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Why Samoa? It’s a question that follows me around like a stray dog when I spend a week exploring the islands. The primary concern, however, is: Where are all the waves hiding?
Samoa has always felt a bit shy and enigmatic to me. I’ve heard many and varied reports about the waves. One friend came over for two weeks and left after five days frustrated and surfless. Another mate lived here, worked as a surf guide, banked lifetime barrels, fell in love and married into Samoa. The waves can get really good but are hard to reach and pretty short and slabby, I gathered. Take a board but be prepared to not use it, I was told. So, I arrive with expectations in check and mind wide open. And a 6’2”.
I’m on the first tourist flight into Apia after two pandemic-blighted years and the welcome mat stretches to the plane. Before I even depart I hear singing and sense happy-clappy vibes. There’s a string band strumming and a line of dancers sashay fluidly, welcoming us like royalty. A beaming dancer lassos me with a fragrant lei and I’m spirited to the customs room where another troupe perform. All airport arrivals should be this festive. A third group dance beside the baggage carousel and there are tears and hugs all round. You get the feeling social distancing is a very foreign concept here in Samoa.
I spend my first day site-seeing, shedding first-world stress and staring at the fringing reefs out on the horizon. It looks like there might be waves peeling through some of the passes but it’s too distant to know and too far to paddle. I get close to Salani Resort, knowing it’s directly in front of one of Samoa’s best waves but it’s closed, and the trade winds scour the lagoon unpromisingly. I’m told that Neil Lumsden from Manoa Tours would love to take me surfing if he wasn’t currently off island. Which is a blessing in disguise because that’s how I meet his local understudy, the legendary Manu.
Manu is about as hardcore as you can get but I don’t know that when he rocks up to our meeting fale (house) in an old clunker van with his bodyboard in the back. Tall and tatted he’s in a black Eddie Aikau shirt and sports a dread-locked rat’s tail that would impress a Dothraki horse lord. “See that wave out there,” he says pointing at the horizon, seconds after shaking my hand. “That’s barrelling today, offshore.”
“How big?” I ask, snapping to attention. He does some calculations – three foot west at 16seconds –two and half foot but “strong swell, powerful”. Manu tells me he hasn’t surfed for weeks. No tourists and killer petrol prices have made ocean play off limits. We are both feeling fortunate about crossing paths and sharing this bluebird day. I load my board in the back next to a Johnson outboard, which tilts across a bench seat. Up in front I’m shin-deep in plastic bottles and assorted petro-chemical debris. Recycling, Samoa style. Manu apologies but I can barely hear him over the screeching fan belt. We’re off.