The word on the street is that there are several island groups that are deemed unsafe to visit. They say, “Steer clear of the Floridas, you’ll get boarded by aggressive machete-wielding locals and loose your tonsils;” “Don’t think of going to the Russells, your dingy and outboard will be nicked along with the panties drying on the safety rail;” “Malita is definitely in the Red Zone…. Pirates Galore… the kind that’ll empty you of all your worldly possessions, abduct your wife and enslave your first-born!” Just like a child prohibited from wandering into a deserted farmhouse or warned against touching a live wire on an electric fence, we followed temptation into that so-called god-forsaken red zone… the comments were all just too suggestive to oblige. As two curious children venturing into forbidden territory, we drew an X on the chart for the Floridas, pulled out the dividers and marked a route.
In 1999 the Solomons Islands had an ethnic war that nearly crashed the civil infrastructure and challenged the country’s statehood. Ethnic tensions are still evident today, and the conflict is clear in some of the feedback given to us from village elders whose words of caution may be racially based. We also received feedback from other cruisers reports of trouble in some areas. Recently a yacht was hit by a few locals in the Floridas capital city, Tulaghi, and everything on deck was ransacked as the owners sheltered behind a locked companionway waiting for daybreak to arrive. Another in the list of aggravated incidences we’ve heard about en route.
Our experience here isn’t to prove that all words of caution need to be dismissed when traveling; it is prudent to listen to local advice and take account of the experiences of fellow travelers. But it is often a hard balance between taking heed of other’s misfortunes, and not overreacting by making an all-encompassing Truth out of an isolated experience. Nonetheless, it is a reminder to always be aware, always use common sense, and always travel with a protection plan.
Our protection plan was a relatively simple one. Minimize time spent in major towns, as port cities often hold the highest crime statistics. If this could not be avoided, minimize visible ‘attractants’ as bling tends to invite the wayward eye. Travel in convoy and abide by the proverbial “protection in numbers.” Problem was there was only one hand in the air when we did a call out for company. So, curious to see what all the hub-hub was about, we buddied up with S.V. Al Fresco and headed north from the capital city of Honiara into the Floridas.
Rather than factions, warlords, angry chiefs and resentful locals, we were greeted by hospitable, welcoming villagers excited to see a boat in waters rarely visited. Rather than machetes wielded in front of our jugulars, we had coconuts and limes thrust under our noses by wide-smiling children in small wooden canoes. “Hostile” was a far stretch from anything we encountered.We did take precautions in stowing nickables from the deck and tying down loose odds and ends, but that is nothing more than standard prudence in travel. While we took what precautions we could, minimizing the opportunists, we never felt threatened or at risk in any of the anchorages. In fact, the Floridas and the Russells are highlights of our trip to date – they provided exactly what we were looking for when we set out on this trip: Crystal azure waters, pristine corals filled with multicoloured reef fish, uninhabited stretches of shoreline fringed by palm trees and white stand beaches, abundant fishing grounds and the occasional thrill of a passing reef shark and lurking crocodile, or the frolic of dolphin off our bow. All in all, total bliss in our private heaven.
We have now cleared through both groups and can reflect on the time we spent there – limbs attached, heads clear and hearts filled. What we were hoping to find, we found. Now, the challenge is to put the last month into words.
In the Floridas we found both inhabited coastal villages and isolated islands. One of the villages stood out for its local hospitality, where the chief’s wife greeted us by dugout to steer us towards safe anchorage. We received gifts of fruit and vegetables on arrival, the kids on Al Fresco were given bow and arrow (infants withstanding), adults received gifts of shell and beaded necklaces, and the locals collectively adopted Braca (henceforth known as “sunny boy”). The bay featured a beached cruise ship, and all the associated fittings that remained of the collateral damage spread throughout the village: bathtubs next to chicken coops, toilets and sinks left idle in garden patches, lifejacket racks in front of door stoops, and a mounted stags head incongruously sitting in the corner of a kitchen shack. Unfortunately, they also got a 15-year oil leak to go with it which spreads across the bay at high tide, and not a cent in compensation from the German insurance company. I guess they thought the porcelain god was payment enough. We were also treated to a communal dinner. We brought in our contribution in tin pots; they served theirs in plates weaved from palm leaves and coconuts adorned with hibiscus flowers. We dined and danced; the boys made pot shots with bow and arrow, the girls gyrated within a hula-hoop I brought ashore and the kids played tag into the night. Our short stay did nothing to minimize the general feeling of community we felt during our time there.
From inhabited bays we hit isolated shores, one in particular that epitomized my idea of a tranquil oasis. Here Atea anchored over white sand with deep blue sea on one hand, deserted island on the other.Other than a few passing locals on their way to fish, we were left on our own to enjoy tranquil mornings on the beach and lazy afternoons in the shade.When Braca took his nap we would shoot out for a dive on the reef, playing on fan-filled drop offs and discovering reef shark, turtles and a large eagle ray. In the evenings we’d sit on deck for our sundowner and enjoy the peace and calm, realizing we were exactly where we imagined being when we thought of the cruising lifestyle.
Of the anchorages that were in range of villages, we were consistently greeted with warmth and welcome. Children paddled out in canoes to splash about the boats, offering fruit and shells either as gift or as trade. We were invited into villages and enjoyed easy conversation with the locals. Braca was often the center of local affections and often whisked away from our arms and out of sight, occasionally spotted as a spot of blinding white in a sea of black faces.
As for the sailing, we navigated Atea through some stunning locations; one of the more complex routes was through a narrow channel that ran between two of the westernmost islands. We had to navigate through a weaving passage and around tight shoals, and although deep, easily visible, and a common route it was like winding a shopping trolley through a store in the middle of a major restock.
The Russells provided the next stepping-stone in our journey, a group of islands west of the Floridas. We will forever remember two of the anchorages in this group not just for the exceptional quality of underwater scenery (I’ve never seen anywhere so prolific), but also for the risks we took placing Atea in harms way to visit these spots.
At the first island, Lolgoghalan, we dropped our anchor in the only possible holding (and that is stretching the term ‘holding’) onto a small dime-sized sand patch in the reef, steeply shelving. Our anchor managed to cling to its spot just long enough for us to snorkel the pristine reef before it slipped from its meager perch and swung into the deep, left hanging below Atea by the chain. We’d decided to take turns and leave one person onboard Atea for safety, and fortunately we did so otherwise we’d have been swimming after her in a quick moving tide. While a bold move (other boats had come through but all aborted), the experience was well worth it. What we saw underwater made this site our most fantastic dive to date: huge boulders blanketed in hard and soft corals, gullies and swim-throughs creating a maze to dive and dodge through, providing home and shelter to thousands of fish of all shape, size and colour. When they say “its like swimming in an aquarium,” they’ve no idea… I’ve yet to see any tank so chockablock with fish life: small, medium, large. Fish attract shark, of which we were also in company – curious, bold, and inquisitive. John’s description of the site was “A biblical experience, full of so many reef fish and delicate corals in the shallows, shelving to the darker blue of deep waters and teeming with larger fish. If it had been a film, every frame would have been filled with new wonders.” What we saw was grand because of the islands isolation; the island was the first of an outer eastern chain of islands in the Russells and uninhabited. Because there was no viable long-term anchorage it was also in pristine condition, unaffected by human interference, and the natural environment was left to thrive and grow.
The second island, Kormoran, was similar in that it was an uninhabited island surrounded by untouched reef. The only difference was that this time we were determined to find safe anchorage. We wanted into the lagoon, and we wanted to stay. Working with our buddy boat, we used the dinghies to look for a gap in the reef. There were a number of breaks in the reef wall, but it was difficult to find clearance. After searching up and down the reef, we finally found a gap that looked penetrable. Just. Given Atea was the larger of the two yachts, we were the first to approach. With John steering at the wheel, me guiding from the bowsprit and a dinghy leading ahead, we drove Atea towards a gap that was less than two meters wide and had less than half a meter below the keel. The tension was high as we slowly approached from deep water towards the reef wall, turned, centered up on the narrow slot of sand and gently eased our way into the lagoon. Hearts thumping and breaths held, we slid Atea through with reef only inches away from her hull on either side. Al Fresco followed through with equal trepidation and with equal success.
The reward was well worth the risk – we’d found another island oasis unspoiled by human habitation and stayed four nights. There was a private white sand beach arching along the coast, shaded by palms stretching over the water. John and I picked up a morning routine of taking Braca to the beach at first light for playtime at the waters edge. Our lazy afternoons were punctuated with spectacular dives on the outer reef wall, as prolific as the last island. Evenings were spent with sundowners on the beach and the afternoon’s catch on the grill. Our island oasis was well inhabited by nature, with rich birdlife, an abundance of fish and reef shark (we counted eight Black Tip on an early evening dive), the occasional turtle, a stray dugong and a resident crocodile.
The Red Zone didn’t prove to be so red at all, unless red from the envy of other cruisers who to didn’t enter the “forbidden territory.” We did hear just recently that three boats spent a night rafted up together with crew on watch throughout the night due to an uncomfortable exchange with a local, so there is obviously reason for caution in these areas. We were fortunate however, and found nothing but friendly locals, exceptional diving, unspoiled reef, prolific marine life and idyllic islands. Having departed the Red Zone, we set course for the Western Province – the reputed “jewel in the crown” of Solomon Island cruising. It will be hard to match the serenity of the locations and the thrill of the find from our recent escapades, but we are up for the challenge.