Islands and islets in New Caledonia

Vanuatu had a mixed French-English history, but now in New Caledonia it was all French, about as Frenchy as it gets. It’s like you’ve dropped down in tropical Paris after weeks of fighting for electricity and something to eat that wasn’t rice or fried. Now there were supermarkets stocked full of cheese, pastries, wine, and vegetables that weren’t in season. You could eat lunch at a creperie and filet mignon for dinner, but you’d also have to pay the Parisian price for it. The cafes and bars were lined along the beach, so you could take a dip in the crystal blue water between lunch and dinner while working on your tan. The highways were painted and streets were signed, and a lot of fare skinned youngsters drove around in tiny Peugots.

cliff jumping in Dumbea river

cliff jumping in Dumbea river

I looked for a host on couchsurfing, and stumbled upon the same guy that hosted me a year and half ago in Martinique. Him and his roomates treated me like a guest of honour – I took the penthouse bedroom in exchange for cooking meals, and they took me to two of the most beautiful places in New Caledonia. First we spent the day at the base of a water dam, where a bright blue lagoon sat amidst cliffs and house-sized stones that you could jump off from different heights. The second day we hiked 2 hours into the Dumbea river valley, filled with waterfalls and freshwater pools, and did pretty much the same thing.

bungalows at Ilot Maitre

bungalows at Ilot Maitre

While the boys were at work every day, I busied myself with ferries to different isles and islets around Noumea. Two of them are reached by a 15-20 minute water taxi: Ile aux Canards is a couple kilometers off the coast, about 200m around, filled with beach chairs and one little restaurant, but I spent most of my time there in the water staring at colourful fishes and huge corals. Ilot Maitre was slightly bigger, a long narrow strip of sand and trees surrounded by a hundred kites. It’s a kite surfer’s paradise on the windward side, and the leeward side has more corals and pretty fishes, plus a handful of luxurious bungalows built right over the lagoon for lovey-dovey Japanese honeymooners.

Amedee lighthouse

Amedee lighthouse

Amadee Islet was a similar size, but you can only visit by day and its a lot further away. Its kind of a tourist trap, but still a lovely, all-inclusive day trip to paradise island. Its the kind of island you’ve seen on a thousand post cards of the south pacific, the ideal, isolated palm-fringed, white sand beach island, surrounded by perfect reefs holding turtles and sea snakes swimming among the big parrot fishes. There’s a towering white lighthouse in the middle that gives you an amazing aerial view of it all. After getting our fill of snorkeling and beaching, we feasted on a seafood buffet while watching Polynesian dancers shake their tattooed bodies and hips adorned with leafy belts.

Isle of Pines

Isle of Pines

Ile des Pins was just that – a tropical island filled with pine trees! They stuck out taller and darker than the palms, but made the island look even more magical than it already felt. People actually live on Ile des pins (there hadn’t been any locals on the other little ones), but it’s a small, isolated and picture perfect place that’s catered to French, Australian and Japanese tourists to come and buy into a slice of heaven for just the day or weekend. The locals work according to the plane and ferry schedules, opening shops and cooking stalls just for our arrival, and once we’ve left or gone to bed, they disappear back to their private lives, unmolested by light, noise, or any sort of hectic stress that Noumeans have to live with.

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Horsing around in Vanuatu

On my journey through PNG and the Solomons, I was trailing a few weeks behind a Bulgarian backpacker named Tihomir taking the same overland route. I found him through couchsurfing, and after exchanging a few emails with him and following his blog, I was able to plan my own trip. It followed pretty much in his exact footsteps, except that he crossed the border in Bougainville a bit differently and stayed with other people, but I would never have made it to Honiara without his help. Only a handful of tourists cross into the Solomons this way, and after being on the move for more than 10 days without ever really knowing how to move or where to stay, I looked forward to arriving in Port Vila and staying put for a while.

Vanuatu isn’t a stranger to tourism, so its okay to just show up with no plan and wing it. It’s an archipelago of 80+ islands and islets, and 65 of them are inhabited, with ferries, boats and little planes connecting everyone. The international airport is on Efate Island (the 3rd largest and home of the country’s capital city Port Vila), which is only 160km around but sustains 65,000 residents and a couple cruise ships a week. Its a bilingual place, with colonial ties to England and France, but its been independent since 1980. Now the largest ex-pat community is probably Australian, and they’ve managed to keep a few touches of European culture alive. The food, wine and coffee culture was an especially nice surprise, but my favourite hobby was horses. They had horse farms, horse breeders, show jumping competitions and trail rides, and I found the biggest herd at Club Hippique.

tropical horse paradise

tropical horse paradise

The owner there, Heidee, became my best friend instantly. I could talk to her for hours about horses, Iceland, life, or love. I basically moved in with her and her family for a week, and spent every day between the stables and her house. Her huge Great Dane and her cuddly cat took turns sharing my bed, and I have to stay I prefer the cat, since she liked to sleep on my feet and only weighed a few kilos, whereas the dog weighed 55kg and took up most of the mattress (she was always on my side of the bed!).

The farm sits on a big saltwater lagoon, so I could chose between kayaking or swimming with horses off the beach, or riding through a tropical forest covered in trails and coconut trees. I rode every day, I taught her lessons, and I trained her (recently gelded) stallion. At night we cooked dinners of steak or prawns and paired them with wine and champagne, and if I ever needed to go anywhere, I could drive her purple scooter (it only happened once – why would I want to leave that place?).

My visit to Vanuatu was a total breath of fresh air – slowing down the pace of travel and actually calling somewhere home for a while. I miss all the people and 4-legged animals that became my temporary family, and kind of wish I had stayed longer. I barely thought of doing any reading, writing, or researching for my upcoming trips, since I really felt as though I wasn’t traveling anymore. But now that I’m on the move again, I feel a little homesick and slightly disorganized… but hey, that’s all part of the package, so keep calm and travel on.

If you’d also like to live and work on Heidee’s farm, or just visit as a regular tourist, you can contact her through her facebook page, or apply to volunteer with her through Woof.

Munda to Honiara

From Gizo, I took a 2 hour speedboat to Munda, a touristy little town for divers to base themselves. No more expats or NGO’s, just legitimately interested tourists… but all staying in the confines of Agnes lodge, which is a hotel, restaurant and tour operator monopolizing all of the foreign money and white people that come to the island. I stayed at Munda Guesthouse, which was basically just paying a family $100 Solomon dollars (approx. $13US) per night to sleep in an empty room in the upstairs unfinished part of their house. Its incredibly comfortable, clean and cozy, especially in tropical rain storms, so I’d direct any tourist away from anonymous Agnes Lodge to this guesthouse, a few hundred metres away from the beach but nestled in a tall coconut tree forest (don’t forget to look up when you walk under them!).

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rainstorm at the Munda guesthouse

I learned that I’m quite the pool shark, after visiting the local pool bar 3 nights in a row and beating a lot of big men I refused to take bets with, but was paid in beer instead. I was one of few women, the others much older but all beautifully adorned with flowers in their hair, and some of them equally defeating in pool. I finally got kicked off the winner-owned table by one such woman, but made great friends with some politician, the son of the owner of my guesthouse, and a tattooed guy named Rex whose tattoos were barely visible on his dark skin.

the MV Chanela, our carriage from Munda to Honiara

the MV Chanela, our carriage from Munda to Honiara

I later traveled with the mother and son from Munda guesthouse all the way to Honiara on an overnight boat, and she mothered me the whole way. She made my bed made with a mat and sleeping bag on the floor, sharing a crowded but air conditioned room with another 30 people sleeping on the floor. Our food for the journey, bought at different port markets we stopped at along the way, was seaweed and roti and cherry tomatoes and clams… not the best mixed together but seaparately, all delish.

sunset from the ship

sunset from the ship

In Honiara I stayed with Sara at the Hibiscus homestay, and she had the most rotted red teeth I had seen yet, since she still had all her teeth! I never saw her spit, but she was always chewing on something, and covered her mouth whenever she smiled or laughed. She wouldn’t let me sleep in my hammock, but she slept in it and I got the bed. She fed me food whenever I was home for mealtime, and I’ve never tasted such tasty rice… it must be the cinnamon she puts in the accompanying pork dish.

My favourite part of Honiara was a little ways inland, where little villages settled along a river leads you to a waterfall called Mataniko falls. Its only a few kilometres from the sea, but it’s a roasting 1 hr hike in, where only the last few minutes offer any shade whiles you climb down into the forested canyon to get to this little paradise oasis of cold, blue water after being scorched by the sun. Instead of hiking back along the barren hill tops, we followed the river back out to town, swimming with our shoes and clothes in one above the water to keep them dry. Sometimes we could walk in the shallower bits, or follow the river bank, but we were basically stuck in the narrow river canyon, climbing over fallen logs and big rocks, and only encountered some tiny frogs, a few fish and one eagle on our wet and windy way back.

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Mataniko falls

A Warm ‘Welkam’ to the Solomons

Once I landed in Gizo, I really felt like I was in the second largest town in the Solomons, landing on a tarmac runway, pulling into an actual wharf (the airport is also on a neighbouring island connected to Ghizo island by banana boat transfer). But, with some perspective, I later realized that it was hardly a town, but a busy little village, with a handful of hotels, shops, and only a couple of unsealed roads, churches and banks. But I was able to withdraw money, check into my own private guesthouse (tourists are a rare commodity in the northern Solomon islands), and feel like I had returned to predictable civilization.

sunset in Munda

sunset in Munda

But the everyday things hadn’t changed much from Bougainville – people who spoke the same local language called eachother “wantoks” and their pidgin english was basically the same. The market had the same fruits and veggies for sale, the betel nut and cigarettes were sold on every street corner, peoples red stained smiles matched the red spit-covered dirt roads, and still everyone smiled at the sight of such a lonely white girl so far away from home. People’s faces and hair were lighter, perhaps also a bit bigger, and the prices of things had gotten cheaper, so as much as I had liked Bougainville, I was happy to be in Gizo where I could afford more and stand out less.

There are a bunch of islands, both smaller and a lot larger, surrounding Ghizo, comprising the Western province, and between them, a bunch of WWII wrecks and amazing coral reefs. But, unless you’re a scuba diver or an endurance freediver, they’re pretty hard to get to, especially if you’re the type that’s claustrophobic under water in open seas.

rainbows and dirt roads, isnt it beautiful

rainbows and dirt roads, isnt it beautiful

They have a saying here, or at least a slogan I saw printed on tshirts: “Solomon Islands – as beautiful above as it is below” with a picture of the palm tree beaches and mangrove forests filled with birds above the colourful scene of an underwater reef and all its peculiar fishes. I decided to stick to the above water half, especially since the people (which this picture fails to acknowledge) were my highlight. They always make eye contact and greet you, which, if returned, turns into huge smiles and more glances. Sometimes your face can hurt from smiling so much, since they’ll actually smile to the breaking point of laughter, and since you don’t want to feel like you’re laughing at them laughing, you try to keep a controlled smile, but their rotting red teeth are somehow more comical a sight to see stretched out in such care-free happiness.

Crossing the PNG-Solomon Island border by banana boat

I’ve had some wonderfully unorthodox border crossing experiences before. I walked into silver-back gorilla territory of Congo and rode a horse from Honduras to Guatemala, and I’ve taken my share of private and public boats between islands, but the little banana boat that took me from Bougainville to the Shortland Islands was a pretty simple journey. If I hadn’t known before that a border existed between these islands, I wouldn’t have believed it, nor would there have been so much stress around getting a boat in time. Its hard to explain in words but a google map search will show you that big Bouganville, as underdeveloped and inaccessible as the southern part is from the rest of Papua, is only 10 km from the Solomon owned Shortland islands, and they are just a tiny, undeveloped, far off islands in comparison to the rest of the Solomons… so the Solomon islanders go to Buin, and Bouganvillians trade with them. They exchange fish and jewelry at the market, and the only petrol station for all their little banana boats is in Buin.

Rainy Ghizo

Rainy Ghizo

There’s a small market on Thursday (mostly catering to the Sabbath observing Seventh-day Adventists), and the big Market on Saturday, when other Bouganvillians from Arawak and even Buka come all the way down to Buin. I got there on a Wednesday night, and stayed at one of the unnamed guesthouses (there are around 3 or 4 but none of them are named or signed but all cost 180/120 Kina per night with/without dinner and breakfast). The PMV driver from Arawak (PMV’s leave from the Arawak market in the afternoon, around 3pm, but also early mornings on Thursday and Saturday) took me to the main guesthouse, or I guess the best known one, which is owned by a guy who owns ‘Lease Investments’ but run by a plump little buck-toothed lady. I had missed her dinner serving so had to wander around the sleepy town to find the one open shop selling some canned tuna and cold coca cola, since the betel nut and beers didn’t seem an adequate meal.

my captain getting fuel in Buin

my captain getting fuel in Buin

The next morning I was up with the sun, which is an hour too soon for anyones liking (Bougainville follows the time zone of mainland Papua New Guinea, even though they’re hundreds of kilometers east in the Solomon Island time zone), and the market started shortly after. The Solomon islanders were easy to spot, with their lighter coloured skin and greasy shell jewelry for sale, but some of them blended right in with their jet black skin and smokey stinky fish that other Bougainvillians also sold. The market lasts until they’ve sold all their goods, then they drive down to the beach 15 mins away and roll their banana boats over the sand back into the sea for their journey back to the Shortlands. I waited to see who would finish first, since I had an afternoon flight leaving at 15:30, and by 12 noon I had negotiated a ride for less than $10. It was a young couple and their child and nanny, and we filled up on petrol, ice cream and Fanta before jumping on the little put-put motor boat. The airport is on its own separate island, a little further down the coast of Shortland, and it took a whole hour to get there.

boarding the plane at Balalae

boarding the plane at Balalae

Don’t think of an airport airport, just think of a sleepy green island, and the only thing differentiating it from the rest of the islands scattered about was the bunch of banana boats anchored to its shore, and the barely visible clearing down the middle of the island. It’s a grass run way, and a small concrete structure had a man at a desk with some paper and pens, and a scale from the 1920’s to weigh you and your luggage. The check in was just a verbal spelling of my first name and the ticket number from my email confirmation. There are 2 flights on Thursday afternoons, but only one stops in nearby Gizo, the other one heading straight to Honiara, Solomons capital. My flight to Gizo came first, even though it wasn’t supposed to be due for another hour, and they ushered me on. No security check, no document check, no gangway, just me, a plane, and a bunch of people that didn’t talk or treat me any differently than Bougainvillians on our way to civilization.

A few notes on the border I did or didn’t cross:

I couldn’t get an exit stamp from PNG because the guy in Buka told me there was a guy in Buin to do it, but when I arrived at his ‘office’ (it was just the basement of a house with a colour-print, laminated sign saying ‘Papua New Guinea Customs’), nothing was set up except his computer and printer, and he didn’t have a stamp or stamp pad, or an exit card or anything official feeling. But, he wrote me a very lovely letter, which took him forever and a day to type out and print (even though it was from a copy and pasted letterhead from the last tourist that did this crossing in July), and not one person read or checked that letter between Buin and Gizo.

You can only go from PNG to the Solomons with most western passports, since entering PNG requires a visa you can only get upon arrival at the International airport in Port Moresby. If you live in PNG or have a multiple-entry visa for PNG, then you could go the other way, which would certainly be easier since you don’t have to worry about catching a once-weekly plane, but then you’d have to wing it for your own boat transport from the Balalae airport to Shortland island, and/or the boat to Buin… unless it’s a market day and you happen to find one of the 5 or 10 sellers going across. There’s very few people around, no banks or petrol stations, but the friendly people and handful of guesthouses make it a totally hospitable place to be lost or stuck. Once in Buin, you can make the 3 hour PMV ride to Arawak or 5 hours to Buka (where there is a bank and airport) each morning. They’re almost finished building an airport in Arawak, but that will probably only fly within PNG, not to the Solomons or internationally… but who knows, anything can happen in a place so rich in mining and tourism prospect.

Once in Gizo, a woman named Rose will have to stamp you into the Solomons, giving you a tourist visa for however many days you might need. She loves chocolate cake, and sweet talking her with a slice of that and some supporting documents (ie. A copy of your departure flight from the Solomons and this seemingly useless letter I got from PNG customs) plus a photocopy of your passport (she doesn’t have a photocopy machine) will get you in without any hassle… even if it’s a day or two late, no one seems to care you’ve informally entered the Solomons.