Thursday, July 23, 2015

Talofa Samoa

Since New Zealand experiences winter in July/August, there's no Christmas to worry about--however students (and teachers) get a 'winter break' of 2-3 weeks (Depending on the school). Naturally Lisa and I thought we'd escape to somewhere warm and so a while ago we decided to check out Samoa--a new country for both of us, and my first time to a proper Pacific Island. The first Polynesian country to gain independence in 1962, you may also be interested to know that it was briefly administered by Germany prior to the First World War (When WWI began the NZ army easily took over the islands).

For your reference, below is a map of Samoa.

The population is around 180,000, with all but 40,000 living on the island of Upolu.

Immediately upon arriving at the airport, we got a taxi over to the ferry terminal at the west end of Upolu. Here we walked onto the main passenger ferry to Savai'i (The 'Big Island'). As you can see, a number of students returning from a dancing performance in Apia (the capital) were happy to see us.
Everything is colourful in Samoa. It seemed like an entire school walked onto this ferry, all decked out in green and yellow. Lifers seen on the ferry crossing: Red-footed Booby, White-tailed Tropicbird, and White Tern.
Out first night on Savai'i was at a place called Lucia's Lagoon. Although it's not the fale we stayed in, here is an example of the charmingly rustic accommodations typical of the country.
Sunny start to our first full day in Samoa (Lucia's Lagoon). Little did I know how different I would feel come nightfall...)
Our first endemic bird of the trip: Samoan Starling. Common in virtually all habitats.
Christianity is extremely important to the Samoan people, and all denominations seem to be represented. Early missionaries must have been excited to discover a Samoan prophecy that a new religion would come from far away to replace traditional practices. Therefore today, Christianity is a crucial part of Samoan culture, and as we soon discovered, basically nothing happens on Sunday that is not related to Church or feasting. Above is one of the many churches that dot the countryside (Almost seemed like one per 100 people of population). It seems clear that much of the local village finances go towards building and maintaining their churches, while the average house is fairly basic.
One of the few photos we got of an 'open fale'--a village meeting place for dealing with local politics and hosting feasts. Some are large and colourful while others are a bit more simple like this one (We were usually whizzing by on buses, thus the poor photo). As a birding side-note, even though it's the boreal breeding season, Pacific Golden-Plovers were still fairly common in short grassy lawns like the one above.
From Lucia's, we got a ride to the NW side of Savai'i where we checked into Va-i-moana, where we would spend 4 nights. While it's definitely set up for tourists, it's a lot more laid-back than the resorts back on Upolu. Very friendly staff and some decent snorkeling in the lagoon. Unfortunately, on our very first night, I awoke at midnight and spent the next 5 hours ridding my body of all solids of fluids (I'll leave the mechanics up to your imagination). Not sure what it was in the end as it basically took me out of commission for the next three days. Lisa was fine that first night but then got hit by the same thing the next night. Soooo, unfortunately we basically did not move from the area in this photo during our entire time on Savai'i. Not a bad place to be, but feeling constantly ferverish and sick was not fun. 
Every now and then I'd crawl out of bed and walk around the ground. One of the most common birds here was the Polynesian Triller (Pictured Above).
Eastern Wattled Honeyeater--another common bird throughout the country.

After an epic travel-day, in which sickness-weary Russell and Lisa took a 2 hour cramped bus (Crankin' the 2014 pop hits on loop), from one end of Savai'i to the other, then caught a ferry to Upolu that was a quarter the size of the last one but with a similar amount of people plus that truck filled with fermenting coconuts, then hopped in a taxi and drove to the eastern most tip of Upolu....... we arrived here: Lalomanu. I should first say that while it was a long and tiring journey, I never get tired with the Samoan countryside. It must make a wonderful place to cycle tour at your own pace, with each village more friendly and colourful than the last one, though the stray dogs can cause problems. Anyway, LALOMANU! Perhaps the most famous beach on the island though sadly it was hammered by a big tsunami a few years ago which smashed up the famous coral reef here and destroyed the village just behind where this photo was taken. Fortunately, many of the houses and businesses have been rebuilt and the coral is gradually recovering as we saw plenty of awesome fish during our stay here. The island in the middle of this shot is Nu'utele--Somewhat of a mysterious wonder for birders as it's very difficult to access (Surrounded by coral reefs and dodgy swells and many locals believe it to be haunted/sacred), and it is home to a unique storm petrel that is completely dark (Perhaps a morph of the Polynesian Storm Petrel but maybe a separate species), and more importantly--it's supposedly the best place in the country to see the most famous Samoan endemic--the Tooth-billed Pigeon--the closest living relative to the Dodo! (Or so some say). Now that I've built things up, I'll say that the swell was such that safe landing was impossible plus in my still-recovering state, I was not feeling up for the vertical climbs through the jungle that exploring the island might entail. Instead I was happy to relax in our fale and get out for the odd swim among the fishies. Boobies were plentiful (It's impossible to avoid this pun), as both Brown and Red-footed nest on that island as well, and we tallied our first Pacific Pigeons of the trip here as well as 'heard-only' Many-coloured Fruit-Dove, and Crimson-crowned Fruit-Dove. With such great names I hoped we might see them later at some point.
It took a while, but we finally got up the strength to visit our first tourist hot spot of Samoa! This is the To Sua Ocean Trench (More of a sink-hole). While it can get a little crowded with tourists, it's a very cool spot. You can jump into the pool from above (Though we opted for the ladder as it's fairly shallow-bottomed), and the ocean currents sweep in from one side, then drag back out again, which makes for an interesting sensation in a seemingly peaceful-looking pool.
Beautiful (albeit it grey) coastline scenery at To Sua.
Oh man, I almost forgot about this place! After our 3 days at Lalomanu, we needed to taxi back to Apia to get some cash (Because there is literally no ATM on the eastern side of the island apparently). We hadn't booked accomodation for this night so the night before I tapped into some WiFi and booked this place online. It looked decent enough, had a great special on the 'Deluxe Suite' and was not too far out of Apia on a nice-looking bay. Well.... after catching a ride to Apia, getting cash, then driving back to the village of Solosolo where this place is near, our driver dropped us off then said goodbye and headed off. I walked up to the office... it's closed. That's odd. "Hello?" No one around. I walked up the steps to the second level; there's the retaurant and pool, seemingly ready for business... but not a soul in sight. When I got back down Lisa had been able to easily open one of the room doors to use the washroom. All the beds were perfectly made up. But search as we might, there was no a single person (Employee or patron) in sight (This is only one third of the building in the photo). WTF?I had received a "booking confirmed" email the previous night. Here was a hotel is fine working order, and not a single person around. Had we been well-stocked with food in our bags we might have considered just sleeping in one of the open rooms for the night, and lounge by the pool, but we were hot, hungry, and tired, and this just seemed ridiculous, so we stuck our thumb out and thankfully the first guy who passed us stopped and drove us into town. Tao apparently was a former economics adviser (Or something like that) in the Samoan government and had even been to Ottawa on a business trip. Now he is semi-retired and runs a small milk business along with other farm-related activities. He dropped us off in Apia and we did eventually find a place to say (This story is much longer--i.e. We almost repeated the same experience again---but I'll save it for a personal encounter sometime in the future). I should mention that this was a Sunday. REMEMBER: DON'T DO ANYTHING ON A SUNDAY IN SAMOA. Just chill.
After a shower, a big lunch, and watching some riveting Samoan TV, we decided to explore Apia a bit in the evening (Our first time in the only city in the country other than my 10 second visit to an ATM earlier that day). Here's an interesting clock-tower/lighthouse round-about thingie.
With the All-Blacks first visit just days away, many buildings were starting to show their support for the local side: MANU! (For Canadian readers, the All-Blacks are NZ's national Rugby Union team and arguably the best squad in the world in that facet of rugby. Many great All Blacks over the years have been of Samoan heritage and so it is almost shocking that the NZ side has never been to Samoa for a test. $ I guess? Well, you could tell it was a BIG DEAL for Samoa as you will see later on. The Samoan national team MANU SAMOA or "The Manu" essentially means 'The Beasts' as in..'That guy is a Beast!' (For anyone born before 1980, that's like saying, 'A Force to Be Reckoned With!')

One of the bigger churches in Samoa. Also got their Samoan pride waving away.
Apia Harbour at dusk. Hundreds of Brown Noddies were massing in the skies prior to heading inland to breeding colonies in the mountain forests.
As the match draws nearer, the traffic and flags started to increase! Unforuntatley when we booked our flights we didn't know about the rugby game, but it was still cool to be a part of all the festivities leading up to it. Every village on Upolu was decked out in the red and blue of Samoa and the black and silver of the All-Blacks. It almost seemed that many Samoans wanted the All-Blacks to win--they were just so stoked to have them in the country.
A LOT of flags and T-shirts got sold that week, including one for me. GO THE MANU!

This guy even customized his ride (This is just outside Apia's one and only chain restaurant: McDonald's). In fact, as we discovered on our last day in the country (The game was starting as we boarded our plane), the entire stretch of road between Apia and the international airport (About a 45min drive) was covered in flags and banners welcoming the All Blacks and supporting the home team (as well as an assortment of other random rugby clubs from NZ and Australia... I think people were just excited about rugby in general). Alas, NZ won by a few points but that was a vast improvement for Samoa as their previous meeting was a massive blow-out loss to the Kiwis. I'm sure they're still smiling back in Apia.
While we visited the city a few times in those final days, it was wonderful to escape the buzz and excitement by retreating to Dave Parker's Eco Lodge, perched up in the hills above town, and surrounded by small plantations and extensive primary forest. You're above the canopy here as you look back down a narrow valley to Apia and it was my first time in undisturbed Samoan forest so I picked up a number of new birds here, and both of us enjoyed the quiet vibe and wonderful Samoan food put on by "The Chicken Man" (We can't recall his real name--Also quite the poolshark).
Though this photo is horrible, it was truly one of the great highlights of the trip for me, to see 15+ White-tailed Tropicbirds soaring around the forest below us throughout the day. I've always thought of tropicbirds as ocean-going and perhaps nesting on a rocking stack or isolated shrubby atoll, but here they are (along with Brown Noddies and White Terns) just cruising around... so cool!
Another site from our bedroom window was this roost of Samoan and Tongan Flying-Foxes. There are no avian raptors on Samoa so the Samoan Flying-Foxes fly around and feed throughout the daytime. Certainly through me off the first time I saw one of them thermalling high above me in the sky. Black Vulture??? Oh it's a bat!
The view of Apia from our hilltop roost at Dave Parker's. Dave seems to be somewhat of a music legend here in Samoa. Sort of like a 1970s Hawaii-style Elvis.
Lots of birds around. Here's a male Cardinal Myzomela. Common throughout Samoa though could I get a good photo?
After hearing but not seeing them in several places, we were thrilled to get some fabulous looks at both Many-coloured (Male pictured) and Crimson-crowned Fruit-Doves.
Famous Scottish write Robert Louis Stevenson moved to Samoa later in life and absolutely loved the place. He was a champion of helping Samoans achieve more autonomy and still today he is greatly respected by everyone we met. His house, just outside of Apia is now a museum, and there is a popular hike to his tomb on top of Mt Vaea. Well, even though it was wicked hot and humid, we did it. Lost a couple kilos of sweat and should have brought more water... but I can say I saw the Treasure Island guy's resting place.
My herping friends will scoff but I'm so lazy I haven't even looked up what skink this is. There are only around 5 species in Samoa so I'll figure it out eventually. I would guess this is the Pacific Black Skink. Sounds about right. There were literally hundreds of these guys scuttling along the path as we hiked up.
I have a suspicious this is the endemic "Samoan Skink."

Thar he lies...
Checking out Robert L Stevenson's house from the top of Mt Vaea
Managed to picked up a few extra Samoan endemics on this hike including Samoan Fantail and this Samoan Whistler.
Like many other Pacific islands, Buff-banded Rails are abundant in almost any open patch of grass near dense cover. There were around a dozen cruising around the RLS Museum and we even had one beside the tomb on top of Mt Vaea. These birds occur in NZ but are now very shy and restricted mostly to mangrove wetlands in the far north. Another example of why not to introduce weasels to NZ.
Let's end on a HIGH NOTE SHALL WE??? Kiwi readers are probably cringing. Yes we did see John Key get off the plane in Samoa. As we were waiting to leave he and other 'dignitaries' had flown in on a NZ Air Force jet to take in the rugby festivities. For Canadians, this is the prime minister of NZ... kind of like their equivalent of Stephen Harper in more ways than one... Nice to see the NZ secret service guy dressing up for the occasion as well (far left). Ah well, as I type I'm back at school and back to work. At least the weekend's coming up!


  1. Very cool and interesting read! Glad you saw the Kiwi prime minister too ;-)! LOL

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