24th December, 2015 – Arrival at Matikuri
Nothing could dampen my excitement for the planned Christmas holidays to Solomon Islands’ Western Province – not even the fact that one of our pilots was asleep and the other was reading the flying manual during our 40-minute flight.
Suzanne, Tess, Jen, Manyoni and I touched down safely at Seghe airport and were met by Ben from Matikuri Eco Resort. As he helped us carry our mountains of luggage to the awaiting boat, we could instantly see by the crystal clear water at the boat taxi rank that there was going to be plenty of good snorkelling and diving.
After setting ourselves up in our gorgeous private leaf hut bungalow on Morovo Lagoon, we wasted no time and joined a group to snorkel a wonderfully intact WWII bomber near Seghe airport. Although the visibility wasn’t terrific, one could still dive down and check out all bits of the plane.
Due to water shortages (El Nino) the day ended with a “bath” at one of the freshwater streams on a nearby island.
25th December – A Pacific Christmas
It seems that mosquito nets don’t stop everything – I woke up covered in fire ant bites! Despite a spot of rain and persistent clouds, we took a fantastic morning snorkel to one of the many nearby islands where a very large fishing boat found its ultimate demise after hitting a coral wall. The boat now stands perfectly vertical on its stern, making the snorkelling around the bow of the boat and the coral wall much like a Jackson Pollock of colourful sea life splashed against a deep blue ocean canvas.
As the rain intensified, we spent the rest of the afternoon lounging at the lodge with a good book and some cards.
26th December, 2015 – Uepi
One of the first things you hear about when you get to Solomon Islands is Uepi Resort. Rumour has it that Uepi has some of the best diving in the Solomon Islands….and a lot of sharks. Since I don’t dive, we decided to head there for a day of snorkelling instead.
Sure enough, the snorkelling was fantastic. Steep coral walls with huge schools of fish that I had never seen before – Damselfish, butterfly fish, parrot fish, goat fish, trevally, trigger fish, anemone fish, morish idols, leopard-spotted fish, puffer fish, surgeon fish, beche-de-mer, gorgonian corals, brain coral, other corals, as well as some huge bump-headed parrot fish – all contrasting magnificently against the dark blue background.
Of course, where there are reef fish, there are reef sharks, and Uepi did not disappoint in this regard. Within the first two minutes, I had a shark swimming nonchalantly past me. As I headed closer to the sharks’ favourite spot, I sat there for about 5 minutes counting half a dozen magnificent black-tips heading straight for me to get a better look, before swimming away disappointed. I did try to take a selfie with a shark for your viewing pleasure – unfortunately, they don’t do well at sitting still, and they definitely don’t smile.
27th December, 2015 – A rainy day in Matikuri
Today the clouds of the past two days eventually dropped their particles and blessed us with a day of rain. I suspect Bopo the cat exerted more energy throughout the day as part of its ongoing search for scratches than I did reading and sipping cups of tea.
A short break in the rain enabled me to drag the dugout canoe onto the water and paddle out to the next island, before returning to the lodge and spending an extended amount of time mesmerised by a sea cucumber expelling, what looked like, very sticky silly string from its anus, before sucking it back in. Apparently it’s a thing, with the silly string called cuvierian tubules, and is a sign of feeling threatened. Oops.
That evening would be our last evening in Matikuri, and so we celebrated with a meal cooked by Ben’s wife, Jilly. To add to my day of indolence, I gorged on fish curry, breaded fish balls, bok choy, green beans, roast curry pumpkin, kumara & papaya coconut milk bake, fresh pineapple and mango. Like a well-fed baby, I fell soundly asleep to the sound of rain on the leaf roof.
28th December – Trip to Tetepare
We awoke early to embark on our next part of the holiday – a trip to Tetepare. Tetepare is the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific, covering 188 square kilometres, and is now a conservation site managed by the Tetepare Descendants’ Association. Apparently, it is a great spot for dugong spotting and watching turtles nest and hatch, making it the most anticipated part of my holiday.
As we piled our bags and ourselves in the boat, our driver gave us a calm pre-departure briefing: “It’s 25 knot winds and it will be rough over the channel, so hold on. If it’s too bad, we’ll come back”. Such words by a two-time OBM champion Solomon Islander, who has voluntarily donned a life jacket, are not good sign to begin a reputedly dangerous cross-channel voyage in a 40 horse-power OBM. However, I had complete faith that Captain Mike Charlie would keep us safe.
Mike was not kidding. The swell would have been at least 2m, we were heading straight into super-strong headwinds, and had the added bonus of being pelted by stinging, gusty rainy. Mike did really well to try to buffer the swell, but there were several times where we caught ourselves on the face of a wave and almost capsized.
In addition, we were being thrown around so much that the weight of Manyoni and my butts continuously hitting the seat ended up cracking it (a secret karate move from way back). All this was before we had even hit the channel! Mike had been navigating us close to the islands on the edge of Morovo lagoon so that we could bail if need be. It suddenly became clear why Tetepare is uninhabited.
After about two hours of bouncing and battling waves (I was told that it usually takes 30 minutes to get to Tetepare island), and as I clutched tenuously to my broken seat, perhaps the most scared I have ever been in my life, a small pod of dolphins came up and swam beside us. Immediately, Captain Mike yelled from behind, “Don’t panic” and started heading us toward a huge cliff with waves crashing against the rocks at its base.
I was really trying not to panic, but with image of being smashed against rocks at the forefront of my mind, the no-panicking thing became a little difficult. As we were about to hit the base of the cliffs, Mike steered the boat through a small gap between the cliff and rocks, and into the most tranquil, calm, serene spot ever known to man. Someone in our boat likened it to a journey into the bat cave.
As we pulled up to the beach, and jumped out to pee our pants in the calm, tropical water, Mike came up to me, full of unnecessary apologies, and explained his actions. His tribe are the dolphins, and when he saw the dolphins swim alongside us – not playing – he knew that they came to keep us safe. When the dolphins directed us to the gap, he followed them, knowing that it would be too dangerous to go against their advice.
Now, whether or not you believe in the ancestral connection between man and animal, all I know that Mike’s belief in his tribal heritage could well have saved our lives (unlike others that, I later heard, did perish in this storm), and that’s all I need to believe.
As we made our way back to Matikuri, via the calmer waters of Morovo lagoon, we looked back at the gap from which we came. It had now closed over in the burgeoning swell, making it impenetrable. If we had been 5 minutes later we would have been stuck between a life-threatening rock and a hard place – literally.
After the morning’s excitement, we were all content to spend the remainder of the rainy day reading our books, playing cards and staring with post-traumatic shock out into the lagoon. Extreme weather warnings started drifting in on our phones from the National Disaster Management Office. The joy of our now-safe and beautifully-located circumstance came flooding back as we spotted the odd sight of a black fin breaking the water below our deck, and a garfish leaping up and flipping around a couple of metres above the water.
29th December – A wet day in Matikuri
With the bad weather still hanging around, Manyoni spent the day doing what he does best – engaging all the lodge’s guests in a day of handicrafts! The rain came and went throughout the day, enabling the odd snorkel out the front of the lodge. With poor visibility there was little to see, but it was still nice to get wet. As the poor weather continued, flights and boats were cancelled, leaving us to discover that we weren’t the only ones to be stranded in the Hapi Isles.
30th December – A windy day in Matikuri
An overnight storm brought with it horizontal rain and cooling gales. By morning, the rain had stopped but the strong, gusty wind remained. This spelled the end of our hopes to get to Tetepare, with its dugongs and turtle hatchlings. I will just have to plan a return trip…some time.
Due to our unanticipated, extended stay, we had to continually change rooms to make way for scheduled guests arriving. In the end, though, I enjoyed sampling the unique views and feel of the different leaf bungalows, regardless of sinking decks.
31st December – An almost sunny day in Matikuri
Sun! A little bit, at least. Enough to make us think that a snorkelling expedition would be worthwhile. Naturally, as soon as jumped in the boat, the rain started pelting down.
First stop was Bohero village, a place known for its traditional handicrafts. We visited Aldio Pita, who dabbles in the craft of wood prints on home-made leaf paper; then we went to look at carvings of sago palm nuts; then to see the revived traditional war canoe.
Our next stop was to Bambata – the calm, tranquil place where we had unsuspectingly found ourselves three days previously. This time, we were here to view the sites rather than to escape near-death. We unpacked a picnic lunch on the beach just as the rain returned, turning our crackers soggy and converting our salad bowl into salad soup, as we shivered non-stop while hermit crabs crawled across our bare feet.
Post-lunch we dived into the warm water of the lagoon and paddled across to the cliff on the other side. Close to that fateful gap between the cliff and rocks was a deep underwater cave, with coral and a plethora of fish above. Today’s new fish find consisted of a lethargic balloon fish that looks very dead among the coral, and eventually moved after prodding it several times.
Back at the lodge, we spotted another shark fin from our deck, as well as a turtle and a pod of dolphins to usher in the new year.
The evening was spent in a largely civilised way, listening to Spanish guitar from one of the guests, accompanied by Manyoni on djembe drums and drunk Solomon Islanders on vocal. It was fantastic. The air was a surprising calm, and people were enjoying the entertainment so much that no-one even noticed when the clock struck midnight. That was, until Suzanne and I started yelling it out, then it was hugs all around. Seemingly on cue, a huge gust of wind swept through the lodge, knocking over chairs and plates, welcoming us to 2016.
1st January, 2016 – A sunny day in Matikuri
The day started with another teaser of sunshine, beckoning us into the water. On cue, the rain started pelting down as soon as we left the lodge. It didn’t dampen the enthusiasm, although after a brief return to the shipwreck, we decided to leave those choppy waters and head to a new island where the water was much calmer.
By now the rain had stopped and the fish and coral were excellent as always, with some new types of starfish (including four-legged ones that are more like cross-fish) and huge batfish to add to the sea life checklist. The sun eventually returned and we saturated ourselves in its rays while beachcombing for exotic shells and strange seagrass fruits.
The evening was spent gazing out at the water, watching luminescent dots rise to the surface and divide multiple times to form a line of light. I still have no idea what it could have been, although google suggests a mating display of ostracods (“seed shrimp”). Awesome.
For our second, last night at Matikuri, Jilly cooked us up a huge chilli feast that left me looking and feeling much like a lethargic Bopo the cat.
2nd January, 2016 – Trip to Gizo
We awoke at the crack of dawn, when the sea and wind is calmest, to make our second attempt out of Matikuri. All was looking promising with a clear sky and glassy water. This time our destination was Oravae cottages near Gizo – about a 5 hour boat ride away.
Captain Mike took us back through the lagoon and out the gap by the cliffs at Bambata where we had sought shelter from near death just five days before. What a difference a few days makes! The waves were a gentle bobbing size, lolling us to zen mode as we passed by striking huge cliffs of New Georgia island with the waves battering their underbelly. We passed a giant pod of dolphins early on, wishing us a safe journey.
First stop was a research station near Ballewi village, where we got to use the much-needed amenities and take in the views from the top of the cliffs. Then it was on to Munda town, where we refuelled. From there, it was super smooth sailing through the glassy and picture-perfect turquoise waters of Roviana Lagoon. What most amazed me were the number of little islands… everywhere… like forest-covered mushrooms sprouting out of a turquoise field. Suddenly, 900+ islands in the country doesn’t seem so unbelievable.
We tried looking for our accommodation on one of these islands, passing by Kennedy Island (where JFK sought refuge when his plane went down), and seeking directions from some old Aussie codgers living a sweet retirement life by running a bar on “Imagination Island”. We had no luck in finding the island so, instead, we headed into Gizo, the capital of Western Province. Within five minutes, Manyoni’s calm head managed to locate the owner of the Oravae cottages – our next destination. We wished Captain Mike a safe return trip back to Matikuri, and let the next part of our journey begin!
Oravae cottages are located on Seppo Island, about 20 minutes boat ride from Gizo. With the whole island to ourselves, accommodated in tree-top bungalows and a water-front house with private outdoor showers, it classes itself as a “rustic romantic” destination. This may have meant it was Manyoni’s lucky week or his worst nightmare, given that he was the lone man among four independent Aussie chicks. He seemed to manage just fine.
3rd – 6th January – Oravae Cottages
Over the next four days, we got into the habit of waking up in the early morning and gazing over the balcony to look at the 60-odd garfish congregating in the water below, trevally & small fish chasing each other in circles, smaller fish chasing even smaller groups of fish, clown fish checking out the scene from their anenomes, and to count the black-tip reef sharks gracefully swimming past (on the final morning, I counted 10!).
Then we would enjoy our delicious breakfast delivered to us, before jumping in the warm water for a snorkel. With so many islands around, there were plenty of different places to snorkel. Each place, and each snorkel, presented us with a few new sea creatures we hadn’t seen before, including a turtle, nudibranchs, starfish, lobsters, eels, strange slugs, and different types of fish.
Then it was time to take a break, lounge in the hammock, read a book and drip dry while we waited for lunch to arrive. Post-lunch, a snooze/3-hour sleep in the cool breeze was required to help the food digest, before launching ourselves back into the water by way of a rope-swing, half-inflated lilos or by paddling the dug-out canoe to a new snorkelling spot.
By evening, we would return to the deck for a view of the sunset with cold beverage in hand, again counting the sharks that swam by. Once the darkness arrived, we enjoyed a delicious dinner with Darcy the dog while listening attentively for the sound of a dugong breathing nearby or splashing around trying to unlodge themselves from the shallow waters.
Just before bed, we would spend some time playing cards / Pictionary, staring up at the cloud-less star-filled sky, or peering below into the water in search of dugongs or luminescent delights (such as ½ inch bug that left a 50cm trail of light behind it like a snake, which apparently was a signal that it was going to die).
This routine was only punctuated twice during our stay.
Once was a small trip to Gizo to check out the town – it didn’t take long. The town has one road that took us past the new prison, the new hospital and through the markets full of crabs claws and betel nut spit (Oh, how I didn’t miss that). We then spent the rest of the time chilling at the yacht club watching Western Province’s version of peak-hour, as small boats came in from every direction carrying families headed to Gizo for work or shopping.
The second time our routine changed was to be treated to an amazing evening of entertainment by local band “Two brothers, a cousin and a friend”. Apart from Oravae being a private island, guests also have private entertainment.
This band is the amalgamation of two brothers from the next island, their cousin (ie. the son of the owners of Oravae), and a mate from another island. They have never had a music lesson and made their own five-piece drum kit themselves out of plastic SolRais rice packets, wood, and scrap metal. Plus, they are amazing. Actually amazing. Four young men, each with a unique, beautiful voice, harmonising and able to play every instrument.
For about 1.5 hours they treated us to covers ranging from old-school Bee-Gees and Creedence Clearwater, to more modern (and, I daresay, more beautiful) versions of Rhianna and Carly Rae Jepsen (I had to look that one up). I couldn’t get enough!
Finally, it was time for our holiday to come to an end. To mark our stay, the conservationist owners asked us plant some coral, before driving us to the airport (spotting a turtle on our way). Being far too early for true Solomon Islanders, we sweltered in the heat of the tarmac before making our way back to Honiara and the bright orange sunset of a polluted city.