We paddled quietly up into the mangrove
swamps, wrinkled hands and fingers clutching our kayak paddles,
rain soaked shirts sticking to our backs, hot tropical rain
pummelling down then splashing back up off the cool river.
But the weather did not matter. We were on a mission to
find Father Christmas and according to Steve, this was his
"Look, look a lemon," shouted Matthew
excitedly, pointing to a yellow
orb drifting past, "it must
be this way." Steve steered towards it, Nuanua grabbed it,
Sosy peeled it and we all ate it. The search for the elusive
source of the lemons continued.
"Now, I want you to
watch for little bubbles," said Steve as we headed further
and further upstream and deeper into the swamp. He had a
beautiful way of engaging the kids, sometimes gently educating
them about the natural world, other times weaving entrancing
tales of fantasy. "Do you know when the reindeer swim underwater
they leave little trails of bubbles?" The kids peered over
"Like a fart?" asked Matthew. The other kids sniggered.
"Perhaps," replied Steve straight faced.
The rain stopped and a silence descended on the kayaks as
everyone concentrated on the serious business of looking
for bubbles. Suddenly a fish splashed in the water nearby.
"Hey, Father Christmas did a fart," giggled Sosy.
"No that's a reindeer fart," said Matthew.
A ripple of laughter broke the silence.
"We must be getting close," said Steve.
The search for bubbles was made harder by the splashing
"Hey look, what's that?" said Kirstie
pointing to three lemons floating down a tiny creek.
"More lemons, more lemons," said Stevie.
"And a lemon tree, a lemon tree," squealed Sosy, spotting
the citrus tree at the top of the creek.
"Go that way Steve, that way," shouted Matthew pointing
to the tree.
Steve steered his crew of Santa spotters towards the magic
grotto. "Can anyone see Father Christmas or his reindeer?"
"No, no, but look, what's that on the tree?" cried Nuanua,
scrambling to get off the boat and investigate silvery looking
bags balancing on the tree.
"Crips, it's crips," said Cameron eagerly, his whole being
now finely tuned to quickly recognise any familiar food.
Nuanua was ashore and up the tree before you could say reindeer
fart. "It's twisties," she announced with amazement, "Father
Christmas has left five packets of twisties for us in the
tree." The kids fizzed with excitement as she threw the
five bags of crisps we had secretly planted there earlier
down into eight outstretched hands.
"Well, I think we've really found Father Christmas this
time," said Steve as the booty was shared out.
"No, I think we've found Farter Crispmas," said Kirstie.
The kids giggled as they crunched noisily on their twisties.
An hour after Christmas and we approached
the wharf for our appointment with the chief. "Well this
will be interesting," said Steve as we approached, "We'll
see if he's fixed his walkway like he said he has." He sounded
doubtful but ever hopeful. We tied up the kayaks and clambered
up onto the wooden structure where the chief had been waiting
since our last meeting.
"We've just been to see Father Christmas in your swamps,"
said Steve as he greeted the chief, "Did you know he was
living in there?" The chief shook his head.
"He lives by the lemon tree," said Nuanua.
"And he gave us all twisties," said Sosy.
"And his reindeer did a fart," said Stevie.
The chief looked a little confused by all this news.
"Interesting eh? Maybe you could charge a little extra for
people to see that?" said Steve. The chief smiled at the
prospect. "So, how about we have a look at your beautiful
mangrove walkway? See if it's all fixed and safe for visitors
"Sure," said the chief looking relieved to hear some sense.
"Great. Because we don't want any tourists falling down
holes where planks are missing or going through rotten planks
again do we?"
"No Steve," said the chief smiling a little at the thought
"Good. And if it's all fine we can sign off your certificate
of fitness eh? So how about you lead the way then? And shall
we say you owe me ten tala for each missing or rotten plank?"
The chief smiled a little more uncertainly, unsure whether
Steve was joking or serious.
"OK kids, perhaps you can count for me."
We walked carefully along about fifty metres or so of walkway,
stepping over missing planks and avoiding the odd obviously
rotten one. Steve stopped at a gap in the handrail. "What's
happened to the handrail here?" he asked.
"I used that to replace a rotten plank back there," replied
"OK. So how many missing planks is that so far kids?
"That's twenty Dad," replied Sosy, "that makes..."
She paused, "um...two hundred tala."
"Well, I guess that deals with the fine then eh?" said Steve
The chief looked unimpressed.
"Right. Well, I think I've seen enough for now," said Steve
more diplomatically, "perhaps we can meet again soon for
cocoa and talk some more eh?" The chief nodded and I wondered
from the look on his face if he thought he'd passed his
"It really will be a great little
project there you know one day," said Steve as we waved
the chief goodbye. His belief in community based conservation
was commendably unwavering.
"Do you really think they can do it?" I asked.
He paused and thought for a moment. "Well, you know, I'm
not sure the experts are much better at it. There's so much
we all don't understand about how to manage these places."
Then, like a true Samoan, he recounted a story about conservation
experts brought in to advise on sustainable crab harvesting
in another mangrove swamp. "These guys came in to tell us
how to do it, with their fancy nets and equipment, trapping
every crab they could and collecting them in pools to establish
the population size. Sure they knew a lot about crabs and
mangroves but you know what they didn't know? How enterprising
villagers would empty their pools each night and sell the
crabs at market. It took just a few days to seriously damage
the whole ecosystem." Steve paused as he seemed to contemplate
the tragic ending to the story. He sat in his bright red
kayak, stroking his pointy grey beard, while five little
elves splashed water all around him. "You know," he continued
after a long pause, "This whole conservation business is
as much of a mystery as Father Christmas really."