“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea. “
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery
The National Park of American Samoa. The 50th US National Park. Remote, extraordinarily beautiful and refreshingly different from any of the others. It’s the only one south of the equator. Of all the National Parks, only Aniakchak in Alaska sees fewer visitors. It’s the best kept secret in the South Pacific. The park consists of three reserves. One protects an area of old growth tropical rain forest on Tutuila, the main island of American Samoa. The other 2 reserves are way out here in the Manu’a Islands. We are here at the entrance to the Ta’u island reserve. Ta’u is a jagged shield volcano that rises 3,000 feet out of the sea. One side of the volcano collapsed back into the ocean, creating some of the tallest sea cliffs in the world. The only access is a narrow overgrown trail that leads out to the edge of the cliffs. From there on, it’s boulder hopping and you’re on your own. It’s one of the wildest, most pristine coastlines in the world. Samoans believe the human race started on this island. In a twist of the Adam and Eve story, Samoans believe their God Tagaloa created the first two people Fatu (heart) and Ele Ele (earth) here at the sacred Saua site. After they left to populate other islands, Tagaloa demanded that the Saua site be respected and anyone who failed to do so would meet with catastrophe. Today the site is deserted, steeped in mystery and auspiciously marked only by a few weathered and windswept boulders.
We picked up directions and a hand sketched map of the area from our new friend Mauga in Fiti’uta village and followed an old dirt path up a hill to the park entrance. I have to admit it seemed very strange to walk up to a familiar US National Park sign rusting into oblivion way out here in the farthest reaches of the Pacific. It felt like we had stumbled onto a relic of the 20th century in a future world where nature had reclaimed the land. We started down the narrow path, giddy with the excitement of our discovery. We turned a corner and were quickly immersed in a primordial old growth rain forest. Misty shafts of light flickered down to the musty forest floor and exotic bird songs filled the shadows. The forest growth was luxurious and I had never seen so many shades of green. I saw a red hermit crab hobbling down the trail in a moss covered shell too small for his body. The whumping of the distant surf line was muffled by the forest, and despite the shrill calls of a rare blue crowned parrot, it felt quiet and peaceful under the canopy. I stopped to rest on a black lava boulder. The rock had absorbed the tropical heat of the sun so I had to shift around a little to get comfortable. The humidity was intense but there weren’t very many bugs. It was hot and still in the midday sun so we decided to cut through the forest to get a view of the coast and a taste of the cool ocean breeze. After dodging a few nasty looking banana spiders and spitting out fine bits of web that made it into my mouth, we stumbled out into the open. We were greeted by a blinding white beach and luxuriant turquoise water that looked pure enough to drink. I brushed myself off and admired the view. A gentle breeze was stirring the coconut palms. We decide to walk along the coast for awhile, but rocky headlands eventually blocked our path so we headed back in to the forest to find the trail again. We could see glimpses of the rising sea cliffs through the trees and the afternoon clouds finally covered the sun. The trail climbed up over a hill and then down to another beach. The end of the line. We scrambled up the boulders of an outcrop and got our first view of the wild south coast of Ta’u.
It was a dazzling sight. To our left was a black lava tube that funneled the powerful surf up through a narrow crevice where it blew out with the low notes of a saxophone. A deep bay of sparkling highlights spread out before us in a wide crescent toward a rocky headland silhouetted black against the late afternoon sun. To our right, some of the tallest sea cliffs on earth plunged down in green fluted ramparts to an isolated grove of coconut palms, lonely sentinels to a forgotten kingdom of creation. The birthplace of Polynesia.
We boulder hopped our way far out into the scene, skirting the rising tide. The air was cool now and we lied down on some warm black rocks and stared up at the sky. Boomerang shaped frigate birds spiraled up the late afternoon thermals. Thick white thunderheads rose up like elegant castles over the empty sea before us. I thought about the early Polynesian mariners that set sail from here, straight into the void, fresh families in tow. Born on this little island, this was all they knew. This was their entire world. They must have always wondered if there was anything else out there. Other islands like theirs. Taunted by the vast emptiness around them.
The stars came out after a spectacular sunset. So many stars. The same dark sky of the ancient mariners. We turned our headlamps on and began the long walk back. Through the trees I could see the southern cross. The hum of the crickets seemed to ebb and flow and occassionally we would snap a branch underfoot and they would cease completely leaving us in damp silence. Then Cheri’s headlamp began to dim and went out. Then mine began to dim. I forgot to replace my spare batteries after our last trip. There was no moon and it was really dark. We started walking faster and tripped a few times on the dark roots of the forest floor. I saw something black fly quickly over my head, but it moved so fast I couldn’t make out any details. We kept moving in the dim light. Then we came to a clearing I didn’t remember from the hike in. There were a few polished black boulders lying about. I didn’t recognize this at all. I looked back, and we were still on a trail. I assumed it was the trail. My headlamp continued to fade. Then something made a loud crash in the trees across the clearing and the crickets went silent. My heart jumped. Through the darkness I could see the white part of Cheri’s eyes widen as she looked over at me. Then nothing. We decided to continue to follow the trail we were on. Then I saw an old rusty National Park sign lying on the ground. This was the ancient Saua site. We had missed it on the way in because of our detour along the coast. There was another crash in the shadows, but this time it was closer. My heart jumped again. “What is that!” A cool wind picked up and I felt a chill down my spine. Two more crashes in the brush ten feet apart right in front of us. We steeled ourselves and looked straight ahead squinting in the faint beam of my headlamp, trying to see what was there. Nothing. We stood still. The forest was silent except for the wind. Another black thing flew right over my head. This time I saw it’s face. It was the biggest bat I’d ever seen. I could actually see it’s sharp little teeth. One more crash and we started running in the dark. I remembered what Litia told me about the Manua islands when we started this journey. “My grandmother told me that ghosts live out there.” Tagaloa had warned his people to respect the Saua site. Now I know why it’s deserted! We continued to run in the dark. We crested a hill and as we shuffled down the other side we saw a beam of bright lights coming at us. It was Mauga’s truck. He stopped on the hill, got out of the cab and stood in the beam of the headlights. His silhouetted figure created a long menacing shadow that advanced toward us. “Are you guys OK? Why are you running?” Cheri and I looked at each other. We didn’t really know what to say. “Come on. Get in the back. You’re dinner’s cold.” We were being scolded. We had been irresponsible staying out late, missing the dinner he promised us as part of our home stay deal. We jumped in the back and drove slowly down the hill. Half way down, he opened the cab rear window to talk to us.
“Did you get to see the Saua site?”
“Yes, but not until after it got dark. We missed it on the way up. Took a detour along the coast. You know, it’s a little spooky out there at night. We saw some pretty big bats out there.”
I wasn’t sure how to bring up the other stuff.
“We call those flying foxes. Because they’re as big as a fox. And they got teeth like a fox, too.”
He hesitated. “You know you shouldn’t be out there at night…” Then he stopped the truck and turned around to face us. “This is when the ghosts come out.”
I felt the cold wind kick up again, and another chill went down my spine. Suddenly there was another crash in the bushes, right in front of the truck. Cheri’s eyes got wide. I looked over just in time to see a big coconut rolling out of the trees into the headlights…
Click here for Part IV: Hitching a boat ride to Ofu Island. Is it really home to the world’s most spectacular secret beach? http://www.michaelandersongallery.com/blog/the-long-way-to-paradise-an-exciting-journey-to-the-worlds-best-secret-beach-part-iv/
Are the Manu’a islands haunted? If it’s just falling coconuts and my active imagination, why do you think polynesia’s ’garden of eden’ is completely deserted?
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