Like a series of random punctuation marks, the many islands of the Solomons archipelago lay along the southern section of the Pacific Ring of Fire, in between the countries of Papua New Guinea to the north, and Vanuatu to the south. An independent country since 1976, the Solomon Islands are a quite special blend of Pacific Island Melanesian culture and phenomenal tectonic forces, which have created a chain of mountainous islands that are rich in native rainforest, spectacular volcanoes and incredible lagoons.
Underwater, there are rich reef systems and an amazing variety of marine life together with one of the highest concentrations of WWII wrecks in the Pacific.
Somewhat off the beaten track and to a degree tainted by the civil disorder that convulsed the country from 1998 to 2004, the Solomon Islands have long since stabilized and are open for business again, offering a most rewarding destination for divers.
Selectivity… New Georgia
At the beginning of this year, having heard and read much about the country, I decided that it really was time I explored the Solomon Islands first-hand.
My first port of call when visiting a new location is always Google Earth, because it really does put everything into perspective, and with the Solomon Islands, I soon realized that I needed to be selective.
The country consists of a total of almost 1,000 islands organized into nine provinces, plus the capital territory of Honiara on the northwest coast of the island of Guadalcanal. All of which means there are a lot of places to dive, and deciding where to go is a bit like the kid in the candy store—where to start?
Working the Internet hard narrowed down the first choice—land-based resort or liveaboard?
Honiara is the base for the respected liveaboard company, Bilikiki Cruises, who operate two boats in the Solomons. While logistically this offered the easiest place to begin as you fly in and go straight onto the boat, I opted for land-based diving so that I could get a deeper sense of the local cultures.
I eventually settled on two locations in the New Georgia area of the large Western Province of the Solomon Islands: Uepi Island Resort, in the huge Marovo Lagoon at the eastern end of the province, and Munda, in the not quite so large Roviana Lagoon on the southern coast.
Both these locations have excellent reputations, and logistically, they are pretty easy to get to, as Solomon Airlines operates regular domestic flights from Honiara to New Georgia with stops at both Seghe, which is the closest airstrip for Uepi Island, and Munda.
There were another couple of places in New Georgia I would have loved to include: the spectacular Gatokae Island on the southern edge of the Marovo Lagoon and the wrecks of Gizo on the western tip of New Georgia. But my time for travel was limited, so I eventually decided that they would have to wait for next time.
A bad rap?
If certain sections of the Australian media are to be believed, the Solomon Islands is the Afghanistan of the Pacific, and only the intervention under the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) stopped it from actually becoming a failed state.
RAMSI was launched in July 2003 at the request of the Solomon Islands government, after the civil disorder had reached a crisis point. It was basically a plea for help to its Pacific Ocean neighbors. Led by Australia, RAMSI consisted of military, police and civilians from a coalition of regional countries that stepped in and quickly stabilized the situation, restoring law and order, and over time, establishing the foundations for the Solomon Islands to grow again.
But perceptions linger, and I had lots of raised eyebrows in Australia when I told friends and colleagues that I was off to the Solomon Islands for three weeks. My personal acid test for such situations is to take off my watch, leave it and anything else of value in my room, pick up my cheap shirt-pocket camera and go for a walk to see what happens.
I always ask around if is it safe to go walkabout. From the taxi driver who brought me from Honiara Airport to the hotel concierge, I got a general “no worries”. Sure enough there were no worries, and I walked for many miles around Honiara without a single problem, meeting lots of nice people on the way.
Having “survived” Honiara, the next part of my journey was the flight to Seghe, which is the main airstrip for the Marovo Lagoon and the stopping off point for Uepi (rather amusingly pronounced you-pee) Island.
The flight heads northwest from Honiara towards New Georgia, passing over the scenic Russell Islands group on the way. The journey provides the first real indication of the incredible beauty of this country, as you fly over one rainforest covered island after another—all surrounded by the clear blue waters of the Solomon Sea. Then, as the plane descends over the Marovo Lagoon towards Seghe, you can see how the outer barrier islands form what is in fact the largest saltwater lagoon in the world, and an appreciation forms for its sheer magnitude!
There really is something uniquely exciting about getting off a small plane on a grass airstrip on a remote island and watching your dive gear being extracting from the cargo bay. Feeling a little bit like a cross between Indiana Jones and Jacques Cousteau, I walked over to the arrivals area—which is also the departure area, shop and waiting area, all consolidated into a single small wooden building—and was met by my “driver” from Uepi (...)
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