Expedition cruiser, Roderick Eime, recalls his voyage through some of the last uncharted waters between Honiara and Port Vila.

Ever since the first Europeans set eyes on the islands of Melanesia, they have never ceased to draw explorers, adventurers and now travellers to their tropical delights.

The Spanish navigator, Álvaro de Mendaña y Neira, is widely credited as the first European to contact the Solomon Islanders. In fact it was he who named the islands Islas Salomón in 1568, in an attempt to talk up the prospects of gold in these new lands. Meanwhile, his homesick deputy, Pedro de Ortega Valencia, named the island of Guadalcanal after his hometown in Andalusia. The Spanish also named San Cristobal and Santa Ana, but local names are now also used just as frequently.

It was in early 1789 when two ships of French explorers and scientists, La Boussole and L’Astrolabe, led by the progressive Jean François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse foundered on Vanikoro in the far eastern region of the Solomons. No survivors were ever found.

In the mid-19th Century, the British arrived via missionaries and settled for good while in 1908, the swashbuckling author and journalist, Jack London, made landfall at Guadalcanal and spent several weeks there waiting for parts to repair his yacht, Snark.

Now 21st Century adventurers are taking the place of the explorers of the early modern era and most of these can be found aboard the growing fleet of expedition ships searching out new and exciting destinations throughout the world. Of course, South Paci c cruising in places like Fiji has been on the menu for decades, resuming in serious fashion in the post-war years thanks to mail contracts served by the likes of P&O with their liners Himalaya and Orcades. The demand from tourists quickly saw these sailings evolve from mail and freight to pure pleasure cruises to the point we find ourselves today.

But it’s these new adventure ships that are reawakening the islands of Melanesia to the new wave of environmentally conscious, nature-loving travellers who are revelling in the raw experiences delivered by such nations as PNG, the Solomons and Vanuatu.

I’ve just returned from yet another cruise throughout the region where I had the chance to explore many new islands missed on previous voyages. This time I travelled with NZ-based Heritage Expeditions, one of the world’s small ship cruise operators best known for naturalist trips as far a eld as the Russian Far East and the depths of East Antarctica, where I travelled with them in the 2010/11 season.

For the birds

Their ship, the 72m Spirit of Enderby, is a former Soviet oceanographic research vessel (some like to imagine a ‘spy’ ship) carrying just 50 passengers. Perfect for creeping into narrow passages and delivering passengers ashore at tiny islands where little or no infrastructure exists. The beauty of such encounters is that this type of travel permits visits to remote communities otherwise isolated and excluded from regular tourism, giving them the motivation to preserve traditional culture and traditions craved by these newly awakened visitors.

Heritage Expeditions, as a point of difference, dedicate much of their time to ‘birders’ and are one of the very few such cruise operators with this specialisation. Every morning, often before dawn, our contingent of devoted twitchers would head off into the jungle, binoculars at the ready, in search of the sought after endemic species like flycatchers, honeyeaters and parrots. The rest of us could ‘sleep in’ and go ashore after a hearty breakfast.

Our expedition leader and co-owner of the family company is Aaron Russ, a chap whose youthful disposition belies his many years of experience leading groups in the world’s remote
territories, particularly the polar regions. His father, Rodney, first secured the little Russian-flagged ship for expedition cruises more than 20 years ago.

“Heritage Expeditions has been operating ship-based birding trips through the Melanesian islands for 10 years now,” says Aaron.

“We have had great success and brought more than 500 international birders through the islands in this time.”

But birding is only one feather in the Heritage cap, if you’ll excuse the obvious pun. After our departure from Honiara until our arrival in Port Vila 12 days later, we’d visited numerous communities (and uninhabited islands) where many of the younger inhabitants, I’m certain, had never seen Europeans before. Upon our arrival at each location, we were fêted and celebrated like royalty which, by the way, they are not totally unfamiliar with, as both Queen Elizabeth and Prince William have visited in the past. The Queen, coincidently, also arrived by small ship when the Royal Yacht Britannia made her only call to the Solomon Islands at Makira (San Cristobal) Island in 1974.

It’s hard to recall every highlight along the way, but the many traditional dances and ceremonies performed for our benefit have created lasting memories. In particular the colourful celebration of red feather money on Nendö Island and the mystical rom dances on Vanuatu’s seldom-visited volcanic island of Ambrym come quickly to mind.

Board meeting

The Solomon Islands are gaining a reputation among the world’s more intrepid surfers, with many of these celebrated breaks occurring off far flung beaches at the very limit of the transport network, sometimes beyond. On the same island visited by HRH, are the villages of Tora and Namamrau at Star Harbour. Some years ago, a band of visiting Aussie surfers introduced the local lads to the thrill of wave riding. Now, after considerable trial and error with design and construction, the young beach bums fashion rudimentary boards from sago palm wood and plunge fearlessly into the surf on these ‘jungle planks’.

As travellers become increasingly worldly and sophisticated in their tastes for new adventures and destinations, Melanesia presents some of the most enriching opportunities for those cruise companies wishing to create truly exceptional itineraries for their passengers. Just like the explorers of bygone times, these largely unspoiled islands deliver an equivalent experience, except modern adventurers can safely count on returning home to enthral family and friends with their discoveries.

Getting there

For further information and bookings on all available itineraries in Melanesia, please consult expedition cruise specialists, Wild Earth Travel at www.wildearth-travel.com

The writer travelled as a guest of Heritage Expeditions with assistance from Solomon Airlines, Air Vanuatu, the Vanuatu Tourist Office and the Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau.