Fishing for compliments on the South Pacific outpost of Samoa

Samoans are a tough bunch. So how will Adrian Phillips fare on a visit to the islands?

Anthony, my guide, was like a chunk of granite in flip-flops. There seemed to be a great many chunks of granite flip-flopping their way through the streets of the capital, Apia. I could have thrown a rope with my eyes shut and lassoed somebody more than capable of pushing a grand piano up a flight of stairs. Yes, if there's a certainty in life, it's that a Samoan won't blow away in a gale. And that's no bad thing when you live on a palm-fringed island in the South Pacific because occasionally nature packs up the sun, stirs up the sea and points its attack dogs at paradise.

A month before our arrival, Cyclone Evan had hit Upolu, one of the two main islands in the Independent State of Samoa (formerly known as Western Samoa). It was the worst tropical storm the people had faced in over 20 years, a vast plughole swirl that snapped banana trees like toothpicks and sucked roofs from their houses. Part of the airport collapsed, power was lost and surging floodwater flipped cars upside down. But these islanders are as big in spirit as they are in body.

"The day afterwards, I saw a house that was leaning right over but hadn't quite collapsed," Anthony chuckled. "The owner had painted a message outside: 'Down but not out!'"

That's Samoan spirit writ large: uncompromising, steadfast, even a touch masochistic in its relish for life's bumps and bruises. It feeds the implacable commitment of the national rugby team, whose most famous player was called "the Chiropractor" because the blind ferocity of his tackling rearranged opponents' bones. It steels the nerve of those who choose to display the pe'a, a traditional tattoo that reaches from the ribs to the knees and is scored into the skin with a hammer and sharpened pieces of boar tusk. But Anthony had declared that nobody personifies such iron resolve more keenly than a lady called Zita Martel – that to know Zita was to understand Samoa – and he was taking me to see her.

Anthropologists aren't sure whether the ancestors of today's Samoans came from South-east Asia or South America, but either way they made a heck of a sea trip to get here. The islands are dust-specks on a mass of blue, almost 2,000 miles from Auckland. Each year the villages celebrate their seafaring heritage with a lung-burstingly competitive longboat fautasi race. There are two things to note about longboat racing. First, the longboats really are long. Forget those dainty slivers you see sliding along the Thames: these measure 100ft in length and hold a burly crew of 50. It takes supreme teamwork to propel such a behemoth through the waves. Second, this is a sport for men – conservatively, doggedly, won't-hear-it-any-other-way insistently male-only. Or at least it was until Zita came along.

Zita greeted us with a gentle smile and a flower in her hair. You'd struggle to find anyone who looked less likely to say boo to a goose. But as she spoke, it became clear she was a goose-booer through and through. Her story began in 2000 with a meeting of her local church committee to elect a skipper for their longboat. Zita was serving tea when someone proposed that, because she was an expert canoeist, she should be given the captain's role. Before she'd even downed her teapot in protest, the motion had been carried. "I refused, flat out. 'In case you haven't noticed, I'm a woman,' I said to them. But the chairman replied: 'Do women from the village of Aleipata have no guts?' My blood boiled. Nobody says I've got no guts. And so I took it on."

A fautasi skipper is master of his boat. He sets tactics and training, and stands proud in the stern to urge on his men. He must command complete respect. Zita had never set foot in a longboat and when she took her position at the start of the 2001 race, she did so as the only woman among 699 men manning the 14 boats. "The skipper of the team next to ours stared me in the eye and put his leg up on the side of the boat so that his lava-lava [sarong] fell open in the wind – and he wasn't wearing any undies. It was psychological warfare. His crew burst into laughter and I could see the strength leaking out of my guys. We came last by a mile – it was humiliating."

Zita's response is already the stuff of folklore. Fautasi means "build as one". From that point on, she told her crew, it was a philosophy that would guide everything they did. They would work hard together, without complaint or hierarchy. She would brook no indiscipline. But her approach was about more than huff and puff. Another word for longboat is sa, which translates as "sacred"; Zita taught her charges that their boat was a symbol of something greater, of shared history, that they rowed in the shadows of their ancestors. Her challenge to the traditionalists was rooted firmly in tradition. "I told my boys, 'You are descended from warriors. You have a fighting fierceness in you. Own the fierceness and you will fly.'" And the following year they did fly, sweeping all aside to win the race. Now that's Samoan spirit in a nutshell.

Early the next morning, I walked to Apia harbour for an ocean adventure of my own. I was greeted by a skipper with a smile as wide as Zita's, but he didn't have a flower in his hair or, indeed, many teeth in his mouth. Ian was the leather-skinned captain of the Pure Indulgence, a cruiser that takes tourists on fishing and wildlife-watching trips around the islands. "We might see a humpback or a sperm whale, touch wood on my bald spot," said Ian, tapping the crown of his head.

It was the wet season and the weather could turn on a sixpence. We left Upolu's coast beneath a band of blue and headed towards a sky growing heavy with cloud. At the back of the boat, Shae – a wiry New Zealander with gingery whiskers – had cast four fishing lines, their pink lures leaping in the frothing wake. A tern swung in behind the boat, dipping to prod at a lure before departing in search of a less rubbery meal.

I've never traced my family tree, but Phillips means "lover of horses" so seafarers probably don't feature prominently. As time passed and the wind grasped harder, my stomach became increasingly conscious of the pitching world around me. I watched the lures skip up and down, up and down. The rod tips swayed back and forth as though leading nature in a lurching dance to the throb of the engine. "Seasickness isn't nice," Shae observed, with concise accuracy. "Best to focus on the horizon." I directed a shaky gaze at the flat, dark mountains in the distance; they rose and fell like scene changes in a puppet theatre.

A moment later, one of the rod reels bursts into life, its spool becoming a screeching blur of yellow line as something dragged the lure into the depths. Shae pointed urgently to a wooden seat fixed to the middle of the deck. I wobbled queasily into position and he slotted the end of the rod into a cup between my legs. For a minute, we did nothing as the line fed out to sea, but finally it slowed and the reel went quiet. "It's over to you," said Shae, with a supportive slap on my shoulder. "Pull evenly up on the rod and then wind the line in as you lower the tip." And so the battle began.

I pulled and wound, pulled and wound, the spool gathering precious layers of yellow before the fish made a sudden dash and the line spilled back below the waves. "Start again," Shae urged. Pull, wind, pull, wind, screeeeeech. Silence. Pull, wind ... The boat continued to lift and roll. Nausea washed over me in cold and sweaty assaults. I rallied around Zita's warrior words, trying to concentrate on the fierceness inside me rather than the tropical pancake breakfast. "Don't let the line go slack or you'll lose him!" warned Shae. My arms felt filleted of their bones. "Keep going – if you rest, the fish rests!" For nearly an hour we struggled, that 8ft marlin and me, until the tug of war was won. Shae shook my cramping hand as I slumped in the chair. "Well, that was easy," teased Ian as he hoisted the boat's blue marlin flag. "We'll find you a big one before we finish, touch wood on my bald spot."

That night I stayed in a hillside hut on tiny Manono Island, ferried there in his tin boat by a rotund village chief and his sons. They cooked a meal with the mahi mahi I'd also caught that day, a pug-nosed brute of a fish that tasted delicious with warm banana and bread fruit. Next morning I woke to the throaty calls of cockerels and walked around the island's single track through trees hung with papayas and banks of orange flowers that buzzed with bees. Villagers waved from their fales, open-sided homes with roofs of thatch or iron. Sometimes children joined me, walking a few steps in front as if guarding my progress through their villages. Piglets truffled and chickens scraped. Wooden outrigger canoes lay at the shoreline. There were no cars on Manono.

In the following days, Anthony took me to Savai'i, the biggest island and the lushest, to explore its rainforest and black lava fields and to trek through the jungle-filled crater of Mount Tafua. Wherever we went, life was lived with the same Samoan spirit. You could see it in the games of kilikiti at the roadside, whole villages passionately absorbed in their peculiar form of cricket played with a three-sided bat and a ball made from leaves. You could see it in the teenagers daring each other to leap from rocky ledges and swim under waterfalls. You could see it in the way families treated the gravestones in their gardens, the tombs used as seats or tables, the dead still part of the group, the ancestors never forgotten.

And you could see it in Anthony's eyes one afternoon when our route was blocked by the waist-high flow of a flooded river. We waited an hour before he could resist the challenge no longer. "Hold on," he said, revving the engine and gritting his teeth, and we plunged forward into the foaming sweep of water.

Travel essentials

Getting there

The main gateway to Apia in Samoa is either Nadi in Fiji or Auckland in New Zealand. Adrian Phillips travelled with Cathay Pacific (020-8834 8888; cathaypacific.co.uk), which flies from Heathrow to Hong Kong with "code-share" connections on Air Pacific via Fiji to Apia. Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnewzealand.co.uk) no longer flies to Samoa as part of a wider South Pacific network, but it does have direct services from Auckland – as does Virgin Samoa (00 685 28 112; virginaustralia.com), which also flies to Apia from Sydney and Brisbane. Alternatively, you can travel via Los Angeles; Air Pacific (00 679 672 0888; airpacific.com) has connections via its hub in Fiji.

Staying there

Tanoa Tusitala Hotel, Apia (00 685 21 122; tanoatusitala.com). Doubles from 411 tala (£118), including breakfast.

Seabreeze Resort, south-east Upolu (00 685 41 391; seabreezesamoa.com). Doubles from A$268 (£180), including breakfast.

Sinalei Reef Resort, south coast Upolu (00 685 25 191; sinalei.com). Doubles from US$351 (£230), room only.

Le Lagoto Resort, Savai'i (00 685 58 189; lelagoto.ws). Doubles from 616 tala (£177), including breakfast.

Sunset View Fales, Manono (00 685 759 6240; samoasunsetview.com). Doubles from 200 tala (£58), all inclusive.

Getting around

Polynesian Xplorer (00 685 777 9482; polynesianxplorer.com) is a Samoan travel specialist run by Zita Martel.

Troppo Fishing (00 685 770 0337; fishsamoa.ws) offers fishing or wildlife-watching boat trips, including crew and all equipment, for 2,330/1,400 tala (£675/£405) full/half day.

More information

Samoa Tourism Authority (020-8877 4512; samoa.travel).

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