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
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.
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.