Saturday escape is along a dirt track that twists and climbs and bounces seven kilometres to the theological college at Sauniatu. Not a route the tourists take in their ‘R’ registration rental cars. Nor the booming colourful faso buses, their tyres too fat and traction too soft to grip the tight stony corners.
It feels like we’ve left the twenty-first century behind and driven into a less frantic, earlier time. All the houses cower well back from the road, their gardens lush and green and brimming with plants. Fields full of big-leafed taro, row after row of palms heavy with coconuts. Animals as well, a family of pigs rooting for edibles, a horse forlorn and shiny, even a couple of sheep standing aloof on top of a polished black grave.
A man wearing goggles and discoloured orange overalls attacks his hedge with a petrol trimmer. He as if he might attack us too. Then he lowers his weapon and smiles. “Waterfall?”he repeats, brushing a fly away from his eyes, then scratching his nose. “Thirty minutes. You have good day.”
It’s further than we thought, this secret swimming hole we seek, deep deep inside plantation country. And as we drive on, the houses grow more ramshackle, the potholes grander, the stones bigger. Ahead green hills loom up like teenage mountains, darkening the sky above us and convincing us we’re driving into the middle of nowhere. We’ve travelled a good few kilometres from the coast, perhaps a kilometre up too, approaching the ridge line that runs the length of the island.
“This can’t be right,” says Kate. “Another thirty minutes and we’ll be on the other side. Maybe that’s what he meant? The sea on the south coast?”
“Let’s carry on to that yellow thing up there.” I point through the dirty windscreen at a patch of yellow ahead. “If we haven’t seen anything then, let’s turn around.”
We pass another house, then a yard full of tractors and white minivans. A bunch of kids spring out of a hedge, asking for money, then a dog barks furiously on the other side. Things are not looking hopeful, nor is the sky turquoise any more, but a livid sheet of grey that threatens rain.
“We should turn around in a minute,” I say.
Then as the yellow patch materialises into a big metal sign, we spot a little stone monument by the side of the road. ‘In 1904, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints purchased 800 acres of land in this valley. It served as a refuge and gathering place for early members of the church. Sauniatu, or in English, prepare to go forth.’
And a few yards ahead, distant grey buildings, a stone bridge across the river, and a uniformed guard sitting in a booth on the left hand side.
“Can we go up to the waterfall?” I wind down my window.
“Sure.” He nods, smiles, and gestures for us to go on.
Unlike everywhere else in Samoa, there is no charge. This waterfall and pool are not only secret, but Tala free too. And parking the car, we walk through long damp grass and down wet stone steps towards the sound of water.
The noise swells as we clutch a yellow metal rail. The steps are slippery and rough. Then rounding a corner, we see the waterfall, cascading over black hippopotamus rocks into a beautiful pool beneath. We descend further, eager to explore this secret place, yet a little afraid too. Lichens and ferns tower above us, a wall of rock the same shade as crocodile skin and Christmas pine.
No-one else here, apart from us. No laughter or voices, nothing except falling water and the hum of mosquitos. A place that resonates both good and bad: wonderful to look at, dark and mysterious.
Worth the long drive up plantation road. We gaze down in wonder, then feel the first drops of rain.