Exploring

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).

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Weddings! (Part 2: Swaziland)

After the excitement of our own wedding, it was time to head to Swaziland to introduce Manyoni to the country that stole my heart before he did.

We were welcomed by rain, which continued the whole week.  People assured me that this was a good thing, as the country – and all of South Africa – is suffering the worst drought in almost 40 years.  I won’t disagree, except that I had planned – and packed – for summer.  I was freezing!

Wednesday – 9th Nov

Our first day was spent in the valley of heaven, catching up with the Gone Rural crew.  It was so great to see so many wonderful faces again, and to breathe in the familiar smell of lutindzi grass.  However there have also been so many changes that I didn’t recognise anyone at my old office.  Change is good, right?

Next it was lunch at the Shisa Nyama, where Louise and I tucked into Mahlanya’s best BBQ meat (because of copious amounts of salt, MSG and oil), while Manyoni settled with umbidvo, litsanga and chakalaka.

A quick visit to another friend, Babazile, then we were back on the bus to Mbabane and off to the Albert Millin for drinks with Yael.  We made it back to our temporary abode just as one of Swaziland’s famous lightning storms was about to hit.

Thursday – 10th Nov

Day two was spent around Mbabane.  Like true tourists, we headed up to the Old Ngwenya Mine – the oldest known mine in the world, where ancestors of the San mined hematite around 43,000 years ago.  It has had more recent mining attempts too.  There were the bantu-speaking settlers who mined hematite and iron for tools from 450AD to 1950.  Then commercial interests came in and dug some more holes in the ground from 1964 to 1977.  Finally, a questionable deal between the King and Salgaocar resulted in more iron mining during my time, which finally ended the year I left.

A 43,000 year old mine

A 43,000 year old mine

Interestingly, I never made it to the mine while I lived here so this was a first for us.  The views from there are truly beautiful and showcase Swaziland’s fantastic topography.  The all-encasing fog didn’t hurt in adding some mystique.

old-ngwenya-mine-14

 

With frozen fingers and toes, we continued down the hill to Ngwenya Glass, where we spent the obligatory several hours salivating over Swaziland’s beautiful fair trade handicrafts.  If only the airlines gave us more baggage allowance!

The afternoon was spent in the warmth of our temporary abode, cooking up a pizza storm for our hostess with the mostest, Helene, and an opportune catch-up with few other Mbabane friends – Chantal, Tony, Yael and Shaks.

Friday – 11th Nov

On the third day, it was yet another trip down to the valley to catch-up with Carlie, and take a stickybeak at more crafts at Swazi Candles.  Poor Manyoni must have been sick of being dragged around to all my friends and a seemingly endless handicraft industry, but he took it very well.

A concern with our borrowed car took us back to the mechanic in Mbabane, but after being given the all clear, we were off again down the hill and all the way to Manzini.  Here, we finally caught up with Ras Ambrose – a friend of a friend, and rasta brotherman of Africa.  Our afternoon was spent helping Ambrose and his band sort out a rental car for the next day, so conversations about the Swazi rasta community were held in between driving from shop to house to house to shop.

The evening ended back where my time in Swaziland began – Malandela’s for Friday night drinks.  Here, I finally got to meet up with my beautiful Gone Rural ladies after 2 long years of being apart.  Just as nice was that all the staff at Mallies not only remembered me, but were also really happy to see me.  These are the things that make you feel loved and at home.  These are the reasons why Swaziland is so special to me.

Saturday – 12th Nov

Today was the raison d’etre for our side-trip trip to Swaziland – Shelley’s long-awaited wedding to Rob.

For those that don’t know / remember, Shelley was my boss, friend and role-model while I worked at BoMake – although she won’t admit to some of those titles.  I felt so excited to be able to share this day with her, and with all my Swazi sisters.

After 12 years of waiting and planning, I don’t think the day could have been any more perfect for the beautiful pair.  After non-stop rain all week, the day churned out nothing but blue skies and sunshine – proof of God’s work, some might say.

Shelley looked stunning as she danced down the aisle with her father, preceded by dancing bridesmaids in brilliant blue.  A small group of our Gone Rural ladies provided the song and dance backdrop during the signing, and their children finished the ceremony off with a fantastic poem filled with love and comedy.

After the official part was over, we were invited to House on Fire for cocktails and photos.  Then it was on to another tent for the reception.  Everything was done to perfection – which is nothing less than what I would expect from Shelley and the House on Fire team.  More than that, everything was done with consideration and meaning – which is really what made the day so great.  Needless to say, when all was over, there were a number of hours spent carving up the d-floor.

My ladies (and man)

My ladies (and man)

As soon as the wedding ended, and we were moved to House on Fire to continue the party, the rains returned with gusto.  The timing was so perfect that it would, once again, be hard to doubt the power of God.

My heart is just filled with so much love for these two, and I feel so privileged to know them and to be able to share this moment with them.  A never-ending congratulations and best wishes to Mr and Mrs Kirk.

Sunday – 13th Nov

Sure as ever, the fog returned the next day and set in harder than ever.  We had planned to join Waterford students on a hike to Malolotja Falls.  The miserable weather almost put us off, but we persisted in a delusional hope that it would clear up.  In the end, it was us, a few teachers and 20 students brave enough to tackle the wild foggy unknown.

Hiking into the unknown

Hiking into the unknown

Malolotja has always been one of my favourite places in Swaziland.  Regardless of the weather, it is always magical and today was no exception.  As we drove through the gates, we spotted baby Lesbok suckling from their mothers.  As we continued through, the wildflowers were out in bloom, providing a splash of colour against the misty backdrop.  Really, it was only when we got out of the bus and started walking that the beauty and diversity of the flora could really be witnessed.

As with all trips to Malolotja, it didn’t take long before we were lost.  Trying to find the right path, we scrambled down steep hills, and back up again, dodging falling rocks and trying hard not to re-sprain/re-break ankles on the uneven surface.  Yet we survived and managed to reconnect to the path at the falls’ lookout.  The Gods gave us five minutes of clear skies, allowing us to take some photos of the rugged cliffs, rolling mountains and falls into the distance, before closing back in and pushing us on our way.

Love Malolotja <3

Love Malolotja ❤

By this stage, it was too late to continue on down to the falls itself, so we just headed back toward the bus with a lunch stop along the way.  Arriving home, we were drenched, freezing, exhausted and at peace.  What a great way to end our Swaziland experience.

Monday – 14th Nov

After a quick catch-up with my good friend, Victor, we were on our way to South Africa and the inevitable journey back to Solomons.  Before that, however, we had six hours to kill in Johannesburg.

As we arrived at the international airport, in the most amazing timing ever, Shelley happened to also be walking out of the airport.  You wouldn’t believe it, but her plan was to take her friend to Soweto for a few hours, which was exactly the plan that we had!  So we were able to join forces and check out Mandela’s residence, the outside of Desmond Tutu’s residence, the Hector Pieterson museum, and feast on our final pap lunch together.

As Shelley and Shawna headed back to the airport, Manyoni and I carried on to Braamfontein to catch up with my friend Marnell, and go on a mad search for a specific jumper (don’t ask!).  Finally, it was time for us to go back to the airport too and embark upon a 17 hour journey to Brisbane.

Wednesday – 16th Nov

With just a day to spare in Brisbane, the time was spent with family.  My eldest sister and her children had made the trip to Brisbane to help celebrate my other sister’s 40th birthday.  It was the first time the whole family was together in 4 years, and the first time that many of them had met Manyoni.  Naturally, all the children had grown a ridiculous amount since I last saw them, but fortunately not all of them had forgotten Aunty Isabel.  The understated birthday celebrations were also joined by my Aunt and Uncle, so it was a great little gathering.

Sadly, all good things must come to end, so it was time to return to Solomons and work.

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Weddings! (Part 1: Zambia)

The Journey (25-27 October)

I had been looking forward to this for months: a 3 week sojourn to Africa.  However, nothing in my life comes without some drama.  With an hour to spare until I had to be at the airport, I went outside to organise a taxi and was bitten by a dog.  A very mangy, unhealthy looking dog.  Typical.  A quick phone call to my mate, “Dr Coffin”, and I was back on track with a couple of puncture wounds, an emergency box of antibiotics, and fears only slightly allayed.

35 hours, four flights, and no leg infection later, I arrived in Lusaka.

First stop was to catch up with my mate Aka and her beautiful son, who seemed to get along with me.  Bonus!  Except that this then convinced Aka that I must have children immediately.  Then it was to Alex’s place for dinner in the dark, thanks to Zambia’s extensive daily load shedding.  I even managed a few hours of shut eye, before being up at 3am to catch the bus to Chipata.

This was my first time back to Zambia since I lived here for just 9 months.  I was interested, to see if it still liked it as much as before.  I was also anxious, as this time, I came knowing that Zambia and I would be inextricably linked for the rest of my life.

The bus stop was a hive of activity.  I was a bit disturbed, at first, by all the people hassling me to buy things – from solar lights to packets of chips and chitenge.  I also watched in horror as bus conductors surrounded potential passengers, and almost started fights, in order to win that person’s custom.  But then I realised that this is what determination to make an income looks like – a far cry from the frustrating apathy I see every day in Solomons.  What I liked best, though, was that between the potential customers, the bus boys would dance to African house blaring from the stalls in such seemingly personal joy.

Once on the road, the image of Zambia became somewhat different.  The long drought had left behind little except heat, dust and an arid landscape that made me wonder how people survive here.  The mighty Luangwa River was but a trickle, and made me lament the plight of the poor wildlife that relied on it.

While the new highway certainly made for a much smoother ride, it also gave the bus drivers licence to go faster, thereby posing an even greater threat to the bikes, children, goats and cattle that straddled the road.

Once I reached Chipata, there were highs and lows.  In the name of progress, every single beautiful shady tree had been removed for the new tarmac, making the city somewhat inhospitable.  However, I was impressed that there were now Copenhagen bike lanes and footpaths that stretched the entire main road (although the pedestrians and cyclists were still working out which was which).  The plethora of fresh, brightly coloured vegetables was also a sight for sore Honiara eyes.

Alangezi (29 October – 2 November)

One of the main reasons I wanted to return to Zambia this time, was to partake in Alangezi, a traditional practice that girls and women do to prepare them for womanhood and life as a Zambian wife.  Manyoni’s extended family had kindly arranged for me to do a condensed version of this training in a village half way between Chipata and Katete.

On my first day in Chipata, I went out to the village to meet everyone and get to know my surroundings.  Kazimule Post Office is as typical a Zambian village as you could get – mud or brick houses, no electricity, ox carts for ploughing.  I was given a seat on a bamboo mat and became the scene of attraction for the villagers to greet as they passed by, and the topic of conversation conducted in a language I still could not understand.

Despite being so far out of my comfort zone, everyone was so welcoming and the phrase “This is your home” was said by so many that I felt ashamed coming from a country where Manyoni is not always welcomed by strangers in the same way.

The following day, I returned to the village for the start of my training.  Clearly, this was not going to be a normal Alangezi.

As mentioned, Alangezi is much like an initiation for girls to prepare them for womanhood and marriage.  Most girls undertake this after they reach puberty and/or when they are about to get married.  Being 36 years old, I was probably about 2-3 times older than most Alangezi students.

The process normally takes 2-3 weeks, during which time the girl is “in the house”, meaning they cannot go outside except to bath – much like a caterpillar going into a cocoon and emerging only when it is a fully grown butterfly.  “In the house” also means that they are not allowed to talk to others, or financial compensation must be given.

In contrast, my Alangezi lasted 3 days.  There was a constant flow of people coming in to check out the stranger, and I would spend my evening on the verandah watching the cattle being brought back from the fields and the young children making trouble, as the sun set over the thorn trees and thatched rooves.

Throughout my stay, I was given the royal treatment by my hostesses, Amai Tembo, and Amai Tembo (Justine).  In the morning, they warmed water for my bath.  As I returned from my bath, they had breakfast waiting.  They cooked me up a delicious hot lunch and dinner each day, which they insisted I eat from the couch while they sat on the floor.  They even put cushions under my feet wherever I sat / stood, lest the bamboo mat hurt my precious foreign skin.  It was ridiculous, but also a symbol of their genuine concern and kindness.

Back:  My teachers Amai Tembo & Amai Mwanza. Front:  Amai Julu and my hostess, Amai Tembo

Back: My teachers Amai Tembo & Amai Mwanza.
Front: Amai Julu and my hostess, Amai Tembo

For three days, I was under the tutelage of Amai Tembo (Esnath) and Amai Mwanza (Alice Phiri), with translations by Amai Chulu – an ex-teacher from the neighbouring village.  Traditionally, Alangezi is not done with your immediate family.  Once you discover what is taught you will understand why.  The teachers, however, may be from extended family or completely separate.  Usually, young married women are chosen to be teachers, as they still have the youthfulness and strength to practice what is taught.

So what is taught?  Well, that is a well-kept secret for married women only – perhaps not something to detail on the world wide web.  However, to give you an idea, each day, my mornings would be spent learning “Mwambo” (custom).  My teachers would demonstrate, then it was my turn to try.

In the afternoons, we were joined by a group of women who would dance, sing, drum and do theatre.  These dances were not just for fun (although plenty of fun was had!), but are actually designed as a teaching tool of how you should behave once you become a wife.  Of course, to demonstrate that I had learned these messages, I also needed to join in the dancing.  The good thing about coming from another culture, is that no matter how bad you are, they appreciate your effort.

The whole training culminates in a big final day, where the girl must demonstrate all that she has learned to a group of elderly women and her mother-in-law.  If they approve, then she is free to marry.  It has been a long time since I have done an exam, and there was a lot of pressure on me to do well.  Fortunately, I passed, and some even exclaimed:  “Amazing!  Your hips are so soft after just 2 days.  You are already better than some of us.  Imagine if you were here the whole two weeks!”

After a celebratory lunch of Zambian nsima, I was then released into the outside world.  With a chitenge* over my head, and eyes down, I was led to a bamboo mat under the trees, where people came to give money and well wishes.  I was now wife material.

*Chitenge is a 2m piece of coloured material, like a sarong, worn around the waist and used for absolutely everything.

Meanwhile…..

Manyoni was running around like a headless chicken preparing for the party to celebrate the end of Alangezi – known as a “Kitchen Party”.  This is much like a bridal shower, where female friends celebrate the woman’s upcoming transition to wife, and bring gifts of kitchenware to help her set up her new home.

Except that somewhere along the line, the “Kitchen Party” transformed into a “Coming Together Party”, which, in other words, equates to a wedding.

After we realised, and happily accepted, that we were getting married, Manyoni really had his work cut out for him.  Not speaking much chiNyanja, I was pretty useless at this point, so he had to go it alone.  Plus, he had a few extra challenges thrown in for good measure.

The first was no cash.  Even before I had arrived, the ATM in Chipata had swallowed our bank card.  Despite numerous attempts to retrieve it, and countless different stories from the bank, they would not return it to us (Barclays!).  So Manyoni had to operate without cash for two weeks, and then we had to rely on credit after that – it certainly made for interesting times.

Then, the night before the wedding, as my friend Alex and I were enjoying a beer at Wildlife, Manyoni was busy transporting chairs to the village in a borrowed ute / bakkie.  Unfortunately, on the way back, late at night and well off the main road, the car stopped.  He tried his phone but there was no signal.  Eventually, one person passed and together they tried to push start but with no luck.  He waited some more.  Another two boys came past, and he asked if they had phone signal.  They did, but no airtime.  As extraordinary luck would have it, Manyoni fished around in his bag and came up with a voucher for airtime for MTN, which is not even his phone provider.  They were able to call the owner of the vehicle, who came to collect him.  He reached home at 1am.

The Wedding – 5 November

The day of the party had arrived.  Manyoni was up at 5am with a million jobs to do – finding a new transport option for all the guests, buying the final pieces of our wedding outfits, and answering calls from everywhere.  I slept in.

Needless to say, our planned 7am departure for the village stretched to 9:30am, but finally we were on our way.  There was no turning back.

On arrival, I was swept off to the main house, while Manyoni was taken elsewhere.  I dressed, and then watched from the bedroom window while the crowd of villagers gathered outside and the dancers entertained.  Eventually, the time came.

I was led outside.  Beside me was my sister-in-law’s sister, and Amai Chulu to translate and tell me what to do.  In front of me and behind me were dancers.  I could see Manyoni off to the distance at my left, standing alone with one other man.

Manyoni and me - ready, set, go

Manyoni and me – ready, set, go

At snail’s pace, and to the beat of the drum, I inched forward, with the dancers leading my way, and the small flower girl throwing bougainvillea petals at regular intervals.  At the same time, Manyoni also edged forward until we met in the middle, and he handed me a bunch of pink plastic flowers (TIA).  Together, we continued moving toward the waiting couch, continuously surrounded by the ladies with amazing hip gyrations.

me-starting

Once seated on the couch, which had been set up on a raised verandah, I finally got an idea of the situation I was in.  To the left of me was a newly-built shelter for friends and family, with some gratefully recognisable faces and many not.  In front of me, on the opposite side of the grounds, were the caterers set up with bain-maries, and adorned in the stereotypical chef hats.  To the right of me was the giant drum, and the drummers and dancers doing their amazing work.  Around all of this were decorations – toilet paper (yes, you read right) strung from the beams like streamers.  It was so perfectly apt and African that I could not have planned it better myself!

Our vantage point.  Note the decorations.

Our vantage point. Note the decorations.

The rest of the panorama was made up with people from the nearby villages – hundreds coming to check out the spectacle of the white woman marrying a rasta man – both quite foreign to this rural village.  It was amazing, and humbling, to see how much effort people had gone to for this event – everyone was dressed up with men wearing suits, women wearing weaves in their hair, and crisp, new chitenge around their waists (it almost looked like a PF party thanks to the Patriotic Front party’s recent widespread pre-election chitenge distribution).

A view across the event

A view across the event

Our MC opened the event, and then we were straight into speeches.  First it was Manyoni’s father, who was quick and to the point – “Never pack up and leave”.  Then it was on to my fill-in Italian father, Enrico, who had been given 24 hours’ notice and managed to detail our entire love story in deep chiNyanja.  Everyone was very impressed, including me!

Up next was more dancing and drumming from the “professionals”.  They were shaking it standing, shaking it on their knees, and even shaking it on all fours – hips so supple it didn’t seem possible.  As if the moment couldn’t get any more quintessentially African, the wedding was then crashed by a goat who ran into the middle after being chased by Manyoni’s nephew.  Perfect.

goat-dancing

Then it was time for the cake cutting.  However, before this could start, we needed the knife.  For the next 20 minutes, we watched as four small girls danced their way spectacularly across the grounds with decorated knife in hand.  Forget about what I managed to do with my hips in 2 days – I couldn’t believe what these girls could do with their hips in the first four years of their life!  I was blown away, and clearly the crowd was too, as the girls were occasionally joined in their dancing by excited cooks and relatives.

girls-dancing

When the knife was delivered, Manyoni and I stood up to cut the cake.  Now, as many of you know, Manyoni is vegan, and Chipata Spar doesn’t exactly stock a variety of vegan cakes.  So, just to make this whole wedding a little more off-beat, we instead cut Chikanda.  Chikanda is sometimes known as African polony, but is really made from tubers and is savoury – not a cake at all.  Never-the-less, we fed each other, as is the custom, and sealed the deal with a…..hug.  We had officially “Come Together”.

Mmm....chikanda

Mmm….chikanda

With three cakes still in front of us, we then had to deliver two to our parents.  Together, we held a cake and slowly, slowly moved toward Manyoni’s parents, before delivering it to them on our knees.  The same was then done for my fill-in parents.  The final cake was taken away and distributed to the crowds.

taking-cake-to-parents

After more dancing entertainment, we were then on to the final activity of the day – the gift giving.  People were asked to come up and bring their gifts or money to put in a bucket / on the table in front of us, before shaking our hands and wishing us well.  Presumably this is so everyone can see who is giving what, which to me was a little awkward, but we got through it without incident.

The Pastor of the Reformed Church of Zambia then arrived just in time to give the final closing prayer, before Manyoni and I were led back to the house surrounded once again by the dancing women and flower girl.

This was, perhaps, the first time that Manyoni had managed to relax in a month.  We ate lunch, alone, in the room and then waited until all several hundred spectators had also eaten.  Then we snuck outside to take some photos with friends and family before they left.

With Manyoni's parents (in the matching outfits) and our Italian family

With Manyoni’s parents (in the matching outfits) and our Italian family

Normally, this is where the story of the wedding ends.  However, over the next couple of days, Manyoni, his family were being bombarded by people wishing to congratulate us on what we had done.  The Pastor even stated several times that we had presented them all “with a challenge”.  It seems that traditional weddings are now a thing of the past, having been usurped by white weddings and all their fanfare.  It took the white woman and the rasta man to show Eastern Zambia how beautiful their traditions can be, and to help revive them.

Obscene amounts of thanks…..

While I blissfully waltzed through this chapter in my life with barely a care in the world, I was only able to do that because of the efforts of so many amazing people.

This whole trip really relied on the kindness of friends and family – especially the Carrettas and Tembos – for the use of their cars, accommodation, cash advances, networks and, of course, their time.  Without them, none of this would have happened.  We are blessed, and we thank you a million times over.

The ultimate thanks, however, must be given to Manyoni, who did everything from designing invitations to buying dress material, meeting Chiefs and negotiating payments (never easy!).  Needless-to-say, this isn’t a typical role for a Zambian man, and simply demonstrates why he is so special.

Categories: Exploring, Life in General | 10 Comments

Langa Langa Lagoon

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.

Sunset beers

Sunset beers

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.

Artificial Islands

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.

Not much space for waste!

Not much space for waste!

Serah’s Hideaway

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.

Serah's Hideaway

Serah’s Hideaway

Shell Money

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.

Shell types

Shell types

The residents start by smashing shells into smaller pieces with rocks.  Then they chip away at the corners to give a roughly circular shape.

Chipping away....

Chipping away….

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.

Original sanding machine

Original sandpaper

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.

Ryobi eat your heart out

Ryobi eat your heart out

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.

Sizing rolls of shell money

Sizing rolls of shell money

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.

Photo courtesy of someone else

Photo courtesy of someone else

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.

Snorkelling.....again

Snorkelling…..again

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.

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North Malaita

While many visitors to the Solomons may think that Honiara or Guadalcanal is the centre of it all, there is actually one Province that is much more populous, and with a much bigger personality:  Malaita.

It took me a while to make it to Malaita, but with our sanitation project moving to North Malaita soon, and an offer from one of the Paramount Chiefs to stay in his village, I couldn’t really say no.

3 -4 October – The Journey to Oroe

I joined 10 other friends and together, we boarded the Awka ship for the 6 hour “overnight” journey.   This was my first long-distance boat journey in Solomons and it was as much an experience as I expected it to be.

Although the boat didn’t leave until 6pm, it was prudent to get there at 4pm to snag the best spot. Having a reasonable income, we were able to afford the 1st class ticket, which meant we didn’t have to squish with hundreds of others on a dirty, metal floor in the hold of the boat.  Instead, we headed to the air-conditioned area upstairs, and nabbed a corner of the room where we could lay down our yoga mats and try our best to sleep through the sickening, rolling motion, and the sound of the waves smashing against the rusty metal hull.

We arrived in Auki, the capital of Malaita, just after midnight.  After taking about an hour to get us, and our ludicrous amounts of luggage off the boat, we then we made our way to a pre-arranged 3-tonne truck waiting at the wharf.  The guys did a great job at piling our luggage high, and then piling people in all around it.  There were 12 of us fitting into a space of about 1.5 x 2metres in the tray (on a mattress), while about 20 locals fit into the other half of the truck.

Of course, our truck was just one of about 50 parked haphazardly at the wharf, and we had to wait patiently for another 1.5 hours just to get out of the traffic jam.  This gave us plenty of time to purchase some fresh Arabella Pineapples and mangoes for the 5-hour journey North.

We finally got moving at 2:30am, and the first thing I noticed about driving in an open truck at 3am in the morning in Malaita, is that it was cold!  Yes, that strange sensation that I haven’t felt for a while.

The next thing I noticed was that the bumpy road really made me need to go to the toilet.  Politely, the truck stopped and turned off its headlights as we scattered to the road edge and did our best to quickly do our business (no number 2s!) before getting caught in the headlights of other passing trucks.

Despite our relative comfort, sleep eluded me, so I was quite grateful as the sun began to rise and I finally got to see Malaita for the first time.  I was greeted by thick jungle on one side, and sand beaches on the other, so calm and picturesque in the subtle dawn light.

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I also noticed very few bottleshops advertised.  When I asked the Chief about this, I quickly discovered that Malaita (especially North Malaita) is very strictly and traditional.  A number of villages are dry (loosely enforced) and women must never buy alcohol.  Women must also wear skirts, never touch a man’s hair, or step over anyone’s legs or food (apparently, because they might be menstruating).

We arrived at Oroe village at around 7am (For the nerds:  GPS -8.390683, 160.731443).  Children half my size assisted in carrying our grotesque amount of belongings to the Chief’s house, where we crashed into slumber for a few hours until the searing mid-morning heat woke us up.

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View from Oroe

After a bite to eat, the Chief led us down to the local river where we could wash off the truck ride’s dust, and the morning’s sweat.  The water was lovely, and we whiled away the hours attempting to skip stones, learn an underwater drumming technique (fail!), and catching tadpoles while the entire village nearby looked on in curiosity.

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The rest of the afternoon we spent recuperating – by which I mean reading our book, making a vague plan for our stay, and cooking up a delicious dinner of Taro Coconut Soup.

5 October – The Clinic & Lau Lagoon

Despite this blog coming across as a holiday tale, the underlying purpose of this trip to Malaita was for work.  Those who accompanied me on the trip were all health professionals, and our first day in the village was spent providing a rural clinic and conducting health awareness.

I take it things like this don’t happen very often in this part of the world, as we had 60 people lined up by 9am.  As word got around, numbers increased and by lunchtime, we would have had around 200 people passing through.

While the doctors and nurses attended to the patients, the rest of us were thrust into doing some health education.  Naturally, I spent my time talking about sanitation and encouraging everyone to build a toilet and a nifty little tippy tap using a mineral water bottle – it never fails to impress!

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However, the most fascinating revelation for me resulted from the diabetes education, where one listener asked if it is good to smoke to stop diabetes.  After all, “smoking stop hunger and diabetes is linked to eating too much”.  While we know this to be incorrect, I couldn’t fault the logic, and his question gave me one of those jolting reminders to be ultra-careful of how our simplified promotional messaging can potentially lead to other damaging behaviour.

Sadly, things didn’t get any better from here, and the misinterpreted messaging continued on a slippery downward slope.   This new realisation that smoking could lead to diabetes led to an interest among listeners about how to quit.  Great!  Based on this interest, my well-meaning colleague offered to provide personal quit advice to those who were serious.  Okay.

In the end, what resulted was the village representative (not the Chief) getting the loudspeaker and demanding that “all smokers go immediately to the School for Smokers”.  I observed people dobbing in their friends, neighbours and family members, sending them to the School for Smokers, where the village had set up a wooden plank for now-maligned smokers to sit on – like a line of prisoners awaiting a firing squad.  As visitors, we couldn’t question the actions of the village leader, so we just had to go along with it and do our best to minimise the expectations and the damage.  Eish!

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School for Smokers (note the loudspeaker)

After lunch, we needed a break and decided to head to Manaoba Island on Lau Lagoon.  We piled back into the back of the 3-tonne truck, and took a 30 minute ride to Lagoon Dwellers Lodge.  There, the Chief sorted some boats to take us across the lagoon to a sand beach.  The boat ride was slow due to the low tide, strong wind and thick seaweed.  It was this thick seaweed that brought in the dugong that some people saw from the boat (not me!).  Instead, my eyes were glued to the artificial islands built up by hand from limestone, looking for indications of how the islands’ residents deal with the issues of water and sanitation – I am such a nerd.

The boat dropped us at a beautiful sand beach, where turquoise water spread out as far as the eye could see.  There was no coral to look at, and the water was like a hot bath, but it was a pleasant place to make a splash and relax for the afternoon.

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In the late afternoon, the boat returned to collect us and as we made our way back across the windy lagoon I spied something amazing:  windsurfing.  Sort of.  The locals had rigged up a sail to their wooden canoes using black tarp, and were standing in the canoes adjusting the sails to the wind to take them between islands.  This is the first place in the country where the wind appeared consistent and strong enough to facilitate any form of wind-based water sport.  It was a beautiful site, and made me wish for a kite!

With everyone back on the mainland, we piled back into the 3-tonne for the journey home.  A grey cloud threatened to shower us on the way home, but instead produced a beautiful rainbow that extended across the silhouette of coconut trees in the sunset.

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We made it back to the village after dark, presenting a unique challenge (especially with my gammy foot) to hike along a slippery, rocky and clay, path back to the house.

6 October – Adaua Secondary School

The next day we planned to go up to to Adaua School to do more work in our respective fields.  Unfortunately, and in typical Solomons style, the primary teachers hadn’t shown up, so instead we spent the morning relaxing and reading.  However, secondary teachers were there, so around lunchtime (in the heat of the day!), we made the trek up to the school.

Adaua is a clean, big, boarding school perched on top of a hill, giving fantastic views of Lau lagoon and islands.  It came across as quite clean, organised, and a lovely place to work.  The secondary students, and teachers, were waiting for us in the hall, and we were given very little time to prepare what we were going to say and do.  The girls were sent off separately to discuss menstrual hygiene as part of Days for Girls project.  I was told to stick with the boys and talk about shit.

I quickly managed to get the Chief and students to recognise that when they go toilet all about, they end up eating their own faeces – always a party starter.  The doctor and pharmacist then talked about diabetes and safe use of medicines, followed by the two nurses who gave a course on CPR.  To end, groups of teachers were asked to come up and demonstrate what they had learned about CPR.  I had no idea what they were saying, but whatever it was, the students were in stitches.  In fact, the students were so engaged by this that during their lunchbreak, after the session had finished, we saw them on the stage practising.  Amazing!

After we had been released from our working obligations, we were taken on a walking tour through the school.  It was, indeed, a very clean school – at least until I went to investigate the ladies ablution blocks.  It was a disaster, with the large investment in toilets and showers flooded with 30cm of sewage from blocked drains.

The more I travel this country and look at toilet projects of the past, the more I think that the introduction of water-based toilets is the biggest hindrance to helping the people of this country access a safe place to shit.  The couple of hundred female boarders now use a single drop loo half way down the hill – vastly insufficient for their numbers, but clearly more hygienic and sustainable.

Back at the village, it was to be our last night in Oroe, so we spent the evening doing a gigantic cook-up of all the vegies kindly brought to us by the villagers, consumed against a backdrop of endless chorus from the Church.

7 October – The road to Auki

Big rain came overnight.  So when our alarms woke us at 4:30am, in time for our scheduled 5:30am departure, it was no surprise that no-one was stirring – not even the Chief!  After drifting in and out of sleep for another hour, listening closely for movement outside, I finally heard that the delay was due to concerns that the river crossing may be flooded.

At 7am, we finally headed off, by which time the rain had stopped.  In my short stay here, I had noticed that the weather here is more unpredictable than anything in Melbourne.  In the space of 24 hours, you can have bucketing rain, sun, rain, sun, rain, sun.

The river crossing was achieved safely by getting us all to jump out of the truck so that it could pass along a very old and unstable bridge.  We also experienced a flat tyre around the time that I needed to stop and pee (although this gave a very painful lesson that peeing in the Solomons jungle can result in red ant bites on your behind).  Other than this, the journey was quite enjoyable, with a mattress to sit on, clouds hovering overhead for the entire trip making everything much cooler and bearable, and surplus amounts of peanuts and bananas to keep us sated.

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Given that the only other time I had been in Auki was at 1am, this was the first time I really got to see Auki in its “glory”.  First stop was Kilu’ufi hospital to catch up with colleagues, all who were extremely excited about CLTS coming to town, thankfully. I looked at their solid waste management facilities, which largely involved throwing everything into a ravine. I then had my bank card swallowed by the ATM, and discovered refreshing chocolate frozen bananas for sale in the secondhand clothing store.  And that, dear readers, is pretty much all I can say about Auki.

In the late afternoon, our travel group parted ways, with 5 of us extending our stay by heading to Langa Langa Lagoon for the weekend, and the rest heading back to Honiara.

 

Categories: Exploring, Work | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The real deal on coconut oil

I do love a good social enterprise story, especially one that focuses on creating opportunities in rural areas.  A few months ago, I headed off to the Coconut Technology Centre for a tour of their facility.  I left with a lot of coconut oil, and a very belated blog post.

The story starts with Dr Dan Etherington, a passionate man for social justice and an academic at the ANU who researches smallholder agriculture.  In 1975, he went on a conference to Sri Lanka to look at tea.  As part of the conference, he did a tour of the coconut industry corporation.  This forced him to look at the coconut in comparison to the tea leaf, and he was amazed.  Tea is one commodity and one product, but the coconut is so many products in one.

There’s the water inside: a fantastically nutritious and ready-to-serve hydrating product.

There’s the flesh: an edible and tasty product in itself, but also open to value adding.

Within the flesh is the coconut oil:  eight times higher in lauric acid than mother’s milk.

There’s the shell:  a great source of charcoal that can cook a meal for about half the cost of wood charcoal.  In addition, coconut shell has an extremely fine and dense carbon structure that makes it fantastic as activated carbon for filtering a range of things, including microscopic particles.  Take a look at your water filtration systems – there’s activated carbon.  Air respirators – activated carbon.

Coconut husk:  great for door mats, textiles, and rope.

Coconut flower:  the nectar of which is a sweetener to challenge maple and the hippest of hipster sweeteners, agave.

Coconut leaf:  used to weave sleeping mats, hats and baskets.

Finally, coconut timber:  a gorgeous long grain, beautiful when polished up, and extremely strong when used correctly.

Needless to say, Dr Dan suddenly became a coconut addict (it’s easy to do).  He then spent the next 20 years fostering this addiction, and finally received funding to do a project looking into the coconut industry.

What he discovered is that, in the Pacific, most of the coconut industry is based on copra – dried coconut flesh, which is extracted and used to make oil.  He also discovered that people are slaving away to produce copra, shipping the heavy bag to market themselves, getting low pay, then buying food and a ticket to get home, leaving them very little change for their efforts.  Seeing a similarity between this back-breaking “slave” labour and Australia’s much earlier exploitation of Pacific Islanders in the cane fields, his heart breaks.  There must be a better way!

There is.  Using his experience from Sri Lanka, Dr Dan realises that by extracting the oil in the village, and then shipping just the oil, workers are able to produce a high value product with lower shipping costs and greater returns.  Introducing Direct Micro-Expelling (DME).

Direct means the oil is extracted directly from fresh coconuts.

Micro means it’s a factory at a village scale, making it super family friendly and perfect for including people with disability.  By operating in the village, people can stay with their families and earn income at home, instead of joining the urban pull that we currently see crippling rural and urban communities alike.

Expelling is based on a technique that they found being used in Kiribati. By making sure that the coconut meal is moist enough and soft enough, the oil can be expelled under very low pressures – such as hand pressure.

Compare this with getting oil out of copra, which generally requires very high pressure (megapascals, apparently – whatever that means).  To achieve this, a big screw press, screws, presses and heats the meal, leaving a rather burnt and tortured coconut meat, plus oil.  Copra oil is generally yellow, smelly and tastes disgusting, so to convert it into coconut oil, they then put it through a process called RBD:  They refine it to remove the sediments, bleach it to remove the colour, and deoderise it to remove the aroma and the flavour.  It is then shipped to a health store near you and sold as coconut oil.  So much for a “health” food.

With the DME technology, Dr Dan decided to start in the Solomon Islands after seeing the challenges the country had recently faced with cyclones and tensions.  He partnered with a local Solomon’s business to establish Kokonut Pacific Solomon Islands (KPSI).  Their purpose was to create a viable, integrated value chain that supports everyone from the growers right through to the consumers.

Kokonut Pacific Solomon Islands also got together with Kokonut Pacific Australia (trading as Niulife Australia and developers of the DME tecnology), and the Producers Association (a cooperative that includes the coconut growers and the meal producers) and started the Coconut Technology Centre.  The purpose of the centre is research and training.

As part of our tour, we got to try our hand at each stage of the Kokonut Pacific process, just as one would in the village.

The process starts with the coconut growers.  These are families who collect coconuts from their own, and others’ plantations.  They make sure only to collect coconuts that are fully mature (a unique feature of Kokonut Pacific that ensures a higher concentration of lauric acid), and that have naturally fallen from the tree (ie. not harvested).  Each coconut tree will produce around 6-7 coconuts per month, and it takes 10 months to go from coconut flower to mature fruit.  It will take around 15 coconuts to produce 1L of oil.

They then husk the coconuts to make them lighter and easier to handle.  Husking a coconut requires removing the outer skin using a very pointy stake that would be equally effective in fighting vampires.  It looks really easy, but really isn’t. The husked coconuts are collected into a heap and transported to the village DME factory.

Here, the growers get paid directly, channelling the cash straight into the hands of the growers – be it men, women, elderly or youth.  This payment method is also unique to Kokonut Pacific.  It differs from the system used for copra, where multiple families or villages combine their product in a form of cooperative, and where payment is made to the leading member of the group – usually a male – who distributes it when, and as, necessary.  Great if you have a good leader – terrible if you don’t, and a pretty reliable way to bypass putting cash directly into the hands of women.

Once the nuts are collected and paid for, they’re cracked open in the traditional way – with a bush knife.  They are then graded.

The first grade is coconuts that are fit for human consumption – no smell and beautiful and white inside.  The second grade has vara starting to grow.  Vara is actually the start of a new coconut tree, generating shoots and roots, and is formed by feeding on the coconut flesh that has been broken down by enzymes inside the coconut.  It also feeds on the coconut oil, reducing the oil’s quality and, therefore, making it less great for coconut oil production.  However, the vara itself is totally delicious and edible, despite looking like a little foam yellow ball.  The bottom grade is rotten (smells like vinegar), which is then used to make copra.

The first grade coconuts are then grated using an electric grater.  We watched as one of the operators grated a coconut in 30 seconds – slightly faster than the 15 minutes it takes me on a manual grater.  In fact, a good grater can grate around 100 coconuts an hour.  The end product is a nice, soft, oily, moisture-filled flesh.  At this point, you can squeeze the meal to make coconut cream, or set it on its path to coconut oil glory.  Once the graters have about 3.5 kilograms of grated coconut (~15 coconuts), they then take it to the dryer.

The grater

The grater

The dryer is really just a glorified BBQ plate.  Its aim is to evaporate out the water as quickly as possible (grated coconut is about 1/3 water, 1/3 oil and 1/3 meal), to stop it from fermenting and to prevent any bacteria from growing.  The operators achieve this by picking the grated coconut up with a metallic dustpan-looking thing and tossing it gently over the BBQ plate like confetti.  This warms the coconut slightly and allows maximum air to circulate through it for a quick dry.  The other trick is to make sure the coconut is moving all the time so that it doesn’t burn, as this creates a very fine dust which is hard to remove from the oil – much easier said than done.  I had a go at it and was focusing so much on being gentle that I held the scoop a little too gently and threw it, with the coconut, over the side.  Oops.

How drying is meant to be done.

How drying is meant to be done.

Once the material is dry it has a bit of a crunchy feel to it.  The operators are able to tell, by touch, how much water content remains inside.  The magic number to aim for is 3% moisture.  Any drier than that, the coconut meal is too hard to release the oil.  Any wetter than that, the coconut tends to jam in the cylinder.  The fine moisture content in the oil will also cause it have to a low shelf life.

Loading the dried coconut until the cylinder

Loading the dried coconut until the cylinder

With coconut at the right moisture level, it is then loaded / jammed into a cylinder.  The cylinder is then loaded into the Expeller – an over-glorified corking gun.  This is when the fun really starts.  Using a ratchet, to which your body weight can be applied through a chain stirrup if you need, you squeeze the oil out of the coconut.  Boy, is there some oil!  Around a litre of oil literally come streaming out and into a jug below.  It is truly mesmerising to watch.

Liquid gold

Liquid gold

Once you have squeezed out all the oil, each batch is recorded for the weight of the oil, before being poured and filtered into a bigger bucket to remove any sediments.  The meal is pressed out as a huge compressed cylinder, and used in the village for stock feed, so nothing goes to waste.  The pigs love it and it sure beats a diet of human faeces!

The end products - oil for me & a coconut meal cylinder for the pigs

The end products – oil for me & a coconut meal cylinder for the pigs

From there, the oil will stay in the buckets for two weeks to settle.  They are then decanted into a 60kg barrel that is coded to indicate the farm that it comes from and the day it was produced.  This is shipped to KPSI.

When KPSI receive the barrel, they take out a sample of oil and test it for taste, colour and aroma.  If the tests suggest that it’s not top quality, it will be given an additional test to check for free fatty acids.  Free fatty acids are an indication of the load of enzymes that are present in the oil that could lead to rancidity. For virgin coconut oil to be classed as virgin coconut oil, free fatty acids need to be below 0.3%.  KPSI ensures that coconut oil doesn’t go into a jar at any more than 0.2%.

If the oil is graded as first grade, it will be pumped into a blending tank to be filtered again.  From there, it will be pumped into cardboard boxes with plastic liner and shipped for export for human consumption.  The oil that doesn’t achieve first grade is put to good use in producing a wide selection of completely handmade soaps and (soon) lip balms and body scrubs.  Everything produced at KPSI is certified organic, and certified fair trade.  Just another way to ensure maximum returns for their workers.

After witnessing the DME in action, all I can say is that it is rather impressive in its simplicity.  Obviously the people of Solomon Islands are also impressed, as there are now about 60 DMEs across the country.  Villages that want to set up a DME factory apply first to KPSI, and then raise the funds to purchase the equipment (SBD$150,000 or around AUD$28,000).  From there, they receive training and support, but manage the whole process themselves.  A well-managed DME factory will ship 20 barrels a month (1200L or ~18,000 coconuts’ / 2750 coconut trees’ worth), and it usually takes about 2 years to fully recover their initial investment.  That’s pretty good returns!

Now knowing the difference between copra “coconut oil” and coconut oil, it has really made me think about my purchasing power.  The next time you buy coconut oil, I encourage you to think about what process it has gone through, and what support that oil provides to rural, smallholder farmers.  Next time, I will be buying my premium quality coconut products from Kokonut Pacific, and I encourage you to do the same.

In Australia, you can find Kokonut Pacific products at most health food stores – trading as Niulife – or check out the Niulife website.  If your local store doesn’t sell it, be sure to tell them that they should!

If you are as fascinated as I am and want to learn more about the DME technology and Kokonut Pacific, I also encourage you to go to their website:  www.kokonutpacific.com.au .  There you will see links to Dr Dan presenting the DME on New Inventors, and an episode on KPSI from ABC’s Landline.

Now, I think it’s time for some Christmas shopping!

Showing the villagers how to use the Expeller.  ;-)

Showing the villagers how to use the Expeller. ;-)My 

* My sincerest apologies to Frank and KPSI if I have mucked up any of the facts.  It was a while ago, and I was high on that delicious Coconut Coffee thing.

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