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Samoa: Pulelemei ancient mound

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Pulelemei ancient mound | Samoa | Oceania

[Visited: October 2012]

When I first read about the ancient burial mound of Pulemelei, also known as Tia Seu ancient mound, and at 61 by 60m, with a height of 12 m the largest ancient structure in Polynesia, I was determined to go there. The largest such structure of historical significance in Polynesia, it conjured up images of a pyramid in the midst of the rainforest. Only discovered in the 1960s, it has never really reached the star status you might expect, and when I asked around on both Upolu island and Savai'i island, Samoans looked at me with blank stares, even at the tourist information. This only encouraged me to go there, even though the two guides I consulted both warned that the site may be difficult to find. So when I visited nearby Afu A'au falls, I asked the old men collecting money, and they only told me that I had to take the first turnoff after the iron bridge.

Picture of Pulelemei ancient mound (Samoa): Standing on top of Pulemelei mound, you can see rough stones covered by a thick vegetation

This I already knew, and after driving up a bumpy, grassy track, I soon reached a small open space with a river just behind it. I had to leave the car in the plain sun, and wondered which way I should go. I saw three trails, none of them 4WD tracks, even though one of the descriptions I had mentioned such a track. I crossed the river, and continued in the same direction I had been driving, parallel to the river coming down from Afu A'au falls. The going was quite easy initially, but got much harder soon, when I found myself walking in knee-deep, then hip-deep vegetation, until it reached my armpits. Meanwhile, my 3/4 pants did not protect my ankles, and I could feel a burning pain develop there from the cuts and bruises some nasty plant was causing. The sun was burning straight on my head and as I was walking on a slight slope, I sweated it out. The scenery with high trees and palmtrees, and all kinds of bushes, was very green indeed. One of the guides I had consulted said that there should be irregular signs pointing to Pulemelei, but I did not see any. When I had not seen a sign, and doubted very much this could have ever been a 4WD track, I decided to turn around after 30 minutes. I calculated that the 2 km. that I should have covered before reaching the final trail, should have been behind me. I now re-read the other guide, which offered a very different guidance, and realized I had been wrong from the beginning. I walked down fast, taking care not to trip over the many branches below the high grass that I could not see, and after I reached the car again, I walked upstream along the river. The guide clearly mentioned a two-story stone house which I could surely not miss; I had not seen it on my first trail. But alas, no such house was to be seen, so I took another trail, running downstream. But no house there either, so I was at a loss. In the meanwhile, trying one of the trails completely covered by thick vegetation, I lost my sunglasses, and I lost another 45 minutes searching for them - and I miraculously found them. It only increased my will to find the ancient mound of Pulemelei which was turning into an obsession even more.

Picture of Pulelemei ancient mound (Samoa): Ferns covering the trail leading up the ancient mound of Pulemelei

So far, Samoans had been very fast to appear from out of nowhere to charge money for anything, but this time around, I did not see anyone, until I was at a loss. The Samoan guy was on his way home, and was willing to point me to the trailhead: it was the one I had taken the first time, but he claimed that Pulemelei lie 5 miles higher up, which I thought impossible, and not in accordance with the information I had. I decided to turn to the old men at the entrance of Afu A'au falls, met a woman coming from the main road, and she also told me I had to cross the river and take the trail I had tried before. At the fale near Afu A'au falls, I found the old men still there, and one of them was willing to join me to show me the way. He did not walk fast, and I was running out of time, but at least I would know for sure to find the enigmatic place. Even in the highest vegetation, he did not use his machete, and when we followed the same trail I had hiked up several hours before, I felt stupid and hot at the same time, moreover, I now felt that I had not really eaten much, and walking under the scorching sun had depleted my reserves. Just minutes beyond the point I had decided to return before, we found a sign, and a few more minutes later, the guide sat down to watch the scenery and the view towards the blue Pacific. How much I longed for a dip in the sea! I asked the guide why we had stopped, and tried to see if the trail continued. His English was not very good, but I soon understood that the hill completely covered by ferns WAS the Pulemelei mound! I walked around, but could only find some loose black rocks; were these ever used for religious ceremonies many centuries ago? I would never know. With images of a clearly visible hidden pyramid in the forest, the reality of the site was striking. I only wondered why this place was not maintained, but then at the same time realized that it certainly had a charm all of its own. We now only had to walk back on the same trail, cutting my ankles even more, but I now had a triumphant feeling of having accomplished my mission of the day.

Picture of Pulelemei ancient mound (Samoa): View of the forest-covered southern side of Savai'i island from the top of the ancient mound of Pulemelei
Picture of Pulelemei ancient mound (Samoa): Thick vegetation covering the top of the ancient mound of Pulemelei
Picture of Pulelemei ancient mound (Samoa): Pile of black stones surrounded by thick vegetation on top of the ancient mound of Pulemelei
Picture of Pulelemei ancient mound (Samoa): The trail to Pulemelei leads though an area with tall palm trees
Picture of Pulelemei ancient mound (Samoa): Guide walking through the thick vegetation of Pulemelei ancient mound

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