As newly minted gentlepeople of leisure, Dane and I were ravenous about attacking a whole island full of expedition opportunities. I busted out the South Pacific guidebook again, 5 months later, aired out the boat stink from it and found a description of a hike to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, pronounced “Noah”) air testing station in Tula at the eastern end of the island of Tutuila here in American Samoa. Supposedly, the air at Cape Matatula is some of the cleanest in the world, as far as carbon dioxide parts per million. Amazing considering that the tuna parts per million in the air down in Pago Harbor is astronomical. I hadn’t heard about anyone else going out there, even people working for NOAA that we’ve met, so this trip was high on my list of things to do.
Thus began last Wednesday, when Dane and I and our harbor neighbor, Joe, hopped on the Tula bus, which took us all the way to that eastern tip of the island, about an hour’s drive on the 35 mph speed limit road, full of twists and turns along the shore and a goodly amount of potholes the farther out and more rural you got. It’s always lovely ride and only $2 each way, accompanied by the blasting island beats from your bus. I really love going out that way because there start to be actual clean beaches, less houses and corporate fast food structures and more jungle. You really get to see what it could have been like here maybe 50 years ago. Or maybe what Hawaii might have been like 100 years ago.
Asses sore from the bus’ wooden benches, we disembarked in Tula, stocked up on cold drinks at the only store in town and started walking towards the point. The guidebook was silent on how to get there, but a look on Google Earth before we left showed us 2 possible roads. We walked up the main road and passed a slightly asphalted road that said “Private Property, No Trespassing.” Leery of walking down someone’s driveway, we continued along the main road until we reached the other side of the island. Too far, but a great view. Walking back, we asked a guy backing his Hummer out of his driveway. He said it was that road that says “Private,” but “that’s ok, nobody cares.” Alright, then. We walked up the road and hoped for the best. It was a pretty uphill road, winding through banana trees, jungle, a house with the best view on island and a couple sets of territorial dogs. In dealing with the dogs here, we’ve found it’s best to distract them with food. They really like panikeke. We didn’t have that, but Dane had half a snickers bar that he offered. They weren’t impressed, but didn’t bite us, so something must have worked.
Sweaty and winded, we arrived at the top of the hill and the observatory. There were some guys working on the roof, and another long-haired guy with his back to us. “Malo!” I called out, just so we don’t surprise him. He asked if we’re the folks Dr. Bernardo told him about. “Yes?” I said. I came clean before I had to start pretending I know science. The guy turned out to be one of the managers of the station, Vai, a Samoan retired from 33 years in the Navy and now on his second career. He instantly and without hesitation dropped what he was doing and took the three of us on a really detailed tour of the facility. We got to see the air and weather testing machines, including a NASA device we’re not allowed to get within 20 yards from, and a frickin’ laser that shoots into the atmosphere to measure carbon dioxide. He then took us down a long and lovely lawn to the giant cell phone tower and a mysterious German machine. It doesn’t transmit any Lost-style sequences of numbers on repeat, but it might as well. We got to see the device that sterilizes and cleans the bottles for the air samples sent back to the mothership in Colorado. It was a fascinating tour that we weren’t expecting at all. We just wanted to get to the Cape.
And it wasn’t over yet; after offering us lemons from a tree on the property, Vai took us to some steep stairs that led down to the Cape and where the air samples are actually taken. He has to do the very steep walk 7 times a day, so he declined to join us this time. “Stay as long as you like,” he said…. amongst the thousands of dollars worth of equipment, he might have added. “I’ll try not to breathe on it,” I said. He calmed my mind by saying that the equipment is so sensitive, he’ll probably be getting an e-mail soon from headquarters asking what that spike is down at the point. He’ll just say it’s a tour. He was so generous and friendly, and reminded me again why I like this island.
When we got down to the Cape, I was given another reminder of the good side of this island. The view took my breath away. The water is indeed some of the bluest I’ve seen, crashing as it was against the lava rocks of Cape Matatula. We saw several turtles during the hour and change we were there, coming up for air after feeding at the base of the rocks. There were also a bunch of boobies (snicker) flying on the high winds above us. We could see independent Samoa to the northwest and the Manu’a Islands (part of American Samoa) to the southwest. How does this place not have more visitors?!
Back up at the facility, we said goodbye to Vai, getting his number for a possible scuba diving trip for Dane. NOAA does work removing the invasive crown-of-thorns starfish from the local reefs that those buggers (the starfish, not NOAA) love to chew on and destroy. Walking back down the hill is much easier, the dogs are less barky and life just seems brighter. We bought more cool beverages and got on the next bus back to Pago Pago. I couldn’t stop smiling on the way back, partly because of the scenery and partly because of Joe’s amazingly endless variety of off-the-cuff witty puns. It was a good day.