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  • South Pacific- Samoa

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

    02.20.10 | Permalink | 13 Comments

     

    “Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the Earth are never alone or weary of life.” -Rachel Carson  

    Ofu Island

    Ofu Island

    I opened my eyes and looked up at the ceiling.   My mind swirled in the familiar disorientation of waking up in a foreign land.  The room was narrow, the walls were old and spartan.  I sat up into a shaft of morning light that streamed through a narrow window near the roof. It was the sound of the surf that brought me back to Ta’u. 

    I settled back on the pillow, waiting for Cheri to wake up, listening to the waves and feeling content.  Suddenly there were footsteps in the hall and a hurried knock on the door. Mauga leaned in.  “Eli is a fisherman who is going to Ofu island today. You can go with him in his boat.  He leaves in 15 minutes.”  I looked around.  Our stuff was strewn all over the room.  We had to move quickly.  Back at home, this sort of rushed chaos can be stressful, but out here it’s invigorating.    I love feeling just a little bit off balance while traveling.  It affirms the sense of freedom, spontaneity and adventure. 

    We shouldered our packs and jumped in the back of Mauga’s pickup truck, barely getting our feet off the ground before he accelerated down the dusty road toward the dock.   It was a quick drive.  We pulled up at the edge of the harbor just in time to see Eli the fisherman lifting a large icebox of bait over the gunwale of his boat.  We thanked Mauga for the ride and walked down the short ramp to greet him.  Eli looked up at us with a charismatic grin.  “Welcome aboard!”  He took off his sunglasses and shook our hands.  He was ruggedly handsome and fit, with penetrating brown eyes and a mischievous smile.  He wore a white T-shirt rolled up over his head like a bandanna.  Despite the fact that I could smell  alcohol on his breath at seven in the morning, he had the look of someone you could trust.  He had an intimidating air of confidence. 

    I handed him our packs and he stashed them under a tarp in the front.  Our gear was ragged from months of travel, but it looked new and squeaky clean against the other gear in the boat.  “OK, ladies first!” he looked up at Cheri and held out his hand.  He was careful to pull the boat against the dock while he guided her arm and she stepped into the boat.   Then he turned and reached for my arm.  I felt like a self conscious novice as I accepted his hand.  I wanted to be gracious, but I didn’t need help getting into the boat.  I wanted to be part of the crew, not a tourist on a sightseeing trip.  “Is there anything I can help you with?” 

    Eli Eli on the boat ride to Ofu

    Eli on the boat ride to Ofu

    Eli looked at me and paused, gauging my question.  “You can throw a bowline onto that tarp to keep it from blowing off.”

    A bowline knot.  I vaguely remembered tying them when I was learning to climb many years ago.  I tried not to hesitate.  “Sure.”  I reached over and tried to recall the mnemonic “the rabbit goes out of the hole, around the log and back into the hole…”  I flipped the loop of rope back and forth in my hand.  I looked back at Eli.  He quickly averted his glance.  This was a little test and I knew it.  I flipped the rope one more time and it all came together.  I pulled on the tarp and cinched it tight. 

    I smiled and turned to look back at Eli.  Three new fishermen had just arrived at the side of the boat and Eli was busy helping them load their gear.   His back was to the boat and they were speaking in Samoan.  They continued their conversation and ignored us at first, but then they got in the boat and were very gracious.  They stepped over the gear reaching out to shake our hands.  Their hands were rough with callouses.  We introduced ourselves, but then Eli started the engines, drowning out the rest of our conversation.  So we  looked around and smiled a lot.  And then we set off.

    The harbor was calm, but it only took a few minutes to reach the big rolling waves of the open sea.  The tall green cliffs of Ta’u slowly receded behind us and the sharp outline of Ofu island began to rise over the horizon.  Trolling lines were tossed out and I could see the vibrating white filaments slip diagonally down into the clear deep water.  Eli reached down and pulled two bottles of Vailima Beer out of an ice chest, popped them open and held them out to us.  Then he winked and took a big swig. With the motor wailing and cold beer for breakfast, we sat together without speaking and gazed out at the timeless scene before us.    The sky felt huge and empty. And the sea was the color of cold blue twilight waiting for the light of day. 

    My thoughts drifted back to the beginning of this serendipitous journey and the random events that brought us out to this tiny speck on the earth,  far out in the vast Pacific, trolling a line in a rusty old boat with a group of crazy fishermen. 

    Time to ponder. It’s one of the greatest gifts of travel.  Time to absorb and digest the multi layered fabric of experience that makes up a great journey.  Time to consider our place in the world and the direction we are headed.   Time to look back and consider the journey thus far.  Back at Lalomanu Beach, we made a decision to come here based solely on intuition and an old map in someone’s discarded guide book to the South Pacific.  But what was the basis of that intuition?   A  capriciousness nudge in the right direction?  Did we end up in this tiny little speck of ocean by choice or by chance?  If you believe in destiny, then you know that Fate gives us two choices.  The one we should make, and the one we do.  But we never find out if we made the right choice.  That’s the irony of Fate.  Still, we always end up where we are meant to be in the end.  Intuition is the force that guides us there. 

    Ofu Lagoon

    Ofu Lagoon

    The jagged green peaks of Ofu island were now looming over us, and we got our first glimpse of the turquise lagoon with it’s dazzling white sand beaches, surrounded by a lush forest of tropical fruits and  flowers.  The view was stunning.  If Ta’u was indeed the sacred point of all creation, then Ofu had to be the Garden of Eden.

    Eli maneuvered the boat through a break in the reef and then we pulled up on a small beach below Ofu Village.  We grabbed our packs and stepped off the boat into the knee deep water, sloshing our way up to the sand.  We dropped our packs and looked around.  Some of the villagers had came down to meet us and Eli asked one of them to give us a ride up to Vaoto Lodge, the only place to stay on the island.  We were greeted by Deb and her husband Ben.  Deb’s father Tito was a Matai, an island chief, and this was the family land.  The location was breathtaking. 

    We dropped our packs in our room and walked down to the beach.  Sunuitao Peak dominated the horizon, a perfectly sculpted pyramid of  rock, elegantly positioned at the far end of a long crescent of white sand beach.  The tranquil waters of the lagoon were luminescent, with more shades of blue and green than I thought was possible.  Stately coconut palms cast perfect shadows over delicate ripples in the fine white sand, broken only by the path of our own footsteps.  Far out on the edge of the reef, a steady tropical breeze blew thinly veiled spray off the crests of the curling waves.   It was South Seas perfection.  True paradise.  The kind of  place you dream about but never expect to see.  And we had it all to ourselves.   We waded out into the warm turquoise water and then we dove in.  The water was sultry warm.  I could hear the quiet tinkling of the coral fish and bubbles under the surface.  We came back up and embraced each other, spun around in the shallows, and then fell back in the water laughing in sheer ecstasy.

    We had found our paradise.   For a brief moment in time, this little beach had became our entire world.  Nothing else mattered.  Beyond this magical island, the vastness of the sea knew no bounds.  We had entered an alternative world steeped in mystery that still had room for legends and ghosts. Where the will of intrepid travelers can either follow or challenge the hands of fate.  At that moment it seemed that fate had delivered us to paradise.  But in the end, fate did not deliver us to Ofu.  The plans of destiny were much grander than that.  What fate did was spare us from the deadly Tsunami at Lalomanu…

      

     

    The next entry in the series “The Samoa Tsunami:  Dodging a Bullet of Epic Proportions” can be found here:  http://www.michaelandersongallery.com/blog/the-samoa-tsunami-dodging-a-bullet-of-epic-proportions/

    To go to the beginning of the series, click here:  http://www.michaelandersongallery.com/blog/the-long-way-to-paradise-an-exciting-journey-to-the-worlds-best-secret-beach-part-i/

    For more information on visiting Ofu Island go to www.VaotoLodge.com

    Ofu Lagoon

    Ofu Lagoon

    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

  • 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.

  • 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.