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Solomons looks to adventure tourism

Filed under: General,global islands,solomon islands — admin @ 7:55 am

Once lauded as the holy grail of scuba diving, the Solomon Islands is about to be reinvented as an adventure holiday and cultural tourism destination.

A tsunami devastated parts of the island chain’s western province last year, killing 55 people and the 2006 riots in the capital Honiara prompted travel warnings by Australia and other western nations.

But the setbacks have not deterred a new private airline, Sky Air World, from launching regular international services between Brisbane and Honiara.

Fishermen, boaties, kayakers, surfers and divers are among a new breed of travellers heading to the isles to unwind on island time.

“Shark point is probably my favourite dive site in the Solomons,” English-born dive guide Graham Sanson says.

“It has got to be one of the top 10 sites in the world.

“You always see reef sharks, rays, grey whalers, snapper and dolphins and then there’s a whole network of cave systems out there.”

While destination names like Shark Point may not be the most tourist friendly, there’s no disputing the Solomons as a classic palm tree, tropical island destination.

Visitors soon find friendly local people who maintain strong cultural traditions, an array of fascinating World War Two relics, delicious seafood and a choice of more than 990 islands to explore.

Within an hour of arriving on the island of Gizo, the gateway to the Western Province, I jump on a fishing boat and head out to surf the afternoon away in glassy conditions at a nearby point break called Paelongge.

A five-metre tsunami ripped over Paelongge reef just over a year ago, demolishing the overlooking coastal town and leaving only a church standing in its wake.

But memories of the devastating inundation have failed to deter a group of dedicated local kids who surf the break each day after school.

Freshly caught fish greets us as as we arrive on dry land and witness a relaxed trade in yellowfin tuna and whole bonito at the local markets.

I expect to be bombarded by hawkers selling their wares, but instead we are met by friendly vegie sellers and fishermen sporting orange betelenut-stained smiles.

Traversing the mountain spine of the island on the back of a four wheel drive the next day opens up a whole new perspective of Gizo.

Some villages are still being rebuilt with the assistance of aid agencies following the 2007 tsunami which forced many people to move from the coast to the dense jungle interior.

It’s a somewhat different experience to that which greets thousands of Australians who travel to Fiji, Vanuatu and more established Pacific island destinations each year.

But if you’re prepared to rough it a bit, there are great rewards.

Chief Executive of Sky Air World David Charlton has been in negotiations with Solomons officials to open up a new direct tourist route from Australia to the western province of the island chain.

But for now tourists need to fly to Honiara and connect with a small aircraft run by the national carrier Solomon Airlines.

“We are eager to fly to the western province once an upgrade of the Munda airstrip has been approved,” Charlton says.

“From there people can be ferried to Gizo and other nearby islands.”

Like much of the tropics, malaria is prevalent in the Solomons, so travellers should consult a GP before leaving.

It’s a great nation to visit if you want to meet locals untainted by western commercialism and for travellers who are eager to discover coral reefs and pristine islands dotted with traditional thatched homes on stilts.

There are hundreds of islands where the locals live simply, picking yams and fishing each day from their dugout canoes.

Other mangrove-covered areas have active crocodile populations which keep residents on their toes.

“Since the gun amnesty a few years ago, we’ve found people less inclined to fish around Munda at night without a weapon,” a local policeman tells us.

Now, it seems it’s wiser to stick to fishing during daylight hours.

It was with some unease however that we motored past fishermen in a high-powered longboat, examining the tourism potential for the island of Gizo, while many locals were still concentrating on rebuilding their tsunami-damaged homes and schools.

Boats are the primary form of transport, which makes World War Two history lessons as easy as taking to the water.

Little surprises greet you along the way, such as snorkelling on a sunken World War Two hellcat fighter plane and visiting Kennedy Island, where US President John F Kennedy swam ashore and helped his injured crew after his boat, the PT-109, was rammed by a Japanese Destroyer.

There are also limitless dive sites which offer access to a huge variety of tropical marine life.

And a mandatory visit to Skull Island leaves you with a fascinating, if somewhat stomach-churning, insight into the traditions of headhunting.

Hundreds of skulls of chiefs and honoured headhunters have been preserved within a stone memorial on the tiny island.

The permanent guardian, a weathered old man who still keeps an eye on the skulls collected since the early part of last century, has moved to a nearby island after the tsunami – but visits can be conducted with his approval.

“On headhunting raids the hunters would take the heads using axes and kidnap the women and the children,” Sanson says.

“The children were passed around the village and sacrificed if they did not cry.”

For now, travellers to the western province can fly Sky Air World in comfort to Honiara, but then have to take an older Solomons Airlines’ 19-seater plane from Honiara to the western province.

A range of tours and accommodation options are available throughout the year.

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