Samoa: Legends live amid the lava flows

By Vaimoana Tapaleao

Vaimoana Tapaleao finds these surreal Samoan volcanic rock fields have a spiritual atmosphere.

Walking across the Lava Fields left by the eruptions of Mt Matavanu between 1905 to 1911. Photo / Vaimoana Tapaleao
Walking across the Lava Fields left by the eruptions of Mt Matavanu between 1905 to 1911. Photo / Vaimoana Tapaleao

It's 30C outside and yet there's a sudden chill in the air.

We've just entered what is arguably one of the most spiritually sacred places in my homeland of Samoa and I can't help but attribute the cold shift in the air to ghosts.

Or maybe the air conditioning just needs to be turned down.

We're travelling by jeep through the island of Savai'i when the car enters the village of Saleaula.

Although a deeply religious country - evident by the number of grand churches it has - a lot of Samoa still holds on to the myths, legends and superstitions of its pre-Christian past.

Every village has its own share of superstitions, like the one dictating that long hair should never be worn down, or another warning ladies to be careful of wearing a red sei (flower) behind your ear, as female ghosts can be jealous... and feisty.

I'm not sure what Saleaula's are at this stage, however I do know the village holds some of the country's most well-known treasures.

The entire village sits on barren lava.

Traditional Samoan fale, family homes, clotheslines and gardens - how does that work, I think to myself - have been built on stretches of dark grey lava.

But why, I wonder out loud, aren't there many people around. That, I'm told, is because when the sun is up, the last thing you want to be doing in this village is standing outside.

The superstitious in me is quick to ask whether ghosts are involved in that rule. No, it turns out, it's just because you'll burn your feet.

We stop at a place known simply as the Lava Fields where a large signs tells that it is the result of the eruption of Mt Matavanu between 1905 to 1911.

Once it was a thriving community but today there's no sign of life. Black, bumpy stretches of rock spread as far as the eye can see and continue as far as the ocean a good two hour's walk away.

It simply is an incredible sight and it surprises me to learn that no one died in the volcanic eruption.

My guides tell me the eruption was so slow that it took years to reach the village so villagers had time to escape by canoe to Samoa's other main island: Upolu.

There they resettled in a new village called Le'auva'a (meaning the group of canoers), which to this day is made up mostly of people whose ancestors originated from Saleaula.

A little way down the road we pull up at the site of an old church, whose sacred remains still stands more than 100 years after the eruption.

Curiously, or rather miraculously, the church was not fully destroyed by the flowing lava.

Instead, the lava went through and around it, leaving the eerily beautiful skeleton that stands today.

There's something surreal and spiritual about standing in such a place. However a story one of the guides tells me makes me laugh.

Inside there used to be two large trees - one a mango tree - that over the years had grown inside the remains of the church.

One day, while driving past the site, he noticed a large plume of smoke billowing from the spot and to his horror noticed that the trees were being burnt down by local women.

"They thought it would look prettier for tourists. It wasn't until I pointed out that when the tree attached to the church goes down, the whole thing will go down, that they very quickly put it out."

About 100m to the left of the church is a rocky path, shadowed by trees, that gives off a sort of foreboding vibe.

At the end of the path, however, is something that, as a young girl, I had heard of and longed to see one day: The Virgin's Grave.

Legend has it that the village taupou - which literally translates to virgin but who is the high chief's daughter - died of tuberculosis as a teenager.

Locals believe she was so pure that the lava flowed around her grave, not touching it.

One of my guides, an 81-year-old palagi man who has lived in Samoa for 30 years, offers another explanation - a scientific one - then adds, "But the Samoan story's lovely, so we'll go with that." I'm holding a small hibiscus flower in my hand, which we picked earlier to give to the virgin.

I don't know exactly why, but I kiss the flower before dropping it gently onto the grave below. It's that sort of place.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air NZ offers up to seven direct flights a week between Auckland and Samoa. Fares start from $270 per person, one way.

What to do: Visiting Saleaula' Lava Fields is free. A small entry free is required to see the church site and the Virgin's Grave. Most hotels run tours around Savai'i, which include a visit to Saleaula.

Further information: See samoa.travel

Vaimoana Tapaleao was assisted by Samoa Tourism Authority, Aggie Grey's Hotel and Le Manumea Hotel on Upolu and Vacations Beach Fales in Savai'i.

- NZ Herald

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