My host gestured to the pile of stones. "This is the altar to the goddess of Plenty. And here the warriors sat round to be blessed before they went on a headhunting raid. And on the tables in front of them were cups of blood."
"Human blood?" I asked.
"Er... not necessarily. It depended on what they were going to hunt."
"But you said they were going to hunt people."
"Yes," he said, staring fixedly at his sandals.
It had all been my friend Charlie Panakera's idea. Gizo was the scuba diving capital of the Solomon Islands and Charlie was the manager of its only hotel. For years he'd been at a loss to find something of interest for his guests who couldn't or didn't dive.
Then he went on an eco-tourism course in Auckland and sensed an opportunity. As his brochure promised: "Go exploring amongst willing and friendly people. Experience their fascinating way of life, discover their history, learn of headhunters, of customs, lands and ancient traditions."
He said he had an island in mind - Simbo, a two-hour canoe ride from his hotel - and asked if I could do some homework and send him a bit of background information, anything to give his Headhunting Tour a historical flavour.
Brief entries in guide books talked of Simbo being a notorious headhunting centre in the 19th century - but also an island that had extended a welcome to white men. Their hospitality was such that by the 1860s Simbo had become a regular port of call for ships travelling between Australia and the China sea.
The islanders were shrewd people. While other islands were boiling, scalping or eating any white man they could lay their hands on, the inhabitants of Simbo were trading fruit, vegetables and fresh water for iron - spears, machetes and rifles. Then they set about islands 10 times their size, Iron Age warriors laying waste to Stone Age cultures.
I visited the Mitchell Library in Sydney where there was only one reference to Simbo: River's and Hocart's paper of their time on the island in 1908 (the account upon which Pat Barker draws so extensively for her book The Ghost Road). The paper quotes one main character complaining "No one is mighty now; they are all alike, they have no money; they cannot go headhunting; they all do nothing." This wasn't going to be use to Charlie: the anthropologists had arrived 10 years too late.
Charlie was undeterred. I flew out to be his guinea pig, the first tourist to try out his Headhunting Tour. It didn't take long for me to see that the islanders were finding it difficult to come to terms with Charlie's marketing strategy.
I asked my group of escorts about Rivers and Hocart as we made our way to the village where I was to spend the night. Eventually they twigged when I pulled out my notebook and started to mime looking about, picking up objects and making notes. These two white men who had visited the island almost 90 years previously were remembered as one person, Burzeocart.
Oral cultures carry from generation to generation ideas and incidents that exemplify an ideal, which is why they stick in the memory. For generations, white men had sought to convert them, rob them and generally boss them about. The memory of two Edwardian gentlemen who wanted nothing more than to sit and listen and to take them seriously was an acknowledgement of their worth.
Evening story-time after supper was a disappointment. I'd fully expected the villagers, fired by Charlie's promptings, to regale me with headhunting stories. It was not to be. These were quiet, gentle people, much happier talking about the various missionaries who had been to the island or arguing the merits of Seventh Day Adventism or Catholicism or Methodism or the Baptists.
Sensing my boredom with missionary stories, an old lady gestured to me from across the hut where we were gathered. I crept outside on to the veranda. She joined me and out of earshot she told me my first and only headhunting story from Simbo. She remembered when she was a child her mother telling her of her own childhood experience. How, after a raid the whole village gathered round while the captured heads were gently heated. Coconut shells were filled with small amounts of blood that were then passed round.
I just smiled, and sipped my tea.
When to go
The dry season begins around the end of April and continues until early November.
How to get there
First travel to Brisbane, for example on Air New Zealand for pounds 640 return if you book two months in advance through Travelbag (0171-497 0515); this fare is valid 16 April-15 June.
From Brisbane, the national carrier, Solomon Airlines, will take you to Gizo via the capital, Honiara, for pounds 325. The airline's UK office is at Hunter House, Biggin Hill Airport, Biggin Hill, Kent TN16 3BN (01959 540737).
From Gizo, track down Charlie Panakera or make your own arrangements for the two-hour canoe trip to Simbo.
Who to ask
Solomon Airlines is able to dispense advice, as is the Solomon Islands Honorary Consulate, 19 Springfield Road, London SW19 7AL (0181-296 0232).Reuse content