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The Solomon Islands

Solomons1an undiscovered Archipelago
These unique Islands were of course discovered by the Spanish explorer and navigator Alvaro Mendaña de Neyra in the 16th century, but as of yet they have not been discovered by the so called mass tourist. Mendaña fund gold here, and believing that it was the gold of the legendary King Solomon, named the islands in his name.
In terms of tourism this country is miles behind the neighbouring archipelagos of Fiji or Vanuatu. The infrastructure is very modest, with only a few hotels and resorts, mainly in Honiara, Malaita and New Georgia. The Solomons are truly beautiful though, with coral islands, golden sand beaches, and jungle covered mountains reaching 2300 metres in height. In addition the Solomon Islands boast a uniquely rich and exotic culture.

Solomons2Problems and hopes
Today, mainly thanks to financial aid from Australia and New Zealand, the Solomon Islands are beginning to catch up to the civilised world. In Honiara, Auki, Munda, Gizo and other important centres, new office buildings and commercial centres are springing up. In the papers, a lot has been written about renewed gold exploration in Guadalcanal, as well as fresh discoveries on the island of Fauro in the Western province. There is also renewed mining of nickel in the Province of Isabel. One thing in need of much improvement here is the healthcare system. Doctors and nurses from many parts of the world come here on international missions. They are fighting, with improving success; against the main scrounge of many tropical islands, malaria, as well as other diseases including HIV. In recent years more emphasis has been placed on developing the local healthcare system. In the press I read that dozens of young Solomon Islanders are studying medicine abroad in Cuba. Emphasis on education is also increasing, and the war against illiteracy has become a priority for the local government.

Solomons7Honiara, the heart of the Solomons
Every visit to these islands must begin in Honiara, as this is the location of the only international airport, built during the Pacific War by the Americans in a place called Henderson Fields. The capital has direct flight connections with Australia, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and Fiji. The national carrier Solomon Airlines provides transport links between the main islands of the archipelago. Upon arriving in Honiara, the air-conditioned comfort of the jet plane is replaced with the hot equatorial air. The islands lie only a few degrees south of the equator, and as such even in the so called dry season, it is still quite hot and humid. It is no wonder then, that after only a few minutes the shirt on ones back is completely soaked in sweat. The passengers in the nearly full plane, which arrives twice weekly from Brisbane, consist almost evenly of Europeans and Melanesians. The latter were fortunate enough to emigrate to Australia and find employment there. They now come to the Solomons to visit relatives, whom they also support financially.
After a refreshing dip in the swimming pool of the King Solomon Hotel, I head downtown. Honiara is a city of almost 60 thousand people, and is also the largest port in the island nation which is scattered over 1.2million km2 of the Pacific Ocean. The entire Archipelago consists of nearly 1000 islands, of which around 350 are inhabited, while over 600 are fitting for a Robinson Crusoe sequel. I visited Skyline Ridge, a hill upon which the Americans erected a memorial dedicated to the battles for the Pacific during the Second World War. On the marble plaques are engraved the names of war ships, both American and Japanese, which were sunk in the waters around Guadalcanal.

Solomons5A gift from the USA
On a hilltop above Honiara, the parliament building from a distance looks more like a large water tank. The top of the building especially bears a striking similarity to a large corrugated iron water barrel. The circular conference room has excellent acoustics and air conditioning. Being here I thought to myself that in such a hot tropical climate this would be the ideal place to undertake debates by the 50 representatives of the 9 Solomon Island provinces. Built in the 90s, the parliament building was gifted to the island nation by the Americans, who in this way thanked the Solomon Islanders for their support during battles against the Japanese in WWII. These were ferocious battles, and had the Japanese beaten the Americans at Guadalcanal and the rest of the Archipelago, Australia would have been next in line on the Japanese hit list. Evidence of these battles can be found in the form of rusted patrol boats, barges and battle ships lying at the bottom of the ocean surrounding Guadalcanal and other islands in the archipelago. In the dense jungles one can find the wrecks of planes and tanks as well as artillery shells and other military equipment. This chapter in the history of the Solomon islands was documented through James Joneses’ The Thin Red Line’ which was filmed in the late 1990s.
A real Robinson Crusoe?
Reading the Solomon Air in-flight magazine, I came across the name Richard Majchrzak, a photographer and owner of a gallery in the prestigious NPF Plaza in the Centre of Honiara. Richard’s Father was Polish, while Richard himself was born in Germany. In the Solomon Islands he married a beautiful Melanesian girl called Naomi, and has remained here ever since. Together they run their small business selling local crafts and artwork. Richard is also a talented photographer, and his photos are sold in galleries and shops throughout Honiara. He doesn’t speak Polish, but it is evident he is proud of his roots. He introduced me to his wife Naomi, who comes from the province of New Georgia, and together they told me a lot about local customs and traditions. One of the most significant events in the island nation’s post war history was a visit by the late Pope John Paul the second in May 1984. It isn’t hard to imagine that due to the tropical climate, this was probably one of the hardest pilgrimages the Polish Pope undertook. At the post office I bought stamps commemorating this historic visit.

Solomons3Artificial Islands
From Honiara I flew to Auki in the Malaita Provence. The flight was to take just 40 minutes, however it took nearly 2 hours, as the plane diverted to a small village on the other side of the island. There the pilot bravely landed on a not so flat grassy clearing, unloaded a few boxes, then took off again, continuing onto Auki. With near impatience I awaited the next day, when I was to visit the lagoon of Langa Langa. A local tradition here is the building of artificial islands, on which the locals then build their houses, and there are hundreds of these in the area. Every newly married couple literally builds their nest in this way, digging up coral sediment from the lagoon to make their own artificial island, on which to build their family home. My visit was to one such island, belonging to Sara and her husband Gustav, an Australian with German Ancestry. I took some time to talk with Gustav, to understand how a European felt about life in such a unique place. It didn’t take Gustav long to begin talking about his main concern, which was global warming. “Do you see that wooden post there? It is scientific proof that global warming is no joke. That nail there shows the highest point that I have seen the water in the lagoon”. As it turns out, since the year before, Gustav has had to raise that nail by 2 centimetres. In December, when the tides are at their highest, it is more and more common for the water to nearly flood our little island, he told me. “The water is starting to creep into our house, and my vegetable garden is suffering from excessive salinity in the soil”. At present, after raising part of his island by a further metre, Gustav is building a new house. There is only a few months left before December, but he is confident that he will finish the new house in time. Sara and Gustav’s bungalow is of a traditional Melanesian construction, very clean, well maintained, and with mosquito nets above all the beds.

Solomons8Shell money
The Langa Langa region boasts a very original currency, which for centuries has been made from shells. It is used to this day, but of course much less frequently than in times past. The ‘minting’ is the task of the local women, who shape the shells by gently tapping the edges with a hammer against a wooden post. The colour of the shell determines its relative value. As in times past this shell money is also used as a way for young men to ‘buy’ permission of a family to marry their daughter. The locals tell me that till this day it is still possible to buy fruit and vegetables, and even hogs with this shell money.

Solomons6Corals and wrecks
The airport in Munda is a remnant from WWII. The very long and wide runway is in complete contrast to the small building that is the airport’s terminal. The concrete runway was built by the Americans, and was used as an airstrip by their largest and heaviest bombers. Today it is used by small turbine powered planes of the Solomon Airlines. Because of the relatively infrequent air traffic, the runway is also used as a football field. I spent two days in Munda and then Gizo, the capital of the Western Province. Munda lies on the shores of the Roviana lagoon, which during the day bustles with boat and canoe traffic. The lagoon is like a motorway network linking together the many islands of the Western Province, as well as its capital Gizo. I had a chat to a diving instructor from Australia who boasted that the beauty of the underwater life in this region far surpasses that found on the Great Barrier Reef. I also took a boat ride on the lagoon. My guide, Simon showed me submerged holes, caused by exploding bombs dropped from planes during heavy fighting between the Americans and the Japanese. In the dense jungle I also came across the rusted remains of a military barge, as well as a skeleton of a crashed fighter plane. The locals have neither the money nor the technology to dispose of these war relics, and the Americans do not respond to the country’s pleas to have them removed.

Solomons4Crocodiles and…..geography
As our small motorboat whizzed past some mangroves, I asked Simon if there were crocodiles here. He calmly replied yes telling me the story of how not so long ago a five metre croc became the talking point of the region. It came on to the shore close by the Mundia markets every morning for over a week. Local parents became increasingly worried for the safety of their children, who like to play in the waters of the lagoon. The police had no choice but to get rid of the animal, even though officially these animals are under protection. As we arrived at a small sandy island on the lagoon, Simon proposed a refreshing swim, assuring me that there were no crocodiles around this particular island. Let’s just say it was the shortest swim I have ever had. My guide turned out to be a very interesting person. He told me that he didn’t go to any school, but surprised me greatly when he was able to accurately describe the location of various countries in Europe. I promised him that the next time I visited the Solomon Islands, I would bring him an up to date atlas of the world, since the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia no longer existed. I also thought to myself how many Europeans have only a vague idea of the geography and political make up of their own part of the world, let alone the distant, almost undiscovered archipelago of the Solomon Islands.

Practical information

  • Location and people: The Solomon Islands lie in the south western part of the Pacific Ocean, in the region known as Melanesia. The archipelago is made up of almost 1000 islands with an area amounting to around 29,785km2. The population of around 450 thousand is predominantly made up of Melanesians, but the is also a noticeable Chinese population around Honiara, as well as several thousand people of European decent, mainly from Australia and New Zealand. The Solomon Islands are a constitutional monarchy, the head of state being Queen Elizabeth II represented by the Governor General. Parliamentary elections are held every four years.
  • Language: The main language is Pijin English, which is a mixture of local dialects and English. The local Melanesians use 87 different dialects.
  • Currency: Solomon Islands Dollar. One US dollar buys approximately 7 Solomon Islands Dollars. Credit Card facilities are available at better hotels and resorts, however it is a good idea to have cash on hand when browsing the shops and markets.  
  • Visa: 3 month tourist visas are issued upon arrival In the Solomon Islands. Passports need to be valid for at least 6 months from the date of departure, and visitors must show a return ticket as well as sufficient funds for the duration of their stay. The visa costs approximately 40 Solomon Island Dollars.
  • Health: Travelling around the Solomon Islands requires a good state of health due to the difficult tropical climate. Malaria tablets as well as Tetanus shots are a must. A medical consultation is recommended prior to commencing your holiday.
  • Safety: The Islands are generally regarded as safe. Machetes are a common site, but are only used by locals for food gathering and for easier movement through the jungle.

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