Mount Vaea


The car rounds the last tree, and Kate’s parents swoon at their first glimpse of Robert Louis Stevenson’s house. It stands proud and colonial, a clean white building in the middle of a majestic green lawn.

“I started reading Treasure Island when I was at school,” says Chad from the backseat. “I never finished it. I must have been distracted by something else.”

“It was probably me.” Huhu smiles to herself in the passenger seat.

“No, it was earlier than that. It was Waverley Primary. I was ten. I got as far as the mutiny, then gave up.”

“Wasn’t there a parrot in it?” Huhu is an expert on native species. “A kea, I expect?”

“There was a pirate.” Chad is equally savvy with copyright. “Mean lean Henry, I think? Or tall claw-paw Tim? Something like that?”

“It was Long John Silver,” I say. “They defeat him in the end, but he jumps on another boat and gets away.”

“He couldn’t have lived in Whanganui then.” Huhu laughs. “He’d have had to meet his victims and face up to the consequences of his crimes.”

“I don’t think Robert Louis ever got as far as Whanganui, Mum.” Kate sits in the driver’s seat, her hands on the steering wheel.

“No, well, he’d have had a museum there too, if he had.”

RLS House.

To learn more about the life and times of RLS, Chad and Huhu embark on a guided tour of the house. Meanwhile Kate and I sit in the shade downstairs, grateful for the tranquillity of the gardens, their kaleidoscope of trees, plants and flowers.

“Pity we couldn’t have lived here for three months.” For a change, I can hear my own thoughts, rather than the buses, taxis and incessant music of town. It’s cooler too, up here in the hills, halfway up Mount Vaea.

“It’s a bit too far from town though.” Kate thinks more practically than me. She’s prepared to trade noise for convenience, heat for proximity. “There are not many shops up here. Nor cafes.  No market, no cinema, no Cent Save.”

“Right.” I think about the second Cent Save that has just opened next to our appartment. They have a big speaker outside their door. Soon no doubt, we will have even more noise.

As if to save us from ourselves, Chad and Huhu emerge from the exit, both of them smiling. They’ve seen where RLS used to write, sleep and eat. Now they know everything there is to know about him. His last four years in Samoa, the thirteen books he wrote during that time, and why he never moved to Whanganui.

Mount Vaea.

“You know this whole mountain, Mount Vaea, is an old volcano.” Chad beams at us.

“Vaea was an ancient warrior.” Huhu’s face shines too. “He married a girl from Fiji but she had to return to her island. He stood here on the shore watching out for her return. And as he waited, his legs, then his body, his head slowly turned to stone. He became this mountain.”

“Then Robert Louis Stevenson came along, bought this estate, built his house here, and is buried at the top.” Chad points into the trees.

“You’re not suggesting we go up there, are you?” Kate’s smile evaporates, turns into a frown. “Only you know it’s against my religion.”

“Not today.” Chad laughs. “We’ve had enough. Maybe tomorrow?”  He chuckles again.

School’s Out

Karene and Kate at school.

The sun beats in a blue sky. The school buildings glow bright yellow and red. As if all the teachers know Kate’s parents are visiting today, and have polished every outside wall in tribute.

“It’s very colourful, isn’t it?” Huhu sits in the front passenger seat and adjusts her sun visor.

“They’re the school colours.” Kate parks the car under the branches of a huge banyan tree. “The uniforms are the same too.  Red and yellow.”

School buildings.

Officially school has broken up for two weeks, although students in multi-coloured lavalavas and slogan T-shirts wander about.  They smile at us and say hello to Kate.  Some of them are in a Year 13 class, catching up.

We walk up a staircase, and Karene, the Deputy Head, steps out to meet us.  She’s a bright friendly lady who has helped Kate a lot.


We look around the staff room, full of long tables, books and timetables.  Plus an industrial scale megaphone and a home-made PA system rigged up from a old stereo.  Karene demonstrates how it works, ‘Hi-De-Hi’ style.  Ding-ding-ding-DING!  ‘All students to the main fale, now!’  Dong-dong-dong-DING!

“What’s this for?”  Chad points at the megaphone.

“I use that on the teachers.” Karene laughs. “Especially on free pizza day. Some teachers,” she looks at Kate, “are too busy talking to their students to eat.”

“How many are there altogether?” says Chad.

“Pizzas – none. We ate them all.  Teachers – around forty. And students – around six hundred. We’re one of the biggest schools in Samoa.”

We walk into the admin offices.  Past Karene’s door which is wide open, then past the Principal’s which is bright orange and closed. Downstairs to a classroom, where all the windows are open on both sides to keep a cool breeze flowing.  There are no desks, no chairs, they have all been moved. The blackboards, one at each end, are clean, but pockmarked with big holes.  Numerous quotations about reading and education adorn the back wall. A cardboard tree chart shows what all the students want to be when they grow up. Few have written down teacher as it is so badly paid, only seven thousand NZ dollars per year. Many want to be accountants, which pleases Chad.  One wants to be a CEO.

Tour of admin offices.

Karene leaves us to finish her work.  Although it is the holidays, she still has much to do. We will rejoin her later for lunch at Pacific Jewell, the trendiest ex-pat cafe in town First though, Kate wants to show us the maths department in another wing. More steps, another yellow building, another room, but the door is locked. We peer through darkened windows at a table stacked with books, papers and white chalk. No chairs still. All the teaching and learning in this school must take place standing up.

“The idea is maths teachers use this as a common room.” Kate resiliently tries the door handle again. But it remains locked. “A lot of the time though, many of them are over there.” She points at another building across from us.

“What’s that?” says Huhu.

“It’s the tuck shop.”

Main hall.

We march back down the stairs and along a long gravel drive. Lots of up and down in this school, especially for the teachers who don’t have their own rooms. They go to the students rather than the students go to them.

We reach the main hall, another yellow and red building at the back of the school. It’s huge and empty as a barn. No sign of the audience that cheered and hooted here on Friday night. No chairs either, just like everywhere else. Then as we walk back down the drive, a lorry hoots and passes us. It’s loaded high with plastic stackable chairs. All the missing seats being returned from the concert.

Good job they’re all red and yellow.  The school colours.

Lawful Election Night

Chad and Huhu arrive at the airport.

New Zealand election day has arrived.  And despite a shortage of aviation fuel at Auckland Airport, so have Kate’s parents.

“They’re due at one.” Kate stops for no-one on our drive out to Faleolo airport, not even a couple of chickens busy crossing and recrossing the road. “We don’t want to be late.”

“No, we don’t.” I watch black clouds massing above the runway. It starts to rain.

New arrivals emerge from behind a plastic curtain, a bit like the exit from the chopping room in a butcher’s shop. Taxi drivers in ladybird shirts swarm at the top of the exit ramp, while palagi wait in their white hordes at the bottom.

The plane lands on time. Passengers trickle out. Some wheel out one small bag, barely big enough for a couple of hankies. Others push trolleys stacked skyscraper high with food.

At last, we see Chad and Huhu coming through. They’re smiling, pleased to be here. Hopefully pleased to see us too.

“We didn’t bring any chocolate.” Huhu points with her good arm at her small black bag. Her other shoulder is in a sling from recent surgery. “It would have melted anyway, in all this heat. We did manage to squeeze in two bottles of gin.”

“If we can get some tonic water somewhere.” Richard wheels the two bigger cases. “Then we’ll be all set.”

The ride back to Apia packs in forty travel minutes of island information. This church here and that museum there. The dried-out palm leaves still wrapped around lamp-posts from Teuila, and the house with the purple curtains where Josie lives. Kate points and drives, drives and points, eager to explain. Three months worth of local knowledge crying out to be spilt.

We arrive at their hotel, the Toana Tusitala. Chad and Huhu unload their luggage and inspect their room. Then we all sit down to a liquid lunch by the pool.

“How was the journey?” I say, a question I probably should have asked before.

“We had to get up very early.” Huhu frowns, sounding disappointed. “And there wasn’t much to see on the way here, hardly anything green. Still we were flying over the Pacific. I suppose it has to be blue, being water.”

“We had plenty of legroom.” Chad kicks the table to demonstrate. “Better than when we flew to Australia. And a nice Air New Zealand breakfast too, scrambled eggs and chicken sausage.”

“You aren’t hungry now?”

“We could manage something.” Chad studies the menu. “The taro chips with bolognese sauce for starters.”

Two beers later, we ascend to their room. The election results will be on TV soon. If there is any TV. Kate and Chad fiddle with the remote, flicking through the channels.

“I told you how we drove six hundred kilometres to see Roger Federer, didn’t I.” Huhu sips from her gin, a glassy anticipation in her eyes. “When we were in Australia, in the camper van that is, looking for somewhere to watch the Wimbledon men’s finals.”

“And what happened?”

“I’m not sure it was worth it.” Huhu smiles. “We were directed to a very expensive hotel where they assured us it would be on. We had a cup of tea in our room, relaxed a little, then switched on the TV at seven and discovered we couldn’t pick up a thing.”

“Not even Cliff Richard singing on centre court? Or the Wombles ?”

“I don’t think so.” Huhu squints. “Anyway, we promptly checked out and found another motel, much cheaper, and fortunately they did have Wimbledon on TV there. Unfortunately, I fell asleep. I woke up for the last ten minutes.”

Chad is still wombling through all the TV channels. He picks up NZTV news on station thirteen. There is no Roger Federer, no Cliff Richard, no Wombles, but then none of them is going to be the next Prime Minister of New Zealand, however well they sing or dance or serve. That privilege will go to Bill English or Jacinda Ardern, both attendant in full colour on the TV right now.

Gin is trickled, tonic water splashed, and the first results filter in, already predicting a coalition. We watch in trepidation, switching the air-con off, then on, then off again, as the temperature rises, chills, then stagnates. So many percentages to keep track of: the number of votes counted, the number of votes wasted, the number of spaghetti pizzas and barbecued sausages and cocktails consumed at party headquarters. The hour waxes, one hour ahead of NZ, and our interest wanes. The last straw to break our concentration isn’t the TV signal failing, the gin bottle falling over, or The Opportunities Party reaching five per cent. It’s not even a plastic straw in our glasses, we wouldn’t dare. No, the final straw is the antediluvian, pre-ferry, prosaic proclamation by Winston Peters that the election isn’t blue or red or green. It’s black.

We drown our gins. Extinguish the TV. And go downstairs in search of a late night dinner.

No Peace For Dead Writers

Kate’s gifts.

Colours ambush the long straight road up to Robert Louis Stevenson’s house. The plants on this island don’t know how to be wallflowers.  They shout in yellows, reds and greens. Yet this promises to be a peaceful walk. Or so I hope, enjoying a breeze that rustles palms and teuila flowers.

Then I listen more carefully. Embedded in the fragrance of the silence is the distant noise of dogs. Children shouting too.

Today isn’t any old old Friday. Today is the end of term.

I reach the start of the RLS Tomb trail and begin to climb. Sweat sheens my face while squeals of laughter shave the air ahead. A regiment of teenage girls march past single-file, giggling and hooting, amused by something further on.  At the top, a pounding of music. A party in full swing. Three separate beatboxes bash the air, a battle of hip-hop, vibrato and screaming pop princesses.


No peace for old Robbie’s soul nor his bones today. Two girls and a boy fluoresce and boogie on the wooden viewing platform. Another couple canoodle on top of his tomb, well inside the little chain fence labelled ‘Do Not Enter’.

Nice to see teenagers celebrating the storyteller, the Tusitala. To hear them not so nice. Next time they should try more traditional music, Andy Stewart or ‘The Mull of Kintyre’. Something that old Robbie would like. Or maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe music was the true reason he left Scotland.

I set off back down the track, sweating again. No cold dip at the end either. The RLS swimming pool is full, packed with pupils from Year 9. Possibly the most people in one tiny water hole ever. It’s the same in the adjoining Botanical Gardens, where a busload of children yell at the plants.

Kate arrives from her presentation ceremony at school. The staff have been gift-shop extravagent. They’ve given her wood carvings, a woven bag, a lacquered painted coconut, a fan and a little wooden turtle.  As the late, great Brucie would have said, ‘Didn’t she do well!’

“It’s really noisy here.” Kate threatens a wooden blade at no-one in general, and me in particular. “Let’s go somewhere quieter.”

“Okay.” I nod. The blade has a nasty hook at the end.

We drive to Le Petit Cafe, tucked away in a rue off a boulevard off an esplanade. The lemonade fizzes ferociously and the omelette squeaks louder than Lena Zavaroni.

“These mosquitoes get everywhere.” Kate brandishes a spoon in the air, then swats an extra milligram of protein that has landed on her crepe. “I know the place to go.”

The place turns out to be the main hall at school, where the end of term concert is gearing up in a storm. Enough Samoan audio power to rival the Jacobite Risings. The theme is ‘The Wave to Intellectual Success’ and the dancing is synchronised, collective and awesome. A troupe of pipers and sword-dancers on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ couldn’t have performed better. Give us a twirl! Good game, good game! It’s not Mother Goose, is it? Years 9 through 13 each dance an episode in the lives of two boys growing up, one who does well and the other who falls – then is saved and rises again. The hall shakes with the bravado of cheering parents and siblings. It is a great noisy experience, even more entertainment than a whole season of the Generation Game.

Then back to the apartments where another party is in full swing.  Whisky bottles and matches adorn the balcony, while from underneath comes the yowling of a cat.

No peace for dead writers. Or live ones either.  Not here in Samoa. No peace for anyone.

I, Black Dog

I, Black Dog.

I am black dog. I patrol carpark at Papapapai Falls. I wait for you in hire car. I follow you, silent, head down, tail still.

You keep distance. You don’t talk to me, pat me, or make eye contact. You don’t want me here. You came to see waterfall. Not black dog.

I don’t bark.  I don’t bother you. I was here first. Dawn till dusk, Monday to Sunday. You stay only long enough for photos.

I don’t whimper. I don’t beg. I don’t leave mess.  But I’m hungry. I want food. Sausage, meat, muesli bars. Anything.

Ignore the waterfall. Ignore the view. Take notice of black dog.

Black Dog with visitor.

You want me go away. You think I stray. I always here, in same spot. How can I be stray?

You’re the stray. You stray from home overseas, from apartment, from sausages in fridge, from meat pies and muesli bars.

I black dog. I patrol carpark at Papapapai Falls. I look out for you, I never bark, I never growl, I guard waterfall, though you never notice me.  Yours, black dog.


Brown-black Dog.

TRAVELLER’S NOTE: We visited Papapapai Falls two days ago, and brown-black dog circled the car and stood a few feet from the open door. We questioned brown-black dog about the whereabouts of black dog, and understood that black dog has been transferred to another waterfall on the island.

Two Weeks To Go

Returning soon.

In less than two weeks, we’ll be leaving Samoa for good and returning to New Zealand. While we’re looking forward to coming home – friends, family, cat, home comforts – we’ll also miss Samoa too, after spending so long here. It’s always felt as though we’ve unlimited time ahead of us, time to do everything we want, time to visit every place we read about. Except of course we don’t.  Even three months runs out eventually. And the more we explore, the more we become aware of how little we’ve scratched the surface, even in a country as small as Samoa.

Today for instance, we took an inconspicuous right turn off the Le Mafa Pass and found ourselves driving into a valley that time and tourism have forgotten. The road zigzagged to the top of a ridge, where a party of American Samoans in two utes had also stopped. We joined them and gazed onto the hidden north-east coastline, where several remote villages bordered the enclosed blue waters of Fagaloa Bay.

Hidden bay.

The road down was steep and narrow, but passable. It curved tightly around the coast, up and down smaller ridges between the villages. Hardly any other vehicles and we saw no shops. A primary school held a cultural day with all the children dressed in pink and blue lavalavas, singing and dancing madly.

We drove further, the sea sprawling on one side, and green peaks towering on the other.  A dirt paddock of bony cows, a stream, and a distant fortress of rock and vertical water. At times, we felt we were in Marlborough Sounds rather than tropical Samoa.

More like the Sounds.

At lunchtime, back on the main road, we found an hotel we must have passed before, but never noticed.  We went inside and sat at a little white table on an expanse of decking and ordered lunch and drinks. Small hard seeds fell from the tree above us, splattering onto our heads, but fortunately not our drinks – or lunch. Across the water were the red roofs of Piula Theological College with its famous Cave Pool. An American family at the adjoining table told us about new Samoan delicacies – palusami, eel stew – on sale at the food market in Apia, just below our apartment.

On television tonight, a celebration of different cultures: singing, dancing, serving food from woven baskets, as well as the more serious message of stopping family violence, and empowering children and women

In spite of the innate conservatism that seems to rule – and conceal – some aspects of Samoan life, there are those who want change.

And the more we explore, the more we find: on TV, in the newspapers, by word of mouth, and by knocking on ordinary looking doors in streets we haven’t visited before.

Two weeks to go, and really, we know nothing.

Yellow Elephant

Yellow elephant – not white.

For two small islands surrounded by water, Samoa boasts some capacious buildings.

The Immaculate Conception Cathedral, big enough to hold a congregation of two thousand.

The open air stadium at Apia Park, where all major sporting events are held.

Then surprisingly, the Samoan Aquatic Centre out on Tuanaimato Road, a warehouse of a building with two full-sized fifty-metre swimming pools – and no people.

Impressive frontage.

Since we have no pool at our appartments, and Apia has no decent beaches either, I cycle up to this gigantic facility every week for a swim. Several times, I’ve been the only person up there, besides the cashier and two attendants. It’s a strange feeling swimming up and down in such a huge pool, glancing across at all the other vacant lanes, the grandstand of empty red and blue seats, then up at a high girdered roof that rumbles in the wind.

The pool was specially constructed by China for the 2007 South Pacific Games, and has also hosted the Oceania Swimming Championships. Apart from big events like these, it doesn’t appear to be used much on a day to day basis, at least not from what I’ve seen.

Main pool – empty!

Occasionally there have been other swimmers: another man doing laps in the main pool; a school group reluctantly following their leader; and at weekends, a party of local Samoans laughing and fooling about in the outside pool. But all too often, it’s only me. Fifty metres of blue nothing, staring at a black line underwater and wondering where the hell everyone else is. Perhaps Samoans don’t like the water too much, after all, I’ve heard many of them can’t swim. The pool is out of town too, a fifteen minute bike ride from Fugalei Street. Hopefully the entrance fee isn’t too much – at ten Tala, the same price as a large Vailima beer.

Although there are few patrons, the rules are strictly enforced. No footwear to be worn beyond the entrance kiosk, and everyone must shower before getting in the pool. No diving, no bombing, and definitely no inflatable pigs.

No stampede!

Once I spotted a hand printed sign below a metal ladder that led up to the walkway. Intrigued, I swam closer expecting it to say something like ‘No climbing’ or ‘Access only to authorised personnel’. But no. Bizarrely it read ‘No stampede’. Now I’m wondering if they secretly let elephants swim in the pool. It’s big enough and empty enough for lots of yellow elephants – Jumbo freestyle.