The Last Wild Island
If it’s slick and polished and filled with ads for expensive watches, it’s a safe bet you’re about to land in a middle-of-the-road tourist zone. On the other hand, if there’s no magazine to speak of, you may be entering a war zone. But if you happen to pull a flimsy little publication from the back of the seat in front of you, one that is enthusiastically slapped together with a minuscule budget – with typos, grammatical errors and cliché-heavy prose on every page – you’re in for a holiday treat. The country you’re about to land in has reached a wondrous midpoint in its evolution. Every spelling mistake spells good times ahead. Every ‘tropical paradise oasis’ promises that the water will, indeed, be warm and lovely.
With this in mind while reading Solomons magazine during a flight to the Solomon Islands, I’m given every reason to be hopeful for a rather special holiday. This proud little publication goes to great efforts to make its point very clear. Crystal clear, in fact.
“Is it compulsory to wear a seatbelt here?” I ask the taxidriver when I arrive in Honiara, the capital of the Sols.
“Yes, it is compulsory, but nobody wears one,” he tells me.
“When people come here, mostly from Australia,” he continues, “they always wear the seatbelt. But soon they don’t wear the seatbelt. And when they take the taxi to the airport for going home, they never wear the seatbelt.”
Feeling every bit the amateur tourist with my seatbelt on, I sit back for the ride from the international to domestic airport. Approximately 23 seconds later we arrive. Feeling every bit the amateur tourist having just paid for a 150-metre taxi trip, I check in for the flight to Munda, a town in the Western Province, and the start point of my Solomon Islands adventure.
I have no agenda for my few days in Munda. I wake early to the sounds of women with palm-frond brooms sweeping the earth. I walk in the morning warmth and discover the countryside, collecting sights like they’re knick-knacks in a souvenir store. At night I cool off with a few cold SolBrew beers and lie beneath a fan to read about Tetepare, where I am headed next.
Tetepare Island is the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific. At 27 kilometres long and seven wide, it’s a rugged, wild place, steep and unforgiving. The local story goes that about 150 years back this diverse island was invaded by a nasty spiritual force, driving the population to death or to flee for other islands. Historians argue that it wasn’t the devil but disease that did the harm. Either way, Tetepare was left untouched, sparing it from development and from the vicious teeth of the loggers’ saws.
But in a country where felling timber has gone on unchecked and untenable for far too long, Tetepare’s old growth forests, some of the last in the Solomons and the wider Pacific Ocean region, eventually became the target of the insatiable logging consortiums.
A campaign ensued, with the 4000 or so descendants of Tetepare banding together to agree that their ancestors’ island was worth more intact and upright than in a foreign sawmill. The process of getting consensus on this, in a country where familial land rights are impossibly complex and where conservation for many is a white fella concept, was a giant achievement. Ultimately, in what is a rarity anywhere in the world, long-term benefits were chosen over immediate gain. Tetepare was saved – by the people, for the people.
But the win came with conditions. The Tetepare Descendants’ Association was obliged to put in place a program and prove that their win would bring greater benefits to their people than logging. Tourism was central to this plan.
After a few days in Munda, I’m ready to take the boat to Tetepare. At the jetty I meet Allen, a Kiwi volunteering at Tetepare, who has come across to Munda for few days R&R.
“You’re going to love it, mate,” he tells me. “This place is second only to the Galápagos Islands. Without the boats and tourists, of course.”
On the two-hour trip across the glassy lagoon, I get to thinking about Tetepare’s need for tourists to survive.
Sustainable travel is a complex beast. Some might argue it’s an outright oxymoron. While there is genuine and growing concern for the future of the places travellers love to visit, and ‘green’ travel is undoubtedly a booming sector, it is all too often heavy on feel-good tokenism (green towel policies, organic soap and the like) and very light on significant action.
Tourism unquestionably brings with it some massive economic benefits, but it’s an uncomfortable reality that jetting off to far away places causes negative environmental side effects.
For an eco-conscious person with a love for travel, this is a constant conundrum to face. To go or not to go?
“Perhaps our greatest distinction as a species,” wrote Jared Diamond, a scientist and bestselling author, “is our capacity, unique among animals, to make counter-evolutionary choices.”
Like a food fanatic knowing his arteries are getting clogged or a sun lover knowing her tanning causes cancer, sensible and rational action is not always the first choice we humans will make. So, instead of taking up a diet of salad greens or avoiding the sun, we opt for lowfat cheesecake and SPF50+ sunblock. Sustainable travel, it could be argued, is the Diet Coke of tourism. It’s far from healthy, but it’s a start to keeping the waistline in check.
Tetepare, however, seems to defy all this. It’s an authentic eco experience if there ever was one. The very act of going to visit this island is key to its survival.
After an hour or so, the boat rounds a corner and I sight Tetepare lurking in the lagoon like a lazy crocodile. It’s a magnificent looking spot. As I arrive, other guests who’ve been here for a few days greet me at the jetty. Island veterans, they tell tales of the things they’ve seen and what I should do with my time here.
“Hey, Dad! Shark!” yells a young kid snorkelling just off where the boat is tied.
“Good one, mate,” his dad replies, as casual as can be.
Tina, one of the local employees on the island, takes me up to my thatched hut accommodation and gives me the rundown on the rules.
“This is a wild island, yeah,” she explains. “we have some dangers.” Tina then lists all the hurty and bitey things I might encounter during my stay. At the top of the list is the crocodile. I’m told that one in particular (of the 14-foot-long variety) resides in the lagoon.
“Swimming is always OK,” says Tina, “but not after 5pm.”
“Does this crocodile operate on Solomons time?” I ask.
Before coming to the Solomon Islands, I was told to take care factoring Solomons time into any plans I was making. I rarely pay heed to this type of clichéd counsel, but I was warned on many occasions that people in the Solomons take non-punctuality to world-beating heights. They can be early, late or never. One can never quite know.
The Hon. Manasseh Sogavare, a former PM, described Solomons time quite neatly when he said in a newspaper interview: “According to our way of thinking, things continue to happen along the span of time irrespective of how long it takes.”
If humans here are prone to such loose interpretations of time, I feel certain that hostile reptiles will have even less regard for the clock.
Tina deftly ignores my question and begins talking about stinging nettle. I decide not to swim after 4pm just to be safe.
Each day on Tetepare is equal parts laziness and adventure. Between hammock time and sharing meals with guests at a long table, there’s hiking, snorkelling, fishing and boating to be done. The local guides, or ‘rangers’, are on call all day long to accompany visitors on any activity they choose. The whole operation feels very ad hoc, as if anything goes.
“Do you love snakes?” asks Nelson, one of the young guides on a hike into the forest. “Sometimes they will be in your room,” he informs me, matter of factly.
The first night’s plan is to sleep on the beach along with a leatherback turtle monitoring team. The leatherbacks, once a delicacy for the locals, are now fully protected. We arrive at Turtle Beach by boat, the waves crashing heavily onshore. Several of the guides dive in and swim for land. It appears they’re going to ‘catch’ our boat when it comes in. There are no seatbelts here. The driver waits just beyond the suck of the surf for a break in the sets then guns it for the sand. I put our chances of drowning under the boat at 50/50. In spectacular fashion we plunge onto the beach and scramble onto the sand before the next wave. We make it out alive.
Unfortunately, we don’t see the critically endangered giant leatherback that night, but it’s a lovely time under the stars.
Over the next days on Tetepare I settle into island life. This is a truly wild place. Rampant jungle and colourful reef become my very own playground. The sense of anything-goes adventure suits my style exactly. This is not a slick resort, with a PR person and a polished front-of-house team. It’s as back-to-basics and informal as it’s ever going to get. It’s ecotourism as it should be.
Each day I swim with sharks and reef fish and turtles. Before breakfast, I snorkel alongside a pair of dugongs munching happily on a seagrass meadow. I hike through the jungle, primordial and crowded, and learn a little about bush medicine and survival. On an around-the-island boat trip, I see the whole forest for what it is – an immense swathe of green matter draped over the land, right down to the aqua edge of the lagoon. Thankfully, I don’t encounter a crocodile.
At night, Roy, one of the rangers, takes me to find some endangered giant coconut crabs in the bush. He manages to grab one that’s the size of a basketball. I ask him if he likes to eat them.
“No, not any more,” he says. “I actually don’t eat the turtle or the crab or anything like this. We’re trying to be conservationists here. Before, nobody knows what is conservation, but slowly, slowly they know. And they want to make conservation for the future.”
In a spiel that comes from the heart, not the company memo, Roy tells me that in some villages in the Solomons there are kids who have never seen a once-prolific leatherback turtle. He hopes his work will change that.
“I am happy that the visitors come here,” he says, while measuring and recording the size of the crab. “I think the tourist people can help.”
Solomon Airlines has return flights from Brisbane to Honiara. From Honiara there are domestic flights to Munda.
Tetepare Island Ecolodge organises a pick-up boat from Agnes Lodge in Munda out to the island.An all-inclusive daily package includes basic accommodation, three meals and a guide for any activities that don’t require boat fuel. All guests must pay a one-off US$17 conservation fee.
For more information about the Solomon Islands, visit the official website.
Recommended reading: The Last Wild Island by John Read