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  • South Pacific- Samoa

    The Long Way to Paradise: An Exciting Journey to the World’s Best Secret Beach. PART II

    02.11.10 | Permalink | 3 Comments

     

    “Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Those who look outside, dream; those who looks inside, awaken.” -Carl Jung

    Pacific Midnight.  Stars over the surf.

    Pacific Midnight.

     

    “Can you take this backpack with you to Ta’u?”

    “Excuse me?” 

    We were back at Tutuila airport.  We didn’t know this guy.  “You are going to Ta’u today, right?  Give this to Mauga when you get there.” 

     ”Who’s Mauga?  How did you know we are flying to Ta’u?” 

     ”Everybody knows.  It’s a small Island.  Mauga will be there when you arrive.” 

    This was getting creepy.  I glanced around.  People were tending to their bags and nobody seemed to be paying any attention to us.  He held the backpack out to me. 

    I stepped back a little bit.   “What’s in it?” 

    “Seeekrets” 

     ”Secrets?” 

    “Yes, Seeekrets”.  I looked over at Cheri.  She gave a me a puzzled shrug.

    “I still don’t understand.”  “You want me to bring a bag of secrets for a guy named Mauga on the plane to Ta’u?”

    “Not Seeekrets.  Seeegrets“  He held out the backpack again. 

    Cheri grabbed my arm, pulled me closer and whispered “I think he’s saying ‘cigarettes’. 

    The guy smiled.  He was missing a lot of teeth.  I took the backpack and opened it:  Ten cartons of Marlboro cigarettes.  I made sure there was nothing underneath them.  “OK.  Who should I say is sending them?”

    “Little Tom” 

    Backpack of secrets

    Contraband: The backpack of secrets

    There were five of us on the plane and they weighed each of us carefully with our gear.  Samoans are big people.  When you make a flight reservation here, you are never confirmed until the day of the flight when the passengers are weighed.  If the person in front of you is extra heavy, you don’t get to fly.  Sometimes if you’re lucky, you get to fly but your luggage waits for a lighter plane.  We were extra lucky today.  These guys were lightweights.  We got to take all of our gear, including the backpack of secrets. 

    The plane to Ta'u

    The plane to Ta'u

    The flight was spectacular.  The rugged coastline of Tutuila spread out below us, with outcrops of sharp lava resisting the constant barrage of powder blue surf.  The plane continued to climb,  and I could see the towering cliffs begin to dwindle into the flat blue void with it’s relentless stream of waves cascading in from beyond the horizon.  I was suddenly aware of the ultimate futility of the island’s resistance to the vastly superior power of the sea.  It’s a fleeting gem in the grand scale of space and time.  We kept climbing and eventually the tiny island was swallowed up by the deep blue horizon.  I looked through the windows on both sides of the plane.  Emptiness as far as the eye could see.  The low hummm of the propellers droned on.  I nodded off for awhile.  Then a change in the tone of the engines woke me up.  We were descending now.   I looked out the window and I could see them.  Three tiny specks in the void.  The Manu’a islands!  As we got closer, the details began to emerge.  Towering fluted cliffs covered in jungle.  Rocky coves with dazzling pocket beaches.  Fringing turquoise reefs.  We passed Ofu and Olosega islands and now we were level with the top of the cliffs of Ta’u.  “Wow, look!  Whales!!!”  Cheri pointed down from the other side of the plane.  Humpbacks were cruising the light blue waters outside the reef.  Beyond them the color got progressively darker until it became the deepest shade of midnight blue I’ve ever seen.  We banked steeply, opening up my view of Ta’u.  I could see a slender waterfall streaming down one of the cliffs into a hidden recess.  Crystalline blue swells streamed over the shining black rocks into veiled fingers of sunlit spray.  We dropped quickly and I felt lighter in my seat.  The plane accelerated and we swayed side to side.  Rocky tide pools zoomed beneath us and suddenly we were level with the coconut palms.  We glided a bit and then we landed with a whining thrust of the engines. 

    Manua Islands from the air

    Manua Islands from the air.

    There wasn’t much to the Ta’u airport.  We grabbed our backpacks out of the back of the plane and walked across the narrow runway to a  shaded veranda attached to a tiny office.  It was very quiet.  I could hear the surf nearby but I couldn’t see it through the trees.  A truck pulled up and two rough looking guys walked over to pick up one of the other passengers.  I turned toward them and they looked up. 

    “Hey, do you guys know a guy named Mauga?  We need to talk to him.” 

    “D’pends on who’s asking.  You guys don’t look like  fishermen.”  He spat a little red chew onto the tarmac. 

     ”We have a gift for him.  A backpack full of seeecrets”  I winked at Cheri. ”Little Tom sent us.”

    “Basterd, it’s about time.  I’m Mauga.”  He held out his hand.  I shook it and  handed over the backpack.  “Nice to meet you…”  He was already digging for a cigarette.  He found one and lit it up. 

    “Hey, do you guys need a place to stay? I got a couple spare rooms up at Fiti’uta.”  He took a big drag.  “It’s close to the National Park.  Is that where you’re headed?” 

    “Honestly, we’re surprised we actually made it here, so nothing’s planned.  Can we camp up there?”

    “No. Ain’t no camping allowed out here.  Everything on this island is family land.  Even the National Park is leased from the chiefs.  But you can stay with me.  The trail-head to the park is just past my place. Forty bucks gets you a room and two meals.”

    “Are you a good cook?”

    “No, but my wife is”

    We all smiled together.  Hoisting our backpacks, we followed him to his Ford F-450 pickup truck and jumped in the back.  I wedged myself between my pack and a burlap sack of coconuts. Cheri sat on the other side with the dog.  Then we sped off.  I was sweaty, but now we had that onshore wind whipping over us and it felt wonderful.  The single lane road snaked around the island and the tall cliffs kept us cool in the shade.  The scenery was dramatic and the island was empty.  Fiti’uta village lies near the western tip of the island at Cape Papatele where the road ends.  It’s a tiny village of a dozen bungalows built up the hill with well tended tropical gardens in between.   Beyond the village is the windy Cape and beyond that lies the National Park.  It was almost noon.  We had just enough time to hike out to the end of the trail and get back before dark.

    The Story continues in Part III:  The Lost Coast of Ta’u  http://www.michaelandersongallery.com/blog/the-long-way-to-paradise-an-exciting-journey-to-the-worlds-best-secret-beach-part-iii/

     

    Have you ever broken any of the classic rules of travel with a positive outcome?  Would you have taken the backpack of ‘secrets’? 

    The Lost Coast of Ta'u

    The Lost Coast of Ta'u

    This entry in Michael Anderson’s Travel Photography Blog is copyright 2010.  All Rights Reserved.  May not be reproduced without permission.

  • South Pacific- Samoa

    The Long Way to Paradise: An Exciting Journey to the World’s Best Secret Beach. PART I

    02.11.10 | Permalink | 4 Comments

    “Life is uncharted territory. It reveals its story one moment at a time.”  -Leo Buscaglia

    Liquid Landscape

    “Have you ever been to the Manu’a Islands?”  I asked Litia.

    “No. But they are supposed to be extremely beautiful.  And my grandmother told me that ghosts live out there.”  

    Cheri and I had been exploring the beautiful Samoan island of Upolu in the middle of the South Pacific.  As we made our way around, we found a beautiful beach called ‘Lalomanu’ far out on the tip of the island and decided to stay in the ‘fales’ there. Fales are traditional Samoan dwellings that consist of a thatched roof, a wooded floor and open sides that can be covered by lowering a rolled blind of coconut fronds.  It was absolutely idyllic.  White sand, palm trees, turquoise water and small restaurant that served local dishes.  We ate dinner with other travellers who had been island hopping through the Pacific and they had some amazing stories of adventure. After a few days of lounging and photographing, those conversations were making me restless.  Cheri and I went for a swim and as I looked beyond the reef, I could see the faint outline of another island.  I got out my map and realized that the rocky silhouette was Tutuila Island in American Samoa.  Nobody here had been to American Samoa.  Everyone had been hopping across the South Seas, but nobody knew anything about American Samoa.  As I looked at the map a little closer, I noticed three tiny islands beyond Tutuila and in very small print over ‘Ofu’, Ta’u’ and ‘Olosega’ were the words ‘National Park of American Samoa’.   These were the Manu’a Islands and they were protected by the park.  I ran back to the open air restaurant and found someone’s old tattered copy of The Lonely Planet’s ‘South Pacific’guide.  Five of the 928 pages were dedicated to these tiny islands.  There wasn’t much information there.  Most of the section was dedicated to the main island of Tutuila and Pago Pago which had a seedy reputation.  The tiny Manu’a islands supposedly had “very little infrastructure” but there was ”striking scenery, untouched beaches and some of the highest sea cliffs in the world.”  That’s where I wanted to go. I asked Litia, the owner of our fale camp about the Manu’a islands and the National Park.  She told me that Samoans believe their God Tagaloa created a man and a woman on the remote Manu’a island of Ta’u and all Polynesian people  are descendants from them.  The islands were sacred and beautiful. And mysterious.  “My grandmother told me that ghosts live out there.” 

    Waterfall on Upolu Island, Samoa

    Waterfall on Upolu Island, Samoa.

    Two days later we finished our journey around Upolu and were back in Apia, catching a small prop plane to Tutuila.  When we arrived at Tutuila’s airport we asked about flights to the Manu’a islands.  “Yes, it’s possible”  “To Ta’u, maybe tomorrow”.  “Come back in the morning”  “What time?”  “In the morning.”  Cheri and I looked at each other.  “Is there a cheap place to stay here near the airport?”  “Yes, Go with him.  He’ll take you to Mailiu Mai. It’s a five minute drive”  We walked with his friend out to his car and we got in.  After 2 minutes on the paved ring road around the island we turned off onto an unmarked dirt path.  Cheri and I looked at each other again.  The winding rutted road led forward into a thick grove of coconut palms. I unlocked my door and decided to make some conversation with our driver.  “Did you grow up in Samoa?”  “Yes”  “Have you ever been to the Manu’a Islands?”  “No.  Nobody goes there.”  “Why?”  He shrugged but didn’t answer.  

    We continued down the bumpy road toward the coast.  The warm smell of salt air began to cut through the damp mustiness of the juggled interior.  We rounded a bend and the rusty gate of Mailiu Mai came into view.  And what a view it was!  Powder blue surf was pounding the black lava coast, shooting spray 30 feet into the air.  Dark clouds hung low over the restless sea and the salty spray from the waves cooled our sunburned skin.   Powerful fountains of white surf shot up like a series of domino’s through the black rocks and down the mountainous coastline. The black-green cliffs of Rainmaker mountain disappeared into the clouds above the bay.  It was dramatic, ominous and beautiful at the same time.  We paid the driver and asked him to come back in the morning so we could return to the airport.  The friendly owner of the lodge walked us up to a spartan room above the kitchen.  There was a small bar in the back and she offered us a couple Pina Coladas.  We took them and walked out to a small strip of white sand between the black lava rocks.  The wind was blowing hard and we occasionally got smacked by the sea spray.  It felt really good.  The sun was setting underneath the cloud layer and the rays were intense.  I took off my sunglasses and looked around, engaging the scene.  We sat in silence for awhile.  Then the sun finally set.  I took another sip.  The Pina Coladas were strong.  And we were the only people there.

     

    The Story Continues with Part II:  We’re getting closer to paradise.  Next stop:  The mysterious island of Ta’u:   http://www.michaelandersongallery.com/blog/the-long-way-to-paradise-an-exciting-journey-to-the-worlds-best-secret-beach-part-ii/

    Have you ever deviated far off  of your original travel plans in search of adventure?  How did everything turn out?  Are your best travel memories from  planned or unplanned adventures?

    The Coastline at Mailiu Mai

    The rugged coastline of Mailiu Mai.

    This entry in Michael Anderson’s Travel Photography Blog is copyright 2010.  All Rights Reserved.  May not be reproduced without permission.

  • The 2009 Samoa Tsunami

    The Samoa Tsunami: Dodging a Bullet of Epic Proportions

    02.10.10 | Permalink | 2 Comments

    Waves crashing on a starlit beach.  A rustle of palms.  Then the moon sets and the stars disappear.  A slanting beam of  early morning light tracks through the window and then across the room to fall directly on my face.   I flip over, turning toward the cool and shady side of the bed, enjoying the opportunity to sleep in a few minutes longer.  Ofu island is the secret paradise of the South Pacific.  But it was an adventure to get here.  We flew overnight across the Pacific to the town of Apia, then took two puddle jumper prop planes to successively smaller islands.   Then we made our way to a small village where we hitched a ride with a local fisherman across the final stretch of ocean to arrive here at one of the world’s most spectacular beaches. Snowy and cold Colorado seemed like it was a lifetime away.   I kept my eyes closed.  The warm overnight breeze had died down and the palm trees were still and quiet.  All I could hear were the exotic songs of  tropical birds and the rhythmic pounding of deep ocean surf onto the reef outside.  We were the only guests in the small family run Vaoto Lodge, the only accommodation available on the island.  It was 7:10am on September 29th, 2009.   

    Ofu Island, American Samoa

    I was drifting back to sleep.   A low rumbling started slowly, blending  in with the whumping sound of the surf out on the reef, and the gentle swaying of the bed was reminiscent of a bunk berth on the open sea.  Hmmm.  Why is the bed rocking?  I remember being puzzled by this strange half-dream.   CRASH!   Now my eyes were open and I was trying to orient myself.  Another huge CRASH and now the bed was really shaking.    I jumped out of bed but I couldn’t stand up.   Then another tremendous CRASH coming from directly above us and I suddenly remembered the vertical cliff that looms over the lodge.    Now that was a sound I recognized from my climbing days.  That was the sound of an avalanche of rockfall as it is bearing down on you.  My wife Cheri was now sitting straight up, looking toward the ceiling and recoiling at the noise of the crash.  She locked eyes with me and yelled “Earthquake!”   Then another huge CRASH and this one was bearing down on us.  RUN!!  RUN!!!!!! I stood up but then fell again as the ground rocked wildly beneath my feet.  I saw my backpack fall over onto my teva sandals.   I pushed the pack out of the way, grabbed the sandals and ran barefoot out of the room as fast as I could.  The ground was still shaking and I looked back over my shoulder to see car size boulders crashing down the cliff toward us!  I also noticed Cheri wasn’t running next to me.  She was just outside the room and appeared puzzled that I was running toward the ocean in a big earthquake.  She didn’t realize the loud crashing sound was coming from rocks tumbling down off the cliff.  I pointed repeatedly at the mountain above us and yelled at the top of my voice “Cheri, RUN! RUN!!!!!!”   Huge boulders were splintering apart and debris was cartwheeling down toward the lodge.  The lush jungle covering the cliff was slowing the momentum of the rockfall, and the trees were shaking violently like a T-Rex was running through them.  Cheri ducked and ran up to me, and we made our way to the edge of the beach.  Ben, Deb and their daughter Rain, the owners of the lodge, had run for cover there as well.  I stood there transfixed for a second.  Everything had happened so fast but it felt like we were moving in slow motion.  As the shaking ended, time seemed to suddenly catch up and resume normal speed again.   I looked up and saw large plumes of dust rising from the cliffs and suddenly the big blue ocean seemed eerily quiet.  We all  looked at each other and I knew they were thinking the same thing I was.  

    Ofu island from the air.

    Ofu island and the cliffs above Vaoto lodge.

    “We need to get to high ground.”  Cheri and I decided it was safe to run back into the lodge to grab a few essentials including our passports, cash, a water bottle and my first aid kit.   My camera was locked up.  I didn’t have time to dig around for the key so I left it.   We quickly jumped in the back of Ben’s pickup truck along with their 5 dogs and a cat and raced out the island’s only dirt road up to a low pass between the island’s high points.   The pass was about 150 feet above sea level so we felt pretty safe there. Then we waited and turned on the transistor radio.

    Waiting for the Tsunami

    Waiting for the Tsunami

    No mention yet of the earthquake and no talk of Tsunami warnings. Ten minutes went by and everything was quiet.  Deb looked at me.  “Do you think we overreacted?”  ” How long do you think we should wait?”  ”I don’t know.  An hour?  Five hours?  I’m not sure, but I’m not anxious go back down there yet.”  Still nothing on the radio.  I went to get one of the dogs that wandered back down the hill when I saw Ben stand up in the bed of the pickup and point toward the reef.  The entire ocean was beginning to act strangely. Whirlpools were developing far offshore and the water was being sucked out away from the beach.  Ofu’s sister island, Olosega was directly in front of us.  The sea beyond our reef was turning into a fast moving river rushing backwards and swelling up around the the huge volcanic peak of Olesega like it was a small stone in a big river. Then like a slow motion movie, all that water came rushing back in. It was surreal to watch.  I couldn’t believe this was really happening.  A Tsunami!‘  We were high on the cliff so we couldn’t see the beach through the trees very well, but we could see the rush of water heading into the beach. Then we heard the splintering sound of palm trees being crushed and watched as they flipped backwards. After a few more seconds, the water drew back toward the sea but now the turquoise blue water was brown and full of coconuts and debris. The water within the reef sloshed around another 15 minutes and then it was over.

    Five locals who lived in the village down near the coast came running up the hill, their clothes soaked to their chests. They were caught off guard by the Tsunami and ran up the slope but couldn’t move quickly enough. They all grabbed onto palm trees and were buffeted by the wave and debris. When the water receded they ran up here to the pass. From here we could only see the north side of the island and feared the worst for our place on the south side. We drove back down and saw where the wave had washed over the road, but by a stroke of good fortune, the guiding hand of fate or dumb luck, the Tsunami was only 10-15 feet high in front of Vaoto Lodge and it didn’t cross over the tall sandy berm between the lodge and the sea.

    Water soaked Ofu Tsunami survivors. They were caught by the edge of the wave and hung on to palm trees to avoid being swept back to sea.

    Our island’s power supply went out and we were cut off from all the emergency communications about the Tsunami except for a few cell phone calls from Deb’s relatives across the straight in Pago Pago town. The wave had been far more destructive there.  Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa, sits at the end of a deep harbor.  The huge wave had been funneled and constricted through the harbor like a fire hose.  By the time it reached the town it had lurched up to 30 feet high and it pummeled through everything in it’s path.  The wave also hit Independent Samoa.  Lalomanu beach was one of the hardest hit areas.  All of the beach fales were destroyed.  The idyllic little beach camp we enjoyed so much was now gone.  Our friend Litia had survived, but many other people had died.

    We drove the pickup truck over to the small village of Ofu which sits on a ledge above the coast.  A few low lying structures including the power plant were flooded but that was the extent of the damage.  People were wandering around cleaning up but nobody was seriously hurt.   A few people said they would be sleeping outside high on the hill tonight as a precaution.  We helped clear rocks and debris off the dirt road but there was little else that we could do.   We relied on the transistor radio to get updates from Pago Pago and Apia. Internet and phones were cut off.  All transportation between the islands had been halted.   Updates from the other islands were sporadic.  Most of the information was in Samoan which we couldn’t understand.  But it was slowly becoming clear that we were extremely lucky.   The earthquake had measured  8.2 on the Richter scale, as powerful as the famous 1906 earthquake that destroyed the city of San Francisco. Most of the south facing beach areas of the Samoan Islands were hit by huge waves. We were on a south facing beach too, but a quirk in the geometry of the islands had saved us from the full force of the tsunami. 

    We wandered down to the beach area.  The turquoise lagoon was cloudy with debris, but the wilderness character of the beach remained the same.  It looked as if a tropical storm had battered the coast but there was very little damage to the palm trees or the coral.   A warm breeze began to rustle through the trees.  It was a brilliant sunny day with puffy white clouds.  Powder blue waves were crashing  hard onto the reef.  

    Part of the lure of paradise is the sense that you are cut off from the rest of the world.  You are on a tiny speck of land surrounded by the vast blue ocean.  The emptiness of the sea  protects and buffers you from the big crazy world out there.  Walking along Ofu’s white sand beach, it still looks like paradise here.  And we certainly are cut off from the world.  But it’s an uneasy feeling now.  The ocean doesn’t feel like our protector.  There is something sinister to it’s beauty.  It feels like the ocean is jealous of this tiny speck of land and wants to reclaim it.  And there is nowhere for us to go…

    Walking the Lonely beaches of Ofu Island

    This entry in Michael Anderson’s Travel Photography Blog is copyright 2010.  All Rights Reserved.  May not be reproduced without permission.