Upolu, Samoa is home to many impressive waterfalls accessible to the traveler who seeks a refreshing cascade adventure. Most waterfalls involve no more than a short walk and easy-to-find carparks, but some of the most exquisite natural wonders are found off beaten tracks, much like the remote Sauniatu waterfall.
Twenty minutes from Apia along the east-coast road, you take the turn off at Lufilufi village and drive 6km inland towards the eastern mountains of Saoluafata. Tucked away in the crater of an extinct volcano is a waterfall that is the crown jewel of Sauniatu village.
In years past, the road to Sauniatu was notoriously rugged taking the visitor a little over half an hour on a rough bumpy road to reach their destination but today the road has improved significantly and travelers can now enjoy the view during a much smoother 15 minute drive.
The village settlement holds a significant part of history for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) and to this day, the Church takes care of this land and its magnificent surroundings.
Arriving at Sauniatu village is a bit like stepping into another world from a different time. In contrast to the wild lush beauty of the waterfall, the Sauniatu Primary School compound that sits above it resembles a sleepy street in small town America with manicured lawns, gardens and tidy pavements.
The Church acquired the land in 1904 to resettle Samoans who had been persecuted and turned away by their families after they converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
“Sauniatu” means ‘a place to prepare to go forth’” says the Primary School Principal, Rubina Aiono.
“It was a safe place of refuge for people who had been sent away by their families for accepting the gospel of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints;
“The whole purpose of the village is for peace and harmony, a place to find truth. Our motto is: You enter Sauniatu to learn and you go forth to serve. We have people who left their families and villages to come here and go to school. When they leave here, it is with the hope that they do come back and help the village.”
Mrs Aiono had attended Sauniatu Primary School as a child, her father had also been the school principal. Today she is a living testament to the vision of returning to serve. After teaching at the Church College at Pesega, and spending time overseas, she has returned to Sauniatu in 2019 to follow in the footsteps of her father and accept the role of Principal of the school.
“I never thought I would come back to Sauniatu, I grew up and went to school here. It’s a blessing for me to come back and be an administrator,” she says.
“I understand the struggles people have here especially because it’s such a remote area so it’s a blessing to have a school and help the people in our community.”
“Since the village was purchased in 1904, the future of Sauniatu was always in question as the church spent a lot of time trying to build the village. My father was a principal while I was going to school here and that’s how I learnt to love this place. It’s so special to me which is why I’m so passionate about it and making sure it’s up and running.”
Although the school was established in 1907, Mrs Aiono says that it was a challenge for the pioneering families to keep such a remote school operating and its future was always in question even up into the 1970s when work began on improving the access ways to the Sauniatu waterfall under then principal, Edwin Kamauoha.
Working on the waterfall was a huge undertaking that took several years and it was one of many projects that Mr Kamauoha initiated to help boost the morale of the young people at the time who had lost their enthusiasm with the constant cloud of uncertainty cast over the future of their beloved village and school.
Mrs Aiono says many of those young people had put in years of labour to clear the trail, plant over 26,000 plants and build the concrete steps down the volcanic cliffside to the waterhole. Today, their hard work lives on in the legacy that is now a breathtaking natural treasure, open and available for all to enjoy.
Visitors will appreciate the free entry into Sauniatu and the family friendly areas complete with picnic tables and large grassy areas to spread out and enjoy the relaxing ambiance of this sacred place.
“Although Sauniatu is not a commercial entity and we don’t specifically cater to the tourism industry – our doors are open to everyone,” said Mrs Aiono.
“People who come here can view the village and the waterfall. All we have are guidelines which are posted on a sign at the entrance that we ask our visitors to follow because Sauniatu is a very special and sacred place.”