As I position my map to catch the sun’s early light, a shadow looms. Crisp blue smoke drifts into my eyes, as if one of the active volcanos – Mt Ma’asina or Mt Mu – on this island has decided to erupt. I glance around and see Luke leaning gainst the steps to my fale, a familiar cigarette clamped between his lips.
“Where you going today?” He doesn’t open his mouth, but talks like a ventriloquist, his voice apparently coming from Mt Silisili, at 6,095 feet, Samoa’s highest peak.
“Over here.” I point at the map’s north-west corner. “But there’s a big hill first, seven hundred and fifty feet.” My finger nudges right, at the red line that dips inland between Manase and Asau, the main road I plan to conquer today.
“Yeah, I’ll be driving that way too.” He puffs languidly and tries not to laugh. “I can stop at the top, if you like. Give you a lift down.”
“Thanks, but I think I can manage.” Going down will be the easy bit. It’s cycling up that hurts, especially with luggage.
“If I see any dogs, I’ll put them in the back too. Release them when I see you.”
“That’d be a big help.” I wonder if he’s serious. He’s travelling on his own. He might want four legged company, a companion to yap and bark inside his car.
“All part of the service.” He blows smoke into the sky, to join the other clouds that are threatening rain.
And rain it does, a pillowcase of cool drops that caress my face as I set off. A scent of leaves too and freshly turned earth. A rainbow arches ahead, one end in the green forest, the other in the blue sea, an entrance of colours to the north coast of the island. I speed up on the wet tarmac, determined to get a headstart on Luke before he passes me in his car. Yet no matter how fast I cycle, I can’t quite catch the rainbow. No pots of gold – or Skittles – to be discovered today.
It’s a pleasant ride through the villages of Safotu and Fatuvalu. Lots of people dressed in white walk to church. They wave and say hello. Their children too, plaintive choruses of ‘bye-bye’. Then a bus rumbles along, loud with the noise of the faithful. Already church services are in progress, organ keyboards and gospel voices harmonising from open windows. Up ahead, a jumble of utes and jeeps are parked on the verge of the road, and beyond, a congregation and preacher crouch underneath the shade of a large communal fale.
At Sasina, the road begins to climb. The beginning of that big hill I’d seen on the map, all the way up an ancient lava flow to the lofty village of A’opo at the top. At first, it’s not too bad. A gentle ascent, plenty of shade. Not so much to see though: green verges, dense trees, and concrete blue sky above. The ever present telephone line too, snaking from posts on one side of the road to the other.
After the village of Letui, halfway up, the road grows relentlessly steep. Up, up and up, with only the occasional hiccup down. And as the sun rises, it becomes hotter, heavier, harder. I’m sucking in air and sweating out gallons. Every kilometre, I have to stop, gulp from my water bottle, and try to recover. Catch my breath, wave my arms, and hope for a breeze. The engine is overheating, and I am the engine.
Thank God, it’s still mid-morning. I hate to think what this would be like in the afternoon when temperatures reach the early thirties or higher. The sweat would flow like a faucet, and I’d be drinking more water than I could sweat. And I’d be stopping so frequently, I’d be stationary or even going backwards.
Just short of A’opo, almost at the top, a blue rental whizzes past. Luke, I think, with his pouch of tobacco, his gambit of stories, and his imaginary dog friends. Thankfully he doesn’t stop. I have no breath to speak to him, no other focus than to get to the top of this hill.
At A’opo, a shock awaits. I’d expected the village sign to mark the summit. But no, it marks the beginning of what must be the steepest, meanest, most daunting hill so far. The tarmac stretches vertically in front of me like the side of a skyscraper. I change down to the lowest gear and pedal with the force of a charging rhino. The hill however counteracts this and I ascend with the speed of a tortoise. Or a snail.
Push, push, push! Then push, push, push some more. And move forward a yard and a half. It would be quicker to walk. But I won’t, it’s a matter of principle. A cyclist wheeling his bike up a hill? I don’t want to be one of those people. I’m glad Luke isn’t driving past now. The last thing I want to hear is how crazy cyclists are, then glimpse the fifteen ankle-hungry mongrels he’s collected in his car.
Somehow, determination defeats dehydration. At the top, I gasp and take a very long swig from my bottle. Enough to empty it. Good job I’ve a spare in my panniers.
Two boys shout ‘bye, bye’ and a lone dog ambles past.
Then it’s a long long downhill – with a few surprise uphills – all the way to the town of Asau.
Onto Vai-y-moana Seaside Resort, where I’m staying tonight.
The receptionist welcomes me and shows me to my room. And after that hill, thank God for Fale One. It faces a line of swaying palm trees, a windswept lagoon, and a little sand island twinkling on the horizon.
A perfect place to let my bike rest, while I sit in the shade and drink a litre of Coke-cola. Later I’ll consume an ice-cold beer or two and enjoy the complementary dinner. Time to relax a little, at least until tomorrow, when the whole process starts again.