SOLOMON IS­LANDS

The Solomon Is­lands, deep in the South Pa­cific, are well-known as a trop­i­cal par­adise among surfers and divers. These is­lands are the gate­way to equa­to­rial rain forests, blue la­goons and sandy beaches,

The Gulf Today - Time Out - - CONTENTS | FOCUS - writes Anne Z. Cooke

If it weren’t for the pot­holes, cav­ernous pits slow­ing us down on the road to Ho­niara, in the Solomon Is­lands, I might have missed the sign on the tree, “Dol­phin View Cot­tage.” But An­drew, our guide, knew the road by heart. “That’s Guyas To­ha­b­el­lana,” he said, wav­ing at a stocky, dark-skinned man In rum­plED sHorts, A FADED T-sHIrt AnD lIp lops, wHo works tHErE. Be­yond the bun­ga­low, Guyas’. Two teenagers lounged on a pic­nic ta­ble, play­ing with their pet cock­a­too. Be­hind them, the beach sloped down to Iron Bot­tom Sound, the Sec­ond World War grave­yard where 50-odd Amer­i­can and Ja­panese ships lie at rest. Across the wa­ter, Savo Is­land shim­mered on the hori­zon.

Then Guyas turned to me and we shook hands.

“You’re from Amer­ica!” he said, switch­ing to English and light­ing up. “Do you like it here? Have you been to Gizo and seen the beau­ti­ful coral reefs? Yes, my grand­fa­ther was a coast watcher dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, a spy you’d say, re­port­ing Ja­panese move­ments to the Amer­i­cans. He watched the bat­tle of Savo Is­land from right here.”

A name and a hand­shake are de rigueur In tHE Solomons, DEEp In tHE SoutH PACIiC.

“We’re known for two things,” said El­li­son KyErE, From tHE tourIst oFiCE, wHEn my pArt­nEr Steve and I met him for lunch at the Lime Lounge Cafe, in Ho­niara. “For the bat­tle sites and for scuba div­ing. It’s time to tell the story of is­land life on land.”

The Solomon Is­lands, deep in the South PACIiC, ArE wEll-known As A trop­I­CAl pAr­ADIsE among surfers, sailors, scuba divers and es­pe­cially for the pro­fes­sional and ca­sual pho­tog­ra­phers. It’s equally pop­u­lar with loved-up cou­ples and lob­ster lovers.

The is­landers, mostly Me­lane­sian, are scat­tered over 347 of the coun­try’s 922 is­lands, speak­ing both Pi­jin and one of the coun­try’s 75 dif­fer­ent lan­guages. Some are farm­ers; some work for the govern­ment. Some wear grass skirts and use shell money for barter; oth­ers are proud to count head­hunters among their an­ces­tors. A few own speed boats; most pad­dle to mar­ket in a “mola,” a home­made dugout ca­noe.

WE took tHE ovErnIGHt FIJI AIr­wAys lIGHt from Los An­ge­les to Fiji’s Nadi air­port, changed plAnEs, tHEn lEw on to HEn­DEr­son In­tEr­nA­tIonAl Air­port, in Ho­niara, the cap­i­tal city

We were still jet­lagged the next morn­ing when An­drew pulled up in a shiny black SUV. As we inched along past grimy store­fronts and vEG­EtABlE stAnDs ovEr­lowInG wItH GrEEns, toma­toes and squash.

Stand­ing there, imag­in­ing the chaos of bat­tle, it felt un­real to be gaz­ing out over slEEpy iElDs wHIlE At my FEEt, stIll vIs­I­BlE, were the fox­holes where 40 US Marines died.

THE trIp BE­GAn In EArnEst wHEn wE lEw nortH to AIriElDs At GIzo, on GHIzo Is­lAnD, and Munda, in New Ge­or­gia, both in the West­ern Prov­ince, the gate­way to equa­to­rial rain forests, vol­canic moun­tains, blue la­goons and sandy beaches.

Met by a skiff and driver, we were off, speed­ing over a shim­mer­ing blue la­goon, an all-in­clu­sive, palm-thatched lodge built over DEEp wA­tEr, wItH ivE BAm­Boo-wAllED GuEst bun­ga­lows perched on the shore. Our base camp for the next few days, the lodge was a short boat ride to Kennedy Is­land, where we went ashore to see where Lt. John Kennedy and his PT-109 crew hid af­ter a Ja­panese ves­sel sank their ship.

It was party time the next day at Gizo’s Fri­day mar­ket. Fam­i­lies in dugout ca­noes docked at the wa­ter­front, buy­ers crowded the aisles, coins changed hands, sell­ers hailed their FrIEnDs AnD olD lADIEs illED tHEIr sHop­pInG bags. Ev­ery­one smiled, ask­ing where we were from and pos­ing for pho­tos.

Ngali nuts — the holy grails of snacks here in the is­lands — were in sea­son, so I stocked up with a half-dozen folded-leaf pack­ages. Green taro leaves com­peted with slip­pery spinach (Mal­abar spinach), pur­ple bananas, car­rots and be­tel nuts, com­monly chewed here, an af­ford­able sub­sti­tute for cof­fee or cig­a­rettes.

An older man with red-rimmed eyes, who of­fered me a seat in the shade, showed me how he folded the nut and leaf to­gether with a pinch of slaked lime (ash from burned clam shells). “One or two of these and I want to get up and work all day.”

Fly­ing on to Munda, on our next leg, we checked into the Agnes Gate­way Ho­tel. Sign­ing up for a tour to Skull Is­land, we met boat cap­tain Billy Kere, 30-ish and friendly, and a “de­scen­dant of the Ro­viana head­hunter clan,” as he told us. Head­ing for deep wa­ter, pounD­InG ovEr In­Com­InG wAvEs, wE in­Ally docked at tiny Skull Is­land, just big enough to hold piles of rocks and rows of an­cient skulls, vic­tims of long ago bat­tles. In that time, any­one who sinned would have been be­headed.

Go­ing on to Lubaria Is­land, the PT-boat base where Kennedy and his crew were sta­tioned dur­ing the war, we went ashore to visit the bar­racks and look at the mon­u­ment. Ata, the keeper, pro­duced a carved wood bust of the youth­ful Kennedy, which he hides at night. “It’s been stolen and re­cov­ered twice,” he said, lead­ing me to a group of rusty can­nons. The real sur­prise was the mod­ern bath­room.

Two days later, as our ad­ven­ture wound down and we boarded a 16-seat Twin Ot­ter For tHE lIGHt BACk to Ho­nIArA — An AErIAl tour over is­lands, bays, coral reefs, rain forests, vol­ca­noes, wa­ter­falls and moun­tains — I sud­denly re­alised how much we’d missed. The Solomon Is­lands, spec­tac­u­lar, var­ied and pris­tine, with an an­nual vis­i­tor count of just 24,000, re­mains one of the world’s last un­tamed des­ti­na­tions. The roads aren’t aw­fully good, es­pe­cially in the coun­try. But pot­holes or no, we’ll be go­ing back.

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