When I was a boy in Canada, I had a newspaper round. On Friday afternoons, I would collect the money for the papers I had tossed every morning on to verandahs with an accuracy that should have aroused the interest of a baseball scout. One of my calls was a broken-down house with a door of flaking paint. It was home to a lean middle-aged man with a military haircut and eyes that stared even when he didn’t mean to.
Our exchange was always the same, as if he had forgotten about the previous week. Two bucks fifty, I would say, holding out a receipt. He looked at me for a moment, then reached into a bowl on a hall shelf and handed me a small ivory-coloured tooth. ‘There you go,’ he would say. He waited a few beats, then he said, ‘A porpoise tooth. That’s money in the Solomon Islands.’ Then I would hand it back while he rummaged for change. ‘The Solomons,’ he would say. ‘Paradise on this wretched earth.’
Later I learned from my father that the man had been a pilot in the Pacific during World War II. His plane had gone down somewhere in the Solomon Islands, and when he came home it seemed he was never really fit for work. There was some trauma, my father said.
Now, years later, bound for the Solomons, I thought of the man and that haunting phrase – paradise on this wretched earth.
The Pacific is a universe, its archipelagos like scattered galaxies. Far in the west, close to Papua New Guinea, and a three-hour flight north of Brisbane, the Solomons consist of almost a thousand islands, strewn across 11,000 square miles of ocean. They were named for King Solomon by a 16th-century Spanish adventurer chasing legends of gold. The Spaniard was a lesson in the danger of expectations. Fixated on gold, he didn’t notice the islands themselves.
Those who know say the lagoons and shores of the Solomons’ western provinces are among the most beautiful in the Pacific. And so I bypassed the shabby capital of Honiara, and took a local flight to Munda, in the western province, landing on an airstrip left by American pilots. Munda is not so much a town as a collection of hamlets, centred on a ramshackle market of rickety stalls and shops that are seen, by outlying islets, as the bright lights.
It was the outlying ones I wanted. The first night found me in a rustic hotel on Lola island. From a hammock outside my cabin, I watched the scissored silhouettes of birds turning among apricot-coloured clouds as dusk stole across the channel. Night arrived with tropical suddenness, and the unlit and uninhabited islands sailed away into darkness. I had fallen into the South Seas dream: a hammock, the scent of blossoms, the murmur of surf, a warm breeze rattling the palms, shattered moonlight on the water, the tree frogs singing like birds.
From Lola I set off into a wilderness. Baroque skies swept overhead as vast provinces of sun chased columns of rain round the horizons. A sailfish leapt beneath the bow of our boat. Away to the west thunderheads parted theatrically to reveal further islands moored in distant anchorages of sun.
The smaller islands of the archipelago were atolls, uplifts of the coral reefs, fringed by absurdly turquoise seas. The larger ones were steeply mountainous, volcanic, rising to almost 6,000ft, their summits haloed in clouds. Their interiors brimmed with vegetation. Their shores were palm groves and mangroves and empty white beaches broken here and there by simple villages of leaf houses. On the porches of small cabins, I had the happy sense of civilisation falling away, piece by piece: the internet, news, electricity, cold beer, hot water, any connection to the world I knew. Instead there were islands to chase, boats to board, trees to sit under, forest paths to explore.
On a tiny islet, barely the size of a town square, Sunga the boatman took me to see the skulls. It was a sacred place; we spoke in whispers. Sunga lifted the lid off one of the wooden reliquaries, rotten with age, and three skulls peered out at us. ‘This one is my great grandfather,’ Sunga said. ‘He was a famous chief.’ Later we spotted a pair of reef sharks circling in the turquoise shallows. ‘Old people worship them,’ Sunga said. ‘They believe sharks are the ghosts of their ancestors.’
Skulls were something of a preoccupation in the Solomons. Until the establishment of a British Protectorate at the end of the 19th century, headhunting and cannibalism were occasionally practised, while the slave trade and infectious diseases made the islanders antagonistic to outsiders. For a time, the Solomons were one of the most dangerous places on earth, jungle outcrops where – according to the popular imagination of the time – chaps with bones in their noses tied visitors to a stake while stoking a fire beneath a steaming pot.
But provided no one ate you, life here, for long centuries, must have been pretty good – the sea was full of fish, the land was fertile, clam shells and porpoise teeth served as currency. In their Neolithic way, the islanders quietly minded their own business beyond the currents of world history. Until suddenly, in 1942, the world caught up with them and their home became the battleground for its soul. The Japanese invaded and World War II broke over this place like a hurricane.
The Solomons saw some of the fiercest fighting in the war in the Pacific. Seven thousand Allies died here and around 30,000 Japanese. The channel in front of Guadalcanal became known as Iron Bottom Sound for the 70-odd ships that were sunk in a six-month battle between 1942 and 1943. It was in August of 1943 that the PT boat commanded by John F Kennedy was cut in half by a Japanese destroyer, a war story that would lend considerable gravitas to his presidential campaign less than 20 years later.
It is typical of the Solomons that, post-war, they managed to disappear again, gliding back into the obscurity from which they had emerged. So remote and so isolated were many of these isles that, decades later, lone Japanese stragglers would stumble out of their jungles, unaware the war was over; the last sighting of one such survivor was in 1989.
On the island of Titiru, I slept in a ramshackle room cantilevered over the sea, hard by a bundi tree the size of a cathedral. White cockatoos sailed between the branches, kingfishers flitted along the shore and an osprey turned on high currents. One morning I followed a path through the mangroves to Ugele village. Seated on their rickety front steps, everyone greeted me in rudimentary English. In a stream, boys in miniature dugout canoes raced one another through the green shadows of overhanging branches. One woman was making fire by rubbing sticks together, though only because she couldn’t find her matches. Another woman offered me lunch – ginger and coconut and something known here as slippery cabbage – while a bare-chested fellow led me to the shrine of the fish god. He brings the god ‘puddings’ which it seems to like. Frigate birds then show him where the fish are. ‘Like dark angels,’ he said.
At Tetepare, the largest uninhabited island in the South Pacific, there were only a handful of rangers. Headhunting had been a problem here and, some 160 years ago, the inhabitants fled to safer islands. Now their descendants are keen to save their old homeland. A conservation scheme has been established to protect the place from the depredations of loggers and the EU has helped to fund a basic guesthouse for visitors. Tetepare is a menagerie of species. Dugongs graze in the sea grasses offshore. Sea turtles nest on the beaches. Huge coconut crabs scuttle through the undergrowth. Saltwater crocodiles lurk in the mangroves.
Channelling Indiana Jones, I went in search of a lost city with a couple of rangers, hacking our way through creepers with a machete. After an hour or so, we found the old defensive walls of coral stone set on a headland above the sea. The promontory was fissured and split with deep crevasses, their depths full of boulders and bones and bats. This had been the islanders’ last stand, before they escaped across the sea, and some echo of their fear remained here in this humid jungle.
For many people, the best of the Solomons is underwater. The archipelago is known as one of the top dive destinations in the world. I dived a couple of times a day, dropping down to the glorious reefs where huge elephant-ear coral undulated in elegant slow motion, where legions of spectacular fish circled and phalanxes of manta rays appeared out of the blue.
But it is the wrecks in these seas, the relics of the war, that made for some of the most fascinating dives. There was a Japanese freighter with rows of lunch boxes that never made it to lunch. There was an American plane. The bones of the pilot had been found near the tail wing, and despatched only a few years ago to his only remaining relative – a 93-year-old sister still waiting in Kansas for the return of her lost brother. I thought of the man on my paper round. His plane was somewhere in these waters, lying in the depths, like a buried memory.
I thought about the panic and the terror people must have felt at the sight of these aircraft 78 years ago. First the ominous drone of the engines, then their sudden appearance, coming in low perhaps, just over the heads of the palm trees, as locals screamed and scattered. For a terrible instant they might have glimpsed the two masked men, the sun flashing on their goggles, the pilot in his cockpit and the gunner behind leaning forward for the lever to release their bomb.
The last wreck we dived was another American plane at 50ft. At first it felt as if we were descending into nothingness. And then, beneath us, the aircraft gradually took form, an apparition. In that first moment, through the trembling water, she looked like a sunken angel with her wings spread. The sea had made her beautiful. A rainbow of coral blossomed along her fuselage. Blue starfish adorned her wings. Butterfly fish swam through the cockpit. Red emperors sailed away through laceworks of submerged sunlight while a shark hovered some way off, a ghost half visible in the void.
I am not sure what happened to the man on my paper round. I heard he ended up in a home. I hope he kept his porpoise tooth, and remembered his paradise. His plane is still there, transformed, a thing of beauty in refracted depths. It escaped, in ways he failed to do. This was the gift of the Solomons.
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