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.
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