Ofu, American Samoa
Ofu Beach is the closest I’ll ever get to tropical paradise.
An endless stretch of soft, white sand. Palm trees waving gently in the ocean breeze. Jungle-covered mountains shaped like shark’s teeth rising dramatically in the background. Just offshore, a massive coral reef teeming with marine life. And not another soul in sight.
Getting there took some effort.
Ofu is part of Manu’a, an island group that also includes Olosega (so close to Ofu that a short bridge connects them) and Ta’u (a larger island just east of Olosega). A supply boat makes a run from Pago Pago to Manu’a about every two weeks, but it’s apparently unreliable and painfully slow. So flying is the best option, despite the fact that there’s only one flight a week to Ofu, on Thursdays. Thankfully there are also a few flights each week to Ta’u. So, given that I only wanted to spend a few days on Ofu, my best option was to fly directly there on Thursday, and then on Monday hire a local fisherman to take me to Ta’u, where I could catch a flight back to Pago Pago.
At the airport early Thursday morning I found out my flight to Ofu would be delayed four hours. They apparently needed the plane for something more important, a not-uncommon occurrence. While killing time I met some of the other passengers, including William, a silver-haired pastor at a small church on Olosega. “How many people are there in your church?” I asked.
“Four families,” he said with a benevolent smile. That is a small church!
Also waiting for the flight was Deb, who – along with her husband Ben – runs the Vaoto Lodge, where I’d be staying. The lodge is located right at the end of the Ofu airstrip, just a 10-minute walk away from the western edge of Ofu Beach. Deb’s parents opened the Vaoto Lodge in 1979, and when they passed away she and Ben took over.
Thirty minutes after our flight took off we landed on Ofu. “Don’t laugh,” Deb said as we got off the plane, “but that’s the lodge.” She pointed to a building so close to the plane I could have hit it with a rock.
A motley pack of dogs greeted us, thrilled to see Deb but suspicious of me. “How many do you have?” I asked.
“Right now five dogs and four cats,” Deb said. “My babies.”
Ben, smiling and laid back, showed me to my room, a simple concrete-walled block with a mattress, a fan, and a bathroom. There was no lock on the screen door – what would be the point? I set down my bags and headed straight for the beach.
The white sand practically glowed in the afternoon sun. Fish broke the surface of the reef’s shallow turquoise water. The only footprints were my own. I laughed at finding myself in such a beautiful spot. Ofu Beach is part of the National Park of American Samoa, and it sometimes pops up on lists of the world’s best beaches. But hardly anyone visits. One source estimates that it attracts fewer than 300 tourists a year. And the locals avoid it, supposedly in the belief there are spirits nearby that are best left alone.
At the end of the beach I continued walking, crossing the hurricane-reinforced bridge over the Asaga Strait and taking a quick look around Olosega Village before turning back.
At the lodge that night I met some of the other guests. Simon and his partner Adrienne, from Florida, were on the island for about two months researching bird populations. Most mornings they’d wake up before dawn and trek to some remote spot, where they’d set up a net to catch and band birds.
Dan and Courtney, also American, were conducting research on the coral reef. Dan runs a lab at Old Dominion in Virginia, and he’s been studying the reef at Ofu Beach for years. The reef is a favorite with researchers, according to Dan, for a variety of reasons. It’s surprisingly healthy, despite the fact that at low tide the water surrounding the reef heats up significantly. It’s relatively undisturbed and protected, thanks to its National Park status. And perhaps most importantly, a National Park scientist apparently kept detailed temperature records that stretch back a long time, giving researchers a historical perspective they lack in many other reefs.
Dan and Courtney are hoping to learn how the Ofu reef manages to thrive in such warm water, which may hold clues for how to help other reefs stay healthy in a world that’s gradually heating up. At the moment Dan was a little disheartened, because this trip is the first time he’s noticed signs of coral bleaching on Ofu’s reef. Overall, though, he’s still optimistic. He summed things up with a little pep talk that might have been directed more at himself than me: “We can’t underestimate Nature. It’s proven to be amazingly adaptable.”
Deb said more researchers would be arriving soon, including some from NASA and Stanford. The only other guests right then were two Mormon missionaries, who I managed to miss. Mormons have been very successful in American Samoa and Samoa, and many of the largest churches I saw were LDS.
It rained overnight, but the sky cleared nicely before dawn. I made the short hike to Ofu beach for the first of what turned out to be three colorful sunrises in a row.
I spent the day snorkeling. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many different kinds of fish and coral in one place. Everywhere I looked something interesting was happening.
The next day, after another memorable sunrise, I went snorkeling again and then decided to hike up Tumu Mountain, at 1,621 feet the highest point on Ofu. Ben suggested that I make the climb first thing in the morning to avoid the mid-day heat, which made all kinds of sense, but the light would be better for photos in the afternoon, so I resigned myself to a hot, humid slog.
To get to the trailhead I walked west along the coastal road, past Ofu Village, until I reached the harbor, where an old service road rises into the rainforest. I hadn’t even started the real hike yet and I was already soaked in sweat and short on water. The walls of vegetation on either side of the trail did nothing to shade me from the punishing mid-day sun. I imagined that an angry Polynesian island god was using a giant magnifying glass to concentrate the sunlight on my back.
Courtney, thankfully, had warned me to wear pants instead of shorts, which I did, even though I was a little skeptical they’d be necessary. While some parts of the trail were clear, much of it was covered with knee-high vegetation, including some kind of thorny vines that lashed out angrily as I walked by. Had I not been wearing pants my legs would have quickly been shredded.
About halfway up I had a gut check. The trail was relatively short, but the heat, humidity and elevation gain were working together to kick my ass. I was almost out of water. And there were no incremental rewards to help keep me going – no nice views at different spots along the trail, nothing much to see but jungle, mud, and aggressive vegetation on all sides.
Putting on my headphones for the distraction of a podcast (Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, which is excellent) helped get me over the hump, and eventually I made it to the radio tower at Tumu’s summit. From there a short side trail led to a rocky wall with a rope ladder, and after scrambling over that final obstacle I emerged, all at once, from out of the stifling jungle onto a small open perch with a breathtaking view of the islands. Ben later told me they call it the “Bird’s Nest,” which is perfect.
That night some other tourists showed up at the lodge. Jessica and Ballina, two women from Australia, were proving that you don’t need advance planning to make it to Ofu. They’d flown to Ta’u without knowing where they’d be staying, somewhat aware that there aren’t really any hotels on that island but trusting that something would work out, which it did. Someone they met helped them find a place to stay, and they had a great time hanging out with the locals. Then they made their way over to Ofu, where Deb and Ben happened to have an open room for them.
And the Australian women were doing all this without the benefit of their phones. Earlier in the trip, apparently, they’d left their phones in the glove box of a rental car, and when it rained overnight the box somehow flooded. I asked for other stories from their adventures, but most of the information they shared between laughs and sideways glances was so scattered and random that I gave up trying to follow. Clearly they were having fun.
Jessica and Ballina thought they might go back to Pago Pago on the same flight as me, so Deb suggested that the three of us share a boat to Ta’u on Monday morning. Hiring the boat wasn’t cheap and I was more than happy to split the cost.
The next morning, Sunday, I woke up early for another beautiful sunrise, the best one yet. It would also be the last dawn I’d see from Ofu Beach, given that the next morning I needed to head right to Ta’u.
I spent the rest of the day snorkeling and trying to appreciate where I was.
There are no restaurants on Ofu, so I’d been relying on meals prepared by Deb and Ben, all of which were extremely good. When dinner was served at the lodge that night Jessica and Ballina were nowhere to be seen. I assumed they’d met some locals and were eating somewhere else, but early the next morning, when it was time to leave for the boat back to Ta’u, the Australians were still missing.
“All their stuff is still in their room,” Deb said. “But they never came back last night.”
At about 10am the previous day I’d seen them walking on the road behind Ofu Beach. They planned to do a hike in Olosega that morning and then climb Mount Tumu in the afternoon. “Maybe they just met some people in Olosega and decided to stay there?” I suggested. That seemed to me like the most likely scenario.
Deb said she’d make some calls to see if anyone had information. Meanwhile Ben pointed out that we needed to go meet the fisherman who would be giving me a ride to Ta’u. The boat trip takes 90 minutes, and if we didn’t leave soon I might miss my flight.
“It’s so strange,” Ben said about Jessica and Ballina. “Nothing like this has ever happened here before.” Although he did go on to say that a tourist had drowned several years ago in a fluke accident. That didn’t strike me as particularly encouraging.
At the harbor Ben introduced me to Sy (“Short for ‘Society,’” Ben explained, prompting a confused look from me), the fisherman who’d be taking me to Ta’u. Several locals joined us, including a stout, friendly woman who introduced herself as Teenay. Ben made one more call to Deb, who said there was still no news from the Australians, so we boarded the small fishing boat and took off.
As we motored to Ta’u, Teenay mentioned that she’d heard about the Australian women. “Yesterday was Sunday,” she said. “They shouldn’t have been on the mountain.” Apparently it was OK to be on the roads and beaches, but some of the locals think it’s disrespectful to climb the island’s mountains on Sundays. It was the first I’d heard that.
“Do you think the Australians stayed in Olosega last night?” I asked.
“No, Olosega is my village,” said Teenay. “They went up the trail and never came back.” As the boat passed Olosega Teenay pointed out a white truck parked at the trailhead. “See? The park ranger is already looking for them. They shouldn’t have been on the mountain.”
At the Ta’u harbor Teenay and the other locals helped arrange a ride to the airport, which was on the other side of the island. We made it to the airport on time, only to find out that – of course – our flight would be delayed four hours. As we waited on the airport benches a few of Teenay’s relatives who lived nearby showed up with plates of food, including one for me. “This is how Samoan people are,” said Teenay, justifiably proud of Samoan hospitality.
Back in Pago Pago that night I e-mailed Deb to check on the Australian women. She quickly responded: “They were found around 3pm but we just got home to the lodge from the base site at 8pm, we had a big search party looking out for them. They went up the mountain and got lost, they ended up at the peak overlooking Olosega village. They are doing well, tired and dehydrated, no injuries. It has been a long day!”
Whew, that was a relief. I can’t imagine it was fun to sleep on the mountain that night! But great news that they made it back safely.
Ofu was special. I can’t believe it doesn’t attract more tourists, but I’m glad it remains a hidden gem. I would love to make it back someday. Thanks again Deb and Ben!