Travel: No plans for Tusitala land, thank God: Hunter Davies feared the worst on hearing Robert Louis Stevenson's house in Western Samoa was to be sold to Mormons

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The Independent Travel
WHAT shocks, what shudders, when last year we heard the dreadful news. The tomb and final home of our beloved Louis, as we RLS fans will always call him, were about to be commercially developed. Newspaper reports from Western Samoa said that Vailima, his house, had been taken over by a consortium and would be turned into a tourist trap with cable car installed to drag lazy tourists up to his grave at the top of Mount Vaea. Is nothing sacred?

Few writers have ever had such devoted fans as Robert Louis Stevenson. In his lifetime and in his death time, he has been adored as much for his personality, his charm, his wit, his struggles over ill health, as for his writing. Vailima and Mount Vaea are as precious to the faithful as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, A Child's Garden of Verse, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Hence the cries of anguish from the RLS Society in Edinburgh when they heard the awful news.

Then it came out that the takeover was being organised by some Americans. Oh, no. They'll be building a Literary Disneyland. Even worse, and this was the bit that really caught in the craw of all true Scots, they were reported to be Mormons. In the name of God, Presbyterian section, what is going on? Are they going to be brainwashing us next with their loony moony cranky religious ideas?

The reports dried up. I could find nothing else in the British press. Letters to the Mormon church in Samoa asking for the latest information remained unanswered. I wrote to the tourist board, but they didn't seem to have one. Western Samoa is titchy, population just 160,000, which makes it smaller than Swansea, and is a very, very, long way away.

The only time in recent years that Western Samoa has touched British consciousness was in 1991, when they thumped Wales in the Rugby World Cup. (And led to Welsh wailings on the lines of just think what the whole of Samoa would have done to us.) The country split in 1899, part becoming American Samoa, while Western Samoa fell into German hands till New Zealand took it over in 1920. That's when the rugby passion started. Since 1962, it has been an independent country.

RLS fell in love with it in 1889, after cruising round the Pacific in a luxury yacht, paid for out of some enormous advances from an American magazine for a series of travel articles. He bought a plot of land above Apia, the only town, and built his dream house, Vailima, turning it into a mansion for his extended family - mum, wife, stepchildren - and staff of up to 19 to work his little plantation. His wife, Fanny, American born, 10 years older, married with three children when he first met her, did most of the manual work. Louis's health improved enormously while in Samoa, but he was never exactly robust and still had bouts of spitting up blood, caused by what is always thought to have been TB. (My theory is a bronchial complaint, which antibiotics could have cured.) They had four very happy, exciting, productive years in Vailima, till that tragic day on 3 December 1894, after a good morning's slog at what most people think would have been his masterpiece, Weir of Hermiston, he collapsed with a brain haemorrhage after mixing some mayonnaise for the evening meal. He was only 44. He was buried next day at the top of Mount Vaea, overlooking his house, 40 chiefs carrying up his body. He had always been their friend, helping them in their struggle against the squabbling colonial powers, risking his own neck to defend them. They called him Tusitala, the teller of tales.

There are only two hotels in Apia today, Tusitala, which I quite fancied from afar, because of the name, but I'm glad I didn't go there, and Aggie Grey's, a legendary hotel for anyone who has ever travelled in the Pacific. So I was told.

The day I booked into Aggie's, arriving out of the blue on 12 January, I had the most enormous bit of luck. Sitting in the dining room were three rather loud Americans in Hawaian shirts, lunching some local bigwigs in stiff jackets and formal skirts. (Most Samoan men wear skirts, even policemen.)

It was the Mormons. They had arrived at the same time as me - two from Utah and one from Arizona. In three days they were to have a ceremonial lunch at Vailima to mark the beginning of restoration work. Should I barge in, as a fully paid up member of the RLS Society, and say: 'Look here you guys, how dare you muck around with our Louis?' Or should I keep quiet, ingratiate myself, and get invited to the do. You can guess what I did.

Next morning, I introduced myself to the leading Mormon, Rex Maughan. Aged around 50, utterly charming, radiating bonhomie and childlike enthusiasm, quick to put an arm round your shoulder - just the sort any dour, Calvinistic Scot would immediately suspect. I asked for a tour of Vailima, before their opening ceremony, and he said no problem.

Since RLS's death, the public have not been admitted to the house, so anyone on the RLS trail has had to be content with a distant view. After his death, it was bought by a German who made various alterations, none of them major. Then it was handed over to the government and became the head of state's official residence. In recent years, it has been empty, ever since the wife of a president thought it was haunted.

We drove through the gates, where the Mormons have put up a lurid blue notice, boasting about their restoration plans for 'the only property RLS ever owned'. What about Skerryvore in Bournemouth, I said, where he lived from 1884-87 (and wrote Dr Jekyll). That was his house, even though his Dad paid for it. Sorry, said Rex. Slight mistake. The notice should say 'the only house he ever built'.

It was in a terrible condition. The cyclones of '90 and '91 had destroyed most of the roof, broke windows, left gaps in walls and uprooted many trees. If they, the Mormons, had not come along with their proposal, so Rex said, nothing would have been done. The Samoan government has no money to renovate empty buildings, however historic or literary. They had not sold the property to the Mormons, only granted a 20-year lease, with options. They are doing the work out of their own pocket - and the goodness of their heart. Oh yeah, I said. Why? It all goes back some 30 years when Rex and two fellow Mormons, Jim Winegar and Dan Wakefield, were young. They were sent as missionaries to Samoa. They learned the language, worked together, became friends, then returned home and went their separate ways. Both Jim and Dan have done well in life, in marketing and agriculture, but Rex has become the richest. The day I met him, he'd just bought Southfork. Oh come on. That ranch, as seen in Dallas. He's the second biggest landowner in Arizona and the world's largest grower of aloe, a plant used in medicine and cosmetics.

A few years ago, they came to the rescue of a Samoan rainforest about to be felled by some Japanese. They bought it instead, some 30,000 acres, then handed it over to the government to be a national park. When they heard about the state of Vailima, which nobody else seemed interested in saving, they came forward, offering their own money. To help Samoa, which they've always loved, so they say, and RLS. There is some regret among Samoans that their own government could not have found the money, and slight resentment that foreigners are doing the work, but no one seems to think the Mormons are being other than totally altruistic.

The cable car idea, which was not theirs, has been abandoned, but the grave and route to it will be cleaned up and made more accessible. It too had been affected by the cyclones. When I climbed Mount Vaea, there were still fallen trees on the path.

The house will be restored to its original state, with part of it being used by the head of state for official purposes. The rest will be an RLS museum, with some of his furniture and memorabilia, so they hope. It will then be open for the first time to the public. Yes, there will be a small charge, to help the upkeep, but the venture will be nonprofit making. Hard to see anyway how any financial gain could be made from Vailima. Western Samoa is hardly a tourist trap. In 1992, the country had only 40,000 visitors - and only one third of those were tourists in the normal sense. Most were Samoans returning home from New Zealand to visit their families.

The reception was a splendid affair. About 100 local dignitaries sat down on the verandah at Vailima and ate a splendid meal, prepared by Aggie Grey's hotel. The Prime Minister and most of the Cabinet were there, church leaders, foreign consuls, plus yours truly, about the only Brit present. Actually, I am Scottish born, so I kept telling anyone who would listen. The three Americans made speeches, one of them cried, the Samoan police band played. No alcohol was served, alas. I thought this might be due to the Mormons, but it turned out to be a Samoan decree. In recent years, some people had been getting rather carried away at public functions.

Restoration has nothing to do with the Mormon church, so bang goes another part of the shock horror news story. It is a coincidence that all three happen to be Mormons. They are doing it on their own, as directors of the RLS Museum Preservation Foundation, along with two Samoans. Work should be completed by December 1994, in time for the centenary of Louis's death.

By then, there might be a few more tourists visiting Samoa. I noticed at the end of last year, when the travel writers were doing their round-ups, some were predicting Samoa as the next trendy long distance destination. It is in many ways a virgin country, with an untainted population - in the sense that the people are pure Polynesian, not mixed with other races. Of all the Pacific islands, they have been the most resistent to Western influences, still living in traditional thatched fales, which look like bandstands. They retain and respect their ancient tribal units, with chiefs and paramount chiefs. Apia, despite a population now of some 35,000, has only a handful of modern buildings, one of them a monstrosity being built as an aid gift by China.

The people are still as welcoming, still smile all the time, still as attractive looking as they were in RLS's day. For visitors, Aggie's is the place to stay: recently revamped, but still with the atmosphere of Somerset Maugham's Rain. It has a good pool, but no beach. You have to cross the island for that, only half an hour away, which I did, and discovered a new place, Coconuts Beach Club, with eight bedrooms built into the trees, very artistic and de luxe, run by a Californian couple, ex-attorneys, who've given up the rat race. It was full, alas, but I spent two separate days there, eating and swimming. Next time, I'll combine it with Aggie's.

I do plan to return - in 1994 for the big opening of Vailima. By that time, I hope all my Edinburgh RLS frends will have come round to the Mormons. Despite all their fears, and the scare stories, I feel that Dear Louis is in good hands.

Hunter Davies's book 'In Search of Robert Louis Stevenson' will be published next year by Sinclair Stevenson.

Getting there: Air New Zealand to Western Samoa, via LA - pounds 675 return; further details from Air New Zealand (081-741 2299). Elegant Resorts, 24 Nicholas Street, Chester, CHI 2ER, (0244 325620), offer one week at Aggie's, including flights, from pounds 1,190.

Accommodation: Aggie Grey's Hotel, PO box 67, Apia, Western Samoa; Coconuts Beach Club, Box 3684, Apia, Western Samoa.

Books: Lonely Planet Travel Guide to Samoa, 1990, pounds 5.95. Look out for the following in libraries or second-hand bookshops: Our Samoan Adventure by Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1956; In the South Seas by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1890.

(Photographs and map omitted)

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