstrip on a reef almost enclosing a bay, to
create not only an airport to develop the NW of the island, but also a
harbour inside the bay with the airstrip acting as a jetty/breakwater.
Unfortunately they finished it in 1989, and in 1990 and 1991, 2 huge
cyclones ripped most of it to pieces including all the navigation marks. So
we had to enter the narrow 20 metre wide passage by eye, using the 3 white
broomsticks that mark the reefs. Asau has never really recovered from those
cyclones, the houses are still largely derelict - with one exception, the
pastor's house which is 4 times as big as any parishioner's, on a prime
piece of land overlooking the bay............
Eco is the local entrepreneur/storeowner/fisherman/taxi service/guide and
his father ran the local saw mill until they ran out of trees to cut down.
Unsurprisingly (if you believe genetics has a significant effect on our
approach to life), Eco has a Japanese grandfather who came here in the
1920's when Japan and Germany were developing plantations
here.....interesting. Anyway, while the rest of Asau labours to rebuild yet
another church, and buy canned mackerel from his store for 3 Talla, Eco
goes fishing and regularly catches 400 lbs of bonito which he sells for 4
Talla/lb in Apia. We told him about the sailfish we had released, and his
only comment was that we had given away $200. He explained that no other local
family can afford the outboard motor needed to fish, and they are not able to trust
each other enough to share one because some would laze around while others worked. Asau does
however have one advantage - the porous volcanic rock allows fresh water to
collect just before it enters the sea, so the villagers have fresh water and
can bathe in specially constructed washing and bathing pools - a bit like
open air Roman Baths.
Eco took us to the Falealupo Rainforest Walk. There is quite a story to
this. In 1988 the village of Falealopu had very reluctantly agreed to sell
their rainforest to a big timber/company in order to fund the building of a
village school. An American botanist, Alan Cox heard about this and
personally guaranteed the money for the school, and the chief ran 9kms
through the forest to stop the bulldozers. Then in 1998 Canada supplied
treated hardwood and helped design a huge tree house and tree-top
walk/suspension bridge which now attracts 50 visitors/day at 20Talla ($8)
each,so providing massive funding for the village and school. The school
itself was delightful, 7 classes of 20 or so kids up to age 13, all in white
and blue school uniform sitting on the floor of the classroom learning
Samoan, English, Maths, and Basic Science. Very attentive. The tree house
has survived a cyclone and a forest fire, and is a real example of how to
make a difference to a local community. Alec (1 of the 4 men who built it)
told us that visitors can sleep up there at night and see real flying foxes.
Continuing west we came to Cape Mulinuu, the westernmost piece of land in the world - further west is 180
degrees and the dateline - its the last piece of earth to see the sunset
each day, just think, the last sundowner on earth .
Jan and Craig met us at Eco's store, and we set off for Tonga on Wednesday
10th August, with about 80 green bananas from Eco's plantation. 160 miles
overnight to Niuatoputapu, the northern most Tongan island.
Craig hadn't sailed much before - here is what he thought of it:
'Sailed most of the way. Here are some stats- mainly travelled on a course
of 200 degrees, sea depth of 9,000 metres! (believe it!), mostly travelled
at a speed of 5-6 knots and leaned up to 30 degrees a lot of the time. The
wind has gusted to gale force of up to 40 knots from the south and we were
beating into the wind and swell - it's been wow! The sea is so magnificent and awesomely powerful and
sailing is such a pure way to experience it! Jan's happy that the boat's
stopped for a while! (least she's eating again!).
We also crossed over the Tongan Trench which is a huge seismic area (active
submarine volcanoes and dangerous methane eruptions we had to avoid). It's
been so interesting!
Ate a BBQ tea tonight of Wahoo tuna which we caught off the boat
yesterday.(it was perfect!). Before we got the wahoo we caught (another)
huge sail fish (jumped out the water and all (David Bellamy would have loved it! -
tell him). I helped reel both in - we released the sailfish as it was a bit
big (and apparently is a pretty poor eater) was about 6 foot and so
beautiful. The wahoo was about 3+ feet long and beautiful and fierce. Then
coming into Niupotapatu (New Potato) there was a baby Humpback Whale
breaching all over the place and then took a place cruising just behind the boat (thought it
was being playful! Not sure where it's mother and father were!). Then in
the harbour there was a turtle just beside the boat! Think we've just about
seen it all already in just 2 days! Last night I helped with the 8-2 am
watch and saw my first instance of phosphorescence in the bow wave of
Intrepid (wow- really pretty stuff!). Also lots and stars and back on the 7am watch
saw a solo fat flying fish flying back and forwards beside the boat
(certainly not in a straight line - looked like it was showing off just
When we arrived Customs and Immigration and a doctor examine the boat (they
didn't even bother with the huge bunch of bananas hanging above the stern of
Intrepid! - all they wanted was DVDs to borrow and petrol (as the next
supply boat isn't until October). The villagers don't have power - just the
richer ones have personal generators... We went for a walk about Falehau,
the village we are anchored in front of and it's surprisingly poor. Lots of
tin shacks with dirt floors which from a distance look like chook pens or
piggeries but that's where they live.' (Craig).
Today, Sunday, is a day of rest, strictly observed. Most Northern Hemisphere
friends will be in the middle of holidays or just returned so you have your
own tales to tell. We look forward to hearing from you, and hope you find
the time to come to Samoa.
With all best wishes,
Andy, Nicky, Jan and Craig, the crew of Intrepid.
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