I’ve only been here in Tuvalu for half an hour and things have already got much too exciting. The plane from Nauru via Suva is packed with delegates to an international PASAI conference, (whatever that is) in the capital, Funafuti. The prime minister of Fiji is on board too. I’m getting used to hobnobbing with the politicians out here. There’s no-one waiting to meet me - I’m getting used to this as well - at Funafuti Airport. I’ve already gone through the tiny rickety customs hall accidentally, without my bag. The ladies waving signs on the road outside tell me it’s no problem as my accommodation, Filamona Moonlit Lodge (sounds so romantic), is just round the corner, three minutes’ walk. A kind man helps me wheel my bag - it’s very sandy on the path. (So much for the shared transfer vouchers provided by the travel agency.)
We arrive at a balconied building, shaded by frangipani, next to the baggage claim. A lady at a table outside looks distressed. ‘Sorry, we should have come to meet you. We thought you were with the conference people, they’re all coming over together. Are you booked in?’
This sounds ominous. She has a large hard-backed diary which she gestures at. Reading upside down I see something that looks vaguely like Rogers, scribbled next to the words VIP room. ‘That’s me!’ I say quickly. ‘Good’ she replies and I am shown upstairs to a huge room with a pink plastic framed mirror in the attached bathroom (so far not too awful), one hanger on a hook and a long balcony with a grandstand view of the airport and the plane I have just decamped from, almost within touching distance. There’s a satellite dish on the balcony but no television set in my VIP room. (And Tuvalu's claim to fame is .tv.) Someone has thoughtfully left some Disprin on the chair.
Scouting around I discover that I can wander right out onto the runway of this international airport if I wish. Except, it’s raining again. I’m not doing very well with the weather, and it’s the dry season. How wet is the wet season in the Pacific? I’m desperate to see if I can fix up something to do tomorrow so I sidle back up to the desk. There’s a very irate Australian gentleman there shouting because he doesn’t have a room, although he booked in April, and demanding that whoever has mistakenly been given it be thrown out immediately. The landlady is still horribly vague about who should and shouldn’t be here. I sense it might be expedient to save my questions till later and return to my room, to establish squatters’ rights.
Venturing out again cautiously, I inquire about a boat trip to the marine conservation area, which I have read is a must-see. Filamona (if that’s her name?) immediately goes into confused damsel in distress mode. She’s very busy and I should go and sort it out with the council at their offices. She gives me the vaguest of directions, but I set off gamely in the drizzle. She goes back to sit behind her desk and gaze at the airport. Like Nauru, most of Funafuti is arranged along the runway, but unlike Nauru that’s about all there is of this island. It’s a long thin elbow and the main thoroughfare seems to be the edge of the runway itself.
Most of the population chug up and down on motor bikes. The young men have quite a penchant for trendy hairstyles, buns or the short at the sides long on top look. The rest of the townsfolk seem to be sleeping on wooden bed/tables under corrugated tin roofs. There’s a yellow sandy beach strewn with lumps of coral to the lagoon side and sea to the other. Government House is situated directly behind the airport ‘terminal’. The Bank of Tuvalu is in a hut on the corner. There are some scruffy shops, but I can’t see any sign of council offices. Directions elicited from other locals aren’t much clearer.
‘It’s along this road five minutes past the primary school.’
‘Straight up here?’
‘No, not up, along. You can’t go up here it’s all flat.’
Eventually, I’m rescued by an Australian plumber on a motor bike who drops me there. It’s a good 20 minutes’ walk away, in a parallel road. ‘Everything is further than they say, he tells me. ‘Rent a motor bike. They’re’ only ten dollars a day’. I feel the island should be spared that disaster inducing scenario. My chauffeur tells me he’s working on the new airport terminal, just behind the old one. Sure enough, I confirm there’s a building site there. When the concrete mixer isn’t operating the workmen have their transistors on full blast. I’m doomed.
Dinner in Tuvalu is fish curry chosen from a menu of three choices on a post it note. There’s rice, frozen vegetables, onion, cubed tuna and no discernible curry flavour whatsoever on my heaped plate.
There’s a Tuvalu cultural performance taking place at the maneapa (open sided meeting place) adjacent to the Lodge to entertain the conference delegates. (I’ve discovered that they are all auditors general.) This also operates on island time and eventually gets underway at 9.15 pm. I haven’t had an invitation but I’m beckoned in and there’s no way I’m going to sleep while it’s underway, in any case. The dancing, drumming and singing is riotously joyful and, unlike many cultural performances, feels totally authentic. Nearly all the audience wear flower garlands in their hair and several of the older ladies jump up and join in, beaming. It’s tradition to spray the dancers with perfume to show your appreciation and this is even tolerated by the bare chested males.
There was a rat on my leg last night. I woke up, shrieked and kicked it off and it scrabbled around for a while. The night watchman bravely came to see what the problem was (my screaming woke him up) and we watched it climb the wall and disappear through a cable cavity under the air conditioning unit. He blocked it up with balls of silver foil, but I couldn’t sleep after that. I couldn’t bring myself to switch the light off. This sort of thing makes me wonder why I travel at all. To compensate, it was a glorious sunrise, bright reds reflected in the large pools of water on the runway.
I have breakfast with two Aussies attending the conference, after apologising for waking them up. One of them, from the IMF, is the guy who was shouting when I booked in. He doesn’t mention it. The other, Steve, from the World Bank, is going to help me plan my future Micronesia trip. The man from the council hasn’t turned up to confirm my boat ride as agreed, so I assume it’s off. That’s a shame, as there isn’t even an island tour to do here. I might go see the pigs at the end of the runway. Unlike other Pacific islands they keep them separate here, in Tuvalu, to minimise the effects of the smell.
Today is definitely improving. Chris from the Council has turned up after all, with a boat and a boatman and it’s stopped raining. We are ferrying two Italian tourists, Serena and Orlando, to Funafale, a small traditional island on the south of the atoll and then heading west to the marine conservation area surrounding more islets on the rim of the atoll. I’m still trying to get my head round the geography of Tuvalu. This is Funafuti atoll, the island I’m staying on is called Fongafale and the town is Vaiaku.
The sun stays out most of the way, we spot a manta and a few shoals of fish, the sea is like a warm bath and the islands picture perfect little Robinson Crusoe dots. Chris and the boatman spend most of their time in hammocks or sitting in plastic chairs in the sea. Between rests the boatman cuts green coconuts, lops off the tops and even fashions me a spoon, out of the skin, to scoop out the flesh with. I swim, snorkel and stroll round the islets accompanied by squawking terns. Lonely Planet reporting on Tuvalu says the area is sublime. This time they’re right.
Back at Filamona I’m trying to catch up on my sleep (again). There’s a football game taking place on the runway and the radios at the building site have been on since 7.15 this morning. I’ve also discovered that the shower in my room doesn’t work at all (I’ve been avoiding it as it’s only cold water) and the lady at the desk is the manager and sadly, she’s not named Filamona, she’s called Penieli.
Down for dinner at seven, but there’s no chef. He’s gone out to buy fish, having forgotten I’m here. The conference guests have all gone to a banquet. Penieli says surely I can wait a bit for food. It’s early. She is eating her fish and rice supper as she speaks. The chef comes back and says there is pork curry for dinner, but first he has to go and pay for the fish. Two Kiwis take me out for dinner in a Chinese restaurant. One of them actually has a car, so we drive there. The ultimate luxury.
My feet are on fire with mosquito bites from yesterday’s islands. There’s always something wrong with Paradise. At my prompting Penieli reduces my bill by a miserly five dollars to compensate for no shower. She says the rat was ‘beyond her control’. I don’t agree, as it came in through the whacking great hole by the air con, but she’s had her chance. Trip Advisor here I come.
I wheel my bag on my own (noting that paid transfer again) down the side of the runway through arrivals and customs to the check in desk and Fiji. This is definitely a first. Now I have three hours to wander before take-off. Perhaps I should look for those pigs.
Strolling down the runway before an international flight is also a first. Airport staff are out sweeping the tarmac with brooms, in anticipation of the great event - the twice weekly landing. The odour and squealing leads me to the pigs, right at the end of the runway. Some piglets have escaped and are frisking about in the bushes. It could be interesting, when the plane lands.
Back at the airport, screens have been erected to create a departure lounge. I chat to Christine, from Paris, who’s also travelling the Pacific. That’s four people on Tuvalu who came out of interest rather than for business reasons. An absolute deluge. A tannoy announces the imminent arrival of the plane, warning the locals to stay off the runway.
The prime minister of Fiji is on board again. He and his security man wear ties bearing the Fijian flag. Very smart. This time he and his wife have the whole of business class to themselves (eight seats).
This time I’m visiting two resorts in the Solomon Islands. The first, Tavanipupu Island, is where Wills and Kate stayed on one of their Royal Tours. Last time I was here everyone was preparing for this, with varing degrees of enthusiasm.. But before I get there, having flown in from Noumea, I have a seven hour layover at Honiara Airport to endure. It is tiny and ramshackle is too kind a description. There’s one small café, in the international building and the domestic terminal is up the shingle road in a sort of wooden hut. It’s all coming back to me now.
No Wi-Fi, but at least I’ve managed to bag the only sofa. I drift off to sleep in an empty lounge and wake up to find I’m surrounded by a melee of passengers. My total consumption is one coconut, one Magnum and a plate of chips and I’ve also become firm friends with the café manager, Francina, before I judge it expedient to return to the domestic ‘terminal’. The tourist posters say: 'Hapi Ples, Hapi Iles, Hapi Pipl'.
I had forgotten how terrifying these local flights are. In total contrasts to my flight here it’s an ancient creaky prop plane with metal bench seats. Fellow passengers Sanjay, Shelley and Lou tell me that they are often crawling with cockroaches. I shall watch out for those. Though, frankly I don’t care, as long as I survive the journey.
Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands is on Guadalcanal Island. Flying over Guadalcanal is reminiscent of PNG, with peaks clothed in frilly forest and several impressively large meandering rivers. However, there are dirt roads where PNG has none and the hills are smaller.
Tavanipupu is at the eastern end of Guadalcanal, one of a smattering of coral islands with impossibly gorgeous views onto blue seas and little white beaches with bent palm trees draped artfully across them. It’s one version of paradise.
I’ve been given the accolade of the Royal Bungalow, which is naturally very swish, with an indoor and outdoor shower. The bed is reputed to be the one in which George was made and the toilet has a plaque over it announcing it's The Royal Throne. I don’t know which idea makes me more uncomfortable when I’m using them.
I’ve snorkelled between two jetties round a quarter of Tavanipupu, through shoals of tiny gleaming fish. I’ve walked round the island (twenty minutes through clouds of mosquitoes, huge ficus roots, mangroves and pandanus) and I’ve had a massage. The locals all come to work in wooden canoes that glide onto the little beach below my bungalow and are lined up below the palm trees. It’s not a bad version of heaven.
It was fairly breezy yesterday, but the gusts turned into a full scale gale last night. The Royal Bungalow is more isolated than the others and fully exposed to the wind. It’s not easy to sleep when your mosquito net is billowing into the rafters and there is a shower of dried palm descending from the roof.
To my surprise the planned boat trip to Picnic Island goes ahead. It’s choppy, if not absolutely petrifying and I am drenched when we arrive. The island is worth the discomfort. It’s another one of those little tropical pieces of paradise where I run out of superlatives. Every shade of blue oil paint is visible, the whitest of white sand is incredibly soft and littered with bleached pieces of wood displayed like artist’s installations.
In the afternoon a performance by the choir from the village on one of the nearby islands. It’s very Born Again but the children are cute and compete for attention by going totally overboard with their actions to the music. One little moppet hasn’t a clue what is happening and stands in the front throughout sucking her thumb.
The two back up generators have given up backing up, so all the bungalows are pitch black. It’s not easy trying to find all my gear to pack by the light of my iPhone. I wonder if Wills and Kate had to put up with this?
There’s a thirty minute plane ride back to Honiara to survive next, though first we have to get to the airfield on the motorboat. Some of the other guests come out to wave us off. That’s nice I think, waving back. Then I see that we are being pursued by another resort boat. The guests were gesticulating because they’d been left behind. We stop to take them on board, but our own engines are shuddering and keep shutting down altogether. The plane is waiting on the little grass runway, the pilot looking impatient when we finally arrive, flapping our tickets and decanting straight off the boat onto the rickety seats.
Things improve. Sanjay turns out to be the general manager of the Heritage Park Hotel in Honiara, where I’m booked in for half a night on Thursday. Lou is a director. They offer to rescue me from the airport tedium of a prospective seven hours on the sofa and transport me to the hotel until it’s time to check in. Excellent, though Francina is going to be disappointed. I don’t feel guilty whilst I’m chomping my free scrambled egg and bacon or dozing in my complimentary hotel room with sea view.
Back to the airport for the trip to Seghe, to discover that it’s the same Twin Otter plane, but the trip is almost two hours this time. The Rescue Remedy spray is going to feature heavily.
Whatever the contenders for top five countries in the world to visit the Solomon Islands must win hands down for views from the air, when you’ve got over the terror of flying in their planes. The islands in Western Province are green Jackson Pollock splodges on a blue background.
Marovo Lagoon is also billed as the world’s largest saltwater lagoon. I’ve looked up the definitions and I’m still none the wiser as to which one is correct (It's between the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia). Anyway, Uepi Island is at one end of this lagoon and now I really have run out of superlatives. My bungalow is on a beach facing the lagoon. A turtle, a kingfisher, a mudskipper and the local monitor lizard come to visit. The path is lined with towering trees and coconut husk edged hibiscus and orchid borders. And dinner is divine: crab, fish, chicken, oysters and ginger margaritas. Wow!
This is my second attempt to visit Uepi during a Solomon Islands trip, as it has been completely booked when I have tried before. But I had heard the reef life was amazing and persisted. As a result, today is filled with snorkelling expeditions, together with Janine and Gary from Adelaide.
At 7.15 I’m eyeballing a manta who is calling by for his regular cleaning station session as the small fish hoover him. Naturally, I’ve forgotten to put the battery in my camera. At 9.00 I’m outside the lagoon battling the current on an immensely long reef that drops off to 200 metres at its deepest and admiring the coral gardens. At 14.00 I’m dropped off at Uepi Point where the lagoon meets the sea and drift with the current along the reef lining the inside passage, then swimming along the side of the island and right back to my beach to commune with the clown fish and paddle with the turtle.
Along the way we’ve got blasé about sharks – O no not another one (white tipped and black tipped reef sharks) - and swum through numerous thick gleaming shoals of fish. I think I’ve earned my margarita tonight.
Today is a repeat of yesterday, but I remember my battery and the manta is good enough to visit again. There are seven of us snorkelling today, with Aussie Neil acting as snorkel master. Yet another amazing long reef swim in the morning and back from The Point in the afternoon. By the end of the day we reckon we have seen nearly every fish in the guide book. The variety of vibrant colours and shapes is astonishing. Life on the coral is utterly fascinating with everything from minor spats to full-scale shimmering pageants constantly enacted. Moray eels peep out to watch us float past, an eagle ray sails by and the little reef sharks keep coming. I’m alternating humming Wonderful World and Jaws in my head.
The hammocks on my decking are very welcome at the end of the day. I’ve had to pack everything into my two full days. Everyone else seems to be exhausted too. The bar is deserted by nine and I wander back to my room on my own, watching out dusky for land crabs scuttling back to their burrows, after trying to rearrange my transfers for tomorrow. The flight has already been shifted forward again. I’m really sad that plane flight schedules didn’t allow for any more time here. The staff have been excellent, the food wonderful and the other guests delightful. I have a handful of invites to stay. Uepi is magic. Moving on is going to be very difficult.
I’ve bought mother of pearl jewellery from a mournful looking guy called Abraham Lincoln at the little dive jetty market before leaving on the banana boat. This time I’m in plenty of time for my plane but today I’m not even on the manifest and the plane is overloaded. There’s a lot of cargo. After a stressful half hour and a lot of ticket waving I’m allowed on because of my onward connection out of the Solomon Islands tonight. Phew…
Back in Honiara Sanjay has been good enough to reserve me another nice room and I hole up in preparation for the nastiest flight time of the trip. I’m reunited with The Gang of Three from Wallis Island at dinner. Roy and Mike are still bickering away. ‘The man’s a moron’, Roy explains loudly. The plane for Nauru leaves at 1.15 a.m. We line up in immigration at 11.45. The little man with the ink pad dithers and then advances the date on his stamp.
The island hopper plane from Hawaii sets me down at Majuro and leaves for Guam via several other Micronesian stops. The Marshall Islands capital is three ribbon strip islands joined by bridges leaving one gap in the atoll. The strips are just wide enough to fit a building at each side of the 32 mile paved road that romps through the middle. At times the width expands to fit in another house or even a little shopping square. They’ve squeezed the airport in at one end.
It’s partly open air, and the luggage is brought out in pickups. Most of the local people who decant off the plane just wait for their bags and disappear without any immigration formalities at all. I say bags, most of their cargo seems to be cardboard boxes and polystyrene cooling boxes. Most of the people are dark skinned, dark haired and dark eyed. Local dress is colourful. The women wear loose floral dresses and some have pretty headbands across their foreheads.
This place is very much treated as an unofficial American state. Americans come and go freely, there are U.S. aid boards all around and the currency is the dollar. The main populated area is two miles long and known as DUD (Darrit, Uliga and Delap). Djarrit is as also known as or Rita (Hayworth – from GIs). DUD is lined with schools, government buildings, churches and industrial bits and bobs. There are several ships moored in the huge lagoon, which is edged with a few patches of sand and some battered coral. It’s not hugely inviting. The shore is littered, and the water polluted. There are tricky currents. And sharks. It’s definitely prettier from the air, though the spiky pandanus trees, lining the shore though, weave intricate patterns against the blue sky.
The islands are exceptionally flat; the bridges are the highest point, if you don’t count the coconut palms and the warehouses. They’re reinforced with stone barricades, though I’m not sure how helpful they will be when global warming sets in. It’s a little disconcerting seeing the sea so close on one side and the lagoon on the other as we motor along.
I’m in the best hotel in town, set in the centre of DUD and on the edge of the lagoon. It has the basic necessities, but it’s definitely seen better days. Hot water is elusive. The pool is decorated with a large yellow boat and is full of water that’s alarmingly green. It’s been out of action for some months according to Trip Advisor. I’m not sure how you would swim round the boat anyway. There are chairs stacked around and a ramshackle pool bar. None of this looks as if it’s seen much action lately either.
The restaurant serves passable western style food and fish (there are lots of guide book warnings about not eating toxic reef fish) and the waiters are friendly. I’m now 13 hours ahead of BST and my body isn’t sure what’s going on. It wants to sleep at all the wrong times. The hotel receptionist demands money from me ,insisting I have a reservation but no payment has been made. I demur (to put it politely) and after prolonged phone calls they agree to sift through all their emails to see if payment has indeed been promised by my tour company. While I’m eating dinner they phone down to tell me that they have found the relevant email and I need not worry.
According to my computer it's 20.50 on Saturday July 15. But I’m told it’s actually 7.50 in the morning the next day and I’m back at the airport. There’s no air-conditioning, the queue crawls, it’s exceedingly muggy and I’m already covered in mosquito bites. I can see the pesky little things zooming round the dark airport building, despite the fact that Dengue and Zika warning posters abound on the walls. As do How To Get To Safety in the Event of a Tsunami signs, though I’m struggling to see that there would be much hope there.
It rained last night and the roads are all flooded, so now we’re driving down a water way between two other areas of water. I’m so disorientated I wouldn’t be surprised to meet myself going the other way. And when I checked out this morning the (different) receptionist gave me the bill for the room. He insisted he couldn’t alter an invoice without his manager’s permission. All I could do was cross out all the offending items and hope for the best. I’m looking forward to the view from the air again. Kiribati next.
I've arrived in Honiara from Papua New Guinea. After that I have to wait for a message to tell me when my flight will leave. It's a moveable feast. The creaky Twin Otter taking me to Ghizo skims over myriad teeny coral islands (992 Solomon Islands in all) and reefs to arrive on an airstrip that is an island on its own. And nothing else.
I'm met by a little motor boat and whisked off to another coral island abode. I have my own bungalow with a sundeck over the water and all I can see are the blue of the lagoon and the specks of little islands stretching into the distance. I'm lying in bed, listening to the waves lapping below me.
The locals here in the Solomon Islands are all very dark, mainly Gilbertese and friendly.
I get on the Internet. The girls here said they would send the boat to get me a data card from town but I don't have any cash. And they can't lend me any as the owner has pinched it all to go out drinking....
I have an idyllic bungalow with an idyllic view, so what’s the problem? It’s raining that’s what. So I decide to have a quiet day reading. But my Aussie neighbours have other ideas. We will kayak to Kennedy Island, which is a pinprick on the horizon. (It's where JFK was washed up during World War II).
I've only been in a kayak once before and that was a punt out to s reef in Belize. Well the wind is against us and the island doesn’t get any closer, but I keep on paddling across all the coral, reasoning that the return crossing will be easy. The waves get bigger, the ocean floor further away and I'm shipping water. And suddenly I'm out of the boat, which has turned over. Can’t get back in - it just keeps sinking. So, I'm in a fairly rough sea five hundrfed yards off land, hanging onto the boat. All my snorkel gear has gone overboard (well apart from one fin and that’s about as much good as half a contact lens) and then I'm stung by jellyfish. Every holiday has to have an adventure I tell myself, but this one ain't much fun.
Eventually, I am rescued by a local in a canoe, who is very reluctant to leave the beach. It turns out the bung has been removed from the nose of the kayak and it has been taking on water the whole journey. We stop it up with a bit of wood off the beach. And I'm back safe and sound though aching, bruised and stung. (The reef at Kennedy was actually quite pretty.)
The sun is out; the lagoon is a myriad of swirling blue. A lorikeet is chattering above and every so often a kingfisher flashes past and takes a fish with a quick plop. A snorkel safari along the reef right outside my door. I decline a kayak trip. Lobster for supper I think. That will be the third day running. And I've taught the barman to make margaritas.
Blissful day. The evening's quite good fun too, as a group of yachties are imbibing in the bar out over the water. Everyone swaps nautical stories and Hans, the Swiss owner, regales me with his life story. Hans has been quaffing bottles of beer continuously since lunchtime and he suggests I might like a tour of his house - he's very proud of it. He designed it based on an upturned palm tree and it's called The Shack. He also designed the very upmarket establishment 'The Lodge ' at the end of the island.
Everyone is preparing for Kate and Wills to visit next month and Hans reckons he told Buckingham Palace he was full when they inquired about the royals staying there. Too much hassle and lost business he says. Anyway, I decline his inviting offer. He assures me that nothing will happen - maybe just a hug or two. He is right there, as he is too drunk to be capable of anything. As always I go to bed on my own!
A final snorkel across the reef. There's a hundred foot wreck out there that the dive captain says contains a monster fish and no-one knows what it is. I don't stay too long in the vicinity. Vibrant giant clams and some sort of parrot fish that look as if they are wearing pale pink stripy pyjamas. They try to play chicken, swimming up close with their mouths wide open and then shying away at the last moment.
I was due to fly back to the capital of the Solomon Islands, Honiara, late this afternoon, but I've checked and the flight is leaving 2 hours early. When the little prop planes drone over the island the two dogs here leap up and howl mournfully till they are gone.
Hans appears, looking very sheepish.
No live chickens on the flight this time. Abandoned at the airport when I arrive - again. My 'local agent', Garedd doesn't answer his phone. So I get a taxi to my hotel and coerce them into paying the bill. They say Garedd isn't known to them. And he hasn't paid the bill for my stay in Ghizo either.
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