The first rays of sunlight touch my toes. Then reaching further through the palm slats, the same light climbs my legs and chest, and makes a pattern of dots on the mosquito net above my head.
This is the first sunrise I’ve seen in Samoa, the first beach fale I’ve slept in that faces east. And as a new day explodes silently in front of me, yellow and orange and streaks of red, I pull myself up, trying to remember where I am.
Joelan Fales, that’s it. On Lano Beach, the east coast of Savai’i. The beer from last night settles inside my head, but no matter, I’m still cycling to Manase today, thirty kilometres up and around the coast.
Joelan himself greets me as I climb down onto the beach. “I will make your breakfast now, you okay with fried eggs?” His dark eyes smile underneath a mass of black curly hair and helps me carry my bike, now fully loaded, over to the restaurant. “The morning is good for cycling. Better than afternoon, when it is too hot.”
Breakfast is a table covered in pawpaw, bananas, pancakes, fried eggs and more toast than even the Fabulous Baker Boys could squeeze from a single loaf of bread. Oh, and coffee too – instant out of a jar – but nonetheless coffee. The perfect brown liquid to go with a livid sunrise, and an antidote to last night’s beer as well.
The Londoner, Conway, has already left. He’s catching the early morning ferry back to Upolu. The Austrian girl, Ros, is still here though. She appears, bleary-eyed from her fale, but hungry enough to help demolish this feast.
Then several bananas, two eggs, three pieces of toast, and three coffees later, it’s time to set off. Firstly through a few more villages – Asaga, Pu’apu’a – that border the coast. Then inland for a relatively long section of isolated road. No villages, just plantations and the odd fale or house. It’s easygoing to start with, pleasant and not too hot. But as the yards spin by, the gradient begins to climb, and I’m sweating and panting hard.
Barks ahead. Three dogs burst from a driveway. They chase me briefly, then discouraged by my shouts of ‘Alu’, drop away. Until the next driveway when three other dogs pop out. I shout ‘Alu’ again and they give up up too.
Sometime after Papaliaulelei, I reach the top of the hill and freewheel down to a cluster of villages in the north-east corner of the island: Samalae ulu, Mauga, then Sale’aula. The landscape changes from lush green forest to a gleaming desert of black lava, only a few scrubby plants poking through the cracks. This is where a massive lava eruption wiped out several villages in 1905, the Sale’aula Lava Fields. I stop-off at the lava flooded London Missionary Church, and attempt to walk across the alien surface to the distant basalt cliffs. The path isn’t well marked however, and the lava is too hot and rocky to walk over. Like a good black body, it absorbs the sun’s rays and then re-radiates the heat.
A few more villages – Safa, Fagamalo, Salei – until happily I arrive at Manase. The family who run Jane’s Fales are as welcoming as at Joelan’s and show me to fale number twenty-seven, looking straight across springy grass and out to sea. Time to unpack, drink some cola, then go for a snorkel in the sandy blue water. Straightaway I see something dark and oval in the water next to me: a large turtle very close. I try to keep up, watching the easy strokes of its flippers, counting the scales on its back. For almost thirty seconds, we swim together, turtle and cyclist. I feel privileged. Then slipping up a gear, the turtle waves a flipper and speeds away into the gloom.
Dinner is at six in the big open-air dining room. Chicken and rice and boiled pumpkin, plus a slice of pawpaw and a little yellow banana. The other guests draw up their chairs too: Luke, a civil engineer from Nelson, and a French couple from Alsace-Lorraine who’ve been working in Hawkes Bay. Everyone talks about where they’ve been, although I’m the only one on a bike. They’re all doing it the hard way. They’re crazy motorists driving around in rental cars. The Frenchman reminds me a bit of a real-life Captain Haddock, darker-haired, dark-eyed, and grinning insanely. He lights a hand-rolled cigarette and languishes over a big crystal glass ashtray. When he’s done, he shoves the ashtray back to Luke, who now savours whisky cocktails. The spirit loosens his tongue. He talks of the scandals on yachts he’s crewed across the Pacific, of the wrongly signed-off building checks after the first Christchurch earthquake, then the freight train on the recently reconstructed Transcoastal rail line that almost ran him over.
Many stories later, we say goodnight, then head back to our fales, made of straw, sticks and bricks, all in a line in front of the sea.