After getting the all clear on the health front for Tom, we hopped on a plane and left the soft creature comforts of Brisbane behind as we headed back to the Solomon Islands. Adina had to endure her second cyclone in our absence. This time it was Cyclone Raquel – a freak cyclone, out of season and in a part of the world which rarely gets cyclones. Fortunately it was only classed as a Category 1 and we had left her inside a protected lagoon, but still we could see she had endured some strong winds, evidenced by the chafe on her mooring lines where she had been tied off a wall. So we set to work giving her two days of love and attention, making sure all was well. Noel, the owner of Liapari Boatyard where Adina was based, looked after us and his boatyard was a shining example of what a boatyard should be with truly excellent customer service. Noel makes it into our ‘Thanks’ Hall of Fame where we recognise those who provide a great service to yachts.
We were itching to get going and back on track so we set off for our last stop in the Solomon Islands – a group of two islands, Mono Island and Stirling Island which together make up the Treasury Islands. Their claim to fame is the activity they saw in World War II having been occupied by the Japanese and then taken by the Americans with help from New Zealand. Stirling Island still has the long airstrip from those troubled years and once or twice a year the locals clean it up so Solomon Air can fly family in for the holidays.
We’ve learnt that in this part of the world you make your choices when it comes to anchorages. If you want good shelter and protection you need to enter a lagoon and that means making your way through a pass. And those passes are typically quite narrow, shallow and lined with reef which can rip through your hull. Stirling Island was no exception. Exceptionally well protected inside, it has several small islets and occasional reef that sits just beneath the surface. We often rely on satellite images but this time those images were blurred and made plotting a route a little more difficult. We use our route as a base line and Susie climbs our now much used wooden steps built into the shrouds to get a good view. When you look back at it, it all seems so easy but at the time your senses are on full alert ready to take immediate action in case of a wrong move. The text books will tell you that you must have sun and it must be above or behind you. Of course it never works that way, you can’t tell what the weather will be when you arrive although you do try to time your arrival so the sun is at the right angle for your direction of travel even if it ends up hidden behind clouds as it was when we arrived at Stirling Island. We weaved our way ever so slowly around islets, dodging reef coming up to the surface, finally finding a good spot to drop the anchor and dig it in. And it was so worth it. We quickly decided this was possibly the best anchorage we had been in. The water was flat, when the sun shone in the sky above it reflected the whispy white cumulus clouds and little islets with their thick green vegetation and coconut trees. And bliss, Adina didn’t move an inch so we could sleep well.
Stirling Island itself is unoccupied and the villagers live on Mono Island a good 40 minute canoe paddle away. We were quite surprised when a man called Roy Junior turned up to introduce himself. As ever we ask the questions “Can we please stay here?” “Are there crocodiles?” and then settle in for what the locals call ‘talk some stories’. Of course we can stay and yes there are crocodiles, completing our feeling of being anchored in a little jungle. Roy Junior asks if there is anything we want so we ask him what he has in his garden. And then we mention eggs. Locals don’t use eggs but every now and then we are able to get them as come people know yachts like them. Roy smiles, lifts his seat and duly produces five eggs. We laugh out loud and call it ‘Stirling Island magic’. Many of these islands are lucky if they see 5 yachts a year but they certainly have good memories.
The next day we take the dinghy and meet Roy Junior on the beach so he can give us a little tour showing us the enormously long airfield (at this point may we recommend typing ‘Stirling Island, Solomon Islands’ into Google maps). It’s that long the locals only clear a portion of it for when the local flight comes. Nearby Roy Junior shows us some WWII relics in the form of aircraft wrecks somewhat swallowed up by vegetation but providing entertainment for children many, many years later.
We then go on to the main island to explore the village where we meet Roy, Roy Junior’s father who had worked for the BBC in his time. Adding ‘Junior’ to a name is very unusual in these parts so we think he must have had some dealings with Americans too. Here and there around the village lie bits of old WWII relics that have been used by the locals but now most are rusting away. A poignant memorial to 40 New Zealand soldiers reminds us of the futility of war, and we wonder what impact it had on these peaceful Solomon islanders themselves.
The Solomon Islands are known as the Happy Isles that time has forgotten and it is so apt. For us this has been the most off the beaten track we have been. The stand-out feature is the softness and gentleness of the people in the outer islands. Sadly these are by far the poorest islands we have seen too; we visited an island where there was not even a school, the soil has to be worked hard to grow crops and it’s a tough life that people work hard at. But we were continually struck by their kindness. They have so much less than their Vanuatu neighbours and are far less commercially minded and want nothing from you, enjoying just your company. When we traded and asked what they’d like, again and again we’d hear the term “It’s up to you”.
Yes, security is a worry for a yacht as you have incredible wealth compared to the islanders. But this security is really just an issue with young men and more so in the two main cities of Honiara and Gizo than near small villages. Chiefs still prevail and we had many people tell us we would be safe and looked after. Always a little wary, we never experienced any issues. Many of the islanders want the yachts to come, they are saddened by the perception of security worries.
We shall miss all the kids paddling out to Adina, often just to sit and look and chat and sing, sometimes coming out to trade knowing ‘goodies’ lurk inside these yachts – the sheer joy of a few biscuits for some fruit. They paddle away a short distance, stop and up to five of them would sit there smiling and chatting away eating their payment before returning to shore. They are blessed living away from ‘the screen generation’ that children in the western world make up. We loved the way people, especially children, too shy to speak English would ‘speak’ using just their eyebrows. “How are you?” a smile and a gentle lift of the eyebrows, “Where are your parents?” eyebrows go off to the side. “They are in the garden?” a smile and a quicker rise of the eyebrows provides confirmation.
And yes of course our time was a little blighted with Tom falling ill and all that entailed but we are very grateful to the many people who reached out to help. Now we are both back fully energised and ready to continue our adventure. As for the Solomon Islands, we’ve already agreed we’re going to return one day. Those crystal clear waters are full of diving opportunities and the gentle welcoming smiles of its people are too much to resist more exploration. More apt, The Blessed Happy Isles that time has forgotten.