Have Snorkel will Travel

Let's Travel - - DESTINATION SOLOMON ISLANDS - Words & Im­ages by Tim Roxborogh

“You for­got the snorkels??” I couldn’t be­lieve it, but our guide Nel­son was so wide-eyed and good-na­tured that stay­ing an­gry for more than a minute or two wasn’t re­ally an op­tion. But se­ri­ously Nel­son! We were in a nar­row wooden boat, putt-putting our way to a cen­turies old, man-made is­land in Langa Langa La­goon in the Solomon Is­lands’ prov­ince of Malaita.

Look­ing over the edge of the boat I could clearly see gi­ant clams on the sea floor. The teal of the wa­ter and the clar­ity was un­real and I couldn’t wait to jump in and explore. Only I would have to wait given we were mi­nus a fairly fun­da­men­tal piece of un­der­wa­ter equip­ment. Luck­ily the pur­pose of this boat trip was less to do with me get­ting wet and more about our des­ti­na­tion…the is­land of Busu.

As part of a group of writ­ers, re­port­edly amongst the very first for­eign jour­nal­ists to set foot in Malaita for some years, this had all the hall­marks of a wild lit­tle ad­ven­ture from the get-go. Malaita is a 4,300 sq. km. slab of pris­tine trop­i­cal rain­for­est. With just 140,000 peo­ple who mainly live a sub­sis­tence life­style (fish­ing, taro and sweet potato), al­most all of that pre­cious jun­gle re­mains. The in­te­rior is moun­tain­ous, is dot­ted with wa­ter­falls and the po­ten­tial for eco-tourism is im­mense.

A 25-minute flight from Guadal­canal and the Solomon’s cap­i­tal of Ho­niara, we were in a tiny lit­tle plane as skip­pered by a pi­lot I in­stantly wanted to write a se­ries of chil­dren’s books about. Cap­tain Cor­nelius – im­mac­u­late in his uni­form – was a gen­er­ously pro­por­tioned chap who had to squeeze and wad­dle down the nar­row aisle to get to the cock­pit. From there our chubby-cheeked hero turned around and with a boom of a voice, twin­kle of eye and flash of smile gave the safety brief­ing.

My­self, and fel­low pas­sen­ger Ellen, de­cided he was adorable which I hope isn’t too pa­tro­n­is­ing for a man of un­doubted avi­a­tion prow­ess.

‘Cap­tain Cor­nelius The Friendly Pi­lot Saves The Day’, ‘Cap­tain Cor­nelius The Friendly Pi­lot Goes On A Big Ad­ven­ture’, and var­i­ous other chil­dren’s ti­tles popped into my head.

Whether star­dom in the field of chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture finds Cap­tain Cor­nelius or not, he showed us just how skil­ful he is at his job. Our run­way in Malaita was lit­tle more than a mown strip of grass with co­conut trees on the sides and wa­ter at both ends. Not a ner­vous flier, I was trans­fixed by the den­sity and beauty of the greens all around us. Com­ing in to land we also no­ticed we had a bit of a wel­come party.

Lo­cal chil­dren had turned up to see us with the nov­elty of for­eign­ers ap­par­ent. The air­port it­self was just a small ship con­tainer-sized build­ing and once Cap­tain Cor­nelius had ap­plied the breaks be­fore the plane slid into the sea, we were soon in a van headed for the prov­ince’s cap­i­tal, Auki (pop­u­la­tion 7,000).

Pass­ing sim­ple but at­trac­tive vil­lages along the way, down­town Auki made Ho­niara seem like Sin­ga­pore or Paris in terms of devel­op­ment and good looks.

Where the peo­ple in the out­ly­ing Malai­tan vil­lages smiled and looked happy to see us, there was a pal­pa­ble sense of ten­sion on the boarded-up, barbed-wired streets of Auki.

It was sad to see, but from the clothes of the chil­dren to the ex­pres­sions of the adults, it was clear that life in Auki is not straight­for­ward. The rea­sons for Auki’s (and in­deed Malaita’s) so­cial and eco­nomic dif­fi­cul­ties are com­plex and in­clude many young Malai­tans leav­ing their homes for the greater op­por­tu­ni­ties that may be found in Ho­niara. But what can’t be de­nied is the splen­dour of the ge­og­ra­phy and it was only go­ing to get pret­tier once we ven­tured to the wa­ter­front and boarded our boat for Busu Is­land.

It was at this point I re­alised Nel­son had left the snorkels back in Ho­niara. Nel­son! Not to worry, there was bound to be a snorkel at Busu Is­land where we were in­vited guests for just the sec­ond ever Ar­ti­fi­cial Is­lands And Shell Money Fes­ti­val.

Sail­ing for 40 min­utes through the still wa­ters of Langa Langa la­goon, the abra­sive­ness of Auki was for­got­ten given what we were look­ing at all around us. Dat­ing back as far as 600 years ago, the la­goon is speck­led with ar­ti­fi­cially built is­lands, cre­ated by tribes tor­mented and chased by fierce ri­vals who re­fused to share the main­land with any­one they didn’t have to.

As such, com­mu­ni­ties sprung up on what had orig­i­nally been noth­ing more than sand­bars in the la­goon. Some of the is­lands are so minis­cule as to only con­tain a dozen or so homes and room for lit­tle else. Oth­ers, like Busu, are larger with a hand­ful of dif­fer­ent vil­lages, sev­eral hun­dred res­i­dents, a co­conut for­est, a church…and a ceme­tery.

Over the course of the two-day fes­ti­val the peo­ple of Busu proudly pre­sented their guests with tra­di­tional songs and dances while let­ting us try our hand at the bam­boo/pan­pipe drum­ming that is both a melodic and rhyth­mic hall­mark of the prov­ince. Per­haps due to the calm­ing re­al­ity of is­land life or maybe the re­ten­tion of their cul­tural tra­di­tions, the mood of Busu couldn’t have been fur­ther from Auki’s.

Be­yond the mu­sic there was a recre­ation of a Busu wed­ding cer­e­mony, a some­what queasy­mak­ing tat­too dis­play and the cre­at­ing of shell money. A lo­cal form of cur­rency/jew­ellery with a long his­tory, we wit­nessed first­hand the ham­mer­ing of shells into neck­laces and bracelets that even in the 21st cen­tury are still worth a sub­stan­tial amount.

Given the fes­ti­val was spread over a cou­ple of days, I fig­ured there’d be plenty of time to duck off for a bit of snorkelling, some­thing this de­vel­op­ing na­tion al­ready has sig­nif­i­cant in­ter­na­tional ac­claim for. I was right about the avail­abil­ity of time, but not about the avail­abil­ity of a snorkel.

In­cred­i­bly for an is­land in a la­goon where the wa­ters are this clear, there was not one vil­lager in pos­ses­sion of a snorkel.

Well, I wasn’t about to come to a la­goon in the Solomon Is­lands and not snorkel, so it was back to Auki to search for one. One win­dow­less gen­eral store had what I was af­ter, but at the equiv­a­lent of NZ $50 I ini­tially re­fused. That would be ex­pen­sive in New Zealand, let alone the Solomon Is­lands.

Mak­ing steps for the door, it dawned on me to view the snorkel as an act of mod­est char­ity. Yes, the res­i­dents of Busu (like so many Solomon Is­lan­ders) are des­per­ate to show off their cul­ture as a means of gen­er­at­ing in­come through tourism.

But as I would gen­tly ex­plain to the quite re­mark­able young man who or­gan­ised the en­tire fes­ti­val, you can still present your tra­di­tions while also trum­pet­ing the world-class of­fer­ings na­ture has blessed you with.

So with over­priced snorkel in my back­pack, I was in the boat for Busu once again. Jump­ing over­board, I wasn’t let down. Fish of all colours, out­ra­geous vis­i­bil­ity and more gi­ant clams than I think I’ve ever seen, the Langa Langa La­goon was par­adise for an ob­ses­sive snorkeller like me. Do­nat­ing my snorkel to the fes­ti­val or­gan­iser af­ter­wards, I left un­sure whether this was a good gift for an is­land of sev­eral hun­dred peo­ple or not. Ei­ther way, what I’d seen was too strik­ing not to have oth­ers see it too, least of all the very peo­ple who live there.

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