Islands of the unexpected

By | Travel
© Robin Moore/National Geographic Society/Corbis

Shipwrecks, big surf, volcanoes and more: there‘s plenty to be mined in the Solomons

‘Without new experiences, something inside of us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken,’ so said Frank Herbert, author of the acclaimed science fiction series Dune. His words set the tone for an eye-opening sail around the Solomons, a collection of over 1,000 islands, coral reefs and volcanoes just ten degrees from the equator in the South Pacific.

Forget the package tours, the bellicose cruise liners and self-congratulatory eco-treks, travelling around the islands requires the acumen of an explorer hungry for experiences.

Aerial View of The Solomon Islands

Aerial view of the Solomon Islands. Photo © Louise Murray/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis

The Solomon Islands were so called because Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira, upon arriving in 1568, believed that King Solomon used gold from the Mataniko River to build his famed temple.

It is one of the least visited countries in the South Pacific, due in part to a history steeped in controversy, from the ‘black birding’ (slavery) of the 19th century and the Second World War, to the coup and subsequent civil war of 2000-2003. More recently, in early February, the Solomons’ Santa Cruz island was struck by a tsunami.

Solomon Islands - Transport - Ferry

Solomon Islanders wait on a wharf as an inter-island transport ship approaches at sunrise in Honiara. Photo © Tim Wimbourne/Reuters/Corbis

The Solomon Islands were so called because Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira, upon arriving in 1568, believed that King Solomon used gold from the Mataniko River to build his famed temple.

A journey to these islands of the unexpected generally begins in the capital of Honiara on Guadalcanal, the seat of government and economics in the Solomons. This may be the ideal base from which to arrange flights to the outer islands.

A drive west leads to numerous roadside stalls selling cassava with roast chicken before approaching Bonegi Beach. A snorkelling excursion around the ancient shipwreck that lies just metres from the shore may be a sure-fire way to offset carb intake.

The outdoor Vilu WWII Museum, a lush garden that is home to a collection of Japanese and American military planes, riddled with rust, bullet holes, and now, weeds may be accessed through a further short drive.

Since its brush with a tsunami in 2007, The Western isle of Gizo has undergone an energetic transformation. Shops and houses that line its main coastal road are painted in bright colours, and the daily market along the quaint port is filled with fresh fish, coconuts and pineapples brought by locals from surrounding islands.

Gizo itself is host to a growing number of surf scouts, its reputation for enjoyable breaks being only a recent discovery. White trucks that serve as people carriers, and bikes for hire offer are a convenient means of transportation.

A diver explores the wreck of the Soltai 61 that lies vertically jammed against a reef, Solomon Islands.

A snorkelling excursion becomes adventurous as the remains of a shipwreck are discovered. Photo © Steve Jones/Stocktrek Images/Corbis

The latter are on loan at Dive Gizo, which organises snorkelling and dive trips to numerous sunken ships and warplanes, and hikes up the neighbouring (and still active) Kolombangara volcano. Tourists may be seen bartering for boat hires at the port. However, a visit to the egg vendors down at the Western end of the market may offers a local’s glimpse into the true going rate for a ride.

Skull Island out in Vonavona Lagoon may also be worth a gander. Back in the day, it is said, the Solomon Islands were host to tribes of headhunters, who would raid neighbouring islands and their tribes, bringing back heads for various rituals and inaugurations. ‘Refrain from touching the skulls,’ say locals, ‘It’s karma!’

Soloman Islands, Skull Island In Roviana Lagoon Used By Local Village To Store Skulls Of Chiefs And Important Enemies

Skull Island: ‘Don’t touch the skulls!’ Photo © Louise Murray/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis

Throughout the Solomons, it may be possible to arrange home stays in a number of villages. This might be the best way in which to immerse oneself in island life. Visitors may be warmly welcomed and have the unique opportunity to experience a simpler way of life, and to directly help the local economy. Village stays may be best arranged through tourist centres or online. As far as procuring the advice of locals, the ‘Big Man,’ or village chief is the one to seek out.

Speaking of chiefs, Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge’s recent visit to the islands may well be an indicator of growing international interest in the area. It currently seemed to be little tourist infrastructure, so now maybe the time to visit before an expanding Asian tourist industry has a commercial influence on the country.

Solomon Islanders continue to preserve their precious domain whilst also embracing a future of change.For more information please visit the Solomon Island Visitors’ Bureau website.

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