A Pilgrimage to Vailima

Travel Stories: An hour into her quest to visit Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa, Catherine Watson ran out of water and lost the trail. What would persistence bring?

10.06.10 | 11:28 AM ET

Photo of Villa Vailima by Catherine Watson

Pilgrimages, I reminded myself, as I struggled over yet another fallen tree, aren’t supposed to be easy.

But I had thought this one would be. I had gone to the South Seas to meet Robert Louis Stevenson on his own turf—to see the spacious house that was the author’s last home and walk the path up to his gravesite, on the top of his favorite mountain.

The flaw in that fantasy was “walk.” You do not walk to the top of Mt. Vaea, especially not in the rainy season. 

The trail was buried in a maze of fallen trees, so big and so close together that the hillside looked like a log jam. Their own weight had brought them crashing down, their roots pulling loose as frequent rains turned Samoa’s volcanic soil to slippery muck.

And now here they lay—a jumble of branches; leaves in various stages of withering; tangles of jagged roots, and huge, huge trunks caught at angles like oversized Pick-Up-Sticks.

With a few, there was space to wriggle under. Another few let me squirm through their wilting crowns. But with most, my only choice was to crawl over them.

Make that throw myself on them as if they were horses—pull myself up, flop belly-first over the trunk, then roll, skid, slide or jump off the other side. Or fall. I did that too, a couple of times.

Stevenson had been one of my life-long heroes—not because of “Treasure Island” or “Kidnapped”—but because he was a great traveler and a prolific travel writer. I’d particularly liked his accounts of sailing around the South Pacific—voyages that had led both of us to Vailima.

“I travel not to go anywhere,” he’d once written, “but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” That became my mantra too.

So did another of his classics: “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.” Stuck on the side of his mountain, I was no longer so sure about that.

I could have turned around, but that would have meant the same struggle going back, with nothing to show for it except torn skin, sore muscles and muddy clothes. Besides, I couldn’t believe the trail could stay this bad, all the way up to the grave. I was wrong about that too.

During Stevenson’s life, there was no path at all, though he managed to climb to the top of Vaea and see its magnificent view over the green slopes that run down to Apia, Samoa’s small capital, and the blue sea beyond.

Samoa was Stevenson’s last stop in the Pacific, the place that the Scottish-born writer finally called home after years of wandering. In 1890, helped by an American entrepreneur, Stevenson bought more than 300 acres of forested land south of Apia, and he and his American-born wife, Fanny Osbourne, set about building what is still a grand house at the foot of Mt. Vaea.

Or rather, she did. Ten years older than her husband, strong where he was fragile, Fanny served as general contractor, overseeing construction of the big, veranda-wrapped bungalow they called Villa Vailima.

Working side by side with Samoans she hired, Fanny put in vegetable and flower gardens, planted fruit trees and cultivated cocoa, making her a pioneer in modern Samoa’s chocolate industry.

She was also her husband’s protector, “a violent friend,” as one of her biographers called her. She cleared the way for him to write, relax and rebound from the illnesses that had plagued him since childhood.

He was barely 40 when they arrived but already world-famous, thanks to “Treasure Island” and ‘‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” as well as travel books, essays and myriad poems. 

Stevenson wrote a dozen more books in the four short years he lived here, took sides in local politics, and was much revered—still is—by the Samoan people. They called him Tusitala, the Teller of Tales. He died at 44, probably of a brain hemorrhage, while helping Fanny make dinner one December evening at Vailima.

People told me the name of the place came from two Samoan words—“vai” for water and “lima” for hand—and that it referred to a stream, a pool and a local legend.

The details of the legend varied with the speaker, but it concerned a traveler (or aged father or tired wife) who became thirsty, and a traveling companion (or dutiful son or loving husband) who fetched life-giving water in cupped hands.

Legend aside, everyone agreed that Stevenson himself had swum in the shaded, stream-fed pool at the foot of the mountain. Both trails to the top started just beyond it—the short, steep, “hard” one, which I’d shunned, and the longer, gradual, “easy” one, which I couldn’t imagine being worse. 

Now, an hour into this mistake, I was out of drinking water, there were no friendly hands in sight, and I kept losing the trail. I was also starting to panic.

No one in Samoa knew where I’d gone, and if I got stuck or fell or broke an ankle, it would be a long time before anybody came looking. I tried yelling for help then; the only answer was a dog barking, far in the distance. I went back to climbing logs.

Hope eventually appeared in the form of tourist trash—the discarded sole of a sandal, lying in the weeds. The spoor of my kind, I thought, grateful for garbage. Farther on, I found a plastic bottle. Then the wrapper from a packet of Kleenex. Finally, the sole of the other sandal.

And then I was—not on top—but at least out of the woods. A Samoan family was already up there, beside the plain white concrete tomb—three little boys and their mother and grandfather. They were just starting down in my direction. Obviously they thought my trail would be easier.

I burst out of the foliage, waving my arms and screaming, “No, No! Don’t go down this way! No!” I must have looked like a crazy woman; I certainly felt like one. We took pictures of each other beside the tomb before they heeded my advice and went back down the “hard” trail, the way they’d come.

The gravesite felt private then. I sat down on the edge of the tomb, read and re-read the famous words on its bronze plaque and started to cry—as if I’d known the man, as if the loss were fresh. It was Stevenson’s own epitaph that made me weep:

Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Fanny Stevenson died in California 20 years later, but her ashes were brought back to Samoa and interred with her husband’s, as she’d wished, under a tribute he’d once written for her:

Teacher, tender comrade, wife,
A fellow-farer true through life,
Heart-whole and soul free
The august father gave to me.

I took the “hard’’ trail down, the steep one that grieving Samoans had cut right after Stevenson died, so they could carry his body to the mountaintop. It wasn’t littered with tree trunks, but in places it was nearly vertical.

It felt like the last run of the day on a ski slope, when you’re so tired you lose control, and sure enough, I did fall—hard—trying to hug a tree as my feet slid away. At least that tree was upright.

The heavy air began to coalesce into rain. By the time I got back to the trailhead, it was pelting down, but I was too sweat-soaked to care. It cooled me, actually—made me feel cleansed, as if I’d swum in Stevenson’s pool myself, in the lovely glen where Vailima’s waters gathered. 

It’s true that pilgrimages aren’t supposed to be easy, but neither is the way they end. Even hardship doesn’t prepare you for that. I mean, what do you do after you reach your Everest?

I just walked back to the main road, bought a two-liter bottle of cold water at a grocery shack and drank half of it without stopping to breathe. Then I flagged down one of the island’s gaily painted ex-school buses, rode it into central Apia and trudged back to my hotel room for dry clothes.

Only later did I celebrate—at Aggie Grey’s, a legendary and expensive hostelry that looks like a set from “South Pacific.’’ I went into Aggie’s air-conditioned bar, pulled up a stool, ordered a bottle of the local beer—fittingly, the brand name is Vailima—and drank a toast to the Teller of Tales.

Home is the hunter, I thought. Pilgrimage complete.

Catherine Watson is the travel editor of the MinnPost, a winner of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year and the author of two collections of travel essays.

5 Comments for A Pilgrimage to Vailima

Patricia Parker 10.06.10 | 11:25 PM ET

I LOVE Catherine Watson’s descriptions of the places she has visited and the people she has met in her long career.  She makes me (a frustrated person who wants to travel a lot more than I have….but haven’t been able to because of money) feel like I am living vicariously through her travels and unique way of making me feel like I’m there with her.  WOW!  What a gift to be able to express oneself in such a way.

Sophie 10.07.10 | 7:49 PM ET

Oh, memories. Visited Vailima 7 years ago, fascinating place. In fact, all of Samoa is. And walking into that big, rambling guest house Aggie Grey’s is like waking into another era, one of my fave lodgings anywhere. Great post.

gale bates 10.08.10 | 4:10 PM ET

A beautiful post!  Full of historic detail on a marvellous author who lived in a remarkable place and time.  Most of all the descriptions of your emotions as you persisted to the top.  Thank you!

Rane 10.14.10 | 7:37 AM ET

The hardship you went through is all worth it!!!

Marc Saint-Cyr 11.02.10 | 10:12 PM ET

Great piece, Catherine! I love pilgrimages undertaken tin the name of inspiring artists - I’ve done a few myself, but they’ve taken place in the tidy corners of Paris - nothing as adventurous as your quest to find Stevenson. Inspiring stuff - love that little toast at the end!

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