The Solomons - Love and heat in a tropical climate
Gathered in a semi-circle in the glassy sea, four Pacific women are wriggling their feet into the squeaky white sands of Tavanipupu in Marau Sound, the Solomon Islands, anchoring themselves to the seabed. We are from various parts – the Solomons, Australia and New Zealand – and have come to the water for a gossip about love.
One of the group, our tour guide Stella, recounts how she wooed her Fijian husband, bringing him home to Honiara to live. She confesses this is not really how things are done in the Solomons. Typically, local boy meets local girl and a payment of sorts is given by the groom's family to the bride's to compensate for the 'loss' of a family member and to ensure a harmonious relationship between clans.
But Stella – teenage rebel first, then successful career woman – was never going to partner up the old-fashioned way. And, anyway, she reckons love should come in all shapes and sizes in today's world – even in the staunchly traditional Solomons.
The island, in the Solomon's Guadalcanal Province, is part of the glistening archipelago of nearly 1000 sandy atolls and lush, volcanic islands. The Solomons is spread across 800,000km2 of ocean and sits approximately 3500km northwest of New Zealand.
It's just a stone's throw from Papua New Guinea and a few hours' flight from Brisbane. It's here you'll find about 500,000 mostly Melanesian people, whose culture is steeped in a potent mix of ancient tribal lore and Christianity.
Their history takes in a brutal chapter of World War II, as well as more than a decade of international peacekeeping to dampen ethnic conflict. These days, though, the Solomons is recasting its image as a stable, peaceful country and a must-see destination for tourists.
Some of the many uninhabited and unspoilt atolls and islands of the Solomon Islands. Image: Jacqui Gibson
It has taken me three flights and two days, with an overnight stop in Brisbane, to get here. And, despite the long haul, I'm already convinced it is worth it. The 30-minute flight from Honiara to Tavanipupu Private Island Resort – our home base for a couple of days – was a clincher, put-putting over coral atolls sparkling in the midday sun, without a soul in sight for miles, then spotting a lone fisherman gliding through pristine water in a dugout canoe
The Solomon Islands are quiet, too – not a sterile, enforced kind of quiet, but a peaceful, lack-of-modern-noise-pollution quiet. It's in that gentle space that you unwind. On my first morning at Tavanipupu, I woke to the ocean scouring the shore, the thud of coconuts falling to the ground (really, you have to look out for those) and the slap of jandals indicating someone on the move – our breakfast waiter ferrying the kitchen's one toaster from bungalow to bungalow.
At other times, it's the sound of machete thunking against wood that punctures the day – someone whipping up a new home from what's available in the forest or chopping firewood to cook dinner.
I'm not the only one in our group of midday waders with an opinion on this place. Next to me in the line-up is a 30-something Sydney-sider – the only unhitched one among us. We turn to her for comment – and, more-to-the-point, an update on last night's romantic adventures.
Apparently, love blossomed here at Tavanipupu beneath an oily moon while the rest of us were sleeping. All she'll say is that there's a plan to return to the Solomons – this almost certainly suggests the evening scored high on the romance scale.
Standing in the 28-degrees-Celsius current, we concur the Solomons is a great place for love. It's in the country's spectacular, natural beauty, reckons the fourth among us. She's the sportiest. This woman has climbed Himalayan peaks, run marathons in the desert, and has been here before to dive Marovo Lagoon – the world's largest saltwater lagoon. It fizzes with marine life, she says.
The love is also in the openness and generosity of the Solomon Islanders themselves. Throughout our journey we meet a handful of locals. There's Primo Pukukesa and his wife Paola, who so warmly welcome us to Lumatapopoho village in Guadalcanal for a cooking demonstration.
Primo's English is spot on. "I went through to form one and developed a love of reading, which helps my English," he tell us. "I'll read anything – pamphlets, magazines, novels. But you can't keep anything made from paper in this heat. The humidity makes it rot."
At Mbabanga Village, in Western Province, after visiting church, Paere Melea takes us for a tour of her one-bedroom beachfront hut. Inside, a wooden bench serves as bed and lounge suite to all five family members, while a tiny stone fire still smoulders from last night's dinner. There's no television or internet, there's no walk-in-wardrobe or family car. There's not even a fridge. The only adornment on the Meleas' wall is an A4 colour picture of Jesus.
Paere Melea and her daughters outside their family home in Mbabanga village, Western Province. Image: Jacqui Gibson
Later we learn that 75 per cent of Solomon Islanders – like the Meleas – rely on subsistence farming and fishing to get by. Things such as clothing, a secondary-school education and domestic travel are luxuries. International travel is totally unheard of.
Yet, as we're saying our goodbyes, Paere says: "If only I'd known you were coming, I'd have got the kids to collect coconuts so I could make us all refreshments." Next time when you're back with your husbands, she says. "You'll come here. We'll sit in the shade and drink together. That's what we'll do."
- NZ Life & Leisure