Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Episode 17 - The Solomon Islands


Welkum to Episode 17 of the Hog Blog.

At the end of Episode 16 we had cleared out of Kosrae in Micronesia after 4 weeks exploring the Island and WERE just about to leave….

Clearing out and sailing – Micronesia to the Solomons aross the Equator.

We were visited by Kosrae immigration officials in the afternoon and were stamped out and required to leave by 6pm.
Just as we got back to Lorelei and had everything ready to go, Kosrae gave us one more taste of the volatile weather with a wild storm that came over the mountain and doused us with a lot of rain.
It hadn’t let up by dusk, so we pulled the pin on leaving and went to bed.
We left at 6am the following morning.

The route (in a direct line) was to be 815nm to the first Island in the Solomons and then an additional 80nm from there to Gizo, the capitol of the Western Provence.

We motored down the protected side of Kosrae in the wind shadow of the high hills but once clear we set sail and took off. We were reaching beam-on in 14 knots and surprisingly doing over 10!! Turns out we had a 3 knot current assistance that we held for the first 3 hours. After that the current dropped a little but we did hold about 1 – 1.5 knots for the whole trip.
We managed to sail 172nm in the first day (24 hours) and did 160 and 162 for days 2 and 3.  We were stoked – 2.5 days into it and we were already half way to the first landfall in the Solomons.
Slowly the wind died and by day 4 we were motor sailing and on day 5 it was all sails down and motoring along.
We sighted land at 10am on day 5 which was Choiseul Island at the top end of the country.
We had to motor 20nm through a wide pass that came up to 15m depth before dropping back to 100m and back up to 10m at the other end.
The trolling through that stretch was amazing and the best we have ever had. There were fish everywhere busting the surface and birds working the schools all around. We trolled with 2 rods and barely had time to set the 1st and start on the 2nd one before the 1st would go screaming off.
We experimented with different lures and tried to use bigger lures to get big fish and reduce the smaller fish hook ups but they still went screaming off within a few minutes with the bigger fish!! At one stage we had a double hook up on large Dolphin fish which proved to be fun. After 2 hours we had caught 7 different species and kept the medium sized yummier ones while releasing all the others.

Lisa with her first kept “Solly Dolly”

Once through the pass, we set sail again in light winds and flat seas for the 80nm run up “The Slot”, around the extinct volcanic island of Kolombangarra and into Gizo.
The sail was relaxing under a full moon until about 3am when the storms hit dousing us with rain and squally winds. We simply dropped sails and motored the final 15nm to the pass which was next to Panapagha Island.
As we came into the very narrow entry thru the reef, we came up over a section only 10m deep and 20m wide. Out of nowhere a big marlin busted through some bait fish right in front of Lorelei with its head out slashing from side to side. It saw Lorelei and took off tail walking and jumping clean out of the water right past us.
We were so amazed with the show we nearly ran Lorelei onto the reef surrounding Panapagha Island!!

Panapagha Island

Overall the passage was a pleasant one. We were able to sleep well, cook, eat and clean. Paul even spent 2 mornings polishing the stainless steel!
We sailed/motored a total of 937nm in 6 days and 3 hours.

Clearing in and the town of Gizo


By 9am we were safely anchored in the corner of Gizo Harbour surrounded by wharfs & sheds on one side with mangroves & old houses on the other 2 sides.
It was peak hour with people rowing dugouts and driving longboats to school, the harbour side markets and work.
It was a sight to see, a young lady in her Solomons Islands Airline outfit paddling a very small dugout to work and another canoe with kids heading off to school with matching uniforms.

After lunch Paul went into town to clear in and – well – it certainly was an experience.
First stop was to customs.
While waiting for the official to return from lunch, Paul sat on the 2nd story balcony overlooking the main street and observed the spectacle.
The street is dirt and the side was covered in mud from the rain. The dogs were scavenging through the bins and rubbish. There was a great dog fight in the middle of the road and one was run over by a car. There were young males chewing bettlenut and wandering aimlessly down the middle of the road and being honked by cars.
Once in the office, all the paperwork was done using carbon paper to make copies. It was so old school…
The big shock was the customs fees which have risen over 300% since 2011.

Immigration was a crazy experience.
The office is basically a dilapidated shack surrounded by thick mud that you had to wade thru to get to the door. There were holes in the mud strewn floor and the furniture was in a terrible state.
The official (if you can call him that) had bare feet, dressed in old worn pants and an old torn & stained T-Shirt. He was glassy eyed, chewing bettlenut at the desk and spiting out the window. He even gave the wrong paperwork for Paul to fill out – twice!!
His carbon paper must have been used a 1000 times and so Paul just wrote the form out 3 times…

Normally quarantine come to your boat to have a look at your stores, fridge and rubbish and take anything they think is an issue.  Well not here. Just go to their office and sign here, here & here, oh and pay us the fees please!!

When Paul returned to the boat he found out Lisa had numerous visits from the persistent stone carvers trying to sell their carvings. She had 2 visits from dodgy diesel fuel suppliers and 2 marriage proposals!
One carver turned up 5 times in the afternoon before Paul gave him a pretty rude ultimatum. (He turned up the next 3 days too…)

That arvo we removed all the small things from the deck and stowed them away, we padlocked the rest and set up the alarms & motion sensors for the evening.
We flaked into bed wondering what the hell we had got ourselves into...

And that was day 1 – Welkum to the Solomon Islands!!!!!!

The Gizo Markets

After a few days things settled down a little.
The flow of carvers still came and a few others trying to promote their village or organize tours but overall the procession started to dwindle and most people were very friendly.
As it turns out the annoying carvers are not from this area anyway but come here to prey on the visitors and ex-pats that frequent the area.
We dusted off our small inflatable and 3.3hp motor so we could use that to go to town instead of our large RIB as it was less of a theft risk and we could carry it onto land and chain it up. Plus leaving the big RIB on the davits made it look like we were onboard.

We ventured up to the markets.
They are located right on the shoreline and people come from the surrounding villages and islands by truck or in their long boats to sell their fish and produce – both raw and cooked.
The markets were a busy place and it was so refreshing to get back to a country where there was a great variety of fresh food available – and at a decent price.
These styles of markets are so common in all the South Pacific countries that we have visited but sadly there was nothing like this at any of the 3 countries that we visited in the North Pacific.
Additionally, variety and quality was what the 3 countries lacked.

Two days later Paul was not feeling well and he got sick – real sick!
High fever, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, the works.
It really knocked him for a six for 72 hours and just as he was getting better, Lisa got it. As it turned out it was a virus that was spreading through the town quite quickly and many people were getting it.

For the first two weeks in Gizo we had virtually no wind and the sunrises and sunsets from Lorelei were amazing. 
The downside was the heat. It was hot – damn hot! It never dropped below 30 inside the boat and during the day it was an uncomfortable 35+. We sweated constantly and the fridge, freezer and fans worked overtime.

Sunrise over Kolombangarra Island, an extinct volcano.

The view looking north from Lorelei

A hazy morning looking over the township of Gizo

Surfing Palongge Point

When we recovered, we dropped into Dive Gizo and caught up with owners Danny and Kerry who Paul knew well through work and previous dive trips he had led to here. We also met their new managers, Nico and Vanessa who were great people. Nico was a keen surfer as well.
Both Nico and Danny were talking about the surf and told us that a tropical depression was in the Coral Sea heading for Australia and that’s exactly what was needed to get the south facing surf breaks pumping. The surf had already been epic for a week and was going to get a lot better.
Then they tell us our friend Jason from Uepi Resort is here along with Corey from Wilderness Lodge and Shaun an ex-pat working at Kolombangarra. They were over at the small surf camp at Palongee Village and were surfing Palongee Point. Paul was so excited!!
The swell was up and he had friends to surf with!!

Soon we were back on Lorelei, breaking out the boards and assembling our mountain bikes. Danny and Kerry also have bikes and they kindly offered us the use of a storeroom at their Dive Shop (which is 25m from the wharf we leave the dingy at…) to leave our bikes on the land whenever we needed.
The ride to Palongee Village and Surf Break is 7km from Gizo.
Thank goodness we have dual suspension bikes! The road is dirt and pretty rough in some places.
This shoreline received a direct hit when the 8.1 magnitude Earthquake and following tsunami hit The Solomon’s in April of 2007. All 3 villages along this stretch of the coast were completely destroyed.
As we rode along we could see the reconstruction of houses and public buildings still taking place.
All that remains to remind people of the devastation is the large tree trunks sitting on the reef edge and the pillars of the houses that once were.

Whilst some people have re-built in the same location, many have chosen to build further away from the waters edge and up on the hill side.

When we arrived we were warmly welcomed by the boys & Ben and his family to their village and small surf camp.
 We had an amazing surf on the fast right hander that peeled off the point over a shallow reef. It was super clean, offshore and perfect.
It was Saturday and the village is Seven Day Adventist so Ben’s kids did not surf with us but they did vow to join us another time.

Ben’s surf hut where we could leave our boards and hang out

The view from the beach out over the lagoon and surf break

We caught our last waves at sunset.
As we walked back up the beach we went past the SDA congregation. They still do not have a church and the service was in a nice area out under a tree with some set up pews and alter.

Under Ben’s surfers bungalow was over a dozen boards in covers and he said we were more than welcome to leave our boards here to save lugging them back and forwards every day. Perfect!!! Things were all fitting into place.
 By the time we both got changed, hopped on our bikes & rode home, it was dark.
We arrived back at Lorelei at 8pm – happy but totally stuffed!

Ben our fantastic host with 2 of his boys

A few days later, Corey, Shaun and Jason left and went back to work so Paul linked up with Murray (or Muka as he is known), a fellow Aussie and yachtie on the boat next to us and Andy, also an Aussie who is working over here. The 3 of them had many fantastic surfs together over the next few weeks.

Muka and Andy relaxing in the hut.

One day for a change Paul and Muka took our RIB around the island to the surf break so they could get some photos and pick up a few boards for repair.
Coming in and out through the reef pass in the RIB was a bit hairy.

When the local kids came out after school Paul swapped his board for the camera and sat on the edge of the line up and took a few photos of them surfing.

These are of Sammy – one of the better young locals

Young Jeremy who has only been surfing about a year

Diving Around Gizo

While in Gizo we met up with another Aussie yacht Moemoea with Sue and Rogan onboard. We knew of them through mutual friends as they were mad keen divers just like us – no actually keener than us as they dive 2 dives a day on most days!!!
We had meals together on both boats and Lisa went diving with them while Paul was out surfing.
They have just completed a 600+ page book called “The Invisibility Cloak” which is all about Ovulids, the tiny shells that grow on soft corals.  The digital version will be out shortly and will be a free download. The Ipad version with its links is amazing and the macro photos in the book are incredible. Look out for it if you are into that sort of thing.

Dinner on Moemoea

Sue and Rogan took Lisa for a great dive in a channel that was full of great macro things to see including lots of Ovulids. Lisa was amazed!!

When the swell dropped Paul went diving too and we did some exploratory diving around the area.
The first place we dived together had to be the awesome pass near Panapagha Island where we saw the marlin. The point had loads of fish life – the most we had seen since we left the South Pacific 7 months ago. Not that we are knocking the Northern Pacific but it was great to get back into the South Pacific and see the immense amount of fish life once again.

We also went up to Kennedy Island for some diving.
Sadly the pristine Kennedy Island where we used to have our surface intervals and lunch is no more.
The Gizo Hotel has put a series of ugly nets around half the island and plan to fill it with sea creatures including Turtles and Dolphins for the Chinese Tourist Market. The end of the island where the pristine sand spit used to be now has a high concrete wharf and on the other side they put a coral and rock break wall around the edge making it difficult to access the island.

The locals and other dive/tourist businesses are not pleased!!!!

Pristine Kennedy Island when we were last here in 2010

Kennedy Island now – An ugly mess of nets, concrete, huts and rock walls.

Thankfully the diving around the island is still fantastic.
We had a dive on the adjoining reef and found a huge field of stunning Gorgonian Fans, Sea Whips and Soft Corals down at 24m. There were loads of Garden Eels in every sand patch and a large variety of fish in the shallows. It was a sensational dive.

One day we went to Sanbis Resort on Mbambanga Island.
Paul knows the owner quite well as he supplied most of the dive gear for the resort while at Adreno.
Unknown to us, Han’s had sunk an old longliner just off the front of his resort for his guests. We asked permission to dive there and it was fun.
It had a great variety of fish life around the wreck including some quite friendly Mangrove Jacks and a huge Maori Sea Perch. The reef around the wreck was healthy and diverse.

A Crocodile Fish under the wreck

We had a bit of air left after the dive so on the way home we stopped in front of the PT-109 bar and wharf at Gizo to dive the PT boat and another wreck in the harbour. Around the wrecks are a few cars which were washed in from the tsunami.

Lisa was going to get inside for 
a photo until we saw 2 Lionfish in there

One night we went up to Danny and Kerry’s house for dinner.  Sue and Vanessa came but sadly Rogan and Nico did not as they were both sick with what we had a week ago. It was certainly going around the town.
Vanessa and Kerry cooked us seafood paella which we ate on the balcony with an amazing outlook over the islands.

The view from the balcony

Kerry, Lisa, Sue and Vanessa - ready to pig out!!

Sue and Rogan love their muck diving. Only 50m from their moored yacht is a pinnacle that had loads of little critters.

(For non divers, muck diving is hunting for small and unusual marine life usually in uncommon dive locations like lagoon floors, under wharves, etc, and sometimes there is limited visibility - hence the name)

Paul set his camera up for macro and the 4 of us went for a great dive there.
The highlight was a juvenile Ribbon Eel – the first one we have ever seen.

After lunch they took us on a second muck dive, this time in the Logha Island channel. The floor of the channel had loads of small interesting critters and Paul had his first opportunity to photograph Ovulids.
They are about the size of your thumbnail so are quite a challenge to find and photograph.

Towards the end we came back up the sloping wall and finished under a wharf that had lots of interesting things including a colorful Mantis Shrimp that was not bothered by us taking photos of him.

Note the 2 little eyes poking out of the left side of the shell

These shrimp were only 20mm long…

Sadly Sue and Rogan left the Solomons on the second weekend we were there as they had already been in the country for 6 months and it was time to move on. We have vowed to catch up with them for more diving somewhere/sometime down the track.

We had also decided to leave Gizo and head out exploring but Ben and Wendy on Just Magic showed up the day Sue and Rogan left so we decided to stay a few days and catch up.
The conditions over the weekend were perfect for diving so we planned double dives for both days and linked up with Ben and Wendy for lunch in between dives.
We had some more fantastic diving around Kennedy Island. We found some great spots and an unusual Spiny Devilfish camouflaged on the sand. It was another first for us.

The Spiny Devilfish

For Saturday lunch we went over to Sanbis Resort.
Hans has built the best set-up for day visitors to the resort with an awesome over the water bar and restaurant that serves great wood fired pizzas.

The view looking towards Kolombangarra Island. It was one of the only days we saw the top of the Island. At 1770m, it’s always covered in clouds.

With a little help from a mud map from Ravia (Hans’s divemaster) and the depthsounder in our RIB, we found the underwater mooring for
“The Pinnacle”.
This is one of the premier dive spots around Gizo and was the highlight dive when we were here in 2010. The top of the pinnacle is in 20m and goes to 40m on the sand. There is an abundance of fish life and the soft corals are huge.

These are Long Nosed Hawkfish which live on the Gorgonian Fans.

For Sunday lunch we decided to try “Fatboys” another resort and over-the-water restaurant/bar only 800m from Sanbis.
However when we got there no one was there (only the staff) and the meals were limited and expensive so we returned to Sanbis where there was much better food and a great atmosphere.

We went over to Panapagha Island and dived a little grotto we found just inside the pass. As we swam around from the grotto out onto a point that dropped into the abyss, we were amazed to see 1000’s of fish of all sizes both on the reef and out in the blue water. It was 5pm and it felt a little surreal and like something real big was about to emerge out of the blue.
We did see some very large Spanish Mackerel swimming overhead.

well camouflaged Tassled Scorpionfish

Kolombangara Island

After 2 ½ weeks in Gizo (and over a dozen dives) we thought it was time to up-anchor and explore some other areas.
The first stop was to be Kolombangara Island – only 12nm away.
Kolombangarra is a very tall, round island and an extinct volcano. It has many villages and bays around its shoreline with the most being on the
West, South and East sides.
There are a lot of great walks and waterfalls around the island.

This area was a Japanese stronghold during WW2 and there were many battles in and around the island.
There are a lot of war relics both in and out of the water.
Unfortunately most of the Japanese vessels, US destroyers, PT boats and subs that sunk are in the Kula Gulf and whilst they are very close to the island, they are resting in depths too deep to dive.

We left Gizo in perfect glassy conditions which gave us some good photo opportunities as we left the area.

Leaving the busy town of Gizo

Going past the Gizo airstrip on Nusatupe Island

Entering the pass next to Panapagha Island

Vanga Point

Our first stop was Vanga Point which was highly recommended to us by Sue and Rogan.
Vanga had a small little protected bay that was only really big enough for one or two boats and just perfect for Lorelei.

There is a small village, 2 schools and a Catholic College. The senior school teaches older teenage boys and young men farming & agriculture as well as things like carpentry & woodworking, mechanics, machinery maintenance, etc. The men attending the school have travelled from all parts of the Solomons and only return home twice a year in December and June.
The College up on the hill is set up for training mature students to become teachers in much the same skills as the school.
The small primary school is there to provide education for the teachers and local villages’ young children.
The best thing about this place is its very safe on all aspects, the people are so friendly and don’t have any need to come out to the boat. With the large agriculture set-up, they have loads of fresh food, eggs, honey, meat, etc, so you simply put an order in with Charlie the Deputy Principal and the next day it’s ready to pick up.

 Lisa with the primary school pikininis at lunch time

Lisa at sunset with Leva, Len and Raymond – 3 of the teachers.

The big bonus of the area is the stunning 500m+ deep reef walls that are only 150m away from Lorelei. There is superb wall diving, reef & blue water spearing. It’s been so flat we can even do it from our kayaks!!!

Crazy to think this photo is taken on the reef edge in the open ocean.
Its 500m+ deep just 10m to the right. Gizo is on the Horizon 12nm away

Looking at the Coconut Palms on the spit from the ocean side

The same palms looking from Lorelei in the bay at sunset
For over 3 weeks there was no wind or swell and we simply used the kayaks to explore the area both in the bay and on the outer reef drop-offs.
The only thing we had to be a little careful of was the crocodiles in the area. There is one resident one in the bay that is getting bolder as he gets bigger and is now starting to stalk and chase the local fisherman in their canoes. They have set a trap for it and hopefully it will be caught soon.

The super flat conditions made for some great opportunities to get ½ and ½ and reflection photos.

Diving Around Vanga

With the glassy conditions we were able to scuba dive from our kayaks. The kayaks have an aft well set up for a scuba cylinder but we had never tried it before and our tanks actually fitted much better than we had anticipated.
It’s a little wild kayaking out to the deep walls, anchoring the kayaks on the edge and diving down the wall.
We pretty much dived every day and we simply anchored the kayaks 150m past where we dived the day before and jumped in.

One day we dived a spur that stuck out off the wall that had current rushing around it.  The soft corals that started at 15m were extensive with amazing amounts of different colours. It’s the best we have seen aside from Paul’s favourite dive site – North Horn Wall at Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea.

A few days later we dived on a point at the end of the north wall.
The fish life was incredible! There were massive amounts of bait fish everywhere, turtles overhead, sharks below and schools of barracuda, tuna and trevally amongst other things buzzing around us. There were so many species we didn’t know where to look. We couldn’t even begin to try to photograph it so we turned the camera off and sat on the point at 28m and watched the spectacle, excitedly pointing at things in all directions.

Here’s some other photos we took whilst kayak diving at Vanga….

Dinner at Vanga

On our last night at Vanga (well this time around – we will return soon – it’s fantastic!) we were invited up to Charlie and Frieda’s house for dinner along with fellow yachties John and Sue who had just arrived. They are off the Kiwi yacht ‘Sir Francis”. John and Sue have spent a lot of time in Vanga and know the people of the area quite well.
Freida made a fantastic meal for us all and Lisa made double batch of golden syrup dumplings with custard which was a big hit for dessert.

Frieda cooking up a storm.

Charlie & Frieda with the huge amount of food

We were in Vanga for 3 ½ weeks and during that time we put the RIB in only 3 times – twice to go to shore and once to go spearing a fair distance from the harbour. For all other times and for every scuba dive, we used our Kayaks. It was so great to utilize the kayaks for so many things.

Returning to Gizo

The next morning we left to return to Gizo – but we weren’t alone.
On the Friday before, school broke up for the 6 week mid semester holidays. So on the Monday morning Charlie decided to join us for the trip to Gizo along with fellow teachers Andrew and Phillip and Phillip’s son Jack. They had a fantastic morning as we motored south in the glassy conditions and trolled along the way.

L to R. Lisa, Charlie, Andrew, Jack and Phillip

The reason we have returned is we are excited to finally get some visitors who would like to join us for an adventure. Paul’s parents are booked in for a 2 week stay and 3 days after they leave friends Rowan and Kirsty from Brisbane are rocking up for another 2 weeks. We are soooo looking forward to having them join us.

The Joys of Refueling

While we were back in Gizo we decided to do a food re-provision and take on some Diesel and Petrol.
Well it’s certainly not like Australia where you rock up to the marina’s fuel wharf and “fill ‘er up please!”. We had to go to the Mobil depot and order 4 x 44 gallon drums (3 x diesel and 1 x unleaded). We rolled them out to the waters edge, insert a manual hand driven pump & decanted the fuel into 20 litre drums.
We then loaded them into the RIB, returned to Lorelei, hauled them onto the deck and poured the contents in the filler pipes only to return and do it again and again....
It was a mission!!!  Thank goodness our Diesel tank was only ½ empty.
800 litres (and A$1600) later, we were done & completely exhausted.
Fortunately fueling up is something we only do 3 or 4 times a year.
The bill was $10 500 Solomon dollars which had to be paid in cash.  We handed over a wad of $100 notes 2 inches thick!

So that’s it for Episode 17 of the HOG BLOG!
We hope you enjoyed the diving pics.
Funnily enough we had a look through the log and discovered we have done more scuba dives in the past 6 weeks here than we have done in the last 6 countries combined since we started cruising.
We have become very picky divers but this place is rocking our diving world. It’s just awesome!!!

Our plans are to enjoy our time with family and friends onboard exploring Gizo through to Munda and onto Seghe in Marovo Lagoon. After they leave we will spend at least a month in Marovo.
Like always, Episode 18 will be wherever we can get on the net and get it uploaded. Probably in around 6 weeks time.

Hopefully the temperature will have dropped by then – its 10pm as I type this and a balmy 33.8 degrees and 89% humidity.
Bring on some trade winds!!!!

Cheers for now.
Paul and Lisa

Time Counter