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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Adventure Island

Happy new year! This bloggie is going to be a bit back to front, with the New Year's adventure first in Savo and then the info about Christmas/Boxing day at the end.  I figured if you got here because you googled Solomon Islands, adventure, tourism, hotel, will want to read the Savo Island bit first. 

Savo is essentially a volcanic island covered in jungle bush and rivers, about 20 kms or so from Guadalcanal.  The island can be seen from Honiara on a clear day and even, a not so clear day.  To say the island is lush is like saying the sky is blue; it simply is the lushest place I have ever visited.  We leave at 7 a.m., bright and early.  Unfortunately, it’s December and rainy season has decided to do her thing and pour down for the better part of eight hours. 

Its cloudy and the wind picks up.  By the time we reach the place where we take the boat across to Savo, the waves are between 2-3 metres high; a bit perilous in a 14 foot boat.  Its choppy too; so the boat guys decide to wait until things calm down.  We wait for about two or three hours for the boats to come across from the resort, brining back soaked tourists.  

The journey lasts about an hour and the boatman carefully navigates his way across the waves.  As we get closer, Savo reveals itself to be a volcanic island, with high peaks and black sand beaches.  The island looks like something out of Robison Caruso or Monkey Island video game (I loves me some Monkey Island!!!)
Savo was the site of many big battles in World War 2, especially the Battle of Savo, which was, according to some historians, the first major battle in the Solomon Seas.  Fighting in Savo would be rough; the bush is dense and the presence of two, slightly active volcanic zones create a sulphuric haze. 

We get to Sunset Resort; a locally owned and operated place located on the western end of the island, in the centre of a peaceful bay.  The beach is black sand and the water is muddy  from all the rains but we sit in hammocks and drink deeply from coconuts.  The resort isn’t anything flashy; the accommodation is in a large two story facility, with the resort workers staying downstairs and the stayers upstairs.  Everyone gets their own room if they want one; no other guests are at the resort.  The rooms are tidy and clean, with a large balcony (but no chairs, which is sad because I would have loved to have just sit outside and enjoy the view from my room).

The beds are comfy and nicely sized.  After checking out the rooms, we go downstairs and eat in a large hall.  The Sunset Lodge is nicely equipped for larger groups and it seems a bit sad to have just the six of us staying there.

While waiting for dinner in a hammock, I spot the dorsal fin of a small (probably 1.5 metres) white tipped reef shark, cruising in the muddy shallows.  The guide, John, confirms the existence of the shark; he saw it too the next morning. 

The food is great; fish caught that day and then fried up nicely.  The chicken is also pretty good, as is the fresh fruits and veggies.  All and all, it’s simple but delicious food, with fresh fruit for dessert.

We spend the rest of the day napping, relaxing in hammocks, playing with kittens, swimming and talking about the end of 2010.  In the evening, a nice beach bonfire is built for us by the staff.  We sit around the bonfire, talking about the year, life and everything in general.  We do a nice ceremony of writing down things we want to leave behind in 2010 and then throwing the paper into the fire.  We also write down what we want for 2011 and throw that into the fire as well.

I am ashamed to say that I didn’t quite make it to midnight; I was tired and I wanted to be fully rested for the next day’s activities.  I was happy to see 2010 and go, I felt I made my peace with the year and I wanted a fresh start to 2011.

The next day was adventure day! We woke up and munched on crispy bacon, spicy sausages, and yummy eggs.  We needed a big breakfast; we were going to climb up to Big Savo Volcano!

We slather on suncream (I still got sunburnt, what a shock!) and head out for the big walk.  On our way out, we encounter the resident pod of dolphins.  The grey and black dolphins danced with our boats, and swam so close I felt like I could just reach out of the boat and touch them.  We saw baby dolphins jump high into the air.

Under the water, which wasn’t terribly clear, the dolphins looked like phantoms, swimming quickly to keep up with the boat and jumping out into the wake.   It was magical to see the dolphins dance, sing and jump around happily in the waves.

After about 30 minutes, we jetted off to our big walk.  We landed on a large span of black sand beach and clambered out.  The group started walking through the large braided river bed; the guide said the water had been very high the night before, at least a metre...the river bed was now completely empty.  As we gently climb higher, we reach a black stone gorge, eroded by time and the rivers running down it.  

According to the leader of our group, Rachel, the river was much higher than the previous times she has walked up it.

Seriously folks, it was like Indiana Jones and the Lost Volunteers; large vines hanging down and heaps of foliage everywhere.  Strange birds and stranger spiders (one shiny black with, get this, RED WING type things on it!  I was horrified; hey that kind of spider is usually a black widow where I am from, when the guide let it crawl all over him).  As we climb higher and higher, the water gets hotter and hotter.

We reach a fork in the river and go up a small creek area.  Our guide, John, touches the water and says “Too hot! Be VERY careful now; could burn your skin!”.  Yes, we had reached the place where the water was too hot to fall into.  Now, I’m not known for my skills at balancing and, more often than not, I just walk through rivers rather than avoid getting my boots wet.  I know I have no skill when it comes to hoping from rock to rock so I just plod on through.  No such luck this time.

We climb up to a six metre or so waterfall.  The waterfall steams and, if any of us weren’t sweating yet well the waterfall solved all that.  Our clothes sticking to our bodies, we climbed up a lashed, wooden ladder with rungs too large for a midget to climb up (meaning that yes, I had problems with it.)

We continued to walk along slippery logs, landslides and steaming hot pools until we reached the top.  The cone area was HOT, with pools of steamy, hot, sulferic type water bubbling away at our feet.  The cone was hot to the touch (yes, I did touch it) and silica mud streamed out of crevices.  There were large steam holes and little hot pools.  It looked like being on the moon; if the moon was white/yellow/orange/red/rust/brown and HOT.

Being in the Caldara of a volcano was freaking cool.  After we came down a little, John took some local foliage and created crowns for all of us.  Apparently, this mossy foliage only grows on Savo near the volcano.
It was slippery going down and I thought to myself “my parents warned me not to do stupid stuff like this”.  The walk down was pleasant enough and it was great to get out of the hot zone.

We got back to the beach in no time and proceeded back to hang out with the dolphins some more.  This time, three of us got to get into the water to swim with the dolphins.  Now, swimming with dolphins is not what one might expect; the dolphins weren’t in a playful mood and liked to run away a lot. 

With the water clarity being poor and the idea of hanging off of a rope in the pacific like bait off of a hook not seeming too fun, I decided not to go.  Plus some members of our group who really wanted to go never got the chance, because the dolphins swam quickly away.  When we arrived, hungry and tired from our big walk, back to the resort, the dolphins followed up and played not 100 meters off the beach.

The rest of the day was spent...well resting.  Hammock time was a must and I took a nap, enjoying the sounds of the crashing surf. 

At night we played a rousing game of spoons, tongues that included an interesting component of truth or day.  It was lots more fun than I remembered it at 16; clearly years of experience make the game more interesting.  If you want to know what went on, forget it. What happens on Savo, stays on Savo. 

During one hand of spoons, the smallest geiko in the world fell from the rafters, some eight metres above, on to my hand of cards.  He was clearly stunned and then proceeded to vomit a little on the table cloth.  After he regained his composure, he scampered off. 

The next day, we packed up and went back home.  I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my time on Savo and can’t wait to go back.  The whole island has a magical feel to it; wild and unexplored. Climbing up to the volcano was a real highlight.

In summary: If you visit the Solomons, GO TO SAVO.  Sure, there is no snorkeling or diving, really, but it has so many beautiful things to see and many great activities to do.  The resort is locally run and man, do they do a good job taking care of you.  I HIGHLY recommend Sunset Beach Resort, sure its pretty basic but hey, its cheap, fun and the people who run this establishment are very accommodating.  

Prices (in Solomon Island dollars, which is between 6 and 8 dollars per NZD or 9 USD) are as below, for those interested and reading this blog for tourist tips:
Accomd.: $120 per night, per person
Food: $300 per day (three BIG meals a day)
Big Volcano Tour: $50 per person plus $30 for transport  (HIGHLY RECOMMEND)
Dolphin swimming/viewing: $40 per person.
Megapod viewing (which I was too lazy to do): $40.
Sitting in hammocks, drinking from coconuts, playing with the local kittens, getting a gigantic huntsmen spider out of your room (A big thank you to Steve for his spider wrangling skills!), and seeing the BIGGEST, FATTEST geikos every: FREE!
Christmas and other holiday stuff

Christmas Day was spent with a lovely bunch of expats. Again, the people around the table were from far off lands: Taiwan, India, Austria, Australia, Spain, New Zealand and American (me!). 

We sat down to a beautiful Christmas dinner with a honey basted ham, a leg of lamb and a roasted chicken.  Steve and I had a bit of struggle roasting the chicken and lamb; neither of us had ever used a gas oven before and the ignition switch was taking Christmas off.  After a few panicked phone calls, we got it sorted.

The day was filled with merriment, good food and good conversation.  The Princess Bride was screened after the dinner.  Manny, our resident Spaniard, clearly loved the filmed and quoted it to:

"My name is Inigo killed my father.  Prepare to die!"

Unfortunatly, Santa also gave me the raging Honiara flu, which meant that I spent much of Christmas evening and Boxing Day in bed with a high temp, coughing and hacking away.  

On Christmas evening, I suspected that I might have malaria and went down to the hospital to get a blood test.  Now, normally I would just go to a local clinic, where everything runs pretty well. But it was Christmas evening, the clinics were closed and the Number Nine clinic was all there was available.

When we arrived, the” Number Nine” (so named during World War II) clinic was packed full of sick kids and people.  Mothers and children were laying down on mats, trying to sleep, waiting for doctors.  I spoke to some local ladies and they told me they had been there since 10 a.m. (it was 8 p.m. at that point), waiting to see a doctor.  No doctors were actually at the clinic.

It was a huge wake up call for me to witness the public health care service in the Solomons in action.  Triage nurses were set up in various rooms but I actually didn’t make it too far.  After speaking to a few people, everyone seemed to have the flu in Honiara and their symptoms seemed closer to mine than malaria.  After looking around at the really sick and injured people, I thought it was best not to waste the medical professionals precious time with my hypochondria and went back home to die quietly in my room.

Now, having the flu is no fun but having the flu in the tropics...well...thats really no fun.  By the end of the flu, the sheets were soaked, and I was still sweating profusely even after the fever broke.  After the fever broke, I was euphoric to be feeling better, so much so I almost went out to finish off some partying but then decided against it.  Good call; turns out I was weaker than I thought; I almost passed out on my way back to bed.
So a good, fluey time was had by all.

When I did get back into the social scene, turns out almost everyone had the same thing.  Tales of fever breaking fun littered conversation and everyone was still sniffling and sneezing.  

Steve and I attended a rousing game of Texas Holdem Poker and we munched on cigars, drinking some fine whiskey.  We also spend some time with the other Choiseul volunteer, Sam,a lawyer, and his girlfriend.  Sam has been out there a long time now in Choiseul and is Steve's only other expat around.  Sam is good value; we joke about getting him a white linen suit, Panama Hat and gin and tonics to get the full colonial expat look going on.  

I felt better and decided to go down and finish mailing all the packages to various volunteers throughout the islands.  

When I arrived at the post office, the guys knew me by name and had a big smile on their faces.
“Mrs. Sara, we garem goodfella package for you!”

Excitedly, the guys went into the back room and grabbed a lovely package that had my name on it from my friend Helen back in Christchurch.  I was speechless. In my hands was the first care package I had received in many, many years.  Probably six or so.  My cousin Amy used to send them but she gave it because I never sent her anything back.  I suck as a friend; that’s why I don’t get typically don’t care packages.

I excitedly opened it up…first off were the pirate stickers! Yarg! Me love a good pirate sitcker!  Second, the kiwi chocolate.  Third, a precious little ornament for a tree (which I didn’t really have this year).  A card, and the last was a handmade calendar with pictures from 2010 of me and Helen’s adventures.

I must admit, I wept when I opened the calendar.  I was so touched; words cannot express how much this small care package meant to me.  After all these years, I felt I was so over receiving things and that I didn’t need anyone to send me anything.  I hadn’t realised how wrong I was until that moment, when I flipped through the funny calendar with beautiful pictures.  In that moment, I felt all the years of being away from home, missing birthday, Christmases, Thanksgivings and all the other big and little moments.

Occasionally, the universe hands you the bill for being an expat.  Right now, the price seems higher and higher and I’m beginning to wonder if it’s worth it. I wonder if being away from my family for nine years has been the right decision.     

Over the next few days, it’s a blur of social fun and activities until we get ready to leave for Savo Island...(please read above to see what happens next! OOO its like a Choose your own adventure...but...not...hey, these blogs can't all end awesomely...)