Climbing Mt Sili Sili

Mt Sili Sili is a volcano, 50km in diameter and just over 6000 feet high basically forming Savaii, the largest island of Samoa.


Savai’i Island Map. Author Telim Tor, based on original from CloudSurfer

I happened to overhear another expat, Paul, discussing some of the arrangements he had just made to climb  My SiliSili,  so 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

Proper attire for walking in Samoa, at least when near a village.

Proper attire for walking in Samoa, at least when near a village.

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 over development, although the rate of growth of beach resorts is increasing.

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 the latter.

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 SamoaPaul and I remembered to don lava lava’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 the trail.

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 rain forest 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 bushes 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 maintain.

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 waist high.

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 lava lavas 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 poly tech) 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.


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