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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.