Thursday, August 6, 2009

Top of the Island

Wow! It’s my last day. I fly out later tonight and spend the next 26 hours traveling home to Vermont. Add the seven hour time difference, and I don’t get back until Saturday morning. I’m spending much of today packing (which is boring), so this post will be about yesterday’s hike up Matafau.

Looming 2,142 feet above sea level, Matafau is Tutuila’s tallest peak (in American Samoa, it is only surpassed by Lata Mountain on the island of Tau). The trail to the top of Matafau is rigorous and steep, and even Professor McGarvey has never made it to the top in his 30 years researching here. But we were up for the challenge, and yesterday morning, Katy, Dana, Gabe, and I drove up to Fagasa pass to tackle the climb.

The trail begins with a 20 foot ladder (behind us in the picture to the right), followed by a muddy incline up into the forest. Already muddy after the first 50 feet of the trail, we continued into the woods, where we ascended the steep muddy and rocky trail. At many points, we had to grab onto roots to hoist ourselves up and avoid slipping downhill, but this part of the trail (which lasted for about 1.5 hours) was the easiest. Eventually, the forest environment turned into a thick jungle, and at some points we were walking on suspended mats of roots and grass rather than actual ground.

Eventually, we reached the final portion of the hike, where the trees all but disappeared and we were left surrounded by tall grass and shrubbery. At this point, we began to see some breathtaking views of the Tafuna plain and the airport on our right and Pago Pago harbor on our left. At times we could see the summit still towering in front of us. We hiked along the continually narrowing ridge, following it up and down as it approached the mountain. Eventually, the ridge was only 5 feet wide, dropping off hundreds of feet on both sides. The final ascent was the steepest yet, and due to the mud, we found ourselves grabbing at any plants we could to help pull ourselves up. We persisted upwards, and, after 3 hours of hiking, we reached the peak.

Unfortunately, just as we arrived at the summit, clouds rolled in and turned our view into an endless sea of white. We ate our PB&J and crackers and etched our names into the metal structure marking the peak as we waited patiently for the clouds to retreat, but even an hour and twenty minutes later, we were stuck in the clouds. We decided that we had waited long enough, and it was time to head down.

The steep, muddy trail made it difficult to maintain footing, so we spent the better part of the next two and a half hours sliding down the mountain on our butts. Hiking downhill is always tough, but it’s even tougher when you need to maintain enough control to keep from sliding or stepping off a ridge hundreds of feet tall. We also had to be sure to pay attention to the pink ribbons marking the trail, since it was easy to take a wrong turn once we reached the woods. We made it back to the car with smiles on our faces and dirt everywhere else, and, after a few pictures, headed back toward home.

We stopped twice along the way, once to take a dip in the ocean at the beach near Fatu ma Fut (see photo to the right)i. I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned it in my past posts, but Fatu ma Futi is a stunning rock formation jutting out of the ocean just off the main road. It is fabled for its Romeo and Juliet style story, where two lovers, Fatu and (ma) Futi, jumped to their death from the top. Even after swimming around for a few minutes, I was still coated in a thick layer of dirt. After a quick stop at Carl’s Junior for a take-out dinner (we were all starving), we made it home and finally got to shower. Now, all that remains are numerous scratches on my hands and arms from the hours of climbing.

It feels great to have conquered Matafau, a mountain that very few people, Samoans or Palagis, ever even attempt. It was also an epic way to spend my last full day on the island.

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