Saturday, November 19 (Day 81)
Lalomanu – Apia, Samoa
Fact of the day: Pacific yellow-bellied sea snakes gather in swarms at breeding season that have been observed up to 100 kilometres in length.
I don't want to leave. I don't want to leave...
My final night of sleeping in a beach fale is probably the most restless of all my time in Fiji in Samoa. I was always going to struggle, faced with an all-out night-time assault from the fear and my break-up demons, but the crying babies, howling packs of dogs and fruit bats feeding their young, don’t really help me too much either.
This is as far east as I go. When my bus departs here today I begin four days of travel heading in a south westerly and then a predominantly north westerly direction. From Apia it is 2890 kilometres to Auckland - I guess a similar distance as it is from London to Moscow. When you realise that Hawaii is another 3000 kilometres in the other direction, you start to appreciate just how vast the Pacific Ocean is.
Just as I’m leaving Taufua I discover that eight of the All Blacks – those All Black players with Samoan roots – will be here on Sunday. That would have been a rather apt way to finish my 2011 Rugby World Cup trip.
Perched on boxes of ripened cooking bananas and bread fruit, Christmas carol reggae tunes a-playing, I begin my two-hour bus journey back to Apia, bumping into my German friends, Dorothee and Tom, as they jump on a couple of kilometres up the road. The journey takes us through the stunning interior of Upolu, with virgin rainforest, misty rivers and vertical soaring mountains. In our tradition we say that the mountain over there used to be a man before he turned into rock. Do you think that might be possible? My new rugby-mad 15-year-old Samoan friend asks me, pointing out at the strangely shaped distant set of mountains. Yes, why not? I think anything is possible. Maybe it isn’t true but there’s a good chance that it might really be correct.
As we reach Apia I spot my second game of kirikiti since I have been in Samoa. Basically, this is a unique version of the game of cricket that is only played in Samoa. I wish I could film this game because it really does look like a Monty Python sketch making fun of the sport of cricket. I mean, they have three stumps but they are twice as big and twice as wide as in the game we are all familiar with. Instead of wearing all whites, the Samoans are playing in multi-coloured sarongs, and seem to be jumping up and down singing and shouting as the bowler races in to bowl. The ‘cricket bat’ appears to be much larger than we might expect and, if I am not mistaken, it looks from the window of my passing bus like it is made of plastic, not willow. A couple of the fielders also appear to be holding cricket bats out on the boundary line. The ball also seems exceedingly bouncy. Very, very bizarre stuff. Deserving of further investigation when I get back to England next week.
I am not quite up to 5pm clubbing, so a sweaty afternoon lie low, during a thunderstorm, takes me through till the crazy time of 6.30pm. I always look forward to taxi drives here. My young afable Samoan driver purchased the taxi we are in with the cash he managed to save from picking apples in New Zealand for seven months. Now he lives back in Samoa so he can help support his extended family on Upolu. Fa’a-Samoa – the Samoan way of life, takes precedence over everything in this country of 180,000. Practically every day I hear stories of how Samoans have returned home from abroad just so they can look after their parents, cousins and grandparents. These people are driven by family values and concerns for their loved ones, not by the selfish individual greed of that thing we call capitalism.
Y-Not Bar is packed out and, fortunately for me, it is happy hour for another 60 minutes. At just 5 tala (1.3 pounds) for a rum&coke, the hour is indeed happy. Peering out at the monsoon rain flooding Apia’s streets, Samuel comes over and introduces himself:
I can see you are alone my friend so I thought I’d come and join you.
Samuel is the assistant commissioner of the Samoan national fire service. He’s a lovely bloke, aged around 30 I guess, and as well as keeping me company until my German friends arrive, he also buys me a double rum & coke before leaving to see his father. I’ve experienced this kind of behaviour from Samoans throughout my time here. They will come over to you, introduce themselves, buy you a drink, thank you for choosing to holiday in their country and then offer their help should you have any problems during the remainder of your stay. Each and every one of them seems to value their family above any personal desires for wealth and status. You really have got to love the Samoans.
The party might not be as bonkers as it was on my first night on Samoa but it is still pretty barking. Like a scene straight out of Twin Peaks, I glance around the corner of one door to see if the dimly-lit men’s toilet cubicle is free, only for a Chinese dwarf to walk out under the arm I’m using to balance up against the wall. There are girls wearing midsummer’s eve garlands in their hair – something I’ve only ever seen in the Baltic States - and the Samoan fa’afafine (those blokes who dress up like girls but are still boys) are out in big numbers, giggling and smiling a lot. An evening of clubbing in Apia is fun, silly and bizarre in ways that are difficult to explain unless you experience it for yourself…which you should one day if you get the chance. The sign which reads: No smoking till 10pm, sums it all up.
With my German friends down and out by 11pm and off home in a taxi, I nip down the road to V-Bar (the place where I spent much of my first ‘crazy’ night in Apia, two weeks ago) to buy some food. The club is still kicking and I’ve made instant friends with the campest bunch of lads I have met in my entire life. Spotting me glancing at a passing high-heeled Samoan girl one of the lads asks me: Darling, you sure you aren’t checking out the guy and not the girl? No, the girl lads. That’s a shame sweetie. I get introduced to many of the best known personalities in the local Samoan gay scene as well as to a couple of their (apparently) jealous boyfriends. They are good value company this lot. I can even deal with one of the lads telling me I look sexy tonight. I sense though, after finishing my chips, the club kicking out, and one of the lads inviting me to a private party, that it is time for me to get myself a taxi home.
As ever, finding and stopping a cab is as easy as buying a pint of milk. My driver tells me he plays rugby to a high standard in New Zealand but he has come home because his grannie wants him to be nearer to her in her latter years. These people are lovely.
Saturday, September 24
(Day 23) Franz Josef – Pukekura –Greymouth - Punakaiki
A twenty-something French couple, who are waving their arms around so much they look like they are directing Paris traffic, are in the hostel kitchen demanding some fifty-something Dutch bloke gives them hard cash for the food he has allegedly stolen from their meagre supplies. Two of my eggs have also gone missing overnight but I have to say respect to Dutchie or whoever else for pulling off such a daring raid without getting nabbed. Out of supplies, I stole a slice of bread the other morning from someone’s almost-full loaf and I have to say my heart was absolutely pounding mid-crime. Risk versus reward.
The Inter City west coast special labours up through the steep mountain roads until it descends to the coast once again near Pukekura (New Zealand's smallest town with a population of '2'). The surf is literally pounding the shoreline and the rain is coming down horizontally as well as vertically. I think you could call it cats and dogs. Once we depart Greymouth, the most sizeable town in this part of New Zealand (population 10,000), the views of the Tasman Sea coast are transformed from four- to five-star. Thick, lush Rainforest, often clinging to cast mountains reminiscent of Vietnam and Thailand, rises high above the ocean below, which is littered with huge boulders and Sea Stacks.
I am the only punter on the bus to leave the west coast service at Punakaiki where it is a 400-metre downhill stroll to the simply but aptly named ‘Beach Hostel’. I had pencilled in three nights of chilling here but was convinced to stay longer in Franz Josef by the YHA receptionist there. Never trust a pretty girl; I am instantly regretting my decision. This place looks like chill out central, and by that I mean the kind of place where you can totally unwind without the unwanted presence of too many dorm-mented Gap year types.
The second-floor lounge has big wide windows opening out to the beach and pounding surf just metres away. I make a mug of coffee, grab my latest novel (which in truth I am struggling to get through) and snuggle up on the sofa, admiring the view between paragraphs about life in a South African shanty town and caffeine. I reckon it is about 10 minutes before the therapeutic sound of the crashing waves and the solitude of where I find myself sends me off into a deep, comfortable sleep.
The only other person staying at the hostel is Matt, a 24-year old lad from California. He had planned to stay here for a night or two but, like me, he found himself instantly taken by the simple pleasures of Punakaiki. He has sorted himself a nice little deal whereby he works two hours each morning cleaning up the dorms and the kitchen, and in return he can stay overnight free of charge. Frankly, if I had no rugby matches to get to next week and no real travel itinerary, I would do exactly what Matt is doing and stay here for a week or two. For reasons not entirely clear to me, Punakaiki is the place where I have found the most inner peace since I first left Europe at the end of June. I feel mellow, truly relaxed and relatively untroubled here.
I did have a ticket for tonight’s England match against Romania but, as you will have gathered, I offloaded it so that I could spend time travelling instead up the west coast of the South Island. As much as I would like to be in Dunedin again tonight, I definitely made the right decision with plan B heading up this way. There is a pub 100 metres away from the Beach Hostel. This also rates as my favourite pub of the tour to date. It is old school in all the good ways, with a friendly publican and staff and equally affable locals. The ale and grub also score highly. In Punakaiki you feel like you are staying on your own virtually undiscovered tiny island in the middle of the wild ocean.
England are vastly improved against Romania with Mark Cueto running in three early tries, and Chris Ashton looking more like his exciting self. Matt joins me for the New Zealand v France match that has the pub packed with half of the friendly Punakaiki community. The All Blacks are different class to a very decent French side and look to me to be the best team here.
Matt is one of the soundest people I have met on my tour so far. In some ways, he reminds me a bit of myself a few years back; or myself now minus all the baggage and demons. Beer, table football, a stroll along the beach in the rain, insightful chat and some happy smoke round off a truly chilled day; the crashing waves sending me off to sleep in seconds.
England 67 Romania 3
France 17 New Zealand 37