I first met a Solomon Islander in Fiji in 2000. We were at a WWF workshop together and had a nice long chat over sunset drinks. I had no clue about the Solomon Islands back then and had no idea what kind of horrible events were unfolding in his country at the time. They were experiencing ethnic tensions between natives from two islands clashing over land in the capital. By the time I met some more people from the Solomons, a few years later, I knew a bit more about the place and it captured my imagination. But it took me another 12 years before I finally got there.
Eric and I arrived in Honiara on a sunny morning. The flight from Brisbane had offered spectacular views of the Coral Sea and some of its islets, reefs, and wide expanse of blue water. The first glimpse of the Solomon Islands was Bellona Island, just north of the World Heritage Rennell and Indispensible Reefs. We were then treated to a cloudless flight over the width of Guadalcanal – replete with unbroken rainforests.
The single immigration officer, without the benefit of a computer, for a plane load of visitors was the first clue to the poor state of the country. The second clue came when neither of our phones could connect to a local network – as we waited our turn at the immigration desk. But the officer was friendly and greeted us with a warm welcome and a betel nut-stained smile – the first of many to come in the Solomon Islands.
Honiara greeted us with a traffic jam. The single roundabout at the entrance to town causes a perpetual back up along the main road. It gave us a welcome chance to chat with our fellow van passenger. The young Australian was in Honiara to present an Environmental Impact Assessment report to the Department of Environment for his company’s plan to install a geothermal power plant and provide power to Honiara. The project would provide Solomon Islands with its first home-produced power. Currently all the electricity in the country comes from diesel driven generators, but that is just for the lucky areas that have electricity. Many islands and villages lack any power.
We had booked a room at the Chester Rest House. It turned out to be run by the Melanesian Chester Mission and staffed by the brothers of the order. We were very happy to find it welcoming and very clean. The high points were the immaculate shower and the long verandah offering views of Honiara and Iron Bottom Sound – the site of one of WWII’s legendary naval battles. Otherwise, Honiara did not have much to offer.
We visited a few local markets and found the “smashed tuna” for sale disturbing. The massive American, Taiwanese and Japanese tuna boats sell the badly damaged fish to locals. The broken jaws and swollen bodies looked horrifying and were apparently illegal to sell locally but commonly found in the markets. It was fun to find other fish including huge mangrove mud crabs and a Mola mola head.
We managed to get in a few interviews, made ourselves some dinner in the Chester kitchen and prepared for our next flight to Gizo – Solomon Islands’ second city and the capital of Western Province. We were scheduled for 7 days in Gizo with complimentary diving from Dive Gizo and a few days looking for spawning groupers with WWF.
The Dash-8 flight to Gizo traveled low and offered spectacular views of forested islands, blue waters, azure reefs and deep lagoons. It was thrilling. Until the rain came and the pilot announced some strong winds in Gizo. The final approach into Gizo, towards the narrow runway built on top of a reef, through the driving rain, involved an impossibly steep turn and quick drop onto the tarmac. We had to dash from the plane to the tiny building that makes up the terminal building. After waiting for the next passengers to board and the plane to take off again, we walked across the runway to a little beach where several boats waited to ferry us to the main island.
The rain didn’t stop for 5 days. Eric dove for two days in the rain but gave up after a few days. I stayed in town and tried to get as much information and writing done as I could but the rain really prevented us from doing much. Our rest house was not as clean and nice as the Chester and we seriously considered moving. We overcame the issue of not having running water but the bath rooms weren’t clean and the mattresses smelled musty. It didn’t help that the place filled up with other people who were stranded in Gizo while waiting for the weather to clear enough for them to catch a tiny boat back to their home island.
Gizo may be the Solomons’ second city but you wouldn’t guess it if you didn’t already know. There is only one paved road and it is less than 1 kilometer long. The nicest building is the brand new, Japanese-donated, hospital. The current construction boom may have 5 or 6 buildings going up, but only one of them has a crane to help ease the process. The new buildings may be part of the process to rebuild after the devastating 8.1 earthquake and resulting tsunami in 2007.
Eric and I managed to get a few days of diving with less rain but the conditions were less than ideal. Every day was cloudy and the water was too turbid for good photos. To make matters worse, we had not expected the devastation of the corals from the earthquake. Some areas looked like a war zone – but the fish life was intact and some sites had more fish than I had seen anywhere else. With only 550,000 people in the whole country, the chances of overfishing are much lower than in Southeast Asia but people are still worried about the effects.
Our final two days in Gizo were sunny and fine weather. We managed to squeeze in a few more dives and some photo ops. The flight back to Honiara offered spectacular views of Morovo Lagoon, the world’s largest marine lagoon with a double barrier reef system. Unfortunately, they say that the logging on the islands within the lagoon has spoiled much of the reefs but the outer reefs should still be okay. And after one last night at the Chester, we bit farewell to Solomon Islands, but I hope to get back for a longer stay some day.