Image supplied by Len Zell

Smiles of the Solomons

WHOOPING young warriors rush across the beach and into our comfort zone as we land on the shores of Ngella Island. Fierce shouting and waving soon turns to wide smiles all round as we react to the mock attack -“We come as friends!”- as, it would appear, do these strapping Solomon Islanders.

Flashing smiles are something we become used to as we cruise through the central Solomons.

Tourism is a new concept to many parts of these islands and the genuine open friendliness in many villages we visit is a delight. That kind of welcome is a quality that's often missing in more well-worn places.

At Ngella, we've been awestruck since first light.

The rusting wreck of the once-luxurious cruise liner World Discoverer lies beached on the shore, something of an unsettling sight. Our ship, Orion, which brought us to this wonderful place, is uncannily similar in shape.

We're welcomed to the shipwreck site by the ubiquitous song and dance, a traditional Solomon ritual we are growing used to at each new shore landing on our nine-day expedition cruise through Melanesia.

But at each place, the performances are different, adding new dimensions to the wonderfully diverse culture of the Solomons.

Our cruise also takes in Santa Ana Island, where a tribal dance has a decidedly raunchy message that's well-appreciated by the local crowd that has gathered along with the tourists.

Visitors soon realise we've not misinterpreted anything here and laugh along with them.

In another performance, two “tribes” of mud men - one black, one orange - re-enact a local legend with fierce animosity; they look like they're out to kill each other, then break into those flashing grins and walk away congratulating each other.

A day later we have cruised uneventfully through Sandfly Passage and into the heart of the New Georgia Islands.

The main attraction here is the Marovo Lagoon, once described by writer James A. Michener as the eighth wonder of the world.

Sadly, logging has decimated some of the islands' beauty and robbed it of World Heritage status, proposed years ago but rejected when logging continued.

Nevertheless, there is a feeling of being somewhere much removed from everyday life.

The islands of the lagoon - like most of the Solomons - are dotted with 70 villages, home to 12,000 people.

Around them are coral reef systems where we dive and snorkel and marvel at the intensity of the colourful fish and corals.

We disembark at Uepi Island to visit a carvers' market next to the lagoon's sole resort.

Carvings here are reputed to be among the best in the Solomons, intricate creations in ebony, rosewood and coconut wood. Later, we are welcomed to Oluvutu Point where our guide, 70-year-old Sila Ghiboto, is the grand-daughter of the last of the head-hunters.

As we walk through her village, Sila explains tribal life of a century ago when ritual sacrifice and cannibalism were used to “feed” ancestral gods. 

We're soon surrounded once again by smiling faces and lively kids, clamouring for the tourists' cameras, and it's hard to imagine days when life might have been less peaceful.

I've had just a glimpse of the Solomon Islands, but it's enough to want more - and that's the test of any destination.

With so much of the world to explore, is this place worth coming back to? You bet it is.

Getting there

BY SEA:

■ Orion Expedition Cruises visits the Solomon Islands as part of its Melanesian Discovery cruise. In 2010, the cruise will start on March 1, leaving from Auckland and sailing to New Caledonia, Vanuatu and disembarking in Rabaul, PNG.

■ The Solomons leg of the voyage will include stops in Utupua, Santa Ana, Ngella, Ghizo and Kennedy Islands. Fares start from $11,888 per person twin share.

www.orionexpeditions.com

BY AIR:

■ Pacific Blue flies direct to Honiara on Guadalcanal Island from Brisbane twice a week, with connections from Sydney and other capital cities.

■ Online fares from Brisbane start from $379 per person one way.

■ Check out www.flypacificblue.com for current specials and bookings.

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