A very Gero birthday

Someone once said to me that when your birthday ends in a ‘0’, the digit before the zero is the number of weeks you should spend celebrating.  While I didn’t turn a ‘0’ this year, I reckon I spent almost 3.7 weeks celebrating thanks to awesome events happening in our ‘hood at the time.

It kicked off on 6th October, with a Friday evening of culture.  First stop was the community art gallery for the launch of the ‘Hard Pressed’ exhibition – lino printing on a grand scale thanks to the help of some road rollers and determination.  From there, we hotfooted it to the theatre for the Yamato Drummers of Japan.  Not only was the drumming a sight and sound spectacular, but I enamoured by the cast who smiled so large the entire time.  Oh, and then there were abs.  Who knew drumming was such a good workout?  Whoooweee.

The following day, Geraldton hosted a day of swing lessons, courtesy of Swingtopia Dance from Perth.  I do love a good dance, and five hours of Shim Sham, Lindy Hop, and the Big Apple was enough to send me away flying high and just a wee bit fatigued.  Mind you, it didn’t stop me from heading off to a friend’s housewarming in the evening, where I got to catch up with some kiting mates of days gone by, and meet a bunch of new fun-filled folk.

The rest of the weekend was filled with plans, from foreshore yoga, to beach clean-ups and live music by the sea but, by that stage, all I could muster up was a day on the couch followed by a night of rock and roll at the local pub.

The festivities continued throughout the week.  On the Monday, we had a visit from a friend from Swaziland days and her family.  It was the perfect excuse for home-made pizza, and a little tipple.  Then on Tuesday, I hung out with some cool folks at our local co-working space to discuss coastal tourism potential in Geraldton.

Finally, on Wednesday, our local TAFE restaurant put on a three-course vegan menu just for me (okay, maybe not just for me).  Full credit to the hospitality and cooking students – I literally inhaled the crusty carrot bread with dukkah, zucchini pasta putanesca, and sweet potato and chickpea falafels for entrée; then devoured the marinated cauliflower steak with spicy cucumber salad, and spinach buckwheat gnocchi with basil pesto and grilled mushrooms for mains; and, finally, couldn’t fault the raspberry sorbet with fennel seed praline, or Russian poppy seed cake for desserts.  At just $30 per person, we waddled home as two very content human beings.

A week before my birthday, another opportunity for an evening dance came up.  This time, I was asked to be the date of a very dashing 60-something-year-old.  I got to rock out to rock’n’roll, rockabilly, ballroom and line dancing, while having supper with my beautiful friends from another generation.

Two days later, I was off to Darwin.  While it did take a good 12 hours to get there – via Perth and Alice Springs – I dare say that it was nice to be back in the warm, suffocating humidity of the tropics, but only because there was a gigantic lagoon pool outside my back door.

I was in Darwin to attend a conference on suicide prevention, organized by Wesley Mission.  Admittedly, most people shudder at the idea of three days of discussion about suicide, but it certainly brought out an amazing bunch of diverse, strong and awesome individuals from around the country that I had the pleasure of meeting and learning from.

All that networking left very little time for sightseeing.  I did manage to fit in an afternoon run through a nature reserve to the local Lee Point beach, where I kept a steady eye out for crocs and lamented not having a mountain bike on hand to explore further (and faster).    On the final day, we also had a chance to check out the new RFDS Tourist Facility in Darwin, which gave a fabulous technology-filled insight into the start of the RFDS, and the bombing of Darwin in 1942.

From there, we had the evening to explore the Mindil markets.  With over 200 stalls, and 59 food stalls alone, there is enough there to keep you occupied and eating for hours.  The best part, though, was being able to catch up with a mate from Solomon days, and her family, in the VIP section by Mindil beach.  Thankfully, her offer of a lift home was perfectly timed as the summer storm made a hefty deposit about 10 seconds after we left.

The trip back to Geraldton was another 12 hour affair.  I did, however, have a nice six-hour stopover in-between, enabling me to catch up with a dear friend, get lost in the airport, eat delicious lunch, and be dragged flinching and hyperventilating into the freezing Fremantle ocean.

Finally, after all that, my birthday arrived!  I kicked the day off with a sleep in, and our usual couple of hours at the community garden.  There, the crew unknowingly and serendipitously celebrated my day (and a few others’ birthdays) by bringing cake and home-made scones.

I then spent the afternoon fielding beautiful birthday calls and facebook messages, before enjoying a lovely evening with my husband at the cinema, followed by a tasty Thai dinner.

All-in-all, not a bad few weeks for this old girl.  Thanks Gero for once again coming through with the entertainment.  It’s still good to be home.

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The Return

Yes, I know it has been a long time between blogs!  And it would probably be even longer if my dear Aunty hadn’t reminded me of my online obligations.

Since the last time I wrote, life has been a bit of a whirlwind.  Manyoni and I spent a fabulous few weeks travelling along the East Coast of Australia, catching up with as many friends and family as possible, putting on some hefty kilos from all the delicious feasts, and readjusting to sub-30oC temperatures.  I know that we didn’t get to see all of you, but the good news is that you now get to come and see us!

Also since the last time I wrote, three important things have happened:

  • Firstly, I got a job! In Geraldton!  Which, in this economic climate, is no mean feat.  I am now the Mental Health Promotion Coordinator for WA’s Midwest, with a focus on suicide awareness.  Admittedly, working in mental health isn’t quite as humorous as working in faeces, but I am learning a lot in an area that has long been close to my heart.
  • Secondly, Manyoni received his Australian residency visa – albeit a temporary one. I will admit that this experience was one of the toughest of my life.  After 16 months of banging into brick walls, I finally upped the ante, which thankfully paid off.  My attention has now turned to doing the little I can to help others avoid the same utterly demoralising and disempowering experience.
  • Finally, I have now moved back into my little house on Evans Street. The last few weeks have been spent pulling boxes out of the shed, sifting through them to find which ones the rats have nested in and destroyed (which appears to be all my stuff from Africa!), which ones are salvageable, and slowly turning my house into something resembling a home.

Tomorrow, Manyoni arrives back from Zambia, which means that the whirlwind may finally end and the calm settle.  Or will it?

 

A BORING LIFE

He told me to write a poem

But I don’t know what to write

Not much has happened of late, you see.

It’s a sad and sorry plight.

 

5 years ago I left my home

To Swaziland I flew

Best known for a King with many wives

And a gorgeous, mountainous view

 

I worked with inspiring women

Spent weekends on a hike or bike

Sometimes I’d drive to Mozambique

For beaches & prawns – there wasn’t much to like

 

From there it was to Zambia

Where elephants & giraffes do roam

I even found a husband

But it’s all too tedious for a pome

 

Occasionally I’d voyage through Africa

To distract from my drab existence

Kenya, Botswana, Namibia

And sites of apartheid resistance

 

I holidayed in Rwanda

Watched REAL gorillas in the mist

Ate patisserie on Lake Kivu

It’s a pretty mundane list

 

A year later I was in the tropics

Where life was a bit hum drum

I snorkelled pristine waters

Swum in waterfalls ‘til I was numb

 

Yeah, not much has happened of late, y’see

No material for a poem

I guess the excitement is about to start

Now that I’m back home.

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The name debate

Once you get married, one of the first and most frequent questions to pop up is “Are you going to change your name?”  Such a seemingly simple question.

Back in my young, feminist days (as opposed to my old feminist days), I always thought that when the time came to marry Mr. Right, we would sit down and have a very civil discussion about what name we thought was best and, therefore, which one we would both use – his or mine.  Having an option for the man to adopt the woman’s name is a true sign of gender equality, no?  So why aren’t more male pro-feminists adopting their wives names?  Perhaps I was naïve, or perhaps I was just too ahead of my time.

So here are some of the arguments that I have come up with in the name debate.

On the Ross side:  A number of my married friends – mostly ones who’ve been married a while – have told me that if they had their time again, they would keep their maiden name.  Too much cumbersome paperwork, they say.  Plus, for a woman who has worked hard to build a career, making a name for yourself would work much better when you have just one name.  Besides all that, I like the name Ross.  It’s a good solid name, short to write (and sign), and easy to spell.  Or so I thought.  Over the last 5 years abroad, I have been called Rose more times than I’ve been called Isabel, and my lifetime of certificates sport a range of variations, from Isabelle Rose, Isabella Ros, and my personal favourite, Isobel Roff.

On the Banda side:  A number of my married friends – most of who are more recently married – have told me they consider a name change important so that any future children share the same name as their parents (although when parents don’t share the same name, the discussion about which parent’s name the child takes seems conspicuously absent from gender-equality debates).  I can’t say I’m entirely sold on this argument.  However, a name change is important for the person I love the most in this world: my husband.  According to his culture, by adopting his name, I would be solidifying his status as a man, and as the head of the household (and honestly, I am happy to relegate that role to him – he will make a much calmer and loving head than me).  Banda, too, is a good solid name, short to write (and sign), and easy to spell.  I can imagine explaining it as such:  “Like panda, but with a B for bear”.  It’s somewhat endearing, and may not encounter the same surprising range of variations as the monosyllabic Ross.

Despite this, there is still one issue that stands above the rest.  For those that don’t know, Banda is a quintessentially Chewan name (from Eastern Zambia and Malawi); much like Ross is to the Scottish.  Take one look at me, and it is pretty obvious that I’m not Chewan.  Even if I was to spend the next 40 years in Zambia, take up Zambian citizenship, and become fluent in chiNyanja, the good people of Australia, and the good people of Zambia and Malawi will not see me as Chewan.  Identifying myself by a Chewan name, therefore, feels a little fraudulent.

Of course, I have selfishly considered how this fraud could benefit me: Perhaps it could boost my “foreign” credentials for international development jobs.  On the flip side, it could hinder my chances in Australia, where patriotism (read: racism) seem ever-more present.  (You can try, but can’t deny that both biases exist).

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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A weekend in the woods

With the joys and challenges of Solomon Islands behind us, the first thing on my agenda was some rest and relaxation amongst the trees.  Someone suggested Atherton, so without much thought we booked a weekend in the woods.

Since we were going to be there doing not much, we also decided to use the time to legalise our marriage.  With a big wedding already occurring in Zambia last year, our plan was to keep this as simple as necessary to satisfy any legal requirements (Yes, yes, I know. You are all upset that you didn’t get to come, but this way, I get to visit you all and celebrate one-on-one.  That’s so much better, right?).

So, in addition to the bride and groom, we needed two witnesses.  I chose one witness – Liz, the Maid of Honour and my best mate of 35 years – while Manyoni chose the second witness – Pip, the Best (Wo)man, and a friend of ours from our time in Zambia.

The four of us met together in Brisbane for the flight up to Cairns.  Despite my plans to make as little fuss about the (second) wedding as possible, Liz and Pip had other ideas.  Firstly, Liz informed the lovely staff at Virgin Airlines about our upcoming nuptials, who proceed to shout us all a bottle of wine for the journey (Thanks Katelyn and Jeff!).   Once we were in Cairns, Pip couldn’t help herself but tell Marika at Thrifty car hire, who then gave us a great discount and an upgrade.  There are some perks to this wedding thing.

After a quick shop in Cairns, we headed up to the gorgeous Canopy Treehouses in Tarzali, near Malanda.  Being a raised wooden pole house, nestled among virgin rainforest on three sides and rolling hills on the other, the 3-bedroom Bower House was completely secluded and the perfect place for some R&R.   The first night was spent listening to the rain, catching up with each other, eating nshima (yep, clearly no concern about how I would fit into a wedding dress), and feeding the resident possums and birds.

The following morning, I woke up to a view of rolling hills, pademelons…and rain.  It wasn’t looking promising for our festivities.  Not that it really mattered, because this was clearly no normal wedding day.  Apart from the rain, my wedding day started out with a job interview, made all the more exciting by a head cold and razor blade throat.  I doused myself with drugs while the others went into town to grab some lunch.  Then everything magically fell into place.

Firstly, the rain stopped and the sun came out.  By about two hours before the wedding, the pain killers were kicking in, and we all decided that perhaps we should get some flowers.  Of course, being a no-fuss wedding, I hadn’t organized any of this before so we jumped in the car and drove along the street until we spotted some vegetation that we liked.  Grant was more than happy for us to take clippings from his trees and even tried to grab a bunch of Tamarillos for our special day, except the possums ate them all.

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Thanks for the flowers, Grant!

With a basket full of freshly picked flowers, we had an hour to get ready.  Again, my no-fuss plan barely extended beyond throwing on a dress, so Liz stepped in and offered her wonderful hairdressing skills.  If anyone knows what it’s like to work with dreads, you will have full appreciation of what she managed to achieve with my knotted locks.  Add to that some beautiful handmade Australian native hair pieces from Karen Pierson on Etsy (the one thing I did organize in advance), and I have to admit, we kinda scrubbed up alright.  Meanwhile, Manyoni quickly finished off our home-made rings, and fashioned a ring box out of a sanitary napkin container.  That’s my man!

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The time for the wedding finally came (actually, it came and went.  It’s obligatory to be late, right?).  We picked out a tree in the area to give us some shade, and wandered down in bare feet to where Barry, the celebrant stood.

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Where it all happened (Photo by Brendan MacRae)

The succinct 15-minute ceremony, crafted by Bazza, captured our sentiments while skipping the superfluous stuff, and left plenty of scope to laugh and joke our way through1.  Which we did.  In fact, Bazza himself commented how nice it was to be at a wedding that was so entertaining, and not at all serious.  Aww, thanks Baz.  I think.

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Entertaining, alright.  Don’t even ask. (With Bazza)

Post-ceremony, we headed back to the lodge to pop some champas (yep, great stuff for a bride on antibiotics), and chill out even more.  Then we went and frolicked in the grass as a brilliant sunset lit up the sky, and the brilliant Brendan MacRae and his wonderful wife and able assistant Rosanna banana snapped our smiles.2

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Our photography peeps, Brendan MacRae and Rosanna banana

As nighttime came, we reluctantly parted ways with our photographers, and were left to enjoy a take-away vegan feast courtesy of the awesome Earthly Bakes in Cairns:  Spicy corn soup, beetroot and leek pie, chickpea curry, quinoa and mango salad, nutty broccoli, mixed green salad and, of course, a vegan blueberry cheesecake for desserts3.  A great way to end a great day.

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Vegan blueberry cheesecake.  Thanks Earthly Bakes!      (Photo by Brendan MacRae)

Now that the formal stuff was over, the rest of the weekend was really just for relaxing.  We slept in most mornings, then spoke philosophy while sipping coffee on our balcony.  Then we did small road trips to the sights of Atherton Tablelands:  A swim at Millaa Millaa falls, stops at Zillie and Elinjee falls, lunch at Mungalli Dairy Farm, wandering around Curtain Fig, drinking coconuts at Malanda markets, searching for platypus and feeding turtles, eating a feast at the local Indian joint.  It was just what this sick, coughing and spluttering, girl needed.

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The lesser-photographed Elinjaa Falls

The only thing that remained was a road trip to catch up with our nearest and dearest, and celebrate one-on-one.  First stop, Mum and Dad’s.  Next…a trip to see you!

 

1 Barry Waugh, ladies and gentlemen.  Wedding celebrant extraordinaire.  Look him up if you’re planning on getting hitched up that way.

2 Brendan MacRae is a man that loves his photography.  Plus he makes such a cute team with his wife.  If you’re just after portraits, or wedding photos, he’s your man.

3 Think vegan isn’t tasty?  Think again.  These guys do amazing pies, salads, smoothies.  Like, really amazing.  And well priced!  If you’re in Cairns, I highly recommend you visit them.

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The baby Jesus bird

Saying goodbye is always a difficult thing.  There are those people that you’ve really grown fond of, and are going to miss deeply.  There are those people you didn’t realise you would miss until you actually said goodbye.  There are those people that you are not going to miss at all.  And then there’s the bird.

The story of the bird starts a long way back.  You may remember my blog from 2 years ago, when I mentioned our pet pigeon, Itchy.  At the time, Itchy and I were not the best of friends, and he made me doubt my potential parenting credentials.  Sadly, my relationship with Itchy did not get any better, and as he became more aggressive and started attacking me when I tried to give him food, we knew it was time to send him back to “the farm”.  I thought our birding days were over.

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Itchy

I was wrong.   It wasn’t long before my bleeding heart husband surprised me with…….a pet parrot.  Surprise! Not just any pet parrot, an itty witty baby parrot that was clearly ripped from its nest too early and then paraded around the hot streets of Honiara in a cramped wooden cubicle in the name of income generation.  Sadly, this bird didn’t last long enough to receive a name:  we found the poor little pet dead in his cage after just three days.  With self-esteem in my parenting skills hitting rock bottom, I thought this event would finally cement our bird-less future.

Wrong again.   It seems my husband’s compassion for birdlife knows no bounds.  In February last year he surprised me with yet another pet parrot.  The same size as the first, cramped in the same small bamboo cage and dehydrated in the hot sun for the same time, I didn’t really foresee a bright future for this one.  However, unlike me, Manyoni was determined to make it work.

I shouldn’t have been surprised then when I came out to the verandah and found Manyoni with the bird nestled in his hand, feeding it masticated food directly from his mouth.  This continued for weeks.  Oral hygiene became the number one priority in our household from that day on.

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Clearly his devotion was having the desired effect because the bird started to grow.  Realising that it may be around for longer than I thought, we decided to give it a name:  Kara, meaning Parrot in morovian – one of the Solomon Island’s languages.  While the morovian word, Kara, is gender neutral, the English version is not.  Given the fact that we had no idea what sex our baby bird was, poor Kara grew up in a very gender-confused environment being labelled she, he, and it.

Despite this, he/she/it continued to grow, and then started to attempt to fly.  Now, I have never attempted to learn to fly (barring leaps off the verandah when I was a child), and it became clear that it can be a little scary, even for birds.  Whenever I was cradling baby Kara, she would try to break free, resulting in her almost falling.  Her response:  a big poop.  Clearly, this built up an association and she just commenced pooping every time she tried to fly, and every time I came near.  Yep, that’s class A parenting right there.

Despite the shaky start, Kara did begin to fly.  She flew into walls, windows and people.  It was around this time that we observed her becoming lethargic and unable to lift his head.  Given its recent flying attempts, we thought that perhaps she had misread his ability to stop when flying towards a cement wall, and had injured itself.  Sadly, Kara just got worse and one morning I went onto the verandah to see her lying dead on the floor.  Unable to bear the sight of her, I found a sheet to drape over his lifeless body.  As I did so, it let out a squawk.  He wasn’t dead!

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A dying Kara

Manyoni, the doting Dad, decided to take her to the vet in a final attempt to prevent our third bird murder.  The vet prescribed milk and antibiotics to be administered through a syringe.  The doting Dad did so, every few hours as required, even during the night.  Within just a few hours, our baby Kara bird had risen from the dead.  She began lifting her head, then he began walking, and within days, it was flying around and smacking into walls once again.  It was a miracle!  Hence she was dubbed the baby Jesus bird.

That near-death experience helped us all bond as a family, and I began to take my parenting role more seriously.  Every day, we spoiled Kara with an unreasonably huge serving of milk, rapidly depleting my personal rations.  We celebrated when she spoke her first (and only) word:  Kara.  She became playfully aggressive, flying on top of our heads and squawking in our ear, occasionally doing a happy poop while there (trying to get that stuff out of dreads is not easy!).
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The most exciting thing was watching our little gender-confused bird grow into a juvenile superbird with its own personality.  Some days, she would just stand on her perch and do a side-to-side dance, with or without music.  Other times, I would catch it contorting itself around the cage, with one leg holding herself from the roof, and his other leg and beak lifting up two separate coconut shells (like some sort of prisoner, body building thing).

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007 music rings in the background

When released, Kara would run along the swinging clothesline, like a stealth army commando; or she would just swing upside down like a wannabe bat.  The cutest, for me, was when she would try to bathe himself in the teeny tiny drinking bowl (because if we gave it a bigger bowl he would just tip it over), making her looked like a drowned rat.  All of this was possibly a result of psychosis from being in a semi-permanent state of solitary confinement, but we found it endearing.

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A drowned bird

Much less endearing was when she would make a rapid attempt to fly over our heads into the house, which ultimately ended with me breaking my ankle in an effort to turn and catch her while on the edge of a step.  We won’t dwell on that.

With such fondness for our miracle bird growing, it was sad to have to put her into foster care during our month-long visit to Africa.  However, Kelvin is the biggest bird lover I know, so I knew she would be in safe hands.  Indeed, when we arrived back in Solomon Islands, Kara was doing well, so we didn’t feel the need to collect it straight away.

As Murphy’s law would have it, that night Kara disappeared.  We are still yet to determine if it was a case of birdnapping, or if Kara had just got smart enough to let himself out of the cage, but poor Kelvin was beside himself.  (I, personally, thought it solved us a lot of problems).  In contrast, Manyoni had a sense that that was not the end.  Indeed, after three days, Kelvin found Kara happily perched on the shoulder of the neighbour’s child, and she was quickly returned to its cage and into our care.  The miracle bird strikes again.

Whatever had happened with Kelvin, or with the neighbour’s child, had changed Kara.  For the first few weeks after his return, she was the most placid and pleasant bird-child I had ever encountered.  I thought, perhaps, that she had finally reached maturity.  But I was wrong.  Sombre Kara was clearly just a mask for the fully aggressive Kara that would come soon after (which makes me certain it has something to do with our parenting style).

However, with only a couple of months before our Solomon adventure was to come to an end, we also had to find a new residence for our multiple-personality child.  As in many cases, relieving yourself of a burdensome pet can be easily achieved by sending them to “the farm”.  This is exactly what we did, except that we sent her to a real farm – Modi’s farm – in a new, bigger cage, surrounded by trees, dogs, and other parrots in cages to talk to.

Prior to our Solomons’ departure, we visited her there and he has settled in well and started talking more (Yep, we clearly were the worse bird parents ever).  It was an epic parenting adventure with our miracle gender-confused multiple-personality baby Jesus bird.  May she/he/it one day spread its wings and fly.

 

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Turtle power!

It took three days to recover from the exhaustion of Kolombangara, which was achieved by sitting on a friend’s balcony in Gizo, ironically overlooking a cloud-covered Kolombangara.

However, once recovered, it was time to get moving again.  First stop was Munda, where we spent a lovely couple of nights hanging with the beautiful Duttons, snorkelling / diving in the area, and being “entertained” by Ashleigh almost chopping her finger off amongst the excitement of cheese and home-made pizza (requiring a late-night trip to emergency and five really interesting-looking stitches).

We didn’t dwell on that, though, and before we knew it, we were on our way to the weathercoast of Rendova for Manyoni’s and my last Solomons adventure.  Our aim was to see leatherback turtles.

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Leatherback turtles are descendants of a sea turtle species that evolved 110 million years ago in the Western Pacific ocean.  They are the largest of all the turtle species, with the biggest one recorded weighing almost a tonne!  On average, though, they’re a “mere” 300-500kg, with a carapace length of between 165-190cm (ie. longer than me).  Their flippers can grow up to 2.7 metres:  the largest in proportion to its body among sea turtles.

As the name suggests, leatherbacks don’t have a hard shell like other sea turtles, but instead are covered in a rubber-like, leathery skin that has five long ridges running down its back.  Their body is teardrop-shaped, making them super hydrodynamic.  This, along with their constant movement that generates body heat (giving them a body temp of up to 18oC higher than the water they’re in), explains why they also have the most extensive migration range of any living reptile, and can reach depths of up to 1km.

Despite these advantages, when they first come out of the shell they are scarcely larger than any other sea turtle hatchling, averaging around 6cm long and weighing about 46grams.  As little babies, their diet consists of nothing but water, however once they get older, they survive on delicious-sounding diet of gelatinous organisms (mostly jellyfish – around 50 large ones a day – but also sea squirts, salps and pyrosomas. Mmmm).

Sadly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, leatherback turtles are also critically endangered.  Their population has declined by 95% since the 1980’s, which can be squarely blamed on humans.  Excessive egg harvesting, poor fishing practices and huge amounts of plastic floating in our oceans are our hideous contribution to the leatherbacks’ demise.

With fewer and fewer leatherbacks about, one of the best places to catch them in the Pacific is in Baniata, where we now found ourselves.  Baniata is a small village of around 300 people on the weathercoast of Rendova Island in Western Province (Solomon Islands).  There’s no phone reception within a 2 hour walk, and the school has been closed for the last five years.  However, the village is not letting this get them down, and has been busy establishing coconut plantations for copra, weaving kastom bags for sale, and setting up an organically-certified ngali nut industry. They are now, also, trying to establish a tourism industry around their turtle conservation efforts, which is how we found ourselves here.

The beautiful thing about turtles (from a tourism perspective) is that they are pretty specific about when, and where, they nest and hatch.  After their first trek to the ocean as little hatchlings, the male leatherback turtles will never venture on land again.  However, once females reach sexual maturity at the age of 20, they will return and nest every 2-4 years at roughly the same beach where they were born.  Baniata has the beautiful charcoal-black sand that leatherbacks love for nesting, as it keeps the eggs at a super comfy temperature and helps with camouflage.

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In each season, a mummy leatherback can lay 4-6 nests, each one exactly 10 days apart.  In each nest, there’ll be about 110 eggs, with the fertilization rates starting at about 90% and decreasing with each subsequent lay.  Those eggs will hatch 60 days later.  So while we ventured to Baniata at the end of the peak season, we had good reason to believe that our dates would coincide with some hatchlings and, perhaps, a nesting or two.

As the first official tourists to Baniata, we were greeted by half the village on our arrival.  Due to the steepness of the shore, we were unable to land, so had to jump from the boat in between crashing waves.  We were led to our comfortable little homestay in the middle of the village – complete with pour-flush toilets, well-equipped bucket baths, mosquito nets, mattresses, and a healthy fire ant population.

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Our digs: Baniata homestay

As us girls settled in, Manyoni wandered off by himself to check out the surrounds.  Half an hour later, he came back and nonchalantly mentioned that he had just seen a baby leatherback turtle.  Astounded, we grabbed our camera and ran.  The turtle wasn’t going anywhere.  About a month old, one of the local families had felt he was a little weak when he hatched, so decided to keep him in a bucket until he was stronger.  Whether this is good or not, it didn’t stop us from being totally enamoured, handing the poor little tyke around so we could all get an over-excited (read: crazy smile) photo.  This was just the start.

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Crazy smiles!

Later in the afternoon, our guide Johnson invited us to the hatchery to see today’s batch of emerged hatchlings.  Within the fenced yard, we found about 7 brand new babies wandering aimlessly among the coal-black sand.  A whole lotta oohs, aahs, giggling and exclamations of “So cute!” ensued.  After a million photos each, we then got to carry the hatchlings down to the beach.  We washed them in a bucket first to try to remove the baby turtle smell that sharks love, and set them on the sand to make their journey to the sea.

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The hatchery

What a journey!  Tumultuous.  Overwhelming.  Exhausting.  The baby turtles took a little while to get their navigation into gear, but once they were headed in the right direction they then had to drag themselves a sizeable distance (given their itty bitty size) across the soft, uneven sand.  About half way, they reach an exciting little obstacle called erosion, where the sand has been washed away from the last high tide forming about a 1m cliff.  Without fear, they plunge over the edge, inevitable rolling all the way down and landing on their backs.  They then squirm a lot in an effort to get the right way up, and continue on their journey.

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Outta my way!

As they reach the water’s edge, huge waves bowl them over, push them back, drag them forward, and basically give them a mighty good shake-up before they finally get dragged into the big, blue sea.  From there, they are on their own.  Kind of.  They still need to navigate the sharks.  Since most hatchlings at Baniata now come from the direction of the hatchery, the clever sharks have learned that this is the place to hang out at dusk for a delicious hatchling entrée.  In response, the people in Baniata have developed an even cleverer shark-dispersion method:  surfing.

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Shark-deterrent

Yep, every evening as the hatchlings enter the sea, the elders of the village encourage all the youngsters to get out into the waves.  Around 40 young bodies, and 80 dangling legs, do their bit to scare the sharks away by getting naked, running and smashing into the dumpy breaks, then swimming out further with a small piece of a timber that they then use to bodysurf back to shore.  Occasionally, the older boys will grab their wooden canoes and demonstrate their prowess by surfing the same waves…hopefully without capsizing.  It is truly mesmerising to watch, and made all the more magical by the glorious sunset that is happening in the background.

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Another boring sunset

After returning from the beach, and on a hatchling high, the ladies in the village had prepared us a veritable local feast to indulge in.  With bellies full of five types of carbs, we then had an early night in preparation for the next activity.

At midnight, we woke up, dressed, grabbed our torches and headed to the beach.  Here, we joined Johnson (and occasionally his team…unless they had missed their alarm) to patrol the beach in search of mummy turtles dropping a batch.  We walked one section of beach, laid down our mats to rest, while Johnson went and walked the next section.  This would continue until 4am, when we would head back to bed for a long sleep-in and lazy day in the village.

This ritual continued for the next three days:  Wake up, eat breakfast, sleep some more, eat lunch, read while the afternoon showers kick in, release hatchlings, play in the sea, bath, eat dinner, sleep, wake up at midnight for a four-hour beach patrol, sleep at 4am.  Occasionally the schedule would deviate with a small walk to one of the nearby sights:  WWII plane debris, small waterfall, football match, or to take a boat to the next village to make some phone calls and catch a giant kingfish.

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Much tastier than turtle

On one day, it deviated even further as a squad of riot police – complete with shields, tear-gas guns and a massive power trip – walked through the village and arrested a number of men who had been involved in protesting an illegal logging operation on their kastom land (59 people from a couple of villages were arrested over the course of two days).  Sadly, I doubt officials from the logging company faced the same treatment for their illegal behavior.  Injustice in this country is rife.

Before we knew, it was our last day, and night, in the village.  Although we had enjoyed seeing leatherback hatchlings every evening, an adult nesting leatherback at night still eluded us.  As the main nesting time is between 1am-4am, we decided to delay our wake-up by one hour, reaching the beach at 1:15am.  It seems after 3 nights of patrolling, everyone else had slept in, so we decided to patrol the beach ourselves.  Back and forth.  Back and forth.

After 1 ½ hours, at 3:30am, Johnson came running to us, “Did you see the turtle? Hem go finis.”  Our jaws dropped.  What Johnson meant was that, despite our continuous patrols, a leatherback had managed to come up on land, spend 2 hours laying her eggs, and return to the water before we had a chance to see her.  Either we had walked straight past her (my shoe prints were literally 2 metres away from the nest) or she had come up and done her business before we even reached the beach.  We couldn’t believe it.  In fact, I refused to believe it until Johnson showed us the really clear track marks, and the huge nest that she left behind.  He then proceeded to dig up the freshly laid eggs as further proof – 45 fertilised and 47 yolk-less.  Perhaps her last lay for the season.

I was flummoxed, and a wee bit devastated that after four nights of constant patrolling, a leatherback had finally nested on the beach where we were and we missed it.  At the same time, I was also excited that a leatherback had finally nested on the beach where we were and given another 45 eggs a chance at bringing the species back from the brink.  Godspeed little ones, Godspeed.

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POSTSCRIPT:  For any readers out there who would love to see these amazing, and critically endangered species in the wild, I highly recommend a trip to Baniata.  Peak season is November/December, with another season June/July.  Call Harol on +677 7420 400 about a month before you plan to come – he will find out the dates with the highest chance of seeing nesting / hatching.  He will also arrange transport from Munda, and all other logistics.  It would be a perfect additional couple of days for anyone travelling to Tetepare.  The best news is that your tourist dollars will help to build Baniata’s self-sufficiency, and cement the value of conservation in this area where traditional practices of turtle harvesting are still highly regarded.

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Kolombangara

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The lady is sleeping

It was a bad week of immigration nightmares and a cancelled Shaggy concert.  Clearly, I needed to get away.  What better place than to Kolombangara?

 

Kolombangara is a volcanic island in Western Solomon Islands that last released a fiery furnace 10,000 years ago. Now it is home to Solomon Islands’ 2nd, 3rd, and 4th highest peaks (the highest peak in SI is Mt Popomanaseu in Guadalcanal at 2,335m – higher than Kosciusko). It is also known as the sleeping lady because, if you look closely and a little cross-eyed, the island resembles a sleeping woman.

Being volcanic, the island is able to grow lots of good stuff and has naturally become a popular site for forestry and logging. In 2008, the indigenous people of the island formed the Kolombangara Island Biodiversity Conservation Authority (KIBCA) and established rules to protect all wildlife and vegetation above 400m altitude. This makes it the largest conservation area in the country covering 19,400ha.

A month earlier, I had emailed KIBCA and was assured that all preparations were in place for our 3-day hike. On Friday, we arrived at the island, but no-one was there to meet us. So we asked the only person we saw: “KIBCA?” He responded by stretching out his arm, pointing in a random direction and saying “Up top.”  With only one other building that we could see, we headed in that direction until he stopped us:  “Not there. Up top.”

With that handy bit of advice we had no option but to head in the direction of his directionless pointing.  After 10 minutes of walking in the hot sun with 4 days’ worth of camping equipment and food on our backs, a car passed that we were able to flag down. We asked the driver where KIBCA was, and his response: “Up top.”  This was gonna be tough.

“Up top” turns out to be Ringgi town, about 2km from the “Marine base” where we started walking. The driver first took us to Ferguson, the coordinator of KIBCA who expressed that he was unaware of our booking. So then we sought out Mayson, the person I had been conversing with through email. Fortunately Mayson was aware of our booking, but had done nothing about it.

“So do you want a guide?”

“Um…yes…your rules say we have to have a guide. Remember, we asked for Moffat?”

“There are lots of guides”.  Turns out there aren’t. After a recent recruitment attempt the 12 potential guides all pulled out after trying to summit Mt Veve, vowing never to do it again. Moffat remains the only one crazy enough to scale Veve more than once.

“Moffat doesn’t have a phone. He may not be around”  In walks a lady with Moffat’s phone number. Moffat answers. He is around, and he’ll be here soon – just needs to paddle from his village.

“And a porter, please”

“Yes, yes, we’ll find you one”. Except that, like guides, there is no-one willing to do the climb more than once.  More on that later.

“Oh, and how do visitors normally get from the marine base to here?”

“The man at the marine base has a radio to tell us to pick you up.”  So you mean he isn’t meant to just point and say “up top”? Apparently not.

While waiting for Moffat, we took a walk through the one-horse town of Ringgi, before jumping in the truck and heading to Imbu Rano. Meaning “mist from Rano”, this beautiful and basic wooden ecolodge is set among the rainforest and has views to Mt Tepalamenggutu and Mt Rano, the island’s 2nd and 3rd highest peaks, respectively. Here we would spend the night before commencing our hike the next morning. At least that was the plan.

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View of Mt Rano and Mt Tepa from Imbu Rano lodge

After reaching the lodge, I thought it best to confirm Mayson’s other helpful advice.

“Just to confirm, you said there are sleeping huts along the way?”

“Yes, yes” says Mayson.  “No no” says Moffat, “They all broke down over a year ago.”

“Okay. Is there a tent here we can use?”

“Yes, yes” says Mayson. “No”, says Moffat. “I tried to use it two weeks ago and it was broken”.

“Never mind”, says Mayson. “The weather looks good, you won’t need one.”

“You definitely need one”, says Moffat.  After all, Kolombangara has its own weather system, where it rains more often than not.  Not to mention, it’s also wet season.

So we sent Mayson off with the task of finding a tent and a porter in time for a 7am departure.  In the meantime we waited, relaxed, slept, and storied about the (we hoped) upcoming adventure.

We waited beyond 7am the next morning. Finally, around 8am, Mayson arrived. Francis, a Malaitan employed by the logging company, had been roped into the role of porter at the last minute and, having never climbed the mountain before, clearly had no idea what he was in for. Sadly, we still had no tent, which threatened the entire trip.  Moffat quickly managed to pull together bits and pieces from several tents to form one vaguely functioning one.  By 9am we were off.

We started the walk at a cracking speed, I assume to make up the 2 hours already lost that morning. However, only 30 minutes in, our poor, reluctant porter admitted that he could no longer carry the bag. Quickly, we did a reshuffle and Manyoni shouldered the heaviest pack, while Francis was bestowed with the lightest. We continued on, and as we walked, my mind became wonderfully lost in the lush green rainforest and soft, mossy, decomposing ground that felt like we were walking on cushions.  We also came across one of Manyoni’s wantok: a rasta grasshopper!

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Bob Marley’s reincarnation

Those tranquil thoughts didn’t last long. Soon, we started climbing…up a mountain. Up a very, very steep mountain. Up. Mountain. Up. Mountain. Up. Up. Up. Mountain. Mountain. Mountain.

After 2 hours we made it to Camp 1, where we stopped to refill our water. Francis, the porter, was already lagging behind. Then I was handed the heavy bag, which I bore for the next two hours to Camp 2. By this stage, I was utterly exhausted. Not as exhausted as Francis, though, who was so behind that we all thought he had done a runner. After a light lunch of crackers and tuna, a refill of water, and some psychological counselling, I was almost prepared for 4 hours of hiking yet to come.

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Manyoni & Moffat among the fluffy trees

What I wasn’t prepared for was the change in terrain.  Where I had once felt like I was walking on cushions, I was now walking on a flying carpet. Everywhere we stepped, underneath was a big cavernous space (ie. a volcanic crater) overlayed with a thin network of roots, and leaf litter forming a false floor. Should you step anywhere without a solid root, you would fall into the crater.

As if that wasn’t enough, the “trail” (in inverted commas because we were pretty much just bush bashing) just seemed to get steeper and steeper. Steps were now leaps, requiring us to haul ourselves (and our packs) up using whatever exposed roots or branches we could find.

By mid-afternoon we had reached the summit of Mt Tepalamenggutu, the second highest peak in Kolombangara at 1,708m. In other words, we had just climbed over 1,330m. Here, we took in the amazing view of the crater, for we were among the lucky ones that had dry weather and no clouds.

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View into the crater from Tepa

However, we didn’t linger long, for we still had 2 hours to go until we reached our camp for the night. As everyone knows, what goes up must come down, so the ensuing 2 hours involved stupidly steep descents, sliding on our bums from root to root, holding ourselves up with nearby trees: like Tarzan but with much less finesse.

We finally reached Camp 3 at 6:15 pm, 9 hours after we had started. Suzanne and I collapsed, but with light fading fast, Moffat and Francis quickly set up the tents. Then they took off further down the hill to fetch water.

Each campsite along the route was carefully chosen for its close proximity to water. Walking along the rim of the crater meant that there were no streams or springs to take advantage of. So when Moffat and Francis returned an hour later, empty handed with “bad news, the pool is dry”, we knew we had a slight issue on our hands.  Despite the recent rain, this was the first time the pool had dried up since Moffat had started walking this route 10 years ago.

The good news for us was that Moffat is the Solomon Islands’ version of Bear Grylls. He immediately started looking for nearby bamboo stalks filled with fresh water.  Unfortunately, they were all dry too.  With not a drop of water in our possession, he did what any crazy, non-human robot who had just hiked 8 hours would do, and ventured back towards Camp 2. Three hours later, at 11pm he returned to camp carrying five 3-metre lengths of bamboo filled with water. How he had managed to carry that, in that terrain, in the dark, I will never know, but I will be eternally grateful.

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Filling the waterbottles with bamboo water…the next big thing in boutique water

The following morning we filled our bottles with whatever water remained, and headed off towards the summit of Mt Veve – Kolombangara’s highest peak. Being the first people to attempt the summit since November last year, the thicket had refilled any spare space and a new path had to be cut as we went. The steepness remained abhorrent and it took 2 hours to go a mere 1.5 kilometres.

As we reached the top, the pain was briefly forgotten as we celebrated our feat (despite trees blocking all views). Even poor Francis, the unknowing porter, seemed bolstered by his achievement.

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With the oldest woman, and first African, ever to summit Mt Veve

On the way back down, we made an executive decision to remain at Camp 3 that night, based on our inability to comprehend an additional 4 hour walk to the next campsite. To overcome the water issue, we would, instead, have to carry bamboo from the heights of Mt Veve to our campsite.  It was only then that I had a true appreciation of what Moffat had achieved the previous night. By the time we made it back to camp, after 3 hours carrying heavy bamboo, I was utterly spent and ready to cry.

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Carrying life-saving bamboo… down.. down.. down.. down

We spent the afternoon napping and cooking all the food in our possession to lighten the load home. Slightly revived, I was able to enjoy the crater’s silhouette in the evening’s sunset, and after dark, I was enraptured by the plethora of stars in the night sky. All of this was thanks to yet another unusually clear day on Kolombangara.

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Crater rim at sunset

We awoke before sunrise in an attempt to give us plenty of time to complete the hike’s third, and final, day. We filled up on bamboo water and made good time to the summit of Mt Tepa, and to Camp 2. It was only after departing Camp 2 that we experienced our first bit of serious rain, giving us a cooling shower while also adding an extra element of slipperiness, and danger. We persisted, and despite exhaustion, dehydration and blister-filled feet we arrived back at the lodge around 4pm.

We enjoyed our last evening surrounded by the rainforest, with our last views of Kolombangara. That night, the heavens opened and remained that way for the next two days.

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The bat cave

Hikes are one of the things that Honiara does best.  So when I was invited to a hike at the “newly discovered” (by the expat community) Parasaia Cave, how could I resist?  Unfortunately, the evening before the planned hike, a low pressure system was forecast and the organisers hastily cancelled.  However, threats of a downpour and flash floods couldn’t stop me*, so I found two new friends to join me the following morning.

Parasaia Cave, also known as bat cave, has only recently come on the radar, so our small group had no real idea of what it entailed.  Except we knew it had bats, in a cave.  We’re intelligent like that.

It was an overcast morning, without a drop of the anticipated rain, when we drove East out of Honiara and up past Tenaru to Paraingiju Lodge.  As our hike had been cancelled, we had to wait for the organiser to rustle up some new guides (ie. get them out of bed) and then we were on our way.  Our guides were 10 year old Thomas – the only one who had actually been to the cave and who, bless the young chap, guessed my age as being 17.  There was also Steven Jnr, Amanda and Rodney, who were coming along to learn the ropes.

Due to some radiator troubles, we decided not to drive to the starting point, and instead macheted our way through some thick jungle to the road below.  This cut out about 1km or so.  Once we reached the road, we were fortunate to have a car drive past that was able to drive us the other 3km to the bridge.  This is where the hike really started.

A leisurely walk

A leisurely walk

The entire walk follows the Balaha (?) River, but when I say “follows” I mean it repeatedly zigzags across the sometimes chest-deep and rather strong-current river, interspersed by short stretches on land that was more akin to rock scrambling than hiking.  There were a few hairy moments, where I almost got swept over some small falls, and other rock sliding moments that left me with bright blue splotchy souvenirs on my skin.  The scenery, though, made up for it all.  The water was a perfect aqua blue, cutting through a green leafy gorge, with waterfalls and cascades the whole length of the hike.

Passing by a wee, itty, bitty tree that was blocking our path

Passing by a wee, itty, bitty tree that was blocking our path

After 2 hours, we made it to the entrance to the cave, marked by a towering and stunning cascade.  We spent a short while taking selfies with the scenery, before heading for the said cave.  Yep, one of the unique features of this walk is that you can walk through the bat cave.

The falls

The falls

Entering the bat cave...

Entering the bat cave…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It may surprise you that feeling along the slimy bat-poo walls and boulders to avoid stumbling over the submerged and uneven rocks in pitch black is not as enticing as it sounds.  Even less enticing is having to slide down a bat poo-covered tree trunk on your butt, because there was so much bat poo that it was too slippery to walk down it (and when I say bat poo, I’m not referring to the dry squishy guano that I’m used to – this stuff is seriously big, chunky and goopy).

The view inside the cave

The view inside the cave

It is quite the relief when you see the light at the end of the tunnel.  That is, until you see the masses of bats flapping around the entrance like moths to a flame.

I see the light!

I see the light!

Like bats to a cave entrance...

Like bats to a cave entrance…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you persevere, you will eventually find yourself upstream of the bats, where the water is poo-free, where there’s no danger or copping one in the eye if you look up, and where the waterfalls provide a much-needed head and back massage.

Oh yes

Oh yes

Here we sat for a bit, allowing our bodies to recover before making our way back through the cave, up and down the boulders, left and right across the river, and back to the main road.

The stunning gorge

The stunning gorge

Did I mention there were bats?

Did I mention there were bats?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were only able to hitch a ride part of the way along the main road, so had to walk a good 2-3km back to the lodge.  We arrived at 4:30pm, 7 hours after we started.  We were covered in poop, and feeling pretty pooped, too.  At least the lodge understood a hiker’s needs and quickly set us up with some SB.

Despite the exhaustion, and the attractive bruises, I am so glad I ignored the weather warning and did the walk.  To anyone else with very little sense, I suggest you get out there and do it now.  Batman awaits.

* Just kidding, Mum!  I take all proper precautions.

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‘Pupu

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I know you’re all used to me talking about poo by now.  This time, however, when I mention ‘Pupu, I am not referring to the faecal matter, but something quite the opposite.

Tavanapupu is a fish.  It is also the name of a resort situated on Marau Sound, right on the Eastern tip of Guadalcanal island.  Its local claim to fame is that Prince William and his wife, Kate, stayed there during their royal visit to the Solomons.  Needless to say, Tavanapupu is not a budget backpacker getaway, but it is a place I dreamed to get to when a special occasion could justify it.

With just two weeks until the end of my contract here, that occasion was now.  Except it almost didn’t happen.

Firstly, our scheduled Friday afternoon flight was brought forward an hour, meaning I had to depart work earlier than expected.  No biggie.  Then Manyoni had to rush out to the village at the last minute, which was cutting it fine as it was, but really throwing the plan out when his tyre burst on the way back.  With no time to return to the house, I had to run around and pack his bag, then run a kilometre to find a taxi while carrying two bags and two sets of snorkelling gear.  We managed to meet up at the airport exactly 30 minutes before scheduled departure.  Except, no-one was there to check us in.

We waited and waited.  While we waited, we heard from others travelling to Tavanapupu that this was their 4th attempt to reach the resort due to Solomon Airlines cancelling flights.  We waited and waited.  Eventually, we were told it was cancelled.  There would be no more flights until Monday…at the earliest.  It was just our luck that one of the people in the other group knew somebody who knew somebody important, and within 30 minutes they had arranged to divert the following morning’s Rennel flight to Marau.

So, the next morning, we arrived at the aiport again.  We waited and waited.  Slowly, very slowly we were checked in, still too hesitant to believe we would make it until we landed (almost on top of coconut trees) at the other end.  At which point we cheered.

Flying over Guadalcanal mountains - spectacular

Flying over Guadalcanal mountains – spectacular

By 9:30am, we were greeted at Tavanapupu’s jetty with a cold coconut.  Our “bargain” room was under repair, so we were asked if it would be okay to bump us up to the Deluxe suite.  Oh, I guess so.

room room-2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our bungalow was gorgeous – high-roofed leaf huts surrounded by manicured lawns and coconut trees that dropped the occasional coconut with a heavy thud (sometimes just a couple of metres from where you sat – eek!); a hammock strung across the verandah, swinging gently in the breeze;  a double bed with crisp white sheets and five types of pillows, looking out to the ocean and towering Gwale mountains beyond.  The bathroom also deserves a mention – almost as big as the main room, it had two sinks separated by a giant mirror, dressing gowns, coconut oil soaps, and a gorgeous outdoor shower set among tropical bamboo and ginger plants (just gotta chase the mosquitos away first).

manyons

It wasn’t long before we were leaping off the jetty into the bright blue water.  Then we tried to snorkel, which was futile against the strong current.  After trying to fight it, I relented, and just let myself drift along as if on an escalator passing through a tropical aquarium, unable to stop or go the other way.  Eventually, I ended up at the second jetty, meaning I had made it back to the resort – phew! – albeit the other end of it.

Saved by the jetty

Saved by the jetty

After a snooze in the hammock, it was time for lunch.  I was super excited about this, as I had heard that the food at Tavanapupu was amazing.  It didn’t disappoint.  Crayfish and vegetables, followed by home-made coconut bushlime sorbet and fresh fruit.

Hammock time....do do do do do

Hammock time….do do do do do

Feeling content, we decided to work off a bit of lunch by taking the resort’s BMX bikes for a spin around the island.  This took us up to a gorgeous little lookout over the other side of the island, then through rainforest and past giant pandanus palms flapping at the water’s edge…..a perfect hideout for crocodiles.

Look out!

Look out!

Clearly we deserved another snooze in the hammock after this, followed by a beer on the jetty while loving the cool ocean breeze and watching the sun go down.

Just after dark, the drum sounded in a call to dinner.  The evening’s meal was also a delight and needed to be worked off.  Ping pong was the nightime activity of choice, and no mention of who won 4 out of 5 games (Cough! Cough! Me! Cough! Cough!)

The following morning, after a luxurious sleep in, we awoke to breakfast served on our verandah – eggs, bacon, bread (and toaster), and fresh coffee.  The natural aquarium at our doorstep then beckoned.  The morning’s snorkelling was crystal clear and full of healthy coral and a variety of sea life.  At one point I was chasing a swarm of mixed fish, rushing to one piece of coral on mass, then swarming off together to the next spot of coral.  It was a flurry of fish and sand.

Those eyelashes!

Those eyelashes!

As the day heated up, it was back to the hammock with the book, then off to lunch, then more ping pong.  Then, the group decided to take the boat out to another snorkelling spot.  The trip on the boat was beautiful in itself – think postcard tropical paradise, except real and not on cheap cardboard or photoshopped.  The snorkelling was also lovely, marred only by the multitude of jelly fish.  Even paradise can sting.

This place ain't so bad....

This place ain’t so bad….

We did request to go to another snorkelling spot sans jellyfish, which I think presented them with a slight challenge.  They approached that challenge quite ingeniously, though, by locating a huge pod of dolphins, then speeding through them, luring them into the boat’s drag, where they glided, leaped and frolicked just a few centimetres beneath our dangling legs.  It was phenomenal.  After that we didn’t care about snorkelling, so returned home for more hammock time and sunset beers.

A couple of fish

Just a couple of dolphins

In the end, we were so busy feeling relaxed that we didn’t get to do SUP yoga or kayak around the island.

The next morning we had an early departure.  For some strange reason, Solomon Airlines seemed to be running on time.  So after a late, rushed breakfast, we boarded the boat to head to the airport.  Unfortunately, one of boat’s fuel pumps wasn’t working, so we weren’t quite travelling at our planned speed.  A tinge of worry hit us as we watched our plane fly right over our heads and we still had quite a distance to the “airport”.  Fortunately, as we were the only passengers, they decided to wait and we did a quick check-in from the jetty before heading back to Honiara, feeling relaxed and rejuvenated.

Airport check-in

Airport check-in

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A Tourist’s Guide to Honiara

Facebook tells me that it has been just over one year since our first visitor came to Solomon Islands.  In that time, we’ve played host to Jodes, Pip, Hoehne, Chris, Lorenzo, Johnno, Jules, Cecilia, and Conroy (sort of).  With so much experience at hosting, I thought I would put together my perfect Tourist’s Guide to Honiara.  Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau, you are welcome.

Day 1:  Greet visitor at the airport with a cold coconut.  Take them home, and allow them to sit on the couch under the fan for a few hours while their body futilely attempts to adjust to the tropical heat.  For dinner, treat them to baked beans and eggs because that’s all you have in your fridge.

Day 2:  Drag visitor out of bed early for a hike to Mataniko Falls.  They are bound to enjoy the scenic hike up steep hills in the hot sun with over-enthusiastic dogs whacking into them periodically.  Or perhaps they will prefer the slide down the muddy slope on their butt, amidst beautifully green and mosquito-ridden rainforest.  They will love the cool down swim in the cascades, before you lead them down through a heavily flowing waterfall on slippery boulders to the river below.  The most enjoyable part of the hike will start, though, when you provide them with a cheap, partially-inflated tube and allow them to slowly drift down Mataniko River, absorbing the tranquillity of the gorge while ramming into fallen trees and being dragged over sharp, barely-submersed rocks.

It's fun, I promise!

It’s fun, I promise!

In the afternoon, for a bit of culture, take them to a local Solomon Islander family gathering.  Enjoy the fabulous music, songs, dancing and stacka kakai (lots of food!).  Just beware of the drunk uncle who likes to pick a fight and then punches his hand through your car window.

beach-kastom-dance

Ouch!

Ouch!

Day 3:  To soothe the aches, pains, and slowly-infected scratches of yesterday’s fun, head out to Visale beach for a relaxing swim.  On the way, stop at KFC (Kakabona Fried Chicken) to pick up some delicious local fish fried in yesterday’s grease. Mmmm.

Day 4:  An introduction to Solomon Islands’ art and culture.  Start off by checking out the kastom money collection at the Central Bank, then push on to the country’s National Museum.  After that hour, duck across the road to the Art Gallery and check out the modern expression of culture.  Grab some weaving, paintings or carvings as a memento.  You won’t regret it…..unless quarantine stops you.

Day 5:  Showcase WWII history.  First stop can be a trip to the US Memorial, then on to the Japanese Memorial.  From there, you can continue to Mt Austin to see their collection of war artefacts (and do another hike to another waterfall so that the kastom fee seems more reasonable), or go further East to Alligator Creek or even Red Beach.

Japanese memorial

Japanese memorial

Day 6:  Head to the Central Markets for an exploration in all things food.  Purchase anything you don’t recognise, and then spend the afternoon getting creative in the kitchen in an attempt to make it taste good.  (Tip:  Also try experimenting with coconut meat. According to Johnno, the potential is endless).  Just to be safe, also grab a few crabs and some fish so that you know you will have something edible for dinner.  Wash it down with cocktails made at a friend’s place.

The root vegetable aisle

The root vegetable aisle

Day 7:  With 85% of the Solomon Islands population living in rural areas, no trip to the country is complete without a trip to a village.  Arrange to visit one of the villages that are part of the Kokonut Pacific oil producers, or be taken out to the village of one of host’s friends, where you get to see motu or cassava pudding being made, and play with snotty and oh-so-adorable naturally blond pikanini.

CUTEEEEEEE!

CUTEEEEEEE!

In the evening, head to the end of the street and play a gig for your hosts.  Or watch a gig if you lack certain musical talent.

Day 8:  Take a tour of Parliament House in the morning.  Because that doesn’t last long, hang out at the wharf and watch the overloaded ships come in, before enjoying a Kokoda lunch (fish cooked in bushlime) at El Shaddhai.

Boat people

Boat people

Tick off any remaining items off your bucket list in the afternoon, and then relax at the end of a busy week by downing some wine and pizza while watching the sun set at The Ofis.

Day 9:  Head out of Honiara to Maravaghi “Eco Resort”.  If you can arrange the boat trip across when there is a low pressure system around, all the better for that authentic Solomons experience.  Be sure to pack your snorkel as the underwater life is spectacular and you will undoubtedly find nemo.  Also pack some wine, 50+ sunscreen, mosquito repellent and rat traps….. just because. In the evening, after a long day of snorkelling and reading your book, devour Maravaghi’s pumpkin coconut soup and kingfish like there’s no tomorrow.

I found Nemo.  Again.

I found Nemo. Again.

Day 10:  After an early morning swim and attack of sea lice, head back to Honiara.  A good tip is to pre-arrange for a pod of dolphins to be seen splashing around merrily in the water as part of your journey.

Upon your return, take a long hot shower, then a long snooze to recover from the previous night’s mosquito- and rat-driven non-sleep.  In the afternoon, head to the Holy Cross Cathedral.  Even if you’re not Catholic, this place beautifully blends Solomon Islands kastom and Catholic missionary symbolism.

Altar at Holy Cross

Altar at Holy Cross

Day 11:  Hopefully, by this point, you are worn out.  Or you may just be fatigued from malaria.  Either way, on your journey to the airport, stop in at Kokonut Pacific.  Spend all your last, useless Solomon Dollars on their range of coconut oil and soaps, because they support rural farmers, and because they’re amazing.

Then give a sweaty hug goodbye to your hosts and head back off to civilisation.

If you have enjoyed Solomon Islands so much that you’d like the ultimate souvenir, take a leaf from Johnno’s book and contract dengue just before departing.  That way, whenever the virus re-emerges your thoughts will return to the Hapi Isles.

(*Please note:  This piece is highly sarcastic and all readers should be aware that Solomon Islands is a beautiful place to visit.  Truly).

Categories: Exploring | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

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