Written by Yolanda Danioth
Our journey began with the 2004 ARC taking us from Europe to the Caribbean, then onto Panama and the Pacific Ocean. After taking a six month break in New Zealand, we cruised Fiji, New Caledonia and Vanuatu during the austral winter. Ship and crew were still in perfect condition and we knew we didn’t want to be in New Zealand or Australia for the southern hemisphere cyclone season, so the decision was made to head north. Our plan was to set sail for Micronesia in the North Pacific with a stop-over in the Solomon Islands. We soon discovered that the Solomon’s represent a destination on their own rather then just a convenient stop-over.
We had heard about the unstable political situation in Honiara, the capital city of the Solomon Islands, and avoided trouble by simply not visiting the place. Our destination was Gizo in the Western Province and even though we passed many other islands on the way there we didn’t stop. After 752nm and five days at sea we arrived in Gizo Harbour.
The approach to Gizo is well marked with deep water. We anchored in Gizo Harbour, close to Kiribas village in about 8 metres with good mud holding. Clearance was done on shore by visiting the different officials, all these officials were helpful, relaxed and the process was straight forward.
From the beginning it felt like being back in Polynesia. In the evening hours the villagers sung their charming songs. Their wonderful voices take you away and create a feeling of total relaxation. Everything sounded happy, flowery, colourful and full of life and spirit. Sometimes we could feel the influences from the sea and the rhythms of waves.
Gizo is the administrative and economic centre of the Western Province. All shops, banks and restaurants are located along the main street. Provisioning is easy, fresh produce or fish from the market, bread from the bakery, dry goods from the supermarket and everything else from the Chinese shops. Every day people arrive from the outer islands to sell fruit and vegetables in the local market. The seasonal products are displayed on banana leaves either on their own or in small piles, the market ladies are proud to present quality goods and ensure their produce doesn’t get too much sun or have rotten spots. Some of the green vegetables were new to us but communicating with the women was not always easy. The locals speak their own native language or in the best case Pigeon English. Of course English is the official language but in the market they have their own rules. So, with hand gestures and the help from passing shoppers we learnt what things were and how to cook them. A green fern with small leaves turned out to be one of the best fresh salads. We found that simply cutting the stem in small pieces and mixing with whole leaves, some coconut milk, spices, chilli, carrots and tomatoes made a very refreshing, crunchy, healthy lunch
Time on Moana passed quickly, we either had visitors from one of the other four yachts in the harbour or local guests on board. From our research, we knew some of the best carvings in the world are produced in the Solomon Islands, the stone carvers frequently came out in their canoes to visit us and display their wares. Their offerings varied from fish, dolphins, manta rays, turtles to fishing Gods and many others sculptures. Apart from these private presentations to visiting yachts, the craftsmen were moaning about the lack of tourism. The day we arrived a mid-size cruise ship was anchored in Gizo and a lot of carvers came to Gizo that day specially to sell their wares to the passengers. A lot of them failed and when the cruise ship left, they stopped by Moana on their way back to there villages. We got the feeling Moana had to make up for what the lack of trade with the cruise ship and at the end of our stay we had a complete collection and could almost become a retailer ourselves!
Another attractive anchorage, further north from Gizo is Konggulavata. It is a remote place and before you visit you must get permission from the chief or his relatives. When you first arrive you will see nobody, but as soon as you are settled in, a canoe will appear. Always ask the first canoe paddler if it is okay to anchor off the island and what his name is. Make the effort to establish a friendly relationship straight away and you will not be asked for an anchoring fee. These people never refused us permission to anchor and were very curious about our nationality, names and general life on board Moana. They like to trade for their produce, so always be prepared for a good deal. We were lucky not to have overstocked with fresh goods when we left Gizo as these people were not greedy bargainers and often said they would take whatever we had to offer. We have a great deal of experience with trading and the thing you most have to bear in mind is to specify the maximum amount and the size you want. Otherwise you can end up with a pumpkin the size you will never forget and which is hard to store away! Good trading goods are: soup, t-shirts, rice, tea, sugar, old towels, DVD’s, washing-powder, batteries, matches and fishing gear.
Another thing you must clarify at the beginning of your stay is are there any crocodiles?! In some places you can’t swim because of the danger of crocs, Konggulavata Bay is one of these places. We watched the water surface throughout the day, but never actually saw one.
Sanbiz Resort, Mbambanga Island The weekend we visited Mbambanga Island the conditions were so calm we could almost anchor anywhere. This is not unusual in this area because October/November is the change over seasons so the weather is dominated by calms with a few squalls and showers. We took advantage of being so close to a resort and used their diving services, restaurant and the entertainment facilities. What a place! Clear warm water invites you for a swim or snorkel around your boat.
On Saturday we chose to dive off Kennedy Island. John F Kennedy and his crew swam ashore to this island after their patrol boat was hit during the war. The saying goes that Kennedy towed his crewmate by clenching his life vest between his teeth. Kennedy Wall was quite impressive. It drops off to a ledge at 20m and then drops off again to much deeper water. It is a popular meeting point for big fish which linger there and the shallow portion of the reef is home to some small critters. The water was so warm; we spent about 60 minutes in the water and never felt cold. Back at the Sanbiz Resort the dive crew took care of all our gear and washed everything with fresh water then returned back to use nice, clean and dry gear, what a service for yachties!
Saturday evening was time to go out. We went back on shore to the resort and were privileged to enjoy cold drinks and an unspoiled view of our boat at anchor. After the drinks we had to choose our main course, it had been quite a while since we had had lobster - so the choice was quickly made - Lobster in a creamy brandy sauce with local side-dishes washed down with a chilled Australian Chardonnay - fantastic!
Every Sunday there is a BBQ lunch at the Sanbiz Resort. We didn’t want to miss this occasion so went ashore soon after having a late breakfast. We worked up an appetite by playing table tennis with the locals, but we hid from the ‘proficient Japanese’. They are too good and too fast - no chance for yachties with a lack of skills and experience. Whilst we were enjoying ourselves, the staff were working hard to prepare the BBQ. They put up fresh flowers for decoration, prepared a rich buffet and weaved eating baskets. Sanbiz Resort was one of the most extravagant places we have been for months!
The only visitors to Noro are big fishing vessels or boats which need diesel. We belonged to the latter group, and motored the 20nm in calm conditions to get diesel from a big tank. The town is the home of a fish cannery, the company employs hundreds of people and is the biggest environmental polluter in the area.
Our stop was short and successful. We purchased diesel for a reasonably good price at $SBD 5.40/litre. A bargain compared to the $SBD 8.00/litre we paid in Gizo. In addition to the good price we felt more confident fueling from big tanks with a high turnover. In Gizo fuel is provided in barrels which tend to get rusty and it is not uncommon for contaminated fuel to get into a boats tanks by fueling from these barrels. After taking on almost half a ton of fuel we were prepared to cross the Equator with its light winds.
Kolombangara is a classic cone-shaped volcano and is almost circular in shape. The volcano rises up to 1700 metres and is the highest point in the Western Province. It rains almost every day. Therefore the island is very green and has good ground to cultivate groceries! At night it is cool due to the catabatic winds coming down the hills. What a treat in the tropics.
Vanga Point is well known for its progressive Agricultural College run by the Catholic Marist Brothers. The students learn how to plant, grow, harvest and sell products. It is obviously a very interesting place to visit but unfortunately we were too late in the season, the College was closed for two months (Christmas/New Year Holiday) and all the students had gone home to their families. Still some teachers and permanent staff were there and they showed us the College and explained their concept.
We were also lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time and were invited to join the celebration at the kindergarten for the end of the year. All the children, parents, teachers and officials gathered and closely watched the activities. It was a colourful lively place with presents, dancing and singing, mothers prepared a variety of food dishes which were arranged as a buffet. Closing the kindergarten was a community celebration, with us as special foreign guests.
Our fellow cruisers Pauline and Mauro were unexpectedly visited by their friends from a nearby village. They brought fruit, vegetables and two very big, freshly caught snapper with them. The fish were far too big for the four of us, so a quick decision was made to take them to the village which was much appreciated and we were all invited for dinner. Cooking facilities were very different to the galley on the boat. In traditional houses there is one area for living, sleeping and dining completely separated from the cooking area. Strictly speaking there are two houses. So, all the cooking and preparation take place in a specially constructed house. A welded steel frame stands over an open fire surrounded by stones to keep the heat in, this has no temperature regulation so it is quite a challenge to heat up a pan evenly. Finally all the finished dishes were put on a table, so everybody could take what they want. The food was wonderful, a tasty fish curry, grilled pumpkin in coconut sauce, beans with eggplants, rice and homemade pita-bread.
Chatting with the locals was never boring, we were as interested in their life as they were curious about ours. A young girl called Regina became my companion. Soon after landing with the dinghy she greeted us and was curious about where we were going, she then helped us find our way to the fresh water source so we could fill our drinking bottles. Unfortunately we could not run the watermaker, because the water was too murky as a river ran directly behind us into the sea. To thank Regina, we took her and her friends on a dinghy ride around the bay. She waved proudly back to shore when we passed the nearby houses. Her highlight was to be invited on Moana with her friends, this caused much excitement, they all looked with wonder and enjoyed the novelty of being on a big boat.
Paul, a young boy about eight to ten years old, seemed to take a shine to me and sang me a local song on our departure. During our stay Paul paddled out to Moana every day to deliver me gifts of fresh vegetables, this included freshly picked avocados, grapefruits, local potatos, papaya, spring-onions, cucumber or whatever he could get from his mothers garden.
It was a short but intense cruise in the Solomon Islands, during our time there we discovered that the Western Province has more to offer to visiting yachts than any of the other provinces with clear lagoons, good sheltered anchorages, brilliant colours all year round, warm water and easy sailing. In fact, we think it offers one of the best cruising grounds in the world. Only a handful sailors came to this remote area so it is still a place for explorers. The lagoons, atolls and islands reminded us of Bora Bora, just without the big groups of tourists and the large hotels.
After 18 months we left the South Pacific with fond memories of superb cruising with unforgettable encounters, unique experiences and great fun.
The Solomon Islands lie on the edge of the New Zealand and Australian charts. The New Zealand Analysis and Prognosis gives the best information about weather systems in force where as the Australian Streamline Analysis gives an overview about the general wind gradient patterns which is useful to determine the wind flow in areas close to the Equator where pressure is usually weak.
The weekly weathergrams from the NZ Weather Ambassador Bob McDavitt is another great source for weather situations in the South West Pacific. On Sunday Bob usually gives you his ideas about the general weather patterns in the Southwest Pacific. Send the text "send nz.wgrm" to '[email protected]' (no subject).This is a free service and highly recommended.
Travel guide books:
• Solomon Islands Cruising Guide ICA Island Cruising Association, by Dirk Sieling & Brian Hepburn This guide from 1999 is still up-to-date enough and contains all aspects of cruising in the Solomon
• Lonely Planet – Papua New Guinea & Solomon Islands An excellent addition to the above guide with places to see, background information and listings of facilities
Money: The local currency is the Solomon Dollar ($SBD) Exchange rate (GBP) = $SBD 15.7 (July 2007) Credit cards accepted in resorts, dive-shops and any other tourist related places otherwise take cash, preferably AUD, NZD or USD. ATM and banks are only in main towns.
Clearance: The procedure starts with Customs & Excise Division, the general declaration for our vessel was $SBD 103. Next step was Ministry of Commerce and Primary Industries, we just had to complete paperwork. The same happened at Immigration. Agriculture and Quarantine Service charged $SBD 60 for disposal of our garbage. From the Agriculture Ministry we got some leaflets on how to act during our stay in the Solomon Island.
Malaria: Malaria is the greatest health risk in the Solomon Island as it is in Vanuatu and some other countries too.
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