Lost at sea: an adventure in the Pacific

The Solomon Islands might be hard to get to, but they offer unique experiences, says Pete May

Our guides are up trees barking and whining like injured dogs by the shore of Crocodile Lake. We’re on Tetepare island, in one of the remotest parts of the Solomon  Islands, and Twomey and Benjamin are attempting to attract crocodiles. It’s one of their favourite tricks for visitors to the lodge at Tetepare, the largest uninhabited island in the Pacific.

A bulky shape slips off the far bank and glides towards our shore. “Daddy, I want to go back!” says my 10-year-old daughter Nell. In contrast, her 13-year-old sister Lola is by the barking guides. After what seems an interminable amount of noise we thankfully retreat into the pristine rainforest as the giant crocs edge closer.

The Solomon Islands are just three hours’ flight from Queensland’s capital, Brisbane, yet a lack of tourist development and the vagaries of the notoriously flexible “Solomon time” have kept them off most itineraries. Perhaps that’s set to change: Gary Barlow visited earlier this year; Will and Kate, too.

The former British colony of 922 islands gained independence in 1978. In 2001 ethnic tension resulted in 200 deaths on the largest island of Guadalcanal. The fighting was mainly between islanders from Malaita, who had many of the best jobs and land, and the indigenous people of Guadalcanal. The Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (Ramsi) arrived in 2003, confiscating guns. Today, with Ramsi still there, the country has returned to relative normality.

Travellers arrive at Honiara’s Henderson Airport – built by the Japanese during the Second World War, but named after the US general who captured it. A rusting anti-aircraft gun and a garden of remembrance stand outside the airport’s terminal. Behind the airport is Bloody Ridge, where thousands of soldiers died.

Development and the islanders’ laid-back lifestyle clash uneasily in Honiara. The potholed main street of Mendana Avenue is both dusty and muddy from the frequent downpours. It seems mostly to be gridlocked with 4x4s, public minibuses playing reggae at full blast and pick-up trucks filled with locals perched on the back. When crossing it’s best to adopt the gentle amble of the locals and pray the cars slow down.

The humidity is stifling, but an air-conditioned escape can be found at cafés such as Lime Lounge and Bamboo, where expatriates and Aussie policemen chill over coffees. Or just go to the pool at the Heritage Park Hotel, order a Solbrew (the local lager) and look out towards the ocean dotted with container ships and motorised canoes. Well-heeled islanders also favour the Yacht Club, where a kindly Aussie took us out on his catamaran.

In Honiara we sleep to a soundtrack of cicadas, howling dogs, reggae and gospel singing. It’s certainly a challenging place to visit, with cockroaches as big as your fist scuttling across our bathroom and twice-daily power cuts.

But there’s plenty to watch: people storying in pidgin outside shops selling Navy biscuits and Chinese tin openers made from the weakest metal known to man; or the queues outside the Hot Bread Kitchen and the ATMs on pay day. The pidgin is a mix of English and Portuguese: “Tangio tumas” means “thank you very much”, and “me no savvy” means “I don’t understand”.

There are plenty of war relics. At nearby Bonegi beach we enjoy a barbecue and snorkel over a wrecked Japanese ship. We also drive to Tetere, which has 40 US amphibious landing craft with fig trees growing through their rusting hulks. Tours involve paying the landowner a fee and can involve going to a café to set a date with someone’s cousin. One result of this haggling process was a three-hour trek up a stunning gorge, ending with the children sliding down waterfalls.

Twenty minutes’ canoe ride from Guadalcanal is the volcanic island of Savo. At Sunset Lodge resort we see megapodes and their buried eggs, a pod of 30 dolphins cavorting in the sea and boiling streams with sulphur and steam vents.

The Western Province is a day’s boat trip or a three-hour flight from Honiara to Munda, the scene of fierce fighting during the Second World War. The Japanese-built runway and roads still survive; we find a betel nut stall with a plane wing as a door. From Munda’s Agnes Lodge we arrange a tour with guide Barney Poulsen. He shows us a crashed aircraft in the Horseshoe Ridge battle site where still nothing grows, and the caves where the Japanese hid. Barney has a museum in his garden with guns, mess tins, helmets and insect repellent bottles with liquid still in them.

There are more conventional resorts too. Zipolo Habu on Lola Island has beachside leaf houses, great food and AJ, a Dave from Minder-style barman who finds us BBC Radio 2 on his laptop.

Nearby Skull Island is an eerie shrine of headhunting victims (headhunting ended only in the early 1900s) and revered chiefs. Sadly some stone carvings have been stolen but the gossip is the man responsible angered the ancestors and had his house destroyed by the 2007 tsunami.

Meanwhile, the country’s most exclusive dive resort is Sanbis, off Gizo, with bathrooms, hot showers and a bar at the end of a private pier. Hans, the owner, has a fine collection of music DVDs. We enjoy the bizarre sensation of watching Abba while perched over a Pacific lagoon eating pizzas. Both Lola and Sanbis are close to Kennedy Island, where JFK was shipwrecked in 1943.

A wilder trip is to Kolombangara island, a 5,810ft-high volcano. We stayed at Imbu Ranu Lodge with its rainforest view. By the end of our day-long ridge walk we are amazed by what we’ve seen; the sacred Kolombangara Stone, carved into a 3D map of the island, the edge of the crater and huge strangler figs that you could walk through.

As we stop at a shrine of skulls a thunderclap echoes through the air. Three days of rain follow. We later learn the Aussie couple walking to the crater ahead of us were trapped by floods and rescued by Ramsi helicopter. Humans feel very small compared with the elements here.

Tetepare island, just 18 miles long and four miles wide (and the scene of our crocodile encounter) is a mysterious place, these days reached via an exhilarating motorised canoe ride from Munda. The inhabitants deserted it 150 years ago, but the Tetepare Descendants’ Association now runs the local lodge. The facilities are basic. There’s no bar, no electricity, cold showers and loos flushed by buckets. Guests stay in traditional leaf houses. Despite what it lacks, it feels very special. My wife Nicola and I sit on the veranda with a kerosene light and a mosquito coil, listening to the sounds of the breakers on the reef.

Twomey takes the girls out on the lagoon at dusk in his canoe, where they meet dugongs grazing on sea grass. A turtle-tagging canoe trip reveals the immensity of the forest canopy. A startled crocodile slides into the sea, but a few minutes later the guides happily stand in the same spot.

A nocturnal mangrove trek reveals the astonishing night vision of the islanders as they pluck giant coconut crabs from the darkness. The huge leatherback turtles and tiny skinks get ecologists very excited, too. Or you can just lie in a hammock and watch monitor lizards saunter by.

Not many countries can offer such a mix of wildlife, volcanoes, humidity, mosquitoes, rainforest and Second World War relics. And at least my children learnt something. Stopping at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo on the way home, they saw two crocodiles and began to bark. Amazingly the crocs started to swim over. A career as Tetepare crocodile whisperers/barkers surely beckons.

‘The Joy of Essex: Travels through God’s Own County’ by Pete May is published by The Robson Press, £9.99

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Solomon Airlines (0871 744 0336; solomonairlines.co.uk) and Pacific Blue (0800 051 1281; flypacificblue.com) run flights from Brisbane, Australia, to Honiara.

Getting around

Solomon Airlines also runs domestic flights from Honiara to most of the larger islands. The Pelican Ferry travels from Honiara to Munda or Gizo in the Western Province.

Staying there

Honiara has five main hotels: Heritage Park, the Mendana, the King Solomon, the Honiara Hotel and the Pacific Casino Hotel.

In the Western Province, Sanbis (00 677 60646; sanbisresort.com) and Zipolo (00 677 62178; zipolohabu.com) are the main beach resorts. When visiting Tetepare (00 677 62163; tetepare.org) the TDA fetches guests from Munda's Agnes Lodge (00 677 62133; agneslodge.com.sb).

Kolombangara (kolombangara.org) is reached by ferry from Gizo.

More information

visitsolomons.com.sb

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This airport parking organisation are looking...

    Recruitment Genius: PCV Bus Drivers

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Do you enjoy bus driving and are looking for ...

    Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - York

    £18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - Y...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us