For the truly curious adventure traveller, there are few better places than the Solomon Islands. Its 992 islands swing between low-lying atolls and reefs teeming with sharks, tropical fish and dolphins, and huge, slumbering volcanic islands offering opportunities for bat- and bird-watching. And if you get tired of what Mother Nature has provided herself, there are artificial coral islands that the people of Malaita have been building in the Langa Langa Lagoon for more than 300 years. The fierce World War II battle of Guadacanal has also left the islands littered with war relics, both above and under the water–so it’s a mecca for divers and snorkellers. And the Solomon Islanders are, despite what recent troubles might have you believe, a wonderfully friendly people.
We started looking for our guide when we turned off the main road that headed east along the coast from Honiara onto an eroded, bumpy logging track. Every few hundred yards, we would ask the lines of people wandering along the edge if they knew where Marcelin might be. Some waved us further along the road, others were less sure. About six kilometres into the thickening jungle, where a hand-built coca bean drier announced a village of a relatively significant size, a woman carrying her little one finally nodded. ‘I know where to find him,’ she said.
The woman smiled as she placed her son beside me. The youngster, however, locked his eyes on me, his eyelids widening in surprise at the pale apparition next to him. We bounced down the road where large logging trucks once hauled precious Vasa hardwood.
‘Here,’ the woman said, and jumped out of the van. She walked to the edge of the jungle and called into the trees with a searching, cuckoo-like call. She turned her ear to the jungle and waited. Nothing. She tried again with no reply. About 800 metres up the road she called out again. This time, a faint reply wafted back, but she shook her head. ‘No, that’s not him.’
We doubled back and the woman eventually located someone on a distant ridge who called back that Marclin had probably headed back via the river to the village where we picked her up. A few minutes later, back where we started, she called out yet again. There was a reply and she grinned. ‘He’s coming.’ Sure enough, our guide appeared from the trees–shoeless and wearing a singlet and shorts. He was carrying a large machete and a freshly hewn coconut.
The jungle GPS works and we’re finally off to the cascades. As Marclin hacks merrily at the growth over the trail, I ponder all the factories producing fancy hiking boots, walking sticks and ponchos. Through mud, gravel and tropical grass, bare-footed Marclin grips the earth better than any of us–and with far less stench at the end of the day. He fashions a hiking pole from bamboo in seconds, and during a passing shower we wander along under a palm leaf umbrella. This isn’t a pretentious show for some wide-eyed tourists; it’s just what is done. By the time we reach the cascades that only locals really know about, I’m ready to shed my modern accoutrements.
As we looked down as the Solomon Airlines Twin Otter banked over the runway, we wondered where exactly we could be staying on the island. It isn’t because there’s a hundred bungalows or myriad hotels crowding the shore, it’s because the whole island is actually a runway. We hit the tarmac at one end of the island and end up at the other. When there are almost 1000 islands that make up the country, having one as a dedicated airport makes sense.
A small fibreglass outboard ferries us from the airport island to our accommodation at Sanbis Eco Lodge. This isn’t the sort of trip you’d want to do if you get air or seasick. We pass dozens of fishermen in traditional dugouts, floating in the lagoon, and a small steamer passes by on its way to the main island. There is a natural, easy pace here that is instantly soothing. A fisherman pulls up to the wharf and shows us two huge kingfish he has caught. We buy one for $4. I’m tempted to pack the other one into my backpack to sell back home–I figure I could almost finance the trip this way.
A short ride out onto the lagoon takes us to Kennedy Island, where John F Kennedy spent two nights after his patrol boat was rammed by a Japanese destroyer in World War II. The coconut that Kennedy kept on his presidential desk during his term in office is testament to the two islanders who helped him, and the remaining crew, to safety. If he’d salvaged snorkelling gear, I wonder whether he would have ever wanted to leave the place–the underwater scenery is magnificent.
We boat up the lagoon from the small settlement of Munda on the island of New Georgia to Skull Island (named, not unsurprisingly for its headhunting rituals). It’s less of an island than a point barely annexed from its larger neighbour. As a spot to inspire fear and menace it’s perfect. A short climb from the water we find the large, well-shaded emplacement of coral with skulls and bones leering from its nooks. An A-shaped box houses the most valuable skulls from former chiefs of neighbouring tribes, and there’s still shell money in front of some of the skulls as a peace offering. Suddenly those bush machetes seem a little more sinister.
World War II left a significant mark on the Solomon Islands. The battles between the Japanese and the US military here were some of the fiercest in the Pacific. In fact, there’s something eerie about how untouched Skull Island seems to be given the intensity of the fighting. Directly across from the island is a Japanese naval gun, still standing erect despite tons of ordinance dropped by the US.
Driving into the hills behind Munda, we are stopped by RAMSI bomb disposal experts who are exploding some of the bombs that were left behind. They’ve cleared an area about a mile around, and the noise of the explosion is frightening. A local woman tells me that if your windows are shut, the force from the blast will crack the glass. She also says that RAMSI often finds villagers who have the bombs stacked under their houses.
The next morning, Sunga, the local dive master from Munda Dive, takes me snorkelling on a downed Hellcat and a Japanese bomber. The visibility is amazing and if my sinus wasn’t suffering from the local brew from the night before, I could have been sitting in the watery cockpit. With the vastness of the lagoon, there are more wrecks and downed planes waiting to be discovered. But it’s the hum of real airplane engines that hasten the trip. Sunga yells that the flight is early (yes, sometimes the planes leave ahead of schedule) and within five minutes we’re back to the jetty and I’m scampering up the road to the plane. I almost beat it to the apron and I’m almost dry by the time the pre-flight checks are done. If only domestic air travel was this simple everywhere.
Malaita is one of the largest islands in the Solomons and is home to the newest islands in the country–the artificial islands of the Langalanga Lagoon. Made from large blocks of coral, the islands are the result of a tribe from the hinterlands being forced to the coast over land disputes. When the coastal tribes refused to allow them to live on their land, they became creative and started creating their own land. The artificial islands dot the lagoon, with some sitting just off the mangrove mud flats and housing one or two bungalows, while others sit in the middle of the lagoon with entire villages on them. They are still being built today.
Serah Kei, who spent 17 years building her island on the lagoon, says that while it was the best way to get different people involved in a large, long-term endeavour, today it is causing ructions with those who claim a small component of an island that may be being developed. Serah’s bungalow lodge is immune from such disputes though–good news for guests.
On the plane home, I start talking to Austin, a Solomon Islander on his way to New Zealand to study. The humidity that poured into the cabin as we boarded is disappearing as we climb over Guadacanal. I’m in shorts and T-shirt, still salt-encrusted from the last-minute dip into Iron Bottom Sound off Honiara. Austin reaches into his bag and puts on a fleece. Then a beanie. Then he pulls out his woollen gloves, and our relative states of dress provide a clear reminder of our different worlds. For the adventure traveller, the Solomon Islands are too often overlooked. But it’s exactly these differences that makes this place so special.