“Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the Earth are never alone or weary of life.” -Rachel Carson
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 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.
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
This entry in Michael Anderson’s Travel Photography Blog is copyright 2010. All Rights Reserved. May not be reproduced without permission
“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?
This entry in Michael Anderson’s Travel Photography Blog is copyright 2010. All Rights Reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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…
This entry in Michael Anderson’s Travel Photography Blog is copyright 2010. All Rights Reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.