Solomon Islands, Nature's Playground

Forty Metres below the sea’s glassy surface, schools of Moorish idols, barracuda and clownfish stream past me and my cumbersome scuba gear.

A little bewildered, I stall for a moment in the middle of this marine superhighway - a giant eagle ray swerves nonchalantly above me, while a particularly gruff-looking grouper veers in close and gives me what can only be described as a look of road rage. I feel like an extra in Finding Nemo.

Suddenly, my guide, the ever-genial Graeme Sanson from Dive Munda, points to two great whaler sharks – each about two metres long - only a few metres away, strutting back and forth like a pair of cocky flamenco dancers. “They like to show off”, Sanson tells me later, back on shore, “which is to say, they’re warning you to back away”. It’s pretty much everyone’s worst nightmare – to be caught in a stand-off with a pair of territorial sharks. But, for reasons that feel entirely justified in this surreal ‘other world’ in which I’m hovering, we stick around for a few minutes to watch the performance. It’s mesmerising.

But then, a trip to the Solomon Islands is just that - a surreal experience that seems to be not of this world, from the moment you pass through customs at tiny Honiara airport, which is little more than a tin lean-to, to when you succumb, finally, to what’s known in these parts as ‘Solomons time’. The Pacific archipelago is a mere three-hour flight from Australia, but it’s aeons from any place I’ve ever experienced. And therein, say many island devotees, lies its charm.

Shark Frenzy

In diving circles, the Solomons is regarded as one of only a few places in the world where you can get as close as I did to sharks in their natural habitat. Later in the day, just off the aptly named Shark Point, I swim within metres of a 2.5-metre silvertip, which, I’m told well after we’re back on shore at Munda, is a particularly aggressive species. Sanson has spotted 12 types of sharks - including tawny nurses, great hammerheads and tiger sharks - in the 18 months he and partner Jen Will have been leading dives in the area. “It’s because the place is so untouched,” he says. “The shark-finners haven’t made it here yet.”

Untouched in Every Sense

In fact, the Solomons – which are made up of 992 islands, only 347 of which are inhabited – remain untouched in almost every respect. Despite more than 80 years as a British protectorate, the arrival of Japanese and US troops during World War II and, more recently, the presence of the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) workers, a lot of the people still live much as they did thousands of years ago – in thatched huts, practising ancient customs and eating, as their ancestors did, from a diet of fish, sweet potato and tropical fruit.

Visitors expecting a lush, island-resort experience replete with nail spas and cocktail happy hours might be put out. Those after an experience that takes them far from the madding crowds and out of the sanitised tourist loop, however, will be only too pleased. There are five major hotels in Honiara (and one Western-style cafe of note - Lime Lounge Café - which serves great coffee and even gluten-free biscuits). However, the main style of tourist accommodation across the islands is grass-roofed bungalows, the odd one featuring a bar that juts out over the water or a couple of hammocks. Visitors mostly dine as the locals do – on fish caught that morning, grilled or cooked in coconut milk and lime - and even travel around the islands in the tiny, traditional wooden dugout canoes.

Under the Sea

The Solomon Islands are a veritable playground filled with dare-devilish activities, and the Western Province is the best area for diving and snorkelling. Its capital, Gizo, is only a 90-minute flight from Honiara and is a good jumping-off point for visiting the sun-soaked islands in the region. If Dive Munda’s shark action has left you hungry for more, at fatboys bar & restaurant, a lively establishment on Mbabanga Island, a short powered-canoe trip from Gizo, you can snorkel with reef sharks just off the jetty.

At Uepi Island Resort on Marova Lagoon, an upmarket resort positioned on the edge of the world’s largest double barrier lagoon, there’s also great scuba diving with our toothy friends. The resort is an hour’s flight from Honiara, before a transfer by canoe.

I should point out that no tourist has ever been bitten by a shark, although locals will happily share stories about relatives who have been taken as punishment for adultery and other misdemeanours. Got a clean relationship record? Well, you should have no issues.

If flinging yourself around as shark bait isn’t really your thing, the area also offers some of the best war-relic diving in the world. The sea floors are littered with warships from both the Japanese and US forces, all preserved in time and sea salt.

Local Adventure

Perhaps one of best ways to experience the Solomon Islands is by venturing out into the hundreds of tiny villages and islands - inhabited or otherwise - that are scattered around the main tourist areas. Munda’s Agnes Lodge – a smattering of simply appointed bungalows with an atmospheric outdoor bar, run by a retired teacher from New Zealand, and only an hour’s flight from Honiara - can arrange for you to take a canoe trip from the lodge to nearby villages and to the crocodile-infested waters at the mouth of the lagoon. You can also organise a trip to the Western Province’s Tetepare, the largest non-inhabited island in the South Pacific, off which you can swim in waters teeming with dugongs and leatherback turtles. At certain times of the year, you can even camp out on the beaches with the rangers and watch leatherback turtles nesting.

Away from it All

Most tourists tend to head to the Western Province but the country’s other eight regions all offer diverse adventures. You just have to know where to look.

On Malaita, a 45-minute local flight from Honiara, visitors can enjoy a more cultural experience. A 45-minute trip by powered canoe from the Malaitan capital of Auki delivers you to tour operator Serah Kei and her island bungalow in the middle of the Langa Langa Lagoon. Kei built the thatch-roofed bungalow herself, as well as the lush island it stands on. The local area is renowned for its artificial islands, built by piling up the surrounding coral and sand.

The Malaitans headed seaward from the island’s inland jungles about 600 years ago, chased by headhunting enemies. To protect themselves from being eaten alive, they built islands a few hundred metres out in the water. Headhunting only died out a few generations ago, but the artificial islands continue to be built to house a growing population.

Today, things are a little calmer, especially viewed from the hammock that swings out over the still water. It’s so quiet here, you can hear children singing on islands several kilometres away, and the crackle of sea life below. There’s not much to do here after you’ve swung in the hammock, gone out fishing with the locals or plonked into the clear-blue, warm water - a balmy 30-degrees Celsius year-round - to snorkel among electric blue starfish, giant clams and the odd reef shark or two. But this is what makes it so charming.

A number of operators, including Kei, can arrange for you to travel in a dugout canoe to stay with a family in a small village. It’s an opportunity to experience the ancient customs of the Solomon Islands up close. Here, visitors learn about bride money, a form of local currency that is made from strands of carved shells, and that is still used by Malaitans for bridal dowries.

No Time Like the Present

A discussion of the vast and mostly untapped beauty of the Solomon Islands is not complete without more on the aforementioned ‘Solomons Time’. In this part of the Pacific, time is something that almost does not exist, in concept or in reality. Most things run late and no one is ever in a hurry to get somewhere. But after a few days on the islands, even the most clock-conditioned people will find themselves sliding into this timeless zone, joyfully letting go of schedules and giving in to the present moment. When this happens, you’ll know you’ve been seduced by the Solomons.

Words by Sarah Wilson - Published in Voyeur March 2009
Quick Facts 
Population Approx 581,500
Area 28,450 km2
Time Zone GMT +11
Languages Melanesian, English, French. 120 indigenous languages
Currency Solomon Islands dollar (SBD)
Electricity 240 Volts
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