Se’u has spent the past 16 years taking visitors to the top of his mountain kingdom, Mount Matavanu.
He shows them the awe-inspiring drop into the crater of a volcano that once spewed out millions of cubic meters of lava. In its day it was the greatest eruption on earth.
Se’u’s life is talking about the 1905–1911 lava flow, which ran northeast for miles to the coast, burning and bulldozing villages, and completely reshaping the coastline on the north side of Samoa’s Savai’i island.
Although he’s well known in Itu o Tane—the north side of Savai’i—Da Crater Man proves more difficult to find than I had expected. He has no phone and lives in isolation.
It doesn’t help that my wife, Simoe, doesn’t want me to go.
‘The road is dangerous’, she says, with characteristic overstatement. Simoe won’t let me use our four-wheel drive, so after waiting until the afternoon to let the track dry out (it was the beginning of the rainy season), we drive to Safotu to hire a truck.
Turning onto a side road we career through the village of Paia then rumble up a narrow track. Lush tropical forest interspersed with clearings planted with taro give way to grasslands running beside a steep slope.
‘There is no Crater Woman and no Crater Kids… No lady likes living here in the jungle like me.’
One field holds horses, a favorite means of transport from coastal villages to inland plantations where taro is grown, along with other root crops such as kamu and ufi (yams). Beside the bumpy road, large boulders flung from Matavanu protrude from the grass.
Not long after, at the top of a slope, we spot a small fale (thatched hut) and draw to a halt. There I am introduced to Mr Matavanu, Da Crater Man.
He was born Se’u Api Utumapu. ‘But visitors from everywhere call me Da Crater Man’ he says, grinning and speaking remarkably good English for someone who rarely leaves the island. ‘I don’t need to go overseas; they all come to me.’
Da Crater Man’s dog, Navy, leaps into the truck and we take off again. Soon the grassland gives way to an upland rainforest. The track becomes more difficult and the driver has to back up and take a new run at a couple of stretches.
At one vantage point, I notice a phenomenon I had also seen in the highlands of the nearby main island, Upolu: light mist obscures the horizon, creating an illusion that the sea rises into the sky and its many layers of tropical clouds.
Soon we come to a halt, leave the truck and make our way on foot. The foliage is similar to New Zealand’s: lots of fern, and every tree trunk festooned with epiphytes, smaller plants that grow on hosts. Light rain begins to fall.
I had just recovered from illness and Da Crater Man wasn’t in top form either—he suffers from gout. On the way up I ask how his foot is faring and he beams back a warm, open and genuine smile.
After a short climb, we reach the spectacular tree-lined crater rim. I step to the edge and look down a sheer, 650-foot drop to the crater floor. A signpost at the rim displays a photo of the bare crater taken shortly after the eruption ended in 1911. The abundant foliage of today is in sharp contrast.
Savai’i is above a hot spot, a thinning of the Earth’s crust. The volcanic origin of the island can be seen clearly, not only in Matavanu and surrounding craters but also in its highest peak, 6,000-foot Mauga (Mount) Silisili.
Over 12 days in September 1905, magma advanced two miles from Matavanu and continued to creep forward, soon reaching the sea, where it formed a new coastline and flowed out to the reef, filling the lagoon, and leaving only two buildings standing in the large village of Saleaula (which has since been completely rebuilt).
Massive quantities of basalt continued to flow from the crater until 1911. Villagers emigrated to Upolu during the eruption.
Many of Saleaula’s modern-day homes have been built on top of bare black basalt, and to the east of the village—on the seaward side of the road—a basalt wasteland still runs for miles to the coast, a reminder of the primal forces unleashed in the great eruption.
Se’u has been working and living up here since 2000, maintaining the road and track to the crater, and taking tourists to the summit.
‘I’m the only one working it,’ he says. ‘If I had much money I would build many fales up here.’
He’s met travelers from 138 countries, the latest addition to the list being Luxembourg. Signposts on the hillside bear the nationalities of previous visitors.
I spot one reading ‘Slovakia’ and later show him a picture of my brother and sister-in-law playing jazz in Prague, the capital until Czechoslovakia was split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic in 1993.
Se’u first worked for New Zealand’s Forestry Department after leaving school (in a hangover from the country’s administration of the islands, which ended with independence in 1962). His job was maintaining chainsaws, but it wasn’t long before he wanted to resign, unhappy with the destruction of the rainforest.
After the Forestry Department departed, administration of the area devolved to the nearby village of Safotu, which parceled out the land to its families.
Se’u farmed cattle and grew crops on his plantation on top of a nearby scarp, where he still grows taro, yams and papaya.
Just beside us, as we chat outside his faleo’o (hut), is a patch of pineapple.
In 1993, a disease devastated the taro crop, the staple food of Samoa, and Se’u began to look for other sources of income.
‘I didn’t know how I was going to live,’ he says. He now earns a living from his visitors: signs around the rim tell stories of the crater, its visitors and Da Crater Man himself.
He shows me a ‘Wife Wanted’ poster a couple from New Zealand made for him a few years back. So is there a Mrs Matavanu? ‘There is no Crater Woman and no Crater Kids,’ he says. ‘No lady likes living here in the jungle like me.’
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Photos: Alamy and Jim Mahoney