After parting ways with the North Malaita crew, a few of us headed off to Langa Langa lagoon for the weekend of relaxation (Langa means “long” and is a lagoon just South of Auki that stretches 21km long by 1km wide).
Reaching Serah’s Hideaway just before sunset, we grabbed a cold(ish) beer and plunged ourselves in the lagoon until no sign of the sun remained. That evening, I ate one of the most delicious meals I have had in a long while, cooked by Serah and her team.
There really is nothing better than waking up to a huge breakfast of eggs, fresh sweet papaya, bananas, when the rain drizzles and you have nowhere to be. This is what happened our first (and second) morning in Langa Langa.
Post-breakfast, we had a quick dip in the lagoon, before I sat down with Serah and tried to learn a bit more about this tranquil place.
Serah’s Hideaway is built on an artificial island. Malaita, and particularly Langa Langa, is known for its artificial islands. The first islands were built hundreds of years ago, during the head hunting and cannibalism days. After being forced to flee, many people were not able to return, and instead set up villages on the shallow reef beds. Most of the “artificial” islands are actually reef islands that are reinforced with rocks to prevent erosion and flooding. The number of purely artificial islands (ie. islands built from nothing) are few.
One key advantage of artificial islands is that they avoid land title issues, which stop at the water’s edge. However, even these days, people are trying to dispute reclaimed land. Despite this, there are also a lot of down sides to living on an organised pile of rocks.
Rocks generally aren’t great for growing food, so back in the old days, residents had to regularly spend a couple of days travelling in huge war canoes (which they built themselves – Langa Langa people are skilled boat builders) to the Florida Islands in Central Province and even Guadalcanal. There, they would barter their world-famous shell money for goods, perhaps even pick up a wife, and then come back. Because of this, the residents of Langa Langa are a mixed bunch of people from Malaita, Central and Guadalcanal. There are three main language groups that occupy the area now, and are unique to the islands.
Another downside of tiny, rocky island habitation, is water and sanitation (yep, it was only a matter of time). Originally, the islands provided a freshwater lens that enabled people to access fresh drinking water from shallow wells. With rising sea waters, many of the lenses are becoming saline and unusable. After Christianity came, people were able to go and collect water from streams on the mainland, but that too is becoming less safe.
Poor sanitation and environmental practices have further contributed to the area’s environmental decline. Years of using the lagoon as a dumping ground for rubbish and faeces, as well as the use of dynamite to catch fish and create rocks for building, has decimated the lagoon’s coral, mangrove and fish numbers. Overpopulation is also contributing to poor conditions, according to Serah, who is not afraid to tell her peers to stop having so many children.
Serah herself grew up on the southern edge of Langa Langa lagoon in Kwaro area. From those early days, she even remembers two cannibal families who were living nearby, and describes them as “very big and tall, with huge muscles”. Good to know. Her family then moved to Bozo / Flanders area, which is close to where her islands are now. When she finished school, she set out to build her own island.
Serah found the spot, and her father sought permission from their ancestors to allow her to build in that area. Apparently, if you try to live on reclaimed land without ancestral permission, you will have “bad luck”, resulting in sickness and death. Apparently, this is why so many of the islands are now uninhabited.
Twenty-nine years ago, Serah laid the first stone, and has laid every stone since. In that time, she has constructed a total of 5 islands with her bare hands, and she has no plans to stop. The original purpose of the islands was to create a home for her family, then in 2006 she opened for tourism.
Serah’s Hideaway is a true sanctuary, and through hard work, she has overcome the constraints of artificial island living. She has built amazing, raised garden beds, filled with organic vegetables and chickens. It is this produce that is used to create our amazing breakfasts, lunches and dinners – some of the best I’ve tasted in Solomons.
The reason that most people can survive on these islands at all, is because of shell money. Shell money is one of the trademark features of people from Langa Langa, and is still used as currency in the area. It also remains an important part of wedding negotiations (think bride price), and a common adornment in traditional wedding ceremonies. Each year, there is a shell money festival, and at any time of the year, you can do shell money tours, which is also important for tourism dollars.
Shell money uses four types of shells – black, white, grey and red, with red the most expensive. Originally, all the shells were found locally but now that supply has dried up, they need to purchase from other Provinces.
The residents start by smashing shells into smaller pieces with rocks. Then they chip away at the corners to give a roughly circular shape.
The next step is to make the discs smooth. Using a special rock, which is burned in the fire to become soft and sticky, they can mix it with water to create a paste. They spread the paste onto a smooth rock and stick the discs to it. They then rub this rock – with the discs – against another smooth rock to sand down the shells.
After this stage, the smooth discs are transferred to a dry coconut shell, where they will have the holes drilled into the centre. This step uses the most amazing contraption I have ever seen, and is a credit to its original inventor. I can’t even begin to explain it, although I will say that it involves a sharpened rock as the drill bit, a big metre-long stick, and some bush rope which acts as a mechanical device to spin the stick and drill bit very quickly. It is mesmerising to watch.
Once the discs have holes in the centre, the shells are then put on hot rocks, allowing some of the colours to change. When the final colours are in place, the shell money is threaded onto giant strings a couple of metres long, and sanded to consistent size using rocks chiselled with culverts.
This is where the laborious process essentially ends. People can either sell the long strand of shell money, or make their own patterns and sell the final designs. These days, 30 discs will get you SBD$1, or 60 discs will get you one cigarette. I reckon it’s a good incentive to quit smoking. A full wedding kit, which includes head wear, earrings, an intricate design that drapes over your chest and back, waist and foot jewellery can set you back thousands.
Back to the relaxing weekend
After learning as much as I could about Langa Langa, there was really not much else to do but relax. The days would be spent going between eating, reading, swim, reading, eating, swim, reading, swim, beer, eating, sleep. In the evening, we would sit on the jetty in the moonlight, and watch mesmerised as the coral spawning created luminescent bursts on the water surface, and as a lion fish meandered below in full splendour.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and on Sunday afternoon, we headed back to Auki to catch our afternoon flight to Honiara. At least, that was the plan. The plan wasn’t well executed. Partly, it was because some of us were confused about the flight time (4:15 or 4:30?). This led one of us to book the taxi with very little room for delays. But then one of us left something behind so we had to go back to the lodge. Then the taxi ran out of fuel. After topping up, the taxi then became incapable of going up hills (wrong fuel type?). So then the taxi added oil. That didn’t help. Then the taxi broke down. So we flagged down the next vehicle, which kindly took us to the airport. We got there at 4:00pm and the plane had already left. Perhaps the only time in the country’s history when they are running ahead of schedule. Furthermore, we weren’t the only ones caught offguard by the early departure – at least four others also missed the flight.
Needless to say, we were not getting out of Auki that day. Fortunately, Solomon Airlines is pretty flexible so we were able to get booked on the next morning’s flight and still make it in time for work.