Posts Tagged With: munda

Turtle power!

It took three days to recover from the exhaustion of Kolombangara, which was achieved by sitting on a friend’s balcony in Gizo, ironically overlooking a cloud-covered Kolombangara.

However, once recovered, it was time to get moving again.  First stop was Munda, where we spent a lovely couple of nights hanging with the beautiful Duttons, snorkelling / diving in the area, and being “entertained” by Ashleigh almost chopping her finger off amongst the excitement of cheese and home-made pizza (requiring a late-night trip to emergency and five really interesting-looking stitches).

We didn’t dwell on that, though, and before we knew it, we were on our way to the weathercoast of Rendova for Manyoni’s and my last Solomons adventure.  Our aim was to see leatherback turtles.

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Leatherback turtles are descendants of a sea turtle species that evolved 110 million years ago in the Western Pacific ocean.  They are the largest of all the turtle species, with the biggest one recorded weighing almost a tonne!  On average, though, they’re a “mere” 300-500kg, with a carapace length of between 165-190cm (ie. longer than me).  Their flippers can grow up to 2.7 metres:  the largest in proportion to its body among sea turtles.

As the name suggests, leatherbacks don’t have a hard shell like other sea turtles, but instead are covered in a rubber-like, leathery skin that has five long ridges running down its back.  Their body is teardrop-shaped, making them super hydrodynamic.  This, along with their constant movement that generates body heat (giving them a body temp of up to 18oC higher than the water they’re in), explains why they also have the most extensive migration range of any living reptile, and can reach depths of up to 1km.

Despite these advantages, when they first come out of the shell they are scarcely larger than any other sea turtle hatchling, averaging around 6cm long and weighing about 46grams.  As little babies, their diet consists of nothing but water, however once they get older, they survive on delicious-sounding diet of gelatinous organisms (mostly jellyfish – around 50 large ones a day – but also sea squirts, salps and pyrosomas. Mmmm).

Sadly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, leatherback turtles are also critically endangered.  Their population has declined by 95% since the 1980’s, which can be squarely blamed on humans.  Excessive egg harvesting, poor fishing practices and huge amounts of plastic floating in our oceans are our hideous contribution to the leatherbacks’ demise.

With fewer and fewer leatherbacks about, one of the best places to catch them in the Pacific is in Baniata, where we now found ourselves.  Baniata is a small village of around 300 people on the weathercoast of Rendova Island in Western Province (Solomon Islands).  There’s no phone reception within a 2 hour walk, and the school has been closed for the last five years.  However, the village is not letting this get them down, and has been busy establishing coconut plantations for copra, weaving kastom bags for sale, and setting up an organically-certified ngali nut industry. They are now, also, trying to establish a tourism industry around their turtle conservation efforts, which is how we found ourselves here.

The beautiful thing about turtles (from a tourism perspective) is that they are pretty specific about when, and where, they nest and hatch.  After their first trek to the ocean as little hatchlings, the male leatherback turtles will never venture on land again.  However, once females reach sexual maturity at the age of 20, they will return and nest every 2-4 years at roughly the same beach where they were born.  Baniata has the beautiful charcoal-black sand that leatherbacks love for nesting, as it keeps the eggs at a super comfy temperature and helps with camouflage.

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In each season, a mummy leatherback can lay 4-6 nests, each one exactly 10 days apart.  In each nest, there’ll be about 110 eggs, with the fertilization rates starting at about 90% and decreasing with each subsequent lay.  Those eggs will hatch 60 days later.  So while we ventured to Baniata at the end of the peak season, we had good reason to believe that our dates would coincide with some hatchlings and, perhaps, a nesting or two.

As the first official tourists to Baniata, we were greeted by half the village on our arrival.  Due to the steepness of the shore, we were unable to land, so had to jump from the boat in between crashing waves.  We were led to our comfortable little homestay in the middle of the village – complete with pour-flush toilets, well-equipped bucket baths, mosquito nets, mattresses, and a healthy fire ant population.

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Our digs: Baniata homestay

As us girls settled in, Manyoni wandered off by himself to check out the surrounds.  Half an hour later, he came back and nonchalantly mentioned that he had just seen a baby leatherback turtle.  Astounded, we grabbed our camera and ran.  The turtle wasn’t going anywhere.  About a month old, one of the local families had felt he was a little weak when he hatched, so decided to keep him in a bucket until he was stronger.  Whether this is good or not, it didn’t stop us from being totally enamoured, handing the poor little tyke around so we could all get an over-excited (read: crazy smile) photo.  This was just the start.

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Crazy smiles!

Later in the afternoon, our guide Johnson invited us to the hatchery to see today’s batch of emerged hatchlings.  Within the fenced yard, we found about 7 brand new babies wandering aimlessly among the coal-black sand.  A whole lotta oohs, aahs, giggling and exclamations of “So cute!” ensued.  After a million photos each, we then got to carry the hatchlings down to the beach.  We washed them in a bucket first to try to remove the baby turtle smell that sharks love, and set them on the sand to make their journey to the sea.

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The hatchery

What a journey!  Tumultuous.  Overwhelming.  Exhausting.  The baby turtles took a little while to get their navigation into gear, but once they were headed in the right direction they then had to drag themselves a sizeable distance (given their itty bitty size) across the soft, uneven sand.  About half way, they reach an exciting little obstacle called erosion, where the sand has been washed away from the last high tide forming about a 1m cliff.  Without fear, they plunge over the edge, inevitable rolling all the way down and landing on their backs.  They then squirm a lot in an effort to get the right way up, and continue on their journey.

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Outta my way!

As they reach the water’s edge, huge waves bowl them over, push them back, drag them forward, and basically give them a mighty good shake-up before they finally get dragged into the big, blue sea.  From there, they are on their own.  Kind of.  They still need to navigate the sharks.  Since most hatchlings at Baniata now come from the direction of the hatchery, the clever sharks have learned that this is the place to hang out at dusk for a delicious hatchling entrée.  In response, the people in Baniata have developed an even cleverer shark-dispersion method:  surfing.

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Shark-deterrent

Yep, every evening as the hatchlings enter the sea, the elders of the village encourage all the youngsters to get out into the waves.  Around 40 young bodies, and 80 dangling legs, do their bit to scare the sharks away by getting naked, running and smashing into the dumpy breaks, then swimming out further with a small piece of a timber that they then use to bodysurf back to shore.  Occasionally, the older boys will grab their wooden canoes and demonstrate their prowess by surfing the same waves…hopefully without capsizing.  It is truly mesmerising to watch, and made all the more magical by the glorious sunset that is happening in the background.

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Another boring sunset

After returning from the beach, and on a hatchling high, the ladies in the village had prepared us a veritable local feast to indulge in.  With bellies full of five types of carbs, we then had an early night in preparation for the next activity.

At midnight, we woke up, dressed, grabbed our torches and headed to the beach.  Here, we joined Johnson (and occasionally his team…unless they had missed their alarm) to patrol the beach in search of mummy turtles dropping a batch.  We walked one section of beach, laid down our mats to rest, while Johnson went and walked the next section.  This would continue until 4am, when we would head back to bed for a long sleep-in and lazy day in the village.

This ritual continued for the next three days:  Wake up, eat breakfast, sleep some more, eat lunch, read while the afternoon showers kick in, release hatchlings, play in the sea, bath, eat dinner, sleep, wake up at midnight for a four-hour beach patrol, sleep at 4am.  Occasionally the schedule would deviate with a small walk to one of the nearby sights:  WWII plane debris, small waterfall, football match, or to take a boat to the next village to make some phone calls and catch a giant kingfish.

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Much tastier than turtle

On one day, it deviated even further as a squad of riot police – complete with shields, tear-gas guns and a massive power trip – walked through the village and arrested a number of men who had been involved in protesting an illegal logging operation on their kastom land (59 people from a couple of villages were arrested over the course of two days).  Sadly, I doubt officials from the logging company faced the same treatment for their illegal behavior.  Injustice in this country is rife.

Before we knew, it was our last day, and night, in the village.  Although we had enjoyed seeing leatherback hatchlings every evening, an adult nesting leatherback at night still eluded us.  As the main nesting time is between 1am-4am, we decided to delay our wake-up by one hour, reaching the beach at 1:15am.  It seems after 3 nights of patrolling, everyone else had slept in, so we decided to patrol the beach ourselves.  Back and forth.  Back and forth.

After 1 ½ hours, at 3:30am, Johnson came running to us, “Did you see the turtle? Hem go finis.”  Our jaws dropped.  What Johnson meant was that, despite our continuous patrols, a leatherback had managed to come up on land, spend 2 hours laying her eggs, and return to the water before we had a chance to see her.  Either we had walked straight past her (my shoe prints were literally 2 metres away from the nest) or she had come up and done her business before we even reached the beach.  We couldn’t believe it.  In fact, I refused to believe it until Johnson showed us the really clear track marks, and the huge nest that she left behind.  He then proceeded to dig up the freshly laid eggs as further proof – 45 fertilised and 47 yolk-less.  Perhaps her last lay for the season.

I was flummoxed, and a wee bit devastated that after four nights of constant patrolling, a leatherback had finally nested on the beach where we were and we missed it.  At the same time, I was also excited that a leatherback had finally nested on the beach where we were and given another 45 eggs a chance at bringing the species back from the brink.  Godspeed little ones, Godspeed.

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POSTSCRIPT:  For any readers out there who would love to see these amazing, and critically endangered species in the wild, I highly recommend a trip to Baniata.  Peak season is November/December, with another season June/July.  Call Harol on +677 7420 400 about a month before you plan to come – he will find out the dates with the highest chance of seeing nesting / hatching.  He will also arrange transport from Munda, and all other logistics.  It would be a perfect additional couple of days for anyone travelling to Tetepare.  The best news is that your tourist dollars will help to build Baniata’s self-sufficiency, and cement the value of conservation in this area where traditional practices of turtle harvesting are still highly regarded.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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