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Our journey through Solomon Islands

 

 

Tikitouring in a fabulous part of the world

WWII pictures page
Diving pictures
Saeragi pictures page
Village pictures
Gizo pictures page
Fatboys Resort


By Richard Moore

Honiara, Solomon IslandsStepping off the plane at Honiara’s airport the heat of a Solomon Islands’ day wraps around you like welcoming arms.

It pairs well with the warmth of the smiles that meet you, together with many intonations of “Welkam”, the local greeting.

It is a nice way to arrive in a relatively unknown part of the world, one that lies to the east of Papua New Guinea and is probably best known as the location of terrible fighting between Allied and Japanese forces during World War II.

The excellent Solomon Airlines flight from Brisbane took just under three hours and allowed plenty of time to read over brief notes about the island group.

There are just under 1000 islands within its boundaries, the main ones being Choiseul in the far north, the New Georgia Group in the west, Santa Isobel in the centre, Malaita and San Cristobal in the east and south and the most famous of them all Guadalcanal.

Guadalcanal is a name seared into American minds as a place of bitter fighting as the Allies launched their first major offensive against Imperial Japan.

The campaign lasted six months from August 7, 1942, to February 9, 1943 and cost more than 7000 Allied and 31,000 Japanese dead.

The islands are a trove of battlefields and war relics and those interested in military history will find a visit both fascinating and moving.

Honiara is the main city on Guadalcanal - and the nation's capital - and people’s opinions of the city are not high.

It is fair to say we could see why few suggest having a lengthy stay in the country’s capital. It hasn’t recovered from the ravaging of catastrophic floods and litter covers the streets, but the people are polite and quick to return a smile.

And it does have some nice restaurants, although peak-hour traffic and wandering pedestrians make for some heart-in-the-mouth moments.

But we didn’t come to the island group to stay in a city, we were there to see the real Solomons – explore some of the islands where you can get away from it all, have truly terrific seafood and enjoy some spectacular diving spots.

More Soon after landing in Honiara we went with a knowledgeable battlefield guide, Michael Ramosaea, to the United States Memorial high over the city on Skyline Ridge.

Skyline Ridge MemorialThe Stars and Stripes flies over the carved marble memorial walls, together with the Solomon Islands flag. The inscriptions on the walls tell of the bloody battles fought to clear the islands of the invading Japanese and the high cost in lives that were claimed on the land, in the air and on the sea.

Following that we headed about 50km west of the capital to the Vilu War Museum.

The museum building is basic but when you go through to the outside displays you see what the place is all about.

There are the remnants of planes, engines and intact Japanese artillery pieces.

The Vilu museum is inspiring and visitors making the effort to see it will not be disappointed.

Our first regional stopover was Gizo, a hub town for the western province with a hotel, market and hospital.

Arriving by boat you see the red tin roofs of the open market buildings and crowds of people already there.

On offer are coconuts, root vegetables, cucumbers, chillis and later in the day, after the fishermen return, fresh fish.

There are also table after table of betelnuts – a mild intoxicant much favoured by Solomon Islanders of all ages and one that when mixed with lime colours the teeth and mouth red.

The Gizo hotel is a good place to stay, it has clean rooms, much needed air-conditioning and a really good restaurant in which I had the most massive crayfish for a very paltry sum.

But, again like Honiara, Gizo is only a short-time base and we head out on one of the longboats to the village of Saeragi on the northern tip of Gizo island.

Travelling by longboat is a common form of travel in the Solomons and if you like the water then it is a fabulous way to get about.

Passing jungle covered small islands you see a myriad of local house styles – mostly on poles and made of wood and thatched palm fronds – and see villagers out in their boats fishing or going to or from markets.

Everyone gives a passing wave – much like truckers signaling to each other on our highways – then goes back to the business of the day.

As we approach Saeragi you can’t help but delight in the deep green of the waters.

Passing a headland loads of children wave to us from the sands and then we are quickly turned towards the golden sands.

A greeting sign is on one of the buildings and as we prepare to get off the boat we are attacked by half a dozen men carrying weapons – including a pretty wicked-looking kindling axe.

They had us cold, but once they’d finished their attack the war-painted warriors were very helpful getting us ashore. Multi-talented, you might say.

Once safely on the sands we were welcomed by one of the young warriors – who was looking much friendlier by the moment – and he outlined what we would be seeing.

We saw how they created fire with sticks, husked and scraped out coconuts and cooked in an above-ground oven.

The warriors showed dancing skills with three dances and the one that they would do (hopefully in the past long past) before setting out on a headhunting trip was actually quite unsettling.

Then it was time to enjoy the meal the village prepared for us – it was very tasty and filling.

Drinks were straight from young coconuts using rolled-leaf straws.

It was a hot day so we thought we would take a bit of a dip in the warm 28C waters and so joined in with a group of kids jumping off the beach pier.

At first they were somewhat surprised but soon splashed around us.

You could almost hear them thinking “these are very strange people.”

A couple of examples of mega-bombs from yours truly had them in fits of laughter and the simplicity of the moments were among the highlights of the Solomons.

In fact that’s one of the great selling points of the islands – getting out and meeting local people. They are really, really cool encounters.

It could be swimming with kids, popping into a kindy class in a remote village, chatting with kids while their mums sell betelnuts or playing soccer while waiting for a plane.

Memorable moments that make travel so rewarding.

On the boat trip back to Gizo we stopped in at Oravae Cottage, an away-from-it-all place where you can enjoy staying in comfort on your own little island.

We were treated to lunch there and have to say it is a perfect getaway spot if you want to leave the world behind.

Back at a sweltering Gizo there was time to turn on the air-conditioner and drop the temperature to 16C before heading out into the oppressive heat to visit the fish market.

On display were masses of yellow-fin tuna caught by the fishermen in their dugout canoes.

That night we were treated to an interesting dance night at the Gizo Hotel as a group of teenagers from one of the villages entertained us with traditional dance moves set to to one of the highly rated nearby resorts on the island of Mbabanga – Fatboys.

Fatboys is a series of first-class shoreline houses offering stunning views of the Kolombangara volcano and its restaurant and bar is at the end of a long pier.

In fine weather you can snorkel to the place but, unfortunately, we were there in non-diving waves under grey skies. In clear blue skies this place would be heaven for tourists.

Through the jungle behind Fatboys we walked to a small village called Mbabanga where we got a taste of what life was like for many rural Solomon Islanders.

It was basic, almost sustenance level, but the people were wonderful.

We were greeted by a cute song sung by kindergarten children, many of whom would not have seen Westerners before. One kid had to be comforted by his teacher because the big pink man with the moustache scared him. Ooops, didn’t mean to.

We met an elderly woman weaving a beautiful mat out of palm fibres. The two-tone artwork was for special occasions – such as weddings – and would take her about a week to finish. A younger woman looked on, but the old lady said many did not and the traditional skills were being lost.

Walking through jungle areas is exciting and a bit if a sensory overload.

You are hearing all sorts of bird calls you have never heard before, the smell of the rotting vegetation hangs heavily on the humid air and even in rain you feel the heat sapping your strength.

It makes you admire the soldiers who fought in this area even more.

The next day we took a boat trip from Fatboys to Munda, a town we had heard much about.

It was about an hour away on the southern side of New Georgia.

The day began reasonably but the weather packed up by the time we got there and the heavens opened.

Munda has a great market and some top diving areas, but today our mission was to check out a couple of WWII-related sites.

The first was an impressive collection of war items at the Peter Joseph Museum. Named after a US soldier whose dogtags were found, the museum is a fine collection of helmets, shell casings, machine guns and other war relics.

It is the personal project of Barney Paulsen, who is not only a collector but a war historian as well.

Not far away from the museum is the graveyard of a number of US landing craft that were cut in half and then bulldozed off the beach. They now lie hidden in thick jungle and creepers, their steel towers recognizable among the greenery.

More WWII treasures await us on the way home.

We travel up a tidal inlet on the island of Tahitu in a bid to find an abandoned tank. The mangroves are eerily silent and we get our feet wet walking from the boat to the rising trail that leads into the jungle.

We are greeted by Hudson, who owns the land on which the tank is, and we follow him as he slashes the occasional protruding vine above the foot track.

When we come across the tank it is a beauty. I had been expecting a little Japanese one, but it turns out to be a Stuart tank. One of the finest early war models made and one that would have been perfect for the jungle. Not too big, but with plenty of firepower.

After leaving Tahitu we got to snorkel on a sunken Hellcat within the lagoon. It was down about 10 metres and the conditions were slightly murky but we could easily make out its shape.

The Hellcat had been badly shot up over Rabaul, in New Britain, but had made its way almost back to base. Eventually it failed and the US pilot was forced to ditch in the ocean. He made a good job of it as it is mostly intact and he survived, which he probably saw as more important.

Not far from Fatboys Resort is what is now known as Kennedy Island.

It is where John F Kennedy, later president of America, swam to after his PT109 was sunk by a Japanese destroyer.

The island sits between the resort and Kolombangara and you can visit it and even picnic on it.

After a long day on the water we were famished and the meal at Fatboys was just what the doctor ordered – including a huge snapper and crayfish in a chilli tomato sauce.

The food in the Solomons is fresh and varied and is one of the key advantages it has over many other island nations.

The next day it’s another early rise and back to Gizo. We farewell the great staff at Fatboys and turn our minds to the next destination the Uepi Resort.

Getting there is a bit of an effort, a half-hour flight in a small Twin Otter aircraft down to the delightful airstrip of Seghe, then an hour boat journey to Uepi Island just off the coast of New Georgia.

Uepi Island Resort is fantastic.

It is picture-postcard stuff with terrific diving and snorkeling spots, wonderful accommodation and a very friendly atmosphere. It is also the perfect place to get away from it all.

Guests can pretty much do as they like: Sit around and read, take part in dive trips, snorkel around the small jetty.

I would be recommend going snorkeling as the waters are very clear, the coral and fish colourful, and the waters warm.

We got our fins going at the Landoro Gardens, Roma and then again off the jetty.

It was amazing and other guests who scuba dived were fair raving about the quality of what they were seeing. Jill and Grant Kelly are the Uepi Resort owners and see themselves more as custodians of the island and it surrounds more than mere owners.

The resort is eco friendly and they make sure the benefits of tourism are shared with the local villages in the lagoon – mainly jobs and helping to educate the children.

Wandering around in the heat of the day you can run into large monitor lizards – striking creatures that come out to enjoy the sun – or at other times see land crabs moving about in their many holes that pockmark the walkways.

We had two-hand-a-half days on Uepi Island and not only left the most relaxed I have been in years, but also with quite a bit of regret. It is the sort of place you could really settle in to and, judging by the 60 per cent re-visit rate by guests – it is not a rare feeling.

Our boat trip back to Seghe was slightly subdued as I think we were all sad to leave Uepi.

At the Seghe airdrome we met a young family while waiting for the plane and talked with the girls about school and what they were studying.

Then I popped across the grass strip to play a bit of soccer with some local boys who were taking penalty kicks between a pole and a block of wood.

Another highlight of the Solomons is being able to chat to the locals. In the main they speak pijin English, but many also understand what you are saying.

You pick up so much more on a trip by getting in with them and the kids are an absolute delight. Big-eyed, wide-grinned youngsters whose relatively simple lifestyle allows them to take joy in the basic things. Would that we all could go back to that.

Our last night in Honiara was spent at a very nice Chinese restaurant where the food was superb.

It was a very early rise the next morning as we raced to visit some key World War II sites before flying out.

The first stop was Hell’s Point, a sealed off area littered with unexploded ordnance from the war. But, they had some Japanese tanks and so we snuck in to get some pictures – only to be yelled at by a rightly grumpy policeman who asked if we had not seen the massive sign saying “No Entry.”

I told him I was a journalist and couldn't read - he didn't see the funny side.

Still, we got the shots … Then it was on to Alligator Creek, the site of the battle of Tenaru, where US Marines held off a huge Japanese attack. It was a bloody affair with more than 800 Japanese being killed. The battle features in the first episode of the TV miniseries The Pacific.

Next stop wasBeach Red where the Allied forces first landed on Guadalcanal. There’s not much to see other than the occasional wire cord sticking out of the sand.

The same can’t be said of the nearby Tetere War Museum where scores of Amtracks – amphibious landing vehicles - are standing about.

The museum is owned by Samwell Basoe who is a relative of Sir Jacob Vouza, a local war hero who survived torture by the Japanese to warn the Americans of the imminent attack at Alligator Creek.

It is fascinating looking at the rusting vehicles and many are being claimed by nature with trees growing out of them.

One thing I learned on the islands is that the guides generally know what they are talking about and, for military history buffs, you can pick up a lot of information from a source very different to the history books.

If you are after five-star service then the Solomons are not for you.

There are few major comforts, litter is a problem and it isn’t easy getting to places.

However, if you want to get away from it all, feast on fabulously fresh seafood, snorkel or dive in stunning lagoons, come face to face with the remnants of the Pacific War, meet wonderfully warm people or just try something completely different then the Solomon Islands is a place you really should consider.

I loved the place and my six days there was definitely not enough.

Another week would have been about perfect.

To all the islanders we met I want to say “tank iu to mas”.

Thank you very much.

 

Copyright 2014 RICHARD MOORE
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED