Talk about a versatile rig! Talk about alternative facts! Moby’s onboard navigation system, plus our new amphibious capabilities, really paid off on this trip. Janene was all worried that we would get lost or drowned, but our trans-Pacific crossing was a piece of cake.
Where the heck is American Samoa? Drive to Hawaii, then continue on about halfway to New Zealand. Since it was such a long drive we stayed for five weeks.
How to pronounce “Samoa”? Mainlanders say Sa-moa, with the accent on the –moa. Islanders say it with the accent on the first part, like the word saw followed by moa. Saw-moa. Sort of. At least to my ignorant ears.
How many Samoas are there, anyway? Short answer: quite a few. Back in the 1800’s the native Samoans had to deal with civil war plus the colonial powers of Germany, Great Britain, and USA all fighting each other, all trying to grab Samoan territory. Germany got what was then called “Western Samoa” with its large flat islands of arable land suitable for plantations. USA got the smaller rocky islands, but included was the prized deep water port at Pago Pago. During WWI, New Zealand and Britain seized Western Samoa from Germany as a prize of war, but eventually allowed it to become the independent nation of “Samoa”. “American Samoa” (a.k.a. AmSam) remains an unincorporated territory of the United States. American Samoans are not US citizens, but they can easily travel to the US, join the military, get green cards, and become citizens if they so desire.
Why did we go to AmSam? To visit our grandkids. After leaving Kazakhstan in 2012 we moved to Boise because the grandkids were here, and then this summer their parents up and moved them to AmSam. 95% of the population lives on the big island of Tutuila, which is roughly 4 x 17 miles. Our grandkids live in the densely populated part of Tutuila NW of the airport, smack in the middle of the densely populated, ugly, strip-malled developed part of the island. Sadly, like people in so much of the rest of the world, Samoans have left their rural villages for the bright city lights. Or left the islands for distant places.
On the very western tip of Tutuila is an environmental research station run by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). The air samples are pure here, as South America is about 7,000 miles away. The woman in charge of this station is leaving soon for her next assignment at a similar station in Antarctica. Talk about a climate change.
Bats. Big, fricking Samoan fruit bats, also known as flying foxes. With their three foot wingspan and abundant numbers they are hard to miss.
One of our first nights on the island we got to go out with some scientists who were trapping the bats in tall nets and tagging them as part of a long term study.
Such cute little critters.
Rather like pterodactyls flying overhead all the time.
Early in the trip we lucked out and got invited to visit a beautiful cove at the village of Maloata, tucked into the remote NW corner of Tutuila. Unlike the sad fate of indigenous people in most of the world, such as the Hawaiians and Native Americans, the natives of American Samoa have retained control of their lands. 90% of American Samoa is owned communally by Samoans, 8% is owned by individual Samoans, and only 2% is owned by foreigners, or “palagi”. Pronounced paalangi (singular) or papaalangi (plural). By law no more land can be sold to papaalagi.
The tiny village and bay belong to the extended family of our host Ian, a friend of son-in-law Nick. Want a coconut fresh off the tree? Ian can take care of that. In Hawaii a cove like this would be full of expensive houses or the site of a big resort. Instead, here it remains much like it has always been. No doubt much change has come to American Samoa, but at least they haven’t lost their land.
Need the husk taken off that fresh coconut? Ian made it look easy. Fa’asamoa is a much used term roughly meaning the Samoan way. Not losing their their land has no doubt been a huge part of why Samoans have not lost their roots and their souls.
Want fresh coconut water, not some out of a can? Ian can hook you up in short order.
Coconut water is so trendy these days. I was hoping it would help cure my heretofore unnoticed case of Dowager’s Hump.
Our spearfishing yielded a colorful catch. This one reminded me of a brown trout.
The surgeon fish can deliver a nasty slash with a little pink switchblade it can whip out of its tail.
Our catch looked to me like we had been fishing in the saltwater aquarium tank at my doctor’s office. When I say “our” catch what I really mean is that Ian got most of them.
Nick did spear this octopus, but Ian spotted it first, and without his help we would never have even seen it. Lola is fearless when it comes to getting hands on with slimy critters.
This tentacle looked good, but once barbequed it was as tough and rubbery as a bungie cord. Later simmered in a crock pot all day with coconut milk, the octopus turned out delicious.
Digesting our meal of coconut and fresh fish, we awaited darkness so we could go out snorkeling with flashlights to hunt lobsters. Diving at night in the ocean was a bit spooky at times, especially when I would drift out over the edge of the coral reef and my suddenly anemic flashlight would barely begin to pierce the depths of the abyss. I did not stray too far from Ian.
Nick and I of course got skunked. But Ian kindly furnished lobster for our pot. Delicious.
Boiled, the lobster turned red. Nick is red without being boiled.
After a week of lolling around Tutuila, we set off for Manua, a cluster of three small islands sixty miles to the west. One thing Samoans have a reputation for is their large size. Obviously that is a stereotype, but on the other hand there are a lot of really huge folks around. So much so that before you get on the interisland puddle jumper planes, every passenger gets on a scale, and they assign seats based on how to best distribute the weight.
No frill air travel in our Twin Otter.
Everyone is a backseat driver on Polynesian Airlines, the Samoan national carrier.
No, I did not in any way enhance the colors in this photo, or any other in this blog. Hard to believe, but the water, the grass, our little yellow Nike-inspired ferry are all in their natural colors. After landing on the Island of Ta’U we caught the island minibus five miles to the port on the other end of the island.
Sadly the island looked half deserted, a result of both emigration and a deadly tsunami in 2009. There were so many abandoned houses. Not mere tin-roofed shacks, but nice big homes that were slowly going to rust and ruin and succumbing to the jungle growth.
The captain and his helmsman, with Ta’U receding in the background as we take the hour long ferry ride to Ofu island. I have been around boats all my life and took an instant liking to the crew and their boat. This twin-hulled design is based on ancient Polynesian sailboats, and these guys have at least 3,000 years of seafaring in their genes. The oldest archeological site in all of Polynesia is on Ta’U, and many believe Samoa is where all Polynesian culture began. Well, at least that is the story they tell here in Samoa.
My kind of low budget engineering. With some scrap metal, 2×4’s, and old insulators they had crafted an outrigger system, good for trolling for tuna when plying the route between islands. And I appreciated the backup motor onboard, albeit a well used one.
I have been blessed in life in many ways. One of them is an absolute lack of motion sickness. Sea sickness never crossed my mind on this beautiful day with light seas. For a while I thought Lola was being sweet and snuggly. Then it finally dawned on me that sea sickness was the real explanation.
Ditto for a queasy Mads in the cabin.
Nick and Mads got a ride with the luggage in the airport shuttle to our resort. One of the things the grandkids love about Samoa is that riding in the back of a pickup is standard fare. Most vehicles on the road in Samoa are pickup trucks, and at any given time most of the pickups have folks riding in the back.
Vaoto Lodge on Ofu island. http://vaotolodge.com/ This is your one and only choice in accommodations on the island unless you can set up a home stay somehow. We are talking bare bones accommodations here. Cinder block and metal roof construction. Bring your own food and cook it yourself. It is perfectly clean and functional, but do not expect elite five-star service here. American Samoa is not set up for tourists who want to be pampered. There just isn’t really any tourist infrastructure here on any of the islands. Even the main island of Tutuila only has a couple hotels, and only one of those looked like the kind of place your average tourists would have in mind.
But the lodge did furnish its own pack of about five dogs. They whole pack showed up in the kitchen when it was meal time. Often they hung out on the airport runway out front. I guess they have the once a week airline flight schedule figured out. Dog lovers will feel right at home here. Trouble is every village has its own dog pack, and they are damn defensive and territorial. There is no vehicle transport available at the lodge or on the island, so walking is the only option. I love dogs, but getting surrounded by a packs of barking, biting dogs kind of took the shine off this island paradise. So just imagine how it went for someone like Janene, with an already irrational fear of dogs. Not good.
Cabin #7. Home sweet home here at on Ofu.
Spartan but clean. There were very active ant colonies in both our bedroom and the bathroom, but they were tiny and went about their busy lives in the margins and didn’t bother us. To be fair, all of Samoa seems to be one big ant colony. Lachelle even has an ant colony in the back of her little Toyota SUV. Open the back hatch, and there they are, streams of tiny black ants streaming about on their little pathways.
But we did not come here to be pampered. We came for the coral reefs, like this one viewed from our beachside shelter.
And we came for the National Park of American Samoa. Here is the visitor center and pretty much the entire park infrastructure on the twin islands of Ofu and Olosega. Yes indeed, part of the genuine US Department of the Interior’s National Park Service. How can this be, in a place where outsiders cannot own land? Well, it turns out land can be leased for up to 55 years, so that is just what the NPS did back in 1988. The park lands are on each island, but of the alleged 13,000 visitors per year at this park, greater than 90% are on the main island of Tutuila. Here on Ofu and Olosega we did not see nor hear of another tourist in 5 days. Of the 59 National Parks, Samoa ranks #58 in visitor numbers, barely beating out only Gates of the Arctic NP in Alaska.
Blessed by a cloudy morning and a break from the mercilessly blazing tropical sun, we set off to the top of the island on one of the few official NPS trails.
Even without the sun the heat and humidity are stifling, oppressive, and it is pretty much like hiking inside a giant sweat lodge.
Even more so with a sweaty little piggy on my back.
The amazing coconut crab. An overgrown species of hermit crab, these are the largest land-living arthropods in the world. They weigh up to 9 pounds, and can grow to up to 3 feet in length from leg to leg. They scavenge for food in the jungle and live up to 60 years. While they mate on dry land, the females return to the sea to lay their eggs. After hatching and growing a bit, the young find a snail shell to live in and return to dry land. And they taste great. Unfortunately we did not catch any that were big enough to provide much meat.
This ain’t Idaho. It felt like we were hiking on Jurassic Park island.
These giant ferns have fronds 10′ long.
Giant Red Ginger flowers lined the trail at the upper elevations.
At last our sweaty tired crew reached the high point of the island, at 1621′. But it turned out that due to the dense jungle growth here was no view from the top, so we had to drop down off the ridge and keep going.
The trail to the overlook was not exactly wheelchair accessible.
On a clear day this is the view from the overlook. Ofu and our favorite snorkeling beach are below, with Ofu’s twin island of Olosega just beyond, and in the distance (upper right) is Ta’U island where we flew in. At least it looks this way on the Park Service website.
Here was our view from the same spot. And here are the three reasons we visited Samoa.
The overlook was a good spot for a break. Here Keyton is about to interrupt my nap with a round of that classic game “tickle Grandpa’s ear with a piece of grass.”
A young couple doing science research on island birds hiked down the trail right behind us and lucked into a large coconut crab. They generously shared it with us back at the lodge. As you can see, its claw and arm are about the same size as Keyton’s. It washed down well with Vailima, Samoa’s national beer.
Part of the National Park, the coral reef here at our favorite beach on Ofu is among the finest and most pristine in all of Samoa. So many species of coral, and so many colors of fish. Snorkeling here made us realize how truly sick and pathetic the reefs were on Tutuila.
Coral bleaching, thought to be due primarily to rising ocean temperatures, is killing off huge sections of the earth’s coral reefs. I have long read about this issue, but now I have seen it first hand. The problem is real. But in my very red State of Idaho the legislature just directed the Idaho Department of Education to scrub from the science standards any mention of global warming or of its human causes . I guess if you stick your head in the sand you can’t see the coral reef dying in front of you.
Flower Pot Rock on Tutuila is a well known Samoan landmark. Here is a recent before and after shot of the reef there, showing the bleached coral on the right.
Once the coral is bleached and dead it decays and breaks down. While most of the island did not look this bad, we did see a lot of scenes like this on Tutuila.
This, our favorite beach and coral reef on Ofu island, is a protected part of the National Park. It was just a 20 minute walk from Vaoto Lodge. Luckily it was a dog-free walk to get there. Doing our part to protect these reefs, we speared crown-of-thorns starfish. While they do eat coral, they are a native species. But for some reason in recent decades their population in parts of Samoa has exploded, and they decimated the coral reefs in places on Tutuila. So now it is open season on them.
We had a lovely five days here on Ofu, but it was time to go. There was no lodge valet service, no free shuttle to the airport, and no lounge for elite 5-star diamond level travelers. But the end of the runway is literally in front of the Vaoto Lodge, and the bare bones terminal was under the front porch of a small building next door, so we endured the hardship without too much suffering. The multi-tasking guy in the sunglasses served as check in agent/baggage handler/flight steward, and brought an official-looking bathroom scale for weighing passengers and cargo. I like an airline where the pilots get out of the cockpit and help out behind the desk.
Mads and I went out to do a pre-flight inspection. Next stop, Pago Pago airport back on the main island of Tutuila.
End of “Moby Goes to American Samoa (Part 1)”