top

SOLOMON ISLANDS

ABOUT THE SOLOMON ISLANDS

         

Through gaps in white spray, the island of the head-hunters beckoned with an irresistible menace. Almost hidden from the world behind mists that rose from the surface of the sea, Simbo lay on the horizon like a crouching turtle, a grey outline against the stormy Solomon sky. It is a small volcano some thirty kilometres from Gizo, the island capital of the Western Province. My knuckles were drained of blood from the constant strain of gripping the sides of the canoe as we aped through he increasingly rough waters which tossed the surface of the Pacific sells. In front of us a mountain of white water was building on the crest of one huge swell, and we climbed towards it, the summit curled, roared with a wicked pleasure and rushed towards us, licking its turbulent green surface with hungry tendrils of foam. As i peered ahead I began to feel certain that we were soon to drown. With a huge crash, island and sky were obliterated in a cascade of white spray that filled the sky around us and bit into unprotected eyes already reddened and smarting. The outboard whined in protest as the canoe flew into the air through the top of the wave, briefly I glimpsed the sea all round tossed with white crests, then with that sickening roller-coaster feeling we began to drop into the deep trough on the other side.

It is at moments like this that I wonder why I am not at home, comfortably watching television. McCoy was to blame of course. Earlier I had seen him grinning, even leering, from beneath his oilskin, with dark sinister features, full lips, watchful eyes and a glint of gold at his ear, he was a convincing picture of a true South Sea Island villain. Simbo, he said, was a short tri across the ocean by canoe, no problem - the locals always do it. Few things were a problem here, least of all being lost at sea; it was part of life and had always been so. It was not unusual for islanders to drift with broken outboards or torn sails for weeks until the made landfall on another island downwind, sometimes alive, sometimes starving, sometimes blistered by the drying sun, occasionally dead, I tried to force myself to thin of something other than being lost, drowned or eaten. Solomon Island waters are notorious for sharks.

We hit the base of the trough with such force that the deck-housing across the bow cracked. The vertebrae in my spine wriggled like the links of a bicycle chain and sent riveting pain signals up into my skull. With a lurch the canoe tipped sideways, momentarily unbalanced, and green water poured over the side. It was so warm, almost welcoming. Then the propeller gripped the sea, and we surged forward again, climbing to meet yet another mountain of green that had travelled a thousand miles across the Coral Sea, sculpted each day by the south-east trade winds. Nathan, the fourteen-year old fair-haired son of a missionary, equipped with baseball hat, T-shirt and shorts, fought a constant battle to guide us safely, if not comfortably, towards our destination. he had been plying the waters between the Solomon Islands for most of his life and was as skilled as any of the natives. Accompanying me to Simbo Island were Patrick Purcell, an American volunteer worker with the Government Information Department, laid-back, lanky and bearded, and Mike McCoy. I had met Mike for the first time at Henderson Airport outside Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands on Guadalcanal.

'Pleased to meet you,' he had said, thrusting a hand toward me. 'Got your letter. Thought I'd meet you here.' I looked at the shell necklace dangling over his chest. Hair sprouted thickly from the openings in his green and black tropical shirt. His bete noitre was a small red four-wheel drive Suzuki jeep, which had the distinction, I came to discover of only going up steep hills in reverse gear. Gravity would then keep the petrol flowing down to the engine, the pump having long since given up. The harsh sun had faded the colour to a lurid pink, and most of the outside panels enjoyed the most tenuous of links to the interior chassis. Mike McCoy is the only person I have ever met in the tropics who moves with the frantic speed of someone in the London rush hour. The small congested tropical roads in Honiara were to him as frustrating as any overloaded six-lane motorway. He stood on the horn which emitted a strangled beep as we swung into the traffic, narrowly missing several passers-by with piles of vegetables on their heads. With a series of savage gear changes, and a screaming 500 cc engine we rushed down the rough asphalt road past lines of palms and trees covered in red crabs-claw flowers along the waterfront towards the town, in a clatter of loose panels and jiggling bumpers.

World War II, Matanikau River, Solomon Islands

The steep flanks of the mountainous interior of Guadalcanal Island rose to our left. The dark forest which clothed the hills was dotted with light-green patches, which were farms. Many Americans had died there on Bloody Ridge, holding out against a Japanese army determined to remove them and advance into the Pacific. In early August 1942 the Americans captured Henderson Field, built by the Japanese as their springboard to Fiji and Samoa. over the 200 days of the Guadalcanal campaign, 3,600 Americans were killed or wounded, and of 36,000 Japanese, 15,000 were killed in action, malaria and battle fatigue claimed 9,000 more. It was some of the most ferocious and desperate fighting in history. Amongst the banana palms and taro patches, grenades, old boots, helmets and guns still lie where the men carrying them fell.

Those terrible scenes are gone from Honiara today. On m right as we bumped into town, numerous small coastal launches and canoes laden with nets plied the calm waters of the harbour front. Islanders in brightly patterned cotton dresses which contrasted with their black skins travelled the sidewalks on bicycles or bare feet, carrying hurdles of wood, thatch, fruit or poles laden with coconuts for the market. A profusion of modern bungalows and white sops with flat roofs stretching over the pavements to provide shade loomed ahead. In the distance I could see other islands across the sea. Mike and I relaxed for a while in the comfortable traditional surroundings of the Mendana Hotel. Garishly-coloured tourists were draped across the furniture, dark, fuzzy-haired Solomon Islanders shimmered between them carrying silver trays of drinks. Across the room through the open walls, between the palm roof and strong wooden pillars, the tropical blue seas glinted in the sunlight. 

Mike's house was a prefabricated grey-white box on stilts with a flat roof, perched on a hillside like much of the cheaper housing in Honiara. Large trees overhung it, providing shade and an air of privacy. As we climbed up to the house a dog bounded down the path to meet us, and despite Mike's abusive words of greeting jumped up at us with undiminished enthusiasm. Four small wooden steps led up through the mosquito-screen door, and into the single main room of which there was a study filled with books, where the children slept in bunks, a bedroom and a shower-room.

'You're on there,' he said, pointing to a cane sofa draped with intricately designed blankets. A strange-looking fish stared at me from a hubbling aquarium next to the window by the door. I stretched my arms upwards, sighed and narrowly missed amputating a hand on the rapidly turning fan hanging from the ceiling. Mike had found a perfect niche in the Solomon Island. His delightful wife Annie was from Malaita, one of the largest islands in the chain and six that includes Choiseul. New Georgia, Santa Isabel, San Cristobal and Guadalcanal, and stretches to the south-east of New Guinea. Mike was an expert on reptiles and had studied the distribution of lizards and snakes in the Solomons and elsewhere in the Pacific, as a lesson in dispersal and evolution in the islands. A superb professional photographer, he travelled widely around the Pacific on assignments for the National Geographic and others, to capture the delights of life above and below the sea. I could not have asked for a more knowledgeable guide or a more entertaining companion.

Solomon Islands, 1940s

With a huge crash I was jolted back to reality: the canoe plunged into another wave, sending a deluge of water over my thin green anorak, filling the bottom of the boat with water. Nathan grinned from the stern, his glasses covered in droplets, as he perched like a music-hall monkey on the rear thwart of the fibreglass canoe. The sea appeared to become a little calmer now, clouds of black terns and white-capped noddies, accompanied by an occasional majestic brown booby, skimmed over the water, searching for small fish and shrimps. Occasionally the water surface boiled as a shoal of tuna hinged at unseen prey. 'Albatrosses,' said Mike, gesturing at the birds with his beer can. All birds were albatrosses to him.

The Spanish explorer Alvara de Mendana was the first European to arrive at Santa Isabel in the Solomons, in 1568. Inca legends of islands rich in gold 600 leagues west of Peru had drawn him there, but a flet of welcoming war canoes presented him only with cooked pieces of a small boy garnished with taro leaves. he later arrived at Guadalcanal and found gold in the rivers of the interior. it is still mind today. The find prompted him to name the islands after the legendary African King. Defining longitude was a major difficulty for explorers of the day, and following this discovery the Solomons were lost for a further two centuries before anyone realized that Mendana had placed them anything up to 700 leagues off position, depending upon which New Guinea, and in the same year Bougainville gave his name to an island further north which was already called Choiseul, not realizing that it was part of the Solomons. Surville and Shortland were similarly mistaken when they visited the area in 1769 and 1788 respectively.

Soaking wet and bruised from the choppy swells we rounded the northern tip of Simbo into a small, shallow  bay, at last in the calm. The island measures about twelve square kilometres and is the westernmost island in the New Georgia group. It was originally called Eddystone by Shortland, but now only a small pinnacle off the southern tip bears that name.

In 1894, following exploitation by European slaving expeditions, the 'Blackbirdders', from plantations on Fiji and Queensland, the Solomons became a British Protectorate and they only gained full independence in 1978. They cover an area of 27,556 square kilometres, and include, apart from the six large island, twenty other medium-sized ones and numerous islets - there are over 900 in all, stretching 1,000 miles from Bougainville Strait to Tikopia. Most of the people are Melanesians, but with soft elegant face, rarely displaying the heavy hook-nosed features of the Papuans. Solomon Islanders must have the darkest skins in the world; in some cases they are almost an indigo blue. People are blackest in the Western Province, with the numbers of tan-skinned islanders increasing to the east. Their dark skins are made doubly striking by the fact that many of them have bushy blond hair. Unlike the wavy black hair of Polynesians, that of Melanesians is frizzy. Where the genes originated that turn Solomon Islanders' hair any shade from black through reddish brown to the colour of bleached straw is something of a mystery. Visits by early Europeans is a hot contender but the same effect has not occurred elsewhere in such profusion, and it is like that blond Solomon Islanders were in evidence long before their first contact with Europeans. Many modern visitors imagine that artificial bleach is the cause, but the colour of he pale hairs on arms and young faces that give these people a golden quality in the evening sun is real. I had also seen blond-haired Papuans on the northern coast of New Guinea. Like the incidence of lighter skin, that of lighter hair on the Solomon Islanders increases to the east and is most common among the Malaitains. Today the population of the islands numbers about 280,000, half of it is under the age of fifteen. Some of the outlying islands such as Rennell, Bellona, Ontong, Java and Tikopia - the so-called Polynesian Outliers - were colonized by Polynesians. It is believed that these people came to the islands from Wallis and Futuna to the east of the Solomons some 1,500 years ago. In the 1950s thousands of Micronesians, principally from the Gilbert Islands to the north-east, now part of Kiribati, were resettled in the suburbs of Honiara and Gizo. A number of Europeans and Chinese traders scattered across the archipelago complete the picture. 

The Solomon Islands represent one of the increasingly rare places in the world that have not yet been 'discovered' by the tourist trade. Despite the obvious financial rewards of hordes of overweight Americans, windsurfing Australians and camera-clicking Japanese, the Government pursues a cautious course with the harbingers of lotion-lubricated change to their beaches. The number of large hotels and purpose-built 'castaway' islands is gratifyingly small, though pressure for the floodgates to open is building. To me the islands were the most beautiful I visited in the whole of the South Pacific. High mountain ranges rise from enormous fringing lagoons of deepest turquoise and aquamarine, into which are set hundreds of tiny circular, coral islets, each topped with green forest and encircled by a thin strip of white sand, breathtaking from the air. The majority of the Solomon Islanders live on a subsistence agriculture centred on small rural villages often on the coats, they can also gather fish by long-lining or netting along the coral reefs. Yam, taro, sweet potato and cassava provide the daily bread, grown in individually owned 'gardens' cleared from the forest. Despite centuries of cultivation rain forest still covers much of the land. 

Between patches of open grassland marking ancient gardens, trees grow up the slopes all the way to the top of Simbo, their trunks visible through the green foliage like the pale legs of sheep. We approached a small colony of twenty or thirty huts the colour of straw yellowed in a summer's sun, newly thatched with sago-palm leaves. This was the village of Tapurai, which was originally built as a temporary settlement in the northern tip of the island but had flourished under missionary influence. As we came near the shore, the clarity of the water and the variety of the corals were astonishing. I looked down as though hanging in space. We negotiated an awkward cut in the reef, and poled our way between huge reddish-brown table-top corals, brain corals with their undulating patterns, other crusted balls of green and magenta, acroporas growing between staghorns. Small fish painted a brilliant yellow flashed through, while others streaked with electric blue paused in small groups on table-top corals to watch us glide by. Already a horde of eagerly shouting and smiling dark children were running down the beach, pale soles sending up sprays of white sand, blond and black hair bobbing, arms and elbows waving. The prow of the canoe gently crunched into the sand, and the sound of the children's whispering filled the air.

Simbo is not too far from the Pacific's ring of fire; it is still an active volcano. To the north are the rolling hills and sediments of former volcanic activity that make up Patukio Hill. The southern half of the island consists of two young volcanic cones about 400 metres high. The southernmost cone of Matindini is split from north to south into Ove on the western side, which is thermally active, and Karivara to the east. Some older individuals appeared from the village. My reason for wanting to make what had turned out to be a rather terrifying trip to Simbo was not only to see what remained of the ancient cult of the head-hunters for which the island had been famous, but also to learn of a more peaceful pastime that the islanders now pursued, the farming of the extraordinary megapodes or incubator birds. These have evolved a unique way of avoiding the tedious and potentially dangerous business of incubating their eggs: they let the volcano do it for them by laying in the centrally heated soils around the volcano's steaming vents.

The villagers said they knew of the place but we would have to call at the next village to get permission from the Chief's son. Ahazi Keti, one of the older men of the village, and he would accompany us, and we set off again. Further down the coast we entered an impressive bay dominated by steep slopes rising hundreds of metres from the sea. In a saddle between them, the village of Legana lay. There was a small concrete jetty sticking out from the shore to which we moored. Colourful villagers emerged from huts a little way up the shore and wandered on to the jetty. There was a moment's conversation, then everyone began yelling at the mountainside to our right. In the distance up the slope a man could be seen running through the newly cut gardens. Some minutes passed before Siso, a tall lanky islander, arrived. He was the Chief's son. A long debate ensured, with much gesticulating between Mike, Siso and others on the jetty and occasional comments shouted from a group of women on the shore. No, he was sorry, it would not be possible for us to visit the megapode site; there was a dispute over land rights and our visit would create awkwardness. My heart sank. It seemed that one family owned the land on which the birds laid their eggs and someone else owned the land over which the path went to get there. These two parties were not speaking to each other, the owners of the path believing that they should receive payment from anyone crossing their land to obtain the birds' eggs. The other group disagreed, claiming they had sole rights. An annual visit by a tourist ship had recently brought matters to a head: everyone wanted a cut of the profits. The whole business was causing Siso headaches.

'The women behind me, they own the place,' Siso said apologetically. Long pauses and glum faces on our part appeared to be having little effect. suddenly, there was a change of heart, though Mike could not explain why: 'You can go if you pay twenty dollars.' We did and amidst smiles and waves put out into the bay again to continue down the coast.

We landed at a place called Ove Lavata, dragged the canoe over the white coral fragments which covered the beach, and headed into the forest. In many parts of the Pacific, islanders believe the spirits of the dead depart for another island. Keti told me that Ove was believed to be on of the places to which they came. Travelling parallel to the coast a short way inland we came to a small lake, surrounded on all sides by thick vegetation. Steam appeared to be rising from its clear emerald-coloured surface. I dipped my hand in: it was hot. Further on the smell of sulphur began to fill the air' the volcano's active breath was seeping unseen through the forest. Then quite unexpectedly we saw them: two megapode birds picking their way across the path in a leisurely fashion, like a pair of small black guinea fowl with over-large orange feet. The dark-brown feathers on their backs blended with the forest floor. Their heads were grey, slightly crested and equipped with bright yellow beaks. The dry leaves rustled as they disappeared into the undergrowth, perhaps having recently visited their communal nesting grounds. I was elated, to have observed these somewhat elusive birds so easily in the wild was an unexpected bonus. A few paces further on I saw one of the magapode's greatest enemies prowling across the forest floor, its sharp claws puncturing the leaves. Its body, as long as my leg, was streaked with black and decorated with spots of yellow. Its forked tongue collected molecules from the air and tasted them on the roof of its mouth as it searched for the megapode nests. It was a monitor lizard, hoping to dig into the sand and find the large protein-filled eggs. This would not be easy, for the eggs are laid at considerable depths. This explains the birds' large feet, which are used to excavate the burrows.  

With so much turbulent sea surrounding the islands here, I wondered how these creatures had managed to reach Simbo. From New Guinea to the Solomons there is an almost continuous chain of islands stretching through New Britain to Santa Cruz. These form a fragmented land bridge to the Pacific down which many of the animals and plants that colonized the islands further to the east must have passed. but only some were able to cross. Although many creatures once roamed the plains that connected the great islands of the Sunday shelf and joined Sumatra, Borneo and Java to the Malaysian Peninsula, the sea prevented large mammals crossing the Wallace Line to New Guinea and Australia. Most of the marsupials and other creatures which evolved there were likewise prevented from easily reaching the Solomons by water gaps.

New Guinea boasts 780 birds, but the Solomons muster only 150, ranging in size from tiny honey-eaters to large birds of prey such as Sanford's eagle. Colourful parrots and pigeons fly through the forests of the Solomons, as well as numerous insect-eating bats and fruit-eating flying foxes, and some of the 70 species of reptile that inhabit the islands, from turtles to lizards, are also to be found. On land there are but a few mammals; a possum, a tree kangaroo, and a collection of extraordinary giant rats. These may grow to the size of rabbits, and have equally soft fur, but they are now very rare, one species has remained elusive since it was collected almost a century ago. Off the coast one occasionally sees whales, and more rarely the lugubrious features of the dugong, or sea cow. These have been heavily hunted in the past both for their meat and for their valuable tusks, whose ivory can be carved into ornaments. The habit these walrus-like beasts have of bobbing up and down in the water displaying somewhat human-looking breasts has given rise to the suggestion that they may have been responsible for the mermaid myth, but anyone who has taken a close look at the facial features of a dugong will quickly realize that only truly desperate men could imagine such a thing.

Solomon Islands Village, 1940's

I could hear voices ahead, and we soon came to a clearing in the forest. All around, the earth was honeycombed with huge burrows, and at one end thee was a small shelter made of palm leaves from the screw pine, also known as pandanus. From one of the burrows protruded a human bottom and a pair of legs between which showers of black earth flew at intervals. The owner emerged from the burrow, his face covered in soil, and gave us a broad grin. In his hand he had a large brown egg. As many as a hundred eggs may be collected each day from the communal nesting area in this way. Surprisingly the population of the birds has remained stable here, and even increased. In other areas megapode birds are threatened as demand for the eggs outstrips the supply. Traditionally, local customs provide sources a village needs. Too often I was to find on m later travels to the islands that these have succumbed to modern influences and no longer apply.

Megapodes do not make caring parents. Giving up incubation to a volcano or a pile of slowly decomposing vegetation on their eggs where a predator may snatch them. But there is a price. The new chicks have no adults to protect them or teach them how to find food. They must therefore be advanced enough to fend for themselves and programmed to begin life on their own as soon as they hatch. Under natural conditions, they hatch fully feathered, borrow to the surface, and immediately run or take flight into the forest. This remarkable degree of development in the egg is costly. The eggs are therefore large and filled with protein in a rich yolk that takes up practically the whole interior of the egg. This makes them a valuable food, so the locals farm them. To encourage the birds to return to the same site, the sand and soil is prepared and kept soft and easy to dig. The small shelter I had been was built to protect a favoured site from the rain, keeping the soil dry and workable for the birds. The volcano kept the air inside the burrows hot and humid, forming perfect incubation chambers. The nesting site was close to the lake edge. Several canoes had been drawn up, easy transport for the journey with the day's crop of eggs back to the beach landing spot where they would be hauled over the bank, through the forest and into the sea. From white rock, boiling springs bubbled and steamed into the lake. Children were cooking megapode eggs in them. They insisted I try one and in a few minutes mine was hard-boiled. The yolk was a mottled yellow and tasted of rotten hens' eggs; perhaps this was due to the sulphurous fumes in which it was laid.    

It should be a simple matter to organize the farming of these birds on a domestic basis in those areas where the pressure on their natural sites is too great. The revenue from the sale of the eggs could become a valuable asset to local villages and gave them good reason to look after their birds rather than destroying them. The distribution of the megapodes in the Pacific is very odd. They are found in northern Australia's forests and scrublands, throughout much of South-east Asia, and in New Guinea. Aeons ago it seems that they progressed down the Solomon Islands land bridge with relative ease - one species reached the new Hebrides further to the west, now known as Vanuatu - and then they apparently vanished, only to reappear on one single island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the Island of Niuafo'ou in the Tongan group. There Megapodius pritchardii lives in splendid isolation surrounded on all sides by vast expanses of ocean. To the north-east lies Samoa, to the south the remaining islands of Tonga and to the south-west the islands of the Fiji group, both large and small.

The little slate-grey bird, wings and rump brushed with rufous brown, is similar in its habits to the ones I witnessed on Simbo, spending much of its time scurrying through the undergrowth on orange-yellow legs, pecking amongst the leaf litter, hoping to snatch up worms, grubs or insects in its bright yellow beak. Small crabs and snails will also fall p0rey to these unique creatures, of which today there are somewhere between two and four hundred. Like its relative on Simbo, this megapode lays its eggs in soil near to the warm volcanic vents which puncture the island's surface. Why should the bird be found here and not on any of the islands between Niuafo'ou and Vanuatu almost 2,000 kilometres further west? The answer lies inside caves once occupied by man.

Until very recently archaeologists who worked in the Bismarcks and the Solomons were unable to find any evidence of occupation by man older than 4,500 years. This seems odd, for man appears to have been in mainland New Guinea for at least 40,000 years, indeed some believe that agriculture originated in the highlands of New Guinea, so old are the cultures that have been discovered there. What took man so long to reach these nearest major islands? The distances were not huge by Pacific standards. Small craft must have been fashioned to reach New Guinea from Indonesia where the Papuans appear originally to have come from. What kept them on the shores of New Guinea for 35,000 years? In 1985, Jim Allen and Chris Gosden from La Trobe university in Melbourne, excavated Matenkupkum cave in New Ireland and found human artefacts 33,000 years old deep in the earth deposits. These finds are set to revolutionize theories about the movement of man into the Pacific. who the people were and how they made their journeys is a subject for a follow-up Web site, but one thing is clear: man was not held up in New Guinea, and may have moved much further east and even into the Solomon Islands far earlier than was previously thought.    

Part of the reason for the inaccurate early dates is the pitiful amount of modern archaeological work that has been done in these areas. A special kind of archaeologist is required to venture into the bush and endure the harsh, sweltering conditions and the occasionally hostile interest. Many of the areas where investigation is needed are 'custom' sites, revered as ancient burial grounds, places of legend and sorcery. To tamper with these is to incur the wrath of the spirit gods, the consequences of which are unthinkable to the local people. Complex negotiations must be entered into before satisfactory permissions can be obtained from village elders, and even then rivalries between villages may result in conflicting claims of precedence. The expense and difficulty of working in these remote islands has kept their history from the world. Tim Flannery from the National Museum in Sydney discovered charred remains and bones in the cave, indicating that the early occupants were hunters and feasted here on their prey. The beasts they captured were mainly birds: there were no bones of any mammals. This could mean that the hunters were not eating them, but if they had sufficient skill to obtain birds, they surely would have been able to hunt the slow-moving possums, tree kangaroos and rats. Perhaps these mammals did not exist in New Ireland's forests when man first arrived. If so, how did they get there? Higher up in the cave deposits, coming closer to the present day in time, possum bones begin to appear in the hunters' remains. There is another more tantalizing solution: they may have been brought in by man.

Market garden, Solomon Islands, 1943

Such valuable creatures well known from the mainland would have been sorely missed in the hunters' new home. Somehow they must have been transported across the sea in the simple water craft the first colonizing peoples used and then, without competition from resident marsupials, quickly spread through the forests. That man should have played such an important role in assisting animals along the Solomon Island land bridge was a great surprise to me. Where did it stop? How many of the animals in the Pacific had in fact been moved there by man? Creatures of value for food or ceremonial occasions - brightly-coloured birds whose feathers were highly prized, like New Guinea's birds of paradise, for example - might have been candidates for a canoe trip to a new land. Was this an answer to the mystery of how some creatures reached the Pacific's distant archipelago? It was strange to find the history of man and nature so closely intertwined.

Five months of work inside a cave on the island of Lakeba in Fiji revealed to Simon Best, a New Zealand archaeologist, that the forests there had once contained a huge pigeon which could barely fly, and megapoddes. On another island, off the large island of Viti Levu, a new genus of giant megapodes, the size of small turkeys, once lived, now only their bones remain. On the island of Tikopia in the far east of the Solomon Islands archaeology has again revealed the presence of megapodes, though none are to be found on this isolated island today. This was due not to any modern influence but to the inability of the noble savage to live in harmony with his environment. The reason that there are no megapodes over such a large area in the Pacific where you might expect them is that they have been exterminated by man. The early settlers exploited their surroundings to the maximum of their potential; this fact is at odds with the notion of Paradise that generations of writers have extolled. On Simbo I pondered the thought that if traditional methods of protecting natural resources had failed, modern imposed methods would have no hope of succeeding.

On the south-western shore of Simbo, opposite the lake of Lologasa, the source of the heat for the megapodes spluttered and steamed from between huge boulders encrusted with yellow sulphur at the base of a cliff. Keti found a mouldering branch and blew smoke into the hole, which precipitated impressive amounts of steam into the air. Huge ochre-coloured boulders were scattered around where the erupted cliff had fallen, green trees clustered around the edge at the top, and at its base pandanus trees hung their rosettes of leaves over the sea. On the shore a huge tree had been washed up, its roots twisted and smooth against the sky. Had the meegapodes used such logs at a raft? The monitor lizard may well have done so, if it was not brought in by man. But megapodes are strong fliers and are known to fly to offshore islands to roost at night; in fact they could have flown across smaller water gaps. Drifting wood is a key in the colonization story. Many of the castaways that I was to encounter have ridden such rafts not just between nearby islands, but thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean itself.

We returned around the coast to a village called Masusru and there collected a small, unshaven man called Peter Geli, with sparse greying hair and a gammy leg. He was the keeper of the tabuna, or skull houses. On the tip of a coral spit covered in vegetation, dominated by the high mountains behind, we entered the forest at a place known as Pa Na Ghudu. The keeper hobbled through the scrubby plants and we moved under the shade of some trees. A little further and there, clustered in piles within chests made of coral blocks, lay the darkened orbits of numerous staring skulls. There were twelve such containers, each filled with the whole and broken skulls of village ancestors carried to this sacred resting place long ago. Corrugated iron now served as a roof over most of the chambers, and as the canopy above my head rustled, the dappled sunlight danced a hideous pattern over bleached, moss-covered bone filled with decayed and splintered teeth. Amulets of shell money carved from giant clams lay strewn around. Nearby there was a small statue, a wooden torso lying on its back amongst the leaves and fallen branches, its extended earlobes projecting downwards from the sides of its head. The body was streaked with years of decay. Two large holes right through the head served as eyes. This was a beku  idol. I felt here the mood of a darker time, when lives were cheap and skulls were for the taking as symbols of manhood. Simbo was a centre for the Cult of the Dead.

In the nineteenth century, Simbo was a major based for head-hunting raids to the islands near Gizo. Some of the earliest accounts were given by Andrew Cheyne, who visited the island in the island in the 1840s when European traders were permanently settled here. Large numbers of heads were taken in these raids; 93 were recorded from one attack alone. What I had seen was a miniature dolmen on which the skulls were placed inside a superstructure of sticks and leaves, now replaced with the collapsed corrugated iron. The tabuna was an essential part of Simbo funeral rites. Of special interest were the ungi, widows who were compelled to commit suicide after the death of their husbands. At this time their valuables, including armrings and other shell jewellery were also destroyed. Should the skull of a particular man not be available, then a small stone monolith or ngele would be placed at the tabuna instead. The skulls were often decorated with rings of shell over the orbits, and sacrifices of food were placed in the roof over them or in a fire in front of the dolmen.

I was saddened by the atmosphere of decay and neglect here. Mike and I raised the beku statue upright, put some of the shell amulets in the positions they had held 56 years before, and silently left. The return to Gizo was even worse than the journey out. A day of trade winds had left the sea confused and reluctant to let us through. It seemed much rougher in some areas than others. In particular there were two patched, each of about a mile in length, where it seemed we would be swamped. I had felt them when we crossed to Simbo that morning - it seemed an age ago. To the early navigators passing this way centuries before, such patches would have been signals in the sea. Polynesians versed in the ancient and highly skilled art of wayfinding would lie in the base of a canoe to feel the direction of swells that had bounced off islands way beyond their view. Here I could fell them too. Where the swells met, deflected from two or more islands, the sea became particularly rough. Such areas provided points of reference, made up a wave map discernible even in total darkness. I began to sense how the Polynesians and early seafaring peoples who came this way could navigate on their journeys through the Pacific. It was not difficult to imagine the tense feelings of voyagers generations before who after days, perhaps weeks, of being at sea glimpsed an unknown island ahead in the gathering dusk and knew that before them lay a new land: the fulfillment of a dream, a place to continue what the Polynesians called vanua, the way of the Pacific.  

As darkness fell the sea took on a new menace. Gone were the brilliant sunlit crests and blue-green waters. In their place were only mountains of blackness and the roar of breaking surf. Ahead lay the lights of Gizo, the thin line of its protecting reef a streak of white in the night. There would be no protection there for us should we capsize. our bodies would be picked up by the huge breaking seas and pounded on to the razor sharp coral heads, which would strip flesh from bone as efficiently as a whaler's flensing knife.

GIZO, WESTERN PROVINCE, SOLOMON ISLANDS

It is not difficult to fall in love with Gizo. The town which bears the island's name has been the administrative centre for the Western Province since 1899 and is the second largest in the Solomons, which still means it is small, numbering a few thousand inhabitants. From the wood and palm thatch terrace of the Gizo hotel the morning after our return from Simbo I could gaze out oh the gentle ebb and flow of lives here.

Postcard, Solomon Islands

It is a classic tropical town. Its inhabitants drift at a languid pace, the sound of flip-flops marking their passage. Linked by long brown arms, they wander through patches of sun and shade beneath the trees which cover the main street. Their faces appear more Fijian than Papuan, most with skin so dark that tongue is a pink flash against full black lips given to cheerful smiles. Their sparkling eyes are deep brown set in ivory. Their hair is either close-cropped and frizzy, or long and wavy, owing to a Polynesian or perhaps an early European influence. In twos and threes they stroll into town in search of vegetables from the market, beer from the store, a newspaper, ticket for boats to other islands. There is a clanging of church bells, some singing in the distance. Dogs and chickens scratch. Shrieks of laughter from behind mosquito screens mingle with the faint plucking of guitar strings and the sound of Polynesian starlings squabbling in the branches above. 

A short walk past the larger stores took me to some Chinese shops, proudly decorated with green boards and yellow beadling. Blue pillars supported wide tin roofs over verandas laden with smiling children who met my waves with grins and giggles. One shop stood opposite a covered warehouse in which a large wooden boat was being built. The sounds of craftsmen working with hard woods and of a Chinese overseer chattering drew me inside. The craftsmen beating at chisels with large wooden mallets were Somalis from East Africa; a legacy perhaps of the great Arab trading skill which once flourished on that coast. There seemed to be few if any power tools; one man was fitting joints with wooden pegs and glue. They told me the boat would be ready in a few months to carry trade goods between the islands for its Chinese owners.

Outside the children played in the dusty street. Through the trees along the water front, pale-blue launches clustered amongst canoes, cottons flapping in the drying sun. In the distance beyond the curve of the bay, haze shrouded an island several miles away, the great volcano of Kolombangara. Charlie Panakera is the manager of the Gizo hotel, where Mike and I had lunch that day. He is an MP and has a Masters degree in Business Studies from New Zealand. His father was a chief from a nearby island. The Solomon Islands have a 38-member National Parliament, from which the Prime Minister is elected, and 15 cabinet members. The Queen has been represented by the Governor since full independence was granted in 1978. There are seven provinces, each with a premier and local assembly. These are largely dependent on central government for funding. IN the past tourism was actively discouraged, and to date plays a relatively minor role in the economy of the Solomons, but the need for foreign exchange to develop the country will almost certainly cause it to increase in the future.

 

Malaita, Solomon Islands

After fish, much of which goes to the USA, timber is the second largest export, principally sent to Japan and Australia as raw logs. In a few short years, this latter trade is likely to destroy many of the animals and plants which I had come to see. I was anxious to see as much of them as possible before it was too late. In the afternoon we took a trip into the interior. The Toyota Landcruiser we drove had seen better days, but Mike's curses and demonic gear changes spurred it on to hitherto unobtainable speeds. We swept past the Gizo prison, where i was surprised to see the tall wire-mesh gates open and most of the inmates enjoying the view of the sea from the side of the road. After passing around the southern tip of the island we cam to a village of pandanus-thatched huts standing a metre high on stilt. They reminded me of the Polynesian villages I had seen in the Cook Islands. Indeed, they were built by Polynesians; by Gilbertese from a nation of atolls to the north-east who had been moved here by the British Administration in the early 1950s. 

Spying a small logging track, we climbed away from the coast and were soon within the forest. Much o it had been logged and was highly disturbed but there were patches I saw golden whistlers in striking yellow and black livery flitting between the branches, and small groups of olive-green birds with white-ringed eyes from which they took their name: white-eyes. Occasionally a bird-wing butterfly as large as my hand would flop through the higher branches in search of flowers, and a small honey-eater probed hanging red ginger flowers for nectar. In the forest I felt at home again. I noticed strange-looking balls looking rather like spiky grey-green hedgehogs with leaves growing out of their noses dangling from some of the trees. These represented one of the strangest of all associations between animals and plants. They were ant plants, which grow on branches high above ground, not as parasites taking sustenance from their hosts, but as epiphytes - botanical hitchhikers seeking a place in the sun. Their very lightweight seeds float and gain a foothold high in the canopy, where their leaves, once grown, can photosynthesize well. But such a lifestyle, without roots in the ground leaves them with no food or water. They have solved this problem by getting ants to work for them. 

No ant plant is more extraordinary than the football-sized Myrmecodia. Through small holes in its skin, tiny ants of the genus Iridomyrmex gain access to small purple rooms. Some of these are flat and interconnecting and here the ants rear their brood. Others are tubes, exchanging oxygen with the exterior, and some act as burial chambers for the colony's dead. These ant catacombs are covered in absorbent warts which play a vital role in providing the plant with the food it needs. During the night the tiny ants stream out of their high-rise homes down the tree trunks and on to the forest floor. There amongst the leaves, like Lilliputian undertakers, they search for the bodies of other dead insects such as beetles, aphids, or bus that may have fallen in the constant rain of natural death from the canopy above. On finding the carcasses they begin a Herculean struggle to carry them aloft to their plant home, where they put them in the internal garbage dump to rot. Here another miracle begins. The ants seed them with fungal spores and in time these grow into minute mushrooms on which they feed. The action of the fungi also releases juices which are taken up by the wart-like rootlets and into the plant, providing it with the organic compounds which it needs. The ants get a home, the plants their daily bread: a satisfactory quid pro quo. 

There are other creatures in the Solomons which have unlikely bed partners. Termites often create large colonial mounds made of articles of wood stuck together with insect saliva on the sides of trees high above the ground. The trunk and branches of the host tree are streaked with a network of tunnels leading to rotting branches and tree cores which the termites efficiently chew their way through, slowly reducing the forest to dust (wooden houses and often my notes are similarly disposed of). Termites appear like small fatty globules on six legs and many animals, including humans, like to eat them, so the termites protect themselves with muscular soldiers, often armed with powerful jaws which can deliver a painful bite. This is not enough to deter other raiding insects capable of swiftly avoiding the sluggish termites, so many have additionally equipped themselves with small spray guns sticking out of their foreheads. From these they fire soul-smelling and extremely sticky fluids, the effect of which, if you are very small, must be rather like being sprayed on by a a skunk and then covered in chewing gum.

The smallest parrots in the world are the pygmy parrots of New Guinea and the Solomons. In the Solomons Micropsitta finschi, the emerald pygmy parrot, and Micropsitta bruijnii, the mountain pygmy parrot, burrow into termite nests to rear their young. These delightful birds, barely the length of a finger and sporting green plumage, their faces adorned with pink in the mountain species and a crown of blue in the lowland species, appear to feed on lichen growing on the bark of trees, sometimes climbing head downwards to obtain it like the nuthatch of the temperate world. As many as six adults may occupy the nest while the young are being reared and none of the birds appears to suffer any ills from its creeping bedmates. The termites seal the entrances to tunnels breached when the nest holes are dug and cause the birds little offence, possibly because the parrots assume the colony odour by which termites recognize their kin. But why should they wish to nest there in the first place? It seems that the interior of a termite nest is the perfect place to incubate eggs. It maintains a high humidity and the eggs remain warm without being exposed to the harsh sun. Also, few animals wish to run the gauntlet of termite soldiers, so few predators such as rats or lizards will enter the nests. 

A whoosh of wings and a loud 'quark' indicated that a hornbill was nearby, but I couldn't see it. There was a rustling of laves. It was probably feeding on figs. A second sound like wind running through the shrouds of a sailing vessel, announced the arrival of its mate, gliding in on massive black wing with a span wider than my outstretched arms. Its huge bill, topped with a casque of 'ivory', gave it a faintly ridiculous appearance. These birds are some of my favourites in the forest. They are expert at picking fruit from the branches and are also partial to nestlings, lizards and insects if they can find them. Their serrated beaks are strong enough to shear wire, but they have to toss their heads backwards to allow fruits to fall into their mouths because they have only a stub for a tongue. They are adept at catching. One I knew of, kept as a pet, enjoyed teasing the family dog by dropping food into its mouth and snatching it out again before the exasperated hound could swallow it.

There are some eighteen species of hornbill in the great forests of South-east Asia; many more are to be found in Africa. Moving east into the Pacific, this variety is filtered away to a single species in the Solomons, Blyth's hornbill, Aceros plicatus. It was a pair of this species that i was now watching. Its breeding habits in the Solomons are unknown, but it is likely that they are similar to those observed elsewhere in its range, which stretches as far west as Burma. Like parrots, these birds nest in tree holes high above the ground, but unlike them, the hornbill females are subjected to an extraordinary imprisonment that may last several months. Having found a suitable hole in which to make their nest the hornbills use their powerful bills to widen the entrance until it is large enough for the hen bird to squeeze in. Then the entrance is sealed up with mud, saliva and faeces until only a small slit remains, just large enough for the female's fearsome beak to protrude. Safe inside her prison, she loses most of their feathers, which serve as nesting material. Two or four eggs are laid and the family grows inside the tree, fed by the cock bird and other members of the hornbill community. Only when the young birds have fledged is the opening breached so that they can spread their wings in the humid air.

We paused on the track by a huge tree in a clearing. In the topmost branches were the most beautiful parrots I have ever seen. Female eclectus parrots are a dazzle of red and blue, while the males are emerald green, flashing red under their wings as they fly. The brilliance of their plumage is startling in the forest even at a distance. Six were engaged in a particularly raucous argument in the bare treetop. Lower down another appeared from a nest hole in the trunk and added her voice to the cacophony of sound. Soon the object of their displeasure came floating elegantly and menacingly over the crowns: a massive Sanford's eagle. As it approached on its huge brown wings, the parrots scattered in several directions, squawking through the forest, disappearing out of sight.

As we continued along the road I noticed what appeared to be a large white paper bag floating on the wind over the tree crowns. It revealed itself to be a Ducorps cockatoo, which occurs naturally only in the Solomons. There were quite a number of them in the forest. The track wound through the trees and we came suddenly on a group of hunters who had just shot one. It was still alive, blood dripping from its broken wing and splashing red on its creamy-white feathers. It cried pitifully as they proudly stretched its wings out to show off their prize.

'Meat?' I asked Mike.
'Meat,' he replied and drove on.

*     *     * 

 About the Solomon Islands - Part 2

click here

Jane's Oceania Home Page

click here

Solomon Islands Postcards and Picture Gallery

click here

Jane's Solomon Islands Home Page
Subscribe!
Please enter your email address for your free Pacific Islands Radio Newsletter!

 

Hosted By Topica

Pacific Islands Radio Stations

Jane Resture's Oceania Page

 
(E-mail: jane@janeresture.com -- Rev. 28sth October 2008)
 

eXTReMe Tracker