Getting to the Solomons
After four weeks of island hopping, I joined my friends in the Solomons after an unusual connecting flight through Fiji. The gentleman in my row asked me to carry his alcohol through immigration. I’m sure it was just due to a limit, but entering a foreign country, I politely replied, “No, thank you.” Upon a second attempt, to which I said no again, he told me I wasn’t being very nice!
A few folks behind us overheard, and at the end of the flight, they wanted to know more. In the end, I learned, one lady sails her boat around the world. Envious, I said, I wish I met you while in Vanuatu, I always find myself wanting to be on islands that are only accessible to boats. She told me for the future, I could just go to a website call Crew Seekers. Hello! That’s how I’ll be doing some of my future trips.
But for now, it’s all about the Solomons. I was so happy to see my friends, and for that matter, simply to talk to people with an American accent. No more concentrating on different tones! I ended up in the Solomons to join Julie and Dustin on a dive boat live aboard whose itinerary goes from Honiara on Guadalcanal Island to Munda on New Georgia Island over a week.
The way the flights are scheduled from the USA and Fiji caused us to land in Honiara three days early and stay in Munda an additional three days. With Julie and Dustin being hard core divers, we planned two days of diving and one day for a World War II tour in Honiara. Ultimately, at no fault of our own, our plans changed, but our adventures continued. After landing to a crowd of people welcoming their family home, we met the pre-arranged airport shuttle, and after a 30-minute drive, we checked into our hotel, The Coral Sea Resort & Casino.
Where to Stay
The Coral Sea Resort & Casino is located slightly west of town, but is still an easy walking distance to the Central Market, the crafts market, and other restaurants. The hotel, built in 2016, features a restaurant, a bar on the beach, a small pool, a casino, and nice rooms. There is almost always some sort of event from fashion shows to movie night taking place in the lobby pavilion.
With a friendly staff, a tasty welcome drink, and an excellent breakfast included in our stay, we were happy with our choice which was basically made out of convenience given our boat, the Taka, would be picking us up at its pier in a few days.
Honiara Central Market
After settling in, we went in search of fruit, snacks and extra water. Our stroll took us past the crafts market, the Heritage Park Hotel which is liked by business travelers, several banks, many convenience stores, a few restaurants, and eventually to the Central Market.
Wow…what a market! Being a Saturday, it was very busy. Vendors set up both inside and outside the pavilion. Those outside presented their vegetables on the ground, while those inside organized their fruits on tables. In the back, locals displayed their fresh catch of fish in coolers, generally with no ice. One man even had raw, whole chickens for sale. I haven’t seen chickens available at any of the South Pacific markets.
Along the street, there are many betel nut booths. Betel nut is a psychoactive seed that locals wrap in vine leaves for chewing. The tobacco type substance leaves behind a deep red residue on their teeth and on the ground from spitting. It is extremely popular among the islanders.
We got our token fruits; bananas, papaya, and mango, before grabbing a few other snacks and some water at the Ausmart which we dubbed the Christmas Store. Christmas lights hung strewn through every aisle!
The Crafts Market
We also stopped in an open-air crafts market, located across from the National Museum. Vendors displayed everything from purses to paintings to World War II relics. The market, geared toward tourists, was very quiet, given there weren’t too many tourists around.
Keeping it easy for our first night in Honiara, we ate at Hadyn’s Steakhouse, located at our hotel. The restaurant is not just a steakhouse. The menu is mixed with dishes ranging from salad to pasta to burgers. Fortunately, the quick service, lent to an early evening before a big event began.
The following morning, the hotel called us a taxi to Tulagi Dive. Had we known where it was, we could have walked, but we did have all our gear and it was sort of hidden behind the Visitors Bureau off the main street.
We arrived prior to opening, but soon we met Troy, the owner. I can’t say he was too organized. He lost our reservation a month prior due to computer problems, and then didn’t remember saying we could pay in US dollars or that he’d drop us at our hotel on the way back from the dive sites. Additionally, he claimed, if we had four people, we could do a boat dive, but his boat was out of commission.
Julie, Dustin and I all signed the same waiver with room for only one signature and never provided our sea cards. We climbed into the back of a flatbed truck which carried all the tanks and our dive gear. Two fellow divers from Australia joined us while Brad, an American who worked for the State Department followed in a car. That was likely a smarter idea.
We bounced along the potholed street, stopped at a convenience store so the staff could purchase our water and snacks and eventually arrived at Bonegi Beach, home to two WWII Wrecks. Locally, the wrecks are known as B1 and B2, but the Japanese transports’ official names are Hirokawa Maru and Kinugawa Maru.
These Japanese transports were part of an eleven-boat convoy escorted by twelve destroyers bound for Guadalcanal to support the Japanese efforts to retake Henderson Field in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. On November 14, 1942, the convoy was intercepted in “the Slot” (now aptly named Iron Bottom Sound) by American aircraft which sank seven transports.
The Hirokawa and the Kinugawa along with the remaining two transports, however, still made it to Western Guadalcanal. Despite the Japanese successfully unloading 2,000 troops, 260 cases of ammunition, and 1,500 bags rice, American aircraft from Henderson Field (now the international airport) and the destroyer USS Meade were able to destroy the remaining ships with most of the equipment prior to it being unloaded on November 15th.
The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal is considered a strategic victory in the World War II as it was the final attempt by the Japanese to take the island. The victory proved the allies could defeat the “invincible” Japanese Army and turned the tide of the Pacific War. With the Japanese forces in retreat, the American troops could easily resupply and create parity in time for the Battle of Midway.
Bonegi I was sunk perpendicular to shore, with the bow in shallow water and stern lying at deeper depths. The bow is mangled, but the stern is intact with evidence of shelling. While we didn’t penetrate the wreck, we did swim upward through a passage teaming with marine life. The highlight for me was seeing a bunch of fish eat eggs off a piece of the wreckage. Bonegi I is an excellent shore dive for both history buffs and marine enthusiasts.
A short drive down the beach leads to Bonegi II. It is sunk parallel to shore and portions of the ship can be seen above water. Surprisingly, there was a strong current when first entered the water that pushed us along the shore as we strapped on our fins. Donning our fins, we finally stood up and walked backwards in the shallow water to begin the dive at the planned entrance.
This wreck, encrusted in corals, is also teaming with marine life. Butterflyfish flit around in pairs while anemonefish protect their territory. Nudibranch and stingrays nestle on the sandy floor. While one side of the wreck is little silt covered from the nearby river, Bonegi II is still a nice dive.
Before we piled into the back of the truck for the long return back to Honiara, Brad proposed that our group go to dinner. Since he was familiar with the Solomons from work, that made our dinner plans easy. After a couple of relaxing hours at the hotel pool, we got taxis to The Ofis, a popular hangout for expats that serves pasta and pizza among a variety of appetizers.
World War II Tour
We planned on diving the following day at an I-1 Japanese submarine and an American B17 that were a farther drive from Honiara. I really wanted to dive the submarine whose code books were recovered and used to break the Japanese codes. Unfortunately, after walking to the shop, we found out the dive truck was “broken”.
As a result, we had to come up with some alternative land tours. The hotel provided some tour options though added that it is cheaper to hire a taxi and have them wait while we visited each attraction. Upon taking their advice, we loaded into a very low riding car with super dark tinted windows and met Michael. On this rainy day, Michael drove as slow as molasses in the wintertime. I think I could have passed him on a bicycle. I know Dustin could have.
Michael’s car was so low and dark, it was impossible to see a thing. Our eyes were at tall grass level, and if we opened the window when it wasn’t raining, the cloudy sky was blinding. Admittedly, anyone who owned a car had this dark tint, so it wasn’t unsual, except for us.
Michael had the personality of a shoe box. Perhaps it was a language barrier. Regardless, he eventually got us to the destinations on our customized tour with a smile. Based on the tour options provided by our hotel, we picked three places on the northwest side of Guadalcanal near Honiara.
Guadalcanal American Memorial
First, we visited the Guadalcanal American Memorial which commemorates the 5,000+ American lives lost in the six months of battles against the Japanese. Guadalcanal was important as Japanese control would cut communication between the USA and Australia and leave Australia isolated. As a result, of the islands in the South Pacific, the Americans attacked Guadalcanal first. Some 50,000 men, mostly Japanese, perished in the five battles in the fight for Henderson Field before the Japanese withdrew from the island.
The memorial is located on the first hill that the American Troops occupied during the conflict and overlooks Iron Bottom Sound. The fascia in the memorial are oriented toward the battle sites. In addition, the details of each battle are inscribed on red marble plaques. The memorial commands both respect and reflection for all those who fought for our freedom.
Jacob Vouza Monument
From the memorial, we back tracked toward Honiara toward a monument honoring a Solomon Islander named Jacob Vouza. Vouza retired as a Sargent Major from the Solomon Island Protectorate Armed Constabulary after 25 years of service in 1941. Upon the Japanese invasion in 1942, he joined British forces and volunteered for the Coastwatchers who were instrumental in the allies’ success. The Coastwatchers were a group island natives that watched enemy movement and rescued injured allies.
Vouza was captured by the Japanese, questioned, and tortured with bayonet wounds to both arms, throat, shoulder, face and stomach. Left for dead, he freed himself from the ropes and returned to American lines in time to warn the US of an impending attack. Miraculously, he recovered from his injuries. After receiving 16 pints of blood and spending 12 days in the hospital, he returned to scouting. His heroism earned him the Silver Star.
Vilu Military Museum
From the monument, we continued through Honiara past Bonegi Beach to Lenggakiki (not far from the B-17 dive site) to the Vilu Military Museum. The outdoor museum is located at an old US training field covered in forest. We would have never found it without Michael, and even he had to ask a local which dirt road to follow as there is no signage on the main road.
The price of admission was a little steep for Solomon standards, but totally worth a visit. Sylvia greeted us in the small hut and offered us a guided tour through the grounds past all sorts of guns and intact, though damaged planes. Sylvia’s family lived near the training site during the Pacific War and escaped through the mountains which made the museum that much more special and interesting to me.
The museum is her father-in-law’s collection of wreckage and debris. It is eerie just to think how he got all the wreckage to this site especially given the poor economy and infrastructure. Sylvia knew everything from where each plane was found to each type of gun used. While videos were not allowed, taking photos and touching these war relics were.
Never allowed to touch a relic in the USA, I felt as if I was breaking all sorts of rules and was like a kid in a candy store. Even more so when Sylvia let me move the wing of a Wildcat airplane to the upright position when stored on an aircraft carrier. We were shocked when she suggested that we video it!
The museum included both American and Japanese warfare, thus Sylvia clearly had to tailor her tours accordingly. In a quiet demeanor, like all Solomons that I had to strain to hear, she told us all sorts of stories about returning US servicemen and what they had to say about the enemy.
After we inspected a Japanese field gun that had a large, rectangular slot to the left for viewing and aiming, she slid the cover open, looked through the opening and with a great big smile shouted, “Arigato!”(Thank you in Japanese). It was so out of character, we burst out laughing as we ended the intriguing tour!
King Solomon Hotel
Though a simple day, it still felt like an adventure. The adventure continued back in Honiara as we rode the funicular up and down the hill at the King Solomon. The hotel, which includes a popular restaurant and bar, is located one block off the main street in Honiara at the base of a hill. The rooms are four levels up and are reached by the funicular. We took a short ride just for fun. We had to do something before we ventured to our dinner spot, Tenkai Sushi Café.
Tenkai Sushi Cafe
Tenkai Sushi Cafe is located by the bay just off the main strip, but it required walking down a dark, dirt road whose potholed surface was filled with rainwater. Soon, we reached a gate that looked like it was marking off private property.
Dustin quickly announced, “I think we are going the wrong way.” Given the fact I’ve been through people’s yards to reach a trailhead over my last month of travel in the South Pacific, I replied, “I don’t think so.” A group of islanders asked where wanted to go and pointed us through the gate. When we veered the wrong way after passing through, one of them hollered for our attention and redirected us. The people of these islands like American Samoa, Samoa, Tonga and Vanuatu are just so friendly and helpful.
The café’s menu was expansive, and it took me a while to decide on which types of noodles I wanted. While I normally would have ordered sushi, I once ate raw fish in Palau and ended up sick. Clearly, I haven’t gotten over that experience! Regardless, the food was good, but it felt a little ironic that we were eating at a Japanese restaurant after having spent a day learning about the fight to keep them out of the Solomons.
For our final day on land before we boarded the Taka for SCUBA diving, we took a hiking tour to Tenaru Falls. Again, we hired a taxi. Aaron had a little more personality than Michael and fortunately also owned a high clearance vehicle. After an hour of dodging potholes and maneuvering along the dirt road, we reached the tour location at the top of the hill. It is best to call first to ensure the only guide at the lodge will be there upon arrival. Fortunately for us, he was. Our Australian dive friends weren’t so lucky the previous day.
Alphones, sporting flip flops, led us through the jungle. He didn’t have too much to say, but always stopped to make sure we were OK. The path, dotted with spider webs, descended to the teal colored river which we waded through a handful of times before reaching the lovely falls in less than one hour.
Drenched in sweat on this humid day, Julie and I wished we brought our bathing suits for a cool dip. Instead we watched Dustin cool off as we snacked on lunch. None of our drivers or guides who were with us for hours ever had food, so with a bright smile they always gratefully accepted what we offered.
After a short time at the falls, we returned mostly uphill, while sweating even more, to our taxi. We were going to be a sight to be seen by our fellow dive boat passengers if we ever made it back to the hotel in the terrible traffic. Soon enough, however, muddy and sweaty, we likely made a great first impression on dive boat crew and passengers. We had a great time in Honiara. To be continued on Taka…ETB
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