Often overshadowed by the provincial capital, Gizo, the largest town on the island of New Georgia is Munda, blessed with a location encircled by gorgeous lagoons teeming with life – and death. By Roderick Eime
The outboard buzzes loudly as we bounce gently across the sheltered waters of the vast Vona Vona Lagoon. My guide, known only to me as Tusker, his dark, weather beaten Melanesian skin stretched like taught parchment across his impassive face is framed by a trim, wispy grey beard. He stares into the distance, his misty eyes reveal nothing except years of exposure to the harsh tropical sun and stinging salt spray.
Barely 30 minutes ago, the Solomons Airlines Dash-8 was circling overhead as I stared down on the cobalt blue and turquoise waters encircled by islands thick with lush tropical growth and fringed by bleached white sandy beaches. Seventy years ago, pilots of both the Japanese and US air forces would have gazed on the same hypnotic scenes as they prepared to engage in deadly combat.
Landing the big one
Without warning, Tusker signals to turn the boat toward a patch of disturbed water a couple of hundred metres off the port bow. He simultaneously snatches a rod and reel from the floor of the runabout and prepares to launch the fat plastic lure armed with a trio of angry barbs. The little plastic dummy sails through the air in a well-practiced trajectory. He hands me the rod and grabs another. “Like this” he says, furiously winding the reel while jerking the vertical rod violently.
We repeat this frantic process for just a few minutes before I have a hit. I’m a pretty ordinary fisherman, attested to by years of empty baskets but today I’m on, big time! Seeing me struggle to wind the reel against a very determined brute, Tusker straps a brace to my waist to hold the end of the rod digging into my thigh. Accompanied by a small chorus of urges, the fish is finally near the surface and the gaff is readied. “Whoa! That’s a big fish.”
Both the fish, a 20kg GT (giant trevally), and I flop exhausted into the boat. I’m ecstatic. It’s far and away the largest fish I’ve ever caught and even Tusker, who must have seen hundreds of these energetic game fish, seems mildly impressed.
As we pull up to the little jetty on Lola Island, Joe Entrikin is standing, hands on hip and dressed in trademark shorts and faded red singlet much as he has done for the last 25 years. “We’ve brought dinner,” I announce triumphantly as Joe glances at the catch, his lips pursing momentarily in faint acknowledgement.
Hailing from Seattle, Joe and his Solomon Islander wife, Lisa, have operated Zipolo Habu Resort since 1989, when they opened the tiny fishing outpost with just two ramshackle bungalows. The restaurant and bar were added five years later. Today the comparatively plush bungalows are a far cry from the first stilt shacks and come complete with hot water, 240V power, kitchens and prime waterfront position. The restaurant, be assured, serves the freshest fish anywhere in the world.
I’m still strutting around like a cocky Rex Hunt, when I see the photo wall. A gallery of faded prints is pinned to the palm leaf with scores of satisfied guests and their catch. My face falls as I survey the wall of fame. Children, teenagers, minor celebrities and TV crews all pose with gigantic fish, some the size of yearling livestock. Hmph. If you get sick of fishing, there is amazing surf and diving just around the corner.
After a refreshing Sol Brew lager, Tusker gestures me back into the boat to continue our circle tour of this idyllic lagoon.
We stop and pay our respects to the remains of ancient Roviana chiefs and their victims at the sacred altar on tiny Skull Island. Many years ago, local marauders would launch their headhunting raids as far as Guadalcanal after a ceremonial blessing using the magic captured in the skulls. Stored in jagged rock alcoves, don’t be tempted to pick up a skull, or worse still, be photographed with it unless you want to incur the wrath of the spirits.
We continue past five 140mm naval guns installed at Enogai by the Japanese to defend the passage from seaborn attack. These were captured by US forces in July 1943 as part of the ferocious battles of the New Georgia Campaign that took place all through the Western Province until the invaders were ground back to Bougainville.
Military buffs will know very well the significance of the Solomon Islands Campaign that turned the tide in the Pacific Theatre of the Second World War. Anyone who saw the seminal 2010 HBO TV series, ‘Pacific’, would understand the brutal fighting that took place on the islands, in the air and on waters all through the region.
For decades, scrap metal salvagers and souvenir hunters alike have raked and combed the battlefields looking for valuable relics. Some rusty items still remain hidden in the jungle for inquisitive visitors to discover. Tusker guides our little boat into the shallow waters surrounding Kohinggo (aka Arundel) Island where US Army infantry landed to tackle Japanese forces entrenched on the island. A M3A1 General Stuart tank still sits amid the jungle exactly where it was knocked out, a poignant reminder of the unimaginable savagery of these battles.
On the southern side of the island we are shown a US P-39 Airacobra, not yet positively identified, which crashed very close to the tiny village of Nazareti. Locals, with machetes flying, take me on trail through rough jungle and cassava fields to the site. Items like machine guns and ammunition are long gone and some untidy salvaging has made a bit of a mess of what remains.
Before heading back to Honiara, we swing by Agnes Lodge in Munda township, just a stone’s throw from the wartime airfield, built by the Japanese and still in use today. Here I meet local unofficial historian, Barney Paulsen, who shows me his own collection, accumulated over the years and neatly arrayed in his front yard. Shell casings, medicine bottles, an aircraft engine and helmets are mixed in with piles of sundry debris including hand grenades and dog tags.
Barney pulls out his special box from which he produces the corroded remains of a Thompson sub-machine gun, magazine still in place.
“The police tell me I can keep it as long as I don’t try and fix it up,” says Barney cradling the inert weapon like a Chicago mobster.
Apart from the wartime trash and treasure of the jungle and great fishing, Munda offers some of the best scuba diving in the Solomon Islands. British expat, Graeme Sanson of Dive Munda will show you his favourite sites including submerged aircraft wrecks and a spectacular drop-off that plummets to more than 600 metres.
If you believe the legends – and many still do – the supernatural power of the last Roviana chiefs still permeate the waters and islands around Munda, keeping them safe for future generations and instilling mortal fear into those who dare trespass upon these hallowed lands.