It didn’t feel like Christmas. It was hot. The ground crew broke out a twelve pack after my last flight of the night and we watched the sun come up. The ragged remnants of the crater forming Pago Pago bay began to contrast the pale blue morning sky. Stone cold Steve Austin arrived in a Santa suite for his first flight of the day, climbing into the cockpit of the Twin Otter to run his preflight checks. Groggy Samoans filed out of the domestic passenger terminal clutching woven hand baskets stuffed with treasures procured in the bazaars and shops of Pago Pago, the commercial center of the island of Tutuila, the largest island in American Samoa.
I found myself in this circumstance when the opportunity to spend the winter flying for Samoa Air presented itself. My wife Nancy was enthusiastic about the prospect and our kids, Stephen, 14, Laura, 12, and Michelle, 10, were at our mercy.
I forged the way leaving in November courtesy of jump-seat rides on Hawaiian Airlines to Pago Pago International airport. After three weeks of classroom instruction, tests, check rides, and a route-check with the FAA I morphed into an airline captain and started earning my keep. Samoa Air operated three Twin Otters on routes to the Manuas, a three island chain and part of American Samoa. We also had scheduled routes to Samoa, formerly Western Samoa, and occasional runs to Vavau, the northern most island of the Kingdom of Tonga.
Island travel shifts into overdrive during the holidays when family bonds draw Samoans together and scheduled flights run around the clock. Christmas came and went while I plied the airways maintaining a hectic schedule until after New Year when my family arrived. Having paid my dues in the Holiday rush I at last took some time to explore and take advantage of this remote corner of Polynesia.
High on my list was the island of Tau, in the Manuas. Forty-five minutes north-east of Tutuilla, by Otter, it remains one of the unspoiled treasures of the South Pacific. The sight of Margaret Meads well-known anthropological study of Polynesian culture, Coming of Age in Samoa, published in 1928, it has changed little in the interim. A thin ribbon of asphalt on the south-west corner of the island has been added to facilitate air travel and an alternative to the twenty-four hour ferry ride from Pago. As the only extensive piece of flat real estate on the island the airstrip and its immediate environment host rugby, cricket, and soccer matches as well as the only straight unobstructed stretch of road.
The jagged crescent backbone of the island is the remnant of a volcanic crater, rising as high as 2900 feet, festooned with dense tropical vegetation, it sweeps for miles in an arc to the east. A bridge on the east end of the island crosses a narrow channel to the island of Olosega. To the south the striking geologic formation shelters a pristine white sand beach edging and extensive coral reef, part of the only National Park south of the equator. The north side of the island plunges into an often turbulent sea built from prevailing easterly winds. While the local population retains the right to cultivate the reef and the sea around the island the waters are jealously guarded from commercial vessels from other island nations.
Marge and Tito manage the only part-time living accommodations on the island, a handful of single story bungalows and a larger structure serving as a common area for meals, cooking, or socialization. Breakfast is served for those with the ambition to rise and Marge will pack a lunch and let you borrow the truck if you are compelled to do more than walk the few hundred feet across the end of the airstrip to the beach. Immediately off the beach waist deep water allow the novice skin-diver a maze of coral and a stunning array of tropical marine life. Beyond the coral hard blue marks sheer drops prowled by game fish and shark for the more adventurous and experienced. Our small band spent hours face down on the surface or cruising the wondrous canyons of coral chasing all manner of creature, the activity balanced with stints holding down patches of sand from the ravages of the tropical breeze. Evening meals featured fresh catch of the day, paced relaxed conversation, chirping geckos, and the graceful soaring flight of giant fruit bats, flying foxes.
On the big island traveling east from Pago, several miles of memorable coastline lead to Tisas Barefoot Bar, the quintessential Samoa experience. Ideally reservations are made for low tide and a day in advance. Candy Man, Tisas partner, will put to sea shopping for the main course. When guests arrive Tisa welcomes you while Candy Man lectures novice patrons on the hazards of the idyllic cove, the open air backdrop for a memorable meal. Mask and snorkel are provided for the ill prepared. Candy Man stands watch with his surfboard, ready to assist those foolish enough to ignore his lecture. Shower facilities are provided when you’re ready to eat, or simply perch on one of several decks, enjoy a cool drink, and chill. Meals are served on Samoan flatware, woven plates lined with banana leaves and consumed at a leisurely pace.
When the sun sets and the flying foxes much flower pods it is most reasonable to ask if coconut crabs really live in trees, or how to find Slippery Rock. Recounting the experience of almost being washed away to the sea at Toilet Bowl requires another round. Where’s the best place to stay in Western Samoa? Aggie Grays or Coconuts. How much for ahi tuna off the dock in Apia? Ten cents a pound. One more round and we decide to spend the night. Candy Man breaks out some mats and we settle in. Rain splatters off the thatched roof of the stilted structure and surf pounds the outer reef. Ahhh Saaamoa.