When John and I began planning the 2012 cruising season we had a number of potential routes to choose from. Limitless would be much to far a claim, but that’s the general sense of the opportunities out there. We’d discovered that the ICA (Island Cruising Association) was planning a ten-month rally and of the list of countries included there was one in particular that stood out with enticing allure: The Solomon Islands. The archipelago is made up of 900 tropical islands, of which 350 are inhabited, and covers a large geographic footprint of about 1500 kilometers from the westernmost island group to the easternmost group. The Solomons are out of the standard cruising path and only a handful of cruising yachts travel through the region in a given year. We’ve been asked to sign ‘guest logs’ kept in some of the villages in more popular anchorages and there has never been more of a half dozen boats in the book in a season. Some of the places we’ve been we are a true novelty as the first boat to anchor there in years, if ever. Before us lay the promise of a rich and diverse region to explore with visual appeal both above and below the waters surface. After considering our options, we decided that the Solomons was our draw card and we placed our bet on the ICA Western Pacific Rally to take us there.
Our initial decision was to stay with the rally through to the Solomons, disconnect from the fleet in Gizo and make our way through the Northern Territory, Australia into Indonesia, ending the season in Singapore. Now that we are out here, however, that pace seems faster than we’d like. We have waivered between taking a faster route through to Singapore, where we planned on working for a year, or slowing down the pace and ending this season in Sydney.
The Sydney option would shorten our employment period by half and would result in a year extension of our cruising to cover the Great Barrier Reef and Indonesia in 2013. There are pros and cons to both sides, however we’ve finally agreed that a more leisurely pace is preferable and we accept the commitment of an extension to the cruising lifestyle. My theory is that you rarely travel the same place twice, and I want to make the most of it while we are out here. So far, the rewards of the cruising lifestyle are well worth the sacrifices.
One comment on the Solomons is that it has been the one destination en-route that has brought the most words of caution, the threats being both natural and human-induced. It is ranked HIGH THREAT for the incidence of malaria, but we’ve mossie-proofed the boat and put Braca on anti-malarial tablets so I feel confident we have taken all necessary precautions. Ironically, we have encountered very few mosquitoes but if they are out there, we’re prepared.
The other area of high alert is threat from hostile locals but it seems this may be focused in a few specific regions. Information available is conflicting, and it is hard to decipher what is a real threat from what was a one-time occurrence, or what may be the bias of one tribal group against another. We’ve had stories of unauthorized boarding of a yacht with machete-wielding aggressors, pirates who toss a fishing line out to foul the propeller, islands with hostile locals demanding payment for anchorage, and petty theft. Some of the definite ‘no go’ areas in some reports are stunning ‘not-to-be missed’ spots in others; it is hard to know fact from rumour. So far, we can only confirm opportunistic theft or the occasional demanding drunk.
As for Atea and crew, we’ve amassed a wealth of unique encounters in the three weeks since we’ve been here and have been wonderfully well received during our short stay. Our first port of call after Vanuatu was Vanicolo Island – not the image of a tropical paradise with its mangrove lined shores sheltering crocodiles in its shallows. The welcome of the locals in their dugout canoes was a treat, however, greeting us on entry and initiating us to the custom of trade in the Solomon Islands. Want a papaya? That’ll be one used tee shirt please. A hand of banana? Perhaps a spare tee shirt, please? A coconut? You don’t happen to have a tee shirt, please? Tee shirts of any size and any variety are valuable currency and can be swapped regardless of the item under consideration. We’ve exchanged a mixed assortment of fruit for a man’s shirt, and the very next seller had one egg on offer for the same fare. Needless to say, John’s wardrobe has been quickly reduced to a few favourites in a matter of days.
That said, shirts are not the only trade item (albeit the most common). All sorts of minor western goods are requested. Some of those we’ve been asked for include: batteries, fish hooks, sugar, rice, pens, boys shorts, toys, earrings, magazines, solar chargers (yes, in exchange for two pawpaw), swim goggles, packet of instant noodles, matches, pocket knife, DVDs… and the list goes on. We’ve traded a bra and woman’s top (thanks Mandy) for lobster; books and children’s swimwear for all variety of fruit (thanks Glenda); and children’s writing material and books for ‘feather money’ and tapestry (thanks Emma). I’ve come to enjoy this form of barter; the locals make their request and John and I delve into Atea’s lockers and stores to see what we can spare.
And when all else fails, money is still valid currency, although often second best. The price asked is often as incongruous as the items offered in trade, and the seller suggests a price with very little understanding of current market value. My favourite was a simple shell necklace on offer for US$200. I told the seller that his asking price was extraordinarily high, but then who is to judge the going price of art?
Speaking of incongruous affairs, our customs and immigration provided a little drama on entry into the Solomons. As a part of the ICA fleet, clearance had been arranged for us by flying the customs and immigration officials down to Lata so that we could clear in and travel through the southern islands rather than following standard procedure of a straight shot to Honiara, the capital, 300 miles west. A great plan, but thwarted when the officials continued postponing their arrival by plane due to poor weather.
The weather rolled over us during this period, squall after squall of torrential rain cleaning our decks but darkening our moods. We waited in a beautiful anchorage for word that things were proceeding . Each morning we were told, “maybe the plane will land tomorrow.” While on stand by, we nicked ashore for evening social hour, explored the bays and wandered along the beaches, visited the town and socialized with the locals. We were told that we were free to go ashore while awaiting the officials… or was that just our collective assumption?
A festival, or sing sing, had also been arranged for us, so while we waited for the officials to make their grand appearance we proceeded with the scheduled event and went ashore for a spectacular celebration – complete with officious introductions, church song and prayer, and the most fantastic tribal dancing we’ve seen to date. The day ended with an enormous feast and contented, gorged bellies. Braca made his usual impact, and I by association had some fabulous encounters with the women and children of the village. As we settled back in onboard Atea that evening we watched as myriad of dugouts scattered off in all directions, families returning to their villages confidently balanced on precarious wooden dugouts with tots tucked under toe. An epic day.
An epic day followed by a difficult committee of government officials who, finally, made the morning flight. Knowing that we were still awaiting clearance, the local representatives neglected to inform us that the festival was not sanctioned without the completion of proper clearance… We’d not cleared through customs, so we were not allowed to disembark from our yachts until processed. After contentious blasphemous bellowing and threat of heavy fine, we were finally cleared into the country – a week after arrival. Welcome Solomon Islands, you’ve already proven to be an interesting place to travel!
Onward we went – from the southern tip we made our way west up the island chain. Tomorrow we will be in Honiara (the “big” city) to replenish our stores and get a change from the village life we’ve been getting accustomed to.
We’ve generally fallen into the practice of sailing by night, our preference with an infant onboard as it is easier to manage Braca’s safety, and increases our own comfort. By night he dozes quietly in his cot with an occasional request for a quick nighttime feed, leaving John and I alone on our respective watches to enjoy a little time to ourselves. By day it is an entirely different affair with one eye to the horizon and one hand on the helm, and the other eye on a very industrious tot with all other body parts trying to keep him in place. An additional benefit of night passage is that it allows us to make progress in bigger bounds and arrive with morning light for reef entrances, leaving us with longer periods of time within an anchorage. Moving by day means less time to play ashore or to relax at anchor, so Atea is becoming a ship of the night.
Highlights of our experiences have been, by far, the local encounters. There are a number of moments that capture this endearing exchange. One that has repeated itself in every anchorage has been the exuberance of the children, their curiosity, and their willingness to interact. I am not used to our boat being swarmed by bodies, but here no sooner does the anchor go down and you are surrounded by children – hanging on a rich array of floating objects, clinging onto the anchor chain, peering through windows, smiling with wide grins. On occasion we’ve offered up our paddleboards for play, with much excitement, and on rarer occasion we’ve even offered to race them in their canoes. We’ve yet to come close as a contender. One afternoon we spent ashore listening to children play a musical instrument constructed of PVC drainpipes, another guided by a collection of children on tour through their village and another to an inland lake. We’ve been escorted to spirit houses that held the skulls and bones of ancient chiefs on beautifully constructed platforms. We’ve sat through discussions with chiefs listening to personal histories and folklore. We’ve had continuous offers of fruit and vegetable, an on occasion fish and lobster, brought out to the boat every day so its been long since we’ve seen the inside of a store to replenish our food. The problem is, however, lack of selection. The items on offer repeat themselves, and our fresh stores have been reduced to pawpaw, banana, coconut, and yam. While the delivery service is superb, we are desperate for a grocery store selection.
Every Solomon smile reveals red stained teeth and gums, chewing beetle nut a favourite pastime for men, women and children alike. I asked for and was given a demonstration by a cluster of women in one of the markets, amid a cacophony of laughter at my curiosity and growing crowd of onlookers. Beetle nut apparently gives a high akin to cocaine, and involves three ingredients to produce the effect. A green nut is torn apart by the teeth to extract a large white nut inside which is chewed to a mush. A fruit resembling a green bean is then broken into a small piece that is licked to wet the end. This is then dipped in a white powder and added to the nut being chewed. The combined reaction turns the white cud into a frothy red that is chewed, spat, and process repeated by continuing to add the white powder and fruit to the mix. The white powder is a lye which is made by collecting dead coral, burning it down to a coal, then pounding this down to produce the white powder – an extremely potent agent that often leads to mouth cancer and early tooth decay.
We are now three weeks into our allocated time in the Solomon Islands. Placing this country as the draw card in planning our cruising route has been well worth it, a quality destination full of the off-beat and the unique. We have just over five weeks remaining before we depart from these treasured isles, and we look forward to the lagoons that lay ahead of us, some say the ‘pearl of the Solomons.’ Our next stint should see us under the water to explore some of the famous under water wrecks that lay in the shallows within Iron Bottom Sounds. We shall keep you posted!