Kate’s parents flew home on Saturday. On Sunday, we set off for magnificent Manono, a small island in the Apolima Strait.
To get there, we drove west to Manono Wharf. We’d arranged for a boat to take us across at midday.
A young man with a moustache and cap greeted us. “I’m Ace,” he said. And he was. He helped us carry our bags onto a small corrugated boat. Then as we gazed through little blue windows in the front of the cabin, he cautiously motored out into the lagoon. Behind us, a massive black rain cloud gathered over the mountains of Upolu. But ahead the water stretched flat and blue, a clear calm path to Manono island, all the way to the jetty at Sunset Fales.
“We’re here! Welcome to Sunset Fales!” Ace helped us off.
Then Margaret, our hostess, ran up, sat us down and explained the set-up.
“All meals included, breakfast at eight-thirty, lunch at twelve, and dinner at six-thirty.” She stared at us with a serious expression, then smiled. “No roads here, just a path all the way around. No dogs either, no barking at night, no need to carry a stick when going for a walk. And we have kayaks to hire too, twenty Tala per day, and a further fifty if you want to land on the islet out there.”
We turned to gaze at the little islet out near the reef. Green, forested and mysterious, with a tiny sliver of a beach. Beyond the silhouette of Apolima, closer than we’d ever seen before, steep rugged sides climbing to a volcanic rim.
Margaret took us up to our accommodation, a rustic closed fale a little way up the hill. A balcony with two chairs to sit on while we sipped at the coconuts she brought us. Then two comfortable beds inside with mosquito nets to lie on and relax. Outside that big rain cloud finally caught up. Rain gushed from a black sky, smattering the roof and the broad banana tree leaves, making a heck of a racket.
When the rain stopped, I took out a kayak and paddled over towards the little islet. I was tempted to land, but the water turned choppy, so I just looked, admiring its serenity, its unique position on the reef, and the forbidding island of Apolima out beyond in the big ocean. This felt like such a special place to be, drifting peacefully, almost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, with only the coral reef protecting me from the full mid-ocean swell.
Later at six-thirty, the sound of a conch shell summoned us to dinner. Margaret did us proud: fish, fried egg plants, rice, and stir-fried vegetables. She told us all about life on Manono; how her father set up the fales in 2006, then had to rebuild them after the tsunami hit in 2009; how dogs are sometimes brought to the island to round up pigs from the plantations, but then sent promptly back to Upolu afterwards. Most interesting of all was the banana tree counting exercise scheduled for the next day. Margaret’s father, who is the mayor, would lead local chiefs through the village plantations counting banana trees, making sure each household had at least fifty, enough to support themselves. They would also check on taro fields, and inspect kitchens for cleaniness too, with fines for anyone not reaching the standard.
The next day, after another lavish meal of fried eggs, pawpaw and pancakes, we walked all around the island, counting churches and pink boats and frangipani trees. We weren’t empowered to fine people, but we could take photos, especially of the frangipani, Kate’s favourite. The path led through people’s backyards, through village greens, plantations and a small forest. At one point we managed to get ourselves locked inside a church – shock horror, palagi imprisoned for five days until the next service – but fortunately located a second door by which to escape. Further on a girl with an immensely long wooden pole showed us how to dislodge oranges from the top branches of a tree.
At dinner that night, again summoned by the conch shell, Margaret told us that the banana counting had gone well. “They all came back here afterwards, where they talk about the counting and we give them lunch. I think that’s the bit they enjoy most, all gossiping and eating together.”
Later she told us more about her husband, Paul, who is training to become a tattooist, an honoured and lucrative profession for a Samoan. “Paul’s Dad is a tattooist, and his uncle too, he works in the Cultural Centre in Apia.”
We returned to our fale and heard the family singing a hymn before eating much later at eight o’clock. It’s another hot night with little breeze. But worth it, to be able to come to such a peaceful unique place as Manono. No roads, no cars, no dogs, entirely unlike anywhere else we’ve ever been.
We may be going home in a day or two, but we’ve saved the best until last. Manono, family time.