This Side of the Reef (Part Three)

Manono Island, Samoa, South Pacific
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Author’s Note: Every weekend was an adventure. Swimming and diving on the reef in the lagoon, hiking and camping in the cool, dense jungles of the island’s interior, eating bat stew on the rim of an ancient volcano, becoming lost in a blanketing mist while swimming in a cold, bottomless crater lake, outrigger canoe trips to uninhabited islands, numerous adventures by trail bike, romance in the setting sun, and night-dipping under the shooting stars. Too many social commitments, too much fun, too damn many women and not enough sleep.

A fisherman coming in from the reef
A fisherman coming in from the reef

Once a month, I joined a group of ‘expats’ for adventure trips off the beaten track, including overnights on uninhabited islands and treks into the interior of the two main islands to hidden crater lakes, ancient lava flows, or for special birding excursions. I loved exploring the wild and mysterious jungle, as well as the boundless, clear sparkling sea.


One of the more challenging expeditions took us deep into the interior of Upolu island, following razor-sharp ridge lines and past spectacular panoramas across the island’s backbone and down to the sea – bush-whacking through the nearly impenetrable interior. At viewpoints along the way, we could see across to the other main island of Savai’i, with tiny Manono and Apolima islands in between – white crescents of surf breaking on the barrier reefs far in the distance.

We were climbing Mount Fito, the tallest mountain on Upolu (3,600 ft.) and extremely hard going through dense, ever-changing, tangled undergrowth and rugged terrain. I mopped up the rear, hanging back, listening to the distant singing of bush knives ahead as smoky rays of sunlight slanted through moss-laden trees, cicadas happily buzzing high in the forest canopy.

Jim and Dave at Lanoto’o Crater

Reaching the rim of the volcano, the late afternoon sun lit up the huge forested crater. Pairs of elegant Tropic Birds – long white tail feathers flowing – rode the air currents inside the massive crater. As dusk fell, the trees came alive with huge bats or ‘flying fox’ (pe’a). In the waning light we hung our sleeping tarps while our guides blasted a couple of bats out of the sky and made bat stew for dinner – tiny drumsticks of tender meat – not bad at all!

Accessible from the main cross-island road in the misty highlands, the trail to Lanoto’o Crater was a faint, rarely used track shrouded by heavy clouds – dark, cool and damp. Scaling the steep, densely forested volcano, we slid barefoot down the precipitous inner crater wall to the perfectly round, emerald green lake below. Incredibly beautiful as it was mysterious, and after a hard sweaty climb and a muddy slide down to the silent misty shoreline, the cool water beckoned.

Once while swimming across the lake a heavy cloud cover descended, totally obliterating everything in sight. All was white except for the ripples of dark, smooth water directly in front me as I swam. After momentary panic, I noticed my friends’ voices coming from somewhere on shore, and they guided me to safety. On the way home, we flagged down a bus-load of well-padded women returning from a picnic who pulled me up to dance with them in the aisle – squashing me with their huge bodies as the weaving, top-heavy wooden bus lumbered around tight mountain curves. I was lucky to survive that one!

An entire roast pig filling the back of the jeep

The endless summer continued in full swing with my brother Dave’s visit – closing down raucous night clubs in Apia, trekking, swimming, diving, and visiting YMCA rural clubs (kalapus) in remote villages throughout the country.

We enjoyed tons of incredible food served by village girls seated before us fanning the flies away as we ate, followed by Samoan cocoa or the ceremonial beverage kava – a relaxing psychotropic concoction made from the root of a plant in the pepper family. Wonderful stuff that tastes like dirty dish water, but soon numbs the mouth, face and then the whole body. We endured the seemingly endless ceremonies, speeches, and tortuous hours sitting cross-legged on the floor, and returned home with Dave sharing the back seat with a huge roast pig – one of the many generous gifts from the villagers.

At the time, there were no commercial dive operations anywhere in the country. But one of my friends had tanks and the fire station had a compressor to fill them. Driving along the coast to places where the surf was not so strong, we would hop over the reef for some ‘virgin diving’ in amazingly clear and wild waters teeming with sea life large and small.

Diving at the Apia town waterfront with Mount Vaea in the background (1985)

Particularly memorable was the time I took a paraplegic friend for his first scuba dive. Jerry was from New Zealand and was in Samoa conducting research on services for the disabled in the Pacific. We suited up, wrapped Jerry’s weight belt around his ankles to secure his legs and he held tight to my stabilizer backpack while we descended together for an awesome dive. Jerry wrote about the experience later as part of his published study, describing how much the scuba diving had meant to him, including the wonderful liberating feeling of weightlessness underwater.

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.




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