The crossing to Solomon Islands is very smooth although we have very little wind and need to motor most of the way. We unfortunately have to bypass Tikopia and Vanikoro islands; it would have been exciting to take part in the La Perousse expedition celebrations.
We aim for Niendo in the Santa Cruz Islands which is the first port of entry for the Temotu Province. We catch a 55 kg yellow fin tuna as we enter in Solomon Islands territorial waters. Bringing a big fish onboard is always a nice activity during a long crossing as it keeps all the family busy for a while.
We will spend over 6 months in Solomon Islands. As we arrive we spot that houses are now all elevated unlike Vanuatu where they were built on coral base. Secondly, the Kava traditional drink as been replaced by the Betel Nut chewing. We are greeted by strange red mouths and teeth, this does not look too appealing and the boys are both very scared when smiling ladies are approaching them. The Solomon Islands are beautiful, quite diverse and offers lots of potential. Many beaches are pristine and easily accessible unlike in the Vanuatu, the coral (with the exception of Ghizo which has been very damaged by the recent Tsunami) is outstanding. We had plenty of encounters with marine life and some of the islands offer some of the best diving/snorkelling spots we have seen for a long time. Despite the Hi-tech fleets of tuna fishing boats (mostly Japanese and American) plundering the blue water resources, we found that the underwater life was still exceptionally rich. Sharks are plentiful and were eager to grab Marc's fish as well as his fins ! There is no ciguatera (fish poisoning) in most of the Solomon as well as no cyclone in the northwest, hence our decision to remain in the area for the cyclone season rather than sailing south to Australia or New Zealand. We were surprised to see only a dozen of yachts making that choice. We only had 15 days of downpours and no gust exceeding 40 knots during the rainy season. The main downside of the area for sailing is the lack of wind, one needs to be prepared to motor most of the time.
Solomon People are Melanesians, very welcoming, somewhat shy but they will not naturally invite you or offer presents. They have a trade mentality (including among Family members) and to give outright is just foolish. They will make the most of tourist donations but there is no favour to be expected in return. We will find in due course how fortunate we were to make very good friends who opened their house and gardens to us. The boys have proven a superb passport for our friendly contacts with the locals. After Polynesia, it took us a bit of time to adjust to their mentalities.
The attachment of the locals to their land is a serious problem in the Solomons. Land is not registered and anyone who can prove his ancestors lived on a parcel can try to claim the land. The number of land disputes is amazing, making any business development difficult for locals as much as expats. We find surreal situations such as in Marau Sounds (Guadalcanal) where we discover a stunning resort (Tavanipupu island) which has not seen client for 1 year : the airport has been closed as a result of a dispute over a small parcel at the end of the runaway ! Land is power and the only source of income. It leads unfortunately to a very unsustainable exploitation of natural resources (marine life, logging, mining) as you may get the money quickly before someone claims it. Marovo lagoon has been devastated by the Malaysian logging companies which are now concentrating their effort on Isabella Island. Taiwanese are organising the looting of Sharks (Finning), Beche de Mer and Clam shells until extinction. Having said that we have not done much better in our countries and have no lesson to give; at the best, a few advices.
Unlike Ni-Vatus and PNG inhabitants, the Solomon people have lost large parts of their traditional customs and traditions. Missionaries have been extremely active in the archipelago. Since the intervention of the RAMSIs (Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands) triggered by civil troubles in Guadalcanal, the country is now at rest. The problem between the Malaitans and inhabitants of Guadalcanal is pending. Malaita is overpopulated and its inhabitants have been migrating in all the Solomon Islands. Among their best achievement, Honiara, the capital and the only economic centre of the country is run by Malaitans but located on Guadalcanal soil. Unfortunately this situation creates a general distrust towards the Malaitan people which is reinforced by the absence of nationalistic unity (a legacy of the colonial era).
With the end of the cyclone season, it is time to pursue our journey but we will be back to Solomon Islands to visit our friends and explore Isabela and Choiseul.
Maewo and Santo Islands
Our next anchorage is Asanvari in Maewo Islands. This is the furthest point south of the islands and a very pretty place. It offers about everything one could dream of: bread delivery in the morning (when they have flour!), a pretty beach where the boys spend hours swimming with their new friends, four villages with extremely friendly people and a nice reef for snorkeling. We are very luckly about the timing as there are various festivities organised in the neighbouring villages and we are very welcomed by the inhabitants and the local chiefs Nelson and Luke We are invited by the baker, is a gathering in the nakamal where ladies sell their food for raise funds for school fees (we will find similar events in various places). We enjoy various laplaps with fish, beef or coconut, some Taro with coconut cream, rice with chicken. It is overall very nice food.
The interesting thing is the nakamal is the place for meeting but also drinking the famous kava and is typically accessible to men. I enter the ladies entrance with the kids and stay on their side but cannot join Mathieu and Marc who are invited to share a few shells of kava. The young pirates are not too inclined to respect the "kastom" but since they are boys this is not big deal!! We are also welcomed at the school funding party (the building seriously need some work) which last two days, with volley ball matches, food, music, string bands and this is the opportunity to meet the whole village and somehow contribute to the operation. We also make some arrangements to get some fruits, vegetables, a chicken and two backpacks in pandanus which look very trendy to the locals. We unfortunately only stay in Asanvari for 8 days but we need to pursue our route towards the north.
As we arrive in Luganville the second town of Vanuatu we are very thrilled our old neighbour from Gulf Harbour, Silvertip. The town of Luganville does not offer much and we stay there mostly get some food, gasoline. The market is great and small lunch booths next to the market offer good and cheap food. We eventually find a mooring opposite Aore resort which has a very good restaurant (where we will treat ourselves to fresh prawns and spicy crabs) and a swimming pool which will the joy of the monsters during our stay. Nicolas as ever keeps entertaining us but the highlight is his new idea of putting a small hermit crab in his bathing suit which of course pinches the dearest part of his anatomy in public. We had to undress him in front of a crowd to remove the intruder. We were obviously all laughing and Nicolas kept hiding as he felt very ashamed. Although Mathieu dived on the famous "Coolidge" wreck, we decide to pass as we have not checked our diving equipment recently and we want to avoid a deep dive which is not recommended with malaria pills.
We also eventually listen to the news (first time in three months) and are shocked by the extend of the financial crisis. We most likely would have jobs anymore.
As we leave for the Banks, we finally catch a decent eatable fish, a 85 kilos blue marlin (2.30 meters) which Marc and Mathieu manage to bring onboard after a two hour fight. The freezer is finally full and now the cook has to find numerous ways to prepare the beast, ginger fishfingers, green curry, marlin steaks, marlin salad, marlin sandwich. Our marlin steaks will become a great way to bargain for fruits and vegetables.
Due to lack of wind, we stop on our way in Hog Harbour (next to Champagne Beach which is the beach of the Vanuatu but which we find rather disappointing) and in Port Olry which was totally destroyed with a cyclone in 1998. The people are delightful, We meet the Antonin which promise some real Parisian baguette for the next day! We even get invited to a wedding but have to leave the very same day to move on.
The Banks and Torres Islands
We arrive in Vanua Lava in Waterfall bay where we are greeted by chief Kelleny and his family who is happy to share with us lots of details and information about their traditions and customs. We of course go for a long swim in the double waterfall and the older girls very kindly look after the boys, hence giving us some space to enjoy the scenery. The surroundings are beautiful with red cliffs and caves falling in the sea. The water is very clear, the coral is somewhat disappointing. We are visited by a number of canoes almost queuing to visit the boat and we start to feel how remote some of these places are. Villagers go to Sola once a week and it takes a full day walk through the mountain to reach the main town of the island. Anything they wish to bring back (such as rice) they need to carry on their back. The arrival of Chasse Spleen is an opportunity of the islanders to get some clothes, hooks. It is also a lot of fun to try to find what they might need and a good way to have some contacts with the locals.
We also have dinner in the so called yacht club and can finally try the fresh water prawns which a famous delicacy in most of the Vanuatu. Marc and Mathieu go crayfish fishing at night with locals and come back with a good size crayfish and crab for dinner. This is always a nice treat.
We agree with Chief Kenelly for Marc to spend a day in his company to go to the garden and visit the villages, but unfortunately the weather turns and the anchorage becomes unsecured for us to stay much longer.
We head for Ureparapara under torrential rain and with little wind. Ureparapara is a special place, one anchors in the middle of an old crater. The trouble as we arrive is that we see absolutely nothing, we can barely distinguish the coastline not to mention any reef. We are greeted by three canoes who come all the way under the rain to meet us and indicate where to drop the anchor. We have not choice but trust them. As we awake the next morning, Marc jumps in the water to check the anchor, the stern of Chasse Spleen is about 2 meters away for the reef. We better re-anchor fast.
Lorup is a very pretty village but at that time is pretty hectic as it is welcoming the Anglican Church meeting regrouping representatives from all the Banks and Torres islands. The bishop even comes from the Solomon Islands. This occurs every two years and means that about 100 guests are staying in the village for two weeks. We can hear the celebration and singing from the boat. As ever as we arrive the boys are straight welcomed by hords of children and we can wander at peace in the village. We meet Nicholson and Evelyn with whom we will be lucky to spend a bit of time. The ordination of the new priest coming from Ureparara concludes the festivities with all the celebrations that come along, dancing, singing, speeches.
We leave in good weather for the Reefs Islands which remind us somewhat of French Polynesia as we anchor outside the lagoon, behind the reef with all shades of blue in front of us. We also enjoy taking the dinghy to race with rays (manta, eagle and stingrays) in the shallow lagoon. Alexis has his first encounter with a manta ray underwater and I can see a radiant face under his mask. We try to adapt our routine to the weather, exploring in the morning and school in the afternoon as it usually started to rain. Marc took the smart decision to implement a rainwater collection system . This has changed our perception of the rain, it is not such a bad thing after all.
The next step of our journey is Sola, the administrative " town" for the region Torba (Tores.Banks) where Mathieu leaves us, heading back slowly to find another boat in Port Vila heading south to New Zealand. Marc finalises our clearing out of the country and off we go to the Solomon Islands with a stop in the Torres Islands.
Hayther Bay is a stunning place, well protected anchorage in Tegua island. We are the only boat and the first village is a 3 hour walk. There are some pretty settlements on the beach but no one staying there. The only Ni-Vatus we will see is a taxi boat taking the local doctor from Loh Island to Hui Islands and stopping on the way to try to repair their engine. They will very kindly bring us back some fresh goodies the next day as they return back home. The beach facing us is easily accessible with the dinghy and water is very warm, 29 degrees. The boys love it and so do we. A fresh coconut water drink as one sits in the water what else do we need. The snorkeling in the area is interesting but the spear fishing even more so. Marc resume his spear fishing campaign as there is little ciguatera in the region and brings us back some trevalis (carangues) for dinner. He also intends to bring back a nice tuna which he spears but the grey reef shark nearby is faster to grab the fish than him and decides that there is no way this fish will reach the dinghy. Marc can only watch the show and hope to recover his spear gun when the snack is over.
It is time to move up north of the 10 degrees south in safer ground for the beginning of the cyclone season. We reach the Solomon Islands in the Santa Cruz archipelago in the island of Nende on November 4th.
Tana is one of the islands with the more traditions (kastoms) . Unfortunately we will miss one of the big event of the year, ie the initiation of boys to adult life. Young men are secluded for weeks during which circumcision take place, Once their wound have healed this is the occasion of a huge feast.
We cannot leave Tana without a night visit to the Mt Yasur at the edge of the crater. It is unbelievable to see these huge blocks for red hot magma shooting high overhead. A pretty scary and exciting sight! We are also overjoyed to meet our Swiss friend Pascal and Maude at the anchorage who we last saw in Papeete in October 2007!
We leave Tana for Port Vila stopping overnight at Erromango (Dillon's bay) where we are welcomed by villagers to visit their gardens along the river.
Efate and Epi Islands
Port Vila, the capital is a nice place, not very pretty but yet again the locals are very welcoming. There is a great atmosphere in the market place where one can enjoy very good meals. It is not worth the trouble to prepare dinner onboard! The supermarkets provide anything one needs, including some nice baguette.
Shona and Chris leave us in Port Vila to head back to the UK, we have the opportunity to celebrate Alexis' 7th birthday before their departure. Once the shopping finalised, we head for North Efate in Havanah Harbour..
We have the regular visit of villagers coming back from their gardens heading for Moso island, offering us some vegetables and fruits, including beautiful tomatoes at a reasonable price (unlike the public market). We spot some houses in the mangrove but although a few hours from Port Vila, this place looks already fairly isolated.
On our way to Epi (Lamen Bay) we are fortunate to spot a humpback whale. We change slightly our route and find it swimming 15 meters in front of Chasse Spleen. Nicolas still manages to mistake it for a coconut tree, but the adults onboard are overjoyed. Our fishing though on the way is still non existent but for a barracuda that we need to throw back in the water to avoid any risk of ciguatera. Marc also fights for 40 minutes with a tuna but the beast wins the fight and manages to get free.
Lamen Bay is a very welcoming anchorage, a few villages around the bay, some beautiful beaches with pristine coral gardens within a short distance by dinghy and very nice inhabitants that we will have the pleasure to invite onboard at a later stage. The bay is also renowned for its dugong and giant sea turtles (as Alexis calls them while seeing one with his mask) which we manage to approach and watch on numerous occasions.
The small yacht club onshore provides us some very nice dinners and we join the feast as they kill the pig and cook it in their special oven dug dip under ground oven.
I join the local Presbyterian Church service on a Sunday and singing from the attendees is worth the visit. They sing with all their heart in English although the ceremony is in Bislama. Nicolas spends his time climbing on the trees outside the church entertaining as usual everyone. The Vicar and his wife will become good acquaintances during our stay, and we will be thrilled to welcome them onboard Chasse Spleen. Bennington will show how to cook her famous banana pie! They boys are welcomed by all the kids seeking any opportunity to play with them on the beach, in the water and running around the village. They are having a hell of a time.
Marc spots some sumptuous coral heads on the way to small isolated beaches, which one accesses through rocks and the boys are overjoyed as they feel like explorers in this new "treasure island". It is also the perfect opportunity to initiate them to snorkeling which will prove a big success. They have no fear at all.
We love to take the dinghy and explore new villages from the sea; we are welcomed in Malvesi (Rovo Bay) by the entire village on the beach. They had spotted us a long time before our arrival and clearly this was the event of the day. Chief Tom welcomes us formely as we lend and we spend a delightful day visiting the village, meeting all the kids and of course for Marc drinking the famous kava invited by the Chief, so no escape!
We need to pursue our journey, but Lamen Bay was a great place.
Ambrym and Pentecost Islands
We leave Epi in direction of Ambrym, reknown for its volcano which is taboo at this time of the year. Visiting the volcano could substantially affect the yam harvest. The north west of the island is mostly dark sands or lava rocks and the black sand at the anchorage is not very appealing. During his dinghy exploration, Marc discovers a nice village where we return as a family in the afternoon, We are welcomed by the kids taking the boys and Mummy in their canoes onshore so they do not get wet! We walk through a village the ground almost feels like ashes. We are unfortunately greeted by a major rainfall and find shelter in a kitchen of a charming couple. As most houses are built in wood and palm trees, they often built a separate house of cooking/eating in case of fire. As ever the locals are charming and offering anything they have. We leave with 3 monster papayas, a cucumber and 4 salads!
Our next step is Pentecost Island. We spot big groups of pilot whales between the two islands.. We decide to avoid the famous anchorages in South Pentecost, Lomo Bay and Londay Bay renowned for the famous naghol, land diving towers where men and boys jump for up to 35 meters towers with liana vines tight to their ankles providing them to collapse on the ground. This is the ancestor of the bungee jumping. The only thing is that the hair has to touch the ground to fertilise the yam crop. The jumps occur in April/May and unfortunately this tradition seems to have developed in a tourist trap as well. The anchorages have got back reputation.
We choose instead to head for Waterfall Bay where we are greeted by our Swiss/ Canadian friends yet, again the perfect opportunity to share a very good bottle of wine, Thank you Pascal.
There is a big copra plantation behind the beach as well as a pretty waterfall easily accessible for the boys. It is always a treat to swim in fresh (not salty) water. The villagers are charming and a young lady falls in love with Alexis and gives him a pretty bag (made with pandanus leaves to Alexis). Luckily we have some chocolate biscuits to We wake up in the morning discovering a herd of cows finding shade under the trees of the beach, this is quite an unusual sight!