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Honiara, capital of Solomon Islands is a rumbustious Pacific city of 130,000 people. We docked early in the morning. By 0830 we had begun our tour of the Guadalcanal battlefield from World War II, which included Bloody Ridge, a major battle site, Henderson airfield, on the site of one of the wartime airstrips, the nearby Peace Park, the American war memorial up on Skyline Ridge and the Japanese Memorial at Mt Austin. The guests returned to the ship for lunch, and then set out again on Xplorer to visit the National Museum and an artefact market.
For those who stayed on board Guest Lecturer Clive Moore provided a lecture on Honiara and what are called ‘The Tension and RAMSI years, 1998-2003 and 2003-2017’. He explained that it is a ‘Village City’, where informal settlements and squatter areas were equal in size to formal suburbs. Originally the land of the Tandai people, in the 1880’s it became coconut plantations and then in 1942 a major battlefield between the Japanese and the Americans. It was the major turning point of World War II in the Pacific and the furthest area of the Japanese advance south. Then it became Camp Guadal, the second largest American base in the western Pacific Islands, with five airfields. In 1945, as Tulagi, the original capital, had been destroyed, the British chose not to rebuild and shifted their administration to what became called Honiara. Between 1953 and 1976 it was also the headquarters of the Western Pacific High Commission, the main British administration for their Pacific territories. In 1978, it became the capital of the newly independent Solomon Islands nation.
At pre-dinner drinks we were entertained and educated in the use of Pidgin English by Clive and Kerri, one of the guests. Dinner was a wonderful seafood buffet, including Moreton Bay Bugs, oysters, prawns and fish.
After breakfast and on our way to Tulagi, Clive gave a lecture on Tulagi, the capital of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate between 1897 and 1942. The British withdrawal from the island during the Pacific War, its capture by the Japanese and the American reconquest left the island’s facilities damaged beyond repair. After the war, Britain moved the capital to the American military base on Guadalcanal, which became Honiara.
The Tulagi settlement was an enclave of several small islands, the permanent population of which was never more than 600: 300 foreigners—one-third of European origin and most of the remainder Chinese—and an equivalent number of Solomon Islanders. Thousands of Solomon Islander males also passed through as hospital patients, prisoners or on their way to work on plantations and as boat crew. Tulagi was also a significant outpost of the British Empire in the Pacific, always controlled by the Western Pacific High Commission in Levuka and Suva, Fiji. The Tulagi enclave was bombed in 1942 first by the Japanese and then by the Americans who recaptured the area. After the war the British administration shifted to Honiara and Tulagi declined. Only a fish cannery remained and the remnants of the small town. Part of our landing ‘kit’ was a map of the old town which we were able to use to locate the sites of some of the buildings.
As soon as we arrived at Tulagi there was a traditional greeting with male warriors and female dancers at the motel, then we split into three groups with local guides to walk around historic Tulagi sites, from Chinatown to The Cut (through the ridge) and around to the jail and the site of the old Tulagi Club and the new market. With the maps we were able to imagine what had once been the capital of the Protectorate. Afterward lunch onboard the ship we set off on Xplorer to go down Mboli Passage exploring two wartime wrecks and travelling right through to Siota, the original 1870s Anglican settlement at the far end. It was a remarkable trip down the mangrove-encased shores. After a quick trip back to the ship, some of us chose to go snorkelling. It was a totally memorable day.
Malaita is the most populous island of the Solomons and was involved in the ‘Tension’ years dispute between 1998 and 2003. It is a long thin mountainous island, actually two islands as it is split by Maramasike Passage in the south. On the way over to Alite Island on Xplorer Clive described the two sorts of people living on Malaita as ‘bush’ people, and ‘saltwater’ people around the coast and living on islands in the three lagoons. Extensive shallow lagoons bound by outer reefs stretch along the northeast (Lau Lagoon), central west (Langalanga Lagoon) and southwest coasts (`Are`are Lagoon) and, with the Maramasike Passage, provide a sheltered haven from sometimes harsh seas. The lagoons and the mangroves swarm with fish. Some lagoons are lake-like in appearance, while others are long narrow fringing strips, with openings through reefs to the open sea and bare patches at low tide. Malaitans have constructed artificial islands on sand banks in the lagoons, made from coral rock laboriously collected on rafts. These artificial islands date back to at least 400 years ago.
Langa Langa Lagoon is famous for its artificial islands and the manufacture of shell valuables (money) which is used throughout Solomon Islands as a traditional currency. Up until the 1960s, the custom priests used to call sharks to them and feed them by hand. We were greeted by pan pipers and dancers, witnessed making shell wealth, the way to make fire, divination and the curing of disease, and a bride compensation ceremony. Some of us wandered around the village, to the Catholic Church, the old well and the burial area on the oldest part of the island. It was an educational and thoroughly enjoyable morning. We returned to the ship for lunch after which some of us went to the southern end of Langa Langa Lagoon in the Xplorer, down as far as Buma and Bina Harbour. Others stayed on board and watched the musical South Pacific. In the late afternoon we enjoyed a talk from Guest Lecturer Mike Sugden on ‘Bottom Feeders, Part 2’, a look at the colourful marine creatures inhabiting the reefs we have been exploring. As usual, drinks were on the Bridge-Deck and an enjoyable dinner was had by all.
Marau Sound is a coastal area woven with small islands on the south coast of Guadalcanal. The Marau area is extremely beautiful, the only area of Guadalcanal with islands. It was colonised by Malaitans from the Are`are area in the south over 400 years ago. Oscar Svensen (Captain Marau) from Sweden arrived in the Solomons in the 1880s and by 1896 had established a large and profitable trading station at Marau, which had interests throughout the Solomons, even in Manning Strait which the ship visited early in the trip. He made his money from pearling and coconut plantations and was in charge of the Solomon side of the deportation of Solomon Islanders from Queensland in the 1900s. At this time, he had control of about half the export trade in the Solomons. His base was on Tavanipupu, now a small exclusive tourist resort that has existed for several decades but was made famous when Prince William and his wife Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, stayed there briefly in 2012.
After breakfast we went ashore to Niu Island. Nearby Marapa Island now has a community of about 100 people but southern Malaitans know it as the island of the dead where their spirits went. It was brought into use as a village after the Tension (about 2001) when Malaitans escaped from Honiara and Guadalcanal Plains. We received a welcome and were greeted by panpipers and dances. Next came a village tour and a return to the ship. After lunch we were able to snorkel and dive at a sand cay and then returned to the ship to afternoon tea and a lecture by Clive, Mala – Malaita Island and its people. Pre-dinner drinks at the Bridge-Deck bar were followed by dinner and a documentary.
Our next port of call was Nafinua Island in Star Harbour at the southern end of San Cristobal. San Cristobal given its name by Mendana in 1568, is now usually called Makira. Star Harbour is down at the southern end of Makira and is a subprovincial headquarters for Makira-Ulawa Province. The area is renown for wood carving. Offshore of Star Harbour are two small islands, each with an extensive and colourful reef. Santa Ana and Santa Catalina islands are to the south of Makira. After breakfast, Xplorer took us to Nafinau Island, where the local community were waiting on the sandy beach. There was a welcome performance followed by water activities at the reef area.
After lunch onboard the ship, Captain Gary Wilson repeated his lecture on the naval side of the Second World War around Guadalcanal and Savo Islands, and in the later afternoon Mike presented his lecture on ‘Humans in the realm of Fishes’.
Today was our last Solomon Islands destination. Ndendo on Santa Cruz Island is the main island in Temotu Province. Its people are a mixture of Melanesians and Polynesians. The Santa Cruz Group was named by Mendana in 1568. The Santa Cruz Group is isolated from the Solomon Islands Archipelago to the north, which is the water gap that archaeologists say separates ‘Near Oceania’ and ‘Remote Oceania’. Remote Oceania includes the southern most parts of Melanesia and Polynesia. The number of plant and animal species is reduced in ‘Remote Oceania’ and the time-depth of human habitation is much less, no more than 3,000 years. Santa Cruz is famous for its ‘red feather’ money and for its long-distance voyaging canoes.
After a long trip over open sea for an afternoon and night, we arrived at the Santa Cruz Group in the early morning. Our destination was Luowa Village on Ndendo Island. After breakfast Clive presented a lecture in ‘The Southern Solomons: Makira (San Cristobal) and Ndendo (Santa Cruz)’. We went onshore and were met by a cultural welcome with a bamboo band and dancers. There were plenty of artefacts for sale, such as Tapa (bark) cloth and carvings. We were also met by the Premier of Temotu Province, his Permanent Secretary and the Minister for Tourism. After lunch back on the ship we ventured forth again, this time to dive and snorkel and swim off the Xplorer. Temotu Province and Ndendo lived up to their reputation as friendly and extremely interesting. Some of us went on a tour of the engine room with Chief Engineer Ray.
During the night the breeze had picked up. By morning we were bashing into a solid south easterly wind, slowing our progress down considerably. At 0945 Mike gave a presentation on “the warm blooded wanderers of the ocean”. After morning tea we learnt that our progress had been slowed so much that we were unlikely to reach Ureparapara much before night fall. During the afternoon we had another of Captain Gary on war time history.
Finally a little after 1700 we sailed into the spectacular crater of Ureparapara Island. The Xplorer was quickly away to pick up the officials who would be joining us for our trip through Vanuatu. Our agent also came aboard to help with the coming exploration. We then turned and sailed out of the ancient volcanic crater, home to the people of the village of Lesereplag and headed south towards Espiritu Santo and our next destination at Luganville.
During the night we had a smoother voyage with a slight change in course as we headed towards Luganville. By the start of breakfast we had dropped anchor at the end of a small island off Luganville. The wind was still strong but the waves were less imposing. The scuba divers took off early for a dive on the war time wreck of The President Coolage. The rest of the explorers had a more leisurely breakfast before heading ashore for our exploration of Espiritu Santo. Some were taken inland for a swim at one of the island’s blue holes, while the remaining guests travelled into Luganville to explore the town. All were back on board by 1200 for a well deserved lunch.
During lunch we steamed north to try and get out of the wind at the northern end of the island off a beach called Champagne Beach. Once anchored we had an opportunity to go ashore onto this beautiful beach. Some had a swim, some enjoyed a snorkel dive, while the remainder just enjoyed the beach. Finally we returned to ship for a delicious BBQ prepared by our chefs. Coral Discoverer was now steaming south towards Malekula.
Coral Discoverer arrived at Malekula before breakfast. We could see the white sandy beaches and the vegetation covered hills around South West Bay. At 0830 we headed into Fire Beach where we were made very welcome by the local villagers. The children and women put on a sing-sing as we stepped ashore. Fresh coconuts were provided before we headed across to the ceremonial area under a majestic banyan tree. Male dancers provided colourful performances in the ceremonial area. Displays of fire making and sand drawing were also given before we returned to the beach to view a group of ladies performing water music and dance.
At 1030, after returning to ship, we had the opportunity to participate in in-water activities, snorkel or scuba diving. Although recent cyclones, crown of thorns outbreak and earth quakes had decimated the coral cover, there were still plenty of fish to see and all enjoyed exploring the reef. We returned to ship for a well earned lunch. We departed from Malekula Island soon after for our long steam down to Tanna Island in the south.
After lunch we had the opportunity to do a tour of the bridge with Rob. Later in the afternoon Clive gave a presentation on “Vanuatu- Divided by Colonialism – United by Kastom”.
The breeze stayed with us over night as we approached Tanna Island. Everyone was hopeful that we would be able to make a landing and visit the volcano. After breakfast Captain Gary gave a presentation on some of the planned cruises for Coral Expeditions, including the 2020 Circumnavigation of Australia. He also spoke of the launching of the new ship Coral Geographer early in 2021 and the planned expeditions into the Indian Ocean. We finally cruised into Port Resolution and found that there was enough shelter from the weather to make a safe landing.
Soon after an early lunch we were ashore and being welcomed by the local villagers with Custom Dances. We then loaded a fleet of vehicles for our trip up to Mt Yasur to view the volcano. After a bumpy ride through the luxuriant vegetation we arrived at the black ash covered slopes of the rumbling volcano. From various sites around the rim of the volcano we could see the red hot lava chambers and the steady belching of the glowing lava from the mouth of the volcano. strong smells of sulphur could be smelt as the wind eddied around us and pushed the smoke from the eruptions into our faces.
Next we travelled back down to one of the villages in Port Resolution to visit a local school. After their lovely welcome with songs the Captain made a presentation to the school of needed classroom materials. We then travelled a short distance to the Cultural Centre where we were guided around the village experiencing a range of cultural activities. Finally we returned to ship for well deserved pre-dinner drinks. Clive gave a recap of our day’s activities before Steve outlined our final day of exploration.
Breakfast was enjoyed as we approached Nguna Island. We were in sheltered waters, but the skies looked quite ominous. Sure enough the rain began to fall quite heavily before we headed ashore to begin our exploration of the island. We were the first cruise ship to visit this island with its lovely sandy beaches. Despite the rain, we were given a very warm welcome by the local villagers, with a lovely sing-sing. After the welcome speeches, one group left with guides to explore Mt Marao, a two and a half hour walk, while the remainder were taken on a very informative tour of the local village. We were shown the village meeting place, the church, the local school (with a special welcome song sung by all the students in the rain) and two types of kitchen preparing the midday meal. We were made to feel very welcome, wherever we went in the village. Finally we returned for a well earned lunch. The walkers from Mt Marao were late back because the track became too wet for their transport. This necessitated an extra forty minutes walking for the expeditioners.
Eventually all had a bit of lunch before heading out to explore the coral reef which had become a marine protected area looked after by the locals. The snorkelers were rewarded with some excellent coral gardens and a great diversity of marine life associated with the reef. A very rewarding final dive for the trip was a great way to finish our in water explorations. Later in the afternoon we had a photo recap of the trip before Captain Nathan’s Farewell Drinks. Our final dinner aboard ship was a delicious roast prepared by our excellent chefs.
On behalf of Clive and myself (Mike) I would like to thank you all for making our trip such a stimulating one, with your interest and involvement in our activities. I wish you continued happiness and rewarding adventures in your future journeys.