Robert Louis Stevenson

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August 14th 2018
Published: August 14th 2018
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We head off towards Apia and stop at the Robert Louis Stevenson museum which is in the village of Vailima on a hill overlooking the capital. The museum is a spectacular colonial mansion with wide verandahs, set in huge manicured gardens, and was RLS’s home when he lived here from 1889 until his death at the age of only 44 in 1894. We join a tour of the Museum. Our guide tells us that RLS came here from Scotland with his American wife and family to try to get some better weather for his tuberculosis. He originally went to Hawaii where he was good friends with the King, but the King suggested that perhaps he’d better leave Hawaii and go somewhere else after he discovered that RLS was having an affair with his sister. I suspect that RLS might have been a bit fortunate to get away that easily. I’m sure that less forgiving kings wouldn’t have had any trouble dreaming up any number of less attractive punishments than being exiled to sunny Samoa. Our guide tells us that the King even threw a farewell feast for RLS. This might have seemed like a friendly gesture, but if I’d been RLS I still think I would have been keeping a close eye on what they were putting in the food that night. RLS was much loved in Samoa, where he was known as Tusitala, which means The Teller of Tales.

Samoa’s heads of state lived in the mansion until it was severely damaged by cyclones in 1990 and 1991. It was then restored by an American benefactor, and opened as a museum in 1994.

The tour finishes with our guide singing RLS’s epitaph to the accompaniment of a ukulele, on the exact spot where he collapsed and died of a brain haemorrhage. It is very moving.

We set up off up Mount Vaea to visit RLS’s tomb. We’ve noticed that there are almost no signs showing you where to go anywhere in Samoa, and the track up the mountain is no exception. We go down several dead ends before finding our way across a small stream to the start of the main trail. We notice that part of the bridge across the stream has been made out of a bit of wood with most of the letters of the word "waterfall" on it, and it looks suspiciously like this might have been a sign in a former life. We wonder if maybe they’ve used all the former signs here to make the bridge and other parts of the track, and this is why there aren’t any functional signs here any more. Surely timber can’t be that hard to come by here; we’re in the middle of a rainforest. As we walk on we see a whole lot of hessian bags full of gravel on the side of the path. There’s a sign next to them asking everyone using the trail to please help with its upgrade by carrying a few of these bags up the mountain. We try to pick one up, but they’re very heavy, and the path is very steep and slippery, so we decide that maybe this is more a job for younger trekkers.

It seems that there are two paths up the mountain. There’s a steep one which is 800 metres long, and a flatter one which is 2.4 kilometres long. Issy says that she’s not keen on sliding down the steep path on her backside, so we decide to take the steep path up so that we can take the flatter one
Robert Louis Stevenson portrait (by Everett Scott)Robert Louis Stevenson portrait (by Everett Scott)Robert Louis Stevenson portrait (by Everett Scott)

Different shades on the two sides of his face are intended to represent Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
down. It starts to rain, and the path seems to be getting steeper and more slippery by the minute. We hope that the Samoans used the flatter path to carry RLS’s body up here, and that it wasn’t raining that day. We understood that we were supposed to be getting good views of Apia from the trail, but we can’t see anything except rain, trees and clouds. We reach the tomb at the summit. It is very simple and elegant, with the famous epitaph carved on one side in Samoan and on the other side in English. We decide to wait for the rain to stop before we start our descent, but it’s showing no sign of letting up so we head off anyway. We’ve only gone a few metres when a downpour of biblical proportions decides to unleash itself upon us. The path is now a skating rink, and it’s so dark under the thick rainforest canopy that we’re struggling to see where we’re going. Issy slips over a few times and her clothes are now covered in brown mud. We hear lots of thunder, and Issy reminds me that the worst place to be during a thunderstorm is under a tree. I’m not quite sure what we’re going to do with this undoubtedly useful piece of information; we’re in the middle of the jungle and trees are just about the only thing here. The rain eases off to a steady torrent, but the damage is done and it’s now not possible for us to get any wetter. Issy says that this is all my fault, and that as penance we will be having a two hour couple’s massage tomorrow. I can feel the agony already. We get back to the museum and wring our clothes out in the toilets.

We drive down into Apia in search of some lunch. I try to get some money out of an ATM, but it won’t give me any and then decides to keep my card for good measure. I try to go into the bank to see about getting it back but the security guard at the entrance won’t let me past. I think he thinks that I look too wet and will leave puddles on the bank’s nice floor. I manage to sneak in through a side door and then wait in a long queue for a teller to serve me. When I eventually get to the front of the queue and explain my predicament the teller asks me if I want to get my card back. I generally find that I only come up with appropriate responses to questions like this long after the moment has passed. "No, I just like standing in long queues" is one that I probably could have used if I hadn’t really needed the teller’s help. Samoan ATMs must have voracious appetites. It seems that the lady at the next teller’s window had her card eaten by an ATM a few days ago. Her teller is now showing her a large box full of thousands of cards which have apparently all recently been swallowed by ATMs. They all look virtually identical from a distance, and she is asking the lady to identify which one is hers. I sense that it’s going to be a very long and painful afternoon. It seems that reporting my missing card straight away was a good move. My teller guides me to the large vault behind the ATMs, and a few minutes later another lady emerges from the vault holding a card. She asks me if it looks like mine, and when I tell her I think that it probably does, she hands it over and off I go. No one has yet even asked me my name, let alone for any form of identification. If I was back in good old Oz I would have been interrogated for hours, forced to hand over multiple forms of identification in triplicate, and swear oaths on the lives of my offspring, before anyone would have let me anywhere near that card. I’m not sure if fraudsters read travel blogs, but if they do I suspect that some of them are already on their way here.

Issy is still keen to get lunch, but when I point out that it’s now 4.30pm we decide that maybe it’s instead time to head back to the resort. Everyone in the villages we pass through has come home from work or school and it seems that it’s now playtime. There is either a volleyball, rugby or soccer match in progress in every village, and in each case virtually the whole village seems to be involved. I think that the rest of the world could learn a lot from the Samoans about community and how to enjoy yourself.

Blogging after dark is proving to be a particularly hazardous occupation. There’s no internet reception in the room; only in the open down by the beach, so after every few sentences I need to make a dash down onto the sand to make sure that my carefully chosen words have been saved. It’s the dashing down onto the sand bit that’s hazardous. This requires running the gauntlet of marauding hordes of mosquitoes who seem only too keen to try to gnaw off entire limbs, not to mention that it’s really dark and there’s a high risk of charging head first into a palm tree. I decide that from now on blogging needs to be a daytime only activity.

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