We are all travellers in the wilderness of this world, and the best we can find in our travels is an honest friend.
Robert Louis Stevenson (13/11/1850- 3/12/1894)
I love this quote by Scottish author, Robert Louis Stevenson whose life and writings have inspired me since childhood. In fact, I became so fascinated that I determined to visit Samoa where he spent the last four years of his short life and pay my respects at his graveside.
The trip moved to the top of my ‘bucket list’ after being diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2010. Last week during the September holidays, I gifted myself a trip to Samoa to celebrate what I hope will be my fifth anniversary cancer free.
I’m a traveller, not a tourist. I enjoy learning about different cultures and places, making an effort to befriend locals who reveal insights and knowledge about their homeland. A love of travel one of the many things husband John and I shared.
However, my obsession with Samoa goes back to a younger self, leafing through the ten volumes of Arthur Mees Children’s Encyclopaedia Dad purchased for the family.
In 1961, I dreamt of being like RLS:
I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.
The stories of Stevenson’s final years in Samoa enthralling because he arrived at a significant period in the country’s history ( in the midst of a civil war) and yet established good relationships with the people. He was called Tusitala, the Teller of Tales. So revered by the Samoans that when he died, they carried him to his chosen resting place, to the top of 472m Mt Vaea. They created a trail significantly named “The Road of the Loving Heart”!
After arriving at Apia’s Faleolo Airport at 4.20am and having to adjust to the well-known, constant heat and humidity, I chose to visit RLS’ tomb on day two of my holiday.
I ordered a taxi for the 3km trip up to the Vailima National Reserve, and Tai arrived at 8.30am so I could climb before the heat of midday. At $10 tala, taxis are a cheap, reliable alternative to the often crowded local buses costing $2.00 tala.
Mt Vaea is a volcano from Samoa’s origin 2 million years ago, but the crater rim has almost eroded away. The original lava rock is now rocky soil although many large rocks remain, especially near the summit. There are warnings of landslides after heavy rain. A slippery trail is not the only hazard: – jutting tree roots, steps made for giants and steep gradients are a few more! This trek is not for the faint-hearted or unfit.
There is a choice of trails – I chose the short, steep trail on the way up and the longer ‘more gentle grade’ (debatable) on the way down. The vertical climb to the beginning of both trails is 200m from the car park.
My daughters had bought me a ‘selfie stick’ so that I could take photographs as proof of reaching the tomb and for other outings in Samoa. Unfortunately, my mobile is too old and incompatible with the thoughtful present.
“You see Mum, I told you to upgrade your phone!” Anne and Mary Jane admonished me in unison.
My response, “Well, since your Dad died I’ve travelled a lot on my own and always found someone who’d take a photo of me!”
On top of Mt Vaea, I found half a rugby team – what I thought was a rugby team! The nine young men and one woman were police officers who had come off night duty and were doing a weekly exercise to stay fit. They puffed and panted past me, some struggling more than others, but I wasn’t that far behind, and they cheered when I arrived at the top – red-faced and gasping – but in one piece. They insisted on photos with me, totally amazed I was 62 and celebrating surviving BC.
“Nothing more picturesque can be imagined than the narrow plateau that forms the summit of Mount Vaea, a place no wider than a room and as flat as a table. On either side the land descends precipitately; in front lie the vast ocean and the surf-swept reefs; in the distance to the right and left green mountains rise, densely covered with the primeval forest.”
“Stevenson’s tomb, with the tablet and lettering, was designed by Gelett Burgess, and was built by native workmen under the direction of a half-caste named George Stowers. The material was cement, run into boxes and formed into large blocks, which were then carried to the summit on the strong shoulders of Samoans, though each block was so heavy that two white men could scarcely lift it from the ground. Arrived at the summit the blocks were then welded into a plain and dignified design, with two large bronze tablets let in on either side. One bears the inscription in Samoan, “The resting-place of Tusitala,” followed by the quotation in the same language of “Thy country shall be my country and thy God my God.” The other side bears the name and dates and the requiem:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
Fanny died in America, but her daughter returned her ashes to Samoa:
“When Fanny’s daughter and husband, Mr. and Mrs. Field arrived in Samoa they brought with them a tablet which they carried to the summit of Mount Vaea and had cemented in one end of the base of the tomb. It is of heavy bronze, and bears the name Aolele (Samoan for Fanny), together with these lines:
Teacher, tender comrade, wife,
A fellow-farer true through life,
Heart whole and soul free,
The August Father gave to me.”
“On the tablet for Mr. Stevenson the thistle for Scotland had been carved at one corner and the hibiscus for Samoa at the other. On his wife’s the hibiscus was placed at one corner, and after long hesitation about the other, a sudden inspiration suggested to Mrs. Field the tiger-lily—bright flower whose name had been given to little Fanny Van de Grift by her mother in the old days in Indiana.”
Tiger-lily and Scottish Thistle nestled together under tropical skies enjoying starry nights as of old, far away from their birthplaces. There is no waving yellow corn or purple heather clad moorlands, but people from all over the world pilgrimage to Samoa and climb Mt Vaea to pay their respects and tenderly pray or leave flowers on their tomb.
Haiku by Mairi Neil
A much loved writer
Robert Louis Stevenson
The teller of tales
Inspired childhood dream
To follow loving heart trail
No longer strangers
I traversed The Road of the Loving Heart breathing in the sweet scents of rainforest trees and flowers. I listened to delightful calls from various birds, especially the easily recognised tiny scarlet robin (tolau ula) and Samoan fantail (se’u). I thought of RLS and envied the writing inspiration he must have experienced in such a delightful environment. Imagination fired I realised; I could be the last person on earth – other walkers a rare sight. The serenity disturbed by black and green geckos (miniature dinosaurs!) darting around my feet, abandoning where they basked in sunlight atop rocks or protruding tree roots. Their frantic escape into dry leaf litter sounding more like a possum or fox and disconcerting as I concentrated on not losing my foothold.
It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.
Robert Louis Stevenson
The climb certainly renewed my weary spirit and the sense of achievement satisfying. Despite the heat, sore muscles and sweat-soaked clothes I had a smile on my face as wide as the Mississippi!
I’ll share further adventures of my week in paradise in other posts and leave the last word to RLS:
Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a poor substitute for life.