Skirting the outer fringes of the Solomons
03 October 2018 | Choiseul, Solomon Islands
Leaving Ontong Java proved to be more of a challenge than actually making it there. Our weather information indicated that the wind was again going to move around the compass and spend time in the South West, which of course is the direction we wanted to go - so wait we must. And weather from the South West seemed generally to be particularly unpleasant. We threaded our way through this huge reef strewn lagoon to find an anchorage that had at least some protection. As expected the wind changed and the weather deteriorated and we were glad we were where we were but it still meant we were often up during the night checking on things - howling wind and driving rain in the pitch black often struggling to see which way were were facing - the joys of sailing. On occasion we did notice something odd - often when the wind was not strong the rainstorms would remain stationary just outside the lagoon and not progress towards us, which is what we would have expected. Very odd. All we could think of what that the warm waters of the large lagoon were actually affecting the local weather, the warm air rising and blocking the prevailing rain-containing winds. And we have some amazing photos which we'll post when we can. I should say that for the first time in four months while waiting for the weather to change we had our first beach walk, Frances returning with an an armful of shells claiming they were for her grand-daughter Isabella.
Finally the wind went to the Nor-nor-west and we headed off in the driving rain, though a nearby pass that we'd already surveyed in the dingy. Under leaden skies the wind dropped again and we were forced to motor for a few hours but slowly it came back and we eventually had an excellent sail back to Santa Isabel, which lay 140 miles (280kms) away. The north western end of Santa Isabel is extensively fragmented, creating hundreds of islands and islets, myriad reefs and narrow passages with strong currents. Combined with poor charts, poor quality satellite photos , no sun and often cloudy water this meant extreme care was needed to navigate. Our next destination was Kia, a village with a population of over 1,000 people many of whom live in leaf houses built on stilts over the water, the steepness of the surrounding land restricting building to a fringe around the shoreline. The extensive reefs with poor light, deep water and strong currents again tested our concentration levels but eventually we 'dropped the pick' in 24 metres of water out of the raging current. After a brief rest we went to shore and located the health clinic which we knew was near this end of this long village and we spoke to the head nurse Roslyn, apologised for the lack of notice, explained our program and arranged a two day clinic. She assured us that the message would be passed around the community starting that evening at church service. Having the second day is always good as it gives more time for word to filter out to the outlying villages and gives people living there a chance to come and see us. The following day the weather deteriorated yet again and yet again from the South West with winds well over 30 knots blowing along the channel which created unpleasant but not dangerous conditions for our dingy. Monkey Fist held nicely in the thick clay bottom over 70 metres of chain.
With the help of Roslyn and the other two nurses Evelyn and Corina we had a steady stream of people leaving the clinic with big smiles on their faces. What made it even better was that, through a religious connection in Australia, a rich, philanthropic Christian family had built a library in the village. I doubt in all the Solomons there was anything like it, humble by western opulence but none-the-less functional and with a reasonable supply of second-hand books and, boy, were the people proud of it. So now, equipped with their new glasses and their new library they were in 7th heaven. When we visited the library late on the second day, one end was being used for a three day literacy workshop - fantastic to see. During the clinic we provided training to all three nurses and left the clinic with a range of reading spectacles for people who didn't make it to the clinic.
Roslyn's English was excellent, even though it is her THIRD language!! and she had spent time training in Australia, some of it in aged care facilities, she said she never knew there were such places existed. She told us that she had been shocked and very sad to see old people living like that, many never having any visitors at all while she was there. She said "our parents looked after us when we were young and now when they are old it's our turn to look after them". What a pity we don't feel the same in the developed world.
We've always enjoyed helping people and we now realise that we love 'blowing people out' as we say in Australia and for us our project is right on the money. On the way down the seven mile channel heading back out out to sea we spotted a canoe with two occupants who were in their late 50's , skirting the mangrove-lined shore. We hailed them over, had a brief chat and they were on board having their vision screened while we drifted backwards with the current. Gilchrist ended up with both reading and distance glasses and Gwen also needed distance glasses. Then we topped it off by giving them both a pair of polarized fitover sunglasses. They had been out for four days in the bush gathering sago palm to make a new roof for their leaf house but the weather had been very poor and were on their way back to Kia. When we waved them goodbye their smiles said it all.
Another seam had come undone on the genoa and we diverted to an anchorage behind Ghaghe Island which required entry through a narrow, raging pass but luckily we had cut our teeth on many such passes in French Polynesia and we transited it without any complications into a tranquil (but deep) rainforest lined bay for an afternoon of sail stitching. We managed to squeeze in a visit to the small village (Ritamala) outside the pass later in the day to fit spectacles and sunglasses. This area has been infiltrated by SDA's (Seventh Day Adventists) which is neither here nor there to us but one of the quirks of this faith relates to not eating "unclean food" and that the people can only eat animals that have 'feather, fur or fins' so things like shellfish, crabs and crayfish are off the menu and considering food is not that easy to come by, it seems like an unnecessary burden when living a subsistence life.
The wind by now was slowly but surely failing and our next leg was more or less the last sailing we did for a few days. The area between Santa Isabel and Choiseul is sparsely populated and is also a haven for wildlife and vegetation encompassing an extensive protected area. We even saw a magnificent Solomons Eagle, which we didn't even know existed! If we weren't otherwise occupied we would spend some time exploring this area, mind you the anchorages are marginal.
We needed to do some maintenance on Monkey Fist so we thought we'd kill two birds with one stone. On satellite photos, we had identified a sheltered inlet offshooting from a channel behind Poro Island on Choiseul (Island) that fitted in nicely with a day's progress North. It was reminiscent of Raja Ampat in Indonesia, with upraised coral islands, mushroom islands, pristine rainforest, huge rowdy Hornbills as well as seawater stained blue from the leached limestone. We later learnt that this inlet was called "Bay of 1,000 Voices", stunningly beautiful, pristine and the silence (minus the birds calling) recharged our batteries. At night we found the steep sides of the inlet's rainforest was full of fireflies. Late the following morning we had just finished most of our maintenance work in time for our first visitors. The passage outside the inlet has some passing traffic from villagers and a guy we had met earlier at Ritamala, Reeves, was actually a ranger in the conservation area between Choiseul and Santa Isabel. So he knew about our project and he knew where we were headed and it turns out his home village was not too far from where we were anchored so he came looking for us with a boatload of people who needed glasses. Between that afternoon and the following morning we had eight OBM's and five canoes visit us for glasses, over 60 pairs all together (plus sunglasses). We told people to pass the message and that anybody was welcome and we apologised for not having the time visit their villages. The following morning I awoke just after six to see a husband, wife and child quietly fishing not far away from Monkey Fist. They had heard about our program and did not want to miss out, so they had camped out overnight and as they were only paddling, and had left their campsite before it was light. We invited them on board (at about 6.30am), tested their vision and they both ended up with spectacles as well as a pair of sunglasses each. I have little doubt that such an experience for them would be surreal, and also in a particularly nice way. We certainly enjoyed it.
After another couple of visits from boats we managed to pull the anchor just after 8am and continued on our way north west to the Shortland Islands.
For the record, we've fitted and supplied over 6,500 pairs of glasses now.