Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands

Honiara, Solomon Islands

November 26th - 29th, 2019

My final trip from my temporary base in Sydney brought me to my 88th country. The Solomon Islands are an independent country, located about 1,700 km northeast of Australia. It lies between Papua New Guinea to the west and Vanuatu to the southeast. The country is made up of 6 major islands and about 900 smaller ones, most of which are uninhabited. The population of 650,000 is largely ethnically Melanesian. The whole archipelago was a British Protectorate until 1978, when the country achieved full independence, and English is still the official language.

I flew via Brisbane, since there are no direct flights from Sydney. The flight from Brisbane to the capital Honiara, located on the island of Guadalcanal, took just under 3 hours. There was a bit of a line at immigration, but it moved reasonably fast, and I was through in less than 20 minutes. Schengen area passport holders do not need a visa for the Solomon Islands, while US and UK citizens can get a visa on arrival. There were several taxis waiting outside the airport. The airport is only 13 km away from the center of town, but traffic was very slow moving and the drive took almost an hour. Fortunately I had a very entertaining taxi ride. My taxi driver got very excited, when he heard that I was German, since he was a huge fan of both the German football team and Bayern Munich. "I am known here by everyone as Klinsmann - the black Klinsmann", he told me. He gave me his business card, which indeed showed his middle name as 'Klinsmann'. So we spent the whole drive discussing German football.

When you read about traveling to the Solomon Island, you will inevitably read a lot about how dangerous it is. Although most reports always stress that it is not nearly as dangerous as Papua New Guinea, but apparently significantly more so than other Pacific Islands. When I asked Klinsmann about this, he laughed and said, "Oh no, people are all very nice here. They are all Christians." I went on a walk along the main street through town in the afternoon, and certainly did not feel in danger in any way. Although I did not see any other tourists walking around, no one bothered or harassed me. I was pretty much ignored. I did not carry my phone in my hand, and I left my camera in the hotel, since pick-pocketing does happen here. But as long as you are a little bit careful, it seemed perfectly safe walking around the city.

One thing you notice immediately on the streets are all the people chewing betel nuts. It turns their mouths and teeth bright red, and they keep spitting out the red juices on the street everywhere. Chewing betel nuts is a mild stimulant, which apparently causes a warming sensation in the body. Apart from the fact that is looks quite disgusting, it unfortunately also has a lot of harmful health effects, including causing a number of different cancers.

I stayed at the very nice Solomon Kitana Mendana Hotel, which is one of higher end hotels located by the shore and right near the center of the city. Since I hadn't been able to find any tours or guides online in advance, I asked at the hotel reception if they could organize a day tour to Savo island for me. And after a few phone calls, they told me someone called Bernard would pick me up the next morning from the hotel. The drive west along the shore took about an hour, not because it was very far, but because of the abysmal state of the road. It was riddled with huge potholes, which we had to navigate very slowly. We stopped by a nice beach and got onto a small boat that would take us across the channel to Savo island.

I knew that there was a small chance that we could see some dolphins near the island, but I was in no way prepared for what happened next. About 15 minutes into the crossing, we saw a huge pod of dolphins racing towards us. They were all swimming very fast and jumping high out of the water. It was pod of well over a hundred animals, which were probably hunting a huge shoal of fish together. It was just one of the most unbelievable spectacles.

We tried to follow them in the boat for a while, and at some stage we were completely surrounded by them. Some of them came close enough to the boat that we could have touched them. They were difficult to photograph, and I ended up with a lot of pictures of ocean, where a dolphin had jumped out half a second before I pressed the trigger. But if you take enough pictures, you eventually get lucky and time one just right:

Savo island is a densely forested volcanic island. There are about 4,000 people living on the island, but there are no cars or roads, and electricity is only available from diesel generators.

After a short ride in the boat to the other side of the island we started hiking up a dried out riverbed that took us into a narrow and densely forested gorge. The higher we climbed the hotter the water in the little brook became. At some stage I stepped into the water with my shoes and burned my toes a bit. The water was painfully hot by then. It was like hiking in a steam room.

On the top of the hike we came to the spring where boiling water was gushing out of the ground. My guide told me that on weekends the locals sometimes come up here and cook food in the boiling spring.

Back at the lodge they had prepared a very nice lunch of tuna with rice and taro for me. I was taken back to shore by boat, and Bernard drove me back to the hotel. We spent the drive talking about his plans to build out the lodge into an eco-resort. I think Savo island would have enormous potential to become a very unique holiday destination and I hope Bernard's plans all come to fruition.

On my second day in Honiara, I asked the hotel concierge if they could organize a taxi driver to show me around Honiara and drive me to the WWII battle ground sites. They said they had just the guy, and called Bobby, who was great. I spent 5 hours with him and learned a lot about life in the Solomons from him.

During World War II the Solomon Islands saw some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific. The Battle of Guadalcanal was the first major offensive by the US against the Japanese forces, and it turned into one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Japanese forces had established a large military base on the island, and were planning to use it to attack and invade Australia. The campaign lasted from August '42 to February '43, and when the Japanese army finally surrendered the island, 51,000 Japanese and 7,000 US troops had lost their lives.

This is the beach were the US forces first landed. They were met with such fierce resistant and took so many casualties that they renamed the beach to Red Beach.

The island is still littered with wrecks of tanks and fighter planes, and people continue to find remnants in the jungle to this day. Whenever they find something, they put it in their garden and charge a small amount of money to tourists visiting their "war museum". We visited a couple of them, which were quite interesting.

Along the way we crossed several sizable rivers coming down from the mountains. Flash floods during rainy season are a constant danger to the people living near the rivers.

Our final two stops were the Japanese and the American War Memorials, both of which are stark and elegant places and somber reminders of the great number of casualties. The American Memorial had detailed description of all the major campaigns and battles of the war inscribed on the red marble walls.

Both memorials are located at the top of the hill and allow great views over the city of Honiara and the outlying islands. The island on the left is Savo Island, where I had been the previous day.

The Solomon Islands are a constitutional monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II being the formal head of state. Elections are generally considered reasonably free and fair, although they often come with a lot of protests and violence. Political parties are fairly weak and fragmented, which leads to frequent changes in government as well as significant corruption. I asked Bobby if he could see things improving in the country, but he said, "Actually, it's getting worse. There were more jobs and people had more money 10 years ago." And he blamed it all on corruption.

Bobby was from the islands of Malaita, which is the largest and second most populated island of the Solomons, although many Malaitans live here in Honiara. Ethnic tension and violence between the Malaitan settlers and militants of Guadalcanal, exploded in 1998 and would lead to 5 years of fighting between the Guadalcanal Revolutionary Army and the Malaita Eagle Force. The conflict was only ended when multinational peacekeeping forces led by Australia arrived in 2003. 

The country has been fairly peaceful since then, with the exception of some major riots in 2006. Similar to what I have seen in other Pacific Island nations, there is a lot of resentment towards the Chinese here. Although China is building much of the infrastructure in the country, the local people do not feel they benefit from it any way, since the projects don't provide employment for locals. All the construction workers are brought over from China, and the new Chinese shops and malls push the local shop owners out of business. In 2006, allegations that the prime minister received bribes from Chinese businessmen, led to an outburst of violence against the Chinese community in the city. Much of Chinatown was burned down. (Although Bobby pointed out to me a few older buildings, which were spared because these are owned by 2nd or 3rd generation Chinese immigrants, and "We like them.", he said.) Here is a another view of Honiara. The area on the right hand side, with much larger and more modern buildings is the now rebuilt Chinatown.

Despite its challenges, corruption and underdeveloped tourism industry, I felt that Solomon Islands is an under-appreciated and somewhat undiscovered gem. With its amazing natural beauty, generally friendly people, interesting culture and history, and abundant marine life, I really think the country has enormous potential to become an eco-friendly holiday destination. Unfortunately, it lacks tourist infrastructure, and it has a serious image problem. When you read about travelling to the Solomons, safety is the first thing that usually comes up. But based on my, albeit very short experience, it does not deserve its bad reputation as a dangerous place to visit. I have had a great time and hope to return at some time soon to see more of the other islands.

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