From coral atolls encircling beautiful lagoons to mountainous landmasses of pristine rainforest, the 992 islands of the Solomons offer a rare chance to get off the beaten path and uncover a pristine archipelago in its raw and natural state. These are islands adrift in time, where villagers still cling to lifestyles that have barely changed for centuries, and traditional practices such as shark-calling, the making of shell money, and sacred skull shrines from the days of headhunting can still be seen today.
Honiara, on the island of Guadalcanal, is the hub and gateway to the Solomons and provides an excellent base for further exploration. I checked in at the United Church Rest House which enjoys panoramic views of Honiara and is an excellent place for meeting an interesting mix of islanders, expats and travellers.
I caught a light plane (60-minute flight) to Seghe to access one of the Solomon’s main attractions – the spectacular Marovo Lagoon. Containing around 400 islands, the Marovo Lagoon is the largest saltwater lagoon in the world, and is protected by a double barrier reef system.
Today it is possible to island-hop from one lodge to the next using motorised dugout canoes. Many of the eco-lodges are built in a traditional style using local materials, and situated next to palm-fringed, white sandy beaches. Fabulous snorkelling and diving can be right on your doorstep.
From Seghe, an 18km journey across the lagoon by motorised canoe, and I arrived at The Uepi Island Resort which is situated on remote Uepi Island. Uepi is a classic, raised barrier reef island, covered in impressive rainforest, flanked by the warm lagoon waters on one side, and a deep marine abyss on the other. Uepi Island is mostly covered with tropical rainforest interspersed with walking tracks.
I returned to Honiara and took a short flight to Malaita, to visit the ‘wane i asi’ or ‘salt-water people’. As if 992 islands weren’t enough in the Solomon Islands, villagers are still creating more in the Lau Lagoon off the island’s north-east coast, where islanders cling to age-old traditions. Nobody knows exactly when the first artificial island was formed, but legend has it that a bushman fishing in the lagoon built a cairn of rocks on which to place his lunch, and from these humble beginnings sprung the island world of the salt-water people.
On the Lau Lagoon, Forty-year-old Stephen Yeo told me that “I first learned to build islands from my father.” Not surprisingly, life on an artificial island is a cramped affair. Leaf houses built almost entirely out of the coconut palm stand side by side almost one on top of the next. There seems little room for privacy, but then on an island this size everyone is related and everyone is someone’s cousin or brother’s brother.
With an islander’s agility, Stephen looked for large foundation stones for the new island’s outer walls, and the floor of the shallow lagoon is paved with the perfect material. Island-building is often a community event, involving the wisdom and supervision of the elders, the bulk labour efforts of the women and the muscle of the young men.
The new island is little more than a pile of rocks on the floor of the lagoon. As the wall breaks the surface, a new island is born. The corners of an island are always built first, followed by the walls, wide at the base and rising over two metres to clear the highest spring tides. Rocks are then tossed into the centre and brittle branch coral will be crushed to fill in the gaps. There is no machinery used, and the artificial islands have only ever been built by human toil.
Although the salt-water people create their own lands, they also own lands on the mainland for gardening. Stephen’s wife spends her day working in the family gardens, and the demands of a growing population means she has to trek one hour into the hills to reach her plots. She grows taro, sweet potatoes, yams and cassava. Fish caught in the lagoon supplement the diet, and any surplus is sold and traded at the local bush markets.
Most artificial islands are built no more than a few hundred metres from the mainland, and are free of malarial mosquitoes that plague the coast. In this space between the salt-water people’s water world and the humid confines of the coast, there’s always a constant stream of traffic. Schoolgirls wade through the high tide, books held high above their heads; a boy heads off in his dugout to collect firewood on the mainland; and islanders return from their gardens laden with taro and cassava.
As the moon casts a trail of silvery light, the dozens of artificial islands that sprawl out to the horizon appear suspended, like stepping stones across the heavens. It’s the end of another perfect day in the Solomon Islands.