After four weeks of island hopping in the South Pacific, I met my friends, Julie and Dustin, in the Solomon Islands. Because I had planned so much of my first four weeks in American Samoa, Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu, I relied heavily on Julie and Dustin for planning in the Solomons. As a result, I knew very little about the country which gained its independence from the United Kingdom in 1978.
The sovereign state includes six major islands and over 900 smaller ones. During our visit to the Solomon Islands, we began in its capital, Honiara, and traveled west through the Central Province to the Western Province with the Taka dive boat. Ultimately, we ended our journey in Munda.
Admittedly, upon arrival to Munda, I didn’t even know if it was the name of a town or an island. I soon found out that Munda is a settlement on New Georgia Island. I don’t feel too bad though, as I don’t think that many people know much about the Solomons. In fact, the Solomon Islands only host 25,000-30,000 tourists a year, making it one of the least visited countries in the world.
While SCUBA diving is helping with the tourism industry, 75% of the labor force relies on subsistence agriculture and fishing. Tropical timber used to be the Solomon Islands’ main export, but now copra, cacao and palm oil are bigger cash crops. Despite agriculture being a large part of their economy, 78% of Solomon Islands are covered in forest, making it the 9th ranked most forested nation.
Thinking of the World War II battles and all the destruction to these islands, this forest statistic astonishes me, though I suppose it has had 75 years to recover. As tourists, rather than soldiers, we were blessed to see some of the Solomon Islands’ natural beauty during our stay in Munda.
Located on the southwestern tip of the western end of New Georgia Island, Munda comprises several local villages. The largest village in Munda is Lambete which includes a bank, a post office, a coffee shop, the small local market, a telecommunications center, a hospital, a small port, an old Japanese airstrip which is now the Munda Airport, the 2-star Agnes Gateway Hotel, a bottle shop for beer, and four variety shops with products ranging from cans of tuna, to ice pops, to plastic floral arrangements in the shape of a cross imported from China.
Agnes Gateway Hotel and Dive Munda
Excluding the hospital, it takes only about ten minutes to explore the whole town which lines Main Street. The airport (an airstrip and a small shack) is only a three-minute walk from the Agnes Gateway Hotel which sits on the large Roviana Lagoon. The Agnes Gateway Hotel, which also features a restaurant and the Dive Munda Dive Shop, is where the Taka Dive Boat dropped us for the next three days.
Of the fifteen passengers on board, Julie, Dustin, and I were the first group off as we had dives scheduled with Dive Munda at 8am. With the exception of Libby, who had three additional days booked in Munda, and Aida, who had another week scheduled on the dive boat, we bid farewell to the remaining passengers who were flying to Honiara to make their connecting international flights.
After a quick check into our basic rooms with an A/C window unit, a bed that felt like box springs, a mini-fridge, a coffee pot, and a bathroom with no hot water, we joined additional divers at Dive Munda for our dive briefing.
Jack, an Australian who wasn’t more than 18 years old, briefed us on our two morning dives, Kashi Maru and Wildcat/Alice in Wonderland while the rest of the staff loaded our gear into two small boats. Just as on the Taka, our group left first, though both boats dove the same sights.
The Kasi Maru was a Japanese freighter sunk by an American bomb while unloading. It lays in a shallow lagoon on the north side of New Georgia Island. The penetrating sunlight provided excellent photographic opportunities in less than 50 feet of water. The wreck was very small and after circling it three times while checking out a compartment and admiring the surrounding marine life such as angelfish and anemonefish, we surfaced after 45 minutes.
We spent our one-hour surface interval in small village getting to know some of our fellow divers on the other boat. Jack’s parents, originally from England and Scotland, and his younger sister were visiting from Australia for a week.
Super friendly Jonathon, the Australian defense attache to five Pacific Islands, has lived in Honiara for three years (which sounds like an eternity to me). He was on holiday with his brother Matt. Matt owns and operates a pesticide company in Australia and came for a dive vacation in Munda before Jonathon completes his duty and returns to Australia in a few months. The Australian boys were fun and with the invite to Castaway Island, made tiny Munda more entertaining.
Wildcat/Alice and Wonderland
Our second dive started on a Wildcat flipped upside down in 50 feet of water. It was shot down while escorting a seaplane. The pilot of this fighter was unable to eject. His remains were discovered in 2007. It took ten years to identify, recover, and complete the paperwork necessary to transport his body to the USA for a proper funeral in 2017. The plane crashed near a reef of coral with a variety of life from worms to shark.
For the first time since we arrived in the Solomons, we took an afternoon off. After lunch at the Agnes Gateway Hotel, we asked Libby if she’d show us the town since she had the whole day to explore while trying to get over her cold. We didn’t believe her when she said, “Sure, that will take ten minutes.”
Haha, she was right. We might have stretched it into 15 while we picked up a few snacks at the stores and some beer at the bottle shop to have with Aida who was waiting on her 6pm Taka departure to explore Papau New Guinea. With the rest of the afternoon lounging at the hotel as well as dinner at the hotel, that was about all we could handle of doing nothing!
As a result, the following day we planned for morning diving and an afternoon tour. Our dive routine remained the same. We met with everyone in the briefing room to learn about Coral Corner and Bilikiki. Due to Jack’s parents and Julie declining to dive due to a cold, the boat assignments changed slightly, but it didn’t matter since both boats were still diving together.
When we dropped in on Coral Corner in slightly rough seas with limited visibility at first, I thought to myself maybe I should have taken this dive off too. I’m not quite as hard core as other divers and had had my fill. Once we turned the corner of Mushroom Island, however, the sheer wall was home to tons of nudibranch. Just at the depth I was diving, I counted sixteen, though many were the same variety.
I would have suggested changing the name to nudibranch wall except, much to my surprise we were met by a scalloped hammerhead shark! Claiming ignorance again, I didn’t even know hammerheads frequented the Solomon waters. The only thing I knew about hammerheads, I learned from my guide in the Galapagos when we spotted one at 50 feet away while snorkeling.
I said, “I’m glad there is only one.”
He replied, “When there is only one, they are hunting.”
I promptly got into the panga as I didn’t wish to be misjudged for a seal.
Now, nearly 25 years later, here I was with our boat of four. Dustin, Brian and Jack’s sister were ahead of me. Brian, put his hand to his forehead with his fingers pointing up like a fin, indicating a shark, and pointed into the blue. Then he held his hands wide on either side of his head rather excitedly.
Of course, at that distance, I couldn’t see anything, and thought, “oh another shark too far away to see.” After a few seconds, I looked back at the wall for critters and thought I’d give it one more try as Brian seemed overly excited for a divemaster.
Low and behold, here comes this single hammerhead. It was my first one to see while diving. I felt so many emotions at once. I could hardly contain my excitement as I watched it swim by the other three. Then it slowed and turned toward me. Now, recalling what my Galapagos guide said, I felt slightly nervous as I inched toward my group with my camera prepped for an amazing photo.
When it looked directly at me from a distance that required me to zoom out, I depressed the shutter button. Nothing…no image captured. Again…nothing. Oh, I was so furious!! My camera worked the entire dive except then. By the time I got it going, the shark, who was temporarily intrigued by my yellow fins, just swam on by, as normal. It was such an amazing and exhilarating experience!
On a side note, I later learned that the scalloped hammerhead is different from the great hammerhead in the Galapagos and hunts in groups, thus I had nothing to fear. No matter, there are only 75 shark attacks a year, with the great whites, bull sharks, and tiger sharks being the most aggressive. Considering the vastness of the ocean, these amazing creatures are hardly something to fear. Leave it to the media to instill wide spread panic. Such a shame.
We completed our dive at the northwest corner of Mushroom Island and completed our surface interval nearby before traveling across the bay to Bilikiki. This site also featured a wall and should be renamed jawfish. I counted seven pair, along with several more nudibranch.
Upon our return to Munda, about 30 minutes away, we traveled through Honiavasa Passage, a tiny cut through an island that the American’s made with dynamite during World War II. Maneuvering through the winding, narrow cut in the jungle overgrowth required good boat skills! It’s unreal to think what these soldiers went through to protect our freedom.
World War II Tour
We returned to Munda around one, joined Libby for lunch, and changed for our World War II tour with Billy. I’m not being mean when I say this, but Billy, with his giant white smile, looks like a cartoon character. Always donning his yellow shirt, he was usually easy to find near the board of tours offered by the hotel.
Having driven around Guadalcanal on a World War II tour last week, we scheduled this half-day tour as something easy to do for Libby and Julie, since they were still under the weather. Though generally the tour goes from 12-4, Billy happily adjusted our start time to 2pm and promised we’d be back by 6pm for dinner with Jonathon, Matt, and gang at the Castaway. Furthermore, he accommodated our request to see Kennedy’s old base rather than to see the Japanese freighter, though this required an extra payment due to the extended distance.
I put my last set of clean clothes on and prepared for an air-conditioned ride in a van around the island. Little did we know, we were sightseeing by boat! Billy tossed four raincoats in the bow of the boat that had a canopy covering four plastic chairs and invited us on board. Unbeknownst to us, the sites were on different islands, thus a boat was the only way to travel, but we surely weren’t expecting this.
Libby and I took the two seats in the front while Dustin and Julie took the two in the back as we crossed to Lubaria Island, where Kennedy was based during World War II. The island includes the old mess hall with many artifacts, a tainted well, bunkers and a memorial to the former US President.
During World War II, Kennedy commanded the PT109 that was rammed by a Japanese destroyer in the Blackett Strait during a mission that went awry. The PT boats fired 30 torpedoes which all missed the incoming Japanese destroyers in the fog and dark. The boats without ammunition returned to base while three boats, including Kennedy’s PT109, remained. This is when Kennedy’s boat was sunk.
The men clung to the patrol torpedo boat as long as they could before abandoning ship and swimming 3.5 miles to the nearest island. In search of food and water, they finally spotted some islanders who were members of the Coastwatchers that tracked enemy movement. These locals risked their lives in enemy waters when they delivered a coconut with a message from Kennedy requesting a rescue for the 11 men who lived.
Kennedy was awarded the Naval and Marine Corp Medals for his effort to save his men. And even while president, he never forgot the two islanders who helped save his life. He stayed in touch with both Gasa and Kumana and invited them to the White House, though they were not able to attend.
After visiting Lubaria Island and the friendly owners, we reversed course going back the way we came. Upon our return, we crossed a rough section of water. Waves sprayed over the port side of the boat to the extent that I briefly pondered the sea worthiness of our beat up vessel with plastic chairs.
As I mentally noted the closest island to swim to in a worse-case scenario (though it wasn’t that bad), Julie piped up, “Pass back those raincoats.” Tucked underneath the coast guard like raincoats, we still got an ocean mist facial, free of charge.
With his giant smile, Billy promised, “It’s only this section. We are almost done.”
After snapping the canopy as we pounded through the waves, soon enough we escaped the rough sea and zoomed past Munda to Baeroko Bay. On the bay’s northern lip is Enoghae, the last Japanese stronghold in the Solomon Islands. The garrison held off American forces for five weeks before the remaining Japanese swam several miles to safety.
Four anti-aircraft guns remain on the point. Barefoot, Billy led us through the jungle to see each one. He also pointed out bunkers and said they still find occasional bones. As the trees creeked with noises, it felt a little eerie, like a graveyard.
From Baeroko Bay, we returned toward Munda to see a Corsair which had crashed not far from a New Zealand airstrip on Ondonga Island. The airplane as well as a Japanese tanker that was shot to smithereens were basically in a local’s backyard. It almost felt like we were trespassing, though I believe we paid a fee to the islanders in the price of the tour.
The four us really enjoyed our adventure which also included a flying fish smacking Julie in the chest, before it landed in our boat. There was never a dull moment, and it was far from an easy drive around the island to give Julie and Libby a chance to rest!
As promised, Billy whipped into port at 6:02pm, just in time for us to join Jonathon and gang for a boat ride to Castaway on Hombupeka Island. Though my group tuckered out, after a quick change into dry clothes, I joined the other divers for a Motu feast.
The feast which included fish, potatoes, cassava, greens and other typical island foods along with a short boat ride across the bay only cost 80 SBD. That was less than half the price of any dinner at Agnes Gateway Hotel. In addition, it was a welcome change of scenery given every meal we would have for four days was at the hotel except this one.
This excursion alone made me thankful to meet Jonathon, as otherwise I would have never known about the restaurant (and a soon to be resort with a handful of wonderful bungalows under construction). I’m uncertain when Castaway will be completed, but it is definitely the place I would stay if I were to return to Munda. Visiting Castaway was great fun, though we were all diving in the morning, so we returned after an early evening.
Back at Agnes Gateway Hotel, Dustin and I ordered the eggs on toast for second morning in a row, while Julie picked at some fruit. We wondered aloud, “who would ever order spaghetti on toast for breakfast.” Sure enough, Jonathon did.
Libby claimed the pasta with homemade Bolognese sauce was an excellent dinner plate, so intrigued by his choice, we asked how it was. He matter of factly stated in his English/Australian accent, “This is a typical English dish. It’s spaghetti out of a can.” Laughing, my mind instantly flashed back to Campbells SpaghettiOs with Meatballs. Who didn’t love that as an eight-year old kid?
For our final day of dives, our boats split up as we requested diving one of Munda’s signature sites, Shark Point. We also dove Munda Bar and completed our surface interval at Skull Island.
Shark Point is so named for the sharks that swarm around the point. After dropping in, we swam against the current and saw a whole lot of nothing. I wasn’t too excited at first. But it turns out, the sharks school on one side of the reef or the other, so when Brian determined they were on the other side, we cut across the reef while ascending with its height and grabbed hold at the top to keep still in the somewhat strong current.
Below us were at least five grey reef sharks as well as several schools of fish. Above us were two remoras have great fun playing. We stayed as long as our computers allowed before we returned to the boat past some nesting titan triggerfish. Brian warned us to follow him, as one attacked him a week ago.
Sure enough, one did again. I was close behind him, so the fish came after me as well. As fast learner, I copied Brian and diligently kicked the titan triggerfish in the face with my fins as I ascended even farther from its territory. We came out unscathed, but those triggerfish are aggressive suckers. We weren’t any closer to their nest as we were to the sharks who occasionally circled near the reef.
As I mentioned above, we completed our surface interval at Skull Island. Skull Island is a tiny and holy place. The island features some graves along with an altar of skulls. Many believe the skulls are trophies that came from headhunting, however, this is not true.
Don’t get me wrong, the 500-year old practice of headhunting lasted until the early 1900’s. Accumulating skulls raised the status of chiefs, and the skulls were needed for various ceremonies like commemorating the death of a chief, releasing a widow from confinement, and inaugurating a war canoe. The warriors even killed children who didn’t cry when taken from their mothers as this was a sign of a strong, future warrior.
But the skulls on Skull Island, are heads of chiefs. When chiefs die, they are buried upright, only to their neck. After a ten-day ceremony their heads are cut off. The skulls are placed on the altar to honor and worship.
This custom lasted up until the mid 1900’s when the man who embalmed the bodies and prepared the heads passed away. He is buried next to the altar of chiefs’ skulls. Brian’s great grandfather was a chief, and he showed us his skull which is enclosed in a triangular box on the altar along with shell money. The shell money is still used today to settle disputes.
Receiving the explanation from Brian, whose ancestors were once headhunters and worshipped for their status, made our visit very personal and interesting.
After our stop at Skull Island, we dove Munda Bar. With the distant cyclone forming, the current here was a lot stronger than expected. The reef was littered with sea stars, and we saw a triton sea snail eating one of them. We also spotted a turtle and the white bonnet anemonefish, but we ditched the dive a bit early due to the unfavorable conditions.
Crocodile and Waterfall Tour
On the whole, we had a great time diving in Munda and on our final day before flying, we took another tour with Billy. Libby, Julie, Dustin and I signed up to see saltwater crocodiles and to go for a hike to a waterfall. This time, we knew were going in a boat!
Billy picked the start time which was best suited for spotting crocodiles resting on the banks of the river that feeds into the ocean. He knew their favorite hideouts, and with concentrating eyes, feverishly scanned the shore for the dangerous reptiles. He pointed out a baby on a log and two or three others, but as soon as the boat approached, they slipped into the water. They were rather uncooperative compared to normal.
Regardless, it was still peaceful to ride up the river even after smacking the outboard motor into some tree roots in the shallow, murky waters. Billy stopped, lifted up the propeller, and calmly stated with his smile, “Wood, that’s OK,” before continuing on! We had more fun with him.
The Waterfall Hike
Not far from the mouth of the river and the resting crocodiles was a trail which led to a waterfall. We trounced through the jungle in tennis shoes while Billy donned flip flops. After a few river crossings, Libby threw in the towel, and said she’d wait for us, as hiking wasn’t really her thing. We must have waded through the river ten more times. So much so that I asked, “Is this the same river?”
Yes, it was and soon enough we reached the waterfall. If I’m being honest, it was a bit anti-climatic in comparison to the waterfall we visited in Honiara. Though the two-tiered waterfall was pretty, it wasn’t as grand as we expected for climbing up and down ladders and keeping our balance on all the crossings.
I was really looking forward to jumping off the rocks. Billy showed us where, but the pool was only about five-feet deep which seemed shallow. I think the river was currently running low as the crossing didn’t reach our waist like Billy suggested. I likely would have gotten the guts up to jump if Billy went first, but he said he doesn’t swim?!?
On the Way to Honiara
As promised Billy got us back to the hotel well before we had to leave. We were all just chilling. Julie, Dustin and Libby were in their rooms with a late check out while I was chatting with the cute Australian boys over lunch, when suddenly the hotel staff came frantically searching for us. Apparently, Solomon Airlines moved up the time of our flight.
We rushed to the hotel gate where Billy came running to bid us farewell. The staff ushered us into a car and dropped us off one minute later at the tiny airport. The airport officials checked our bags without charging an overweight fee. They’ve probably realized that the BSP Bank doesn’t take international ATM cards, so there is no way for most passengers to pay them anyway.
After racing around, however, we learned our flight was not leaving for 1.5 hours! We tried our best to kill time by sauntering along Main Street, but we soon gave into the beating sun and returned to the airport’s hot, though shaded waiting room that seated about fifteen people. In the end, our plane departed thirty minutes early which is the third time this has happened to me in the South Pacific. So unusual! But a nice way to bid farewell to Munda sunsets.
It was a great four days in Munda and wonderful six weeks in the South Pacific. While I enjoyed the adventure and the remote nature of American Samoa, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, I was looking forward to the comforts of home. Simple things like regular food from the grocery store, fast internet speeds, and even a trip to the gym were calling my name. Until my next adventure…ETB
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