Movies are common popular references and here I’ll use a few to illustrate our past three weeks in the Western Province, Solomon Islands. Tin Tin, Crocodile Dundee, Tomb Raider and Raiders of the Lost Ark – recent events for us could have easily been scenes cut from action films on which so many of our childhood fantasies are based. We’ve accumulated many exceptional moments in our recent travels that leave us buzzing as we sail south from our last Solomon island into new territory where new thrills, no doubt, await. It is hard to imagine a continued stream of such highs, however, and we depart from a whirlwind of spectacular cinematic moments – we’ll share just a few.
From Into the Red we headed ‘Into the Unknown,’ choosing to leave the fleet in Vomovomo Lagoon where the promised “Jewel of the Solomons” fell flat into a murky lagoon and bland cruising grounds. Because of intense logging, many of the idyllic lagoons that once offered crystal clear waters, stunning reef and abundant fish life are now brown with muddy overflow and scarred hillsides. Crocodiles which once inhabited inland lakes have lost their natural habitat; where islets and lagoons were previously free from their threat, croc’s have now become permanent residents in the saltwater shallows.
We found little to keep us in this once reputed wonderland, and decided to hunt for jewels in less traveled grounds. Choiseul was an island group north of New Georgia where we decided to spend the remainder of our time before being due back in Gizo for clearance. We left the most of the rally yachts loitering around this tepid scene and set off for an adventure. And that – day by day – is exactly what we found.
The Adventures of Tin Tin on His Majestic Ship.
After provisioning in Noro, a dirty port town with little on offer but a ragged seaside market and a few street side shops, we made it to Paradise Bay on the north of New Georgia. We anchored deep within the bay and spent the event chattering with the villagers as they came out in segregated rushes. Starting with tight-lipped stern-eyed men who challenged our comfort factor and had us questioning our safety, we were next visited by a convoy of women in dugout canoes offering fruit and vegetables and the curious eye. Braca put on a charming performance and his warm reception eased our earlier trepidation. We were inundated in our third wave of visitors by children on a dozen miniature canoes, all clamoring to touch B’s little white toes and wiggly fingers. Engaging with them with the silliness reserved for children, we soon had them screeching and laughing along with us as we bantered gibberish back and forth. All fun and games until an elder in a dugout canoe threw out one curt word in passing and they all scattered like flies, leaving us to enjoy the silence only brought in deep bush and calm waters. The birds were varied and prolific, and we listened to their calls as we settled in for the night.
In Tin Tin’s next adventure, his little ship sped north through squally weather to an isolated island off Choiseul’s southern coast. We stern tied to a tiny crescent beach and planned to spend our next days snorkeling the sharply shelving reef on either side of the cove. Through the clear water we could see monster fan corals, the promise of underwater riches to explore. However, the weather was to deal us another hand, and soon after we settled in a northerly squall struck upon us and turned our protected cove into a lee shore. Because of the tight anchorage and the reef hugging our port and starboard side, we felt it unsafe to stay and struggled to pull up anchor in the pelting rain. We tried lifting from all angles but the anchor wouldn’t budge as the winds pushed our boat sideways, straining our holding lines. Stuck fast, we had to hold tight for the night hoping that conditions wouldn’t worsen and bring us in contact with the coral just yards off our sides. Fortunately the weather settled and in the morning John dove to check out the situation where he found the anchor wedged deep under a boulder 100 feet deep. We decided to scoot for a new anchorage after he dug it loose and freed us from our trap, leaving the beckoning fans as we waved our farewell.
Tin Tin Teams Up with Indiana Jones to Explore the Remote North Coast.
Picture Indiana Jones and his cohorts clinging on with tight grip as they are dashed down swift rapids amongst deep jungle bush. Forward to another leg in our journey, as we take Atea north through a narrow channel that cuts through the eastern end of Choiseul. This is the Ngosele Passage, a liquid trail that starts in the south with large open bays lined with tiny village settlements, quaint houses built on stilts over the waters edge, and winds into a narrow slip as the banks steepen towards the deserted north coast. As the passage narrows it becomes more akin to a thin winding river fifty yards across with steep valley walls that rise sharply on either side. Atea passes through thickly forested river banks as the current sweeps us north, past rocks and whirlpools, shoals with overhanging vines and tree trunks that lean out across the water to arrest our passage. As our little Tin Tin holds onto the rail, giggling at the various noises of the jungle, one can imagine Indiana Jones laconically waving his hat at the astonished locals who gape at an ocean going yacht penetrating this deep inland. “No other yachts have been here all year!” they say, and Indiana responds, “We are on our way to find treasure.”
We as we pop through the passage into the open water at the north entrance, we expected to find a well-reputed fishing lodge, generously called a “resort” though any such accommodation in these parts would question the liberal use of the term. We’d discussed timing our travels to hit the lodge for our two-year anniversary so that we could splash out for a meal ashore to honour the special occasion, however we declined to rush through for this indulgence. A good call that’d been, as it turns out there isn’t as much as a viable hut standing in the indicated location. The aggressive vines had reclaimed their turf and swallowed up a dilapidated shack and rusted shed that’d once been boldly claimed a tourist haven. We laughed at our non-existent luxury resort and carried on to find our veiled treasure.
Tin Tin and Indiana Kick Up Heels in Treasured Isles.
Cut to Treasure Island: A remote cove with very shallow water, secure and protected from the sea. Even our film heroes would have put their adventures on hold to relax on these shores, a magical spot in the remote recesses of the world. The waters were clear, the beach deserted and the weather idyllic. The birdlife was abundant and their calls melodic as they chirped and chattered above us, but other than their company we enjoyed solitude and the serenity around us.
We had one isolated incident when our reverie was disturbed by a passing canoe, three locals paddling past us on their way to fishing grounds. I’m sure Atea was as surprising a sight to them as they were to us. They slowly paddled over and pulled alongside Atea. I usually greet visiting locals with warm welcome, but these three were a tough crowd as they approached us with stern faces. Their leader was the spitting image of a scowling Mr. T, and we had no “social barometer” to gauge whether ‘The A Team’ was friendly or not. It was a moment when you realize how exposed you are in a cruising yacht, a beacon of affluence and a coffer of prize goods. As Mr. T and his two cohorts held onto our lifelines and scanned the boat, none offered comment or smile while John and I tried to stir up pleasant conversation. They lingered in silent observation and our discomfort grew, knowing that we were powerless in an altercation in our remote and isolated anchorage. One flick of his powerful wrist, and Mr. T would crush our bones in a mighty grip. I bounced my child above my head, forcing Braca into fits of giggles to placate any familial sensibilities in the men. They finally left us, as silently as they’d come, and we breathed an audible sigh of relief at our departing guests.
Crocodile Dundee Takes on Local Wildlife: A Croc Twisting in Dundee’s Grip.
Skipping ahead and returning to the big screen, our movie medley continues with Mick Dundee stepping in to play the lead role. We took Atea to an outlying island, looking for another prime dive spot. The island we landed, Ondolou, looked to provide just that. Another uninhabited anchorage with white sands crowned by reef at each end of the beach. Stern tied in the middle of the bay, we settled Braca in for his afternoon nap and rushed off to explore the underwater amusement park. The life under our hull was prolific, and soon we were diving and dancing with a swirling mass of reef fish, clumped together into a bait ball of silvery scales and fins. I pulled alongside John who was calmly pointing at something just to the left of us. John hadn’t registered the background and had directed me to a little black fish that swam in the foreground. I froze as my eyes registered on a dark green form ten feet away; clearly we’d not been the only ones enjoying the fish life. Resting on the seabed was an eight-foot crocodile, who turned his head at us in interest. We froze, and he began a slow ascent in front of us. As our brains registered the threat, we slowly began to back-paddle as he came to the surface and eyed up his unwelcome guests. To make it to the safety, we retreated to the beach, walked along to where Atea’s stern was tucked into the beach and swam like hell to her boarding ladder. Once safely on her deck with our butts still intact, our adrenalin kicked in and we were buzzing with the excitement of the amazing encounter. We spent the remainder of the afternoon with a chilled glass of wine in one hand and binoculars in the other. We’d clearly intruded on the crocodile’s territory. He returned to his perch on the reef after a slow meander out around the bay, presumably satisfied that his claim to the reef was not going to be challenged. He kept rising to the surface every 15 minutes or so to fix us with a beady eye and confirm that we had not changed the script. As Mick Dundee’s stunt doubles, I think we did justice in confronting the colossal croc. We can’t claim that we tucked him under armpit and had him flopping in the shallows in pain and panic, but we did look him in the eye, kept our cool and – like the professionals that we are – got the fu&% out of there!!
And that ended our underwater exploration in what was intended to be near-total submersion in our island oasis. We’d thought that we would be swimming and snorkeling morning, noon and night, but our resident crocodile won the turf war. We made quick dashes to shore and kept our toes well clear of deep water and an eye to the waters surface for any predators of the sea. It was far from the relaxing afternoons we’d anticipated; however, we did get a once-in-a-lifetime encounter and were lucky to escape unscathed.
Finding Nemo: A National Geographic Moment.
We’d early set sights on a small nature reserve in the northwest corner of the Solomon Islands, a small island group located in the Manning Straight between Choiseul and Isobel. We’d dropped the idea early on as it was too far away. From Choiseul, it was to the east and not the direction you want to be heading in trade winds (which flow east to west), but a lucky break in the weather allowed us to scribble it back onto our itinerary. The easterly winds that would have normally made it difficult for a yacht to reach dropped off for a day and we jumped at the small window of opportunity.
Here, we hand over the narration from Hollywood action film to the more sober BBC wildlife teams or “The National Geographic Channel” – for what we found in Arnarvon Islands was straight out of a TV wildlife documentary. The rangers were thrilled to get visitors and immediately took us snorkeling and, as you’d expect, the fish life was prolific and the corals were piled high on the sea floor. We nearly fell on a white tip reef shark as we made our entrance and were soon enveloped in a shoal of reef fish, darkening out the light above our heads. One of the rangers did baby duty in the boat as another snorkeled alongside us, stepping on live coral to clear his goggles… not the most conscientious in regard to protecting the reef! Afterward we were taken to one of the outer islets to hunt megapode eggs, stopping for a little “turtle rodeo” along the way… again, not the most conscientious as the little tin boat roared after sea turtle caught in our line of sight. I was intent on finding these rare eggs as it was a fellow cruisers focused purpose to find these golden beauties for a mega-megapode omelet. As her 40th birthday was around the corner, I wanted to present her with these as a gift. We succeeded, and as fertilized eggs they were near hatchlings. Dramatically, she cracked her three eggs into a mixer and three feathered bundles spilled out into the bowl. Not quite the surprise I’d intended.
Our biggest thrill in Arnarvon came after dark. At eight o’clock we met the rangers ashore and went patrolling the shoreline on the opposite coast for Hawksbill turtle’s nests, looking for those ripe to hatch. One was declared ready. We dug down with our bare hands and soon found the sand alive with baby turtles, wriggling and finning upwards towards the light and the sound of the surf. A hundred of the cutest little critters scrambled out over our hands and feet as we guided them to the sea. Tin Tin shrieked with excitement as the first of the brave little guys reached the sea, as Squirt and 92 of his brave brothers wriggled out into the surf and towards the EAC. What a moment it was! Perhaps not full of movie drama, but certainly nature at its finest.
Stars in their Eyes: John Takes a Dramatic Turn on Center Stage.
As playtime in the Solomons was nearing a close, we were running short of time and there were a number of attractions that we wanted to see in the greater Gizo area. In addition, we were due for clearance soon and needed to reconnect with the rest of the rally. It was hard for us to turn our ship southbound and leave these treasured isles, but we finally set sail one late afternoon to rejoin the group.
Immediately after an overnight passage that brought us into Gizo’s outskirts, John and I hit a wreck dive onto a 300-foot sunken Japanese freighter, the Toio Maru, sitting off the beach in 30 meters of water. She was spectacular, with great gouges in her bowels spilling small tanks and sake bottles; we ducked into her dark holds to explore her gifts. Our holding in the bay was not a secure one, so after the dive we pulled up anchor and sailed around the corner to reconnect with our friends on Al Fresco.
The following morning we went for a snorkel in some outer islets and ran into a mass of dolphin on the way. It was beautiful; we were in the most stunning setting watching 50 or so dolphins cavort in the waters around us, pods in every direction. I kept jumping in the water but couldn’t get close enough for an underwater encounter. They seemed to be in hunting mode. As a bait ball glittered in the sunlight, the dolphins would dive deep under the dingy and blow rings of bubbles that would pop the surface around us.
Nearby lay Kennedy Island, so named after a young naval lieutenant (who later became President of the United States) who was shipwrecked during WWII and washed ashore on its beaches. While JFK made the islet famous, the tiny slip of land is now renowned as a superb dive site. We’d planned to dive its outer wall while Braca’s adoptive cruising granny, G.G., watched him. We botched our outing by forgetting weights and dive computer so with a grumble we lopped off the dingy with mask and snorkel; we soon forgot our disappointment. White and black tip reef shark patrolled the wall, surveying the overpopulation of reef fish with a stern eye. The islet upheld its reputation.
Our Solomon escapades had come to a close. The majority of the rally was tucked up in Gizo town getting their supplies replenished and their yachts ready for the passage to PNG and it was time for us to rejoin them. We pulled into Gizo harbor early on a Friday morning, the last of the yachts to arrive. I left John on Atea to manage fueling and boat preparations while I went ashore to assess the provisioning situation and see what stores we’d be able to replenish. There was quite a ‘wish list,’ however I quickly realized that we’d be restocking only the basics. I reconnected with John and Braca in the afternoon for the 3:00 ICA briefing and found John in a sorry state. He was pale and sweating profusely so we got him seated, blaming his condition on the afternoon heat. Midway through the briefing John vomited, lost all remaining colour and keeled over with a great crash to the floor. After he regained consciousness and a nurse cum sailor ran his vitals, we decided to seek out the hospital. The analysis was heat exhaustion and dehydration after a very hot and busy few days. The hospital kept him on a drip and under surveillance overnight. Realizing that we needed to escape the heat and get some rest and relaxation, we stopped all departure activities and reserved the day for pampering. We splashed out on a full breakfast at the Gizo Hotel, spent the afternoon at the hotel pool and treated ourselves to a dual body massage while the staff disappeared with Braca to let us enjoy child-free serenity.
Tomb Raider: Lara Croft Opens the Leafy Tombs of Long Lost Wrecks.
The following day the fleet departed Gizo for a 250-mile passage southwest to the Louisades in Papua New Guinea, but we remained behind: We had one more adventure left for us in the Solomons before departure. Technically illegal, it was a bit of a risk as we’d already cleared customs out of the Solomons. The risk seemed low, however, given the remote location and the fact that the next two island groups we were targeting are rarely visited. In fact, we were the first boats this year (we were sailing in tandem with another two cruising yachts, Al Fresco and Haku II).
We set sail for the Shortland Islands, a group of islands northwest of Gizo and just a shot off Bouganville, PNG. The context for their appeal dates back to 1943 when the Japanese and the US were battling it out over the Solomon Islands during WWII. The Japanese had secured a majority of the Solomons when the US troops came in from the east and slowly gained territory. The first island we visited, Bailai, had been a Japanese stronghold. Picture the most idyllic tropical island with white sands, palm lined beaches and dense jungle. The island is about a mile long and half a mile wide, and uninhabited. By report, it holds the most concentrated collection of WWII aircraft anywhere in the world.
Dropping anchor and immediately going ashore, we hiked along the beach into the bush, sighting wreckage in the bush off the beach along the way. We headed inland to a small airfield that stretches along the middle of the island. The airfield is still used today, albeit infrequently, to bring in locals who live in islands off its shores. We walked a kilometer down to the end of the runway then split off into the deep jungle, separating to cover more territory in search of the reputed planes left behind when the Japanese fled. At first I thought it would be a bush whack for a bunch of twisted metal. But we hit gold. At first we found two smaller planes buried in vines, both John and I coming across them from different directions. We then regrouped with Al Fresco and found a line of planes covered in bush where once they sat in their bays behind the airfield – bomb craters scattered throughout as indicators of the US airstrike. Coming up on them as they materialized in the deep bush was a surreal experience. We felt like we were caught up a scene from Tomb Raider, two less-glamorous “Lara Crofts” seeking out hidden artifacts in long forgotten crypts, although I don’t think she ever had a baby strapped to her back.
After Bailai we sailed 30 miles south to Mono in the Treasury Islands. This was a small observation site for the Japanese on the outskirts of the Solomons. It was also the site where seven American soldiers washed ashore from downed planes and were protected from the Japanese by friendly locals. At first a truce was struck by the local chief to keep tensions down and the soldiers safe, but as Japanese forces were pushed back from the Solomons eastern isles several hundred Japanese descended on the small island creating tensions and animosity increased. The risk heightened for the Americans as the population of Japanese grew, but they escaped in the night to safe hiding. The Japanese were finally forced out of Mono by NZ troops and an American base was put up until the end of the Japanese threat. There are many US fighter planes that were left behind when the forces pulled out. Although we found Vipers and Avengers left to rust in the bush, it was less of an amazing experience for us in Mono as we were taken into the bush by a village elder, diminishing our sense of exploration and discovery. However, it was incredible to see the relics all the same. The islands gave us a somber reminder of the actuality of the war, and we met two old men in the village who were boys during the Japanese occupation and retold their experiences. The village especially welcomes New Zealanders since it was NZ troops who liberated the Treasury Islands, and there is a small memorial to those who made the ultimate sacrifice.
The three of us have played our varied roles in The Adventures of Tiny Tin and his Motley Crew. We’ve seen so much in the past three weeks that it seems a year’s worth of experiences consolidated into brief moment in time. Our travels can’t continue to provide the varied highs we’ve been privy to. Perhaps that is a good thing… you don’t run nose to nose with a crocodile twice to survive the encounter intact. Nor does your craft repeatedly anchor yards from a reef through a gale without finally falling to its demise. We enter Papua New Guinea wondering who’s written our next script and what theme lies ahead of us. Hopefully no more action films – we are ready to put our feet up in the hammock for our last month of the 2012 cruising season and listen to some other adventurer tell their tales. For us, our new mantra is “holiday… here we come!”