In the past, I have occasionally played a thoroughly excellent pub game. The idea of it is for the table to collectively come up with the most famous artist or band that no-one can name a single song by. What usually happens is that someone eventually says Genesis, someone else points out that they did Sledgehammer, and the local pedant points out that Sledgehammer was a Peter Gabriel solo track.  On it goes until I Can’t Dance is recalled, Genesis are exonerated and everyone settles upon Depeche Mode as the definitive answer.


To my utter, utter shame, I used to be like that with Robert Louis Stevenson. I knew he was a famous author and I knew he’d written some extremely well-known books. But I couldn’t remember which ones.It would be fair, therefore, to say I was ambivalent towards the Scottish wordsmith. Yet others will make a pilgrimage to the other side of the world to see where he’s buried. And, bizarrely, that place is Samoa.


Stevenson (who, of course, wrote the likes of Treasure Island and Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde) was a sickly chap who died at the age of 44. He spent the last four years of his life in Samoa, hoping that the climate would do him a few favours in the health department, but he fell in love with the Polynesian way of life.


His grave is a steep trudge up a hill from the house he had built after arriving in Samoa. The house was called Vailima – meaning ‘five streams’ – and it’s a measure of the esteem Stevenson is held in here that the national beer bears the same name. Vailima has been protected and restored, now containing a small Robert Louis Stevenson museum amongst gorgeous gardens. Back in Stevenson’s day, it was a plantation house surrounded by bananas and pineapples. Indeed, we’re told that it was Stevenson who introduced the pineapple to Samoa, possibly in a bid to secure a place in pub quizzes over a century later.


The house is a weird combination of Samoan and Scottish. There’s a traditional tapa room, where the walls are lined with tapa (the papery bark of the mulberry tree) and the whole house is generally designed so that cooling breezes can flow through it. Yet it also plays host to Samoa’s first and only fireplace. It was never used, what with it being really hot all the time.


Throughout the house are pictures of Stevenson and his family. The old photos, of the author’s funeral and meeting with the Hawaiian king have a wonderful air of innocence. The original clothes and suitcases from the era are on display, whilst there are little culture-clash nuggets that prove fascinating. The Stevenson family sewed their own clothes on an imported sewing machine, while the locals didn’t tend to wear any.


But it’s made clear that Stevenson wasn’t seen as some old colonial stamping his mark where it wasn’t wanted. He seems to be seen as a gentle man who made many friends. When Germany annexed Samoa in 1900 and took village chiefs prisoner, Stevenson went to visit them in jail. The chiefs organised for the road to Vailima to be built in his honour.


Even for someone whose knowledge of the author’s life and work is somewhat patchy (that would be me, then), Vailima is a warming, mellowing place to visit. It feels like a gateway to a gentler world.


Pulamelei Mound


David Whitley heads to the largest man-made structure in Polynesia, and tries to work out whether it proves an old adventurer’s controversial theories right

“This track is impassable after heavy rain,�? says Warren Jopling as we plod diligently up the three kilometre collection of rubble and muck that passes as a path. Vines grow over the coconut trees, puddles are there to be leapt over. You’d hardly think we were on the way to the biggest man-made structure in Polynesia, but time hasn’t treated the Pulamelei Mound all that well. On the Samoan island of Savai’i, the land on which this mystery step pyramid sits was once a large coconut plantation. In recent years, it has been left to ruin as villagers and a private family argue in the courts about who legitimately owns the land. 

The giant stone pyramid doesn’t actually seem that large, but this is because much of it is overgrown. It blends into the land, earth and foliage covering the contours of the hidden monster. Around 17,000 cubic metres of rock went into building it, and no-one really knows why. Warren explains that the lower platform with vertical walls was probably built around 900 to 1,000 years ago, with the upper part added between 1400 and 1600. It would have taken an exceptionally organised society to build it, but the purpose remains unclear.

It’s unlikely to have been a grave, says Warren, as there’s nothing inside – just thick rock. Archaeologists from New Zealand have found conch shells on the site, which may have been used for war cries. Could it be a temple to a war god? Another odd theory is that the Pulamelei Mound was built as a platform for pigeon catching – which apparently was the sport of choice for Samoan and Tongan nobles. Warren tries to play down the theory that it was made for human sacrifices – the ancient Samoans may have been ritual cannibals at one point, but the evidence doesn’t really add up.

To most people who make it out this far, the mound is merely intriguing. For one famous visitor, however, it was evidence for a theory that he had pursued for his whole life. Thor Heyerdahl was a famous adventurer who had completed numerous improbable expeditions in his lifetime. Amongst these was sailing the wooden Kontiki raft across the Pacific Ocean in a bid to prove it could be done.

His theory was that the Polynesian people originated in South America and inhabited the Pacific Islands by raft. He pointed out a number of similarities in looks and language, and the Kontiki expedition proved that prevailing winds and currents could carry a raft that far. Heyerdahl came out to Samoa in the autumn of his years, arriving in 2002. He saw the Pulamelei Mound and instantly realised that it was built in a similar way to the pyramids and temples in Central and South America. Was this comprehensive evidence? He died thinking it was.

Most evidence suggests that Polynesian people came to the islands via Asia, and the Pulamelei Mound has been left as something of a forgotten mystery. Sitting on top of it, looking out over the lagoon and the sea, the romantic in me suggests it’s best left that way.


Samoa high


Photo courtesy of wikipedia


David Whitley explores the natural treasure chest of Savai’i in Samoa, and tries not to get washed away like the coconuts.


Spurred on by manly bravado, the two coconut chuckers have crossed the white line. They inch ever closer to the edge of the precipice and toss in the husks. The swell of the Pacific Ocean clatters against the cliffs, prodding the blowhole into action and the coconuts high into the air. Pleased with themselves, the guys turn round to pose for photos, and the Alofaaga blowholes go for a repeat performance. This time, however, the scale has been upped somewhat. The ocean crashes in ferociously, turning the whole strip of coastline into an enormous wall of spray. The main blowhole roars as if someone has held a microphone to a plane toilet while it’s flushing.



The coconut show-offs are no match, and they’re sent sprawling along the jagged volcanic rock while the marine equivalent of a fireworks show incites gasps of awe. Show over, the conquered heroes stagger up bedraggled and soaked to the bone. They’ve discovered the hard way that Savai’i’s natural wonders have an infinite capacity to surprise. Savai’i is arguably the South Pacific’s greatest secret. The second most populous of Samoa’s islands, it is the biggest landmass in Polynesia outside of New Zealand and Hawai’i. It’s also a wild, green treasure trove of fascinating natural phenomena – the blowholes are merely a starting point. Along the island’s south-east coast are a series of rock arches and sea caves – it’s like a magnified version of Australia’s Great Ocean Road, but with moody black rock.


These hint at the volcanism that has shaped Savai’i. It is thought that there are around 450 volcanic cones on the island – arguably the highest concentration on earth. And sometimes one of those cones gets feisty. The last eruptions were between 1905 and 1911, when Mt Matavanu discharged lava continuously for six years. Many villages were ravaged, and it’s possible to see the results in Saleaula.


Here, amongst a gigantic field of dried lava, stands a lonely church. It has been completely gutted, and inside the black rock has piled up. The lava has flowed gloopily, like honey from a knocked-over jar. The lava field continues right up to the coastline, making for a spectacular hour-long walk across a dark wilderness, sprinkled with the odd outcrop of pugnacious vegetation.


A little further west along the north road is another relic from the Mt Matavanu eruptions. The Pe’a Pe’a Cave is a lava tube. The hot lava burned its way through the landscape as it poured down the mountainside, but what was on top survived. In essence, it burrowed a 500m-long tunnel which stretches under the road. A villager acts as guide to show the awesome effects, and point out signs of life. Moss is growing on the rocks at the entrance, whilst moths and birds use the cave as a home. Point the torch in the right direction and it’s possible to see tiny thimble-sized nests belonging to the white-rumped Polynesian swiftlet – or Pe’a Pe’a as the they are locally known.


To see hundreds of the Pe’a Pe’a in flight, however, it’s best to detour off the usual island circle route. The Tafua Peninsula is a truly gorgeous place that is missed even by the intrepid visitors who get as far as Savai’i in the first place. The peninsula contains a Rainforest Reserve, plus a crater which can be accessed via a relatively rough 45 minute hike around the rim. From the top, the views are staggering. You look across at the mountains of Savai’i’s interior and down into a deep bowl full of trees so green that the saturation must have been turned up to eleven. It’s very Jurassic Park - or Lost.


Flying around those trees are the Pe’a Pe’a. And if you’re patient enough to wait, the teenie-weenie birds are accompanied by flying foxes gliding along the thermals. They’re magnificent beasts, and it’s an utter privilege to watch them. Sat on the edge of the crater, cross-legged and dewy-eyed is a way to let minutes turn into hours.


Savai’i has the ability to induce those heart-in-mouth, this-is-something-special moments. And this applies right up to the very end of the island. Cape Mulinu’u is Savai’i’s far western tip, and it is widely believed to be the last place in the world to see the sun set each day. The cape combines all the elements that make Savai’i the Pacific’s wild paradise. There are a few little fales – Samoan beach huts - to sleep in. They’re backed by thick greenery and sat alongside photogenic coconut palms, which bend towards the sea.


Then comes the bright, sandy beach, with rockpools and a volcanic rock ledge to clamber up upon. From on top, a softly-painted X marks the spot where the world’s day ends. And from there, it’s just ocean on the horizon, flecked by the imaginary dashes of the International Date Line.





David Whitley tries his hand at Kirikiti, Samoa’s unique version of cricket.


As sledging goes, it’s a novel approach. Before the bowler trundles in to unleash his worst, the entire team embarks on a mini haka-like chant. They clap in unison, accompanied by hups, heys and a high-pitched squeal. But it doesn’t work – the batsman unceremoniously deposits the ball into the bushland on the other side of the main road.


The umpire raises both his red and his white flag to signal two points, and the rest of the batting team turns into a choir. Sat crossed-legged and in formation at the edge of the pitch, they launch into a traditional Samoan song, performed with exquisite harmonies. This, it is fair to say, is just not cricket. There are similarities, of course, but since missionaries introduced the game in the early 19th century, the Samoans have made up their own rules. The result is kirikiti, a game that is played across the country on Saturday afternoons.


Turn up in a village while a game is going on and there’s no better way to get talking to the locals. Show an interest in the bizarre sporting spectacle in front of you, and you’ll suddenly develop a whole community of new friends. There’s a high chance of being asked to join the game, too. The first major differences from cricket – as played elsewhere - are cosmetic. Gone are the whites (they’re saved for going to church on Sundays) and in are the brightly coloured lava lavas. These are the Samoan take on a sarong, and are frankly an utter nuisance to run in. The ball is made of rubber, and the giant bat looks like a murder weapon. It’s three-sided, with leather and coconut husk strapping. The blade usually has intricate patterns hand-painted upon it by the proud owner.


For a pitch, there is a concrete strip. Batsmen are not allowed to step off it – that’s out. Oh, and there’s none of that namby-pamby blocking either; the rules dictate that the batsman has to take a swing at every ball. Time frames are a little more fluid too. No one counts overs or balls, and the game is over when all the batsmen – which can number over 20 per side depending on how many people are around – are out. This means that games can stretch out over days or weeks, although the all-guns-blazing approach to batting ensures that only a very strong team’s innings will last longer than 45 minutes.


I arrive at the Piula Theological College in the middle of a torrential downpour. It comes as something of a surprise to find the teams enthusiastically twisting the chest-high cane stumps into the ground. As the college’s sporting director, Rev Dr Upolu Vaai, explains: “This is what we do every Saturday, rain or shine. We will play in a cyclone.” It’s the first clue that this is more than a sport; it’s a community bonding exercise. The college is a good spot for catching a slightly more formalised game – there are three teams in red, yellow or blue lava lavas and the rules are fairly well defined. But in the villages, it’s all about keeping everyone entertained. Men, women and children of all abilities will play together, and joining in the chants and dances is just as important as hitting the ball.


On the field, the sun suddenly comes out as the red team – Matasavaii – takes on the yellows – Fagalele. The Rev Dr Vaai tries to explain to me what’s going on; to the naked observer it appears to be a comic showreel of flailing batsmanship, shambolic catching and mesmerising music. Balls periodically come down with snow on them, and the stumps fly out of the ground every minute or so.


Then he gives me the bat. “Your turn,” says Rev Dr Vaai, as the choir breaks into big smiles and poorly suppressed laughter. “You’re on our team now.” I launch at my first ball in the spirit of things. It’s an ungainly air shot, and the ball flies past, somehow avoiding the long canes behind me. I get lucky the second time, and connect with a meaty blow. It soon becomes abundantly clear why the non-playing team (in this case, the blues) is on constant ball-boy duty. That rubber ball flies an awful long way. My effort clatters into a blue building way beyond the boundary flags, but the smile doesn’t last long. “You hit the house!” says the umpire. “That is out.” I trudge off, displaying far less grace than the fallen before me. The choir is struggling to sing through the laughter, and Rev Dr Vaai lets me in on a secret that finally makes everything click into place.


“In the village, that would not be out. But it is our rule here,” he says. “That is the thing about Samoa – we apply our own rules to everything. And everywhere you go, those rules will be slightly different.” It’s true, and cricket only scratches the surface of it.


Where to watch

Going east from the Samoan capital, Apia, it’s approximately 40 minutes by car to the Piula Theological College. The grounds are lovely, and they’re also home to the Piula Cave Pool - a beautiful pre or post-match swimming spot. The students and lecturers play from about 1pm onwards every Saturday.




In Fiji, David Whitley discovers how a hotel and local Fijians are trying to make up for the mistakes of the past.

The waters around Yanuca Island should, by rights, be something of a natural haven. Coral should thrive, fish should be bountiful and the great aquatic soap opera should play itself out on a daily basis.But everything is not what it should be. Years of run-off from farming, mistreatment of the coral and rampant overfishing have turned this would-be wonderland into a relative desert. What makes it interesting are the efforts to revitalise. 

Yanuca Island is just off Viti Levu, Fiji’s main island. It is home to the swish Shangri-La Resort, and hundreds of holidaymakers at any one time. But the land is owned by the local people, and these people have control and fishing rights over the water that adjoins it. The efforts to repair the mistakes of the past, therefore, are a fairly unique joint effort between residents, visitors, big business and a non-governmental organisation. In collaboration, they are trying to regrow the reef.

Some of the steps are fairly logical. Visitors are asked not to walk on the coral, use of chemicals on farmland and the resort’s golf course is curbed, and education programmes have been introduced for children living in the area. They, the theory goes, are the ones that will pester the parents to do the green thing.

More extraordinary is the element of self-sacrifice. The paramount chief of the region has banned all fishing in the waters around the island until stocks are sufficiently replenished. It’s like putting a roast dinner in front of someone and saying they can’t touch it. The mangroves are no longer allowed to be cut down either, even though people would probably prefer a clear shoreline. This is where fish live and breed; to lose the protection would be disastrous.

But the technical side is fascinating too. Attempts are being made to grow fronds of coral on farms in the resort, then attach them to the reef later on. It’s not an exact science. Branches of coral are broken off, placed on little webbing trays with a wire mesh and grown in the water. They’re then put back onto the reef attached to artificial ‘fish houses’ – and this is where the hotel guests come in.

As part of the activities programme, guests can build a fish house. It’s a fairly rudimentary thing made out of stone and cement that can realistically be knocked up in an hour. But it provides a safe haven for fish on the reef, and in the same way that shipwrecks end up being tremendous dive sites, it provides something solid for coral to grow around.

Those who don’t fancy making a fish house themselves can sponsor one – they’re given the GPS coordinates of where it is placed and track it via the web. It’s not possible to regrow a reef in a day, and progress has been painfully slow so far. But the quality of snorkelling is getting noticeably better, fish stocks are recovering, and there appears to be more alive than dead coral. It’s a textbook example of teamwork.