Saturday, November 3rd, Gizo, Western Province, Solomon Islands
Gizo is like the wild west of the Solomons. It is the second largest town in the country but has a frontier feeling about it. The waterfront and its main street are alive with activity. We arrived yesterday after one month of traveling through the Solomons. We will spend several days here preparing the boat and provisioning before heading to the eastern islands of Papua New Guinea. We have reconnected here with Jenny our Norwegian friends, and have finally met Carina, who we have heard much about. We will all be headed north by different paths but hope to meet up again in Palau. We shall see.
Our time in the Solomon Islands has been wonderful. The people we have met and the landscapes we have encountered have left us with lasting memories. It is a country that has been through a great deal in the last decade with the “tensions” and environmental issues stemming from logging but it manages to move forward with a bit of help from its neighbors. We have never failed to be impressed by the inquisitiveness and generosity of the Solomon Islanders. Rennell, our first landfall, set the tone for the rest of our visit.
Thursday, October 2nd, Kangava Bay, Rennell Island, Solomon Islands
On September 28th we left Port Orly on the east coast of Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu headed for Indispensable Reef in the Solomon Islands. The weather was overcast but not raining. By late afternoon we had cleared the northwestern tip of the Island and were, navigationally speaking, in the clear until our destination four hundred or so miles to the northwest. The Solomon Islands have a reputation for copious rain and a lack of wind but we managed to dodge those two bullets on this trip. Despite the overcast skies we had no rain and the wind managed to hold out and we sailed the entire trip with only the occasional whisker pole shift.
On the fourth day out we reached our destination. Indispensable Reef is actually made up of three reefs which, combined, are approximately sixty miles long and eight miles wide. Other than some breaking waves in the distance there was nothing to see, it being a reef. It was a sunny day and we looked forward to heading into the “anchorage” after sailing up the west side in relatively calm water. As they say, the best laid plans… When we reached our meager set of waypoints at two in the afternoon the sun had started to duck behind some clouds and the wind had begun to pick up. A stiff chop set up inside the reef and the area where we were to anchor took on a rather menacing appearance. The depth went from off soundings to thirty feet within a matter of yards and the waypoint seemed to be unpleasantly close to a nasty patch reef. It’s possible that in more benign conditions the spot might have had a certain allure but with twenty knots of wind and lowering visibility it absolutely didn’t. We decided to take a pass. For us it would be one more night at sea while we backtracked to the northeast and the island of Rennell. Northeast was not the ideal direction from a sailing perspective as the wind was coming out of the east but it was only seventy miles and it would be over quickly. That being said it was a longish night due mostly to the fact that we had hoped to be soundly asleep instead of out at sea. Also preying on our minds was the possibility that the anchorage at Rennell might be lousy. At least, we thought, there was an actual island there that would provide some shelter from the wind if not the seas.
After sailing back and forth outside of Kangava Bay on the west side of Rennell till the sun rose we made our approach. The seas were pretty rolly and we were anticipating the worst. In the distance, off our starboard bow we could see a small open fishing boat. It eventually occurred to us that this boat was waiting for us. When we were in range the helmsman waved in a way that suggested we should follow. On the bow was a woman wearing a pink pareo. She was quite lovely in the sunrise. At some point we passed into the protection of the southern headland and all the swell disappeared. William, our friendly fisherman, led us past several patch reefs and into a beautiful area of white sand. His hand signaled “drop here”. And we did. After formal introductions were complete we accepted their invitation to come in for a visit later in the afternoon. Showers, leftover pasta and naps soon followed.
Rennell was a gem after the disappointment of Indispensable Reef. We spent the next week sharing our days with William and Esther, their grandkids and an interesting cast of local characters. The setting was amazing. William and Esther’s property is the quintessential tropical paradise with two small houses, one of which is an accommodation for tourists (which I don’t think they get many of), overlooking a white sand beach. There is a picnic table where dinner is served, a cooking shed, an outhouse and most exciting, a freshwater stream which runs into the sea. A bather’s and laundry-doers dream. The gardens which grow throughout the property provide much of their food with William catching the rest out in his open boat. In addition to William and Esther there is an array of critters which inhabit this idyllic spot. A dog, a cat, a large number of chickens (one of which Esther is particularly fond of and occasionally carries with her) and a tame pacific heron named Nemo. The property is backed by very tall cliffs which make the spot quite private. If you want to leave the property by land you are definitely in for a climb.
Roger made it his daily habit to go fishing with William at 5:30 a.m. Over a span of three days they caught about sixty bonito which Esther dried in the umu (earth oven). These would eventually make their way to the market (dried fish and coconuts only) in the “town” of Tingoa. The day after we arrived we visited the neighbor village of Lavanggu to walk around and meet the relatives. While there Roger helped to boil ring cakes (donuts) over the fire and was rewarded with several samples. In the afternoon we headed back to William’s with three grandchildren in tow. Vanessa, Cindy and Dina were three of the five who would eventually join us over the next several days. Amongst the locals turning up at the homestead was Dick, whose story we never quite figured out. He usually turned up at dinner time and was unfailingly pleasant. For several days we were joined by the Chief of one of the villages near Lake Tenganno. He and his helper were going to paddle a newly built dugout canoe back to their village and were waiting at William’s place for the appropriate weather. The Chief found our Moon Guide to the South Pacific to be extremely interesting and spent hours reading it in the shade of a palm tree. On several evenings we shared potluck dinners at the picnic table overlooking the beach. These gatherings were amazing feasts. Esther and granddaughter Vanessa would stoke up several umus to cook all of the food. One night there was even a chicken sacrificed in our honor. Our most popular contribution was a tray of particularly fudgy brownies. These evenings were very casual with us turning up at the appointed time only to sit down to dinner three or four hours later. Much “storying” (chatting) went on at these meals with William always at the forefront.
We knew that at some point in the not too distant future we were going to have to make our way towards Honiara and officialdom but it was very hard to leave. On our last morning William packed up the grandkids and carted them back to Lavanggu, waving goodbye in his wake. Esther came out bearing hand woven bags as a departure gift, as did Dick, strangely enough. It was a very sad farewell but we were very glad to have stumbled upon this wonderful spot.
Tuesday, October 9th, Marau Sound
After a peaceful night of motoring under a sky full of stars we arrived in Marau Sound, at the southeastern tip of Guadalcanal Island, anchoring in a little basin just southeast of a tiny Island called Tavanipupu. Tavanipupu is the home to one of the most well regarded lodges in the Solomons. It has been open for many years, surviving the “tensions” and still drawing guests from around the world. Their most notable guests of late were Prince William and his bride, Kate who visited in August.
Sadly there were no guests in residence the day we arrived so there would be no dinner served. We had a wander around then headed back to the boat. Because there was no dinner on tap and because we wanted to leave in the dark for our trip to Honiara in the morning we decided to move to a more straightforward anchorage around the corner, about one mile from the lodge. It was a quick trip and we ended the day in the cockpit with our sundowners. Joining us for the sunset was our first Solomon Islands crocodile. At first I thought it was something floating in the water but upon inspection with the binoculars we discovered it was distinctly alive. It made a very slow semicircle past the stern about twenty five yards away. It took the entire cocktail hour for it to make a half moon around the back of the boat. It felt as though we were really somewhere quite exotic.
Wednesday, October 10th, Honiara, Guadalcanal
Our 4:30 a.m. exit from Marapa Bay was uneventful. The charts were not completely terrible which was a nice change. When the sun rose the sky had an amazing array of clouds in it. They seemed to drop all their rain over the land leaving us in the sunshine just slightly offshore.
We arrived in Honiara, 65 miles away, at mid day. I had been dreading this anchorage since I knew we’d be stopping here. It is a small anchorage inside the arms of a reef that doesn’t quite close enough to provide protection. The holding is awful and the wind seems to come up every afternoon, blowing directly into the anchorage. Your best bet if you want to keep from dragging is to drop your anchor in front of a rip rap wall and row two lines ashore (really long lines) to tie yourself in place. Needless to say this is a huge pain in the “neck”. While we were implementing this arrangement a British boat arrived after an eleven day trip from Cairns. They were happy to tie up under any circumstances. After an hour we were at least nominally secure. Steven, the son from the British boat, Endymion, came to say hello (after meeting Roger briefly on the rip rap.) It was too late in the day to tackle Customs & Immigration so we locked everything securely on deck and went below.
Thursday, October 11th, Honiara
The second unpleasant thing about Honiara is dinghy dock. Sadly there isn’t one. This is not a problem if you have a clever, tiny, twenty pound inflatable with a two horse engine. Then you simply carry it up the beach, out of the range of the breaking waves. If you have a dinghy of any size your life is a misery in Honiara. The Point Cruz Yacht Club goes out of its way to be helpful to yachties but a useful dinghy dock has not reached the top of their priority list just yet.
After making the circuitous rounds of Customs and Immigration we headed to the Papua New Guinea High Commission to get our PNG entry visa process underway. We understood that it would take five business days to acquire these beauties, but we were lucky because Barak Obama came to our rescue. In the High Commission office we bumped into the Visa Officer as he was going out the door. He’s the fellow who probably goes out to lunch with local officials and generally gets to dodge the more mundane aspects of the office bureaucracy. He asked us where we were from and was pleased that we wanted to visit his country. What were our thoughts on President Obama? The Visa Officer was a longtime supporter and when he discovered that we too were fans he said that he would have our entry visas ready in 24 hours. Would George W have accomplished this for us?? I think not. We left the office with our fingers crossed. After Thai green curry at the Lime Lounge we returned to the boat.
Friday, October 12th, Honiara
In the a.m. we arranged for a tour of the local World War II battlefields for the following morning. We went to the Land Office, Map division and found that they close at noon on Friday so no Marovo Lagoon chart for us. After lunch at a tiny Japanese restaurant called Norio’s we went to the Hotel Mendana to get some more internet time and to wait for an appropriate afternoon hour to go check on our PNG visas. I left to scope out Wings, the “best” local supermarket while Roger tapped away on his computer. Upon my return he said “our visas are ready”. He explained that he had run into the friendly visa officer who was leaving the Hotel’s restaurant and heading to Brisbane for the weekend. Sure enough when we arrived at the High Commission the woman behind the glass window turned over our passports with our very own PNG entry visas inside. In an ideal world we could have fled Honiara then and there. Unfortunately we still had to take our battlefield tour and do some provisioning which had to wait till Monday. We stopped at the Yacht Club and hefted two cold Solbrews in Obama’s honor before returning to the boat.
Saturday, October 13th, Honiara
Nelson from the Visitor’s Bureau picked us up in front of the Yacht Club at 9:00 am and we headed off on our battlefield tour. Roger was up on all the high spots having read a variety of books on the Pacific War and Guadalcanal in particular. I had managed to finish Lonely Vigil by Walter Lord, which chronicled the work of the “coast watchers” of the Solomon Islanders, but I was a little foggy on some of the finer battlefield points. Among our stops were the American and Japanese memorials, Mount Austin, several ridges including Edson’s, Henderson Field and Red Beach. As we stood in the heat it wasn’t difficult to imagine the misery of these battles. Nelson was a good guide and what he lacked in military knowledge he made up for in information about the “tensions” and other recent Island issues. The tensions, which caused extensive bloodshed ten years ago, were triggered by, among other things, the cultural differences between the neighboring Malaitan Islanders and the Guadalcanal Islanders. The people of Guadalcanal found the Malaitans to be aggressive and felt they were taking many of the jobs in Guadalcanal which rightfully belonged to the Guadalcanal people. Although the fighting has been over for some years it doesn’t seem that the cultural differences have been bridged. After our tour Nelson dropped us off at a “locals” lunch spot which we had asked him to recommend. We had a nice lunch and a good visit with Mary, the restaurateur, who was a very successful Malaitan. Both friendly and helpful, Mary was a big fan of the U.S. and would love to visit one day.
We found it interesting that while the Guadalcanal people complain about the “aggressive” Malaitans, the Malaitans complain about the “aggressive” Chinese in neighboring Chinatown. It was an educational day.
Sunday, October 14th, Honiara
This was diesel fuel day. Amazingly the gas station in front of the Yacht Club was open on Sunday so we spent several hours lugging jerry jugs of fuel. It was a grueling job in the blazing sun and breaking waves. On a positive note we stopped and introduced ourselves to Janis and Tom on a boat called Tomboy from Nogales, AZ. They are headed to Palau also but via Micronesia.
Monday, October 15th, Honiara
Today was a good one on several counts. Not only did we finish our provisioning and find a chart of the Morovo Lagoon at the Maps Office but the Malaitan ferry, Bokoi I, which had dropped its anchor over ours the day after we arrived, departed in the afternoon. It was now quite likely that we’d be able to leave on Tuesday morning. Sweet.
Tuesday, October 16th, Passage to the Western Province
After a quick visit from Janis our Veterinarian/Chinese Medicine specialist friend on Tomboy we gleefully departed Honiara bringing with us some newly learned techniques to keep us healthy in our travels. Thanks Janis! Our destination was Mbili Passage one hundred and ten miles northwest.
It took us an hour or so to get organized after getting out of the Harbor. We had to get the dinghy on deck, etc. By the time we were organized at 10:30 a.m. what little wind there had been was quickly dropping. After a few hours of sailing it was time for the engine. The trip up the coast of Guadalcanal was quite scenic and we passed between Cape Esperanza and Savo Island in the late afternoon. There was more traffic than we expected on our trip up the islands, passing first the Floridas then the Russells. There seems to be only one local boat with AIS in the Solomons, the rest you have to track the traditional way. It was a star filled evening once again and we had reached latitude where you don’t have to add additional clothing for overnight passages which was quite nice.
Wednesday, October 17th, Mbili Passage, Sanihulumu Island Anchorage
The Mbili Passage into Morovo Lagoon presented no problems. We received a call from the Norwegian sailboat Jenny on the VHF. They wanted to know what we found for depths in the passage as they were headed that way and draw eight feet. A local fellow named Alex showed us where to anchor and invited us in to see some carvings in the early afternoon. By the time of the showing both Shango and Jenny were in attendance and made several purchases. The more involved negotiations continued out at the boats. When we arrived for sundowners aboard Jenny at 5:30 Jan and Eli were still sealing their last deal. The local carvers had been very impressed with Jenny’s interior woodwork which was all done by Jan.
Thursday, October 18th, Sarumara Anchorage, Matiu Island
The next morning we both departed for the anchorage at Sarumara which we had read was quiet (read: uninhabited) and “unvisited by carvers”. This report was obviously several years old as the carvers have now added this stop to their list of destinations. Jenny spent only one night because she had guests she had to get to Gizo. We stayed for three nights at Sarumara. After receiving visitors the first afternoon and the following morning we saw no one. The snorkeling here was terrific so we drifted the nearby Kokoana Passage several times before leaving for our date with Uepi Resort.
Sunday, October 21st, Uepi Resort, Uepi Island
We left Sarumara at 10:15 and headed out Kokoana Passage. We had seen two commercial boats go out this way over the last few days so we knew it was feasible. There was no wind so we motored up the outside of Morovo Lagoon for thirteen miles and headed in the Charapoana Passage, where Uepi is located. We made our way into the anchorage and dropped the hook outside the mooring ball mentioned by Grant, the owner, who we had been in touch with over the previous month. In the afternoon we went in and made arrangements for diving the following day and Grant mentioned that attending the evening’s dinner was still a possibility if we were interested. We didn’t need to be asked twice. There were several Aussie’s staying at the resort and over dinner they told us all the places we needed to visit once we finally get to Oz. Dinner, which was served buffet style, was wonderful.
Wednesday, October 24th, Uepi Resort, Uepi Island
Over the next three days we had five terrific dives. On Monday we dove Uepi and Charapoana Points, both of which were pass dives. We were accompanied on the first dive by David and Dinah who live in Honiara while she works with RAMSI (the coalition of Southwestern Pacific nations stationed in the Solomon Islands after the tensions.) Dinah is an avid amateur photographer and was thrilled with the day’s finds. There were tons of fish, numerous sharks, garden eels, nudibranchs and lots of amazing barrel sponges. Closer to the Resort’s dock were the largest giant clams I have ever seen, in a wonderful array of colors.
On Tuesday our first dive was on Elbow Ave. There were six divers along for this trip. In addition to us there were three hard core Aussies and a very personable Frenchman named Thomas who was visiting with his wife and three kids. Within five minutes of dropping in we saw three pygmy mantas and a scalloped hammerhead, simultaneously. Naturally I didn’t get a shot of them. Our second dive was North Log and the structure there was great. On both dives I managed to find several nudibranchs without having to have them pointed out.
On Wednesday we dove Uepi Point again, this time with Jill, Grant’s wife. Once again it was a beautiful dive. We hung over the point and just watched all the fish hover with us. It was like being caught in fish rush hour.
Thursday, October 25th, Mbareho Village, Nono Lagoon
All too soon it was time to leave Uepi. After five great dives and three wonderful dinners it was hard to pry ourselves away. Thursday morning we left, equipped with Grant’s doodled chart markings to get us back to the known world. The trip south through Morovo Lagoon, past Seghe and into the Nono Lagoon was fairly straightforward. We watched the depth sounder and hoped for the best. The light was good and we had no problems. Our destination, Mbareho was the home of a woodblock print maker named Aldio Pito who we hoped to meet. We anchored in a very protected spot tucked between several islands and went ashore to see if we were in the right place. There was a man standing on the little coral dock and he introduced himself as we approached. It was none other than Aldio Pito. We spent a nice afternoon with him and his wife, Raylene and a variety of kids. Aldio showed us his finished work which was in short supply because the motor on his paper making machine had expired. He was expecting a new one soon. He said that if we had canvas onboard he could work with it.
Friday, October 26th, Mbareho Village, Nono Lagoon
The next day we were discovered by the lolly hunters. Tons of kids came bearing flowers and a wide variety of vegetables in trade for candy, biros (pens), popcorn and anything else we could think of. Once free of them we made our way back in to see Aldio, bearing some canvas. I selected one of his remaining prints on handmade paper and Roger picked out a woodblock that Aldio would put on canvas for pick-up Saturday morning. After that it was back to the boat and the lolly hunters. Darkness was falling and we desperately wanted to shower (in the cockpit) but two of our more enthusiastic visitors, Zalita and Jesina, simply wouldn’t go. Finally Roger had to make a glowering face and they said that perhaps it was time for dinner.
Saturday & Sunday, October, 27th and 28th, Tetepare Island
We made a pre-church (SDA Village) pick-up of our prints and Roger’s newly painted hat and said goodbye to Aldio and family. We were soon on our way across Nono Lagoon and the Hele Bar bound for Tetepare Island. Tetepare is sometimes referred to as the “last wild island”. It is the largest uninhabited island in the Pacific and over the last ten years a couple of Australian environmentalists (husband and wife) have managed to get the descendants of the last inhabitants to agree not to allow logging onto the island or to re-inhabit it. You can now go and visit the island and stay in a basic cabin and learn about the flora and fauna. The only drawback from a sailboat perspective is that the Ranger Station and activities are mainly on the weather side of the island. We spent one night behind a tiny offshore island on the lee side which was quite pretty but nowhere near the Ranger Station. On Sunday we motored along the coast to see if we could find an anchorage closer to the Rangers but had no luck. We poked our nose into the weather side “anchorage” but didn’t head all the way in because it looked decidedly shallow inside the reef. We headed back around to where we started and much to our surprise another sailboat had taken our place. We anchored about a mile away near a river mouth.
Monday, October 29th, Nusa Pate Island
Our next destination was Lola Island in Vona Vona Lagoon. We left Tetepare without having made much of a dent but so it goes. We motor-sailed up the southeast coast of Rendova towards the Munda Bar. It was a forty mile trip and we knew we needed good light to cross the Lagoon. As we approached the Bar some very dark and threatening clouds were gathering in our path. We had marked a few places on the chart where we could bail out if the weather degenerated and it looked like we were going to have to use one of them. We made our way across the Bar and tweaked our course to improve our odds with the lowering light. With just minutes before the rain came we dropped the hook in a cleft at the north end of Nusa Pate Island. The spot was about as wide as a large garage but it was very well protected. We called it a day.
Tuesday, October 30th, Zipolo Habu Lodge, Lola Island, Vona Vona Lagoon
Needless to say, with only four miles left to get to yesterday’s planned destination, we arrived fairly early in the much improved light. There was one other boat at anchor. It was, it turns out, a Dashew designed power yacht from Tucson, AZ. called Avatar. We understood that there were walking trails ashore and we were in need of a stretch so in we went. The owner, Joe, is an American expat. When he learned that we were from the Boston area he asked if we wanted him to turn on CNN so we could see what was happening with Super storm Sandy, which had just hit New Jersey. After several minutes it became clear that the worst was over and that New England would be spared.
As we meandered back towards the dock who should turn up but the lovely French family we had met the previous week at Uepi. They were just arriving from a four day stay on Tetepare. We enjoyed a nice dinner together talking about each other’s travels. They have had an amazing trip over the last six months, with three kids along for the ride. We parted saying “We’ll see you in Gizo!”
Wednesday & Thursday, October 31st and November 1st, Snake Island, Vona Vona Lagoon
At nine a.m. as we were starting to pull up the hook we could see a kayak approaching in the distance. Before too long we realized that it was Thomas, our French friend. Would we mind some company on our trip to Gizo today? We said we wouldn’t mind company but that we planned to spend two days getting to Gizo. If they didn’t mind spending a night aboard they were more than welcome to join us. One hour later, loaded down with luggage and food and drink purchased from the Lodge kitchen, the Jonglez family joined the crew of the Shango. In truth the trip didn’t need to be two days but we had heard that the Lagoon was pretty and we wanted to stop in a quiet spot before the hubbub of Gizo. This worked well for everyone. Alex, the older son, enjoyed steering while Inez, the daughter helped with anchor duty. Once we were anchored for the afternoon, everyone enjoyed a swim with Alex and Inez jumping off of the boom. Romaine, Thomas’s wife, and I were glad that no one was eaten by a crocodile. The new crew enjoyed a late afternoon visit from two local women in a canoe who wanted to sell some produce. Romaine put herself in charge of dinner and purchased a good sized pile of tomatoes. Inez had her heart set on a cucumber salad, and some peppers came along for the ride. We shared a terrific pasta dinner in the cockpit overlooking Snake Island.
Everyone survived their night onboard and in the morning we made our way towards Gizo and Fatboys Resort, our crew’s next destination. By lunchtime, with several dolphin sightings under our belts, we had arrived. Our crew treated us to lunch and afterwards we bid them farewell and safe travels. The following morning we completed the final three miles into Gizo proper.
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