Maintaining and protecting a natural resource while ensuring that tourists are safe is something that the caretakers of the native forest and live native swiftlets bats and lava tube cave in Aopo are mindful of.
Local tour guide, Levi Umamoa takes the Samoa Observer on a 20-minute hike through the mahogany forest and fruit and vegetable plantations to the cave system where the white rumped swiftlets nest.
This area contains one of Samoa’s most extensive lava tubes and according to Levi, it’s possible to walk five hours through the lava tube without reaching the elusive large water pool at the end. There had been talks about trying to find suitable lighting for inside the cave to cater for the more adventurous tourists who want to explore deeper into the caves, but so far Levi says that too much light will disturb the nesting swiftlets who prefer the dark.
“The cave is really dark and the tube goes out very far, I take a torch with me to provide just enough light not to scare the bats,” he said. “Some tourists ask me how long it takes to reach the water pool but you can walk for five or 10 hours through the tube and still not reach the end. The tourists really love the forest because it’s big but also quite sheltered by the foliage, which makes it cool for the tourists to hike.
“They are also commenting on how clean it is in the forest, they also love all the vegetation that’s here as well, there’s taro, pineapples, bananas.”
Having guided many tourists through the rainforest in the past four years, Levi said it takes a collective effort to keep the area well maintained and safe for tourists to enjoy. However, as the interest in the forest and lava tubes increase, they are finding it hard to cater to the elderly tourists who struggle to make the hike comfortably.
“The M.N.R.E. installed the garden toilets here in Aopo but we really need some help with our forest walkway. It needs some work because we are really concerned for the older people who come here. I really feel for them when they hike up the forest walkway because they struggle a bit and are always falling over because there are areas where the terrain is rough and not suitable for everyone.”
There had been efforts to pitch the idea of building a road for cars to get through the forest but were advised by the Samoa Tourism Authority (S.T.A.) not to proceed with the idea.
“We tried to make a road for cars to come through here thinking it would help the older tourists reach the cave but we were held back by the S.T.A. Their recommendation was that if we made a road, the forest would lose its uniqueness and beauty because tourists like how natural everything is and they like to walk and view all the different species of plants here.”
“We are always looking for ways to improve this site in order to make it safer for tourists so that when they tell others about us, they won’t be afraid to come here. Luckily the tourists aren’t afraid of the bats,” Levi laughs.
“We are going into the busiest time of the year and in the next three months we will have many visitors before it starts to slow down just before Christmas time. We would really like some help to improve the walkways to make sure the tourists are safe and keep coming back.”