CLIMBING MT SILISILI, THE HIGHEST MOUNTAIN IN SAMOA
by Digby Gotts
I happened to overhear another expat, Paul discussing
some of the arrangements he had just made to climb Mt Sili Sili - the
highest mountain in Samoa, just over 6000 feet, and a strong attraction.
This is a volcano, 50 km in diameter, basically forming Savaii, Samoas
largest island. Not wanting to miss the chance,
I asked if there was room for me and acquired an invitation. Alison
meanwhile, wisely, decided that she would let the boys go off to play
on their own. Her ulcerated foot played only a minor part in this decision
As the weekend approached, it turned out that Paul
had been intending to walk by himself with the guide, and had made no
other arrangements as he would be in NZ for the week prior. I was on
Savaii the week before the walk and was able
to confirm with the guide's family that they
were expecting us and that a guide was available for the weekend. The
family would look after us on the Friday night and the Sunday night.
The guide, Mose, had very
little English, but he was able to let me know that he was very worried
as the path was very overgrown and he thought it would be too hard for us, but he said that he would
do his best, and that we could go. Then followed a visit to the town
mayor to confirm that we had the village's
permission and would pay the 35 tala village fee as well as the 100
tala for the guide and whatever we liked to the family. Village fees
are a normal way of ensuring that the village receives some direct benefit
from tourists exploiting their beach, waterfall, mountain, or whatever,
and that they therefore see the need to protect their asset. At the
moment the system works well as there isn’t enough money around
for overdevelopment, although the rate of growth of beach resorts is
I bought the ferry tickets and food for the walk and
had everything arranged for Paul’s return from NZ on the Wednesday
before we were to leave on Friday. He bought me a thermorest
but forgot to collect it from the car. He did have a carrymat
as well as his own thermorest, and in penance said he would sleep on the carrymat, leaving the good one for me.
The ferry and the drive around the island of Savaii
are just something to be endured. No dramas, with the only excitement
being the captain reading the ferry rules in English for the first time,
as well as Samoan, with the new insistence that no passengers were permitted
to stay with their cars on the lower deck and that passengers were not
permitted to sleep on the benches. Not one body moved in response to
We arrived at the guides village, Aopo, just on dusk, with the whole
family turning out for introductions and welcomes. Dinner of chicken,
pork pieces, taro, breadfruit, palosami, (all
cold leftovers) as well as tepid cocoa Samoa. Paul and I remembered to don lavalava’s
and remove shoes before entering the fale.
We weren’t much on long speeches but we think they liked our gifts
of a bolt of bright print cloth and 5 Kg of corned beef. The 84 year
old grandfather had been evicted from his bedroom for us, and he was
installed on a bench to one side of the open area of the fale. The bedroom was a sealed single room with a central
door. Two mattresses with sheets and pillows were set out in the middle
with the old man's bed pushed over to one wall. His symbols of Chiefly
status, two large flywhisks were mounted with lei’s and other
bits on a “heraldic shield”, with a huge shotgun (around
5 feet long) leaning in one corner. We retired
early having arranged for a 7 am
start after many more worries being expressed about the difficulty of
Sleep proved to be impossible as the open area outside the
bedroom was occupied by the family talking loudly until 11 or so. Dogs and
pigs carried on a running battle once the family retired, with the first bus
to the ferry rumbling down the road at 3 am. The family then commenced to get active with the coconut scraping
and roosters starting up around 4. The resultant coconut cream turned up
in our piping hot banana soup together with sago as the thickener. A
solid base for the breakfast of dry biscuits with “peasoupo”
(canned corn beef) and hot cocoa Samoa.
We started out driving up the track by 7:30,
climbing in 3 miles to about 2000 feet where we were blocked by a fallen tree.
Packs on and wade off through waist high wet grass. Followed
a jeep track for the first km or so until Mose finally
turned up a steep embankment and into a banana plantation. Banana clumps
to no pattern with occasional damaged rainforest trees. Mostly
regrowth softwoods. This continued for two km or so with a steady
uphill grade. Mose doing a bit of cutting here and there of intruding ferns and vines,
but mostly just wading through the high grass as if it was knee deep snow.
Worse than snow in many ways as the ground itself was invisible and rough
with holes, boulders, rocks and fallen trees, all concealed. Paul and I stumbled
on through most of this section. The bananas gave way to Kava as we climbed,
with Mose identifying them to be his plants
being cultivated for sale. He would often pause as we went past a
good kava plant to cut away some of the vine overgrowth. This together with
his track clearing and cutting produced a stately pace that we could just
The climbing for the first couple of hours from the car
was at a gentle grade but with little shade, so
we were both dripping wet with sweat and starting to take the odd swig from
the water bottle well before the forest closed overhead and we were able to
walk in shade. By this time however, the track had started to climb seriously
through the main escarpment, another 2000 feet of steep forested terrain.
My lack of fitness starting to show as my thigh muscles decided that they
had had enough for the day and started cramping. Many false summits, much
backward sliding on mud and clawing onto trees for a bit more assistance upwards,
eventually collapsing in a small clearing with Mose waiting for us grinning and pointing at one of the nearby
trees. It was covered in bright orange oranges. Now this was a real mystery.
In Samoa, oranges are green and only grow near houses. Someone had carried
a young plant up to this spot at 5200 feet and planted it several decades
ago, for us to enjoy as we passed. The orange colour I guess was because of
the cold nights, missing elsewhere on the island. Paul and I managed to eat
7 each, regaining enough fluid to take on the rest of the climb. One more steep pinch and we gained the edge of the summit plateau,
emerging from forest onto a lava plain. The lava here flowed down the mountain
to our west in 1905, and by now was roughly cracked and channelled and covered
in small vegetation, mostly lichens, mosses and shrubby tea tree to about
We followed the edge of the plain around a few small hills,
climbing gently to our campsite (at 5400 feet) on the edge of a series of
craters called Mata o le Afi, Eye of the Fire.
The campsite was on a gravel ridge, I guess windblown debris from the last
eruption. There was nothing growing on the sun side except grey lichen, and
only grasses and the occasional tea tree on the southern side of the ridge.
This was not a good campsite for bad weather but for us the mountain was being
gentle so we settled in. The remains of two fales were here from a geologist
party that had helicoptered in several years ago. We were able to use the
surviving frames to support our tent fly to give a bit more shelter. Paul
snoozed away the afternoon, while I explored the craters of Mata o le Afi.
By this time we were praying for rain as water supplies were very low and
there was nothing available on the mountain.
We had carried kero and were able to make a small stove
for cooking, but once the sun disappeared, the temperature plummeted, so we
sat around a fire until weariness sent us in. Mose then moved the fire right up to his shelter, where he
spent the night feeding it. Two lavalavas don’t really make up for a sleeping bag, both of us zipped up snug, feeling somewhat guilty about
Mose next to his fire.
By morning, it hadn’t rained so we made the decision that
we didn’t have enough water to try for the summit, about 3 hours return, as
well as make the descent. We had managed about half a litre in dew runoff
from the tent fly, so we finished the water supplies in a large cup of coffee
each and set off back down. I discovered that I could slacken my thirst somewhat
by allowing my hands to trail through the dew wet vegetation on the track
edge, then sucking the moisture off my fingers, (mentally
shrugging at their state of cleanliness). I was also gathering small black
berries, very juicy, which Mose said were edible,
from bushes near the track. These were a type of Myrtaceae, very like Riberry. The
absence of shade on top was beginning to tell by the time we reached the escarpment
edge and that orange tree. Paul and I sat in its shade and inhaled oranges
that Mose was throwing down to us. At one stage
there were thirty on the ground, but there were none by the time we left.
As I didn’t see Mose eat any,
I can only assume that Paul and I ate 15-20 each!
Fortified by the oranges, the steep part of the descent
went well, fatigue and dehydration only becoming apparent once the forest
ended and we were out in the sun again. By the time we emerged onto the road
about 30 min above our car, we were both losing co-ordination, stumbling and
falling on the slightest pretext. We were therefore not impressed by Mose
heading off into the plantation ground again, when we knew that the road,
although overgrown, was a smooth walking surface. We groaned and followed,
hoping for a shortcut, staggering along for a few hundred meters when again
we found Mose up an orange tree, throwing fruit
down for us. Never have I been so glad to eat an orange.
Back at the family fale, we were
greeted joyously and plied with diluted and sweetened orange juice. Both
of us drinking around 2 litres each before much of a pause. Showered
and changed to find a full lunch set for us: Soup, pork, fish, corned beef,
taro, breadfruit, bananas, and cold cocoa. Sick at the sight of the food,
but unable out of courtesy to refuse, we managed the fish, soup and cocoa
but very little else. During the rest of the afternoon, Paul recovered by
sleeping while I just kept drinking. I remember about 6 mugs of cocoa, 5 of
coffee and several more of the orange juice. Food on the plate is one of
the major culture clashes in Samoa as we are taught to empty the plate, which in Samoa is a signal that more is required.
Remembering to leave a little is really important to avoid insult. The difference
is caused by the absence of waste food. The family will eat everything, it just gets passed along the pecking order, finishing
with the young girls.
The big lunch was eaten in relays as people came and went
from church, finally ending by 4 in the afternoon. I spent the evening at
first discussing sex and gender with one of the daughters of the family who
is studying sociology at Samoa’s university. This was her essay topic, not a mutual interest! This
discussion widened in scope to cultural family differences and eventually
attracted the younger sister (business studies at the polytech) and their
mother (4 boys, 4 girls). Detailed discussion in simple English about why
I do not have children (what’s wrong?) and why women should want a job and
why people should want to be child free left us mutually bewildered. At one
time I thought the mother was asking if I knew or wanted to be shown what
to do! Her English dissolved into gurgling laughter when (I think) she realised
what she was saying. For a very uptight society, Samoan humour can be very
blunt and coarse.
Another sleepless night with dogs, pigs, buses, roosters
and people competing for attention, another huge breakfast, and we were finally
off back to the ferry, with mum and the two older daughters in the back of
the ute. The daughters had been required to come home for the weekend to help
look after us, ie translate, and now had to go back to classes, while mum
had to go to Savaii’s main town on business.
So overall the trip was quite an experience,
with meaningful social interaction, hard work, good views and scenery, and
gaining the knowledge that to walk in these conditions requires a lot more
than 1 litre per person per day.