Sunday, 7 July 2013

Episode 18 Visitors in the Solomon Islands


Welkum to Episode 18 of the Hog Blog.

At the end of Episode 17 we just spent 6 hot and humid weeks Diving and Surfing in Gizo the Capitol of the Western Province and nearby Kolombangara Island.

The route we took for this episode of the blog - twice!!!

Guests Onboard – Pauls Parents…

In early June Paul’s parents George and Chez came to visit for 2 weeks.
Rather than flying from home they came from North QLD as they had just spent 10 days on The Low Isles off Port Douglas training, doing exams and gaining their accreditation to become the assistant caretakers for the Island.  It worked perfectly as they already had their tropical clothing and snorkeling equipment.

The slight spanner in their plans was the closure of the Gizo airstrip on Nusatupe Island for 3 months as it was being resurfaced.

There were boats organized to ferry passengers to and from Munda airstrip 20nm away. We had spent days organizing with one company George and Chez’s transfer and everything seemed in place – until the boat failed to turn up.
It didn’t matter, they simply hoped on another that turned out to be faster and cheaper anyway. They arrived soaked but very happy at the Gizo wharf around 6pm.

We spent 2 days with them exploring Gizo and the surrounding areas.
In Gizo they experienced the markets and the busy town centre before we took off to snorkel and explore Kennedy Island and Sanbis Resort.

Whilst at Sanbis we had a look at the new extension which is “The Lodge”, a private area on the point complete with accom for 8 and a large central entertaining area, private wharf and spa. It is the best set up for a group of friends or family!

Konggulavatu Bay

From Gizo we ventured north to a new place for us – Konggulavatu Bay on Ghizo island. The inlet was long & thin and was very sheltered.
It was a very traditional area with mainly leaf houses and nearby gardens.
Many pikininis came out in their canoes offering to sell fruit.

Entering the Inlet

Lorelei on anchor near a small village within the inlet.

The Toa Maru Shipwreck

The inlet provided a perfect location to run out in the RIB and explore the areas most famous dive/snorkelling site and shipwreck – The Toa Maru.
The “Toa” is the areas’ most famous dive and was a Japanese WW2 freighter which is lying on its starboard side in a small protected bay on Ghizo Island. Prior to the earthquake/tsunami in 2007 it was fully intact but now sadly parts of the super structure and funnel has collapsed. Fortunately the hull, masts and gantry’s are still intact (aside from the torpedo holes in the bow from the fatal US plane attack).
We have dived it many times both before and after the Tsunami.
It was awesome to take George and Chez snorkeling on the wreck to experience a bit of WW2 history and come to a place that the both of us and Paul’s brother Rod have spent time diving.

The Toa Maru prior to WW2

The Toa Maru as she is today lying on the sea floor.

Vanga Point – Kolombangara Island

We had to take our parents to Vanga!
It’s our favourite place here and the snorkeling is superb.

On the way across from Ghizo to Kolombangara Lisa spotted a half submerged object so we spun back around for a closer look. It turned out to be a dugout canoe with a hole in it. We decided to haul it aboard which turned out to be no easy feat in a choppy ocean...
We let it dry out at Vanga for a few days and then Paul and George decided it was worth fixing and cleaning up.
They managed to patch the hole and after the re-launch, took it into the shallows to give it a good scrub and a clean.

Patched and ready for launching

We have named it “Dougie the Dugout” and to this day is sitting up on the bow of Lorelei next to our 2 kayaks. 
Paddling it was not easy at first and we all sunk it initially but after a while and a little persistence we got the hang of it.

George and Chez were amazed at the quality of the snorkeling in the area and was some of the best they have experienced.

As usual the Vanga sunsets were stunning and we anchored Lorelei a little further out in the bay so we could see them.

Three amazing sunsets in 3 nights

We took George and Chez onshore to meet our friends Charlie and Frieda and to have a look around Vanga.
We also brought a stack of eggs off Frieda and her chooks.

Vona Vona Lagoon

After 4 glorious days at Vanga we headed south across The Blackett Strait and into the Vona Vona Lagoon.
On the way we had lots of dolphins playing in Lorelei’s bow wave.

The Lagoon is a complex system of reef, shoaling areas and many small islands. You should only try and navigate through it on a sunny day between 10am & 3pm when the sun is at its peak so you can see the reef.

As Murphy’s Law would have it, as soon as we crossed the bar and entered the lagoon a storm approached that looked ugly with black skies and strong winds. We had no option except to stop in some deeper water and ride it out before trying to go and further. 

Fortunately the main front passed within an hour but there was more on the horizon so we made for the largest island and anchored at a spot called Pature Point.
This spot is not on the cruising guides list of anchorages – and it showed.
The friendly villagers came out and were amazed that we had anchored in their bay. They had never seen a yacht here before.

It turned out to be a fantastic place and by fluke it was friends Leva and Theresa’s village who were home on school holidays as Leva normally works in Vanga.
They invited us to Leva’s brothers wedding in 7 days time and we gladly accepted with Paul offering to do the photos.

The next morning we loaded up the RIB and spent a day snorkeling the islands and the inner and outer reefs of the lagoon.

From past experience we knew there was a WW2 plane in the area but couldn’t remember where. It didn’t matter we simply asked a local fisherman in a dugout and he kindly took us to it.
The girls thought it was great following this super buff local paddling his canoe.

After a bit of a snorkel around George found it. It was a US Hellcat fighter that was shot down and is lying upright and intact in only 8m of water.

On the way back we decided to snorkel the reef areas.
We first tried a drift snorkel but the coral was pretty average.
We tried a second spot with the same results.
We were just about to give up when Lisa suggested a spot close to an island that looked OK.
Ok was definitely an understatement!!
The top of the reef was only 2m deep with stunning coral in perfect condition. There were a lot of things like gorgonian fans, nudibranchs, certain fish and invertebrates that we found in the shallows that normally live in much deeper depths. 
We were even further amazed when Lisa called us over to the drop-off where there was a large field of beautiful coral and dense fish schools going from the surface right down to the bottom.
George and Chez said it was the best snorkeling they had ever done and it was definitely up there with the best we have seen.
Unfortunately none of us took a camera…
We have vowed to return with our scuba gear in a few weeks and have another look.

We woke the next morning to clear skies and great conditions for transiting the rest of Vona Vona Lagoon - so off we went.

The first section was open and relatively deep but the further in we went, the tighter and shallower it got. Once again, goggle earth overlays on the chartplotter made it a lot easier to negotiate.

The open first section with Kolombangara Island in the background

Using the Google Earth Overlays made life a lot easier!!

George on lookout through one of the many shallow sections

Just some of the scores of small islands in the lagoon

Zippolo Habu Resort, Lola Island

After 3 hours of motoring (and a few tense moments when the depth under the keel was less than 1 metre), we arrived at our destination Zippolo Habu Resort on Lola Island.
This small resort was on a beautiful island and was tastefully built in traditional leaf building and bungalows.

We spent a few days relaxing, snorkeling, fishing and exploring the resort and island.

One evening we went to dinner at the resort and had a magnificent meal of crayfish.

Sunset on the Zippolo Habu Resort Wharf

Pre dinner drinks on the balcony

Tusker the local dive and fishing guide playing the bamboo drums

Yum - Crayfish!!


For their last day onboard we motored the final 8nm from Lola through the Diamond Narrows (another shallow area with scores of islands and loads of shoaling reefs) and onto our final destination – Munda.

At Munda we took the RIB around to the other end of the airstrip and had a look around and got a great meal at Agnes Lodge.

The main street of Munda. Not exactly a bustling town

Fun antics at Ben and Uma’s great ice cream shop – The Leaf Haus

The last night turned out to be fantastic with another glorious sunset over the islands.

After 2 weeks onboard we put George and Chez on a plane departing from Munda. It was supposed to leave at 9am….
Luckily we went in early! As they checked in, the office told them that they had been changed to an earlier flight on a smaller plane as the big plane had a large group to pick up at nearby Seghe Airstrip.
We had gone into the office the day before to confirm but nobody had said a thing. The plane took off with them onboard at 8:15.

Munda’s high tech re-fueling system

Note the 3 fire extinguishers on standby – just in case….

For both couples it was the start of a long day.
They had 1 boat trip, 3 flights and a 1.5 hour car trip to get home.
We were off to a wedding with over 550 people attending – and Paul was the photographer!!

The Wedding

We raced back, quickly brought the RIB up and within 15 minutes were underway for a 4.5 hour run back to Rarumana Village for the Wedding of Frank and Rehab (pronounced Ray-hab).
Frank was from Rarumana in Vona Vona Lagoon where the service was to be held.
Rehab was from the island of Vella Lavella and many of her family and village friends had made the long trek by boat.

The church service was supposed to start at 1:30pm and we were due to arrive at about that time.
We had everything laid out on the bed ready to go as soon as we could get the anchor down.
At 1:20pm we motored through the pass and amazingly Leva was in his longboat waiting to guide us in through the reef to a safe anchorage.
He was in a daggy pair of old shorts. We were saying to him “get going, you will be late to your brothers wedding!” He just said they’ll wait – it’ll be Solomon Islands time where everything runs late.

Sure enough we get to the church at 2:15pm and there is no Bride or Groom in sight but the church is packed (with twice that many again out on the grass) and the minister is up the front with a guitar and they are all singing songs.

Finally at 2:45pm the Groom and Bride emerged from separate houses.
You could tell they were uncomfortable in there wedding outfits and it all seemed so formal and serious. Trying to get them to smile, relax and have fun for the photos was a real effort.

The church service had the same serious tone with all the wedding party standing with heads bowed and no smiles.

From there it got a bit lighter and we went to the local community hall for afternoon tea.
We were amazed when lots of shouting erupted and the bride and groom where carried down to waiting longboats and taken out to do a series of high speed doughnuts and figure 8’s missing each other by only centimeters. The congregation stood on the shore hooting and hollering at this crazy tradition.
They only hit the reef once…..

As the bride and groom did crazy antics on the water, we all walked back to Leva’s family house where the reception was to take place.
They had built a “Tomoko” on the land which is a traditional war canoe that had seating at tables for the 550+ people to eat. It was over 50m long!
The organization that had gone into food for that many people was incredible. The women had stayed up all night baking and the men had dug many pits to cook the pigs, fish and turtle.
There were people running around everywhere loading food onto the tables in traditional woven baskets.
There was no cutlery or plates and instead there was 600+ woven bowls laid out for everyone to eat out of.
Right down the centre of the Tomoko was a series of poles that were laden with large bushes of bettlenut. Nearly everyone was breaking the nuts off and chewing them.
We likened it to us westerners having alcohol at our weddings.

                                    The stern of the Tomoko

Just some of the food cooked and ready to serve

At the end of the meal we raced to the bow to find another tradition taking place.
A series of men had raced each other to the bow of the Tomoko and were frantically whipping it with long cane sticks.
The bow was laden with a lot of long term food stores.
The men were competing to claim the food to use in the next wedding of which they were to be the hosts. They would then do the same at their wedding and the tradition continues.

The victor asking for permission to claim his prize of the food and to announce the date for the next wedding.

The next day we went back in and took the Ipad to show them the photos. We gave Frank some photos we had printed & laminated and a copy of them on CD. They were stoked and we were happy to have experienced it all.
As it turned out, it was also a very beneficial PR exercise, particularly when we went back to anchor in the general area over the course of the next 6 weeks.

Guests Onboard – Rowan and Kirsty

2 days later and we were back in Gizo waiting for our friends to arrive, Rowan and Kirsty from Brisbane.

And wait we did…..
They had booked well before the airport closure and had tickets all the way to Gizo. The Solomon Airlines office in Australia had promised a voucher to get the boat from Munda to Gizo.
They said pick it up at Brissy airport.
Brissy said get it at Honiara.
Honiara said Munda and so on and so on….. Rowan soon got the picture.

Sure enough at Munda – no boats!!
By a stroke of luck, Danny from Dive Gizo (who is also the local member for parliament) was also there and got on the phone and managed to organize a boat. It took some coaxing and the offer of a stack of money but in the end the transfer was made and they arrived at Gizo well after dark.

Rowan had been to Gizo before with Paul on a dive trip but it was Kirsty’s first time so we spent the first day showing them around town and final reprovisions.

Paul’s Fresh Yellow Fin Sushi on the first night

That evening was the super full moon and we got some great photos onboard in the still glassy conditions.

This was a hand held 20 second exposure at 10pm

Rowan and Kirsty are keen divers so our first stop was to be Sanbis Resort on Mbambanga Island which is close to the fantastic dive areas around Kennedy Island and the Longliner wreck.

Lorelei at anchor with Kennedy Island in the background

Lunch at Sanbis

Kirsty on the left and Rowan in the background on the right

As with our parents, we had to take them to Vanga to experience the diving. We stayed 5 days and did 6 dives of which 2 were the best we had done there.
On one dive with stunning viz, we came around a point into a grotto that was just packed with huge gorgonian fans and loads of colorful soft corals. We were all amazed!!

Paul was happy to have Kirsty as a model for a change.
Lisa was happy for the break!!!

Note the reflection on the surface. This shot was taken at 28m…

Whilst at Vanga we put the Mud Crab traps in with some Coral Trout frames that we had caught a few days before. The reward was 2 big bucks that were turned into Chilli Mud Crab.

On the Saturday arvo we took time out from diving and went to the local beach to go swimming with the local kids. We took our blow-up 8 legged monster and Dougie the dugout. Both proved to be a big hit.

Towards the end we decided to take the kids for fast rides in the RIB.
They loved the experience especially the high speed turns and doughnuts.
Paul let one of the kids have a turn steering and all was going well until he turned hard to starboard and threw Paul straight out of the boat at high speed. Rowan had to quickly grab the controls and come back to pick him up.

That evening we went into Charlie and Frieda’s house for dinner. As usual there was a stack of yummy food and we all had a great time.

Whilst we didn’t get the amazing sunsets we had in the previous visits, we did get some great sunrises over the land.

Here’s some other diving photos from the other dives we did at Vanga.

When the wind picked up, we decided to leave and sail across to Ghizo Island and into Konggulavatu Bay.
We started the full sails up and hoping to have enough wind.
Half way across the Vella Gulf the wind was up to 20 knots and Lorelei was healing over and flying at max hull speed.
Kirsty was the colour of her Bikini – Green!!
We reefed the sails and slowed to a more comfortable 7 knots and all were happy.

Guess who was loving it…???

At Konggulavatu Bay we were able to dive the Toa Maru.
Rowan had done it before but it was Kirsty’s first time.

The 4 cargo holds are littered with bottles and crates of artillery shells.

An upside down artillery tank in hold No.2

The engine room is a twisted mess of machinery and walkways

The top of the wreck has some great artifacts and some amazing coral formations.

When the wind died we made the 15nm run from Ghzio Island and into the Vona Vona Lagoon.
We trolled on the way and Rowan landed his first ever Spanish Mackerel.

One hour later the girls are in the Galley cooking it for lunch – and having a few fun antics….

Also in the anchorage were Ben and Wendy on Just Magic so we went around there for drinks that night.

While in Vona Vona we got to dive the snorkeling spot we had found with George and Chez. It didn’t disappoint and it turned out to be a sensational dive with lots of fantastic coral in both hard and soft.

The very rare maskis snorkelus coral we found on the wall.

We left a little bit of air in our tanks so we could do a dive on the shallow Hellcat plane nearby. The viz was sensational for here.

The next stop was Lola Island and Zippolu Habu Resort after we transited through the Vona Vona Lagoon.
We decided to have lunch and dinner there so as to give the girls a bit of a break from being galley slaves.
During lunch Paul had discovered the staff had being surfing that morning at “Skulls” which is an outer reef break just off Skull Island. It is a peeling right hander that is the longest wave in the Solomon Islands.
Paul was buzzing and Rowan took him out that arvo to surf it.
It was fantastic with some long rides to be had.

That night at 4am the Solomon Islands western province was hit by an earthquake. Whilst it was quite powerful, it fortunately only lasted a few seconds and there appears to be no damage in the area that we are in.
The locals were a bit on edge the next day though.

For their last full day onboard we took Rowan and Kirsty from Lola to our final destination Munda.
We had a great lunch at the Leaf Haus café just as a big storm pelted heavy rain down over Munda.
 Ben the owner drew us a map of all the Munda highlights and we did a long walk in the arvo following his suggested route.

We visited Matson, a retired Crocodile hunter who used to export the skins.
The government put a ban on the trade in the late 90’s so now he just keeps 2 as pets in a pit under his house. One he has had for over 18 years and is pretty big.

We visited the local swimming hole which is a fresh water spring and is croc free.

We went past an enormous concrete slab the was built on 1000’s of 44 gallon drums during the war.  A village has now been constructed on it but a few of the original buildings remain.

Some local girls we passed on the way.

The main stop was the WW2 Museum. It was started in 2002 when a local named Barney found a set of US dog tags and it just expanded from there. His collection is growing bigger everyday as he finds more things at the many battle fields around the Island.

We had been noticing a NZ naval vessel anchored in the area for some time now and there was a large bomb disposal team based in Munda.
We found out that they were on hand during the extending of the Munda airstrip. The extension has a dual role to land larger planes for both industry/tourism and also for emergency situations like another Tsunami and the Aussies or Kiwis need to land larger planes to assist.
Their part of the project is complete and they had dug up more than 5000 pieces of large WW2 ordinance that needed disarming and disposal.
And that’s not counting smaller items like bullets and light ammunition!!

The bomb squad also put flyers around town asking the community if they have any WW2 ordinance on their properties to contact them and they will have a look and disarm them if possible.
Despite disarming a great number of ordinance items there is still a large amount remaining around the battle sites in the hills.
They will be returning for a longer tour sometime in the future.

This pile was on one woman’s small piece of land

The next morning Rowan and Kirsty left on a plane to return to Australia.

Overall all we had a fantastic 2 weeks with them.

Even though the 2 trips for both them and Paul’s parents were roughly the same general area and anchorages, they were very different as we all got to experience different things, catch different fish, diving vs. snorkeling, etc, etc…

So now its just back to the 2 of us and Lorelei!
We will spend a week or 2 in the Munda area exploring and re-provisioning before heading off on a trip to Rendova Island and Marovo Lagoon.

Cheers for now…

Paul and Lisa onboard Lorelei.

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