Step back in time in the South Pacific’s remote Solomon Islands, a destination as focused on preserving its past as it is on capturing its future. Words and Photos by Dan Walton.
As I remove the regulator from my mouth and delicately manoeuvre my weightless body into the black cocoon below, I fight off a wave of apprehension which threatens to engulf me. An eel-like joystick slowly emerges from the abyss, taunting me with its sharpened coral teeth as I continue descending, my naked feet greeted by the cool touch of dilapidated metal. I’m in.
My apprehension is understandable when I reflect on my surroundings; I’m currently holding my breath, 22m below the ocean surface, sitting in the cockpit of a WWII American Hellcat fighter plane brought down by Japanese anti-aircraft fire. But then again there are worse places to celebrate your 34th birthday.
I arrived in the Solomon Islands, a mysterious Melanesian archipelago still in its tourism infancy, intent on discovering as many of its hidden secrets as time would allow. Seven days later I will emerge a new man, having swum through the torpedo hole of a sunken Japanese warship; uncovered sacred human remains, ruminants of a not-so-distant cannibalistic past; and witnessed the traditional ritual of ‘dolphin calling’, during which locals summon wild dolphins from the open seas as if they were family pets.
The Solomon Islands are truly the final frontier of the South Pacific, and a worthy reward waiting for anyone who wants to get off the tourist conveyer belt and sample life as it was, and in many ways really should be.
Situated northwest of Vanuatu and to the east of Papua New Guinea, this hidden, enigmatic archipelago consists of a scattering of nearly one thousand pristine islands, many of which remain completely untouched by human civilisation. So unaffected by the new world is the Solomons, that parts of the country still trades in the traditional currency bata, or shell money, using shells, feathers, and even dolphin teeth in lieu of money. Try buying a beer at the pool bar of your all-inclusive Hawaiian resort with a handful of shells or a few dolphin teeth, and see how far it gets you.
No, the Solomons is not your average destination; it’s a little rough around the edges, like an adolescent searching for its role in life – unruly yes, but honest. There are no glitzy five star resorts, designer shopping malls or mixologists here. Instead, the wild, unmasked purity that both the islands and its people have retained is beginning to attract travellers – especially intrepid scuba divers – seeking an authentic, innate connection with nature while it still exists.
I touch down at the beginning of my trip in the capital Honiara, on the now infamous island of Guadalcanal. Its name echoed around the globe in early August 1942 as it saw some of the bloodiest flighting during the WWII Pacific campaign. Remains from this brutal chapter in history still scar the face of this pristine land, each a sombre reminder of how a virtually unknown corner of the world was thrust into the 20th century in the worst possible way.
While the entire Island has essentially become a living museum, WWII aficionados should head to Vilu, one of the more impressive open-air museums. Located 45 minutes to the east of Honiara, the museum’s collection includes the American P-38G Lightening fighter plane that shot down Isoroku Yamamoto, admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Taking off from Henderson airfield, my journey takes me towards the remote western provinces, in search of adventure. Below, the lush jungle-covered islands take on an entirely new dimension, transforming themselves into a scattering of emeralds on an ever-expanding turquoise blanket. It’s from the air that the Solomon archipelago can truly be appreciated. Expansive, pristine coral atolls and lush uninhabited islands force the romanticised deserted tropical island existence into mind.
Our first stop is Ghizo Island…well nearly. Due to the topography of Ghizo, the closest runway was created on neighbouring, pint-sized Nusatupe Island, located only a few hundred metres from the mainland. This means guests arrive at their hotel in true style, traversing the azure lagoon by boat.
The scream of the water taxi’s engine dulls, and is replaced by the buzz of the quaint port town of Gizo. A curly-haired expat straddling a rusted bicycle at the edge of the rickety pier extends his hand, and a warm American smile.
Danny Kennedy and his wife Kerrie have been in Gizo for over three decades and together they not only run Dive Gizo (divegizo.com) but also help keep the island afloat; a former island mayor, what Danny doesn’t know about Gizo, above and below, isn’t worth the time it takes to learn.
The diving in the Solomon Islands is amongst the best and most exhilarating in the world, with a vast array of dive sites offering everything from coral reefs with some of the highest fish counts on the planet, to historic and confronting WWII wrecks. It truly is an unspoilt, underwater Eden that divers can enjoy virtually alone.
“Have you ever swum through a torpedo hole?” cries my excitable guide over the screech of the outboard. Our small craft skims over the shallow, translucent tropical waters as we make our way to our first dive site, the resting place of the ill-fated Toa Maru. The Japanese transport ship was sunk by an American torpedo in 1942, and now rests 25m below the surface, relatively intact after all these years. The 140m vessel sunk before it could be off-loaded, which makes for a virtual underwater museum for any keen diver. The only other visitors you have to contend with are turtles, eagle rays and of course the cacophony of colourful reef fish that call the site’s abundant coral beds home.
Entering the ship’s cargo hold, I spy the remains of a Type 21 tank, surrounded by scattered rounds of ammunition, and of course dozens of large bottles of ‘sea-aged’ sake. However if it’s sea life you’re after, then ask Danny to take you to Grand Central Station. Due to the convergence of oceanic currents, this site has become world-renown for having the second highest fish count on the planet; it’s common for as many as 270 different species of fish being spotted on a single tank dive.
Emerging from the shadowy depths mesmerised and enchanted, the sun now low and rich in colour, painting the surrounding landscape with a golden brush, we cruise west to the famous Fatboys resort (solomonislandsfatboys.com.au), for a much needed ice cold Sol Brew. An almost cult-like establishment, Fatboys has dug its heels in as ‘the’ place to stay in this secluded, remote corner of the globe.
As I sit on the deck of the resort’s expansive overwater bar, I watch the local chef discard fish heads into the shallow waters with a smile in his eyes. Within moments the water is filled with the grey bulk of a half dozen reef sharks, all jouncing with each other like excited puppies. I take a sip of my brew, watch the sun’s final rays disappear into the waves, and embrace just how special this place is.
The following day a 20-minute flight lands me in the minuscule town of Munda, the largest settlement on the island of New Georgia, the largest island in the Western Provinces, and the cradle of the Roviana culture. Once home to some of the most feared head-hunters in the Solomon Islands, the island remains scattered with evidence of a cannibalistic past that is more recent that most might expect. In fact, the last ‘unofficial’ act of cannibalism was rumoured to have occurred in 1913 when an English trader was reportedly consumed after offending the local tribal elders.
Upon landing on the dusty strip, I make my way by foot from the quaint airport to Anges Gateway Lodge (agneshotelsolomon.com), idyllically perched on the waterfront of the island-studded Roviana Lagoon. Established shortly after the Solomons received Independence in 1976, this 28-room family-run lodge is a primary port of call for anyone needing local advice on the island’s diving and fishing expeditions, WW2 tours and cultural village excursions. Appropriate a seat under one of the cool Bayan trees, order some locally-squeezed bush lime juice, and watch traders, fishermen and families traverse the lagoon beyond.
A stay in Munda isn’t complete without a trip to Kundu Hite, the infamous Skull Island. This miniscule tropical island, bristling with palm trees, is home to the sacred remains of the Rovianan tribal dynasty. Their bones lie like trophies on a podium of coral, silently watching over their former kingdom.
It’s possible to spend weeks traversing this magnificent cyan-hued lagoon and its enveloped islands. But there’s one concealed village that feels a little more special than the rest. Titiru.
Titiru Eco Lodge (facebook.com/titiru.ecolodge) delivers intrepid world wanderers its own quandary: do you utter a single word of its existence to other like-minded travellers, and risk its eventual desecration, or do you submit to your selfish side and stay silent, instead enjoying its stunning natural beauty with a fateful few?
Sublimely tucked away among secluded mangroves at a hidden river mouth on the mountainous Island of Rendova, an hour’s boat ride from Munda, Titiru is like stepping back into a nearly forgotten time. An eco-resort with a true heart at its core, Titiru is the creation of enigmatic local personality Kilo Paza, and was designed to make a genuine contribution to both its surrounding environment and to the people of its neighbouring village.
Offering gorgeously hand-crafted cottages, each concealed in its own colourful array of fragrant orchards and vivid zazala plants, the lodge is proud of what it doesn’t offer, including electricity, internet access and television. Instead guests are lovingly reminded of the benefits of speaking face to face, rather than Facebooking.
As dinner is served, each traditional dish is enthusiastically narrated by Kilo, from how his harvest has been, to the methodical preparation required, and of course where the best fish are found. Everything is grown and caught locally and sustainably.
As evening encircles our smoky, aromatic campfire and I sip on a dram of native bush lime juice, Kilo explains the timeless ritual of ‘dolphin calling’ possessed by the native people of neighbouring Melita. Traditionally the men of the island would paddle out in dugout canoes, and hit two stones together under the water. The sound would beacon entire pods of dolphins, which they would shepherd towards the shore. A coming of age ordeal, young men would be tasked with wrestling a dolphin onto shore using nothing but their bare hands. The practice is rarely performed today but Kilo is trying to revive this nearly lost art, with plans on making it an annual event that will bring new visitors to this remote coastline.
I return to Honiara in body alone, as part of my heart will undeniably remain forever in Titiru, and the western provinces of this inexplicable land. Here, after an intensive week reconnoitring the islands, I seek refuge and contemplation at the iconic Solomon Kitano Mendana Hotel (kitanomendana.com), one of the nation’s few luxuriously enclaves, and a popular hub for island-bound travellers looking to explore Guadalcanal.
As my flight home climbs higher, I watch the vibrant colours of this secret Eden disappear beneath a shroud of white, as if being reclaimed by Mother Nature. I know something in me has awoken. A sprit that feels foreign, yet equally familiar. A magnetic appreciation that’s pulling my heart back to a place that a week earlier I knew nothing about. Perhaps it’s my inner islander, burning to escape city life and reconnect with the world we knew, but have somehow forgotten.