Monday, March 19, 2012

Finding Pulemelei Mound, Butterflies and the Spirit of Polynesia

"You won't be able to get to Pulemelei," a local archaeologist told me. "No pro guide will take you and the trail is nearly impossible to find."

Except for his first sentence, this proved to be true.

I asked around trying to find someone to lead me to the mound, a 12m high pyramid that's the largest ancient structure in Polynesia. Most people said things like "Oh we don't go there anymore," "It's not worth it," or other versions of "no" without saying it. After putting together bits and pieces I came to understand that the mound is on land claimed by a local company and the village. Because of this, the whole site has been abandoned for several years, weeds have engulfed the trails and most tour guides are worried that someone from either side of the land claim will get upset if they traipse a bunch of people onto "their" land.

But for me, telling me I can't get somewhere is like a dare, and I also didn't want to miss one of the most important archaeological sites in the South Pacific. No one knows what the mound was used for but it's been dated to 1100-1400 AD, is built from basalt stones, measures 65m by 60m at its base and is oriented to the cardinal directions. Apparently hundreds of other sites lay around the mound hidden in the bush. So I decided to try and find this grand and mysterious place on my own.

Luckily, the previous author of the Lonely Planet guidebook I was updating provided decent directions about where the trail started. Just before the road to the mound was another trail to a waterfall that I also needed to see, so I decided to go there first. As I slowed down my rental car at the turn off (that I thought went to the waterfall), a man sitting in a little wooden roadside shelter flagged me down. I assumed he was telling me that this was the road to the falls and was going to ask for a customs fee (villages own most of the land in Samoa and you need to pay the village this fee to see most sights in the country). Instead he asked me for a ride.

"Are you going far?" He asked.

"I'm trying to get to the falls and Pulemelei Mound," I said. "Do you know how to get there?"

"Mmm," he said raising his eyebrows in the classic Polynesian gesture for yes. "I need to pick up my car at my mechanic but I'm not in a hurry. I'll take you there first if you want."

Now I don't usually pick up strange men hitchhiking but my spider senses told me this 50-something year-old, slightly overweight Samoan man with a big smile was OK. Plus, he could take me to Pulemelei, which was like a gift from God at this point. This all seemed like a good deal.

"Hop in," I told him.

We first went to the falls, which were small and a nice place for swimming. I wasn't geared up for a dip however so we had a quick look then turned around to drive back to the main road.

"I've never been to Pulemelei," my new friend said as we bumped over a particularly big pothole. "I hope we can find it. It's funny, I've lived here for almost a year but I never even thought of going."

My heart sank. Not only did he not know how to get there but he wasn't even a real local.

"Where are you from then?" I asked.

"I lived in New Zealand for over 30 years," he said. "But I grew up in Apia."

Apia is the capital of Samoa, so he was a city kid, not the earth-under-his-feet farmer I had assumed. The 30 years in New Zealand explained his fantastic English.

Luckily he knew where the turnoff to the mound was, which was unmarked and easily missed, even with the directions in the guidebook.

We bumped over a very rough dirt and stone track till we reached a river. We parked, got out, waded across and began our walk. My guidebook said the walk was 2km from here - the trail started in waist-high grass.

The path was wide, lined by trees and had only a slight slope so, despite the tall weeds and occasional prickers in my toes (I was wearing flip flops), it was pretty easy going. My friend began telling me a bit about himself: he was the youth group leader at the Mormon church and was taking a big group on a hike up the island's tallest mountain the next day.

"Maybe I can bring them here too one day if we find it," he said hopefully.

At one point a fallen tree blocked the path but we were able to find a way through brambles to get around it. A little later we had to decide whether to go left or right. We chose left. We kept walking. It seemed like we'd already walked much farther than 2km and it was very hot. I took a sip of water and offered some to my friend as well.

Then, right as I was thinking about turning around and trying the road to the right, we hit the old parking lot. Yes, at one time this road had been made for vehicles and people could just drive here. There was an old broken "Parking" sign nailed to a tree.

We waded through the lush grass of the parking lot then came to another sign that said "Pulemelei Mound 150m." We had found it!

From here we went through tunnel of jungle till suddenly I realized the thick foliage and vines in front of me were actually climbing on the mound. A small path led up the mass of vegetation to the top. It was so covered by plants that we didn't see a single stone till we reached the top.

And then, magic.

The flat peak of the pyramid has a view over the jungle we'd just traversed and out to sea. Two mango trees grow to one side and the rest is covered in purple flowers and swarms of light blue and brown butterflies. I have never seen so many butterflies in my life - it was something out of a Disney movie. And this place feels good, not creepy like some old temples and archaeological sites I've been to. Whatever this mound was used for nearly 1000 years ago, it was for happy and benevolent purposes, that I am sure of. Pulemelei Mound is not a place of ghosts, it's a place where you want to go and frolic around chasing butterflies. So this is exactly what I did.

My friend obviously felt the same way. He went and sat under the mango trees then managed to pick a few ripe ones. He gave two to me then sat and ate the others while gazing out over the view with a look of contentment.

After about half an hour, we had to go. I had a ferry to catch and we still had to get my friend to his mechanic. As we were about to descend the pyramid my friend gently held onto my shoulders and kissed me on the cheek.

"Thank you," he said.

The cheek kiss, however sweet it was, made me uncomfortable and for the first time in an hour I remembered that I was by myself out in the middle of a jungle everyone else was avoiding with a large man I'd just picked up hitchhiking. But I also remembered that a cheek kiss is a common form of greeting and platonic affection in Samoan culture. In fact, the bellboy at the hotel I stayed at my first night in Apia had grabbed me and kissed my cheek after he'd dropped off my bag and we'd introduced ourselves. So I wasn't terrified. I did however want to get back to the car as fast as possible.

The hike down went very quickly without talking much. We got in the car silently and then my friend directed me to where he needed to be dropped off.

On the way he said, "You know I could use a little help paying for my car."

I had expected from the beginning that he'd probably ask for money since this is how things work in Samoa. He'd spent a few hours with me at this point and although I probably could have found everything without him, I was happy for his company.

"How much do you need?" I asked.

I ended up giving him 50 tala, which is about US$17. It was probably too much but everything had worked out so beautifully it was a first step to thanking the universe for such an amazing experience. Picking this guy up was a risk I wouldn't have usually taken and he had reminded me of this at the top of the mound. But following my gut had made the experience more fulfilling because I'd had someone to share the moment with and chances are I'd have been even more uneasy being up there alone. Paying him didn't taint anything in the Polynesian sense - I had money and he didn't so it was normal for me to share and be generous as he had been with his time.

I hope my friend takes those Mormon kids up to the mound and I hope even more that the next time I go it will be cleared of conflict and have the attention and excavation it deserves. Once the land rights issues are resolved, the tourism department wants to put it in the running to be a UNESCO World Heritage site, which is what a place as magical and important as this should be.

Please excuse the terrible quality of this video. I took it because I felt I had to but I didn't check to see if it was any good because I was too busy chasing butterflies:


  1. Wow- thanks for persevering!

    Aloha from Honolulu
    Comfort Spiral

    >< } } ( ° >

  2. It sounds so magical with all the flowers, butterflies, and gorgeous vistas. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Bumps and ripples seem to find their balance in places of mystery and discover. JW

  4. This is brilliant Celeste! We (Kim and I) looked for Pulemelei years ago when we were on Savai'i, but failed completely to find it amongst the jungle (loved the waterfall tho). Also loved talking to Peter (previous LP author) once about his own trip to find it - he was as determined as you! Now I feel I've almost been there... no, I'll just have to go back.



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