"So guys, do you really, really
want to go and see Father Christmas?" asked Steve peering
out from under his wide brimmed hat. The five children nodded
enthusiastically. "Because this is where he lives. Next
to a lemon tree, the only lemon tree in this swamp, right
at the top of this river." They stared at him wide-eyed,
holding on tightly to the kayak as it bobbed up and down
in the gentle ocean swell. "Shall we go see if we can find
him?" A big cheer went up from the kids. He turned to Kirstie
and I, bobbing more peacefully along in a kid free kayak,
"OK guys, I just need to hop out here and pay a conservation
fee to the village chiefs. Can you watch the kids for a
few minutes?" He hopped out of his canoe clutching a plastic
bag of small denomination banknotes and disappeared over
some rocks and out of sight.
Kirstie and I looked nervously at
the five kids drifting on Steve's abandoned kayak; Stevie
in the front, Cameron in the back, Sosafina on the back
deck, Matthew kneeling on the front and Nuanua standing
over him. Five minutes passed. No sign of Steve. We drifted
steadily towards the rocks. I paddled backwards a little
to keep our kayak off them but the kids just sat there,
trailing hands in the water and splashing each other. "Hey
we're going on the rocks," giggled Sosafina playfully to
her sister. Nuanua giggled back and abandoned ship, jumping
gracefully over Matthew and into the swell. "Cameron, Matthew,
just stay in the boat and hold on tight," shouted Kirstie
anxiously. I reached over to try and grab the rope attached
to the other kayak. "Hey you, leave us alone," shouted Sosafina
angrily. Nuanua smiled, her long wet hair trailing behind
her in the water, "It's OK," she laughed, "it's really shallow."
She stood up, grabbed Steve's kayak and pulled it gently
away from the rocks. Steve's kids were clearly more comfortable
in this environment than we were. Despite the shallow waters
of the coral filled lagoon, the Family on a Bike was a little
out of its depth. But we had signed up for an eco-adventure
and Steve was certainly doing a good job on delivery.
"Everyone OK?" asked Steve when
he returned. Kirstie and I nodded politely. "You are going
to love this place. It's really beautiful, so peaceful and
pristine, lots of fish and crabs… and a great example of
community based tourism and conservation going hand in hand.
Now, let's go find the old man and his reindeer." He rearranged
the kids on his kayak and paddled off. "Follow me guys and
remember to watch out for lemons everyone."
The warm rain hammered ripples into
the dark river as we drifted quietly up the estuary. "So
here we are," said Steve, "the Sa'anapu mangroves conservation
area. Isn't it beautiful?" He paused for a moment as if
to absorb the quiet beauty of this place, then continued,
"the crabs and fish just love it here, there's so much food
for them in the muddy banks, just perfect for feeding and
breeding. Swamps like these are really important habitats
that need protection." He signalled for us to pull over
to the bank near a collection of empty falé and a chiefly
looking man standing with arms folded across his bare brown
chest, two scruffy smiling children at his side. "The chiefs
here are vital in protecting these places. Villagers here
used to clear the mangroves or use them as rubbish dumps
but through eco-tourism, the chiefs now see them as something
to be looked after that generates income for their villages.
They've built little walkways and accommodation, you can
stay in the village and do canoe tours, and the best thing
is the swamps are cared for by the communities that own
them." Steve's commitment and enthusiasm for eco-tourism
"Talofa, talofa," said Steve as
we came alongside the chief, "How are you?" The man smiled,
twitched his eyebrow as if to say 'fine' and shook Steve's
hand. "I'd like you to meet Kirstie and Stuart who have
come to see your beautiful mangrove swamps."
The chief shook our hands firmly, "It is ten tala for adult
and five tala for children. No camera."
"That's fine," said Steve reaching for the plastic bag once
"But Dad, we've already paid the man back there," challenged
Sosafina, "why do we have to pay again?"
"It's alright Sosy," replied Steve as he searched for some
cash, "that money was a conservation fee for the chief at
Sataoa village, this one is for Sa'anapu."
"You have come from Sataoa?" asked the chief.
"Yes," said Steve pressing a folded banknote into his hand,
"is fifty tala OK?"
The chief raised his eyebrow again, unfolded the money and
looked it over, "Are you Steve?"
"Yes, that's me."
"From Green Turtle?"
"Yes that's right."
"Then sorry you cannot come in." The chief pushed the money
back towards Steve.
Steve looked surprised and smiled, "Really? Why not?"
"I just remember. My brother say you owe him two hundred
tala fine for bringing people here without paying."
Steve looked incredulous. "Really? That's the first I've
heard of it. I always pay my fees here or at the wharf.
The chief looked serious, still holding the banknote out
for Steve. He shook his head. "No, you cannot come in."
Steve refused to take the money back and slowly, patiently
and convincingly explained the process by which he paid
his fees to both villages on every visit. But the chief
remained unmoved; in the Samoan way, a fine imposed by village
chiefs is a serious thing and not something you can just
talk your way out of. "Look," said Steve after a few minutes
deadlock, "How about we call the chiefs and your brother
together and discuss this in the traditional way at the
The chief looked at Steve for a moment, momentarily disarmed
by this offer. He raised his eyebrow and smiled, "OK."
"Great," said Steve, "I'll call by next week and we can
sort it out then." The chief nodded but continued to hold
out the banknote. "And how about you keep that fifty tala
now and we go in and see your beautiful mangroves?"
The chief shook his head. "No, sorry Steve, you cannot come
in. Not if you have come from Sataoa. If you come the other
way from our village then you can come in." The negotiations
continued and Steve heaped sweet flattery onto his opponent
- about his swamps, falé, perfect location - until the chief
really seemed to believe that we believed Sa'anapu was better
than Sataoa. For another brief
moment it looked like we might get in to see Father Christmas.
"So how about it?" Steve asked again, pushing the fifty
tala back to the chief, "can we go and have a look around?"
The chief paused for a moment, as if to consider his position.
"No, you cannot come in. Not in those canoes," he said,
now smiling again and pointing to our plastic red and yellow
kayaks, "Only traditional canoes allowed."
"Oh really?" said Steve, maintaining his cool, "I love your
outrigger canoes but they are very unstable. I had someone
fall in with a camera last week…. lot of damage….."
"I said no camera," interrupted the chief.
"No, no camera. We have no camera. It's just these kayaks
are really stable and safe with the kids….. now you don't
want to see these children get hurt in one of your canoes
now do you?" The chief looked at the children and shook
his head and Steve continued his verbal assault. "So, how
about we go in and have a look around, then after a couple
of hours we come to your wharf, inspect the repairs you've
done to your walkway and talk about how we can get some
more business to your swamp, walkway and new falés? You
have repaired the walkway haven't you?"
"Oh yes, all fixed now" said the chief.
"That's great. Then how about it?"
The chief looked down at the fifty tala note, then up at
Steve. "OK, Steve. Just this time you come in with these
canoes. Next time you must come from our village and use
"Well, how about we talk about all of that over a nice cup
of Samoan cocoa," said Steve smoothly agreeing to nothing.
"OK, see you at the wharf but in one hour." The chief waved
us off, turned and headed for the wharf while we paddled
"Sorry about that," Steve said to
us once out of the chief's ear shot, "eco-tourism and working
with the communities isn't without its challenges. Isn't
it amazing how he'll turn us and our money away because
of a petty fine and an inter-village feud. Still, he does
a pretty good job as guardian of the swamp though. Eh?"
We all laughed. "Right then, how about we go look for Father
Christmas then?" The kids cheered and we set off in search
of the mysterious lemon tree.