Every few decades a new destination opens up for travellers.
The Solomon Islands’ treasure chest has been preserved pretty much intact since Alvaro de Mendana sailed into the heart of the country in 1568.
He was so enchanted at finding gold that he named the islands after the legendary King Solomon.
It’s Friday morning at the Yacht Club in Honiara and I am sitting with two fellow travellers planning our journey into the Western Province.
Just down there beneath the wings of this airborne Dash-8 is a patchwork of densely forested coral cays with white sand and crystal-clear water. It looks like paradise.
As we set foot on New Georgia Island I am embraced by thick and warm tropical air and the beaming smile of our local boat driver, Mano. There are no roads here.
The wind lashes our hair as the 45hp motor cuts through a kaleidoscope of turquoise hues on the Roviana Lagoon.
It’s like vandalising a Rembrandt, but this masterpiece is nature. Within thirty minutes we will be mooring at our hideaway resort,
Fatboys, and checking into traditional palm leaf thatched bungalows. The accommodation is modern and airy with comfortable queen-size beds, private verandas, ensuites and lagoon views.
The restaurant is built over the water and beneath it lives a bountiful natural aquarium. A feast of fresh seafood and local dancers eventually blend into dreams.
The sun wakes. A new adventure beckons as we cruise by dozens of forested havens and slow down to approach Skull Island. It has a timber gate and is the location of a sacred head-hunting shrine.
We abandon the boat in the shallows and wade ashore with our Melanesian guide, restrained by an eerie feeling yet propelled by obstinate curiosity.
Five meters beyond the gate I realise it’s too late to turn back – they have seen me. Frozen in a moment of time I am face to face with dozens of white human skulls staring out from nooks in a mound of coral.
A cold chill ripples down my backbone as I contemplate the meaning of this life and whether death is really the end. Their impenetrable sockets and inscrutable countenance give little away.
Moving on, we cruise west to an uninhabited island where we spend a few hours beneath the waves. I hover over purple coral housing purple fish and then float past yellow fish staring back at me from yellow coral, shoals of fish dart left then right in perfect synchronicity, there are ‘nemos’ too.
For lunch we gather around a fire for a BBQ and eat from palm leaf plates as our guide tells us a WWII tale.
Later I float in the clear sundrenched water 10m above the Hellcat fighter. The lunchtime story of Lieutenant Richard Moore becomes more real as I peer into his cockpit and ponder his miraculous escape. In 1942 while escorting US torpedo bombers near Papua New Guinea, his plane was shot down.
As I float, hypnotised by the intact fighter embedded in the coral below, I am overcome with a deep sorrow for all the suffering caused by this war.
The next day we trek to Ughele village on Rendova island. A chorus of bird trills along the jungle path are soon interrupted by a piercing scream.
A man approaches from the opposite direction wearing a loin cloth and face paint with a spear poised. This is our welcoming. Many of the people in this region live in traditional villages and their lifestyle is much the same as their ancestors.
As guests, adorned with wreaths of fresh flowers we venture deeper into the village, escorted by dozens of inquisitive and shy, smiling children. None of them are asking for lollies or pens.
Four hundred and fifty years ago Alvaro de Mendana couldn’t have imagined the Solomon Islands’ abundant assembly of rich and natural beauty would be unspoilt today. It’s these children, nervously giggling at us ‘sharp noses’ who hold the collective responsibility for preserving the essence of this remarkable region.
* John McCutcheon was a guest of Solomon Island Visitors Bureau.