Solomon Islands – Sovereign State of Oceania
Exploring PNG, the Solomons and Fiji is a million miles away from most cruisers, however it’s a part of the world worth sailing should you find yourself in southwest Pacific waters.
Captain’Log by Captain David Tomlinson – M/V Flamingo Bay
Photography Solomon Islands Tourism / David Tomlinson
NOW if you have a problem and need more than a 200 ton cradle you’re a bit limited in these areas. Fiji can offer you a style of help from Fiji Shipbuilder’s, in Suva, for a big slipway and some engineering assistance, followed by Port Moresby’s (PNG) Curtin Brothers. The Solomons have several smaller facilities in Tulagi for haul out and their engineering assistance is a bit limited.
Happily, Pacific Air Cargo, in Honiara, flies a 737 freighter from Brisbane weekly and can transport most things easily.
Taking the concern of engineering challenges off the list, and maybe only fuel and provisions are needed, I’d be tempted to head straight for Honiara. Still in a time warp, after years of political challenges, the Solomon capital offers the only bit of sophistication in this 992 island nation of the Solomon Islands. Honiara and Gizo, in the west, are the only two places to clear in or out.
Drop your pick safely in 20-25 metres of water just to the west of the reef zone in front of the Mendana Hotel and its neighbouring Point Cruz Yacht Club.
Notify Honiara Port Control on channel 16 or 9, and if they answer, let them know you’ve arrived. No pilot required. Customs is located in Point Cruz and Immigration is located across from the Post Office only 200 metres west of the Mendana Hotel. Catch a cab from the yacht club or just up on the corner. They charge SBD$50 an hour (US$7.50).
Government fees are minimal and your first visitor’s visa offers 90 days of exploring. Should you find this isn’t long enough to fully enjoy all the areas, a second 90 day visa is allowable at a cost of SBD$150 per person – just over US $20.
‘Deli in the Plaza’ in the Panatina Plaza and ‘Wings’, located downtown, are the best places to source dry goods and other provisions, but for fresh produce head to the main market on the waterfront where you will find dozens of traders all under one massive roof. Compare your prices because some sellers purchase produce from each other and double the prices. Still cheap though and as fresh as you can get. Don’t expect the same variety as your home port, however, as basically everything is organic, they can’t afford pesticides and the soils are rich in nutrients.
Markworth’s and Pacific Fuels (ex-Shell) are the two suppliers of fuels and oils. Both supply from the same wharf just on the eastern end of the commercial wharf zone. When I was last there in January 2007, the cost of fuel was about $A1.00 a litre, 40 cents cheaper than in Australia, but is likely to be more now of course.
Spend part of a day visiting the National Museum and various WWII memorials around Honiara, which overlooks Iron Bottom Sound, the home of 111 shipwrecks sunk during some of the Pacific’s most notorious battles. A trip over to the Floridas (20 miles away) lets you visit the old capital, Tulagi and many easily diveable wrecks. Contact Tulagi Dive to help guide you. Take a run through Sandfly Passage taking care to avoid the rock in the middle of the northern entrance, and around the corner anchor off Anuha. Next day return through the Mboli Passage to Honiara or begin towards Marovo. If a local paddles up in his wooden canoe demanding visitor fees for your anchorage politely let him know ‘NO’, no matter how official his paperwork looks.
Got what you need? Time to go? Pull the pick and start heading west to what I believe to be one of the finest cruising grounds in the world, the Western Province.
About 60 miles into this voyage takes you either through Sunlight Channel or past the Russells. This group of islands looks like a maze from the air however it offers good anchorages and protection if needed. Less than 100 years ago, head-hunters inhabited this country, and as you travel through it you’ll notice how easy it is to see one group of islands from the next. Most islands have volcanic origins.
Now before you panic, worrying about your draft constraints and manoeuvrability in any of these areas, don’t. I’ve spent the last few years exploring most of the Western Province’s waters in the single screw 126 foot ‘Flamingo Bay’. My draft is nearly 12 ft with a 25 foot beam and no thrusters. So you’re spoiled with your tools. There’s normally only one tide a day ranging up to about a metre.
As you approach the island of Gatokae, an extinct volcano and easternmost main island in the Western Province, think about visiting the village of Peava in the SE corner. Peava Lagoon (about 300m x 100m) has an entrance (8°47’S, 158°14’E) that allows a four metre draft and a beam of ten metres to enter anytime. The opening is obvious; enter between the big styrofoam float on your port side and a large pole on your starboard side (if they are still there), stick to the middle and aim at the dock sticking out from Wilderness Lodge directly in front of you.
Inside you drop your pick in nearly 20 metres of water and can swim ashore to visit a wonderful friendly village. Make sure you introduce yourself to either the Chief or Cory Howell, proprietor of Wilderness Lodge. There is a minimal fee applicable here per person for diving or visiting some of their special sites but don’t worry, it’s well worth it. Fresh produce and some incredible wood carvings are available here besides having a chance to be welcomed into village life. As in most villages, women should dress appropriately, ie. no bikinis, and dress modestly.
This SE corner of Marovo Lagoon is a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) area so from late Friday afternoon until late Saturday afternoon it’s their Sabbath, a time to visit, but not be openly active, in keeping with local beliefs. A wonderful benefit to visitors because of this is … they don’t eat lobster! They will catch them and sell them to you for about SBD$40 per kilo for tails, about US$5.50..! Fishing and diving in this zone is great; cobalt blue waters littered with whales, dolphin, marlin, wahoo, yellow-fin, skipjack, mahi-mahi and kingfish (mackerel).
14 miles SW of Gatokae you will find Kavachi (8° 59.6’S, 157° 58.3’E), one of only a couple of submarine volcanoes on the planet that is easily accessible and close to the surface. The surface discharge will show you which way the current is running so position yourself no closer than several hundred metres and watch and listen. More often than not, Kavachi is exploding regularly and can be seen from a long way away as rocks, gas and water are blown hundreds of metres into the air.
If your draft is more than 5 metres, I suggest entering Marovo Lagoon through the Wickham Harbour entrance (8° 45.2’S 158° 02’E) on the NW side of Gatokae, otherwise pop through Bhili Pass on Gatokae’s NE corner. Drop in to see Chief Luton, in the middle of Bhili Pass, and ask to see his airplane. A small fee is charged to crawl around a WWll US four-engined bomber that crashed on his land, right on the water’s edge.
You are now in the largest double-barrier salt water lagoon in the world. Dozens of villages line the foreshores of the internal islands that make up this soon to be UNESCO World Heritage listed lagoon. Unique on the planet they say! Patch reefs can be seen everywhere, safe to manoeuvre in and actually well marked considering that in one respect you are in the middle of nowhere. Chart SI 07 is quite accurate and will let you cruise Marovo safely. Seghe airport, located near the NW entrance into Marovo, offers air access to Gizo or Honiara.
Uepi Island Resort, located at Charapoanna Pass on Marovo’s NE side (8° 25.5’S 157° 57.1’E), is the country’s best dive resort. Grant, Jill and their boys will welcome you and point you in the right direction.
Tetepare Island, to the west of Marovo, is reputedly second only in biodiversity to the Galapagos within the Pacific, and well worth a stop at the ranger station on the western side of the gap between Tetepare and Rendova. Across the channel on the south-western side of New Georgia Island is Viru Harbour, a welcoming place to visit with a safe entrance and wonderful protection.
As you near the north-western side of New Georgia, jump across the Munda Bar and head towards Port Noro. You will pass the entrance to Vona Vona Lagoon and Lola Island on your left as you proceed through the Diamond Narrows. This is a must if you are in the area. Noro offers bulk fuel as most places only supply diesel and ULP in 200 litre drums.
As you proceed towards Gizo, travel through the Blacket Straits renowned for heavy fighting during WWll and the loss of JFK’s PT 109. Nusa Tupe Island, next to Gizo, is the main airport to the Western Provinces capital.
The safest entrance to Gizo is from the west and the harbour offers a great anchorage. If you find yourself nearby during May, and the Vakatepe Festival (Festival of the Sea) is on, try to get an anchorage in Gizo harbour. This pretty little unsophisticated town comes alive for nearly a week as Solomon Island war canoes vie for the title of best and fastest. The Gizo Yacht Club helps with this as the Brisbane to Gizo Yacht Rally finishes during the first few days of celebrations.
Customs and Immigration are available in Gizo so clearing in and out is easy and, so to, visa extensions. Gizo markets on the waterfront offers the best sources of fresh produce and there are lots of little shops in Chinatown to maybe source dry goods.
I’m biased, I guess, as I’ve enjoyed nearly four years exploring this off the beaten path country. I grew up around southern Florida and the Bahamas before moving ‘Down Under’ and during my boating career I’ve been lucky to explore some of our planet’s most isolated and beautiful areas! So … how do I rank the Solomon’s Western Province? Contrary to international travel warnings it is a safe place to visit. Friendly people and truly a nation made up of villages. Few international ‘white boats’ come this way, and yet, those that do normally return. It really is a boater’s paradise, without the traffic jam at good anchorages.
Plus it is north of the South Pacific’s cyclone zone at 8 ° and a bit South latitude.
If you have the time… try it. You’ll never regret it!