Published: August 15th 2009August 7th 2009
The Solomon Islands have a very rich history that has intertwined with the United States and many other westernized countries. From its beginnings (again, from a Western viewpoint) as a land full of savages and cannibals, to headhunters, to holding the legend of King Solomon’s mines. Some people here still believe that the sharks are their ancestors! I read my Lonely Planet guide and was shocked at how many things could happen in these little islands. Thinking of Guadalcanal Day and actually being here for the day itself, it makes me think about my grandfather and his days in the Navy. These are places where his generation took a stand during WWII, made a difference and gave the islands back to its people from the Japanese. So many ships were attacked on the coast of Guadalcanal that it’s called Iron Bottom Sound, they say there are around 100 wrecks! So much loss of life in such a beautiful part of the world, I can’t imagine what the locals must have gone through. Guadalcanal was a U.S. supply depot, also where Henderson airstrip is located... look that one up for some history.
More recently, from 1999 until
2003 there was ethnic tension between the Gwale (people from Guadalcanal) and migrant Malaitans (a nearby island) and many people died as a result. Talking a bit with people from both of these areas, from what I can gather (remember 3 sides to every story), is the Malaitans went to Honiara and got a lot of the good jobs there (the Malaitans are known for their work ethic)... well, as you can imagine, the locals didn’t like seeing someone else “taking their land and money”. Both sides got organized, the Gwale to kill the migrants and the Malaitans to protect their people. A few negotiations ended up in peace agreements but they quickly fell apart. This whole massacre and general mayhem really tore up the economy. At the end, Australia and New Zealand saved the day by bringing in peacekeeping troops (RAMSI- Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands). They are pretty much the state troopers and reside on both Guadalcanal and Malaita; they brought safety back to the people and helped to settle the disputes. Occassionally there are some extremists that harass or try to harm a RAMSI officer, but it’s rare and the majority of the population appreciates
and welcomes their assistance.
As with most small areas that are trying to develop, there has been some government corruption as well. It’s caused some ethnic tension with the Chinese living on Guadalcanal, causing many of them to flee. RAMSI personnel also had to deal with that as well, unfortunately most of Chinatown was burned or demolished. An ousted Prime Minister was the end result, and very few Chinese stayed around.
We pulled into port with the USS MUSTIN, which also has some ties to Guadalcanal, I won't get into that one. We began pulling in at sunrise and I took some fantastic silhouettes of the forward deployed destroyer. My buddy Drew is the Assistant Supply Officer, though I didn't get to see him while I was there, they're out of Yokosuka, Japan.
Anyway, I stayed on the ship for the first couple of days, still only knowing what my guidebook said. It didn’t help too much that some people came back saying this was the worst place they had ever been and they didn’t feel safe to walk around the busy streets. Okay, despite all the craziness I just wrote above, my guide
says that SIs are beautiful to visit and that with the lack of tourism, it makes the place that much more enjoyable. Now I have people telling me that men are following them with machetes. Yeah... I know, right? At first I thought I wouldn’t go out at all, I mean, I know I’m a ninja and all, but do I really want to mess with machetes? “I don’t know if you should go out. Make sure you take 6 people with you Krysten, I think they’d really like you and try to kidnap you or something.”
Yeah, so I take Kyle with me (yeah, dunno if he could completely stand up to a machete, but whatever) to go grab some dinner on his 32 hours off. We’re not allowed to stay out past 10pm, so what harm could dinner be at the yacht club? I get off the RHIB and I’m blown away by the trash in the water, even more rubbish in the streets and people everywhere. The past few islands that we’ve visited has shown a very Polynesian look to the people, with lighter skin and beautiful dark brown or black hair. In the Solomons,
the skin color is very dark and features remind me a little bit of a mixture of Polynesian and Australian Aboriginal descent. What should be very beautiful features are sallow and dirty, many people at the port lacked proper hygiene on a very basic level. What did we get ourselves into?
The further we walked from the port entry, the more comfortable I began to feel. People were genuinely curious and stared, but as soon as you flashed a smile all the concentration left their face and they smiled back. Turns out, the guy who told me not to go out only made it as far as the port and turned back. As I thought about it, even ports in the U.S. can have some pretty scroungy looking individuals... best not to judge the whole country based on a small port entry. We stopped at the Yacht Club (though it looked more like a divey cabana bar) and ate some dinner (kingfish with fruit and fries) washed down with Sol (the local beer). We made it an early Friday night and got back to the RHIB around 9pm, not a bad way to start my Solomons experience.
Due to our slight workload on the ship, my boss and I agreed that the guys should have Saturday and Sunday as holiday routine. Oh, holiday routine pretty much means the day off but following the liberty policy with no overnight liberty. With the day off, I was able to go dive a bit in Iron Bottom Sound. Shawn Talley, one of the Seabees onboard, had met up with some RAMSI personnel who were divers and arranged for us to go out with them. Jeff (RAMSI guy) met us at the pier with tanks and off we went. During the 20 minute drive to the dive site, he told us all about the ethnic tensions and various other initiatives that RAMSI is working on, he was impressed that I knew the basic history (go Lonely Planet!). For example, there was an initiative to get back all the weapons that were used during the tensions. There are still a few hundred guns unaccounted for, but considering how recent all of this violence went down, they’ve really accomplished a lot.
Anyway, there were about 8 of us... 4 from the ship, 3 Aussies and a French guy who hit
the sand for a couple of shore dives on Bonegi beach. The first ship, a Japanese Supply ship, the Kinugawa Maru, was in great condition, sunk on November 15, 1942. The soft corals were surprisingly colorful and we saw blue spotted rays, lionfish, loads of clownfish (purple, tomato and Nemo kind), and sea fans galore. It was a treasure trove... we penetrated the wreck though there were multiple outs, I don’t really consider it a penetration unless you’re totally enclosed. We touched 110 feet for about a minute and then I took my busy slowly in a diagonal pattern up towards 70 feet or so, casually making our ascent over the hull. Words don’t describe these kinds of things, so I’ll just attach photos. :) Our second dive was a bit further up Bonegi beach, Hirokawa Maru, another Japanese ship, a transport I think sunk on the same day as the Kinugawa Maru. A much more shallow dive, though the current was a bit of a butthead, again running across nudibranchs, lionfish, clownfish... just general loveliness.
I was certainly ready to go back and relax on the ship for a little bit, but instead we broke off to
the Lime Lounge, a great little diner/cafe right up from where the RHIBs drop us at the port. Though small, it was pretty hopping... most people got coffee and fish and chips. I opted for the French crepes with maple syrup, absolutely divine. An exhausting day of great diving, it was good to get cleaned up on the ship in the lovely A/C. Did I mention there was another wetting down to attend that evening?
One more of the PP09 team, an ADVON member, threw a little shindig at the Lime Lounge in the evening. I ended up going with Derrick, Jay and Thomae... being tired from the day’s events, Jay, Thomae and myself turned in early. What a great day.
There are more photos below