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Saturday, May 30, 2009

A New Light on the Old West

When we think of cowboys and indians, it's all too easy to recall those gun-toting heroes of the old west purging the dusty plains of trouble-making savages, dodging arrows and riding off into the sunset. If there was ever a tired old cliché, that has to be it.

It may also seem unusual that a small ship or adventure cruise could bring you close to this part of the world, but Cruise West's Northwest Passage itinerary delivers you into the midst of Oregon Country, the scene for its own particular brand of frontier spirit. Our vessel, Spirit of '98, carries 100 passengers up the vast Columbia River toward the lesser tributaries of the Snake, Umatilla and Walla Walla Rivers, all the while retracing the paths of early explorers like Lewis and Clarke and recounting their interactions with the local tribes.

My first encounter with native American culture was meeting the elderly father of my tour host in Wrangell, Alaska. A respected tribal elder of the regional First Nation tribe [Tlingit] or as they were once called, Eskimos. I learned about their strong connection with the land, hunting traditions and resilient family structures. I also couldn't help but notice the many parallels with our own indigenous cultures' experiences with European settlers.

This once isolated NW corner of America has been something of an anomaly in the country's development and expansion. After the controversial Louisiana land purchase at the very beginning of the 19th Century, the US Government under Jefferson, formed the Corps of Discovery to find out just what they'd got themselves into. Two young military officers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, were chosen to command the motley crew and find a path to the Pacific.

The journey of this intrepid pair and their cohorts is taught to every American school kid from year one onwards. Often downplayed in the telling is the significance of the American Indian tribes in their ultimate success. In particular a young native woman recorded as Sacagawea, often led the party through some of their most difficult moments and certainly helped smooth their passage through tribal lands.

Consequently, thanks to the skill of native interpreters and the benevolence of the tribes, Lewis and Clark were able to complete their mission and open the gates for western migration. The rest of the story for the tribes does not have such a happy ending. Thanks to some double-dealing by the newcomers and diseases like smallpox and malaria, the native tribes suffered enormously. Any lingering disputes were resolved at the point of a gun.

The strength and integrity of these people who populated the land some ten thousand years before the European arrival was demonstrated to me in just a few minutes when local Nez Perce arts council chairperson, Angel Sobotta, came aboard for a short talk. She spoke with such eloquence and elegant authority that the small audience was transfixed. We learned as much about her pride in her significant ancestors as her little family and young children. Even though she must have given this talk many times, her voice still quivered at the mention of her late grandparents that helped her recover and preserve the endangered traditions. Her message was clearly one of peace and reconciliation, and not just for her people alone, but for all the planet.

This retelling may sound emotive and melodramatic, but when travel companies talk about the now proverbial “transformational and experiential” products sought out by the new wave of adventure travellers, it's hard to imagine something more effective and genuine than these encounters.

Fact File:

Established over 60 years ago by founder, Chuck West, the company that bears his name is one of the most ambitious adventure cruise lines around. Beginning in Alaska, Cruise West now offers itineraries as far afield as in Japan, Mexico, Antarctica and the Galapagos. The Seattle-based line just announced its most comprehensive sailing yet; the Voyages of the Great Explorers, a 335-day circumnavigation of the world.

Cruise West offers three variations within its Columbia and Snake River products, each visiting a different mix of natural and man-made sights.

The Northwest Passage is seven nights and eight days Portland to Portland. Prices begin at US$2999 per person which covers taxes / port charges / fees and onboard services.

Bookings can be made with any travel agent through a network of local sales representatives.

For a comprehensive catalogue, see www.cruisewest.com

Ship Details:

Vessel: Spirit of '98

Cruise Line: Cruise West

Star rating: 3 Stars

Max Passenger Capacity: 96

Entered Service: 1984, refurb 1995

Facilities: All cabins have private facilities, some have minibar. Bar/library/lecture room, dining room, sundeck/outdoor dining, exercise machine, Internet, elevator

Getting There: V Australia flies daily to LA from Sydney and now three times per week from Brisbane with easy domestic connections through Virgin Blue. Fares from Australia to Portland start from $1299 return. For full conditions and promo fares, see www.vaustralia.com.au

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Samoa: Coming Out of My Shell

Location: Samoa
Visit date: May 2009
1000 words
Author’s images: http://rodeime.fotopic.net/c1695226.html
Stock images also available.
See Samoa on Google Maps

Coming Out of My Shell

Hunted and harassed around the world, have these delicate sea creatures found sanctuary here in Samoa? Roderick Eime delves beneath the waves in search of these enigmatic and delightful animals.

The determined reptile bore down with a single-mindedness only coming from eons of pre-programmed behaviour. This ancient sea creature pursued me with just one thing on its mind, and with the scent of food in its nostrils, wasn’t about to let me get away.

“Oh, give it to him for heaven’s sake,” came the plea from Gardenia, my otherwise patient Samoan guide, and with that I relented and released the fragment of pawpaw into the water. Within seconds Crush’s ravenous jaws were munching contentedly on the bright yellow chunk of fruit.

Sea Turtles, in this case Green Turtles, are about the most serene and kindly-looking animals anywhere on the planet. Most times anywhere else, you’d be jumping out of your skin at the rare sight of one, yet here among the Samoan islands the delightful critters abound.

Crush is my name for the largest turtle here in the pool at the little village of Satoalepai on the far north coast of Savai’i, the largest and northernmost of the two Samoan mainlands. The local family sell tickets to tourists and visitors for ST$5 (about A$2.50) and you are supplied with all the ripe pawpaw the turtles can eat and all the time you want to swim and canoodle with the lovable creatures. I’m told the juvenile turtles here are coaxed from fishermen for a few tala and allowed to grow to maturity before release. But the story varies depending on who you ask. Either way, the dozen or so current residents are in good shape with plenty of room in clean water.

As an amateur SCUBA diver, I also enjoyed a few dives in the crystal clear waters here on the very edge of the South Pacific. Each dive yielded at least one turtle encounter with one underwater exploration near the far eastern tip of Upolu (the other island) delivering eight turtles including the biggest damn Greenie I’ve ever seen. The 200kg monster crept out from under a ledge as I swam past, scared the daylights out of me and nonchalantly swam off.

Most of the world’s turtles are on the World Conservation Union (IUCN) endangered species list as a result of over-fishing, deadly driftnets and environmental degradation, particularly to feeding and nesting grounds. In spite of a US National Park Service assessment that places the animals in regional decline, my own unscientific observations would beg to differ. In the lagoon at Fagamalo I was even treated to the gold medal sighting of a critically endangered Hawksbill Turtle grazing unperturbed on algae at about 10m as I photographed it from every angle possible.

“She’s there most times we dive,” says Fabien Lebon, the expert dive guide on Savai’i, “ ‘bonjour Fabien’ she says ‘so just one diver today, oh okay’ and keeps eating. My daughter calls her Vanessa.”

In Samoa the animals have some nominal protection thanks to their mythical status as a saviour of lost seamen. The local name “I'a sa,” translates directly as “sacred fish”. Then there’s the old Samoan legend of the turtle and the shark which recalls unhappy Fonuea, an elderly blind villager, who cast herself and her daughter Salofa into the ocean to be reborn as sea creatures away from the unkind hands of humans.

"Lalelei!, Lalelei!, Lalelei!" the villagers still cry coaxing the pair to reappear at the foot of the cliff. But don’t point or they will immediately disappear, reminded of the cruel treatment that caused their despair.

When caught, turtles weep profusely and this sometimes engenders enough sympathy to throw them back to the sea instead of on the fire. True, despite both legend and legislation, turtles are still caught for food, although much less so in Samoa than other islands such as Fiji where they are gathered and slaughtered live in the Suva markets to the horror of onlookers.

Samoa challenges any writer to avoid the common clichés of “hidden gem”, “best kept secret” or “tropical paradise” precisely because it matches them all exactly. The great novelist, Robert Louis Stevenson, sought refuge and inspiration here in his final years and is laid to rest overlooking Apia.


Remote and almost unattainable, Samoa lies at the limit of most regional airlines’ reach, while conveniently avoiding mention in most tourist texts dominated by closer cousins Fiji, New Caledonia and Vanuatu. Samoa’s lack of pervasive tourism infrastructure is a key selling point. The relatively few resorts are low impact, relaxed and uncrowded. Vigorous touts, tacky tourist haunts and Chinese-made souvenirs are rare, leaving most attractions to the native ingenuity of the locals.

P&O Cruises have rediscovered Samoa thanks to its cruise-friendly port (Apia), engaging excursions, rich culture and relaxed atmosphere and have doubled their scheduled visitations over the next year. Elite surfers and committed sports divers too have jealously kept Samoa under their beanies for years.

For me, I’d be happy if Samoa retained its seclusion, cherished its low profile and remained ambivalent about the growing interest in its natural and scenic treasures. But that won’t happen in a world crying out for new experiences and destinations far from the madding crowd. Please, if you go, tread lightly, be polite and don’t hassle the turtles.

Doing it:

The Samoa Tourist Authority has a wide range of travel, tour and accommodation options to suit all budgets. Visit their website at www.samoa.travel

Getting There:

Polynesian Blue, International Airline of Virgin Blue flies direct from Sydney to Apia (Samoa) three times a week. Formal connections are also available via Brisbane with fares starting from $429 per person, one way on the net. If you're looking to keep entertained, simply hire the digEplayer. Your own personal in-flight system features movies, TV shows and a board array of of music for an additional $15. For extra leg room, book the Blue Zone seating option for an additional $45 on top of your fare. Check out www.polynesianblue.com for current specials, bookings and all your travel needs.

The writer was a guest of Samoa Tourist Authority and Polynesian Blue.