Monday, November 14 (Day 76)
Aganoa Beach Retreat & Rainforest Reserve – Pulemelei – Aganoa (Savai’i, Samoa)
This place is in danger of becoming Mango Bay 2.0. My intended one night stay became two yesterday and, despite my best intentions to leave this morning; I will now stay for a third evening. Time is a-running-out though. This time next week I leave Samoa and begin my long and arduous three-day journey home from one side of the globe to the other; from perpetual summer to gloomy winter.
Ulrika and I are off in search of the Pulemelei mound, said to be the largest ancient structure in all of Polynesia. If this fact is true then you might expect this to be top of the pops when it comes to local tourist attractions, and yet it is proving pretty damned impossible to find out any useful information about this centuries-old site.
A record four cars and trucks pass us on the road before the fifth stops to give us a lift. There are few places where hitchhiking is as safe and easy as Samoa. When we are dropped off, near the well signposted Afu-A-Au waterfalls, we soon discover that there is absolutely no signage for Pulemelei. The driver is confident though that we should follow a nearby track towards the river and keep to the pathways from there. After a few hundred metres, a young bandana-wearing lad, accompanied by a well-trained hunting dog and brandishing a machete, appears seemingly out of nowhere and asks us for some cash for our visit to the mound. Ulrika is great company; she’s thoughtful and a really good laugh, but I wish sometimes she’d go with the flow a bit more instead of questioning absolutely everything. She’s suggesting to this lad that he might be a fraud and perhaps we shouldn’t give him the cash. I mean, come on, he’s holding a machete and he’s got a dog with him that could tear us limb from limb. He’s asking us for three quid between the two of us. If he’s a crook I think he could do a bit better than demanding three of Her Majesty the Queen’s pounds off of us.
Our hike lasts for a good four or five kilometres until the path narrows, passes first through a coconut grove and then an overgrown track of bright, colourful flowers and weeds. We ascend some steep rocks and, almost without realising it, we are stood atop of the mound. This is crazy. This structure must be sixty metres square and, aside from its summit, it is entirely overgrown with thick green weeds and bushes. Right in the centre of the mound, two gorgeous mango trees, heavily laden with fruit, wrap their roots around the black volcanic stones below. I don’t think we passed a single mango tree on the route here. Strange, that these two attractive trees should make this mound home. This is proper Indiana Jones stuff. I mean, it doesn’t appear that this pyramid-type structure has been properly excavated. From the summit there are commanding views of the distant sea and, to our north-west, we can just make out the partly hidden peaks of Savai’i’s tallest mountains: Mount Maugamua, Mata’aga, and 1866-metre high Mount Silisili (Yes, the tallest mountain in all of Samoa is called ‘Silly Silly’). These mountains are all located on a high plateau, which does an exceedingly good job of concealing most of their delights from the world below and thus giving them a touch of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World. Below the ‘mound’ there is, I would say, around one hundred square metres worth of land that is overgrown with nothing more than thick weeds and beyond that is a coconut grove. Use your imagination and you can picture this pyramid devoid of foliage, towering above a flat area of land below. I just don’t get it. With around 100 labourers, they could clear the pyramid in less than a week and quickly get to work on clearing the flat area in front of it. What you would then have is a legendary hidden pyramid rising up into the heavens; a nation’s leading tourist attraction that would encourage many of the thousands of visitors to Samoa’s ‘Upolu island, who never make it across the Apolima strait, to visit Savai’i. The only information I have, thus far, about this place is that it is one of a reputed 150 ‘star mounds’ that have so far been discovered throughout Samoa and American Samoa. Many leading archaeologists have only recently become aware of these Samoan structures, and dozens of star mounds remain unexcavated. Indulging our imaginations for an hour or so, Ulrika and I finally leave this very special place and set off back to Aganoa to enjoy my final afternoon and evening of simple pleasures there. The very first car that passes stops and the nice Samoan couple inside drop us off at the entrance to the rainforest reserve.
I think this is one of the nicest beaches I’ve ever had the pleasure of sunbathing on. You can totally relax here, safe in the knowledge, that nobody and no creature will ever come and disturb you. The sun has got his hat on again today and the water, although noticeably colder than it was in Fiji, is still well above 20 degrees and an absolute pleasure to swim in. I spend a good half hour playing a game of ‘tag ‘with a dozen curious fish with short memories. This mob of beige and white fish, one of an astounding 900 different varieties of fish living off these islands, seem absolutely fascinated by my presence and regularly venture within a few centimetres of my legs. What I do is to try and trick them into the shoreline where I attempt to tag at least one of the fish before they swim off. They never tire of this game because they always forget that they’ve played it five seconds later. Glass Knee Charlie returns from his latest surf on the treacherous reef and tells me he’s just spotted two reef sharks out there.
In the early evening, shortly before sundown, the family that run the surf retreat give me a lift in the back of their truck to the Salelologa wharf so that I can get some cash out from the ATM to pay them for my stay here. This jump off point for inter-island ferries, along with the tourist town of Manase, are the only two places on the whole of this island where you can access cash.
The Australian owner, his Samoan wife and a couple of their relatives are off shopping for provisions, including fresh bread for tomorrow’s breakfast. It’s a gorgeous journey in the back of the van, waving to locals; the wind in my face. On the return leg, I ride in the front with the Aussie owner and he tells me about life in Samoa. He’s been living here for 15 years after a five-year stint in Fiji prior to that (where he says life was even more idyllic before the first of the Fijian military coups in the 1980s). Things have changed very little here during his time on Savai’i. The locals remain friendly and governed by family and village life. Crime is virtually unheard of and most families are almost entirely self-sufficient. It is only the past few years’ huge increases in fuel prices that have really made life more difficult. Fortunately, the locals are not too reliant on rice, which has increased in price by 100 per cent in two years, but when you earn 2 Tala/hour (roughly 60 pence), your money doesn’t stretch too far. (We have the radio switched on during our conversation, and I suddenly overhear some news about thousands of people ‘occupying’ the streets of Philadelphia and Detroit. I’ve heard virtually no news during the past five weeks and couldn’t tell you what the hell the ‘news people’ are talking about.)
I honestly don’t know anybody that has cancer on this island, the Aussie owner tells me. Back home, every second or third person I know seems to be getting cancer or needs open heart surgery. But here, very few people get really sick. I don’t know what they are doing to people in the western world with the food, water and the air; the radiation levels in some places in the United States are making young kids ill.
Sometimes, it really seems like the powers that be in the developed world have some kind of agenda to kill us all off. It makes me laugh when I meet people who still believe their governments are there to ‘look after them’. All of the food I’ve consumed on this island comes from the local soil, trees, bushes and animals. Those that eat fish, enjoy a bountiful supply of fresh, tasty meals straight from the ocean. It is all absolutely organic and free range…and free. I’ve never tasted fruit that tastes as good as it does in the Pacific. And I can also say that I haven’t seen a single chemtrail (the crap from aircraft that hangs in the European skies for hours) up in the heavens during my five weeks in the Pacific. Don’t believe the nonsense they tell you that chemtrails are natural and are caused by commercial airliners: watch a normal commercial airliner and you will notice that its vapour trail begins to disappear within seconds. Chemtrails are created by other aircraft that are purposely filling our otherwise clean air with metals, toxins and poisonous chemicals. They hang there in the sky and gradually drop to earth, poisoning each and every one of us that breathe them in. You don’t think your government would do that to you? Well, question then why in some parts of the UK, Canada and the US the authorities purposely contaminate the population’s drinking water with highly toxic, poisonous fluoride. No, it doesn’t keep your teeth healthy and white. That’s a lie. The fluoride in the water poisons and dumbs down the population. Why would the government poison its own people through the food you eat, the water you drink and the air you breathe? It wouldn’t have anything to do with the global pharmaceutical industry would it? Or the multi-billion dollar private health care and insurance industries? Or Eugenics? Or population reduction?
I don’t know. You tell me. If I were you, I’d leave Europe and come and live in the Pacific instead.
Wednesday, November 2 (Day 63)
Mango Bay, Fiji
This website isn’t achieving what I wanted it to do. Yes, I have good numbers - on average more than 100 unique viewers a day, peaking at 400, and that’s without currently using Facebook, email or link exchanges to drive traffic. In Africa the project was a great success although had Bjorn and his missus not gone all my precious at the end of it in South Africa, it would have and (should have) achieved a lot, lot more. I never really spoke about that at the time. I just didn’t want to rock the boat. The Shirt 2010 was Bjorn’s project, after all, so it didn’t seem right for me to kick up a fuss at the time about some of the bad decisions and personal conflicts that occurred right at the very end of our time in Africa. If I do manage to put a book together about these past 18 months’ adventures, as I hope I will, then I will go into all that then. Furthermore, in Argentina I struggled to find the projects that I’d wanted so much to champion and, when I finally did track two down, it was during my last two days, with an unsuccessful visit to the slums and an eye opening and humbling night on the streets with the homeless in Buenos Aires. More info will follow about the Buenos Aires street project after I get home.
In NZ I didn’t see any projects and I feel bad for that, but the truth is since my personal life took a turn in July I’ve had to concentrate on fixing myself before I can start worrying about others again. I realise today that the healing process is kicking in. I feel happy; very happy in fact. Sorry for not championing the grass roots projects as I’d intended but for the moment at least I feel very good about myself for the first time in four months. If you do get the chance, please take a look at the Projects We Like page, where you can click on the pictures and be redirected to the relevant websites. More projects will be added to this page when I get back to Europe and I am extremely keen that this website develops further to help promote the work of grass roots organisations which do wonderful work helping those less fortunate than ourselves.
Yes, you’ve guessed it. I’m still here. In Mango Bay. It’s like the Hotel California – you can check in but you can never leave. I sort of feel bad that I didn’t leave with Ruby, the British Iranian girl who is off to Caqalai Island to hook up with some National Geographic people who are making a film about venomous sea snakes. I was encouraging her to go on a two day road trip with me to see the snakes and to spend a night at the former colonial capital, Levuka. She was umming and erring - understandably with jet lag and enjoying the Mango Bay vibe - but today she suddenly said let’s go and I just felt too much in bits from last night’s back-of-the-net evening to pack my stuff and leave here in the space of half an hour. I should have gone. Sorry Ruby. Not that my day is bad: Kayaking on the lagoon with my French friend, reading A Clockwork Orange under the shade of a coconut tree, another kava ceremony, sunbathing factor 40 stylee, and falling asleep in a hammock under a palm tree.
It is time to leave this place now. This particular party and my personal Fijian rehab are over. My new year began yesterday. It’s time to get back on the road.
Monday, October 31 (Day 61)
Mango Bay, Fiji
The Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Wallis & Futuna, Tokelau, American Samoa, Niue, Tonga, Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Easter Island…last night’s conversation with Scunny Mark has got me thinking and projecting ideas on to the infinite possibilities white board of life. The South Pacific has always been the most far away, unlikely-to-ever visit place on my personal world map of travel but, now I am here in Fiji, the world, as I visualise it, has shrunk once again. Why not do a trip that starts in say Papua New Guinea or the eastern islands of Indonesia or the Philippines and then moves eastwards, taking in all of the Pacific island states listed above? I have never in my entire life heard of anybody who has set out on a full tour of the Pacific, but now I am here I realise it is well doable. Where the flights don’t really connect up there are twice monthly container ship routes and you could always jump on a yacht and offer your services (God knows what services I could offer) in return for passage to the next island state. You could do it in three or four months, I reckon. Surely this could rate as one of the world’s lesser travelled great adventure routes? A 2013 South Pacific extravaganza anybody?
Funny I should be building castles in the sky when I am struggling to move my arse from Mango Bay, two hours up the road to Suva. A hangover and a free overnight stay were my excuse yesterday. God knows what my excuse is today. Feeling far too chilled to put a rucksack on my shoulder maybe. Actually, the main reason I was planning to stay in Suva was so I could catch what I assumed would be an early morning bus from there to my next port-of-call, Levuka. It turns out I can leave here after breakfast tomorrow and catch a connecting bus from the big smoke (Suva is the biggest city in the Pacific) to Levuka at 1.30, so I’m laughing.
“So, you got lucky last night! Did you bang her in the dorm?” Tashkent asks me.
I knew it. I knew they were all going to think we’d hooked up. I’m not sure what Jenna would think if she knew that half of the punters at Mango Bay think she had banana flambé for dessert last night.
There’s a new arrival. A British-Iranian girl has just flown in from LA on her way back to Australia. She’s got real class. This place seems to be sucking in some nice women. Maybe that’s another of my excuses for not leaving gorgeous Mango Bay.
You know that you truly have too much time on your hands and life is easy when the highlight of your day is international crab racing. Yes, I celebrate this Halloween by buying the temporary rights to a Fijian crab (going by the name of ‘Rose’) and racing it against nine other crabs. The race is at 9pm local time so that’s 9am in the UK. I am thinking, as a crowd of us are gathered in a circle with beer bottles and cocktails in hand, cheering and shouting at the crabs, that some of my mates have just arrived at the office in London, Leicester and Birmingham. What would they think if they knew that at the same time I’m on the other side of the planet, half cut, racing and betting on crabs, which have got numbers painted on their shells? Or have they all long since given up on my ability to live what might be considered a normal, balanced life?
I’m happy to announce that my luck is obviously changing as Rose romps home and I win the contents of the kitty, thus making this another free night at Mango Bay. You’ve got to feel sorry for the Australian crab, Skippy, though. As the master of ceremonies picks up the winning crab and takes her to the winners rostrum, he manages to step on the Australian crab and send him to an untimely death. RIP Skippy.
Sunday, October 30 (Day 60)
What the hell is that noise? It sounds like the sea. But it shouldn’t be anywhere near that loud from my Bure.
I open one eyelid. To be honest, it is taking some effort to raise that eyelid. The sea is two metres away. And the reason for this tomfoolery? Yeah, now I remember. I got so drunk at the party last night that I went and lay down on the grass on the edge of the beach in the hope that the sea breeze would help sober me up. Opening my other eye, I look over to where the party was rocking, and I think I was trying to chat up the Swiss fox before I came to this patch of grass for my lie down. All that now remains is a very lonely looking dog. FFS.
I’m due in Suva today but I really don’t feel up to facing a big city in this state. The sign in reception that says guests staying two nights can get the third for free settles the matter. Who said that nothing in this life is for free? I’ve bagged a free night in paradise. Breakfast and back to bed again it is then.
Seems like the rainy season has arrived. It’s been pretty overcast for the past couple of days and today we’ve had our first afternoon downpour since the first day I arrived in Nadi. This could be bad news for me in Samoa next week. I think most of the places I will be staying there will be very basic and almost deserted. The plan was to sunbathe and chill to the max. Instead I might find myself lay in bure all day fighting an all-out war with the SNMA (Samoan National Mosquito Army). The things you have to worry about in paradise, hey?
My big, big reward for staying an extra night here (aside from the good company of Mark and Jenna) is what must quite easily rate as the most spectacular sunset of the whole tour. In fact, this might even be a top five lifetime sunset. Truly it looks like paradise. (I will use photos rather than words to do the job, when I manage to upload some.)
Mark, a top fella from Scunthorpe, has got my brain kicking into overtime regarding his decision to do the Mongol Rally next summer. Basically, it is an unassisted four-person drive to Mongolia passing through Iran, Afghanistan and Russia. There will be 200 cars, all with 1200 or less engines. It sounds bloody amazing. The expedition raises cash for a Mongol kids’ charity and the main expectation isn’t how long you take, just simply the completion of the rally. Next July is far too early for me (unless of course I fail to fit back into society upon my return) but, with the rally being an annual event, maybe July 2013? As well as Mark I also spend the evening in the good company of Jenna, a 27-year-old artist from Australia who was born in South Africa but is of Jewish-Lithuanian and Polish-German Baltic descent. Australian-South African-Lithuanian-Jewish- Polish-German Jenna sees the world quite differently to most people, and that is extremely refreshing. When we get up to leave the bar together at midnight and go back to the dorm where we are the only two staying, I know the Swiss girls and the Uzbek lad are looking at us and are thinking I’ve pulled. I wink at Tashkent as I stroll past him.
Saturday, October 29 (Day 59)
The crab is slowly waddling its way across the sand. This lad is a fraud. The reason it is taking him so long for him to labour across this stretch of beach is because he disguises himself as a shell. This means he spends all of his life carrying his multi-coloured shell on his back just so he can trick the other creatures who hang out here into thinking he’s something he’s not. Pretending to be something you are not. We’ve all done it at some time or other but there are plenty of punters who spend almost their entire lives living a lie. And then you see this crab and you realise that those people and this tiny crustacean have quite a lot in common when it comes down to it. Strange the things you learn when you are hung over and lying on the beach.
I have this terrible habit of having my heaviest nights when I am leaving a place the next morning. This inevitably leads to a day of travel made fairly intolerable by me having to nurse a shocking hangover. For once though I have the luxury of getting up for breakfast, having a few minutes watching said crab on the beach and going straight back to bed afterwards. I’m not budging from here today.
In the midst of a lie low I spot Sarah Maverick who has booked in at Mango Bay. She’s had it with Fiji apparently. A bed bug feasted on her last night and she also experienced some unwanted attention from a local Fijian bloke the other night which got a little out of hand. Sarah is also booked on to the Fijee Experience rather than travelling independently as I am. They asked us on the bus to tell everybody our age and whether we are single or not. I’ve got no problem telling people I’m 43, but why do I have to announce to everybody whether I’m up for a shag or not?
Three hours later...
Now we present a traditional Samoan dance. Oh, God. Save me. I know this routine:
Bunch of young muscular black blokes showing off their ripped bodies in the name of culture. I know what’s coming. Yeah, twenty-something girls dragged out of the audience to dance with the lads. A little bit of sexual tension. Sarah and I frown at each other and roar aloud. It’s all gone a bit holiday camp. I feel like I’m on an 18-30 holiday in the Med.
I know what’s coming next Sarah. Yep, love juice.
I bloody knew it. I’ve seen this gig a million times. The muscular cultural dancers and the male staff of the Fijee experience have magically acquired huge jugs of rum&coke, which they are doling out for free to all the young girls. You know the score. They’ll be drunk in no time and peeling a banana on the beach in an hour’s time. If you can’t beat them, join them (I’m referring to the free alcohol not the banana peeling). I’m going to have a cheap night now. A free glass of your finest rum and coke love juice please sir.
Wow. A day of sun, the beer, wine, rum&coke has mixed with the Kava and the Love Juice and I’m away with the fairies. I mean I haven’t been this properly drunk in public for a very long time. The shutters have gone down. I think I have my first real shot on goal of the whole trip with the a Swiss girl. I vaguely remember slurring to her that I’ve really liked her for the two days since I first set eyes on her. FFS, I can’t help myself. I also vaguely recall asking Sarah to find me a hammock to lie in on the beach. I hope I didn’t have a shot at goal on her. She’s my friend for God’s sake. I don’t know. The shutters have gone down. I couldn’t be trusted to tie my own shoe laces to be honest. The shutters have…
Friday, October 28 (Day 58)
Nadi Bay – Nadi – Mango Bay
I catch the local bus to Nadi and from there it’s another local express service to the Coral Coast. The coast line is pretty damn spectacular with a coral reef and waves crashing a kilometre or so out to sea from the beach. To the sounds of Fijian reggae, Sangatoka is the biggest town we encounter and has bags of character, a superb market and a gorgeous spot next to a slow flowing river. There’s a laid back equatorial vibe to the place.
Finally I got dropped off at Mango Bay, a ‘flashpackers resort’ on the Coral Coast. The crew staying here seem very cool with a mixed bunch of punters from Lebanon, Uzbekistan, Switzerland, Finland, the US and Estonia. We end up boozing by the beach, downing copious amounts of kava until 2.30am.
A funny moment from the night is when two cool American girls I’m hanging out with tell me they’ve been married (to each other) for two years. As I did with Wendy at Blue Lagoon, I pull out my best poker face to disguise my otherwise obvious surprise.