Posts Tagged With: Honiara

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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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Battle of Guadalcanal

It’s cuppa tea time, people, because here comes another lengthy blog for your enjoyment.  I also apologise in advance for any errors written – I’m sure there are plenty.

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View from the US Memorial over Iron Bottom Sound.

View from the US Memorial over Iron Bottom Sound.

Solomon Islands is really only known for two things:  Great diving, and the WWII Battle of Guadalcanal.  Since coming here, I have done my best to experience the country’s amazing underwater life.  I felt it was about time to learn more about its second claim to fame.

Every year, historian and WWII enthusiast, John Innes, makes his way to Honiara to conduct tours to some of the key spots in the island’s battles.  I decided to join.  The one-day tour took us from the:

  • US Memorial (Opened on 7th August 1992 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the American landing in Guadalcanal)
  • Kola Ridge (the site of action where Mitchell Paige won the Medal of Honour….and now someone’s house),
  • Japanese Memorial (a shrine built in the 80’s where, every year, a memorial is held).
  • Track of the 2nd Raider Battalion on Mt Austen
  • Japanese spy observation point over Honiara shrouded by long grass
  • Mt Austen and the site of the Gifu,
  • Alligator creek, and
  • Bloody Ridge.

This is what I learnt:

Going back

In 1893, the British took over the protectorate of the Solomon Islands, and set up the capital at Tulagi in Central Islands Province.  The biggest industry at the time was copra, and it remained a sleepy backwater of the British Empire.  Tulagi is an excellent anchorage – steep into the water – and in 1924, the Royal Navy recommended the British transfer the Far East fleet from Singapore to Tulagi.  Due to the cost, they did not.  How different Solomon Islands would be now if that recommendation had been accepted!

By the time the second world war arrived, there were only about 500 expatriates spread throughout the Solomon Islands.

The Japanese entered the war in 1941, in a bid to take over the European empires, force America to the negotiation table, and have them recognise Japan as a leading player.  On the 3rd May, 1942, the Japanese headed for Tulagi.

At the time, Tulagi was defended by 18 Australians.  When they heard news of the pending invasion, they took off.  Three hours after their departure, the Japanese took over and set up a sea plane base, as well as having long-range flying boats.

The first American involvement was on the 4th May, 1942.  They had heard about the Japanese landing in Tulagi so, on their way to the Battle of the Coral Sea, they sent two aircraft carriers over Tulagi to bombard the Japanese ships.  All this managed to achieve was to let the Japanese know that Americans had aircraft carriers in the area.

The 1st Marine Division

Meanwhile, the Japanese settled into Tulagi and quickly identified a flat bit of ground in Guadalcanal perfect for an airstrip.  They sent over 3000 construction workers, guarded by 247 Special Forces, to construct an airstrip at Henderson Field.

Eight Australian volunteer coast watchers (the ones that didn’t flee) – each supported by around 100 Solomon Islanders – remained behind enemy lines and fed information on the airstrip construction to the Americans.  Bolstered by a recent victory in the Pacific, the Americans decided to attack.  Unfortunately, the only people available were the 1st Marine Division.

Now, a Division is made up of several regiments, with 3 battalions per regiment, and 1000 men per battalion.  Within the 1st Marine Division were two Raider Battalions of 900 men each.  A raider is the equivalent of a British commando.

The 1st Raider Battalion was led by Colonel Edson (of Bloody Ridge fame).  The 2nd Raider Battalion was led by Evans Carlson, who had previously had experience fighting against the Japanese alongside Communist China.  When Carlson had carefully selected his Battalion (choosing only 1 in 3 marines), he used revolutionary tactics learnt in China.  One of the most famous tactic was a catchcry used to motivate his men, meaning “Working together”.  The term in Chinese is “Gung ho”.

The 1st Marine Division had arrived in New Zealand in June, 1942, and had never experienced a battle together.  Led by General Vandegrift, they had expected to be given 6 months of training but, instead, were handed a note giving them 6 weeks to prepare for Guadalcanal.  After much protest, the seniors relented and gave them an extra 6 days.  Fortunately, the climate of New Zealand is just like that of the Pacific, so the training they did have was totally appropriate.

Landing at Red Beach – 7th August, 1942

On the 1st August, the 1st Marine Division set out towards Guadalcanal.  The Japanese were oblivious to this development and continued operations as usual.  From this point on, luck landed on the side of the Americans and played a big part in their success in Guadalcanal.

On the 5th & 6th August, the weather was terrible, so the usual reconnaissance flights made by the Japanese were abandoned, allowing the US ships to enter undetected. In fact, due to construction of the airfield moving ahead of schedule, the Japanese also held a party on the 6th August, leaving them hungover for the American’s arrival on the 7th.

The Americans came from the Western end of Guadalcanal, past Savo Island.  Some Battalions landed at Blue Beach in Tulagi, Florida Islands, and the small islands of Gavutu-Tanambogo (all in current-day Central Province).  They faced strong resistance from the Japanese and suffered many casualties.  With support from the Division Reserve, all three islands were cleared of Japanese within a couple of days.

The remaining Battalions sailed on to Guadalcanal where they expected 7,000 Japanese to be stationed.  The admiral in charge decided to land Red Beach*, where the swathes of Guadalcanal Province Palm Oil Limited (GPPOL) palm plantations are now situated.

This was a rather stupid move, as the beach is in the middle of a bay.  Had Japanese soldiers been situated anywhere on that bay, the Americans would have had to endure inflow fire from both sides.  As mentioned though, the Japanese were caught unaware, allowing the Americans to sail in without resistance.  Their arrival was extraordinarily anti-climactic.

* A common misconception is that Red Beach is named for the blood shed there, however no fighting occurred at Red Beach.  There are three designated beaches:  Red Beach in Honiara, Blue beach in Tulagi, and White Beach at the islands of Gavutu-Tanambogo.

Takeover of Henderson Airfield – 8th August, 1942

Seeing no Japanese upon landing, the Americans automatically assumed that they were planning a sneaky attack, so the marines took a very cautious 36 hours to reach the airfield at Henderson.

Meanwhile, instead of staying to defend the airfield, the Japanese Engineer in Charge thought it would be a good idea for everyone to leave, go to the other side of the Mataniko River, and wait for the Americans to move on before going back and finishing off the airstrip.  They left everything – trucks, fuel, generators, radios – ensuring that construction of the airport could resume quickly upon their return.

Of course, the Americans didn’t leave.  They took over Henderson airfield on 8th August, and all its construction machinery, without any struggle.  They immediately set up a defensive posture facing the sea, with a two-mile front, and shoulders 500 yards back.

When they did this, though, what they found was an empty sea.  On the night of the 7th August, the Japanese had sent seven cruisers and one destroyer to do a U-turn around Savo Island.  In the 38 minutes it took to do that, they destroyed five American ships.    The Captain of the remaining US ships decided to head off to avoid further attack, leaving the Marines marooned on Guadalcanal.

With few options, no supplies or artillery, and 2000 men short, the Americans proceeded to complete construction of the airport using the Japanese equipment, and surviving on Japanese food supplies.  The first plane – a Catalina – landed on 12th August, 1942.

Battle of Tenaru (Alligator Creek / Ilu River) – 20th August, 1942

After the takeover of Henderson, the Japanese realised that they needed more people to defeat the Americans.  Their intelligence told them that there were 2,000-3,000 Americans, so they responded by sending 911 men.  In reality, there were more like 11,000 marines.

Led by Colonel Ichiki, the Japanese landed at Taivu point on 18th August, and made their way towards the airfield.  At this point, the Americans were unaware that the Japanese had landed, however the 1st marine regiment had already set up a perimeter at Alligator Creek (1st battalion in reserve, 2nd battalion along the river, and the 3rd battalion along the sea).

On 20th August, the Japanese came close to Alligator Creek and met a local man called Jacob Vouza who was carrying an American flag.  Vouza was a retired policeman who served as a Coast watcher and Headman for the British District Officer, Martin Clemens.

As the Japanese questioned and tortured Vouza to get information on the Americans.  Seeing the small number of Japanese men, Vouza decided to lead them to Alligator Creek where he knew that thousands of Americans were waiting.

That night, Ichiki told his men that they were going to attack.  The tactic of the Japanese is to attack at night, while the Americans attack during the day.  This forced the Americans to stay put all night, urinating into their helmets rather than going to the bush, for fear of being mistaken as the enemy.

Ichiki first ordered a company of men to walk across the Alligator Creek at 0310 hours.  They were quickly decimated by the waiting Americans.  Ichiki sent another company of men, and then another.  Very quickly, 300 Japanese soldiers were dead.  Then it settled down into a two-sided shelling.

With information from Vouza, the Vandegrift released the 1st battalion from reserve, who crossed the river upstream and launched an enveloping attack, which led to complete annihilation of the Japanese.  Of the more than 800 Japanese soldiers, only 26 survived.  Of the 11,000 marines, 35 died and 75 were injured.

The Americans scraped out a grave to bury all the Japanese bodies.  A run-down headstone sandwiched between leaf huts now marks the spot.  For his efforts, in this battle and others, Vouza has been immortalised in a statue out the front of Rove police station.

The battle at Alligator creek is also famous for one other incident involving three marines – Leroy Diamond, Johnny Rivers, and Al Schmid.  On the 20th August, the three men opened fire with a machine gun.  The Japanese were able to pick out where the shots were coming from, so they fired back and hit Johnny Rivers and killed him.  Diamond and Schmidt took over but, a little later, a mortar round came through and blew the hands off Diamond and blinded Schmidt.  Between them they still had a good pair of hands and a good pair of eyes, and they kept firing the gun all night.  They were awarded the Navy Cross for their efforts.

Battle of Bloody Ridge – 12th September, 1942

The Americans started numbering the hills, with the site of bloody ridge originally being named Hill 1 & 2.

By late August, the 1st Raider Battalion and 1st Parachute Battalion were moved from Tulagi to strengthen the defence of the Guadalcanal beachhead.  First they went to Savo, then were put on an expedition to go to Tasamboko in the East.  They got to General Kawaguchi’s headquarters after he had already left.  So, the Americans took everything of value and burned the rest.

The Americans then tried to identify the line of approach for the Japanese return.  General Vandegrift insisted that the Japanese would return along the ocean front, which would have been reasonable if the Japanese were coming by boat.  However, since the Japanese were already on land, the operations officer, General Thomas, and head of the 2nd Raiders division, Colonel Edson, felt they would approach from the ridge south of the Airfield – Hill 123.  Thomas and Edson were ignored.

At the same time, the 1st Marine Division headquarters was located next to the Lunga river and close to Henderson airstrip (where Willie’s Electrical now stands), meaning that they were subject to all the overnight shelling and daily bombing, and giving it the name ‘Impact Centre’.  Vandegrift decided to move the headquarters to a quieter spot, and he chose Hill 123.  This concerned General Thomas and Colonel Edson greatly.  So, they went to the General and asked that their men be allowed to rest and recuperate at Hill 123.  General Vandegrift agreed, and the Raiders and Parachute Battalion moved in there on 11th September.

By now, Colonel Edson had 760 men (three companies) under his command.  He stationed the B company of Parachute Battalion on top of the hill, the B company of the Raiders from the top of the hill going down to the base, and the C company of the Raiders from the base of the hill to the edge of the Mataniko river.  That was the front line, and it was very, very thin.

Meanwhile, General Kawaguchi had returned with his 5,280 men.  They landed to the East, and then cut inland to attack the Americans from the undefended rear (remember, the Americans had set up a defence posture facing the sea).  They attacked on the 12th September, however got lost in the jungle in the process.  Instead of having 3,000 men reach the Americans at the same time (who easily would have defeated the thin front line), they only attacked with about 250 men.

The attack occurred in the dense jungle next to Mataniko river, where the C company of Raiders were stationed.  The C company was easily overrun – they had no time to build fields of fire, clear the grass, or set up barbed wire.  This was a minor success for the Japanese, but it also served to notify the Americans of which direction the Japanese were attacking from.

So on the next day – the artillery of the 11th Marines were allocated to defend the ridge.  They had all day to register the guns on their targets.  The Japanese attacked again that night, but the Americans were ready for them.  In the end, the mass amounts of artillery won that battle for the US.

A memorial in honour of this battle is located at the Central Police Station (opposite the Mendana).

From Bloody Ridge down to the Mataniko River

From Bloody Ridge down to the Mataniko River

The Battle of Coffin Corner – 24th October 1942

After the defeat at Bloody Ridge, the Japanese then allocated 8,500 men to make another attack in October.  They landed to the West at Poha River, and then cut a difficult trail inland, taking 5 days to reach their destination.

On the 23rd October, the Japanese made an attack across the Mataniko River (In fact, the turret of one of the tanks can still be seen in the river, about 50m in from the shore, on the side of the hospital).  This attack spooked the Americans into thinking that the main attack from the Japanese would come from the mouth of the Mataniko.  So, the US put one battalion in to protect an attack from that direction, with 46 men on lookout.  They had a very thinly held line, but it was bristling with fire power.

On the 24th, the Japanese started to move into position, streaming past the outpost where Sergeant Briggs was located.  Briggs got on the phone to the command post, who asked him how many Japanese he thought there were.  He replied “The whole f….ing army”.  Chesty Puller got word to his men to hold fire until the last possible moment, allowing Briggs and the men stationed at the outpost to quickly move out.

Instead of attacking as one mass force of 8,000 men, the Japanese started to string out.  They fed themselves in, one company at a time.  In doing so, they were being chewed up by the firepower of the Americans.  Still, the marine line was buckling and, for the first time, they allowed another battalion of army to be filtered into the American line to boost numbers.  Later, Chesty Puller commented that “the army fought like marines”.  I assume that’s a compliment.

In the end, there were so many dead Japanese that one of the marines said “If you were a coffin maker, you’d make a fortune”.  Hence, the second battle at Lunga Ridge is named the Battle of Coffin Corner.

The Gifu (Hill 27 / Mt Austen) – January 1943

In October 1942, the Japanese set up a very strong and static defensive position of about 800 men at Mt Austen (Hill 27), with supporting foxholes and big bunkers five logs deep.  The marines knew they were there, but sealed them off and ignored them.

By December 1942, the 1st Marine division had been relieved, and replaced by another marine division with two army divisions.  One of the army regiments was insistent on taking back Hill 27.

On the 17th December, the 1st and 3rd battalions of the 132nd infantry commenced their attack on the Japanese positions.  Unaware of how strong the Japanese defensive positions were, they failed to make a dent.

On the 19th, the Colonel of the 3rd battalion – Colonel Wright – went forward and was throwing hand grenades at Japanese machine gun.  He succeeded.  The Americans continued on the offensive but, despite being bombed and shelled, the Japanese were very secure in their positions.

On 1st January, the US released the 2nd battalion from reserve.  They made their way around the flanks of the battle, attacked the Japanese from behind, and took Hill 27.  The Japanese had five attempts to retake the hill, to no avail.  As dusk approached, the Americans went to a more easily defended night position and allowed the Japanese to come on to the hill.  As they did that, they called in the artillery who was at the mouth of the Mataniko and blasted the Japanese out with high explosives. It was impossible to survive.

The Americans then set up a perimeter around the area.  Despite being surrounded, the Japanese still refused to give in.  On the 22nd January, the army brought in three tanks.  Two of these were immediately bombed, but the remaining tank managed to pierce the Japanese line and come back out.  That night, the 89 remaining Japanese were ordered to withdraw, but were reluctant to do so.  Instead, they fought to the death and attacked the strongest part of the American line.  Only four survived.

The Japanese who defended the site all hailed from a prefecture in Japan called the Gifu – and that is the name that made it into the history books.

The Japanese memorial in Honiara was built in the 80s, along a road used by the Americans in their attack at Mt Austen.  The road is names Wright Road, after the Colonel who was first able to infiltrate the Japanese lines.

The memorial is more of a shrine.  Every year, the Japanese hold a ceremony here.  They also conduct a bone burning ceremony just outside, burning all the Japanese bones collected over the past year, and taking the ashes back to Japan.

Foxholes at the Gifu (Mt Austen)

Foxholes at the Gifu (Mt Austen)

The Japanese Withdrawal – 8th February 1943.

The Japanese, not to be defeated, sent another 12,000 men to Guadalcanal on 11 transporters.  Unfortunately, the transporters were seen and bombed by the American’s SBDs, sinking seven of them.  One is now a great snorkelling point at Mbonege beach.

The remaining four transporters landed, releasing 3,000 Japanese into the mainland with no supplies.  Knowing they were unable to win, they immediately set up a night time withdrawal on 8th February, taking off 11,500 men in three evacuation runs and leaving behind 24,500 dead on the ground.  So ended the battle in Guadalcanal.

The US expansion

In the years that followed, Henderson airfield became a major American air base.  2.5 million Americans passed through here, forming the biggest expat population in the country’s history.  With so much infrastructure investment, the capital was moved from Tulagi to Honiara.  They built every road that currently exists in Honiara, power, water, seven airfields (one of which is now the SolBrew factory) and a number of field hospitals.  Henderson airfield and Field Hospital No. 9 (our National Referral Hospital) are still in use.

As you look around, the hills are exactly the same as they were in 1942.  The only thing that has changed is the intense logging along the Mataniko River that has replaced tropical jungle with swamp lands, and the explosion in population from the 18-hut Horahi village to the current day 55,000 populous of dusty Honiara.

Conclusion

As I hear these stories, it is easy to see how enthralled our storyteller and historian, John Innes, is by these wartime events.  I usually find such enthusiasm infectious but, this time, sadly, I didn’t share his delight.

While the WWII is an important part of the region’s history and making (hence why I did the tour), and while standing in the original foxholes and finding shells on the ground sets the hair on end, I feel an overwhelming sense uneasiness in witnessing such excitement over these events.

The excitement is even harder to stomach knowing that the average age of the Japanese army was just 18, and that the youngest US soldier was only 12 years old (when his real age was discovered he was dishonourably discharged, but that has been overturned recently and replaced with an honourable discharge and full backpay and pension).

Whether you’re backing the Americans or the Japanese – 24,500 dead is not a pretty picture.  That’s not even to mention the lives lost from the American side, and the countless lives lost at the many battles at sea – so many, that the water between Guadalcanal, Savo and Tulagi is known as Iron Bottom Sound for all the sunken ships.

Almost everything we see about the battles in Guadalcanal – in Australia and through Hollywood – is heavily Americo-centric and goodies vs baddies.  However, it is hard to get away from the idea that, perhaps, it wasn’t so black and white.  Those 24,000 murdered Japanese also had wives and children that they left behind in order to fight something that they felt was worthwhile.  One day, I would love to hear their side of the story.

Artifacts from the war still cover the ground around Honiara.

Artifacts from the war still cover the ground around Honiara.

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Tetepare

Tetepare is the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific.  It hasn’t always been this way.  A distinct ethnic group, with their own language, still resided on this 118km2 block of land up until around 150 years ago.  The reasons for the sudden mass exodus of the tribe came down to three things:

  1. Coming off on the losing side of the headhunting game.
  2. Severe dysentery causing bloody carnage.
  3. Yep, apparently a lot of men lost their lives needing to enact bloody revenge or fight to the death for their honour against rumours of infidelity and weakness.

And so, the last man standing (or should I say, woman) left Tetepare in a dugout canoe in the mid-19th century.  Since then there have been a few attempts to resettle “the fighting boar”, and all of them have failed.  A coconut plantation, established in 1907 by Burns Philips Co., was one of the most successful in the country until the war hit and the plantation was abandoned.  Twenty years later, it was kick-started again, only to fail due to labour unrest.  The inability for any of these to take hold has simply cemented the belief that Tetepare is a living island, filled with spirits who wish to restrict human habitation.

Since the last woman left Tetepare, another thing has happened.  She has produced over 3000 descendants who all lay claim to the island.  Now this can cause a bit of a headache when trying to make decisions regarding the land.  With the very genuine threat of indiscriminate logging and the promise of get-rich-quick royalties gaining popularity among descendants, the Tetepare Descendants’ Association was formed around 15 years ago with the aim of conserving some of Solomon Islands’ pristine land and coast.  So far, they have succeeded, and with good reason.

The area around Tetepare is home to 230 bird species, 24 reptile, 4 frog and 13 mammal species, including rare and endemic bird and bat species.  It is the nesting site for three species of turtles, including the critically endangered leatherback and hawksbill.  A variety of seagrass provides perfect foraging for dugongs, while freshwater rivers and lakes support crocodiles and unique fish species.

The 13-kilometre long Marine Protected Area (one of the largest MPAs in the Solomon Islands) support coral reefs with one of the highest diversities of fish and coral in the world (second only to Raja Ampat in Indonesia, according to Wikipedia).  Some of the only remaining primary lowland rainforest in the region is also home to one of the largest (if not the largest) skinks in the world – it also has a prehensile tail.

Tetepare is the island that I so desired to come to at Christmas time, during leatherback nesting season, only to be thwarted by that near-death ocean crossing.  Three months later, we tried again.

First Day in Tetepare

After recounting our previous nightmarish crossing attempt to the other guests bound for Tetepare, I felt like liar when the trip this time around was so incredibly smooth.  In fact, the water was so glassy we were able to look at the reflections of the clouds and pick out animal shapes.  I had been bracing myself for such rough seas that when we reached the island without a hiccup, I refused to believe it was Tetepare.

After landing at the beach, we were taken up to our comfortable leaf bungalows, before being briefed about the unique and dangerous animals of the island, and what activities we could do to get close to them.  Sadly, we were also informed that we had missed the last leatherback hatchlings for the season….by one week!  Our afternoon was spent lounging on the hammock, spotting turtles in the water from the lookout or – in the case of animal-whisperer Manyoni – spotting green and hawksbill turtles while snorkelling just off the beach.

Tetepare 1

While a lot of the coral in the shallow areas was damaged by the 2009 tsunami, Mannu the guide took us out to the passage where we pushed forth against the current to swim over huge coral bombies stretching from 7m below all the way to the surface.  The abundant fish were supersized, with many of the same species we had seen elsewhere in the country, only five times bigger!

At sunset, we resumed the position on the hammocks at the lookout, before answering the cow horn to come to dinner.  There we were treated to delicious and fresh islander food, including fish in coconut milk, greens, ginger pumpkin, mangrove fruit and five types of carbs.

At bed time, we took our old-fashioned kerosene lanterns to guide us to our rooms so we didn’t step on centipedes, and had a parade of 8 staff come around to affix a sheet to the ceiling to stop the fire ants falling on to the bed and attacking us.  While this may all sound a little bit uncomfortable, I must admit that this was the best sleep I’ve had in any lodge in Solomons.  There was a lovely cool breeze, no fire ants, few mosquitos, and nothing but the moonlight to keep us awake.

 

Tetepare - lodge

Day 2

Alright, so the first night I did have one disruption.  I awoke suddenly with the feeling that someone was shaking me.  I looked up and saw a man peering at me from the end of the bed.  In my semi-slumber state, I thought it was a staff member waking me to see dugongs, but then he suddenly disappeared.  There are two reasonable explanations for this:  a) I’m delusional;  b)  Tetepare really is full of spirits, and I had just experienced that first hand.  Certainly, the staff at Tetepare were kind enough to think it was option b.

As the daylight came, I stepped out of my bungalow and headed toward the boats for an early morning trip to the reef.  In that short walk, I came across a sleeping snake, megapod birds and beautiful monitor lizards.  In the water, we were taken to the outer reef, where we saw giant bumpheaded parrotfish – first one, then another, then a school of about 100.  They must have been a metre in length, half a metre high, with the big daddy nipping the smaller ones into line.  It’s easy to see why this place is so special.

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Then it was time for breakfast (yes, all that happened before breakfast!).  We engaged in more carb-loading in the form of pancakes, scones, fresh bread, fried bread and fruit.  We then decided that we should try and work it off.  So off we headed into the bush, with little idea of where we going, but plenty of enthusiasm.

Within 5 minutes, we had the guides chasing after us and redirecting us along a “more appropriate” path.  It was a good thing, too.  Our guide, Tumi, made the walk doubly enjoyable by pointing out all the different medicinal plants, food plants, and plants of seduction as we passed from the secondary forest into the primary forest.  We made up to the highest point of the island, where we got a view of – well – trees, then headed back down again for lunch.

Tetepare - hiking

 

The afternoon was spent back in the water, snorkelling the passageway again and, this time, being treated to the sight of sharks, green turtles and cowtail rays.  As dusk approached, we jumped in the boats for our first serious search for dugongs.  Within a minute we spotted one!  By that I mean we saw its voluptuous body – in the form of a dark blob – dash underneath the water.  I’m not sure if it was the motor of the boat, or the splashes from 7 people frantically jumping into the water to get a better view, but that was the only glimpse of the dugong we got that night.  Dugongs 1 – Isabel 0.

As if the first day on Tetepare could not involve any more wildlife, after dinner we were taken on a guided walk to search out cuscus.  No, this is not a delicious form of grain, but a type of possum that has largely been eradicated (ie. eaten) in the rest of Solomon Islands.  It should now come as no surprise that Tetepare was able to deliver on that too, with three cuscus found hiding in the trees close to the lodge.

Day 3

A beautiful sprinkling of overnight and early morning rain put a dampener on our plans to continue our dugong hunt.  Instead, we headed down to the jetty to watch the sharks nonchalantly glide past below us  There is such an elegance and beauty about these creatures that I truly find indescribable.

The continuing rain foiled much of the rest of the day’s plans, too, so it was fortunate that we had Manyoni there to coordinate crafternoon for all the guests.  In between crafts, we dozed and read books.  It was tough.

A window of clear sky in the afternoon allowed us to head out for a short snorkel.  This time we investigated the coral bombies around the jetty.  Again, there were so many fish here, so big and travelling in every direction that while I floated there, mesmerised, it felt like downtown New York of the underwater world.

This evening was the last night at Tetepare for some of the guests so, in what I was to discover is a Tetepare tradition, we were all treated to the staff singing a farewell song.  In what is also a Solomon Islands tradition, the song was also accompanied by a power outage.  I guess that’s the price you pay when your only source of electricity for the whole island is solar, and the sun doesn’t shine.

Day 4

By the fourth day, I had begun to sense a theme for my trips to Western Province:  Rain.  Yep, our plans for a full-day hiking, snorkelling and circumnavigation of the island went out the window.

Figuring that we were going to get wet anyway, we instead headed out for a morning snorkel in search of dugongs.  Manyoni and Sardi went ahead in the canoe, with the explicit instructions to yell out when they saw one so we could come swimming.  That plan did not work, as they recounted afterwards the family of three dugongs that they saw close up.  Ah well.  We did still manage to catch sight of a couple of turtles, octopus and a nudibranch.  Dugongs 2 – Isabel 0

Crafts continued throughout the rest of the day alongside the continuing rain.  As the dusk came, we felt in need of some outdoor activity so embarked, yet again, on a dugong hunt.  (You may have gathered, by now, that I was pretty desperate to see dugongs).  Tumi, our guide, headed out first in the dugout.  The group of us followed behind in an OBM that was also being paddled to avoid scaring anything with the motor.

Then we saw it – sort of.  What we saw was the shape of a big dugong and a calf, with the hump of the back rising out of the water as it swam over the shallow coral.  Tumi suggested we jump in the water to see if we could get a better look.  We saw silvertip shark, a school of great barracuda, trevally, a blue-spotted ray, but no dugong.  It has escaped yet again.

As we started heading back toward shore, we spotted Tumi and Manyoni gesturing wildly in one direction.  Like lemmings, we followed.  For the next 30 minutes, we were led on the wildest, unsuccessful dugong chase known to man.  I’m not sure who had the most fun – the dugongs or Manyoni.  Dugongs 3 – Isabel 0.

We were far more successful in our hunt for coconut crab later that night.  You might remember one of my first blogs from Solomon Islands, when I indulged in the delicious and highly endangered meat of a coconut crab whilst on Santa Ana Island.

From that culinary encounter, I had no idea how incredible these things really are.  The crabs live in caves and rock crevasses, they walk backwards, and they feed on coconuts at night that they can crack with their bare claws.  Plus, they are big – the front legs of the one we saw being a least 20cm.  And strong – it took two grown men to wrestle a medium-sized one off a rock ledge.  Much credit must be given to Manyoni who had the courage to pick one up.

Tetepare - coconut crab

 

Day 5

With the rain finally taking a break, we decided to have an active final day in Tetepare.  We woke up and started our day with – you guessed it – a dugong hunt!  Day by day our success was improving, with a blob sighting 10 metres away, and a glimpse of nostrils and a hump but, alas, no underwater viewing.  Dugongs 4 – Isabel 0

After breakfast we decided to try one of the activities that was described to us by the Tetepare staff as a “Turtle Rodeo”.  Intrigued?  So were we.  It turns out, the turtle rodeo forms part of Tetepare’s turtle monitoring and tagging conservation efforts.  It basically involves heading out on to the water on two boats.  When a turtle is found, the boats work together to round it up.  As the boat gets close, the ranger (in this case, Mannu) steadies himself on the bow, before leaping off into the water in what looked like a belly flop.  A few seconds later he comes up holding a turtle.  Easy.  Admittedly, it wasn’t as easy for Tumi, who we encouraged to try it for the first time.

Tetepare - diving for turtles

 

With turtle in hand, we then load it on the boat and head back to the beach to measure it, weigh it and tag it.  Our biggest catch of the day was an 80-year old green, with a shell stretching 97cm and coming in at 102kg.  Amazing.

Tetepare - turtle

Later in the morning, we headed off on a coastal hike to Crocodile Lake.  As the name suggests, the lake is home to crocodiles.  If you’re lucky – as we were – you might come across giant salties while walking along the beach.  Then once you reach the lake, you can almost always catch a glimpse of one by climbing into the tree and barking like a dog – true story.

After sufficient crocodile sightings, we headed to the beach for a snorkel…..right opposite the crocodile lake.  The guides assured us it was safe, and so we blindly believed them.  Obviously I survived.  A short while later, we were called on to shore to partake in a nice hot picnic lunch, direct from the lodge.  As we snacked away under the trees, Tumi spotted an incredibly rare and endemic nightjar minding its egg.  A short time later, we also spotted a bright blue and white kingfisher.

Tetepare - nightjar

Tetepare - Kingfisher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we didn’t think that things could get any better, our after lunch activity was the most spectacular of all.  The guides took us to yet another snorkelling place called “the dropoff”.  Of everywhere I have been in the Solomons, this is it.  This is the most spectacular.  So many fish, in so many shapes, sizes and colours.  So much coral.  And so much colourful algae that formed patchworks of blue, pink, yellow, purple, green and burgundy on the rocks.  All in the most crystal clear water.  I couldn’t get enough.  I only wish I had a working camera so I could bore you with the pictures.

Tetepare - dropoff

As this was to be our last night in Tetepare, we were treated to the usual farewell song from our hosts after dinner.  However, tonight, the hosts did not settle with just one song.  Noooooooo.  From there it carried on to dancing, by which I mean them (the hosts) forcing us to dance.  I will never forget the tears of laughter rolling now down their cheeks as John spelled out his name using his supple hips, or as Suzanne held the broom, I formed the body, and Sardi wagged the tail to mimic the local Bilikiki bird against a backdrop of “Bili”….”Kiki”….”Bili”….”Kiki”…….

Tetepare - bilikiki

Departing Tetepare

The final morning in Tetepare and our absolute last chance to see dugongs underwater.  We adopted the strategy that seemed to be working for above-water sightings – Tumi in the dugout and the rest of us paddling behind in an OBM.  Sure enough, we spotted them but, sure enough, they swam away before we had a chance to jump in.

Then Tumi had the brilliant idea of dropping me off in the middle of the channel and chasing the dugongs toward me.  What could go wrong?  Well, after spending 10 minutes floating and staring unflinchingly at a big empty blue space below me, I was having my doubts.

Then suddenly it happened.  Dugongs!  A mother and her calf swam beneath me in a manner so calm it made me wonder what all the fuss was about.  They were beautiful.  Nothing like mermaids (silly Christopher Columbus), but beautiful none-the-less.  So, after five attempts, and in a manner similar to the ridiculously-scored Quidditch game, the tally at the end of our Tetepare adventure is Dugongs 4 – Isabel 150.

Final words

If you have managed to sit long enough to read this blog, then you not only need a new hobby, but you must also understand why I consider Tetepare to be the best place to visit in the Solomon Islands.

One of the most beautiful things about Tetepare – apart from its nature, of course – is its commitment to provide sustainable income opportunities for the descendants.  In fact, this is necessary if it is to continue to compete with the lucrative interests of logging.  The eco-lodge was built by the hands of descendants (literally – no machines here!).  It now employs more than 50 of its descendants to work as hospitality workers, rangers, trained guides, marine monitors, seagrass monitors, and boat drivers. 

All the food served is grown in the nearby communities where descendants live.  The “gift shop” provides a market for nearby wood carvers who are also descendants.  Plus, it is one of the few “eco-lodges” in Solomon Islands that is actually eco, with solar power its only source of electricity and almost no solid waste to speak of.  All they need is a composting toilet!

With that, I have just one piece of advice:  Go to Tetepare!  You won’t regret it.

Tetepare 2

 

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Kakabona

Kahove Falls

Kahove Falls

Of all the hikes in and around Honiara, Kakobona seems to be the one least mentioned among the expat crowd.  So when a friend of mine got around to organising a hike there, Manyoni and I dragged our two visitors into the Solomon outdoors.

The little that I did know about hiking Kakobona was that you walk inland alongside the Kakobona river (just West of Honiara), and that it’s flat and easy.  This small amount of information left me envisaging a flat hike along a muddy track, through tall and thick itchy grass, with the sun beating down from above and a wide, raging, river beside us.

In actual fact, it was anything but.

We met at Godfrey’s place, and were escorted by Benjamin and Austin along a muddy single track through the bush.  This track opened up onto the wide, dry Kakobona riverbed.  So far the hike was exactly as expected.

From there, we followed the riverbed upstream, with the bed becoming narrower and narrower until, very soon, we found ourselves in a cool chasm surrounded by rock walls and enough foliage to prevent the sun from sizzling our skin.  This was not at all expected, and it was such a welcome surprise that my normal heat-zapped energy rapidly returned.

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As we continued walking upstream, we commenced climbing over rocky boulders that paved the way for a never-ending series of crystal clear cascades.  Every so often, we would plunge ourselves into a natural swimming pool amidst the falls, letting the uncharacteristic coolness of the Solomon Islands reinvigorate and reenergise our minds and souls.

The boulders became gradually bigger the closer we got to the falls, and a stack of gigantic fallen trees made for some adventure-filled scrambling, climbing, wading, and new path-setting.  It was not uncommon to need a pull up from above, accompanied by a push up from behind.

After 3 hours of walking (okay, make that 2 hours of walking and 1 hour of splashing around in the water) we reached Kahove Falls.  After the beauty of the previous three hours, the falls were a little underwhelming (perhaps due to very little recent rain), but beautiful none-the-less.  The best part of the falls was standing under them and letting the water provide an all-over body massage as it dropped from 40m above.

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A quick snack and rest was in order before making our way back in reverse: sliding down the same boulders we had climbed up, plunging ourselves in fresh pools whenever we got a little hot, and exiting the cover of foliage and rocks right as the clouds in the sky opened their arms and gave us a parting drench.

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Out West – The calm after the storm

 

24th December, 2015 – Arrival at Matikuri

Nothing could dampen my excitement for the planned Christmas holidays to Solomon Islands’ Western Province – not even the fact that one of our pilots was asleep and the other was reading the flying manual during our 40-minute flight.

Suzanne, Tess, Jen, Manyoni and I touched down safely at Seghe airport and were met by Ben from Matikuri Eco Resort.  As he helped us carry our mountains of luggage to the awaiting boat, we could instantly see by the crystal clear water at the boat taxi rank that there was going to be plenty of good snorkelling and diving.

After setting ourselves up in our gorgeous private leaf hut bungalow on Morovo Lagoon, we wasted no time and joined a group to snorkel a wonderfully intact WWII bomber near Seghe airport.  Although the visibility wasn’t terrific, one could still dive down and check out all bits of the plane.

Western - it's 'da bomb (er)

Due to water shortages (El Nino) the day ended with a “bath” at one of the freshwater streams on a nearby island.

25th December – A Pacific Christmas

It seems that mosquito nets don’t stop everything – I woke up covered in fire ant bites!  Despite a spot of rain and persistent clouds, we took a fantastic morning snorkel to one of the many nearby islands where a very large fishing boat found its ultimate demise after hitting a coral wall.  The boat now stands perfectly vertical on its stern, making the snorkelling around the bow of the boat and the coral wall much like a Jackson Pollock of colourful sea life splashed against a deep blue ocean canvas.

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As the rain intensified, we spent the rest of the afternoon lounging at the lodge with a good book and some cards.

26th December, 2015 – Uepi

One of the first things you hear about when you get to Solomon Islands is Uepi Resort.  Rumour has it that Uepi has some of the best diving in the Solomon Islands….and a lot of sharks.  Since I don’t dive, we decided to head there for a day of snorkelling instead.

Sure enough, the snorkelling was fantastic.  Steep coral walls with huge schools of fish that I had never seen before – Damselfish, butterfly fish, parrot fish, goat fish, trevally, trigger fish, anemone fish, morish idols, leopard-spotted fish, puffer fish, surgeon fish, beche-de-mer, gorgonian corals, brain coral, other corals, as well as some huge bump-headed parrot fish –  all contrasting magnificently against the dark blue background.

Of course, where there are reef fish, there are reef sharks, and Uepi did not disappoint in this regard.  Within the first two minutes, I had a shark swimming nonchalantly past me.  As I headed closer to the sharks’ favourite spot, I sat there for about 5 minutes counting half a dozen magnificent black-tips heading straight for me to get a better look, before swimming away disappointed.  I did try to take a selfie with a shark for your viewing pleasure – unfortunately, they don’t do well at sitting still, and they definitely don’t smile.

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27th December, 2015 – A rainy day in Matikuri

Today the clouds of the past two days eventually dropped their particles and blessed us with a day of rain.  I suspect Bopo the cat exerted more energy throughout the day as part of its ongoing search for scratches than I did reading and sipping cups of tea.

A short break in the rain enabled me to drag the dugout canoe onto the water and paddle out to the next island, before returning to the lodge and spending an extended amount of time mesmerised by a sea cucumber expelling, what looked like, very sticky silly string from its anus, before sucking it back in.  Apparently it’s a thing, with the silly string called cuvierian tubules, and is a sign of feeling threatened.  Oops.

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That evening would be our last evening in Matikuri, and so we celebrated with a meal cooked by Ben’s wife, Jilly.  To add to my day of indolence, I gorged on fish curry, breaded fish balls, bok choy, green beans, roast curry pumpkin, kumara & papaya coconut milk bake, fresh pineapple and mango.  Like a well-fed baby, I fell soundly asleep to the sound of rain on the leaf roof.

28th December – Trip to Tetepare

We awoke early to embark on our next part of the holiday – a trip to Tetepare.  Tetepare is the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific, covering 188 square kilometres, and is now a conservation site managed by the Tetepare Descendants’ Association.  Apparently, it is a great spot for dugong spotting and watching turtles nest and hatch, making it the most anticipated part of my holiday.

As we piled our bags and ourselves in the boat, our driver gave us a calm pre-departure briefing:  “It’s 25 knot winds and it will be rough over the channel, so hold on.  If it’s too bad, we’ll come back”.  Such words by a two-time OBM champion Solomon Islander, who has voluntarily donned a life jacket, are not good sign to begin a reputedly dangerous cross-channel voyage in a 40 horse-power OBM.  However, I had complete faith that Captain Mike Charlie would keep us safe.

Mike was not kidding.  The swell would have been at least 2m, we were heading straight into super-strong headwinds, and had the added bonus of being pelted by stinging, gusty rainy.  Mike did really well to try to buffer the swell, but there were several times where we caught ourselves on the face of a wave and almost capsized.

In addition, we were being thrown around so much that the weight of Manyoni and my butts continuously hitting the seat ended up cracking it (a secret karate move from way back).  All this was before we had even hit the channel! Mike had been navigating us close to the islands on the edge of Morovo lagoon so that we could bail if need be.  It suddenly became clear why Tetepare is uninhabited.

After about two hours of bouncing and battling waves (I was told that it usually takes 30 minutes to get to Tetepare island), and as I clutched tenuously to my broken seat, perhaps the most scared I have ever been in my life, a small pod of dolphins came up and swam beside us.  Immediately, Captain Mike yelled from behind, “Don’t panic” and started heading us toward a huge cliff with waves crashing against the rocks at its base.

I was really trying not to panic, but with image of being smashed against rocks at the forefront of my mind, the no-panicking thing became a little difficult.  As we were about to hit the base of the cliffs, Mike steered the boat through a small gap between the cliff and rocks, and into the most tranquil, calm, serene spot ever known to man.  Someone in our boat likened it to a journey into the bat cave.

As we pulled up to the beach, and jumped out to pee our pants in the calm, tropical water, Mike came up to me, full of unnecessary apologies, and explained his actions.  His tribe are the dolphins, and when he saw the dolphins swim alongside us – not playing – he knew that they came to keep us safe.  When the dolphins directed us to the gap, he followed them, knowing that it would be too dangerous to go against their advice.

Now, whether or not you believe in the ancestral connection between man and animal, all I know that Mike’s belief in his tribal heritage could well have saved our lives (unlike others that, I later heard, did perish in this storm), and that’s all I need to believe.

As we made our way back to Matikuri, via the calmer waters of Morovo lagoon, we looked back at the gap from which we came.  It had now closed over in the burgeoning swell, making it impenetrable.  If we had been 5 minutes later we would have been stuck between a life-threatening rock and a hard place – literally.

After the morning’s excitement, we were all content to spend the remainder of the rainy day reading our books, playing cards and staring with post-traumatic shock out into the lagoon.  Extreme weather warnings started drifting in on our phones from the National Disaster Management Office.  The joy of our now-safe and beautifully-located circumstance came flooding back as we spotted the odd sight of a black fin breaking the water below our deck, and a garfish leaping up and flipping around a couple of metres above the water.

29th December – A wet day in Matikuri

With the bad weather still hanging around, Manyoni spent the day doing what he does best – engaging all the lodge’s guests in a day of handicrafts!  The rain came and went throughout the day, enabling the odd snorkel out the front of the lodge.  With poor visibility there was little to see, but it was still nice to get wet.  As the poor weather continued, flights and boats were cancelled, leaving us to discover that we weren’t the only ones to be stranded in the Hapi Isles.

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30th December – A windy day in Matikuri

An overnight storm brought with it horizontal rain and cooling gales.  By morning, the rain had stopped but the strong, gusty wind remained.  This spelled the end of our hopes to get to Tetepare, with its dugongs and turtle hatchlings.  I will just have to plan a return trip…some time.

Due to our unanticipated, extended stay, we had to continually change rooms to make way for scheduled guests arriving.  In the end, though, I enjoyed sampling the unique views and feel of the different leaf bungalows, regardless of sinking decks.

The view from our second bungalow

The view from our first bungalow

31st December – An almost sunny day in Matikuri

Sun!  A little bit, at least.  Enough to make us think that a snorkelling expedition would be worthwhile.  Naturally, as soon as jumped in the boat, the rain started pelting down.

First stop was Bohero village, a place known for its traditional handicrafts.  We visited Aldio Pita, who dabbles in the craft of wood prints on home-made leaf paper; then we went to look at carvings of sago palm nuts; then to see the revived traditional war canoe.

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Our next stop was to Bambata – the calm, tranquil place where we had unsuspectingly found ourselves three days previously.  This time, we were here to view the sites rather than to escape near-death.  We unpacked a picnic lunch on the beach just as the rain returned, turning our crackers soggy and converting our salad bowl into salad soup, as we shivered non-stop while hermit crabs crawled across our bare feet.

Post-lunch we dived into the warm water of the lagoon and paddled across to the cliff on the other side.  Close to that fateful gap between the cliff and rocks was a deep underwater cave, with coral and a plethora of fish above.  Today’s new fish find consisted of a lethargic balloon fish that looks very dead among the coral, and eventually moved after prodding it several times.

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Back at the lodge, we spotted another shark fin from our deck, as well as a turtle and a pod of dolphins to usher in the new year.

The evening was spent in a largely civilised way, listening to Spanish guitar from one of the guests, accompanied by Manyoni on djembe drums and drunk Solomon Islanders on vocal.  It was fantastic.  The air was a surprising calm, and people were enjoying the entertainment so much that no-one even noticed when the clock struck midnight.  That was, until Suzanne and I started yelling it out, then it was hugs all around.  Seemingly on cue, a huge gust of wind swept through the lodge, knocking over chairs and plates, welcoming us to 2016.

1st January, 2016 – A sunny day in Matikuri

The day started with another teaser of sunshine, beckoning us into the water.  On cue, the rain started pelting down as soon as we left the lodge.  It didn’t dampen the enthusiasm, although after a brief return to the shipwreck, we decided to leave those choppy waters and head to a new island where the water was much calmer.

By now the rain had stopped and the fish and coral were excellent as always, with some new types of starfish (including four-legged ones that are more like cross-fish) and huge batfish to add to the sea life checklist.  The sun eventually returned and we saturated ourselves in its rays while beachcombing for exotic shells and strange seagrass fruits.

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The evening was spent gazing out at the water, watching luminescent dots rise to the surface and divide multiple times to form a line of light.  I still have no idea what it could have been, although google suggests a mating display of ostracods (“seed shrimp”).  Awesome.

For our second, last night at Matikuri, Jilly cooked us up a huge chilli feast that left me looking and feeling much like a lethargic Bopo the cat.

2nd January, 2016 – Trip to Gizo

We awoke at the crack of dawn, when the sea and wind is calmest, to make our second attempt out of Matikuri.  All was looking promising with a clear sky and glassy water.  This time our destination was Oravae cottages near Gizo – about a 5 hour boat ride away.

Captain Mike took us back through the lagoon and out the gap by the cliffs at Bambata where we had sought shelter from near death just five days before.  What a difference a few days makes!  The waves were a gentle bobbing size, lolling us to zen mode as we passed by striking huge cliffs of New Georgia island with the waves battering their underbelly.  We passed a giant pod of dolphins early on, wishing us a safe journey.

"The gap" on a calm day

“The gap” on a calm day

First stop was a research station near Ballewi village, where we got to use the much-needed amenities and take in the views from the top of the cliffs.  Then it was on to Munda town, where we refuelled.  From there, it was super smooth sailing through the glassy and picture-perfect turquoise waters of Roviana Lagoon.  What most amazed me were the number of little islands… everywhere… like forest-covered mushrooms sprouting out of a turquoise field.  Suddenly, 900+ islands in the country doesn’t seem so unbelievable.

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We tried looking for our accommodation on one of these islands, passing by Kennedy Island (where JFK sought refuge when his plane went down), and seeking directions from some old Aussie codgers living a sweet retirement life by running a bar on “Imagination Island”.  We had no luck in finding the island so, instead, we headed into Gizo, the capital of Western Province.  Within five minutes, Manyoni’s calm head managed to locate the owner of the Oravae cottages – our next destination.  We wished Captain Mike a safe return trip back to Matikuri, and let the next part of our journey begin!

Oravae cottages are located on Seppo Island, about 20 minutes boat ride from Gizo.  With the whole island to ourselves, accommodated in tree-top bungalows and a water-front house with private outdoor showers, it classes itself as a “rustic romantic” destination.  This may have meant it was Manyoni’s lucky week or his worst nightmare, given that he was the lone man among four independent Aussie chicks.  He seemed to manage just fine.

Oravae Cottages

Oravae Cottages

3rd – 6th January – Oravae Cottages

Over the next four days, we got into the habit of waking up in the early morning and gazing over the balcony to look at the 60-odd garfish congregating in the water below, trevally & small fish chasing each other in circles, smaller fish chasing even smaller groups of fish, clown fish checking out the scene from their anenomes, and to count the black-tip reef sharks gracefully swimming past (on the final morning, I counted 10!).

Then we would enjoy our delicious breakfast delivered to us, before jumping in the warm water for a snorkel.  With so many islands around, there were plenty of different places to snorkel.  Each place, and each snorkel, presented us with a few new sea creatures we hadn’t seen before, including a turtle, nudibranchs, starfish, lobsters, eels, strange slugs, and different types of fish.

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Then it was time to take a break, lounge in the hammock, read a book and drip dry while we waited for lunch to arrive.  Post-lunch, a snooze/3-hour sleep in the cool breeze was required to help the food digest, before launching ourselves back into the water by way of a rope-swing, half-inflated lilos or by paddling the dug-out canoe to a new snorkelling spot.

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By evening, we would return to the deck for a view of the sunset with cold beverage in hand, again counting the sharks that swam by.  Once the darkness arrived, we enjoyed a delicious dinner with Darcy the dog while listening attentively for the sound of a dugong breathing nearby or splashing around trying to unlodge themselves from the shallow waters.

Oravae sunset

Just before bed, we would spend some time playing cards / Pictionary, staring up at the cloud-less star-filled sky, or peering below into the water in search of dugongs or luminescent delights (such as ½ inch bug that left a 50cm trail of light behind it like a snake, which apparently was a signal that it was going to die).

This routine was only punctuated twice during our stay.

Once was a small trip to Gizo to check out the town – it didn’t take long. The town has one road that took us past the new prison, the new hospital and through the markets full of crabs claws and betel nut spit (Oh, how I didn’t miss that).  We then spent the rest of the time chilling at the yacht club watching Western Province’s version of peak-hour, as small boats came in from every direction carrying families headed to Gizo for work or shopping.

Gizo markets

The second time our routine changed was to be treated to an amazing evening of entertainment by local band “Two brothers, a cousin and a friend”.    Apart from Oravae being a private island, guests also have private entertainment.

This band is the amalgamation of two brothers from the next island, their cousin (ie. the son of the owners of Oravae), and a mate from another island.  They have never had a music lesson and made their own five-piece drum kit themselves out of plastic SolRais rice packets, wood, and scrap metal.  Plus, they are amazing.  Actually amazing.  Four young men, each with a unique, beautiful voice, harmonising and able to play every instrument.

For about 1.5 hours they treated us to covers ranging from old-school Bee-Gees and Creedence Clearwater, to more modern (and, I daresay, more beautiful) versions of Rhianna and Carly Rae Jepsen (I had to look that one up).  I couldn’t get enough!

Evening band

Finally, it was time for our holiday to come to an end.  To mark our stay, the conservationist owners asked us plant some coral, before driving us to the airport (spotting a turtle on our way).  Being far too early for true Solomon Islanders, we sweltered in the heat of the tarmac before making our way back to Honiara and the bright orange sunset of a polluted city.

Planting coral

Planting coral

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Diwali food & Buddhist lights

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When I returned to Honiara, I entered one of those surreal ‘where am I?’ situations.

Firstly, it was Diwali time. My Fijian Indian neighbours, who have never been to India, very kindly invited me to their place for Diwali celebrations.  Like most Indians, they don’t do celebrations in halves.  I arrived and was greeted by Nisa glamorously dressed in a sari, and laden with shiny jewellery.  She directed me over the coloured-rice mandala lovingly created on the floor, to a table full of laddoo, burfi, halva, and fruit, that they had spent all day preparing.  Then once I was full of that, we replaced the table of sweets with a table of dahl, eggplant curry, chicken curry and roti.  Bear in mind that there was no-one else at this grandiose gathering – all that preparation for just the three of us.  As I waddled out at the end of the evening, I was thankful that my place was downhill.

The following night, I received tickets to go to a Thai Buddhist lantern ceremony.  This was the first time that I became aware that Honiara even had a Buddhist community, not to mention the fact that it was just around the corner from where I lived.  After spending half an hour driving around, lost, it became very clear why I never knew about this place.

Firstly, it is very well hidden.  Secondly, a few months ago it didn’t exist.  In just two months, the dedicated monks (plus a bunch of volunteers from Thailand) had managed to reshape an old property into a garden of eden, complete with small waterfalls that made a welcome home for the dust-coated frogs.  Finally, I never knew about the monks because communication is a bit challenging  – they don’t speak a single word of English.  However, their broad, never-ending smiles says a lot.

There was one monk, however, who did speak a bit of English.  However, even that had hilarious limits.  When I arrived at the event, my friend introduced me to this monk, and described my profession.  Somehow bits of this introduction about “health” and “Isabel” got lost and misconstrued, and for the rest of the night my name was “Help, Isabel”.  Or perhaps that should be “Help Isabel!”

As the evening went on, this monk guided us on the lantern lighting process or, at least, tried to.  Needless to say, it was chaos.  Given that the lanterns are nothing more than thin paper cylinders being lifted into the air by the heat from burning balls of fire, it was a huge surprise to me that there weren’t any casualties as the lanterns crashed into houses, power lines, trees and people.  Ah, Solomon Islands.

With this experience still front of mind, I decided to take up the offer of trying one of the monks’ Sunday afternoon meditation sessions.  I have tried meditation many times, and while I accept that my mind is in desperate need of some quietness, it has become abundantly clear that my mind is incapable of it.  Today was no exception.  As my mind darted from forgotten tasks to need-to-do tasks, I spent 30 minutes moving my numb legs around in a variety of a contortions while trying not to disturb everyone else’s zen.  Then, as I tried to save face by making a rapid escape at the end, I was cornered by a Thai monk gesturing that he wanted me to do an on-camera interview about my meditation experience.  All I could say was that it was a “starting point”.

It’s nice to know that there are always those little surprises out there in Honiara, if you’re willing to look.

 

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Back where I belong

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With countless people telling me, “It’s too dangerous”, “It’s too hot”, “Nobody does that in Honiara”, I finally decided to ignore all the advice and get back on a bike.  So I headed off to the one bicycle shop in the country, and took ownership of the best bike in store – a second hand Avanti hybrid.

Riding the 3km back from the store to my home felt fantastic – I had the breeze in my hair and the road dust in my eyes, nostrils and mouth.  That 3km was also enough to give me my first flat tyre (an indication of the level of quality of Solomon Islands’ only National Highway).  The store very kindly fixed me up with a new tube and tyre, and 3 weeks ago I embarked on my first group ride.

Saturday mornings, when sensible people are sleeping, I rise in the dark, fumble my way out the door, and roll down the hill to the starting point.  Along the way, I am greeted with a beautiful morning reception from the drunk locals, yelling “Hey baby”, “Go f*&kim yourself”, or running out in front of me with a broad betel nut grin, flailing their arms about wildly.

Finally I join up with my crew: Half a dozen lycra-clad, helmet-wearing whities, astride bikes ranging from cheap-and-cheerful to high-end pro racing bikes.  We must be the strangest sight in Honiara (except, perhaps, for that drunk guy with betelnut teeth, flailing his arms wildly).  Then we’re off.

We head out West, first passing through the informal settlement of White River, and then bracing ourselves over the nine sets of traffic calming speed bumps (with each “bump” actually consisting of 6 bumps in the space of 1.5 metres), interspersed by potholes.  Our only hope is that the bumps are enough to shake out the dust, but not the nuts and bolts.

Once past Kakabona, we are free.  We are separated from the hazy Honiara mornings and surrounded by the fresh, rural Solomon’s air.  We take pleasure in the day’s brief moment of coolness before the blanket of tropical heat descends over us.  We reflect on life at the same time that the rising sun reflects off the calm ocean.  We laugh with the kids as they run alongside us, barefooted, trying to outpace us.  It is bliss.

That is, until somebody gets a flat.  Then it’s just comical.  Everyone stops, pulls out their tools, and checks out each other’s kit.  Then everyone offers advice, all at once, on how to do the repairs.  Finally, one person is brave enough to actually give it a go.  They discover that the wheel is not quick release, so grab a screwdriver to undo the screws.  Then they discover that they just unscrewed the bottom bracket, so curse a bit and look totally bewildered.  Then one of the lesser experienced members steps forward with a tool none of us have seen before – a special device to unscrew theft-resistant locking wheel skewers.

With the wheel off, we then try to change the tube but it looks too big, so we argue for a while about sizes before realising we were all wrong and the tube is actually okay.  Then the bottom bracket is clumsily replaced with more cursing, and the theft-proof wheel skewers reinstalled.  Then one person pumps up the tube by hand, while the others stand around checking out each other’s pumps.  Then we are back on the road. J

While the idea of kick starting the weekend with a 45km bike ride sounds healthy and soulful, every cyclist knows that the real reason for any bike ride is the breakfast afterwards.  I am slowly working my way through the breakfast menu at The Ofis, and must admit that the banana pancakes with ice-cream, chocolate fudge and ocean views are pretty hard to beat.  So much for a healthy ride.

With stomachs full of coffee, we re-enter the Honiara mayhem, involuntarily inhale the fumes and dust, and climb the hill back home, arriving as the sensible people are waking.

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Mataniko Falls

With the purchase of our new car, Bluey, it was time to get exploring.  First off the rank was Mataniko Falls – a popular hike, close to town, with a watery interlude.  What’s not to love?

Like an excited, hike-starved hiker, I started preparing:  Hiking boots, Mosquito/Ant/Stinging nettle-proof long pants, Sunscreen, Insect Repellent, Camera, Phone, Wallet, Mini First Aid Kit, Water, Snacks, Swimmers, Towel, Books etc.

Pretty soon, it became clear that I was a rookie in terms of Solomon Islands hiking.  What I should have prepared was:  Sandals, Shorts, Inflatable tube, and a Waterproof camera.

Just to get to the village where the hike starts we needed to cross a river….by foot.   So, off came the hiking boots, up rolled the pants, across the river, hiking boots back on, pants rolled down, we were good to go!

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We were hit with an initial steep ascent until we reached the ridge line.  From there, it was up and down the ridge, taking in distant views of the ocean and islands on one side, and overlapping green mountains on the other side.  Of course, what goes up must come down, so after an hour or so, we reached the point of steep descent.  I don’t use the word “steep” lightly.  In fact, if you didn’t end up sliding on your bum, clutching tenuously at barely-rooted blades of grass, you weren’t doing it right.

The muddy backsides were worth it as we reached the bottom and got our first glimpse of the mighty Mataniko Falls. Stunning at any time of the year, but even better after a recent dose of rain, the falls cascade down a number of rock ledges, before finding their way down a leafy, peaceful chasm.  There is even a giant cave that one can explore by torchlight when the water level isn’t so high.

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So once again, off came the hiking boots, up rolled the pants, but this time to no avail.  The scramble over super-sharp rocks left imprints on the soles of my feet necessitating the wearing of hiking boots in the water.  Meanwhile, crossing rocks left me wading through knee-deep water leading to unavoidably soaked pants.  Never-the-less, it was beautiful to feel the cool, fresh, frothing water on my hot, sweaty, sticky skin.

 

If I thought wet hiking boots and soaked pants were uncomfortable, boy, was I totally unprepared for the second half of the hike.  In fact, the word hike is a misnomer:  The way back to the starting point is achieved by floating.  Yes.  Those that were prepared with inflatable tubes, got to float over the mini-rapids and gently down the river.  The rest of us got to shunt over the mini-rapids and wade down the river with our cumbersome bags and inappropriate hiking gear.

Fearing for the safety of my beloved phone, wallet, camera and books, I was grateful to be able to put these in another hiking buddy’s dry-sac.  The rest, well, it just had to get wet.  The float back to the village took roughly 2 hours and although the water was so shallow that the floating/drowning had to be broken up by short bursts of walking/stumbling, it was divinely cool and tranquil.

Back at the village, it was time to check the damage.  My backpack, which had been faithfully carried by the guide, was completely dry!   My phone, wallet and books, which had been faithfully carried in a dry-sac, were completely wet!  So, with around $1500 of damage, hiking boots filled with water and river stones, and more bruises than a Mayweather – Pacquiao fight, I headed home exhilarated and ready for more.   Next time I’ll be much better prepared.

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