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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Traditional Welcome Ritual at Biche Village
    The Wilderness Lodge is situated in the middle of Peava village on Gatokae Island, a Melanesian seaside village known in the Solomon Islands for their preserved sacred customs and environmental awareness. If you're looking for a place where coastal, oceanic and rainforest environment overlap, and where western tourism principles blend peacefully into the natural surroundings of traditional villages, Gatokae Island is the place to go.

Wilderness Lodge


About Wilderness Lodge

   
     Gatokae Island is known as home to one of  the most biologically diverse place on earth where the incredibly rich ecosystem of surrounding coral reefs meets the ecosystem of its tropical rainforests which has created a very fragile equilibrium of probably the two most globally-threatened ecosystems. The Wilderness Lodge was established in 2002 to provide sustainable income alternatives to the indigenous people of southeastern Gatokae through ecotourism, and thus create an example of environmentally and socially sustainable business promoting conservation and environmental awareness. The Wilderness Lodge is owned, managed and staffed by people from Peava and nearby sea villages and introduces you to a genuinely traditional life of Solomon people. This is not a luxurious ocean resort, but rather a simple and intimate eco-lodge surrounded by local villages where life doesn't go according to the western rhythm. This is their world, and the things are done their way and at their speed. And if you don't mind roughing it a little for AUD $350 for 2 people per night, it well may be one of the best holidays of your life. Because once again, luxury is not what you pay for in the Solomons, but rather a luxurious taste of the wilderness, gorgeous sunsets and the feeling that you're doing the right thing for preserving one of those last truly wild places on Earth (at least you want to believe so and after paying for your stay you certainly will).



Accommodation


One of the two beachfront bungalows at Wilderness Lodge
     The lodge caters for a maximum of 12 guests, although there are rarely more than 8 people staying at one time and it's not unusual to have the whole place for yourself. The lodge has two large, simply furnished and very private oceanfront bungalows, each offering two queen beds and accommodating up to 4 guests (although you pay per person rather than for the whole room). With the stunning interior wooden carvings, sliding glass doors which opens to the beachfront verandah and the deck extending all the way to the lagoon, these traditional Melanesian leaf houses were easily the most breathtaking place we've ever stayed at. Each bungalow also has a private outdoor shower, 24-hour electricity and a gas-burner for making a tea or coffee. The main building provides two additional sleeping rooms, each with two double beds and single bunk. They're not as private and stunning as bungalows as they open on to main lodge living area with a communal dining table, but are much cheaper and can be perfect for bigger groups or families. All packages include breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks, that can be served either at the lodge or in the privacy of your bungalow. The food is limited by what's available in the local villages and didn't feel as light and healthy as at the Uepi - lots of white bread and deep-fried meals, so do ask for lighter veggie meals if that's what you're after. A selection of beer, wine and soft drinks are also available for purchase.


What to Do on Gatokae Island


     Most of the time there's no management present and it's possible that you'll have to put significant amount of effort into organizing and clarifying all of your activities. Some of the activities such as visiting the remote Biche Village or a trip to the world's only accessible submarine volcano also require a days’ notice or specific seasonal conditions. Don't be put off by the slow communication with the staff -  Gatokae Island offers an amazing variety of very unique and highly adventurous activities, some of the best in the Solomon Islands. Plan your activities well in advance and try to arrange them prior to your visit. Once you're there, insist on confirmation of the trip and keep asking about the details you need to know every day as they can change without notice (literally). Or you can just pack your bag and go for a full day hike on your own across the mountain range into otherwise inaccessible villages, or take a boat and spend a day on one of the nearby uninhabited islands.

Visiting the remote Biche Village

   The Wilderness Lodge offers a quite remarkable array of activities. Depending on how many days are you staying at the Wilderness Lodge, we would highly recommend trying to arrange at least the following three:


  1. Bulo, MaleMale, and Kicha snorkelling trip: The lodge has prime access to the three wild and uninhabited islands Bulo, MaleMale, and Kicha, and depending on sea conditions offers a half-day snorkelling trip to any of these nearby off-shore volcanic islands known for their stunning visibility and rich marine life.
  2. Biche village cultural tour: This remote and practically inaccessible sea village situated on the rugged south coast of Gatokae is the most culturally intact village in Marovo. Wilderness Lodge can organize a full-morning or a full-afternoon trip to this culturally unique community and Wilderness guests are the only outsiders that visit the village. The village leader provides an excellent guided tour of their sacred sites, including skull shrines, waterfalls, sacrificial altars, birthing cave, the famous tame eels, and will tell you lots of interesting custom stories. The boat transfer is 25 minutes by boat from the lodge, however the landing can be quite difficult and will only be attempted when safe. In rough weather or during tradewind season Biche can only be accessed by a very scenic 5-6 hours hike across the island's interior. For more adventurous, Biche village stay can be organized.
  3. Coconut crabs and caves of Bulo Island: Bulo Island lying offshore just 15 minutes boat ride from the lodge has one of the healthiest population of the coconut crabs in the Pacific. This is highly endangered species (in high demand in Asian markets). You can join the hunters in the afternoon  as they prepare the coconut baits and return after dark to look for them.
     There are lots of other activities that you can choose from, such as cultural classes where the masters demonstrate how to make woodcarvings or traditional canoe, or quite an intriguing crocodile night tour where after sunset during darker moon phase an experienced guide will take you to look for the salt-water crocodiles. Probably the most fascinating tour, however, is a trip to Kavachi volcano, the world’s only accessible submarine volcano which can offer adrenaline-charged snorkelling during its eruptions a safe distance from the vent. This full-day trip to Kavachi Volcano is strictly subjected to weather, season and sea conditions which are usually very rough.


     Make sure you don't plan any activities, arrival or departure on Saturday as the village Sabbath observance from sundown Friday (6:00PM) to sundown Saturday (6:30PM) restricts any activities and the Lodge does not provide boat trips or transfers. 
     There are also lots of self-guided walks that you could take around the lodge. There is Peava village 10 minutes walk along the coast to the east and Kio village 10 minutes walk along the coast to the west. Peava is a typical small Western Solomons village with one school, a church and a population of approximately 120. It is a wonderful and very scenic place to go to on a weekday afternoon when kids return from school and play in the lagoon for hours, women return from the gardens and start cooking and men go fishing and do the wood carving that Marovo is world famous for. The people are pure Melanesian and speak Marovo language, as well as English. Most inhabitants are Seventh Day Adventists (SDA) with a subtle but pervasive persistence of traditional spiritualism and mythology. Apart from rice, tinned fish and petrol the village is fully self-sufficient. With the presence of government almost non-existent and the traditional chiefly system greatly undermined by the church and economics, most decision-making takes place in family groups while school and church matters often involve the community as a whole.
     You could also visit Madali beach on the south-east coast of the island (return trip will take you about 3 hours through spectacular scenery), or Kavolavata village, a beautiful village with no modern amenities ( 1 1/2 hour return trip north through Kio village). It is possible to do a few multi-day hikes, such as a 3-day hike to the summit of the Gatokae Island. 


Snorkelling and Freediving on Gatokae

   
On the way to Kicha Island
     Gatokae Island is situated at the southeastern tip of the Western Province, on the edge of the Marovo Lagoon, the largest salt-water lagoon in the world. Although the visibility within Marovo Lagoon has suffered a lot from the commercial logging which has polluted the waters with rainforest sediments and dirty particles, the offshore volcanic islands surrounding Gatokae offer the best visibility we've encountered in the Solomons. You can either snorkel in the coral gardens within the lagoon (which was quite disappointing as the visibility in the lagoon can get very low), or you can take the kayak (or just swim for about 150 metres across the lagoon straight out from the jetty) to the Paeva Wall on the outer reef where the ocean floor drops into 400 metres and offered us excellent playground for freediving. Snorkelling along the outer reef is usually very safe,  although you have to be aware of the direction of the current, keep away from the breaking waves and watch the middle passage where the boats enter the lagoon frequently. If you take the kayak, tie it onto the mooring rope in the middle of the boat passage. There is also a very useful map of the snorkelling spots provided in the resort guide. Even though the abundance of marine life, quality of coral and the overall visibility can't compare with the fringing reefs around Uepi Island, the Wilderness Lodge still offers decent snorkelling right in front of the bungalow.

     For about $50 you can take a 2-hour snorkelling trip to the volcanic islands off-shore: Bulo, Malemale and Kicha offer stunning visibility, great swims-through and healthy coral reefs - some of the best we've encountered in the Solomons. Just pick the right day as the channels between the islands can get very rough and prevent you from getting near the shore. On the day we went, despite the calm seas around Gatokae we found ourselves in the middle of 3 meters waves along the whole shore of Bulo Island and had to continue another 20 minutes to Kicha which tends to have calmer waters around.

Coral Reefs around Kicha Island










  

Scuba-diving on Gatokae Island


  1. Dive Wilderness:  Developed with many years of remote village tourism experience near Peava village on Gatokae Island in the Western Province, the Wilderness Lodge is now home to SSI-certified dive centre that can accommodate up to 8 divers from June 2013. The nearby offshore islands Kicha, Mbulo and Male Male offer fabulous scuba diving, freediving and snorkelling opportunities, and actually had the best overall visibility (around 25m) during our Solomon Islands trip. The visibility within Marovo Lagoon has suffered a lot from the commercial logging that has polluted the waters with rainforest sediments and dirty particles, however the visibility near these offshore islands was the best we've encountered in the Solomons.  
  2. Solomon Dive Adventures: Located in the village of Peava on Gatokae Island (near the Wilderness Lodge), Solomon Dive Adventures was established by Lisa after 30 years of owning and operating Dive Makai Charters in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, and offers excellent diving in Southern Marovo Lagoon. The most popular dive sites are Kavachi cornerToana TablesFanyon Canyon, as well as 3 islands that sit just north and east of Peava: Male Male is the closest, Mbulo the biggest, and Kicha the smallest and furthest. Across the bay to the northwest lies the tiny, picturesque islet of Dovelei.


Biche Village


     It was Sunday, the first day after the Sabbath when all activities on Gatokae Island are restricted, when we finally managed to organize a trip to Biche village, a remote sea village situated on the rugged south coast of Gatokae, which has been known as the most culturally intact village in Marovo. At first we were a bit sceptical as the last thing we wanted to experience was one of those cultural performances designed for the western tourists after which the natives return to their TV's, play stations and Coca cola. That does not happen in Biche Village and you can look forward to a cultural experience as genuine as it gets in this luckily still forgotten part of the world.



     Wilderness guests are the only outsiders that visit the village; very rarely you can also meet there some adventurous ethnologists or biologists studying endemic species. The boat transfer is 25 minutes by boat from the lodge and usually is an adventure itself as for the outsiders the village can be difficult to access from the sea. In a rough weather or during tradewind season when the landing is not possible, Biche can only be accessed by an incredibly scenic 5-6 hours walk from the Lodge. For more adventurous, Biche an overnight stay at the village can be organized.
     After a traditional Melanesian welcome ritual the village leader provided us an excellent tour of their sacred sites throughout the village or hidden in the surrounding rainforest, including skull shrines, waterfalls, sacrificial altars, birthing cave, the famous tame eels, as well as told us many local stories which have been passed down the generations.






     The tour lasts about 4-5 hours and it's usually done as a full-morning, or a full-afternoon trip. The village requires one day's notice by HF radio. It is also possible to extend the tour with local lunch at Biche and a challenging steep hike to Mt Matengele fortress site, or other historical village and tambu sites.
     Due to its isolation Biche village is still under heavy influence of traditional beliefs and the heritage of animistic religion, history of headhunting and cannibalism, the cult of sharks, lizards and salt-water crocodiles, they all have survived vividly in their stories and are inseparable parts of their identities. One of the most fascinating moments was to watch their intense and natural connection to the ocean which is so fundamentally embedded in children as soon as they can walk. It felt like their ultimate religion: an inexhaustible source of play, food, protection, as well as their only connection to the world.



     One of the highlights of the sacred sites was our visit of the ancient birthing cave where women used to give birth for hundreds of years. The cave itself can be found outside of the village since anything that was related to life and death, as well as dark feminine and mystical aspects, was considered sacred, and thus had to be separated from the everyday life of the villagers. The cave has lots of stone carvings and skulls symbolizing the gods and ancestors who were supposed to help and accompany a woman on her journey of giving a birth.













Feeding of the Sacred Fresh-water Eels in Biche Village 


How To Get There


The main point of entry into the country is Honiara International Airport located 10 km out of the town. 
  1. Solomon Airlines provides international connections to Brisbane (Australia), Nadi (Fiji) and Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea)
  2. Virgin Australia provides international connection to Brisbane (Australia)
  3. Fiji Airways provides international connections to Nadi (Fiji) and Port Vila (Vanuatu)
  4. Air Niugini provides international connections to Nadi (Fiji) and Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea)
  5. Air Vanuatu provides international connection to Port Vila (Vanuatu)
Solomon Airlines provide domestic flights to over 20 airports throughout the Solomon Islands. Domestic flights are operated by small unpressurized De Havilland Twin Otters and Brit Norman Islander aircrafts which fly at low altitude and offer great views of the islands. Although according to their website restrictive baggage limits should apply (check-in baggage allowance is 15kg and cabin 5kg) we never encountered any problems or additional fees and with our diving and camera gear we were way over these limits. Because Gatokae airport has been closed, the main gateway to the Marovo lagoon area and the closest airport to Gatokae Island is now Seghe airstrip. Flying from Honiara to Seghe takes about 40 minutes and the return flight will cost you about AUD $350. From there, the Wilderness Lodge will provide the 2-hour boat transfer across the Marovo Lagoon. They will also pick you up from Uepi Island Resort, Tetepare Ecolodge, and Matikuri Island Lodge.

   
     If you're planning to stay here after your visit of Uepi Island, the Wilderness Lodge can feel a little bit over-priced. On the other hand, you only need a few days to recognize Gatokae as a very special and intact island - unique amongst the large islands of the Western Province: the proximity of the two incredibly rich ecosystems of rainforest and coral reefs, extremely high rates of endemism, and minimal population pressure.  If you want to experience a true Melanesian hospitality and how culturally- and environmentally-sensitive tourism should be done, you will enjoy staying at the Wilderness Lodge. Just stay simple and wild.


Saturday, July 13, 2013


     Our arrival to Uepi Island couldn't be more dramatic. Earlier that morning, after setting out on a perfectly calm sea for a 2-hour boat journey from Tetepare Island to Uepi, the boat driver with many years of experience (for the reason we'll never understand) picked the wrong spot when entering the Marovo Lagoon and stopped the boat right on the edge of a coral reef.  While trying to put it on reverse, a huge breaking wave flooded our boat which slowly started to sink. The back half of the boat got almost completely submerged with all our luggage floating in salt water. Since we were incredibly lucky not to have more people in the boat with us, we managed to stabilize it by removing the water and moving most of the weight to the front half of the boat. Just twenty minutes after this accident we arrived to Uepi Island Resort completely wet and shaken with our bags and some of the equipment soaked in salt water, and we couldn't imagine warmer welcome from Jill and Grant, the owners of this unique and forgotten part of the world. After offering us a cup of warm tea (and insisting on putting all our electronics in a dry room), we sat in a dining room looking out at the lagoon, while Jill told  us everything we needed to know about our stay at the resort. The first thing that strikes you is the incredibly hard work they've done while trying to build this place in a complete harmony with the ocean eco-system as well as the local community of the Marovo Lagoon. The second thing you realize is that you're desperately in love with this place before you even check-in.


Resident reef sharks at the Welcome Jetty 


About Uepi Island Resort


     If the pristiness of an environment and underwater world could have a star rating, Uepi Island Resort would have to be a 5-star paradise above as well as below the water - the only 5 stars we've ever looked for:
  1. Unique location: Uepi Island is a small and intimate island hidden at the very edge of the largest salt-water lagoon in the world and falling into 2000 metres deep oceanic trench on the seaward side, covered with tropical rainforest and surrounded by breath-taking coral reef streaming with small fish as well as pelagic life.
  2. Food: wonderful selection of healthy fresh and organic food sourced from local villages 
  3. Underwater world: stunning underwater world that comes in the whole package: warm water, good visibility, healthy corals in pristine condition, incredible pelagic life (manta rays, dolphins, sharks, sharks and more sharks!), limitless snorkelling and freediving opportunities and dive sites covering any underwater experience you may wish for: wrecks, wall dives, drift dives, coral gardens, or macro.
  4. Hospitality and friendliness of the owners
  5. Strong environmental awareness and ever-present ecological emphasis     
     

     Uepi Island Resort is a small and intimate resort located on a barrier reef island on the edge of Marovo Lagoon, the longest salt-water lagoon in the world. Marovo Lagoon is surrounded by the island of New Georgia on the eastern side and the chain of barrier islands and coral reefs on the other. The unique location of the island offers you an ultimate tropical island experience: sandy beaches and protected waters of Marovo Lagoon on its southern side, breathtaking coral reef accessible just off the Welcome Jetty taking you along 50 metres deep wall within Charapoana Passage, and last but not least, there is the seaward edge of the island which drops into 2000 metres deep oceanic trench, and thus welcomes all sorts of pelagic life and offers endless scubadiving or freediving opportunities. Uepi Island is approximately 2.5 km long and up to 600 metres wide. The two-hour coconut crab walk can take you through the tropical rainforest around the island. There are no villages on the Uepi and the whole resort is self-sufficient growing its own tropical gardens and working closely with the local communities of the Marovo Lagoon.

Leaving the Uepi:
Marovo Lagoon on the left, Charapoana Passage on the right
     Staying at Uepi Island Resort is not cheap, and it shouldn't be. Due to its price tag, however, Uepi Island wasn't an obvious choice for us at first and we spent quite a long time comparing different resorts and village stays. After 2 weeks of travelling around Solomon Islands visiting villages and uninhabited islands, we decided to make an exception and reward ourselves with one of the best 3 nights in our lives. Due to their struggling economy and practically non-existing tourism, Solomon Islands are not a cheap destination and very rarely you actually get what you pay for. At the Uepi, however, where most of your money goes into the local community, you do get back every cent you pay. How many times have you stayed at a cheap hostel just to spend three times more money on a snorkelling trip that included more hours on a boat than in a water, disappointing reef, 10 metres visibility, a shocking lack of fish, and if you were lucky even a boat crew smoking on the boat or standing on the coral reef? And how many times have you imagined staying at a place where you would just swim out of a dining room and have a world-class coral reef right there included in your room price and available 24 hours a day? Where the proximity of an open ocean would also thrown into your package an incredibly rich marine life and the pelagic species such as resident reef sharks, whaler sharks, turtles, eagle rays, or even orkas occasionally (!), which move along Charapoana Passage, one of the few deep-water passages from the lagoon. And where (if that's still not enough for you) a pot of wild dolphins likes to come and say hi every afternoon...

Beneath the Welcome Jetty

Accommodation


Two 1-bedroom units at the Uepi Island Resort
     The resort offers six beach bungalows, two units and two guest rooms. Because the beach bungalows were slightly more expensive, we decided to stay in one of the two one-bedroom units which was perfectly sufficient and had everything we needed. In fact, after a few weeks of travelling around the Solomons, our room even felt a little bit too luxurious: the main room had a fridge, a kitchen sink, a kettle, complimentary tea, coffee and milk, free toiletries, a king size bed, a huge clothing/luggage storage space, a fan, drinking tap water, cold shower (because cold actually means pleasantly warm and you really do not need a hot one), and very generous 24-hour electricity. If you decide to stay in one of these dual units, try to book a slightly bigger and sunnier 8A unit. These units felt private, clean and comfortable, the beach was 20 metres away and the outdoor shaded decking area with the hammock and excellent views of the Marovo Lagoon made it absolutely perfect.
     The main dining area had a bar with wonderful views of the whole lagoon, library, and even a wifi spot. The resort meals were wonderful and as fresh as it gets. They were mostly based around local seafood and organically grown fruits and vegetables. Depending on your morning activities the breakfast was served between 7 - 9 am and always included fresh fruits, coconuts, cereals and a variety of hot breakfast options. The lunch was brought to our room around 12.30 pm and the dinner was served at a communal table offering a wonderful opportunity to talk to other guests. It always consisted of a vegetarian soup, a tasty selection of main meals and a dessert.
The view from our 1-bedroom unit (8A)

Snorkelling, Diving and Free-diving


     Underwater world is the reason to come to Uepi Island and the reason you'll probably be back very soon. Although we decided not to scuba-dive (being there only for 4 days), we believe you could easily spend ten days of just scuba diving - the variety of dive sites is simply remarkable. Due to its location on a small tropical island perched on the edge of the longest lagoon in the world and with its seaward side dropping into 2,000 metres, Uepi Island Resort offers unique opportunity to dive first-class sites that are only minutes away from the dive shop, or just a short boat trip away. Local dive sites include Uepi Point, Inside Point, Welcome Jetty, Dive Jetty, The Elbow, Elbow Caves, Divers Bay and other. Diving excursions offer custom sites at Charapoana Point, Deku Dekuru, Lumalihe Passage, General Store, Mongo Passage, etc., as well as numerous wreck dives at WWII ship wrecks. The rate is $73/dive, although optional dive trips may be subjected to other custom fees.




Freediving at the Welcome Jetty
Coral Gardens at the Elbow
  
  

     
















     Having only 4 days, we decided to check-out the limitless opportunities for snorkelling, freediving and kayaking. The pristine house reef along the Charapoana Passage, dropping into 50 metres at the Welcome Jetty and 2000 metres at the Uepi Point, was one of the best snorkelling spots we've ever seen. It's right there and its for free. At the Welcome Jetty or Dive Jetty we simply fell off the edge of the island 3 or 4 times a day, where all sorts of marine life including countless black tip, white tip and grey reef sharks patrol the wall and kept us peering into the deep. During the incoming tide, when the water moves into the Marovo Lagoon and the visibility is at its best, you can take the boat to the Uepi Point and experience a wonderful drift snorkel back to the dive shop, or even all the way around the island, into the lagoon and towards the beach right in front of your bungalow. Whether you want to dive or snorkel, the Elbow (an outside corner of the Uepi Island) and the Divers Bay area are a short boat trip from the dive jetty and also offer stunning world-class coral gardens. Last but not least, an absolute must-do trip is an early morning snorkelling trip to look for the Manta Rays around the cleaning station area 10 minutes boat ride away. Check out our video and photos, and read more about our swim with manta rays here...


     

Other Activities


Coconut Crab Walk
     Other activities around the Uepi Island include sea kayaking, fishing, jungle trails and various cultural activities including the opportunity to visit local villages where Marovo people will introduce you into their traditional everyday life. The Solomon Islanders follow Melanesian clan system with strong bonds to their clan and a village leader. The communal support of people belonging into the same language and family group is very strong and you'll witness many dimensions of this complex cultural pattern in their everyday life. Although most of the population was successfully converted by Christian missionaries who settled in the Solomons under the British protectorate, traditional villages are still under heavy influence of their local kastoms (traditional beliefs). The heritage of animistic religion, history of headhunting and cannibalism, the cult of sharks, lizards and salt-water crocodiles, they all have survived vividly in the collective memory of the Solomon people. Their strong connection to the ocean is deeply embedded in their culture whether it’s their belief in a salt water crocodile or a shark as their ancestors, or simply in the ocean as the ultimate source of life, food and protection.

How To Get There


The main point of entry into the country is Honiara International Airport located 10 km out of the town. 
  1. Solomon Airlines provides international connections to Brisbane (Australia), Nadi (Fiji) and Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea)
  2. Virgin Australia provides international connection to Brisbane (Australia)
  3. Fiji Airways provides international connections to Nadi (Fiji) and Port Vila (Vanuatu)
  4. Air Niugini provides international connections to Nadi (Fiji) and Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea)
  5. Air Vanuatu provides international connection to Port Vila (Vanuatu)

      Solomon Airlines provide domestic flights to over 20 airports throughout the Solomon Islands. Domestic flights are operated by small unpressurized De Havilland Twin Otters and Brit Norman Islander aircrafts which fly at low altitude and offer great views of the islands. Although according to their website restrictive baggage limits should apply (check-in baggage allowance is 15kg and cabin 5kg) we never encountered any problems or additional fees and with our diving and camera gear we were way over these limits. Although not very cheap, the whole flying experience was much quicker and felt safer and more pleasant than the boat or ferry transfer. The main gateway to the Marovo lagoon area and the closest airport on your way to the Uepi Island is Seghe airstrip. Flying from Honiara to Seghe takes about 40 minutes and the return flight will cost you about AUD $350. From there, Uepi Island Resort will pick you up for a 20 minutes (12 km) journey in a traditional motor boat, usually a very calm and pleasant boat ride across the Marovo Lagoon.

     Whatever your reason to visit the Solomon Islands is, adding a few nights at the Uepi Island into your itinerary will almost certainly be one of the highlights of your holiday. If you also visit the Tetepare Island for an ultimate wilderness escape and add a village stay in Malaita Province, your experience of the Solomon Islands will be perfectly complete. 

Links:



Thursday, July 11, 2013


     "The sea is emotion incarnate. It loves, hates, and weeps. It defies all attempts to capture it with words and rejects all shackles. No matter what you say about it, there is always that which you can’t." 

                         Christopher Paolini






     One of the absolute must-do trips on Uepi Island is an early-morning snorkelling trip to the nearby cleaning station and feeding area which is regularly visited by highly endangered Reef Manta Rays (Manta Alfredi). This well-known cleaning station lays within Marovo Lagoon about ten minutes by boat from the resort. Mantas arrive here each morning to spend a few hours in warm, shallow waters for the removal of their external parasites by cleaner fish who feed around their mouth and gill slits, or simply rest on manta's body surface. As well as other pelagics, mantas also seem to have an excellent cognitive map of their environment and visit these areas repeatedly. During the cleaning process they stay close to the surface and offer the visitors out-of-this-world experience by welcoming them into their world and allowing them to swim with them. The trip lasts about 45 minutes depending on how quickly the boat driver can find them, and will only cost you about AUD $25.


     There are two recognized species of manta rays: the larger species, Manta birostris, migrates across open oceans and reaches 7 m in width, while the smaller, Manta alfredi, reaches 5.5 m and tends to be resident and coastal. A third possible species, preliminarily called Manta sp. cf. birostris, reaches 6 m, and inhabits the tropical west Atlantic, including the Caribbean. Manta rays are filter feeders and eat large quantities of zooplankton, which they swallow with their open mouths as they swim.



     In 2011, mantas became strictly protected in international waters by The Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals, while The International Union for Conservation of Nature declared Mantas to be "vulnerable with an elevated risk of extinction". The greatest threat to manta rays remains overfishing. Although individual nations are protecting manta rays, they often migrate through unregulated waters, putting them at increased risk in these areas. Because mantas are not evenly distributed over the oceans but concentrated in areas that provide the food resources, and also because of their long lifespan and low reproductive rate, overfishing can severely reduce local populations. Manta rays are also subject to other anthropogenic threats such as pollution, plastic in the ocean, and entanglement in fishing nets. Because mantas must swim constantly to flush oxygen-rich water over their gills, they are vulnerable to entanglement and subsequent suffocation. 

     Ironically, the flavour of manta's flesh has always been quite unattractive compared to other fish. Demand for their gill rakers, the cartilaginous structures protecting the gills, has however recently entered Chinese medicine. As a health care practitioner I can confirm that shark or manta's cartilage has never been part of any tradition in the history of Natural Medicine, and it has no scientific background as there is absolutely nothing healthy or nutritionally beneficial in ingesting the cartilaginous structures of these animals. However to fill the growing demand in Asia for gill rakers, targeted fisheries have been established in Philippines, Indonesia, Mozambique, Madagascar, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Brazil and Tanzania, and thousands of manta rays are killed purely for their gill rakers each year. Manta’s life span, reproductive ecology and migratory patterns still remain a mystery. No one has ever seen a manta to give birth in the wild. Let's hope they'll keep their secret safe before we'll take it away from them too soon.

Video



Links

  • Manta Matcher: After the success of the Ecocean whale shark database, Manta Matcher was specifically designed to enable researchers to upload and organize individually identified manta rays in their populations, and thus represents the first global manta ray database. 
  • Manta Ecology Project: This project was initiated in 2001 in Maldives to study the behavioural ecology of mantas from observations at their cleaning stations. In 2005 the project was formalised and a database was developed to store the burgeoning data on mantas identified. By 2010 there were nearly 2000 mantas recorded and the database continues to grow by about 200 new mantas each year. Research currently involves investigations on the differences in physical characteristics and markings patterns between mantas. Current research projects also include investigations into the social behaviours of individual mantas, agonistic behaviours between individuals to determine priority at cleaning stations and co-operative behaviour whilst feeding.    






Friday, July 05, 2013

Biche Village, Ngatokae Island
     The following 30 day itinerary for visiting the Solomon Islands was created after many months of an intensive research, comparing the travel guides and checking out the online forums. It was designed to bring you complex experience of the Solomon Islands from above as well as below the water and includes many hiking, snorkelling, scuba diving and special cultural opportunities which can be adjust to suit the adventures you're looking for. In fact,   in this vast and untouched country with incredible natural wonders and now much less human-hungry, the possibilities of your unique travel itinerary are almost limitless. Because the Solomons were part of our 3 months journey through the South Pacific, the time constraints forced us to remove visit of the Malaita Province from our itinerary, however the rest of the travel plan exactly describes our journey. 



DAY 1: Fly to Honiara from Brisbane with Solomon Airlines or from Sydney via Brisbane with Virgin Australia. The flight arrival is about 1:30 pm and depending on the Solomon Airlines schedule there may or may not be enough time to catch the afternoon domestic flight to Munda. In case you need to spend a night in Honiara, we recommend staying at St Agnes Mothers Union Transit House which provides safe, clean and affordable accommodation right in the centre of the town (SBD $275 per nights per double room with private bathroom, book directly with St Agnes). We booked all of our flights through the British website of the Solomon airlines which enabled us to put all flights on one itinerary (4 flights including our international departure to Fiji) which ended up much cheaper as if we had booked all segments separately. In Munda you can stay either at Agnes Lodge or Zipolo Habu resort located on private Lola Island. There is also one very cheap backpackers lodge in town and it should also be possible to arrange a village home stay.

DAY 2: Scuba diving with Munda Dive: check out the dive sites such as Shark Point, Cave of the Custom Shark, Haipe Reefs or Mushroom Island. For lunch, visit the one and only Leaf House cafe, a wonderful new little place to stop for a hearty meal or a fabulous frozen fruit smoothie.  

DAY 3: Scuba diving with Munda Dive: visit the incredible WWII ship and plane wrecks.

DAY 4: From Agnes Lodge, take a Go West ferry to Gizo, the provincial capital of the Western Solomons (2 hours boat ride). In Gizo you can either book a budget room in one of the simple and very affordable lodges and guest houses (Ocean View Lodge, Rekona Lodge, Leleana Lodge, Jituzavanga Guest House, Nellos Villa MotelPhoebe's Rest HousePT 109 Guest House, Naqua Motel, Gelvinas Motel), arrange a village stay at Babanga Village or Komolo Village, or stay at the very popular although expensive Fatboys ResortGizo Hotel, or at the exclusive Sanbis Resort located on a secluded island.

DAY 5: Go Scuba diving with Dive Gizo at Toa Maru, one of the South Pacific's most popular diveable WWII shipwrecks.

DAY 6: Return to Munda with Go West ferry and arrange with Go West Tours the Skull Island tour in the afternoon or Roviana lagoon tour during the sunset.

DAY 7: Boat transfer from Munda to Tetepare Island, the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific. Check with the TDA management of the island a week or so before if there are any other people going to the island as the transfer can be cheaper if shared.    

DAY 8: Stay at the Tetepare Eco-Lodge: Follow one of the many hiking trails across the island, through Tetepare's primary lowland rainforest - some of the last of its kind in Melanesia. Go snorkelling to the outer reef around the island. Help rangers with conservation activities such as turtles and coconut crabs monitoring.

DAY 9: Tetepare Eco - Lodge: go for a full-day hike to one of the tambu (sacred) sites or to the salt-water crocodile lake. Look for the dugongs in a traditional canoe during sunset or sunrise in the lagoon just in front of the eco-lodge.

DAY 10: Boat transfer from Tetepare to Seghe area (Marovo Lagoon), stay at either Matikuri Lodge or Charapoana Lodge (not in operation in June 2013). Both will guarantee wonderful village stay with a local family who will introduce you to simple everyday Solomons' life.

DAY 11: Go snorkelling and kayaking around Marovo Lagoon, the world's largest salt-water lagoon.

DAY 12: Visit local markets and learn how to prepare traditional meals, or go fishing with local fishermen.
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DAY 13: Boat transfer from Seghe to Uepi Island. Stay at Uepi Island Resort. Go snorkelling on the world-class house reef just off the Welcome jetty. Take a 2-hour coconut crab walk around the tropical rainforest.

DAY 14: Uepi Island Resort: Take an early morning trip to the nearby Manta Ray cleaning station and swim with these amazing giants - breathtaking and unforgettable experience. Go scuba diving to the local dive sites such as Uepi Point, Dive Jetty - Welcome Jetty, Charapoana Passage, the Elbow, etc...

DAY 15: Uepi Island Resort: Take a full-day scuba diving excursion to more remote dive sites (up to 4 dives a day)

DAY 16: Boat transfer from Uepi Island to the Wilderness Lodge on Gatokae Island: 

DAY 17: Wilderness Lodge: Take a snorkelling trip to nearby off-shore islands Kiche, Mbulo and Malemale, and experience 25+ metres visibility on incredibly pristine coral reefs. Take a full-afternoon  culturally very unique tour to the remote Biche village, one of the least accessible sea villages on the island. Please note that Saturday is a Sabbath Day when the villagers restrict any activities (including using of the kayak). Swimming and snorkelling are allowed.  

DAY 18: Wilderness Lodge: Follow one of the many hiking trails across the island that range from a few hours to multi-day hikes. Go scuba-diving or go searching for salt-water crocodiles with experienced guide. If the weather and sea conditions allow, visit Kavachi submarine volcano - the world’s only accessible submarine volcano which can offer adrenaline-charged snorkelling during its eruptions a safe distance from the vent.

DAY 19: Boat transfer from the Wilderness Lodge to Seghe airport (closer Gatokae airport has been closed in 2013). Book a Solomon Airlines short domestic flight from Seghe to Honiara. Stay 1 night in Honiara. Stay at either Chester Resthouse or St Agnes Mothers Union Transit House, which provides safe, clean and affordable accommodation right in the centre of the town (SBD $275 per nights per double room with private bathroom, book directly with St Agnes).

DAY 20: Book a ferry from Honiara to Auki in Malaita Province with Silentworld which operates Discovery ferry daily. Arrange your stay at Serah Kei Lagoon Hideaway in Lunga Lunga Lagoon. Other Auki accommodation options include Rarasu Motel and Auki Motel.

DAY 21: Malaita: At Serah Kei Hideaway you can choose from a whole range of unique cultural activities such as shell money production, bridal gift presentation, pan pipes demonstration, artificial island construction & local house building, traditional cooking, traditional healing and medicine, etc. 

DAY 22 - DAY 24: Malaita: Consider visiting the traditional 'bush' tribe Kwaio, who live in eastern-central Malaita's mountainous interior (2-3 day guided tour). This area is very seldom visited by Westerners and the 1000 Kwaio people who live in the mountains near Atoifi and Sinalanggu have rejected the modern world in favour of the traditional life and religion of their ancestors. If you're here to experience the cultural heritage, it doesn't get any better than this.

DAY 25: Take a ferry from Auki back to Honiara. Book a 5-day stay at either Chester Resthouse or St Agnes Mothers Union Transit House which provides safe, clean and affordable accommodation right in the centre of the town (SBD $275 per nights per double room with private bathroom, book directly with St Agnes). You can choose from a whole range of other accommodation options in Honiara to suit your needs.

DAY 26: Honiara: visit Central market and go snorkelling at Bonegi beach WWII shipwrecks (Bonegi I & II). Visit the Breakwater Cafe for a breakfast, the Lime Lounge Cafe for a wonderful healthy lunch and a fruit smoothie, and go to Point Cruz Yacht-club or more affordable Chinese Crown restaurant for a dinner. You can also visit Solomon Kitano Mendana Hotel to visit one and only Japanese restaurant in town. 

DAY 28 - DAY 29: Scuba diving with Tulagi Dive: book a scuba-diving trip to one of the world-famous wreck and reef sites around Honiara or Tulagi area.

DAY 29: Scuba diving with Tulagi Dive: Iron Bound Diving

DAY 30: Take a full-day snorkelling trip to Florida Islands with Extreme Adventures.  

DAY 31: Departure from Honiara with direct international flight to PNG, Fiji, Vanuatu, or Australia (Solomon AirlinesVirgin AustraliaFiji AirwaysAir Niugini, and Air Vanuatu).

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

     Any sea journey is as much an ultimate art, as it is an ultimate adventure. The canvas you’re given is an endless live organism thousands of miles wide and there’s no better expression of freedom than the white line that the boat leaves behind while riding the wildest of the waves






   
     Travelling around Solomon Islands doesn’t necessarily feel like a holiday, and why should it. With Gizo and Gatokae airstrips (the two main airports in the Western Province) now closed, your next holiday in the Solomon Islands will likely end up as a major sea adventure. And depending on the ocean's mood, travelling for 3 hours in a small motor boat while crossing an open sea can only be rough or scaringly rough, and certainly always fun. You'll get very wet and your bags thoroughly soaked in unforgiving salt water. However if you're lucky enough not to have too many people in the boat, you may not drown when a breaking wave floods the boat after the driver (for whatever reason) decides to stop on the edge of a coral reef. (more about this little adventure in our Tetepare Island post).



How To Get There


By plane 

     The main point of entry into the country is Honiara International Airport located 10 km out of the town. The following destinations offer direct international connection to Honiara: (a) Brisbane, Australia (Solomon Airlines & Virgin Australia); (b) Port Moresby, PNG (Solomon Airlines & Air Niugini); (c)  Nadi, Fiji (Solomon Airlines, Fiji Airways & Air Niugini); (d) Port Vila, Vanuatu (Fiji Airways & Air Vanuatu).


  1. Solomon Airlines provides international connections to Brisbane (Australia), Nadi (Fiji) and Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea)
  2. Virgin Australia  provides international connection to Brisbane (Australia)
  3. Fiji Airways provides international connections to Nadi (Fiji) and Port Vila (Vanuatu)
  4. Air Niugini provides international connections to Nadi (Fiji) and Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea)
  5. Air Vanuatu provides international connection to Port Vila (Vanuatu)


By Boat

     It is also possible to enter the Western Province of the Solomon Islands from Papua New Guinea by boat from the Bougainville province. Although, you would need to check with the authorities in advance if it’s legal to arrive into the country this way.




How to Get Around 


By Plane

   Solomon Airlines provide domestic flights to over 20 airports throughout the Solomon Islands. In June 2013 Gatokae airport has been shut down, while Gizo has been closed due to runway repairs and Munda was undergoing its transformation to an international airport (although it won't be receiving international flights any time soon and it will be used mainly for cargo and as an emergency airport if planes can't land in Honiara). Domestic flights are operated by small unpressurized De Havilland Twin Otters and Brit Norman Islander aircrafts which fly at low altitude and offer great views of the islands. Although according to their website restrictive baggage limits should apply (check-in baggage allowance is 15kg and cabin 5kg) we never encountered any problems or additional fees and with our diving and camera gear we were way over these limits. Although not very cheap, the whole flying experience was much quicker and felt safer and more pleasant than the boat or ferry transfer. Even though we were not notified about the closure of the Gatokae airport, they provided free boat transfer to Seghe airstrip and there was no delay during our arrival to Honiara.

By Boat


     Getting around the Islands by plane is not cheap and the only other way to reach the remote locations is by local boats and ferries. The schedules used to be pretty unpredictable and their quality a little bit desperate, however in the last few years there have been some significant changes:








The following ferry services offer transport between Honiara and the Western Province:
  1. MV Pelican Express (ph: 28104 in Honiara) is the quickest and the most reliable ferry to travel around Honiara, Malaita  and the Western Province. It departs the main Honiara wharf early on Sunday mornings, arriving in the port of Noro by late afternoon (SBD$480). You will have to get transport from Noro to get to Munda which normally is around SBD $300- 450. The ferry returns to Honiara every Monday.
  2. MV Solomon Express (ph: 28064 in Honiara) leaves Honiara on Friday and returns on Sunday.
  3. MV Phoenix departs Honiara on Sunday and arrives in Munda on Monday morning.
  4. Kosco departs Honiara on Saturday at 9pm (SBD$400.00).
  5. Trans West Shipping and Wings Shipping also travel to Western Province.

With Gizo airport now closed (re-opening is planned in early 2014), you will have to fly to Munda and take a ferry to Gizo. The following ferries provide transport between Munda and Gizo
  1. Go West Tours (ph: 62180; Agnes Lodge, Munda) runs a shuttle boat connecting Gizo to Munda via Noro (SBD $140, two hours, three weekly).
  2. The Pelena Express provides transport between Munda and Gizo daily stopping at numerous ports and villages.
  3. The Rava departs Munda for Gizo (and return) every Monday and Friday (and some Wednesdays subject to enough interest). 
  4. Aqua Explorer is the new boat transfer and charter service servicing the Munda-Noro-Ringgi-Gizo (return) route. You can also charter this boat to explore the Western Province as well as for various activities such as island hoping, beachcombing or fishing. The transfer operates on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Departs Munda 7:30am and returns 2:00pm from Gizo. One-way transfer costs SBD $220 and return SBD $400. For reservations contact Freda on +677 768 8635 or via email aquaexplorer@ghizo.net.

The following ferry operates between Honiara and Malaita:
  1. Silentworld/Discovery: Silentworld operates a daily high speed ferry between Honiara and Auki (Malaita), carrying up to 150 passengers. Discovery passenger ferry departs Honiara at 8am for Auki and return on a daily basis, adults from SBD $240 one way and SBD $460 return. On Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, & Sunday the service goes via Tulagi and through the Mboli passage with stops at Taroniara and Boromoli, adults from SBD $160 one way and SBD $300 return.




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