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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).


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.


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