Savaii: God's own coconut cannon

By Liz Light

My man Sam announces he wants to give up building and become the coconut man at Alofaaga Blowholes. Tofua, the coconut man, has the world's best job. Between waves he walks out on the rocks and puts coconuts down the mouth of the blowhole then scurries away, out of the hazard zone. We wait for the anticipated big wave which fires coconuts 60 metres into the air on a violent fizzing geyser of water.

We ooh and aah, it's impossible not to be impressed by the antics of God's own cannon. Tofua grins widely. His job has that alluring element of boys-own danger. Timing is all and the careless could be easily swept away into wild ocean or bludgeoned to death by a water-powered coconut. And there's money in it. First he sells coconuts to thirsty tourists to drink - two tala each - then gathers up the empties to use as cannon fodder - one tala per shot.

I wouldn't mind if Sam moved to Samoa for the job of his dreams because I'm in love with Savaii.

It's the largest of Samoa's two main islands but the capital, Apia, is on the other one so Savaii, a ferry ride from the action, is lightly populated and largely pristine, uninhabited rainforest.

Geologically, Savaii is a massive many-headed volcano thrusting out of the sea. The higher areas are covered in rainforest and cold fresh rivers tumble from the mountains to the coast.

One road circles the island linking villages, which huddle near streams and sheltered coves in the south and, in the northeast, are strung along picture-perfect coral sand beaches.

The church is always the village centre and often these are lavish colonial wedding cake constructions. A playing field adjoins the church and tethered horses keep grass trimmed and neat. Wall-less houses (fales) cluster around, often built on plinths and with precisely placed poles supporting the roof. In Savaii folk opt for cool breezes before privacy.

Lush gardens are full of colour and pride with neat lawns edged with gold leafed plants, frilled with scarlet hibiscus, shaded by big umbrella trees ablaze with pink flowers and perfumed with frangipani that idly drop white blossom.

No village is complete without tropically languid dogs which lazily open one eye as you pass. Too hot and dozy to bark by day, they howl late into the night. Hens scratch in roadside ditches and multi-coloured pigs trit-trot busily, trailing little piglets.

Tofua is doing his job perfectly so, in reality, Sam can't become the Alofaaga coconut man and we can't live happily ever after in one of Savaii's pretty little villages. But it's a funky version of Pacific paradise and we drive around the island twice to relish the scenery from both directions.

The road is slender and driving is necessarily slow. Children amble home from school, laughing, chatting, their hair decorated with a profusion of wild flowers. Massive men carry full food baskets and big machetes as they walk home from plantations.

We stop at the west end of the island where the sun sets and the spirits of the dead depart and, because the dateline passes just beyond, we take time to gaze into tomorrow.

In 1990 and 1999, cyclones Ofa and Val struck this area ferociously, destroying the village of Falealupo. The starkly beautiful ruins of the Catholic church stand on a point near the sea.

We keep on our circuit and, near the island's northern point, there's a bumpy, steep side road up to Mt Matavanu. Here we meet Sei Api Utumapu, to use his words, the "world famous crater man," but he pronounces it "greater man". This hilarious, and possibly partially intoxicated, fellow has crafted himself a job guiding tourists, for a small fee, to the crater.

Mt Matavanu erupted regularly between 1905 and 1911 and spewed forth two long tongues of lava, one stretching 14 kilometres to the sea, taking out a couple of villages in its path. We peer over the edge into the crater. It's interesting enough but the best thing, at 1000 metres, is the cool dripping rainforest with over 50 varieties of orchid.

Our base is Manase where most of Savaii's tourist accommodation lines up along a postcard beach. We have a fale with woven coconut frond blinds that we can pull down but we soon go local and leave them up, choosing sea breeze and view.

Sam finds plastic chairs and a table and, "so sad", the bar only sells quart bottles of Vailima, the local beer.

He settles in at dusk, watching the sky lose colour, and waxes lyrical, "Liz, 60 metres, isn't that amazing! Imagine the force behind that coconut."

- Detours, HoS

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