THE SOLOMON ISLANDS
Nature is excessive, lovely, and ominous in the Solomons and the Melanesians who live there, often blond or redheaded, are the blackest of all people.
Before World War II such names as Guadalcanal, Savo, Munda were rarely heard. So rarely that, as the story goes, one Englishman, or perhaps he was an Australian, became concerned about the developing war. He wanted no part of such an activity, and cast about for a remote place to hide. To him the Solomons seemed the ideal choice. And they were until suddenly in 1942 the Japanese Army and Navy appeared in strength.
According to the story, our escapee from unpleasantness then strapped a transmitting radio to his back and, with a handful of others, mostly Australians, took to the hills. He became an intelligence agent, a "coastwatcher" for the allies. It. was a job not known for comfort or longevity.
Now 36 years later the Solomons have regained "back of beyond" status, and a modern day escapist might again look at these islands with interest.
Honiara, the capital of Guadalcanal, didn't exist when I was there during World War II. They were the British Solomon Islands then, and the hardware of war that littered the land still bore the scent of death. That debris is still there, but now it's rusty, coral-encrusted, and softened with time. When asked about these remnants, most islanders, not even born at the time of that war, will shrug as if to say, "Don't all beaches have rusting landing craft? Aren't there rotting field pieces, aIrcraft and tanks in all jungles?" Today even the most remote islands have usable airstrips that date back to those ancient days.
In 1944, courtesy of the USS Acontius, the Solomons were my first South Sea islands. I'd never seen a coconut palm, or a reef with translucent water, a man with a bone in his nose, a thatched village on stilts under palms on a white beach, and I'd never felt the violence of a South Pacific rain squall.
In spite of the war I was impressed, hooked and, after several subsequent trips, remain hooked. Still these islands aren't for everyone. There are few activity-filled resorts, it can be hot and humid, the inter-island seas can be rough, there aren't many roads, and there is some malaria. But it's real Melanesia, and for "do it yourself travel" there are plenty of inter island boats, adequate housing, gentle people, and beauty. And, thanks to World War II, you can get nearly everywhere by air.
The Land and Her People
The origins of the term "Marching Rule" have never been clear, but newspaper people in England at the time claimed that it was a corruption of the words "Marxian Rule." What ever the meaning, the cult grew, became organized, leaders were chosen, and its adherents refused to accept the authority of the British Government. "Marching Rule" took over whole villages and built towns surrounded by palisades. They even built warehouses to store gifts that would surely arrive from America.
The authorities finally decided that the movement was getting out of hand, and by making judicious arrests, they put a stop to the problem, or almost did – some islanders say that elements of the "Marching Rule" still smoulder quietly in the Solomons.
But positive things happened in those post-war days and, with the world becoming more autonomy-conscious, the Solomons sought freedom. In 1978 they became independent. Their government, as with many Commonwealth countries, retains the Queen of England as head of state, but has as the working head of government their own elected prime minister.
How to Get There by AirComing into the Solomons you'll probably land at Henderson Airport of World War II fame, eight miles from Honiara. Coming from the US – Fly to Nadi, Fiji, then take Air Pacific's once-a-week flight to Honiara (three hours).
Coming from Australia – Using Qantas or Ansett Air Lines, you can get into Honiara from either Sydney or Brisbane daily.
Coming from Port Villa, Vanuatu – Air Nauru flies in once a week, but Solair, the Solomon's own airline has additional flights from Vila (two hours).
Coming from Guam or Majuro in the Marshalls – One of the best bargains in the Pacific is Air Nauru's flight from Majuro or Guam via Nauru into Honiara. Flights on Wednesday and Saturday. Majuro-Nauru-Honiara fare is about $200. Guam-Nauru-Honiara is about $300.
Coming from Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea – You can fly in with Air Niugini twice weekly. The most dramatic air route to the Solomons is via Kieta on Bougainville (Papua New Guinea) to Munda (Solomons), then to Honiara. It's more expensive than the direct flight, but worth it.
Leaving Kieta, the flight follows Bougainville's lovely south coast, then flies low over the Shortlands, above tiny green atolls and down "the slot" between Choiseul and Vella Lavella. Kolobangara comes next, and the plane flashes over the town and Island of Gizo, then drops down into Munda for entrance formalities into the Solomons.
By this time you'll have been visually reminded that air strips courtesy of World War II link these islands and exist in the most unlikely places. After Munda the flight continues over Rendova (in the Russells) and terminates at Henderson AIrport, Homara.
HealthThe main problem in the Solomons is malaria; there's even some in Honiara. The best thing to do is visit a clinic in your home town that specializes in providing inoculations and coun sel for overseas traveling. For the Solomons you'll probably be given chloroquine tablets and instructions to take the proper dosage two weeks before arrival, during your stay, and two weeks after it. The problem is that some Solomon Island malaria is chloroquine-resistant, and another prophylaxis must be taken, such as fansidar. But fansidar has side effects, and should be taken only if malaria occurs. Talk this over with medical people before leaving home. We've never had a problem.
Good medical care is available in Honiara, but it's a little spotty away from town. Water in Honiara is potable, but not always elsewhere. Inquire locally or drink beer and soft drinks. Be careful of cuts and abrasions, as infections occur easily in this climate.
CurrencyAs of this writing the exchange is very good for Americans. One US dollar equals 7.35 Solomon Island dollars (SBD). Solomon Island paper money comes as $2, $5, and $10 notes. Coins are $1, 20¢, 10¢, 5¢, 2¢ and 1¢.
American Express and Visa credit cards are accepted at most hotels in Honiara, but not always in the outer islands.
There are four commercial banks in Honiara – The National Bank of Solomons, Australian New Zealand Banking Corp., Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corp. and the Westpac Banking Corp.
Local time is 11 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, 16 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time, 19 hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time.
Newspapers, Radio , TV and Telephones
The Solomon Star and the Solomon Tok Tok are weekly newspapers wIth English editions. The country has its own broadcasting service, a large portion of which is in English. Overseas newspapers are available in Honiara. The telephone system, using a satellite service, puts world-wide calls through 24 hours a day.
As discussed earlier, English is spoken widely, and Pijin, an easy-to-acquire language, is used too.
HONIARA, GUADALCANAL & ENVIRONS
Hotels in Honiara
Raintree Café Bed & Breakfast – This was once only a waterfront cafe. It has now grown and is surrounded by lush vegetation, coconut palms and landscaped gardens. The sound of the ocean and views of Nggela and Savo Islands on the horizon provide a marvelous contrast to Honiara's congestion and noise. There are three rooms for guests; the layout means that everyone is treated as part of the family. Locally inspired hand-crafted furnishings and comfortable beds adorn your room in their relaxed surroundings. www.raintreehoniara.com. Address: Tandai Highway, Honiara. Rates from $60 US (SBD 420).
Inns and Hotels at a Distance from Honiara, but Still on Guadalcanal
Tambea Village Resort – Thirty miles west of Honiara, this simple resort thatched in the native style, lit by kerosene lamps, cooled by the tradewinds, has 24 plumbed bungalows. It has a cocktail lounge, dining room, a barbecue area famed for whole roasted pigs, and a library filled with dog-eared paperbacks. Tambea is on a good swimming-snorkeling beach. Rates $30 US double.
Tavanipupu Island Resort – At the far end of Guadalcanal to the east, 70 miles from Honiara (see the map above). This small inn is on a 40-acre island in Marau Sound. Its six luxury bungalows have traditional thatched roofs and face their own private beach. They are decorated in customary woodcarvings and hold huge bamboo beds complete with Egyptian cotton sheets and canopy mosquito nets. Rooms face west, making for a beautiful orange, yellow and pink sunset over mountainous Guadalcanal every evening. The resort has its own restaurant, bar and soon to come day spa. The food at Tavanipupu is of the highest quality and all meals use local produce. They use fresh seafood from surrounding reefs, free-range eggs from their chickens and vegetables grown without chemical and pesticides on the island. Each bungalow accommodates four adults. Internet service is included. Domestic flights to Marau Sound from Honiara run three times a week through Solomon Airlines. Fare is $60 US round-tnp. Alternatively, the resort can arrange a boat transfer to the Island on the days that the plane doesn't fly. firstname.lastname@example.org, www.tavanipupu.com. Rates from $350 US (2,450 SBI) per person per night, all meals and boat transportation included.
A full week on Tavanipupu for up to four people comes to about $200 US.
Dining in HoniaraThe main hotels all have restaurants of good standard.
The Solomon Kitano Mendana has good buffets, the Heritage Park Hotel has the Renaissance Restaurant, and the Pacific Casino Hotel has two restaurants.
The Mandarin, Lantern and Jade Garden, all in Honiara, are typical Chinese restaurants and are quite inexpensive.
The Nippon serves authentic Japanese food and caters to the Japanese that appear in the Solomons out of war nostalgia.
For fast food, fish and chips, hamburgers, or Australian meat pies, try Kingsley's and Maggie's Kitchen, both inexpensive and downtown. By American standards, most eatmg in Honiara is moderately inexpensive.
Heritage Park Hotel has more than one bar as well as a popular nightclub called "Extreme."
The Solomon Kitano Mendana has a bar and terrace lounge. They also have video movies some evenings.
The Yacht Club (next door to the Mendana) is a good spot to meet some of the local expats. The bartender will quickly organize membership. Much the same thing is true of the Guadalcanal Club. They have a pool too, and some evenings show video movies.
How to Get Around in Honiara and on Guadalcanal
What to Do
As for shopping, some good handicrafts can be purchased – baskets, shell money (the kind used as bride-price money), ebony or other wood carvings of fish, turtles, and birds, all inlaid with shell. But the most unusual item you can buy in the Solomons is the grotesque spirit figure called the Nguzunguzu. When these elaborately carved figures of a human head or bird are attached to the prow of a canoe they give protection against enemies or bad weather. A small Nguzunguzu placed on your coffee table will insure the same protection.
These artifacts are available in downtown Honiara. Try the Handicraft Shop and Museum across the street from the Mendana. A little farther into town visit the BJS Arts and Craft Shop, The Honiara Coin Center, or the Village Craft Center. They're all open weekdays and until noon on Saturday.
Betikama is an Adventist high school, but it houses the biggest range of carvings in the islands. And on the same property there's one of the best collections of World War II weaponry – field guns, crashed planes, mortars, uniforms, and so forth. A taxi there will be about $1 US.
For people preoccupied with ships and the sea, the harbor in the center of town has a great deal to offer. All sorts of vessels provide transport. Canoes and launches move up and down the coast or out to Savo Island. Larger boats sail to nearby islands, and reasonably substantial ships sail to the distant islands. Chinatown at the far end of town, with its collection of wooden verandahed shops, lies alongside the Mataniko River There's a strong South Sea flavor about this part of town. It's quite near the Honiara Hotel.
The Botanical Gardens are at the west end of town just past the post office. Turn inland and follow the signs to the Gardens about a quarter-mile from the turn off. There, in a fine rainforest with a meandering stream, most of the Solomon Island flora can be examined. There's even a reasonably typical island village on the grounds.
You'll like Honiara. It's a pleasant, safe, utilitarian town. It's not exotic though, and it is most certainly not affluent. Most of the people who live there have simple tastes, little money, and are not apt to be seen in the bar-dining rooms of the three hotels. The expensive material things in life are still limited to a few upper-income islanders, resident expatriates, and tourists.
Guadalcanal is 100 miles long. Along part of its northern coast, where Honiara is, a road runs about 75 miles. To put it another way, from Honiara you can drive west and then south about 35 miles, or east 40. Beyond these limits, access is by foot, air, or sea.
For Americans and Japanese veterans of World War II, the battlegrounds are a sort of pilgrimage, and the best way to visit these scenes is with a well-informed guide. You'll be apt to see a clutch of Japanese there – any number of agencies in Honiara do this well.
Such a trip runs about four hours and will take you east across the Lunga River toward the airport where there'll be a brief halt to see the original "Foxhole," a bunker used by the Marine Commanding Officer of Henderson Airport, Colonel Fox. Using flashlights, the nearby underground hospital will be examined. Then, without need of explanation, visitors will see the skeletal remains of Henderson's old control tower.
"Bloody Ridge," where the Americans defended Henderson, is next and, at "Red Beach" four miles beyond, a solitary Japanese cannon pointing out to sea marks the landing place of US Marines on August 7, 1942.
Finally there'll be a stop at Betikama village for a look at its impressive collection of war relics, and for shopping if you have an interest.
If this hasn't been enough of World War II nostalgia, plan a walking trip on your own to see the last Japanese stronghold, the Gifu. To do this cross the Mataniko River east of town turn south and follow the road about a quarter-mile to the Vara Housing Estate. Cross the bridge there and follow a foot path up and over the grassy hills. Stop often enough to rest and enjoy good views of sea and land, then continue on past several patches of World War II barbed wire entanglements, to the village of Barana. Keep going up the hill. This is the Gifu, the anticlimactic scene of the Japanese last gasp in 1943. Allow three hours for this trip.
American soldier at Guadalcanal, from Life Magazine issue dated February 1, 1943. The battle began on December 18, 1943 and was over by January 2.
Mt. Austin is just beyond. You could continue walking and gain the summit from which five views of coastal Guadalcanal and most of the battlefields can be seen. Or, since there is a road all the way to the summit, a taxi from Honiara will take you there for a couple of dollars.
For a further taste of bushwalking, the sort there's lots of on Guadalcanal, set aside a full day and, with guide, do the Mataniko Valley Gorge and Cave Trek. First taxi to Tuvuruku which is inland from Chinatown. Get a guide there. You follow him over some grassy hills and descend into heavy jungle near the river. You'll follow the river, ford it up to your waist six or eight times, and finally arrive at a spectacular gorge with a double-sided waterfall. By this time a rewarding swim has been earned. There's a cave nearby too, a curious cave through which a branch of the river flows. A word of caution: do not attempt this excursion if there have been recent heavy rains, or if it looks like a storm is developing. Fording the river on dry days is exciting enough.
WEST OF HONIARA
By driving or taxiing west of town, the road goes about 35 miles to Lambi. It's a peacefully scenic run that passes through Kakambono where the Japanese had their headquarters during the war. Beyond, the road fords several rIvers (don't go if it's raining heavily), passes through a number of pretty villages, some stately coconut plantations and, at Vilu 16 miles from Honiara, visitors should stop off at Fred Kona's War Museum. Pay a small admission, and wander about his grounds where there are downed aircraft, weapons of all sorts, uniforms, helmets with bullet holes in them, and other relics.
At the town of Visale, 25 miles from town, there is an old and photogenic Catholic church. Then almost immediately you're at Tambea Village, a community famed for its hotel resort complex and the good diving offshore. This area has some good wreck diving, excellent reefs, and drop-offs. They charge about $40 for two tanks, and offer a certification course. Contact: Rick Belmare, Island Dive Service, PO Box 414, Honiara, Solomon Islands (Also at Mendana Hotel and Anuha Island Resort).
Tambea Village Resort on an exceptionally fine beach is an ideal place for complete withdrawal. It's unspoiled, unpreten tious, inexpensive, a good base from which to study village life, for bushwalking, swimming, reading, and eating well. The only flaw with Tambea is that there are some troublesome sand flies. Take along some Cutters insect repellant.
Four days along this route would bring you to Babanakira airstrip where the walker is less than halfway to the eastern end of Guadalcanal. Here there is a once-a-week plane back to Honiara. A trip such as this requires pre-planning and, as the guidebook says, "Keep a good lookout for crocodiles when you cross the Variana River near Tiaro Bay."
From Babanakira Airstrip hikers could continue on another three or four days to Avu Avu on the southeast coast. From there a sort of road goes on to Marau Sound at the eastern tip. You can then return to Honiara by boat or plane.
Trekking on Guadalcanal
J.L.O. Tedder in his very excellent "Walks on Guadalcanal" discusses the essentials of trekking, and suggests the following:
Guides – Recruit guides in the village of departure. To do so, inquire at the local village council. You should be prepared to feed guides en route, and pay them a modest sum too, but often they'll go along without charge just for the trip.
Food – Plan to carry as little as possible. When you are staying in villages simple foods are usually available, such as yams, taro, green vegetables. This will nicely augment the canned or dried food you're carrying.
Sleeping – Fortunately there are quite a few villages, and good planning suggests that you aim for one each evening. There you'll be invited to sleep in a thatched hut. On leaving, guests are expected to give a gift, generally a can of food or a stick of "trade tobacco."
Gear – Staying dry and keeping gear dry is very important. Whenever possible wrap equipment in plastic, or pack it in a metal box which can be strapped to a pack frame.
Speed – Distances from village to village are usually calculated in hours rather than miles or kilometers. But a speed of 1½ miles an hour is considered comfortable.
Drinking Water – Guides will know about safe sources of water, but generally most springs are safe. Avoid river water near villages since rivers are often used as latrines.
A drinking coconut cut from a tree, opened with a machete, and put to lips is also an unforgettably refreshing way to quench your thirst.
Hazards – There are two poisonous snakes on the island, but they're rare and usually will move away. Centipedes can also be a problem. They cause a very painful bite. Some are as much as a foot long and dark green in color. When possible, sleep under mosquito netting; centipedes come out at night.
Rivers – Most are swift and can flood without warning. Where possible cross in the shallows, and move diagonally downstream.
Village Etiquette – Always ask permission to enter a village. Tell them where you've been and where you're bound. Always ask for the village leader, and remain seated while he consults with other villagers about where you'll be sleeping. Do not pick anything from village gardens without asking permission.
GOING EAST FROM HONIARA
The road east goes along flats where there's rice growing, crosses the Nalimbu River and, at a point about 12 miles beyond Honiara, there is access to a tiring but magnificent hike across the center of the island to Kuma.
To get to the trail head, turn south beyond the Little Tenaru River. Continue on for 2½ miles until you come to the Kongga Resthouse. With a guide and bearers, start walking and plan on three hard days to Kuma on the south coast of Guadalcanal. From there, go west to Babanakira Airstrip or east to Marau Sound.
Continuing east by road from Honiara, the road terminates at Aola Bay. There is an onward trail to Marau Sound at the eastern tip of Guadalcanal, but this four-day walk is less interesting, and requires that you swim several rivers.
Marau Sound – Tavanipupu Island in Marau Sound is called the Jewel of Guadalcanal. Accommodations there were discussed earlier. Plane service in or out is just once a week, but in such an unusual retreat, a week should be about right. You could return earlier by boat.
THE OUTER ISLANDS
While in Honiara, go to the Coral Sea Shipping Company office on the main street in the center of town. Ask about the sailing of the MV Iuminao. For air services visit the Solair office in town. Solair is the domestic airline that serves 22 Solomon Island destinations. Ask to see John Baura, the manager, who'll give good air transport advice. Using these two sources, plus the Visitor's Bureau, your future in the Solomons will be well taken care of.
SAVO ISLAND & IRON BOTTOM SOUNDThe waters north and west of Honiara are known as Iron Bottom Sound. This was the scene of violent naval battles with an incredible loss of life. Here the hulks of fighting ships form artificial reefs, and have attracted hordes of fish and a variety of coral life. Some of the wrecks are quite shallow and these scenes of death and destruction draw divers from all over the world. The water here is clear and warm.
Beyond Iron Bottom Sound, otherwise known as the "Slot," the small volcanic island of Savo stands out sharply. The special attraction of this island, other than the nearby naval battles, are the megapode birds, who bury their eggs in the sand. You can negotiate the often choppy 22 miles by small boat from Honiara in three or four hours. But, unless you're into bleak islands, strange birds, and wet sea trips, you may be happier elsewhere.
THE WESTERN PROVINCESThe Western Provinces encompass the islands of Rendova, New Georgia, Kolombangara, Gizo, Ranogga, Vella Lavella, Choiseul, Treasury and Shortlands. Some of the loveliest lagoons and coral islands are in this area. Marovo Lagoon is one of the largest in the world and is dotted with scores of tiny atolls.
Flying over the Marovo Lagoon
To get there, consider one of the best short sea trips in the Pacific, the voyage of the Iuminao. Having done it, we recommend it highly. But before describing the voyage a few remarks about going to sea in the Solomons are necessary. First, the vessels that serve the outer islands are working ships of about 150 feet and smaller that carry cargo and 50 or so deck passengers. Some of them like the Iuminao have two first-class cabins, but meals are not provided. This sounds awkward, but isn't. Think of it as going camping. On the Iuminao it's camping in an air-conditioned cabin with white sheets on the bunks, a small refrigerator, and a fully plumbed bath.
Coming into Viru, New Georgia, on the M.V. Iuminao
For the trip we purchased all provisions at Honiara shops, found fresh fruit available at stops along the way, and forgotten essentials were available from a small snack bar aboard.
This ship sails at 2:30 PM on Sundays, and arrives in Gizo late afternoon on Monday. En route it makes 11 stops, then returns on Wednesday. Round-trip fare is about $80 per person.
A brief narrative of that voyage may help. In the straits between Guadalcanal and the Russell Islands we did some pitching and rolling, then pulled into Yandina in the Russells. I remember this small group from the war but now as then, other than the big Lever Coconut plantation, there's little to do or see. The trip improves after Yandina.
Uepi Island Resort
Uepi Island Resort
From the Russells the voyage continued across 80 or so miles of the Solomon Sea, a rough patch occasionally, into Blanche Channel southwest of Vanguna Island. Viru, in a placidly pretty harbor, was next. From this picture-postcard village, you can go by canoe or small boat to Seghe, a nearby village, and from there to the Uepi Island Resort. Plenty of white beaches at Uepi, and extremely good diving, but you must bnng your own gear. Rates are $245-$537 US (1,720-3,760 SBD) for a double including meals. From Honiara you can fly there on one of Solair's nine-seated Islander Aircraft. Contact: Roco Ltd., Seghe, Marovo Lagoon, Solomon Islands.
Beach on the Marovo Lagoon
From Viru the ship continued up sparkling Blanche Channel between Rendova and New Georgia. We paused at Egelo on Rendova where passengers came and went and cargo was shuttled. Then came Sasavele, followed by Munda which is close to vibrant Roviana Lagoon. Here there's another good inn, the Munda Rest House. They have 10 self-contained rooms, at $18 a double. Power canoes are available for excursions into the lagoon, including the half-day trip to Plum Pudding Island where John F. Kennedy swam ashore the night his PT boat was hit by the Japanese destroyer. The coral and marine life makes this area exceptionally good for snorkeling. Meals will be provided on these excursions. You could leave the ship at Munda and fly back to Honiara, or wait until the ship reappears a week later.
After Munda the ship calls at Nora on New Georgia, Ringi on Rendova, and at sunset pulls into the small island and town of Gizo.
This second-largest town in the Solomons is the administrative center for the Western Provinces. The pretty little island of Gizo itself measures about three miles by seven miles. It's also the last stop for the Iuminao which ties up at the wharf for the night. Here the best thing to do is sleep aboard (if you're returning with the ship) but, for happy hour and dinner, go ashore. Only steps from the wharf there is a comfortable and friendly hotel, the Gizo, which is the gathering place for most of the local expats. Clustered round the bar you'll find them eager, as the Aussies say, to "shout" or "be shouted a drink." With little encouragement, they'll point out the area's possibilities, the best being easy access by powered canoe to dozens of tiny islands with fine beaches. There's good fishing and snorkeling, as well as villages where you can buy fine ebony carvings.
Food at the Gizo is good, not outstanding, but far better than the cold food you've been eating on the Iuminao. Passengers who leave the ship in order to fly back to Honiara will find the rooms fully plumbed, comfortable, and cooled by fans. Rates from $142 US (1,000 SBD) per night for a double.
Our evening at the Gizo was filled with good cheer, and the next morning, feeling a little the worse for wear, we sailed for Honiara, a day and a half away.
Visitors who stay in Gizo can continue west to Vella Lavella Island by unscheduled copra boat or canoe. The point of arrival will probably be Liapari village, 10 miles away at the south end of the island. Fare will be no more than $10 round trip. Accommodations there range from meager to non-existent, which makes it good for examining outback island life. Best thing to do is ask around Gizo for a round-trip sailing, pack a lunch, and do the trip in one day.
Villagers on Vella Lavella Island
For visitors returning to Honiara by air, there is daily service from Gizo's Nusatupe Airstrip on a nearby island. En route to Honiara, Solair usually stops at Ringi, Munda, Seghe, and perhaps Yandina in the Russells.
The big island north of Vella Lavella is best reached by air from Gizo. The problem is that when you land at Choiseul Bay at the far western end of the island, you're really nowhere. There are few roads, no services, a hard place to deal with. Unless you're a dedicated trailwise trekker, you'll be happier elsewhere.
The long island southeast of Choiseul is well off beaten paths too, but at the Buala-Fera area where the plane from Honiara lands there are simple and inexpensive resthouses. This is where most of the Ysabel people live. Headhunters years ago from the Roviana area to the south are said to have killed off most of the inhabitants in the northwest. Solomon Island culture here is pure and undiluted, the very place for serious study, but perhaps not aimless wandering.
Uninhabited island near Munda
The Florida IslandsTulagi, which until 1942 was the capital of the Solomon Islands, was my first South Pacific landfall in 1944. Then it was the scene of considerable military activity. Now it's a sleepy backwater where, other than the Japanese fish processing plant and a marine repair slipway, there's little to see. Ships from Honiara go to Tulagi twice a week, about 35 sea miles across historic Iron Bottom Sound.
The other two large Florida Islands, Nggela and Small Nggela, are beautifully scenic and have interesting villages, but there are few amenities and very few roads. You commute to these islands by boat from Tulagi, then walk or travel the coast by canoe.
Malaita IslandThis, the second-largest of the Solomon Islands, is jungle-covered, mountainous, and inhabited by nearly 80,000 – making it more populous than even Guadalcanal. But because there's not enough arable land, many people leave for employment elsewhere. A lot of them are in Honiara.
In the past Malaitans have been feared and disliked by other islanders. Their quick response to a slight, their pride and overstrong adherence to tradition, has given them poor press away from Malaita. Even among Malaitans there is rivalry. Coastal people don't get along with the mountain dwellers, a sort of mutual intolerance exists, and there are still Malaitans in the back country whom it's best to avoid.
Malaita native playing a panpipe (photo by Peter Hendrie)
To Malaita by Air – There is a daily flight from Honiara to Auki on the southwest coast, a 30-minute flight that goes over the Florida Islands. $85 round trip.
Getting off the small inter-island plane at Auki, one is sharply reminded of its remoteness. Directly behind the terminal shed is a timeless Solomon Island village, thatched and on stilts. Here the essence of the tropics is strong – a blending of the scent of cooking fires, the moist odor of vegetation, the busy sounds of chickens, and the distant laughter of children. By minibus, the ride to Auki seven miles away is $1.50.
Coming from or Going to Auki by Sea – Take time to make the seven-hour sea trip one way. We recommend the trip from Auki to Honiara since it's done in daylight, departs Auki at 9:30 AM and arrives at 4:30 PM.
A night at sea aboard the Compass Rose II is not what dreams are made of. There are no private cabins, only deck and first class. Deck is just that, and first class entitles you to occupy a tattered, usually crowded lounge. There is no food available, no water, and the fetid toilets are awash.
During the day, if it's not rough, the blue sea and magnificent views of the Florida Islands make the trip well worth while. Go prepared with lunch, some beverages, then find a place on the boat deck and settle in. Fare first class is $12 per person.
Where to Stay in Auki – Run by kind and thoughtful Malaitans, the Auki Lodge has six twin rooms with fans and cold water baths. Rates are $35 US (250 SBD) double. Food is adequate, but the best thing to order is chicken curry, then ask for the curry powder and lace it up again. Their beef is tough or, as another guest described it, "resilient." For breakfast if you order fruit you'll get wonderful papaya, lots of pineapple and, if you ask, even a chilled drinking coconut. There's a comfortable veranda at the Lodge, a good place to sit in the cool of the evening and watch the sun sink over the palms by the harbor.
Set in considerable beauty on Langa Langa Lagoon, Auki has no frills whatsoever. Several years ago there were a couple of simple restaurants, but they're gone now and, other than a pair of shops selling canned food, bread, kerosene, and beer or the market-selling fish, taro, yams, and betel nuts, the only place to eat and sleep is the Auki Lodge.
Langa Langa Lagoon, the Artificial Islands, Shell Money, Shark Worship – The artificial islands of Langa Langa Lagoon and the Lau Lagoon in northeast Malaita are among the most unusual destinations in these islands. Langa Langa at Auki is the most accessible, and the trip down this lagoon by long skinny outboard canoe is a worthwhile (and often wet) run. The people at the Lodge can organize a canoe and guide for the three-hour round-trip. Mornings are preferable. Cost is $22.50 for two.
Some of the man-made islands you'll see are fairly new, others over 100 years old, but all were constructed by building up coral boulders on a shallow reef. Sand was then brought from shore and used to fill in the gaps. Next, houses were built and sometimes palm trees grew, but for water the people had to depend on rain. Why were they built? Some say they were constructed to provide safety from marauding hill people. Current belief is they were built to get away from shoreside mosquitoes. If you choose not to take the entire canoe trip, one such man-made island is right across the harbor from Auki. To go ashore there you'll have to pay $1 to a dour-looking man.
At the far end of the canoe run in Langa Langa is the Laulasi-Alite area. Here visitors are taken ashore, where they can watch women drill holes in tiny shells and string them together on lengths of jungle vine, each one about a fathom long. They're referred to as fathoms, and can be used as cash, or more importantly as bride price money. The going bride price on Malaita is now 10 sets of shell money at $150 each.
Here at Laulasi, priests used to call sharks by beating gongs, and the sharks were said to appear. Shark calling, a form of ancestor worship, has been called off, at least for visiting outsiders. Our boatman frowned and said it was taboo.
A Note on Lagoon Trips – When thinking about lagoon trips, you may visualize gliding over clear smooth water to reasonably close destinations. Not always so. The water in lagoons can chop up smartly, depending on the tide. There may be swift currents and a trip, often several hours long, can be wet, uncomfortable, and sometimes perilous. Remember too that you have to go back the same way. Boatmen in Langa Langa do predictably safe work, but it's always best to ask a number of questions before setting out.
Visitors could do the Langa Langa junket in one full day from Honiara. For $85 per person, Solair will fly you to Auki, arrange for the canoe, provide lunch, and fly you back to Honiara.
Near Auki-Lilisiana Village – Lilisiana is a large thatched and stilted village inhabited by people who used to live on Langa Langa's artificial islands. To get there, ask someone to paddle you over. It's very close. You can wander about, observe island life, examine their shell money, and stroll to a very good beach. You can then walk back along the coast to Auki, about a mile and a half.
The Kwaibala River – If you walk south from Auki toward nearby Ambu village, you'll pass a bit of the Kwaibala River, a restful walk along this clear stream with a rock-strewn bottom. It's quite shallow, but there are a couple of good pools to loll in.
For a good difficult trek ask at the Lodge for a guide to Riba Cave. It's on the road toward Dukwari village about an hour and a half away. If you're into wet sloppy caves filled with swallows, you'll be delighted with this one.
Other Parts of Malaita
Going north from Auki, it's 50 bouncy miles to Malu'u. The bus costs $4, but sometimes you can get a boat from Auki to Malu'u, or even beyond. These are boats, not canoes, small trading vessels 40 to 50 feet long that are safe, raw, and inexpensive.
At Malu'u there's a rest house, clean and adequate, for $18 double. They'll provide food, if asked.
From Malu'u you can hire canoes for the trip to Lau Lagoon, but it's a long boat ride. You could, if transport is available, continue on another 25-30 miles to Fouia, only a short boat ride to the big artificial island of Sulufou. The only problem then is that there is no place to stay at Fouia. If you can arrange the logistics, the Lau Lagoon is worthwhile. They say there are 50 artificial islands in this lagoon.
Going south from Auki, the road, mostly a track, runs south about 60 miles to Su'u, a jungly trip with good views of the sea and lots of coastal villages. But the best way to get at this area is by boat. Check out the sailing of the Regina M. from Honiara, a deck-passage boat even more basic than the Compass Rose II. Check out sailings of boats from Auki too. Either way, plan to take your own food and camp out on deck.
San Cristobal Island, Santa Cruz and Reef IslandsSan Cristobal to the south of Malaita shares with Malaita a violent past. Professional island murderers were still in business on San Cristobal at the turn of the century, and fighting was active between coastal and hill people.
As to cannibalism, some experts say that islanders ate their enemies to emphasize supremacy. Others say that by eating an enemy you acquired his mana or spiritual power, his "face" or reputation. Those days are gone now.
Solair flies to the district center, Kira Kira, on the north coast of San Cristobal where simple housing is available. But if you are seeking the most remote destination in the Solomon Islands, continue on another 310 miles to the Ngarando Island Resort on Pigeon Island at Mohawk Bay in the Reef Islands. This off-the-map place has two furnished bed-sitting rooms with kitchen and bath. Rates are $35 (245 SBD) double.
The Ngarando is located on an unusually rich coral lagoon that's filled with marine life and fat crayfish. Boats and canoes are obtainable, and the folks who operate the resort also run a trading post. You'll hear nothing but Pijin spoken, and you can watch the day-to-day dealings in copra, turtle shells, crocodile skins and other exotica. For special people, this is a special place.
To get there, fly from Kira Kira, or take the twice-monthly ship from Honiara.
THE POLYNESIAN OUTLIERS
If you're lucky, very patient, or both, the epitome of going to sea in the Solomons is aboard one of the government ships that sails to the Polynesian Outliers – to Sikaiana, Rennell, Tikopea, Bellona, Ontong Java. No one quite knows why these Polynesian enclaves exist on the fringes of black Melanesia, but they're Polynesian nonetheless – albeit not as sophisticated as their Samoan, Tongan, Cook or Society Island cousins.
One hundred-twenty-five miles south of Honiara, Rennell (50 by 10 miles wide) is not a rich island. Growing food is difficult, but enough coconuts, papaya, yams, and other crops are grown to sustain life. Other than the big lake on the island, the bauxite that's mined there, and the fact that these people are Polynesian, Rennell has little to offer.
Because at one time Rennell's culture was considered fragile, the islands were closed to all Europeans for about 25 years, nearly until World War II. This added a mystique to the island which it probably doesn't deserve.
You can fly to Rennell on Solair from Honiara, or take the twice-monthly government ship. Once there, you'll have to find an islander to put you up.
Nature on Bellona (six miles by two), a close neighbor of Rennell, has been a little more benevolent. Crops grow well and there's plenty of spring water. But Bellonans, like the Rennellese, are inclined to be testy with each other and strangers. And like other Polynesians, they share a mutual distrust of Melanesian Solomon Islanders.
Check with Solair for flights to Bellona from Honiara.
Six hundred miles east of Honiara, Tikopea is well off by itself. It's reported to be a happy, prosperous place, and the folks there live well on what their volcanic island produces. They're also known for their kindness to each other and to strangers. The only way in is by sea.
These Polynesians are extremely isolated and, other than the government ship, some copra boats, and a few yachts sailing south from Micronesia, they have little contact with the outsIde world. There's no hotel or rest house, but a trip to this atoll on the bI-monthly government ship would be something to remember.
Final note – When you leave the Solomons, be prepared to pay a $10 Solomon Island airport departure tax.
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