Girls Getaway: An adventure with a chance of Palolo Rising
By Liz Ah-Hi
The inaugural Palolo Festival was well underway at the Vaimoana Seaside Lodge in Asau, Savaii and my friend Lufi and I were lounging in front our beach fale with a few G&Ts celebrating some ‘firsts’ of our own by toasting to the beginning of our Palolo hunting adventure.
Earlier in the day we completed our first essential tasks in the process of Palolo hunting by making our own a’a (handmade scoop nets), ato (coconut leaf basket) and a range of flower necklaces which proved to me that our ancestors valued the art of accessorizing for any event not excluding hunting.
Surprisingly, making your own palolo catching utensils requires a fair amount of strength and hand to eye coordination. While the nimble hands of the experienced Vaimoana staff breezed through the shaping, weaving and sewing of natural materials - Lufi and I abandoned hopes of making pinterest worthy palolo paraphernalia in an effort to complete our kit before sundown.
We proudly raised our glasses to toast our imperfectly perfect palolo kit which might seem strange to anyone in our generation born and bred in Samoa but to me it was special and something I wasn't ever going to take for granted. How many other ancient traditions still exist today in Samoa that celebrate our connection to land and sea? To quote Scribe on this one; not many, if any.
Day 1 Palolo Rising
My alarm went off at 3am and Lufi and I emerged from our mosquito nets at the speed of sloths. We donned our still fragrant flower leis, gathered our palolo equipment and headed out the door, not knowing what the morning had in store for us.
Under the moonlight, we followed a silent parade of palolo hunters who were on their way to “ka savali” on the reef where the old Asau airstrip used to be. Doing our best to blend in as if we knew where we were going, we joined the rest of the crowd sitting on the rocks and waited for some kind of signal to hit the water.
Suddenly without warning, the pack started to move in the direction of the reef almost as if they were in a trance - apart from the sound of movement, no one was saying a word. I turned and started to say something to Lufi about this intriguing observation only to find she had disappeared!
Most likely she had been swept under the hypnotic spell of the palolo and was somewhere in the middle of the masses making their way into the water. I began to experience that same sinking feeling I felt during my last adventurous hike to Lake Lanoto’o, that fleeting moment when you realise that you might have conned yourself into doing something difficult and there's no going back.
Looking down at my self made palolo wares, I decided I was not going to back away from this experience without taking them for a test run so I began walking blindly in the dark with only the moon and dancing torches guiding my way through treacherous slippery rocks.
Wading my way slowly to a spot closest to the reef break, I noticed the stealth and speed of locals who seemed to zip past me with ease and grace over the rocks, expertly navigating the uneven sharp surfaces of the coral. Halfway to my destination, I knew there was a possibility I was going to leave these waters with more scratches and cuts than palolo.
A few hours later and not a “cheehoo” to be heard from anyone to indicate a decent swarming of the palolo, the sky started getting lighter and slowly the palolo hunters began to make their way back to the shore. My thoughts went to Lufi and I scanned the masses of people scattered around to see if I could locate her.
On the way back to the shore I stopped to have a chat with some palolo hunters and take a peek in their baskets to size up their palolo catch. Experiencing a tiny tinge of palolo envy, I noticed many of them had their own unique contraptions for catching palolo which made me think about how I could improve my tactics for the next day.
Alas our first day of Palolo hunting in Asau failed to bring me the mass swarming I had imagined and an hour later thankfully I was reunited with Lufi who emerged from the sea with a victorious look on her face as if she had struck blue gold and she proudly showed me the few ounces she managed to catch.
Back at the Vaimoana an onslaught of theories as to why the palolo rising was weak had already begun over breakfast and through the grapevine we heard that in the village of Vaisala, the palolo rising had been decent.
Better yet, we heard that the Vaisala Hotel was offering a free ride on their pontoon to a popular palolo haunt and wanting to switch things up a bit we decided we were going to be on that boat the following day in search of a new experience.
Day 2 Palolo Rising
Waking up slightly more refreshed than the day before, we made a few adjustments to our Palolo catching strategy after coming to the conclusion that we were carrying way too many items.
Not just a pretty face, Lufi came up with a brilliant idea of tying a lavalava sling and creating a shoulder bag to carry our containers, leaving one arm free to hold the hand scoop and the other for balancing.
Before we could think about patenting her design we arrived at the Vaisala Beach Hotel. I immediately noticed the atmosphere was different with just a few groups this time waiting to head out to the reef and lying on the gorgeous white sand devoid of sharp rocks was an instant winner for me.
We watched with curiosity as 2 youths launched their kayaks into the water and paddled out to “asi” the palolo while the older menfolk waited leisurely on the beach for ‘the signal’. Finally we got the all clear and climbed onto the pontoon and headed out in the direction of the two kayakers.
Enjoying the smooth ride over still waters, I made a mental note that our next palolo adventure would include the use of a boat. Leaving Lufi to catch the few palolo that were surfacing off the side of the pontoon, I struck up a conversation with one of the passengers, Livingstone Betham-Lameko, who told me there was another palolo rising expected at the end of the month but this time locals will be heading to the coastal areas of Upolu.
“People believe the palolo spawns in Savaii during October, and in Upolu during November, so I will definitely ka palolo again next month.” said Livingstone “Not much can be done differently to achieve a more successful attempt to ka palolo because the trend varies over the years on how it will flourish.”
“Growing up my Dad didn’t take us to ka palolo in Savaii, he wanted his kids to stay home and study instead of staying up late to catch palolo which only adults ate. Now that I'm older, I can finally participate in a risky event, going out to sea to ka palolo. We always go in groups because it's not safe to fish alone at night due to the risks of drowning and no one's there to help you.”
Looking like it was going to be another non appearance from the flighty palolo, our skipper made the call to return to shore just as the sun was rising over the charming Vaisala Beach Hotel - one of the oldest hotels in Savaii and a popular spot during school holidays for me and my siblings.
The pristine turquoise water, almost too blue to be real, was calling to us and Lufi and I dived in to end our Palolo hunting expedition on a blissful note while sharing childhood memories spent right there in the waters we were swimming in.
Despite the lackluster harvest, our palolo adventure had inadvertently taken us on a deeper journey of reconnection as we used this rare opportunity to visit family in our ancestral villages of Auala and Vaisala.
Relishing the last moments of our swim, two city dwellers with heart strings to Savaii made plans for the next palolo adventure as well as a pact to return to our roots often and discover more of the hidden gems in this magical part of Samoa.
Thank you Samoa Tourism