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,
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.