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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Wild Weathercoast

(Editor's Note: I'd like to give a big shout out to all my mates in Christchurch.  Sorry you guys are still shakin but KNOCK IT OFF!  All my love and will see you soon...)

As I face down a five metre wave in our three metre boat, I sincerely begin to think that I have made a drastic error in my career path somewhere.  We bob up and down the huge, turquoise waves like a carriage on a rollercoaster.  Our boat engine has failed.  I’m in the middle of nowhere, miles away from an airfield, road or telephone.  I think of many things; most of them are unprintable.

Standing on the shore are villagers and one of our local staff refuses to board our boat because of the rough seas.  I think about my life with much nostalgia before I signed up for the crazy adventure.  Chickens in hand made baskets lodge their complaints regarding the rough seas nosily.  A tied up adult pig pig squeals loudly, obviously not enjoying his trip.  Bags of beetlenut roll around the boat and pieces of taro fly everywhere.  Even the boat driver looks slightly nervous.

Yep.  In the Weathercoast, I think that my Solomon Island adventure has definitely jumped the shark.   


Now, the Weathercoast is the name of the other side of Guadalcanal.  At some point it was called the Rough Coast but someone changed the name because they thought it would scare off tourists.  It’s called the Weathercoast because, well, the weather is crap that side of the island.  When cyclones pay the occasional conjugal visit to the Solomons, the southern sides of Makira and Guadalcanal bear the brunt.  Temotu and Rennel/Bolona are where cyclones get really excited and decide, instead of a passing fling, they want to stay and really give the islands a good going over.  So I’m grateful that my luck had been good in Temotu.  I would be somewhat less lucky in the weather coast.

Even without a tropical weather something going on, the Weathercoast is famous for nautical misadventures.  Almost every story the locals talk about ends with “and then they capsized around the point…”

Despite being on the same island as the capital Honiara, the Weathercoast is remote and completely undeveloped.  Whatever development that took place prior to the Tension was destroyed. The Weathercoast people bore the brunt of the ethnic conflict. Entire villages were razed to the ground from 1997-2003; murder, sexual violence and random destruction were constant visitors to the Weathercoast.  The scars of the tension are clear in people’s attitudes; people are still clearly obsessed with survival, living day to day.  Drinking, drugs and violence permeate the area; self medicating and living in a fantasy of entitlement are pretty common.

You can’t take a plane there, unless you are with RAMSI and have access to a helicopter.  You can’t drive a truck over unless you own a gold mine.  The bigger boats do poorly in the Weathercoast because their high centre of gravity makes the unsteady to the constant barrage of high, choppy waves.  That leaves the only option: the banana boat.

The banana boat is about three metres in length and usually painted red or orange on the bottom with blue on top.  The base is wide, which makes it steady over waves.  The boats are affordable, sturdy and people usually can get about five to ten years use out of the boats. The fiber glass hulls are cheap and easy to patch up. Essentially, the banana boats are the workhorses of the Solomon Islands.

It takes a lot to capsize a banana boat but it has been known to happen on the Weathercoast.   

On Monday morning, my local woman companion Regan and I set off by plane to Marau Lagoon; a picturesque postcard vision of white sandy beaches and unexplored reefs with great surf breaks framing the scene.

Or it would be a postcard if it wasn’t cloudy, windy and rainy.  Our local hosts have gotten the wrong message so nothing is prepared for us. A guest house is quickly opened and aired out.  It’s a fairly uneventful day however my back decides in that moment to go into spasm responding to the abuse of Wogasia.  Regan massages the spasm down and I fall asleep early wrapped under a pink mosquito net.  One thing that is great about the Sollies: everyone here knows how to massage and massage well.  It’s a part of the culture.

The next morning I am already grumpy.  I started the trip grumpy because I got very little time to prepare and I still didn’t have my dry bags/luggage back from Makira.  I try to cheer myself but give up after a little while; sometimes you just can’t turn a grump around.

We all climb into the colourful banana boat and it’s windy already.  I realize it’s going to be an uncomfortable ride and that my back will not be thanking me.  As we skirt around the reef, the waves begin to roll in, a nice one to two metres.

“It’s a very fine day on the Weathercoast,” Sid, our boatdriver, smiles. 

He is right; despite the occasional big wave, the swells are easily navigated.  We head to the first village, where I experience my first proper Weathercoast landing.  So let me break it down for you. The banana boat circles in the high waves near the shore until a “big wave” comes in.  The banana boat rides just above the crest of wave, over rocks and sand until it’s partially ashore.  Then the locals and stronger boat crew members pull the boat fully up on to the black sandy beach, near some coconut trees.  I am told not to get out until the boat has come to a complete stop.

By the time I exit the boat, I’m typically soaked with spray from the waves.  The villagers grab my arms to ensure a safe landing but after my second landing, I’m jumping in and out of the boats like a pro.  I even jump out early to help pull the boat ashore.

The weather holds the first day and we tramp/bushwalk/hike up to the second village, where we will stay the night.  The whole village has a somewhat eerie feel to it; a fully fledged custom house sits peacefully in the middle of the village.  Now, a custom house is a place where old customs are observed and gifts are given to the spirits of the dead and spirit totems to ensure support.  The whole village has a sense of the old custom life to it and I’m not surprised when I here there is a village up the valley that has gone completely back to custom ways, wearing only grass skirts and shunning any modern development.

Here I am told by Regan that the village chief has asked that I do not walk alone at night anywhere; the Vela 
people are watching and my white skin can attract them.  Regan explains that the Vela people are like bushmen or witch doctors or wild men.  They look like normal people but you can tell who they are by a scrunched up pinkie.  They carry baskets of charms around their necks and can assist you with whatever curse you wish to call on people.  Apparently, they can fly around the island nine times around in one flight (why someone knows this, I have no idea) and are generally feared by almost everybody.

The thing is, these people can see you but often, you can’t see them.  They can kill you or give you a disease without even knowing about it.  People say that you can go walkabout and they will kill you without you knowing it.  You go home and BAM! You drop dead on the floor.

I will definitely NOT be walking around the village alone.

The three little girls we are staying with drag out their English books, looking at me expectently. They ask me all kinds of questions in English; my pidgin doesn’t seem to help much on the Weathercoast as most people speak “language” (the local dialect).  However, I try my best to communicate with the girls and we seem to get along just fine.

The house we sleep in is amazing.  A fully constructed leaf house in the Solomons is pretty water tight (as I would learn later), and easy to keep clean.  This house looks like it was taken out of Swiss Family Robinson.  There is a basic deck around the house for “outdoor living” with a series of well organized shelf systems with pulleys.  The house is built on stilts, as are most leaf homes in the Sollies.  There are two large rooms divided by a leaf wall (for kids and adults) and then a nice enclosed space that looks out at the village for storage.   
 I am careful as I walk around; Solomon Islands are a skinny lot and I’m worried that my expat weight will 
break on of the flexible but scarily fragile looking slats that make up the floor of the house. 

We eat a simply meal of taiyo (tinned tuna) with pumpkin and some rice.  I go to bed early but the men stay up into the wee hours chatting away on the deck.  We sleep on the floor, with the three little children sleeping next to Regan and me. It’s slightly cooler than Honiara; the winds keep the Weathercoast a much more comfortable temperature.  I need a small blanket and curl up for a night’s sleep. 

The sun rises around 6:00 a.m. and a bell is sounded to invite all the villagers to church.  It’s impossible to sleep in; the whole village is awake around me.  I would come to realize that like Santa Catalina, village life begins early and ends late.  I wonder when Solomon Islanders actually sleep; it seems to me the women go to bed at around 11 p.m. and get up about 4 a.m…

We hike back down to the beach, where a RAMSI officer is holding a pair of binoculars looking at a pair of boats in the distance.  I chat with him awhile; he appears to be a nice kiwi bloke marooned on this part of the island for better part of two months.  Then off we go to go back the way we came.

Now entering the ocean from the shore follows similar principles as beaching the boat.  You have a group of villagers and passengers around the boat, holding it steady as it faces the crashing waves. 

“We must wait for a big one,” the boatman says.

Waves must be big because we are carrying a heavy load and we need to have enough height and space in the water to take us far away enough to be out of the surf break.

The waves are pretty large but we go.  Without the engine, we have very little power to the boat and are at the mercy of the waves.  The first big wave takes us up and all I can see is sky.  My stomach is still two metres below me.  However, what goes up must come down.  And down we went sharply into the trench of the wave.  Then up again…then down…then the engine roars to life and we circle close to shore, waiting for the other boat to clear the waves.  The waves seem to be less big when you can power over them.

Well that was one finished.  Now just another seven more villages to go…

 (NOTE: To Mom and Dad, yes I was wearing a life jacket, had a satellite beacon with me and was pretty close to shore during the Weathercoast visit, unlike the Reef Island trip.  And I was wearing sunscreen too.)