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Samoa - Feb 2018

We initially thought heading to the tropics in the wet season was a risky move. The last thing we wanted was to be trapped in a hotel room, with rain hammering down around us 24/7.  El and I had seen so many amazing images from this country and a quick check on Google Earth confirmed it really was drone paradise. So many amazing top down reef/surf shots to be had.

After a bit more research online our fears had eased; Samoa's wet season on average received about 30% more rain that the dry, or about 100mm, across a month, so not really too much. On top of that, most of the reports we had read said that most days are hot and sunny with rain and lightning at night. Perfect.

We walked out of the airport mid afternoon and were immediately bailed up by one of the 15 or so cab drivers hanging around the arrival terminal. Let me just say that Samoan's are beautiful people, some of the most friendly and hospitable people I've ever met, but this particular cabby was a bit of a dick. The turn off our resort required a 10km drive down a road which was pretty rough. Unsealed, bumpy, and holes ect everywhere.  Samoa is one of those places where you negotiate a cab fee upfront, which we did, and agreed on the price which the hotel told us would be about right. Once we pulled on to this road the driver asked us to pay him a 20% bonus due to the road's rough condition. Outside of the city, there really is just the one main road, circling around the island, with a few small roads veering off it. I thought to myself "This guy knows exactly where the hotel is, knows the roads, but waits till we get there to ask for more" We declined. 5 minutes later he asked again, and again we declined. He started driving incredibly slowly. For a second El and I thought we were going to have a problem as we thought he may just turn around and decline to go any further. He asked one more time. I told him that seeing as he knew where the hotel was, surely he would know the condition of the road, it wasn't like it had just recently been damaged (that was clear), it was just a bad road. We were starting to get pretty annoyed at this point, but he didn't ask a 4th time and carried on to the destination. 

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When we finally arrived our jaws dropped. The photos on Expedia were okay, but they certainly didn't do the atmosphere of the resort any justice. It was just beautiful. Tall palm trees surrounded the small resort. It had one large lobby/ Restaurant area and 7 or 8 timber bungalows fanning off around it. White sand and dark black lava rocks everywhere. The water was stunning. Some of the clearest and brightest blues I've ever seen, the inside reef 20 steps from our door was calm and clear, and just past that were waves of about 4 to 5 foot in size. Soft, off shore breeze and almost no one around. There was a small family in the bungalow next door but that was it.

I threw my gear into the room, and got the drone out straight up. Flew it around for about 20 minutes but it wasn't until after dinner that we noticed the amazing rock pool the hotel had,  sitting between the sand out front of the resort, and the bright blue water of the reef. We sat in the pool for an hour or so, had a few beers then off to bed.

So one good thing about the wet season in the tropics, Unless its pouring with rain, you often get mornings and afternoons filled with really high scattered clouds, perfect for shooting at golden hour. In fact, the days where we had good weather every day had either a cracking sunrise or sunset.

I had plans of getting up to shoot sunrise but I was still pretty sleepy from yesterday's travelling. I looked out the bungalow window just before sunrise to see the ocean lighting was fairly flat and grey looking so went back to bed. I lay there for about ten minutes before forcing myself back up again for a walk down to the pool. I'm actually still kicking myself for not getting up those ten minutes earlier. The color over the pool was just amazing. It was one of those sunrises where there there was so many different shades of red, spread across many layers of clouds, with these sort of "god rays" shooting out from a cloud sitting on the horizon. I ran back to the room and grabbed all camera gear plus the drone and headed back down. When you're this close to the equator, sunrises and sunsets are over and done with real fast, so you really need to be on it, which I wasn't. I managed to get just one handheld shot just after the sun had pushed thru, and before staff came over to flush out the pool, killing the reflection it was throwing out.

After breakfast we were off to El's #1 spot she wanted to hit. The Tu Sua trench. We had seen plenty of shots of it and I was so keen to get the drone up over it. All these attractions in Samoa are privately owned, even the beaches, and you have to pay to access them. Never too expensive though, only about $2.50 AUD each. I was so bummed to get to the gate to discover this place had a no drone policy. I asked why they wouldn't allow it, to which he replied "too noisy" I had to ask him to speak up as I couldn't hear him over the lawnmower in action right next to the trench. My first thought was maybe to see if i could slip him some coin for an exception to the rule, but we went over and had a look and it soon became obvious the best shot was probably from the land anyway. A top down shot, at the time of day we were there would give alot of glare in the water and you lose perspective from that angle too. I.e. you can't really get a good feel for the height of the trench and the depth of the water, so we decided it probably wasn't going to be worth pushing to get the drone up anyway.

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One of the other good things about travelling here during the wet season is that there's almost no one around. There was one other couple in the water for about ten minutes, but besides that we had it to ourselves for ages. The place is just stunning, so glad we made it here. Apparently there is a hidden cave here you can swim to, but you've gotta swim through an underwater tunnel for about ten seconds to get to it. That's a massive no from me.

That was pretty much the only spot we checked out that day. We hung out there for several hours, then drove around the island for a bit and headed back to the hotel.

Next morning I was up with plenty of time to catch sunrise. There was a bit of high cloud around, but one of those big blocking clouds on the horizon was stopping any light getting up underneath the high ones. I looked around for a few different compositions. I was hoping I could frame up some cracks in the lava rocks leading up towards a palm tree with the golden hour colors in the sky, but just couldn't get what I was looking for.

The next day was spent cruising around the island, mostly just sight seeing before jumping on the car ferry to the larger but less populated island Of Savai'i where we would ultimately, and sadly be stuck for the duration of the trip.

Our first full day in Savai'i was a cracker. The beaches on this island were just stunning, and we were greeted with another stunning sunrise, which again I wasn't ready for. We still managed to get some sweet shots in though. We drove up to this newly constructed pier at a resort about 30 minutes up the road and spent about 20 minutes shooting here. On the drive back El pointed out this little boat, sitting in very still water just inside the reef. I waded out to it and snapped some of my personal favorite shots of the trip.

After lunch we drove up to the Alofaaga Blowholes. This place was so sweet. One of the things I love about Samoa is the total absence of any nannying. Again we had to pay a small entrance fee, which was fine, and then frustratingly, some lady appeared and charged us a "photography fee" but once that was out of the way, we could walk out on to the lava field which housed the blowhole and we could do what we want. No signs, no fences, no one telling us how close we could get or weather I could, run, swear, spit, litter ect. They just allow common sense to prevail. Having said that, you really do need to use it.

The incoming swell would push up under this ledge overhanging the water and get forced out through the blowhole with an incredible amount of force. You wouldn't want to be standing on it when it pushed through. The swell was around the 3 ft mark when we were here and it was just insane to watch. I'd love to see this place on a big day! We took a few shots here and even got the drone up in the air over it, but I never really got anything I was thrilled with. It was mid afternoon, so too bright and glary for good shooting conditions.

One of the only things that bugs me with the drone (Phantom 4 Pro) is it's fixed landscape crop. I was hoping to get in frame a shot with the drone with the swell pushing up into the rock ledge and with the water blasting out through the blowhole, but the landscape crop and angle of the drone lens just wouldn't allow it to work properly. 
 

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Next day we headed to the northern end of the island for some snorkling. We spent the 1st half of the morning snorkling and relaxing under the sun. We had plans to shoot some snorkling footage with the drone and Gopro but decided to enjoy it 1st then get stuck into the shooting. 

One things i've learnt from photography trips is to never, ever put off a shot or vid that you can do now. Which is true for everything anyway I guess. If you're heading somewhere and you see a good shot,  stop and grab it immediately. If you think you can grab it later, or on the way back it probably won't happen. Either the light will go shit, it'll rain or or the opportunity will be missed. Always grab it now if you think it's good.

So after snorkeling for about 2 hours, we see this big shelf cloud roll in, so we decided to head into the bar for some drinks until the rain passed then head back out. We didn't realize at the time, but this would be the end of the good weather for the duration of the trip...

Once we arrived back at our hotel, the manager, who was an absolute legend by the way, told us that rain, wind and thunder was on the forecast. He said, "sounds like a cyclone to me, but these things change all the time" This was our last night at this hotel and the next day we went to check out a waterfall which was #2 on El's hit list. 

This spot was sweet, and the good thing about shooting waterfalls, is that you're better off with overcast weather anyway. Daytime light and shadows are too  harsh, and make for terrible shooting conditions generally. Again, we pretty much had it to ourselves the whole time. A thirty meter high drop into a deep, freshwater reserve. Not bad, thanks Samoa.

After this, it absolutely pissed down. It was that sort of rain that when you're driving, you have the wipers are on full blast, and are still just useless. It didn't let up for the next 36 hours. It was crazy. We tried to get a ferry back to the main island the next day but they said they were closed to to the heavy rain. my first thought was "wtf, since when do boats cancel due to rain?", but I'm no captain. I think this was a bad translation and he was trying to explain that the swell was too big.

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El had bought a sim card as soon as we landed in Samoa but it was basically useless. There was hardly any reception anywhere, and when we first heard someone mention cyclone we had been chasing more info. The next day we drove back to the the pier that we had shot at sunrise a few days earlier as the hotel there was looking pretty upmarket and we thought we'd have a decent chance of getting some internet there.  We stopped in for lunch and asked the waiter if he had heard about any cyclone. This guy used what I'd call the scientific method of forecasting. He said "oh yeah they said that on the radio, but they said the same thing last year and nothing happened, so this will be the same." Far from convinced, we grabbed some internet vouchers and check the Samoan Meteorology website. It confirmed there was indeed a named cyclone coming, and the outer edge of it was due to hit us within the next 4 hours. Fuck.

We thought the best bet would be to hole up in this hotel and ride it out. The system was coming in from the west and we were on the eastern edge of the island, so should be safe from storm surge. Also, this hotel had solid block constructed bungalows as opposed to fibro for most of the other hotels.

By 9pm we finished dinner at the restraunt and it was starting to get pretty breezy, by midnight it was absolutely howling and it was around this time we lost power. There was a bang at the door at around 1am. I had no idea who it was at first but the guy was saying what sounded like "I'm scared, I'm scared" and I thought "wtf? do we let this random guy in?", turns out it was just security, he was trying to say "I'm scared for your car" and I was like "ahhh okay, got it" Turns out i'd parked in a shit spot right under a tree, so I ran out into the storm and moved it as fast as possible. Being outside in this cyclone was a tad risky, but we didn't want to have to deal with a flattened car in the morning. I remember looking up and seeing the sky full of palm fronds, and leaves ect just flying everywhere. So surreal. By around 4am the storm had moved on and we finally managed to get some sleep.

The hotel made it pretty clear to us that they wanted us to get out of there so they could clean up, but with the ferry  cancelled we refused as we assumed other hotels would be doing the same thing and we may be stuck with nowhere to stay. We hung around for another day before heading back to the ferry terminal and tried our luck getting off the island.

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No such luck. We sat around from around 8 in the morning till about 5pm. By this point we were just getting so frustrated and slightly anxious that we weren't going to make our flight. I remember El doing her best to crack jokes and make light of the situation, whilst I was going into low-key meltdown.  I wandered around the area and took a few snaps in the rain that I actually ended up being pretty happy with. I used a 70-200mm lens to shoot some families and kids waiting around in the rain, hoping for some good news. 

As we had suspected the previous day, almost all hotels on the island were closed for repairs, and the ones that weren't were full of people needing to get out. We started thinking we were going to have to sleep in the car, but fortunately managed to find a backpackers at around 8pm with a spare room for us, not too far from the terminal. We were out the door at 4:30 the following morning as we knew by this point there would be hundereds of people waiting to get off the island. We were right. The ferry company had announced they would be running that day and had three ferries waiting to go. We finally started to relax. Our flight out was that afternoon, and by this point we were just over it. We didn't want to hang around any longer.

We joined the car ferry queue and by the time things started to get moving there were possibly 15 or 20 cars behind us. Once we arrived at the gate, we were asked if we had a ticket. This was the frustrating thing about the ferry set up here. Everyone said to us "Oh if you're going to get a ferry, make sure you pre-book" But there was no way to pre book. We couldn't buy a return ticket when we left the mainland, as they had said they "don't offer that service", and to buy another ticket on the other island. But the ticket booth was only open when the ferry was running, which was never. Anyway, due to the fact that we didn't have a ticket, we had to join a seperate queue for cars without one. Long story short, among the hundreds of people waiting for a ferry, and possibly fifty cars, we were the only ones unable to make it on to any of the three boats in the morning. I lost my shit.

There was nothing we could do, and if the weather turned we would surely miss our flight. The attendant asked me "mr, why you so mad?" I actually nearly laughed when she said that. We were just over it at this point. 

Fortunately another ship came through 3 hours later, and we made it back in time for our flight. Just. 

Samoa was amazing, and on occasion, a tad frustrating. Writing this brings back the memories of all the places and all the good fun things we did. And even though the weather sucked for the second half, El and I still managed to have a great time. We are now looking at going pro in both card games, Snap and Bullshit after having spent so much time playing them . I remember waiting for the late ferry thinking I was going to give the place a scathing review, but that's not fair, and I've calmed right down now. The place is beautiful, absolutely beautiful, the people are wonderful, and the pace is very relaxed, which to be honest, is my style anyway. If the weather was better it really would have been one of the best trips we've had.

 

Simon Clayton