Mount Silisili (Independent Samoa)

In High Places

By: Burton Falk


HIGH PLACES: THE INDEPENDENT STATE OF SAMOA

By Burton “We’re Outta Here!” Falk

It was 5:30 p.m., and Steve, Siosi and I were standing atop one of the small craters along the ridge leading toward the summit of 6,094’ Mt. Silisili, the highpoint of Independent Samoa. A half-mile to the east and perhaps 200’ higher, we could see trees on the massive shield volcano’s topmost crest, our ultimate goal.

The question was, should we plunge into the intervening rain forest and attempt to go a bit further that evening, or should we camp on the relatively jungle-free crater rim, and make our summit attempt the following morning? The factors to be considered were:

1. We were tired. Indeed, we had arisen at 4:15 a.m. that morning, driven to the village of A’opo, where we picked up our two local guides, Mosi and Siosi, negotiated our 4x4 vehicle up an overgrown road to about the 3,000’ level on the north slope of Mt. Silisili, and then, at 6:40 a.m., began hiking, first on “plantation” trails, and later by punching our way through the thick vegetation. Mosi, by the way, after taking a wrong turn and causing us an extra hour of bush-whacking, had left us about 3:30 p.m. to return to his job as a night watchman at the village’s small timber mill.

2. So far, the day had been exceptional in that it hadn’t rained—unusual, considering we were in a rain forest. Even as we stood there, however, clouds were beginning to build up over the mountain.

3. Also the shadows were growing longer. In Samoa, near the equator, evenings arrive early and linger only briefly. We didn’t have much time before nightfall.

4. Siosi, who had wrenched his knee a half an hour earlier while climbing a lava flow just below the ridge (and who had sat down and cried, something you don’t often see in a twenty year old man nowadays), was in favor of camping where we were.

5. Steve Brown, my guide from Ecotours Samoa, was neutral on the subject. He thought that, since I was footing the bill for the expedition, I should make the decision.

6. And I, thinking of my wife, Jo, all by her lonesome in a termite-infested fale on the beach at Manase, some 6,000’ feet below, figured that the sooner I got back, the better.

“Let’s go a little further,” I said. “We can probably go another half an hour before we have to stop.”

Four nights earlier Jo and I landed at the Faleolo International Airport on Upolu Island, twenty-five kilometers to the west of Apia, Independent Samoa’s capital city. Because we had crossed the International Date Line, we arrived there Sunday, March 9, the day before we departed Fiji, Monday, March 10.

And if traveling backward in time wasn’t enough to addle our brains, we were even more perplexed by the countless open-sided oval structures we passed on our shuttle ride into Apia. What the devil were they? While some were dark; others were brightly illuminated with fluorescent light, reminding us of the bandstands to be found in small town parks in the Midwest. Surely, there couldn’t be that many concerts on the island. Later, while checking into Aggie Grey’s Hotel—the best in Apia, by the way—we learned that what we had seen were fales, i.e., traditional Samoan homes. With matting on the floors to serve both as chairs—at least, for those who can sit cross-legged—and as beds, the simple buildings are the epitome of functionality. Although curtains can be rolled down in case of bad weather, for the most part the islanders prefer the al fresco life style. In Samoa, when they say, “My life’s an open book,” they mean it.

The following day—March 10 all over again—Jo and I toured Upolu, which just may be the most beautiful tropical island we’ve ever visited. While driving around the east end of the island, we savored views of small, neat-as-a-pin villages, each possessing at least one well-maintained church; gleaming white coral sand beaches, protected by a surrounding reef; verdant mountains rising up into a cerulean blue Pacific sky; busy streams cascading down tO the sea; graceful coconut palms at every turn—indeed, it seemed as if Upolu was the very model for a tropical getaway.

On March 11, Jo and I flew from the small intra-island Fagli’i Airport, just outside of Apia, west across the 10 kilometer Apolima Straight, to the Ma’ota Airport, on the southeast corner of Savai’ i, the larger of the two main islands comprising Independent Samoa. And it was there that we met our guide for the next four days, Steve Brown—a bearded 50 year-old veterinarian hailing from Adelaide, Australia, who had arrived in Independent Samoa some ten years earlier as a part of a project sponsored by the Aussie equivalent to the U. S. Peace Corps.

With Steve at the wheel of his 4x4, we then began a clockwise tour of the big island, first visiting the Olemoe waterfall on Falealila Stream, which flows off the southern slopes of Mt. Silisili, and then the Taga blowholes, which the Lonely Planet Guide to Samoa describes as perhaps the most impressive in the world. Unfortunately, on the afternoon when we visited the site, because of unfavorable tidal conditions, the resulting eruptions were minimal. On the positive side, however, while in the same area I got a good photograph of Mt. Silisili, which at the time was completely cloud free. Steve said it was a rare day, indeed, for the top to be in full view.

Continuing around the west end of the island, we then proceeded to village of A’opo, at perhaps the 1,000’ level on north slopes of Mt. Silisili, where, meeting with the local chief, we arranged to hire Mosi and Siosi, a father and son team, as our guides for the following day’s attempt on the mountain. We then continued a bit further to Stevenson’s at Manase, where Jo was to lodge in a beachsidefale for the next three nights.

But before recounting the rest of our climbing adventure, perhaps a little background information would be helpful.

To start with, greater Samoa, which includes both Independent and American Samoa, is part and parcel of Polynesia, that huge, mid-Pacific triangular cultural area, cornered at New Zealand in the south, Hawaii in the north and Easter Island to the east. The Samoa Islands, which stretch approximately 400 miles from east to west, lie about 1,000 miles south of the Equator, 750 miles northeast of Fiji and 400 miles north of Tonga.

The Samoa Islands, which stretch approximately 400 miles from east to west, lie about I ,000 miles south of the Equator, 750 miles northeast of Fiji and 400 miles north of Tonga. They were created in a process similar to that of the Hawaiian Islands, i.e., they popped up in a line across the ocean floor as a tectonic plate slid across a hot spot in the earth’s mantle. The Samoas, however, are growing in the opposite direction. The oldest of the islands, Rose Atoll, now eroded down below sea level, lies at the eastern end of the chain, while Mt. Silisili, an active volcano that last erupted between 1905 and 1911, is at the extreme western end.

Politically, because of a series of political events too complicated to explain here, the islands west of the 17lst meridian now form the Independent State of Samoa, while those to the east of the line comprise American Samoa, an unincorporated U. S. Territory. And although the people of the two Samoas are of identical ethnicity and often of the same bloodlines, the entities are now separated by an ever growing disparity in life styles, i.e., while the Independent Samoans remain relatively traditional and self-reliant, those living in American Samoa, a mere 30 miles away, have become inured to a heavily subsidized welfare system.

The current population of Independent Samoa is 178,000, approximately 70% of them living on the capital island of Upolu. Most of the rest of the Independent Samoans reside in small villages scattered along the east and southeast coasts of Savai’i, the larger, but less developed, of the two major islands.

Religion plays a major role in Samoa. Indeed, activity in almost every village comes to a screeching halt for a 20 or 30-minute prayer session each evening. And rather than ask, “Where are you from,” as you would expect, the first question a Samoan might ask a visitor is, “What church do you belong to?” I know—this happened to me.

Lonely Planet’s Samoa, comments, “Samoans contribute what some people believe to be an exorbitant amount of money” to the church, and often the minister, pastor or priest—not the chief—will be the most affluent person in the village. Itinerant faith healers look forward to their visits to the Samoas, and usually leave with their pockets well-lined.

In spite of all the emphasis on religion, however, theft seems to be a problem in the islands. For example, at the outset of our climb, Steve Brown, for fear of a break in, had a friend drive his 4x4 down from and then, next day, back up to our remote trailhead. A guard patrolled our beach fale each night at Stevenson’s. In his book, The Happy Isles of Oceania—a terrific read, by the way—Paul Theroux relates the following conversation between himself and a German national working in Apia:

"They pray a lot here, eh?"
"If you steal a lot, you pray a lot," he replied.
But so much for facts, figures and innuendos—let’s cut to the chase.

Steve, Siosi and I plunged once more into the forest, which showed absolutely no trace of prior passage. A half an hour later, with the light failing and amid a dense thicket of trees and ferns, Steve and Siosi, using their bob knives, began hacking out a small clearing in which to camp for the night. After that was accomplished, Siosi reached deep in his pack and pulled out a package containing our dinner for the evening—home-roasted bar-be-que. Well, I was famished, and I started to salivate like a Pavlovian dog— until I saw the unwrapped piece de resistance, that is.

What Siosi held in his hand was a large chunk of pork belly—you know, unsliced bacon—but in his block there were few if any layers of red meat. It looked to be 100% solid white fat. Yuck. After saying grace, Siosi began to cut off greasy slices for his own dining pleasure, while Steve and I morosely plucked at the meat of two roasted breadfruits that Siosi had also carried along. And that, except for a few gulps of the precious water that we had packed up the mountain, and a handful of ginger snaps, was our dinner.

As the gloom deepened, we donned our jackets and rain gear, and began to fashion beds out of the fern fronds we’d hacked off earlier. My nesting spot, unfortunately, turned out to be somewhat concave, causing me to either lay on my back, hammock-like, or curled up in a ball, neither of which was especially comfortable, and so I lay there, unable to get to sleep. And that was the good news.

The bad news was that about 3 a.m. it started to rain—at which time it became apparent that my Gortex jacket had delaminated and thus leaked.

The news grew even worse as the rain increased in intensity, and I began to shiver uncontrollably. Gritting my teeth to keep them from chattering, I wondered if the night would ever end. An eon later, in an entirely new geologic period, I’m sure, when dawn finally did break, we found that, although the rain had tapered off, we were enveloped in a thick cloud through which we could see only a few feet.

We finished off the last of the breadfruit and ginger snaps, packed up, and, once more, began hacking our way ever upward toward the summit. Twenty minutes later, the terrain leveled off. Climbing first one tree and then another, Steve peered through the cloud looking for higher ground. Although nothing appeared more elevated, he had been on the true summit once before, and he knew that we weren’t there. Close, but no cigar—and, obviously, no GPS either.

We crashed around in the fog for another 15 or 20 minutes, at which point it became apparent that our chances of finding the actual highpoint were somewhere between slim and none. I remember thinking we’d be lucky to find our way back down the mountain. Again, the inevitable decision was left up to me.

“Gentlemen,” I said, “we’re outta here!”

On our descent, once below the cloud cover, it began to rain again, this time torrentially. Water poured off my Gortex hat and jacket, and the puddles were ankle deep. In spite of being soaked to the skin, because we were rapidly descending into warmer temperatures, I wasn’t the least bit uncomfortable. We reached A’opo about 3:30 p.m., and there the chief’s daughter quickly assembled for us a delicious meal consisting of fish and pumpkin curry, roasted taro root, and a refreshing cold drink made out of Cacao beans (note that all this food was either home grown or caught, quite a different menu, I’m sure, than a meal that might be served in fast food-addicted American Samoa). Later, back with Jo at Stevenson’s, I plunged into the aqua lagoon fronting ourfale, and swam out to the surrounding reef and back. Soothingly and refreshingly, the crystal clear waters washed away all vestiges of frustration left over from our Mt. Silisili misadventures.

The following day, Steve, Jo and I left Savai’i on a short flight bound for Pago Pago, the capital city of American Samoa, where we intended to climb Matafao Peak, the highpoint of Tutuila Island.


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