Satuiatua Lagoon


Sunday was interrupted by an unwelcome call from my cycle guide Uilau “The Satuiatua Beach Fales kitchen and dining room have just burnt down.”  Before I could fully digest the news, Uilau added “everyone is OK – but what do you want to do with our guests arriving there on Thursday?”

Located on the south coast of Savaii, Samoa, Satuiatua is the only lagoon for 40 kms in either direction and a key stop for cyclists.  The fales are nestled under giant banyan trees, that shade the entire resort and steadily drop tiny, nut-like figs onto the tin roofs of the fales.  The dining room balcony was a great place to sit and watch the tell-tale spouts of migrating whales in September, while the marine reserve in the lagoon beside the fales provided an excellent drift snorkel through the coral and dense schools of tropical fish.  The full drift is not for everyone, and it only works near high tide.  Less than a month ago we had swum this, being pulled steadily by the current through the small canyons of coral.  Gradually the canyons shallow out and the last part of the snorkel is in two feet of water. Here we surprised a turtle and were able to swim quietly right up to it while it feasted on vegetation deep in a hole in the coral.  I grabbed the shell to check it wasn’t stuck, and it quickly flippered away.

Satuiatua Fales – The lagoon is full of vibrant coral and myriads of tropical fish. A small surf is breaking on the outer edge of the reef.

If asked, Uilau loves to show guests the reef by night.  Night spearfishing is popular in Samoa and while he wont take his spear, his experience lets you discover the reef nightlife.

Most of the beach fale resorts are owned by men and effectively run by women.   Satuiatua is the exception, owned and run by Leilua Tutoga Mailei, a powerful matriarch and matai (Chief) in her own right she is a woman not to be messed with. She started the resort 27 years ago on family land and has gradually extended the range of accommodation to include air-conditioned motel rooms.  But I still prefer the thatched fales on the beach.  There is still something special about lying under a mosquito net and listening to the gentle waves on the shore just three metres away.

I think about how Lelua will be feeling about the fire as I contemplate what we will do.  “We will do nothing today.  Let’s let Lelua have a day to absorb the loss and mentally recover.  We have time to change bookings later if we have to.”  The easy thing is to skip the next day’s riding, but I am very reluctant as it is a unique day.

The first stop on this days riding is usually at the Taga Blowholes.  More spectacular and reliable than Punakaki on the West Coast of the South Island, they are a little-known wonder.  From a vaguely signposted corner, the 4WD track meanders down to the coast and along the shore to a black lava plateau about 5 metres above the sea.   When molten lava contacts the sea the rapid cooling causes it to explode, creating vertical, fissure-ridden cliffs.  The constant action from the unrelenting southerly swells has widened the fissures and  spouts of water are forced up to 40m in the air.  There is usually a local there who, for a small tip, will throw a coconut into the hole, timing it just right for the coconut to ride the top of the spout.   When the seas are small, everything is entirely predictable and there is a temptation to toss your own coconuts. As I discovered, this can be a lot more dangerous than expected.  The rocks are wet and slippery, and in big seas, rogue waves will crash across the plateau and sweep it clear of everything.  Once caught by a wave that was fortunately only knee deep, I struggled to stay upright in the fast moving water as it surged towards my camera gear lying on the rocks at the base of the bank, 100m from the cliff edge.  Fortunately a more cautious cyclist grabbed my bag moments before the water arrived.  And even more fortunately, I kept my balance to tell the tale.

The second treat of this day is the Afu Aau falls.  Coming at the end of 40kms of often hot riding, they are a welcome chance to freshen up with a dive into the clear, cold pool.  Whether your entry is via a sedate walk into the pool or a dive from one of the high rock ledges is a personal choice, but its worth taking the time to snorkel around the edges.  Here clinging to the rock walls are koura – freshwater crawlies.  The initial trepidation at sharing the pool with so many small sharp nippers soon passes as I study them in their natural habitat.

This day usually finishes at Florences’ homestay.  Here Ruth and Kelvin have been reclaiming her family’s old Copra estate, experimenting with new crops and new growing techniques.  Ruth is a superb cook with an appreciation of fine wine, while Kelvin (amongst many things) is a butcher from Taumaranui.  They have a raft of stories that put Barry Crump to shame and are always delighted to share them.

Afu Aau Waterfall

While I am contemplating how we might manage without Satuiatua, I get the message I have been hoping for.  The beach fales are all still fine and Leilua will host everyone for meals in her home until they can rebuild.    Having been treated to a Sunday Toana’i (traditional Samoan umu lunch) at her home, I know she will do it well.

Afu Aau Waterfall pool panorama

And now, within four days of the fire, there is a full rebuild plan underway.  It won’t be quite the same for the next few months, but the hospitality may more than makeup for the lack of meals on the balcony, watching the whales.


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