Pacific Vim

Rocks

November/December 2014


We Bring You Four Ways To Dive Into The Solomon Islands. Words: Tatyana Leonov.

The Solomon Islands is a hi-fi tropical paradise, its dusky coconut lips never bruised by the West’s thrusting imperialism. Or so it seems. But, actually, the Solomons is simply resilient. First visited by Spaniards in 1568, the Melanesian nation has fought off ravaging blackbirders, devoured missionaries and endured colonialists. In WWII, Guadalcanal, the island of its capital, Honiara, saw 38,000 Allies and Japanese slaughter one another, downing 1300 planes and 67 ships.

By any modern measure, the Solomon Islands has Seen Some Shit. But the Solomon Islands’ beauty has endured. Because the Solomon Islands knows how to wait it out.

They’re just a three- hour flight from Brisbane, but people in much of the Solomon Islands live like they have for centuries: fishing and foraging in the day, and eating and laughing deep into the night. About 80 to 90 per cent of the South Pacific island group’s 575,000-strong population is involved in a subsistence, non-monetary economy. Suits, computers and deadlines are less important in this sanctuary where laughter, adventure and ‘just being’ – elsewhere a cringingly hippie mantra – are at the forefront of life.

Step onto the Solomon Islands’ shores and you’ll find yourself devouring fresh- caught fish, chilling out in spectacular surroundings and exploring a land that’s steeped in intriguing history ... and is serenely unflustered by the passage of time. Such as waiting for the boat. And waiting for the guide. And waiting for weather to clear.

Indeed, being on serene stand-by epitomises island life, and some of the best adventures are the ones had while hanging around. Here are four activities to put on every Solomons itinerary. They’re worth the wait.

Snorkel in the world's richest reefs

Danny and Kerrie Kennedy live in Gizo, the capital of the Solomon Islands’ Western Province and the second- largest town in the country. The American expats fell in love with the Solomons 30 years ago and now share their passion for the country by running a range of above- and below-water tours. Their company, Dive Gizo, is the country’s oldest tourism enterprise.

The Kennedys have an assortment of offerings, but one of the best is a snorkel around nearby Njari Island in waters that are now recognised around the world for their great diversity.

In 2002, Danny purchased Njari Island simply “because it was beautiful”. Then, noting he was surrounded by prettier fish than Aquaman’s Tinder, he and Kerrie began running snorkelling and diving tours. The Kennedys didn’t haveofficial proof of Njari’s richness until 2004, when The Nature Conservancy (TNC) conducted a rapid ecological assessment.

Dr Gerry Allan, the foremost specialised fish scientist in the region, did the counts personally. Clambering from the drink, the lab-coated fish-botherer declared he’d spotted anastounding 279 species of fish around Njari – a near world record.

To put that number in perspective, the only other area on the planet with a higher fish count is a one-stop trio of sites in Raja Ampat, Indonesia, where recent counts put the number of fish species at more than 300.

You could spend hours trawling, or days twisting and turning in the waters off Njari Island, trying to check off species on a waterproof clipboard. But, really, the fun is simply in ghosting above a rich seascape, knowing you’re in one of the world’s most astounding marine environments. divegizo.com

Dive among historical WWII wrecks

There are fish and then there are ships. Both are pretty special in the Solomon Islands, but shipwrecks, in particular, are a sight for sore eyes in Iron Bottom Sound. Between 1941 and 1945, the strip of ocean bordered by the islands of Guadalcanal, Savo and Florida saw some of the severest fighting of WWII. Today, the area is called Iron Bottom Sound because of the abundance of wrecks.

For many travellers to the Solomon Islands, one of the big attractions is the quality wreck diving. Swimming among the remnants of such dramatic historical events offers a small but significant insight into what once rocked this peaceful place. There are plenty of wrecks scattered across an ocean floor that features colourful reefs and dramatic drop- offs, providing divers with a unique and diverse playground dotted with cargo ships, fighter planes, tanks and other bits of wreckage. It’s a serious underwater museum that keeps divers engrossed for as long as their air supply lasts. There are sub-surface ruins to examine, too. A highlight is a B-17 (Flying Fortress) American bomber that failed to land safely on September 24, 1942. Although it’s no longer intact, the front section of the plane (fuselage, cockpit and wings) is, astonishingly, almost in one piece and is a popular focal point for both divers and fish. The shipwreck of Hirokawa Maru (known as Bonegi 1) is another famous dive site, and because it’s a shore dive, even novice divers can do it. tulagidive.com

Visit mysterious skull island

If human remains are more your thing, you can get close to genuine human skulls – covered with moss and all – on Skull Island (or Nusa Kunda, as the locals call it), an eerie isle near the mouth of Vona Vona Lagoon in the Solomon Islands’ Western Province. According to legend, the island is a sacred place, yet most visitors find it more peculiar than enlightening. The curiosity of its skulls is hard to resist. In the centre of the tiny island there’s an altar dedicated to the local fishing gods ... bedecked in skulls. Gathered from various regions of the Solomon Islands, the skulls are those of Roviana chiefs and warriors and are positioned strategically around the shrines. These brave warriors used to row their wooden war canoes (called tomokos) between the islands for the sole purpose of headhunting. (Cannibalism was in then.)

Stay at Zipolo Habu Resort on Lola Island and you’re only a few minutes away, by boat, from this bizarre tourist attraction. Because the island is a sacred site, all visitors are required to pay an entry fee, with funds going to the traditional owners of the island, who maintain it. Tours to Skull Island can be booked through the resort. zipolohabu.com.sb

Meet the original village people

Imagine a world with no internet or video games, no freeways, no microwaves and no 24-hour supermarkets.

Is it heaven or hell? And if you can’t tweet it, does it even matter?

That’s where Rendova Island comes in. Accessible by boat from Munda, it’s a serene oasis in the Western Province that’s home to about 5000 villagers, most of whom have never left the island. This year, entrepreneur and Rendova Island villager Josefa ‘Jo’ Tuamoto, who studied business overseas, opened Titiru Eco Lodge. The rustic, handmade huts are simple; there’s no powdery white-sand beach and no cocktail menu. Here, the attractions lie in the barely touched natural landscape. Jo runs a variety of tours, such as mangrove and trekking excursions, that allow visitors to see the best of this beautiful ecosystem.

The star attraction, however, is the village people and the life they lead. Having realised just how special his home is, Jo recently began running village tours on which he escorts guests through the Rendova Island village, where residents showcase traditional Solomon Islands culture.

Although their clothing is Westernised (everyone wears T-shirts and shorts, because palm fronds are so 1700s), most of what they do – cooking, playing, singing and dancing – is the same as it’s always been.

Strolling through the village and participating in customary activities, trying local foods and simply hanging out with people who don’t care about the things you stress about at home is an experience like no other. titiruecolodge.com