Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Helen's Story

From: HELEN <he******>
Date: Fri, Sep 11, 2009 at 1:25 AM
Subject: hello
To: Art Leonard <artl*********>

Travelled around the two biggest independent islands, Upolu & Savii which are both less than 200 kms in circumference. Spent time in Apia, the capital looking at the food & flea markets and generally walking around the streets. Five km’s out of Apia is where Robert Louis Stevenson’s lived and died in an old large wooden residence with a lovely large garden & grounds. It has now been turned into a museum. Robert lived his last 4 and half years in Samoa as the climate was kinder to his medical problem. Walked 45 minutes along a steep path up a hill to his grave site and was rewarded with great views over Apia. Travelled by local bus to a few beaches on the southern coast & spent time walking, reading and doing a bit of snorkelling. Rained some of the time and the middle of the day was usually uncomfortably humid/hot even though it is the coolest time of the year in Samoa. Took a ferry across to Savvi the other island and stayed in a place called Manase at Janes Beach Fales. Did a day tour, approx 180 km’s around the islands and saw most of the main attractions. First stop was a large Babylon tree which you could climb up stairs which lead to a Canopy walkway which on the day we went they decided that we couldn’t walk across it which was disappointing, apparently some days they let you & some days they don’t. Second stop was Alofaaga blowholes where they put coconuts in one of the blow holes & the coconuts shoot up into the air. The ocean around this area are very rough. Third stop was a nice waterfall with a pool below which we went swimming in. Fourth stop was the lava fields which were formed in approx 1911 with the eruption of Mount Matavanuthen, saw a Church which the lava came right through & a crater which is now covered with grass. Fifth & last stop was swimming with the turtles in a turtle enclosure. With a bit of Papaya in your hand they would come up to you and take it out of you hand which was neat.

The rest of the time on the island was spent walking & reading, a little bit of snorkelling. The weather wasn’t the best for swimming as it rained some days, was windy some days plus it wasn’t pleasant when the tide was out.

Samoa is one of the least visited Pacific Islands and the cheapest to visit. We paid around $35 for a Fale which included communal breakfast & tea. Samoa is relatively cheap but it is 3rd world and more expensive than South East Asia but not complaining as I spent less than $800 for the 2 weeks. Western goods are very expensive as they import most things, same as Vanuatu. Approx 80% of the tourists are from New Zealand. There were some religious singing groups visiting, seems the ideal place.

My holiday in Somoa was tragic as on the third day we were there Ruth drowned when we were snorkelling as we got caught in a channel at Lalomanu beach. There was a sign on the beach which warned of strong currents when the tide is high or going out but not of channels. I found out later that where we were there were 3 channels all going out the same place in a gap of the corral reef. We swam for about 10-15 minutes then hit the channel, Ruth was taken out a few feet, swam to her & from then on Ruth panicked and held onto me. For approx one & a half hours I tried to swim with Ruth holding onto me but I would swim forward with the current then we would be brought right back again, I could only hold ground, not gain any distance. I didn’t know what we were in and kept looking for a way out but the waves seemed to come from either side & all around. Ruth kept saying she was sorry and I kept trying to persuade her to swim, she also kept asking me if we were closer & I would say yes to try and give her confidence. After 30 minutes or so it was dark so even if there were people walking along the beach they would not have seen us. We weren’t getting anywhere & I was tiring so I decided my only option was to try & swim to shore by myself & get help. I had no idea that it would take me over an hour to reach the shore, we were inside the corral reef and not that far out but it was going from high tide to the tide receding, which is the worst time. It was a nightmare swimming, constantly swimming towards shore, getting taken out again, getting dumped, even trying to float for some respite but then a wave would go over my face. I ended up getting really determined as I knew I couldn’t keep this up for a lot longer and one time when the current started to take me out yet again I saw a rock about a foot high and wedged my leg against it and then when the current came in again I swam quickly to gain some ground. When I got closer to shore I held on to the coral on the bottom of the ocean when the tide was going out, sometimes the coral would break & sometimes it held but slowly I inched my way to shore bit by bit. Ended up getting to shore after 8 pm, I was pretty exhausted. Went for help, they sent out 2 kayaks first then I went out with a fishing boat from the next village with the locals to no avail. After 2 days Ruth’s body came to the surface, her hair had been caught on the corral until then. The locals and some of the tourists were very kind and I felt really bad as they made a fuss over me and telling me how strong and brave I was. They told me how lucky I was to get out of the channel & I think it was the fact that I swim regularly & I am strong minded & very determined. The fisherman that recovered the body had air tanks & they said that they had to go on the bottom of the ocean & pull themselves along to get out of the current. Four people have died in the channel in the last few years but they still won’t put up danger signs where the channel is or put buoys in the water and say don’t go past this point. I suggested it to the police, owners & different people. The owners said they told us of the dangers but they didn’t nor did they tell other people as I asked different people. I had to identify the body at the hospital chapel, the face was hardly recognisable. Spent some days walking around in disbelief, trying to rationalise the situation, thinking of all the ‘if only’. Ruth only has a brother (and a sister whom she dis-owns) and other than her brother I will miss her the most as I am the one that did everything with her, going to the pub, camping on long weekends, holidays etc. The Australian Consulate in Samoa took care of the arrangements of transporting Ruth’s body to Australia. Took awhile and the funeral was nearly 3 weeks after her drowning.

The day after the drowning Ancilla an English South African girl who is living in Auckland as a primary school teacher came to my room and asked if I needed a friend, we had met her the first night we arrived in Apia as she stayed in the same place as us. I wasn’t sure if I would go back home or not but I ended up deciding that whether I was in Australia or Samoa I still had to get my head together & try and cope. With Ancilla’s friendship and support we travelled together for the rest of my holidays. Ancilla viewed the body with me and was a good person to talk to and she kept reassuring me, I was luck to meet her.

When I got back to Australia I got bacteraemia (bacteria in the blood, not normally dangerous) from the corral cuts I got on my legs on the day of Ruth’s drowning. I thought I was nauseas from the plane but it went on for a few days plus getting shivers and fever. I was feeling a lot better 3 days later but one of the cuts was oozing so went to the doctor and had to take antibiotics even though the doctor thought my body had got over it.

All I can say is that we never know when our time is up so we need to make the most of every day of our lives.

Bye for now,



We met Helen on the tour of Vailima, Robert Louis Stevenson's place, and she joined us on our hike up to his grave on the top of the mountain. Along the way, we learned her story and were moved by it. This was the day after her South African friend left and the day before she was scheduled to leave, so it was good that we were there to give her someone to talk to. Back to posting pictures and such next time.
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