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Monday, July 01, 2013

     If you want to experience the South Pacific’s wilderness still alive and get off the beaten path until there is only you, the ocean, tropical rainforests and traditional villages, the Solomon Islands is the place to go. Intrinsically un-globalised, untouched by western principles, exotic, vast, adventurous. And although still struggling to re-define its identity, these descendants of headhunters, animists and cannibalists converted to the avid Seventh Day Adventists will be the kindest friends you’ll ever meet. And if you’re patient enough, they'll show you one of the most intense human connections to the ocean.
     The Solomon Islands are the third-largest archipelago in the South Pacific extending for 1800 km south-east from Bougainville village in Papua New Guinea. With a total of 922 islands, of which only less than one fifth is inhabited, this archipelago provides endless travel opportunities limited only by imagination of your adventurous soul. There are 9 provinces in the Solomons: Central Province, Guadalcanal, Isabel, Choiseul, Malaita, Makira-Ulawa, Rennell-Bellona, Temotu and the Western Province. You can either head straight into the Western Province where in places like Gizo, Munda, Gatokae or Uepi Island you can immerse yourself in superb diving and an array of cultural tours, or lose yourself in a much less predictable world of more remote provinces, if a transformative cultural shock is what your soul yearns for.

Biche Village: One of the most inaccessible sea villages on Gatokae Island
Munda Village
     In June 2013 we spent 3 weeks in the Solomon Islands travelling from Honiara to the Western Province, where we visited Munda, Tetepare, Uepi and Gatokae Island before returning back to Honiara. The detailed 4 weeks itinerary that was originally planned can be found in our next post (30 Day Itinerary for Your Ultimate Solomons Adventure) which will help you organize everything you need for the best holiday possible. 

Culture and Religion

     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. One of the most complex sacred relationships between a man and a shark has arisen from traditional communities of this country. The “hidden people” of many traditional villages around Langalanga lagoon known for shark worshipping have rejected Christianity and still practice the rituals of shark calling. Visiting their world would almost certainly mean getting to know all the shark stories that have been passed down through many generations. Most of the villages you’ll encounter will be the strict Seventh Day Adventists who restrict any activities during Sabbath on Saturday, however will still avoid touching the sacred plants or tambu sites, talk to a saltwater crocodile if they encounter one, and greet lizards as the last people of the Tetepare Island.


Monitoring the Coconut crabs with a local guide on Tetepare Island
     After the political unrest and the negative media attention which the Solomon Islands have been receiving after 2001, the tourism industry has been on decline. Despite a few hit-and-miss attempts to boost the tourism and a very detailed holiday questionnaire handed out to you at the airport just before your departure, the number of visitors has fallen to about 2000-3000 a year. The management of many successful eco-lodges has been handed over to the local villages who've been kind of struggling with the fulfilment of the bottomless needs of a Western tourist. And then, there’s the betel nut. It’s hard to tell if this wide-spread narcotic drug is the last piece that holds the Solomons' economy together, or it will be the first thing to watch it fall apart. Seeing the youngest descendants of some of the most infamous Melanesian headhunters with black teeth covered with foul red saliva due to betel-nut overdose can be shocking, painful and sad. And because this struggling economy is part of the tourism problem, here’s the real deal: the Solomon Islands can be one of the most expensive exotic holidays you’ll ever have, but certainly one of the least luxurious. This is their world, and the things are done their way and at their speed. That has created a unique environmental and cultural time capsule which retains its authenticity no matter how much of the cultural confusion the Solomon people have suffered due to their history.

     Although absorbing the Western tourism principles hasn't been working for the local villages as expected, there is one new movement called marine tourism that builds on the genuine heritage of the Solomon people combining recreation with community-based marine resources awareness. Marine tourism is built on a hybrid system of management that brings western concepts of conservation and links it with indigenous customs. It invites tourists to join local rangers in activities like monitoring mud clams or endangered population of coconut crabs and hawksbill or leatherback turtles, in a coral reef survey and coral planting techniques. One of the examples was a successful program introduced by TDA on the uninhabited island of Tetepare, although even this program is now facing internal problems and when we visited our stay was more about self-exploring this phenomenal last wild island of the Pacific rather than participating in rangers' activities.

Diving and snorkelling

House Reef at Uepi Island
     You wouldn't be reading up to here, if you wouldn't have, at least to some extent, desperately fallen in love with the underwater world. The main reason to visit the Solomon Islands is for its fabulous snorkelling, freedivng and scuba diving opportunities. There are not many other places on Earth where you can rely on experiencing the whole package: warm water and good visibility, pristine coral reefs, abundance of fish and pelagic life, incredible ship and plane wrecks. During WWII the significant Battle of Guadalcanal took place near the main island and dozens of ships and planes were sunk in the stretch of water between Guadalcanal, Savo Island and Florida Islands known as Ironbottom Sound which now   offers world-class scuba diving. Most dive centres in the Solomos have been established by adventurous travellers who came here and never left, trained local people and now run their business in close cooperation with local villages. Although most local dive instructors have only learnt to scuba dive a few years back, spearfishing and freediving is something they've been doing all their lives, so if these activities are what you’re after, you will find some great buddies here. The following dive centres offer scuba diving, as well as snorkelling and freediving trips:

  1. Tulagi Dive: Neil Yates and his team offer many excellent wreck dives around Honiara (Hirokawa Maru, Kinugawa Maru, Kyusyu Maru, Azumasan Maru, I-1 Submarine, USS Atlanta, USS Serpens, USS Jon Penn, etc.) or Tulagi (USS Aaron Ward, USS Kanawha, RNZN Moa, USS Minneapolis, Kawanishi sea planes). Most of these dives are technical deep wreck dives. The most famous reef dives in Tulagi area are Twin Tunnels, the Tease, Sandfly Passage, Presentation Point and the "T" Spot. Snorkelling and freediving on Bonegi I,II wrecks near beaches in Honiara or day trip to Florida islands is also excellent. You can contact Neil Yates at neil@tulagidive.com or +677 747 5043. Rates are SBD$1200/pp for a 2-tank dive from shore in Honiara and $1800/pp for a 2-tank boat dive in Tulagi, or SBD$400 for a snorkelling trip to Bonegi I & II which we highly recommend.
  2. Extreme Adventures: Located in Honiara they offer great weekend scuba diving, snorkelling trips to Florida Islands, as well as other fishing, cultural or hiking tours.

Freediving on Bonegi wrecks at Guadalcanal from Miro Kubicek on Vimeo.

  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. 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 corner, Toana 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. 
  1. Uepi Island: 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. Their pristine House Reef dropping into 70 metres and extending from the Welcome Jetty pass the Dive Jetty to Uepi Point with resident black and white tip reef sharks and grey reef sharks was one of the best snorkelling spots we've ever seen. It's right there and its for free. 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 the video and photos, and read more about our swim with manta rays here...
  1. Munda Dive: A small operation located at Agnes Lodge in Munda village on the southern coast of the New Georgia Island in the Western Province. One of the advantages of diving in Munda is the diversity of the dives: you can easily fit wall drift dives, plane wrecks, cave dives as well as shallower dives in beautiful coral gardens into 2-3 diving days. The main dive sites include: Shark point, Cave of the Custom Shark, Top Shelf, Susu Hite, Haipe Reefs, Mushroom Island and numerous WWII plane and ship wrecks. Diving in Munda has long been considered some of the best in the world receiving excellent reviews from divers from all over the world. Therefore we were quite surprised to experience an overall lack of the fish probably due to overfishing around Rendova Island. Pelagic action was actually quite rare. Coral was nice and healthy, although can't compare with coral gardens around Fiji. Visibility can drop to 10 metres or even less. We felt diving at Munda was considerably overpriced and unless you want to do the 9-dives package (AUD$600 without the gear), they don’t offer any discount for multiple dives such as 2 or 3 diving days. The rates are AUD$210 for a 2-tank dive including the gear and custom fees.
  1. Dive Gizo: Although many of the reef and wreck sites were significantly damaged by tsunami in 2007, Gizo still offers fabulous diving comparable to Munda, and with Toa Maru, one of the South Pacific's most popular diveable WWII shipwrecks, it can easily be highlight of your diving experience in the Solomons. The main dive sites are: Toa Maru, Joe's Wall, Secret Spot, Grand Central Station, American Hellcat Fighter Plane, etc. The price for a 2-tank dive is AUD$150 including the gear.
Douglass Dauntless Bomber, WWII Plane Wreck, Munda


When To Go

     Many travel guides including the Lonely Planet as well as some of the dedicated websites will tell you that the best time to visit the Solomon Islands is during the dry season that lasts from May to December, whereas the wet season when the occasional cyclones occur is between January and April. After visiting the Solomons for 3 weeks in June (when it rained and was very windy almost half of that time), we can confirm that since the Islands lie in the equatorial zone, the islands have no dry and wet season, and tend to have the same weather throughout a year. In fact (and what’s more important than rain if you’re planning a diving holiday), mid-June to mid-October is characterized as a southeast trade wind season during which the overall visibility decreases and you will more often encounter stronger winds and rougher seas.

Essential Facts

  1. Visa: American, British, Commonwealth and EEC visitors are granted entry visa for a month on arrival. No fees apply and immigration process is quick, smooth and easy.
  2. Foods: You're not supposed to bring any fresh foods into the country, however dried foods are ok and we absolutely recommend stocking up on good snacks before you come as they're basically impossible to buy in Solomon Islands. The fresh produce markets are a wonderful place to meet local people and purchase organic fruits and vegetables, fish, as well as wood carvings.    
  3. Weather: Daytime coastal temperatures vary from 25-35 degrees throughout a year, while in Honiara and further inland can reach up to 40 degrees. Average water temperature is 29 degrees, so a protective lycra suit is usually sufficient for diving or snorkelling. The Solomons' sun is exceptionally non-forgiving and the sun protection is absolutely essential.
  4. Time: The Solomons are 11 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.
  5. Electricity: Electricity is 240 volts AC, the plug is the same as in Australia, NZ, Fiji and Tonga. 
  6. Water: Tap water is not suitable for drinking. Bottled water is available and fresh rain or river water is supplied by most villages and lodges.
  7. Money: Credit cards and Australian dollars may be accepted in Munda, Gizo, Uepi Island and some of the top-end hotels in Honiara, however the rest of the country will only accept local currency. You can bring most of the cash in AUD and exchange it right after the arrival at Honiara airport (do insist on getting the bank rate), otherwise there are 3 banks (Westpac, ANZ and Bank of South Pacific) that have ATMs in Honiara, Munda, Gizo and Malaita. They usually charge about SB$45 per withdrawal on their end and the exchange rate for AUD$1 is about SB$7.
  8. Malaria: Malaria does exist in Solomon Islands, however if you don’t intend to hike deep into inland jungles of more remote islands and only plan to dive, stay in eco-lodges or visit villages in the Western province, it can actually be quite rare. Compared to other tropical countries and being active mostly around sunset and sunrise, the mosquitoes didn't even bother us too much. Doxycycline 100mg once a day should be sufficient and if you follow that with a good probiotics in the evenings you should be fine. Natural remedies turmeric and colloidal silver are currently being tested for their effectiveness in the prevention of malaria, and if you do get Malaria, Chinese Wormwood (Artemisia Annua) has been traditionally used to treat its symptoms.

What to See and Do

  1. Stay a few days in Honiara: stay at one of the local guest houses rather than a hotel; visit the central market; go for a hike to Mataniko waterfalls; go snorkelling to Bonegi I&II ship wrecks; go scuba diving to Guadalcanal, or take a snorkelling day-trip to Florida Islands.
  2. For a genuine cultural experience take a ferry and visit Malaita Island: go for a walk around Auki, a quiet little port town; stay on artificial islands in Langa Langa and Lau Lagoon, visit the traditional bush tribe in remote Kwaio village in Malaita's mountainous interior.
  3. Fly to Munda: visit the local village, take a Skull Island tour, go scuba diving to Shark Point, Cave of the Custom Shark and WWII plane wrecks. 
  4. Visit Gizo and take a scuba diving trip to a world-famous WWII ship wreck Toa Maru.
  5. Take a boat to Tetepare Island, the largest uninhabited island in the Pacific: visit ancient sacred sites or go for a hike to Crocodile Lake; snorkel with resident dugongs, or help local rangers to monitor endangered population of coconut crabs and leatherback turtles.      
  6. Visit Marovo Lagoon, the largest saltwater lagoon in the world: stay in rustic Matikuri Lodge and let Ben and his family introduce you to Solomon life; go snorkelling and kayaking within the lagoon; visit the local market on Friday or Saturday.
  7. Visit Uepi Island: go snorkelling with resident sharks on a world-class house reef just off the Welcome jetty, or experience some of the best scuba diving in the Solomons.
  8. Visit Ngatokae Island: stay in the Wilderness Lodge; visit the local Paeva village; go snorkelling nearby the off-shore islands; take a tour to untouched Biche village, one of the most inaccessible sea villages on the island.  


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