Posts Tagged With: pacific

Turtle power!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Our digs: Baniata homestay

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

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Crazy smiles!

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

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The hatchery

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

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Outta my way!

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

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Shark-deterrent

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

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Another boring sunset

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

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

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

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Much tastier than turtle

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

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

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

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

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

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Kolombangara

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The lady is sleeping

It was a bad week of immigration nightmares and a cancelled Shaggy concert.  Clearly, I needed to get away.  What better place than to Kolombangara?

 

Kolombangara is a volcanic island in Western Solomon Islands that last released a fiery furnace 10,000 years ago. Now it is home to Solomon Islands’ 2nd, 3rd, and 4th highest peaks (the highest peak in SI is Mt Popomanaseu in Guadalcanal at 2,335m – higher than Kosciusko). It is also known as the sleeping lady because, if you look closely and a little cross-eyed, the island resembles a sleeping woman.

Being volcanic, the island is able to grow lots of good stuff and has naturally become a popular site for forestry and logging. In 2008, the indigenous people of the island formed the Kolombangara Island Biodiversity Conservation Authority (KIBCA) and established rules to protect all wildlife and vegetation above 400m altitude. This makes it the largest conservation area in the country covering 19,400ha.

A month earlier, I had emailed KIBCA and was assured that all preparations were in place for our 3-day hike. On Friday, we arrived at the island, but no-one was there to meet us. So we asked the only person we saw: “KIBCA?” He responded by stretching out his arm, pointing in a random direction and saying “Up top.”  With only one other building that we could see, we headed in that direction until he stopped us:  “Not there. Up top.”

With that handy bit of advice we had no option but to head in the direction of his directionless pointing.  After 10 minutes of walking in the hot sun with 4 days’ worth of camping equipment and food on our backs, a car passed that we were able to flag down. We asked the driver where KIBCA was, and his response: “Up top.”  This was gonna be tough.

“Up top” turns out to be Ringgi town, about 2km from the “Marine base” where we started walking. The driver first took us to Ferguson, the coordinator of KIBCA who expressed that he was unaware of our booking. So then we sought out Mayson, the person I had been conversing with through email. Fortunately Mayson was aware of our booking, but had done nothing about it.

“So do you want a guide?”

“Um…yes…your rules say we have to have a guide. Remember, we asked for Moffat?”

“There are lots of guides”.  Turns out there aren’t. After a recent recruitment attempt the 12 potential guides all pulled out after trying to summit Mt Veve, vowing never to do it again. Moffat remains the only one crazy enough to scale Veve more than once.

“Moffat doesn’t have a phone. He may not be around”  In walks a lady with Moffat’s phone number. Moffat answers. He is around, and he’ll be here soon – just needs to paddle from his village.

“And a porter, please”

“Yes, yes, we’ll find you one”. Except that, like guides, there is no-one willing to do the climb more than once.  More on that later.

“Oh, and how do visitors normally get from the marine base to here?”

“The man at the marine base has a radio to tell us to pick you up.”  So you mean he isn’t meant to just point and say “up top”? Apparently not.

While waiting for Moffat, we took a walk through the one-horse town of Ringgi, before jumping in the truck and heading to Imbu Rano. Meaning “mist from Rano”, this beautiful and basic wooden ecolodge is set among the rainforest and has views to Mt Tepalamenggutu and Mt Rano, the island’s 2nd and 3rd highest peaks, respectively. Here we would spend the night before commencing our hike the next morning. At least that was the plan.

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View of Mt Rano and Mt Tepa from Imbu Rano lodge

After reaching the lodge, I thought it best to confirm Mayson’s other helpful advice.

“Just to confirm, you said there are sleeping huts along the way?”

“Yes, yes” says Mayson.  “No no” says Moffat, “They all broke down over a year ago.”

“Okay. Is there a tent here we can use?”

“Yes, yes” says Mayson. “No”, says Moffat. “I tried to use it two weeks ago and it was broken”.

“Never mind”, says Mayson. “The weather looks good, you won’t need one.”

“You definitely need one”, says Moffat.  After all, Kolombangara has its own weather system, where it rains more often than not.  Not to mention, it’s also wet season.

So we sent Mayson off with the task of finding a tent and a porter in time for a 7am departure.  In the meantime we waited, relaxed, slept, and storied about the (we hoped) upcoming adventure.

We waited beyond 7am the next morning. Finally, around 8am, Mayson arrived. Francis, a Malaitan employed by the logging company, had been roped into the role of porter at the last minute and, having never climbed the mountain before, clearly had no idea what he was in for. Sadly, we still had no tent, which threatened the entire trip.  Moffat quickly managed to pull together bits and pieces from several tents to form one vaguely functioning one.  By 9am we were off.

We started the walk at a cracking speed, I assume to make up the 2 hours already lost that morning. However, only 30 minutes in, our poor, reluctant porter admitted that he could no longer carry the bag. Quickly, we did a reshuffle and Manyoni shouldered the heaviest pack, while Francis was bestowed with the lightest. We continued on, and as we walked, my mind became wonderfully lost in the lush green rainforest and soft, mossy, decomposing ground that felt like we were walking on cushions.  We also came across one of Manyoni’s wantok: a rasta grasshopper!

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Bob Marley’s reincarnation

Those tranquil thoughts didn’t last long. Soon, we started climbing…up a mountain. Up a very, very steep mountain. Up. Mountain. Up. Mountain. Up. Up. Up. Mountain. Mountain. Mountain.

After 2 hours we made it to Camp 1, where we stopped to refill our water. Francis, the porter, was already lagging behind. Then I was handed the heavy bag, which I bore for the next two hours to Camp 2. By this stage, I was utterly exhausted. Not as exhausted as Francis, though, who was so behind that we all thought he had done a runner. After a light lunch of crackers and tuna, a refill of water, and some psychological counselling, I was almost prepared for 4 hours of hiking yet to come.

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Manyoni & Moffat among the fluffy trees

What I wasn’t prepared for was the change in terrain.  Where I had once felt like I was walking on cushions, I was now walking on a flying carpet. Everywhere we stepped, underneath was a big cavernous space (ie. a volcanic crater) overlayed with a thin network of roots, and leaf litter forming a false floor. Should you step anywhere without a solid root, you would fall into the crater.

As if that wasn’t enough, the “trail” (in inverted commas because we were pretty much just bush bashing) just seemed to get steeper and steeper. Steps were now leaps, requiring us to haul ourselves (and our packs) up using whatever exposed roots or branches we could find.

By mid-afternoon we had reached the summit of Mt Tepalamenggutu, the second highest peak in Kolombangara at 1,708m. In other words, we had just climbed over 1,330m. Here, we took in the amazing view of the crater, for we were among the lucky ones that had dry weather and no clouds.

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View into the crater from Tepa

However, we didn’t linger long, for we still had 2 hours to go until we reached our camp for the night. As everyone knows, what goes up must come down, so the ensuing 2 hours involved stupidly steep descents, sliding on our bums from root to root, holding ourselves up with nearby trees: like Tarzan but with much less finesse.

We finally reached Camp 3 at 6:15 pm, 9 hours after we had started. Suzanne and I collapsed, but with light fading fast, Moffat and Francis quickly set up the tents. Then they took off further down the hill to fetch water.

Each campsite along the route was carefully chosen for its close proximity to water. Walking along the rim of the crater meant that there were no streams or springs to take advantage of. So when Moffat and Francis returned an hour later, empty handed with “bad news, the pool is dry”, we knew we had a slight issue on our hands.  Despite the recent rain, this was the first time the pool had dried up since Moffat had started walking this route 10 years ago.

The good news for us was that Moffat is the Solomon Islands’ version of Bear Grylls. He immediately started looking for nearby bamboo stalks filled with fresh water.  Unfortunately, they were all dry too.  With not a drop of water in our possession, he did what any crazy, non-human robot who had just hiked 8 hours would do, and ventured back towards Camp 2. Three hours later, at 11pm he returned to camp carrying five 3-metre lengths of bamboo filled with water. How he had managed to carry that, in that terrain, in the dark, I will never know, but I will be eternally grateful.

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Filling the waterbottles with bamboo water…the next big thing in boutique water

The following morning we filled our bottles with whatever water remained, and headed off towards the summit of Mt Veve – Kolombangara’s highest peak. Being the first people to attempt the summit since November last year, the thicket had refilled any spare space and a new path had to be cut as we went. The steepness remained abhorrent and it took 2 hours to go a mere 1.5 kilometres.

As we reached the top, the pain was briefly forgotten as we celebrated our feat (despite trees blocking all views). Even poor Francis, the unknowing porter, seemed bolstered by his achievement.

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With the oldest woman, and first African, ever to summit Mt Veve

On the way back down, we made an executive decision to remain at Camp 3 that night, based on our inability to comprehend an additional 4 hour walk to the next campsite. To overcome the water issue, we would, instead, have to carry bamboo from the heights of Mt Veve to our campsite.  It was only then that I had a true appreciation of what Moffat had achieved the previous night. By the time we made it back to camp, after 3 hours carrying heavy bamboo, I was utterly spent and ready to cry.

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Carrying life-saving bamboo… down.. down.. down.. down

We spent the afternoon napping and cooking all the food in our possession to lighten the load home. Slightly revived, I was able to enjoy the crater’s silhouette in the evening’s sunset, and after dark, I was enraptured by the plethora of stars in the night sky. All of this was thanks to yet another unusually clear day on Kolombangara.

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Crater rim at sunset

We awoke before sunrise in an attempt to give us plenty of time to complete the hike’s third, and final, day. We filled up on bamboo water and made good time to the summit of Mt Tepa, and to Camp 2. It was only after departing Camp 2 that we experienced our first bit of serious rain, giving us a cooling shower while also adding an extra element of slipperiness, and danger. We persisted, and despite exhaustion, dehydration and blister-filled feet we arrived back at the lodge around 4pm.

We enjoyed our last evening surrounded by the rainforest, with our last views of Kolombangara. That night, the heavens opened and remained that way for the next two days.

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The bat cave

Hikes are one of the things that Honiara does best.  So when I was invited to a hike at the “newly discovered” (by the expat community) Parasaia Cave, how could I resist?  Unfortunately, the evening before the planned hike, a low pressure system was forecast and the organisers hastily cancelled.  However, threats of a downpour and flash floods couldn’t stop me*, so I found two new friends to join me the following morning.

Parasaia Cave, also known as bat cave, has only recently come on the radar, so our small group had no real idea of what it entailed.  Except we knew it had bats, in a cave.  We’re intelligent like that.

It was an overcast morning, without a drop of the anticipated rain, when we drove East out of Honiara and up past Tenaru to Paraingiju Lodge.  As our hike had been cancelled, we had to wait for the organiser to rustle up some new guides (ie. get them out of bed) and then we were on our way.  Our guides were 10 year old Thomas – the only one who had actually been to the cave and who, bless the young chap, guessed my age as being 17.  There was also Steven Jnr, Amanda and Rodney, who were coming along to learn the ropes.

Due to some radiator troubles, we decided not to drive to the starting point, and instead macheted our way through some thick jungle to the road below.  This cut out about 1km or so.  Once we reached the road, we were fortunate to have a car drive past that was able to drive us the other 3km to the bridge.  This is where the hike really started.

A leisurely walk

A leisurely walk

The entire walk follows the Balaha (?) River, but when I say “follows” I mean it repeatedly zigzags across the sometimes chest-deep and rather strong-current river, interspersed by short stretches on land that was more akin to rock scrambling than hiking.  There were a few hairy moments, where I almost got swept over some small falls, and other rock sliding moments that left me with bright blue splotchy souvenirs on my skin.  The scenery, though, made up for it all.  The water was a perfect aqua blue, cutting through a green leafy gorge, with waterfalls and cascades the whole length of the hike.

Passing by a wee, itty, bitty tree that was blocking our path

Passing by a wee, itty, bitty tree that was blocking our path

After 2 hours, we made it to the entrance to the cave, marked by a towering and stunning cascade.  We spent a short while taking selfies with the scenery, before heading for the said cave.  Yep, one of the unique features of this walk is that you can walk through the bat cave.

The falls

The falls

Entering the bat cave...

Entering the bat cave…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It may surprise you that feeling along the slimy bat-poo walls and boulders to avoid stumbling over the submerged and uneven rocks in pitch black is not as enticing as it sounds.  Even less enticing is having to slide down a bat poo-covered tree trunk on your butt, because there was so much bat poo that it was too slippery to walk down it (and when I say bat poo, I’m not referring to the dry squishy guano that I’m used to – this stuff is seriously big, chunky and goopy).

The view inside the cave

The view inside the cave

It is quite the relief when you see the light at the end of the tunnel.  That is, until you see the masses of bats flapping around the entrance like moths to a flame.

I see the light!

I see the light!

Like bats to a cave entrance...

Like bats to a cave entrance…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If you persevere, you will eventually find yourself upstream of the bats, where the water is poo-free, where there’s no danger or copping one in the eye if you look up, and where the waterfalls provide a much-needed head and back massage.

Oh yes

Oh yes

Here we sat for a bit, allowing our bodies to recover before making our way back through the cave, up and down the boulders, left and right across the river, and back to the main road.

The stunning gorge

The stunning gorge

Did I mention there were bats?

Did I mention there were bats?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were only able to hitch a ride part of the way along the main road, so had to walk a good 2-3km back to the lodge.  We arrived at 4:30pm, 7 hours after we started.  We were covered in poop, and feeling pretty pooped, too.  At least the lodge understood a hiker’s needs and quickly set us up with some SB.

Despite the exhaustion, and the attractive bruises, I am so glad I ignored the weather warning and did the walk.  To anyone else with very little sense, I suggest you get out there and do it now.  Batman awaits.

* Just kidding, Mum!  I take all proper precautions.

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‘Pupu

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I know you’re all used to me talking about poo by now.  This time, however, when I mention ‘Pupu, I am not referring to the faecal matter, but something quite the opposite.

Tavanapupu is a fish.  It is also the name of a resort situated on Marau Sound, right on the Eastern tip of Guadalcanal island.  Its local claim to fame is that Prince William and his wife, Kate, stayed there during their royal visit to the Solomons.  Needless to say, Tavanapupu is not a budget backpacker getaway, but it is a place I dreamed to get to when a special occasion could justify it.

With just two weeks until the end of my contract here, that occasion was now.  Except it almost didn’t happen.

Firstly, our scheduled Friday afternoon flight was brought forward an hour, meaning I had to depart work earlier than expected.  No biggie.  Then Manyoni had to rush out to the village at the last minute, which was cutting it fine as it was, but really throwing the plan out when his tyre burst on the way back.  With no time to return to the house, I had to run around and pack his bag, then run a kilometre to find a taxi while carrying two bags and two sets of snorkelling gear.  We managed to meet up at the airport exactly 30 minutes before scheduled departure.  Except, no-one was there to check us in.

We waited and waited.  While we waited, we heard from others travelling to Tavanapupu that this was their 4th attempt to reach the resort due to Solomon Airlines cancelling flights.  We waited and waited.  Eventually, we were told it was cancelled.  There would be no more flights until Monday…at the earliest.  It was just our luck that one of the people in the other group knew somebody who knew somebody important, and within 30 minutes they had arranged to divert the following morning’s Rennel flight to Marau.

So, the next morning, we arrived at the aiport again.  We waited and waited.  Slowly, very slowly we were checked in, still too hesitant to believe we would make it until we landed (almost on top of coconut trees) at the other end.  At which point we cheered.

Flying over Guadalcanal mountains - spectacular

Flying over Guadalcanal mountains – spectacular

By 9:30am, we were greeted at Tavanapupu’s jetty with a cold coconut.  Our “bargain” room was under repair, so we were asked if it would be okay to bump us up to the Deluxe suite.  Oh, I guess so.

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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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Ho Ho Honiara

After my recent sojourn to Africa, I had no leave left to enjoy a Christmas holiday this year, so instead we decided to give a Honiara Christmas a crack.

The festivities started well before Christmas.  In the lead up to the 25th, we had choirs practising carols in the valley below, which was just lovely.  Unfortunately, by Christmas Eve, the choir had been overtaken by a loudspeaker blaring Mariah Carey’s ‘All I want for Christmas is you’.

In an effort to escape the tortuous tune, I retreated to my bedroom on the other side of the house, only to be bombarded by Bryan Adams Christmas carols blasting from a different direction.  This cruelty continued well past my bedtime.

It should come as no surprise then, that when I woke up on Christmas morning, my neighbours from the valley below were already well into the party mode.  To drown out the slurring karaoke, I put on my own carols, only to have it punctuated by the sounds of the first drunken fight of the day.  “Silent night…f&*# off…..Holy night….F&*# off…..” and so it went for a good half hour.

It was a good thing that I got to get out and head to an orphan’s lunch.  By orphan’s lunch, I mean that all of those expat stragglers left in Honiara over the silly season, coming together for a gigantic feast.  And what a feast it was.  We had parmigiana, ham, chicken, crab, vegetables, cheese, salads, Mexican chocolate cake and the highlight – home made plum pudding doused (okay, drowned) in Cointreau.

We shared this with 14 people from 6 countries across 4 continents, on the terrace of the most spectacular house, with the most spectacular view, in Honiara.  We then broke the cardinal rule and jumped straight in the pool with bellies full of food.  Summer rain eventually forced us back on to dry land, where had little else to do except polish off the remaining bottles of wine.

christmas-lunch

*******

With almost everybody departed for the holiday season, I thought the rest of my week in Honiara would be pretty dull.  However, the orphan Christmas also meant that I had a new set of friends to hang with.  Together, we planned to take advantage of the long weekend, and the latest downpours, by heading on a rafting trip down the Lunga River.

In 4WDs, we headed out to Tenaru and up the logging roads into the beautiful Guadalcanal hills.  We quickly took in the view at Parangiju Mountain Lodge, before driving along a curvier, muddier, more precarious route down the other side.

As we reached the valley, it was time to pump up the rafts, don a helmet and lifejacket, and head off.  No explanation was given, or needed, apparently.  While the term rafting can elicit images of extreme adventure, this was not the case here.  Rafting along the Lunga River is more like drifting, with the occasional run of chop providing a bit of a massaging bounce.  The relaxed pace, however, was much needed therapy for this Honiara girl.  Plus, it allowed us a chance to breathe in the country’s tranquillity.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It was humbling to see the huge mountains, jutting steeply out of the valley where we floated.  These mountains were covered in sky-high trees, including a lot of mahogany, which will soon attract the loggers that it has so far managed to escape.  As you got closer, you could see a carpet of vines consuming each tree, one-by-one, like sheets thrown over old furniture.  I’m sure there was an array of birdlife in there, somewhere.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We stopped for lunch half way through, and dived into the slightly chilly waters to cool off.  Then we continued on, with scenery changing from plunging mountains to sheer pink and green rock faces.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We arrived at our destination just as the rains were coming in.  Soaked and satisfied, we made our way back to the dusty capital.

****

As you may have sensed, as I get older, I like to take things a big easier.  So for New Year’s, I took up the offer to join a few friends for a quiet night at Visale.  Visale is one of the beautiful beaches about 40km West of Honiara.  It is also privately owned by the Catholics, complete with a Church, convent, health clinic, rural training centre, and one house for rent.

Other than the nuns, I thought we might have the area to ourselves.  When I arrived, I was disappointed to find 10 tents pitched in front of the house.  Fortunately, those neighbours were well behaved.  I can’t say much for the more permanent residents, though.

We spent the afternoon floating in the sea, before lighting the brazier for a BBQ.  After dinner, we headed back to the beach where Manyoni had set up a small bonfire to bring in 2017.  As old people, we promptly fell asleep in front of its warm glow.  Fortunately, we managed to stir before the clock struck midnight.  Our (quiet) neighbours were also kind enough to make sure that didn’t miss the moment by cracking open a series of flares at the designated time.  Aren’t those things meant for emergencies?

The flares’ flashes and cracks were accompanied by ceaseless ringing of the church bells, and by truck loads of people passing by on the main road, cheering and banging on iron sheet that were also being dragged along the bitumen for extra effect.  The (noisy) neighbours felt that this would also be a good time to crank up the pop tunes.  So much for a quiet New Year’s.

As the festivities waned, sleep beckoned and I was happily snoring within minutes.  But then I was awake again.  Then asleep.  Then awake.  Then asleep.  About 1am, the (noisy) neighbours decided it might be a good time to crank up those crazy tunes, and did so again for every hour after that.  The cheering from trucks was now more like jeering, and the clanging of iron on asphalt startled me awake more times than I care to remember.  If this is what it was like out of town, I don’t even want to know what it would have been like back in Honiara.

On the 1st of January, I woke to more blaring pop tunes, then tried to drown them out by dunking my head and weary body into the salty sea.  Feeling vaguely refreshed, we cooked up a giant breakfast lunch, before making our way home.

Visale

Visale

Despite the weekend away, I still felt I had more to experience for a Solomons New Year, so in the night I joined Manyoni and went out to village of one of his friends.  They had already spent the day doing wholesome family activities – blind volleyball, oldies vs youngies in soccer, throwing eggs and water balloons.  I heard that in the evening it would be movie night.

When we arrived, the village was pretty quiet.  Many were tuckered out and already in bed, but so many children were still awake for fear of missing out.  We storied a little bit with the family first:  The frequent slapping of mosquitoes on legs and arms providing a percussion accompaniment to the ukulele being played in the background.  Palm fruit was lit to help ward off the little vampires – nature’s own mosquito coil.

Eventually, the movie was ready.  We joined the others in a mattress-less dormitory, and then watched students from a school in Fiji sing Christian songs on the big screen.  After this, the village’s local photographer played his recordings from the day’s activities.  It was highly entertaining.

Then it was time for me to sleep, but not without first partaking in a freshly prepared snack of cooked bananas and ngali nut.

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Langa Langa Lagoon

After parting ways with the North Malaita crew, a few of us headed off to Langa Langa lagoon for the weekend of relaxation (Langa means “long” and is a lagoon just South of Auki that stretches 21km long by 1km wide).

Reaching Serah’s Hideaway just before sunset, we grabbed a cold(ish) beer and plunged ourselves in the lagoon until no sign of the sun remained.  That evening, I ate one of the most delicious meals I have had in a long while, cooked by Serah and her team.

Sunset beers

Sunset beers

There really is nothing better than waking up to a huge breakfast of eggs, fresh sweet papaya, bananas, when the rain drizzles and you have nowhere to be.  This is what happened our first (and second) morning in Langa Langa.

Post-breakfast, we had a quick dip in the lagoon, before I sat down with Serah and tried to learn a bit more about this tranquil place.

Artificial Islands

Serah’s Hideaway is built on an artificial island.  Malaita, and particularly Langa Langa, is known for its artificial islands.  The first islands were built hundreds of years ago, during the head hunting and cannibalism days.  After being forced to flee, many people were not able to return, and instead set up villages on the shallow reef beds.  Most of the “artificial” islands are actually reef islands that are reinforced with rocks to prevent erosion and flooding.  The number of purely artificial islands (ie. islands built from nothing) are few.

One key advantage of artificial islands is that they avoid land title issues, which stop at the water’s edge.  However, even these days, people are trying to dispute reclaimed land.  Despite this, there are also a lot of down sides to living on an organised pile of rocks.

Rocks generally aren’t great for growing food, so back in the old days, residents had to regularly spend a couple of days travelling in huge war canoes (which they built themselves – Langa Langa people are skilled boat builders) to the Florida Islands in Central Province and even Guadalcanal.  There, they would barter their world-famous shell money for goods, perhaps even pick up a wife, and then come back.  Because of this, the residents of Langa Langa are a mixed bunch of people from Malaita, Central and Guadalcanal.  There are three main language groups that occupy the area now, and are unique to the islands.

Another downside of tiny, rocky island habitation, is water and sanitation (yep, it was only a matter of time).  Originally, the islands provided a freshwater lens that enabled people to access fresh drinking water from shallow wells.  With rising sea waters, many of the lenses are becoming saline and unusable.  After Christianity came, people were able to go and collect water from streams on the mainland, but that too is becoming less safe.

Poor sanitation and environmental practices have further contributed to the area’s environmental decline.  Years of using the lagoon as a dumping ground for rubbish and faeces, as well as the use of dynamite to catch fish and create rocks for building, has decimated the lagoon’s coral, mangrove and fish numbers.  Overpopulation is also contributing to poor conditions, according to Serah, who is not afraid to tell her peers to stop having so many children.

Not much space for waste!

Not much space for waste!

Serah’s Hideaway

Serah herself grew up on the southern edge of Langa Langa lagoon in Kwaro area.  From those early days, she even remembers two cannibal families who were living nearby, and describes them as “very big and tall, with huge muscles”.  Good to know.  Her family then moved to Bozo / Flanders area, which is close to where her islands are now.  When she finished school, she set out to build her own island.

Serah found the spot, and her father sought permission from their ancestors to allow her to build in that area.  Apparently, if you try to live on reclaimed land without ancestral permission, you will have “bad luck”, resulting in sickness and death.  Apparently, this is why so many of the islands are now uninhabited.

Twenty-nine years ago, Serah laid the first stone, and has laid every stone since.  In that time, she has constructed a total of 5 islands with her bare hands, and she has no plans to stop.  The original purpose of the islands was to create a home for her family, then in 2006 she opened for tourism.

Serah’s Hideaway is a true sanctuary, and through hard work, she has overcome the constraints of artificial island living.  She has built amazing, raised garden beds, filled with organic vegetables and chickens.  It is this produce that is used to create our amazing breakfasts, lunches and dinners – some of the best I’ve tasted in Solomons.

Serah's Hideaway

Serah’s Hideaway

Shell Money

The reason that most people can survive on these islands at all, is because of shell money.  Shell money is one of the trademark features of people from Langa Langa, and is still used as currency in the area.  It also remains an important part of wedding negotiations (think bride price), and a common adornment in traditional wedding ceremonies.  Each year, there is a shell money festival, and at any time of the year, you can do shell money tours, which is also important for tourism dollars.

Shell money uses four types of shells – black, white, grey and red, with red the most expensive.  Originally, all the shells were found locally but now that supply has dried up, they need to purchase from other Provinces.

Shell types

Shell types

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

Chipping away....

Chipping away….

The next step is to make the discs smooth.  Using a special rock, which is burned in the fire to become soft and sticky, they can mix it with water to create a paste.  They spread the paste onto a smooth rock and stick the discs to it.  They then rub this rock – with the discs – against another smooth rock to sand down the shells.

Original sanding machine

Original sandpaper

After this stage, the smooth discs are transferred to a dry coconut shell, where they will have the holes drilled into the centre.  This step uses the most amazing contraption I have ever seen, and is a credit to its original inventor.  I can’t even begin to explain it, although I will say that it involves a sharpened rock as the drill bit, a big metre-long stick, and some bush rope which acts as a mechanical device to spin the stick and drill bit very quickly.  It is mesmerising to watch.

Ryobi eat your heart out

Ryobi eat your heart out

Once the discs have holes in the centre, the shells are then put on hot rocks, allowing some of the colours to change.  When the final colours are in place, the shell money is threaded onto giant strings a couple of metres long, and sanded to consistent size using rocks chiselled with culverts.

Sizing rolls of shell money

Sizing rolls of shell money

This is where the laborious process essentially ends.  People can either sell the long strand of shell money, or make their own patterns and sell the final designs.  These days, 30 discs will get you SBD$1, or 60 discs will get you one cigarette.  I reckon it’s a good incentive to quit smoking.  A full wedding kit, which includes head wear, earrings, an intricate design that drapes over your chest and back, waist and foot jewellery can set you back thousands.

Photo courtesy of someone else

Photo courtesy of someone else

Back to the relaxing weekend

After learning as much as I could about Langa Langa, there was really not much else to do but relax.  The days would be spent going between eating, reading, swim, reading, eating, swim, reading, swim, beer, eating, sleep.  In the evening, we would sit on the jetty in the moonlight, and watch mesmerised as the coral spawning created luminescent bursts on the water surface, and as a lion fish meandered below in full splendour.

Snorkelling.....again

Snorkelling…..again

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and on Sunday afternoon, we headed back to Auki to catch our afternoon flight to Honiara.  At least, that was the plan.  The plan wasn’t well executed.  Partly, it was because some of us were confused about the flight time (4:15 or 4:30?).  This led one of us to book the taxi with very little room for delays.  But then one of us left something behind so we had to go back to the lodge.  Then the taxi ran out of fuel.  After topping up, the taxi then became incapable of going up hills (wrong fuel type?).  So then the taxi added oil.  That didn’t help.  Then the taxi broke down.  So we flagged down the next vehicle, which kindly took us to the airport.  We got there at 4:00pm and the plane had already left.  Perhaps the only time in the country’s history when they are running ahead of schedule.  Furthermore, we weren’t the only ones caught offguard by the early departure – at least four others also missed the flight.

Needless to say, we were not getting out of Auki that day.  Fortunately, Solomon Airlines is pretty flexible so we were able to get booked on the next morning’s flight and still make it in time for work.

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The real deal on coconut oil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Direct means the oil is extracted directly from fresh coconuts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The grater

The grater

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

How drying is meant to be done.

How drying is meant to be done.

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

Loading the dried coconut until the cylinder

Loading the dried coconut until the cylinder

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

Liquid gold

Liquid gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Washim han blong iu!

You may have noticed that things have been a bit quiet on the blog front, lately.  There has been a good reason for this.  The very best reason.  Hand washing!!!!

Yep, I have had my head, arms and legs buried deep into the second of my major projects for the Solomon Islands’ Ministry of Health – the development and launch of a National Handwashing Strategic Health Communication Plan.

Handwashing is one of those things that we take for granted.  As children, we are taught to wash our hands after the toilet, before eating, after eating, after blowing our noses, after playing with the dog/cat/bird/mice/guinea pigs/chickens, after gardening, after pretty much everything.

We are also taught the link between washing hands and disease – the fact that 80% of all infectious diseases are transmitted by touch, and that handwashing with soap and water at key times can halve the number of diarrhoea-related deaths, not to mention cholera, dysentery, acute respiratory infections, trachoma, scabies, etc. etc.

Our love affair with handwashing is also demonstrated through our investment into aesthetically pleasing and super-user-friendly hand washing facilities – think soft lighting and strategically placed mirrors, carved and sweetly smelling soaps, artistically folded hand towels, motion-sensor liquid soap and faucets, or basins built into toilet cisterns for eco-friendly water conservation.

Despite this, some bored researcher discovered that 14% of banknotes in America are contaminated with faeces.  Either a whole lot of Americans (and I’m sure they’re not the only ones) fail to wash their hands as they should, or there are a number of rich people who are running out of toilet paper and using the next best thing.  Either way, I have a newfound appreciation for my credit card.

The humble art of handwashing has been described as a self-administered vaccine.  But, in fact, handwashing with soap and water at critical times has proven to be more cost-effective than any single vaccine.  It is also more cost-effective than the distribution of malaria nets, the construction of sanitation, improvement of water, and every other public health intervention known to man (so far).

So why does the majority of the world’s people still fail to practice this one simple act?

Perhaps it is because handwashing is an action that needs to be repeated about 100,000 times during an average lifetime to be truly effective, unlike the single or triple dose of most vaccines.

Maybe it’s because handwashing is too subtle, unlike mosquito nets that tangle you up the second you climb into bed (with buzzing mosquitoes in the night to serve as an added reminder).

Possibly it’s just because handwashing isn’t sexy, unlike the sight of fresh, clean water flowing across the plump lips of a broadly smiling model.

Hopefully, this handwashing campaign will change that.  At least for the Solomon Islanders.

Happy Global Handwashing Day!

Happy Global Handwashing Day!

We officially launched the campaign last week on 15 October, as part of Global Handwashing Day celebrations.  Through a great team effort (I am so proud of the team), we held a large event at one of the rural schools, in a gorgeous setting sandwiched between the Pacific ocean and Visale’s towering hills.  We even managed to drag a number of VIPs from the comfort of their urban offices to participate.  In addition to speeches that actually stuck to time, we had great songs and dramas from the primary school children and San Isidro Care Centre – a school for the hearing impaired.

The event culminated in a mass handwashing activity, using home-made pressure taps from recycled 1.5L water bottles.  If you ever need proof that children actually like washing hands, then this was it.  The children were so keen that our guest speakers had to fight their way to the front to do the demonstration.  Naturally, as 800-hands got washed, chaos and hilarity ensued.

Let the handwashing begin!

Let the handwashing begin!

It is estimated that only 5-10% of the Solomon Islands population currently wash their hands with soap and water at key times – far fewer than the proportion of the population that have access to clean water, proper sanitation, mosquito nets, malaria treatment, iron-fortified salt, and a full course of government-subsidised vaccines.

The impact of this is obvious.  More than 34,000 cases of diarrhoea were recorded in the country’s health clinics in the last 12 months.  I’m sure that’s only a fraction of the real number, given that many cases don’t even make it to a health clinic.  This is despite local research showing high knowledge of the health impacts of washing hands.

The big gap lies in attitudes and, most importantly, practice.

For this reason, our national handwashing campaign will focus on improving the social norms around handwashing, and improve access to handwashing facilities at toilets and kitchens.

We hope to build habits young by targeting children aged 6-12 and the people most likely to influence their behaviour – peers, parents, teachers, community leaders, religious leaders, and popular media.

We also hope to do this through a long-term approach, starting with a two-year pilot and three-year scale-up.

Last week was just the beginning.  The biggest and the best is yet to come.

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