To go or not to go

I’d love to visit Yemen and see the towering mudbrick skyscrapers of San’a and the ancient towns of the Hadhramaut; to experience a culture where men spend most afternoons spaced out on a homegrown weed called qat… In the Seventies we overlanders traversed Afghanistan; I relished more recent visits to East Timor, Burma and the Solomon Islands. Lots of once-suspect destinations warrant a closer look, including some on Dubya’s ‘Axis of Evil’.

Herat, Afghanistan (1974)

Herat, Afghanistan (1974)

But you won’t find me in Yemen just yet. There are just too many reasons why not, including the suspicion that will surely attach to independent travellers returning from an apparent nest of terrorist sympathisers. I’d rather not build up a case file with hyped-up security agencies.

Nigel Brennan had no local contacts or expertise when he set off to make his name as a freelance photojournalist based in strife-torn Somalia, which has no credible government and a fearsome reputation for famine, piracy, conflict and kidnapping. Continue reading

World’s least luxurious cruise ship?

What a beauty! As reported by AFP, North Korean interests have apparently refurbished – as best they can – a rundown 39-year old vessel to operate cruises to and from the Kumgang Mountains, a famed beauty spot. Running water can’t be guaranteed, and some passengers aboard the Man Gyong Bong have to sleep on the floor. Perhaps a bit of foreign know-how might help things along, but then again the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea typically goes it alone.

Panmunjom, Demilitarized Zone

Panmunjom, Demilitarized Zone

Visiting odd corners of unloved nations can be rewarding, if onerous, but this may be the nearest I’ll ever get to North Korea, a hair-raising experience in itself.

Inter-island freighter, Solomon Islands

Inter-island freighter, Solomon Islands


However, I think the good ship Bikoi, which shuttles Solomon Islanders back and forth across that island archipelago, is a worthy contender for the no-frills cruising award. Onboard catering consists of instant noodles served in a paper cup – just add hot water. Continue reading

The Solomon Islands (4) – Malaita

Back in Honiara, I found the harbour busy with ferries and freighters loading for the six-hour run to Auki on Malaita island, northeast of the capital.  It seems the shipowners chase cargoes, and passengers, wherever they can be found.  Who needs a schedule?

Bemused, I fronted up instead at Honiara’s Henderson Airport early next morning and purchased a seat on the short flight to Auki.  No need to check seat availability; there was one other passenger plus the pilot of the ten-seater Britton Norman Islander, an Australian woman.

Children at the airstrip, Auki, Malaita, Solomon Islands

Children at the airstrip, Auki, Malaita

Malaita is different.  The people, an energetic breed, still make shell money used for bride price transactions and build their houses upon man-made coral islands.  Tourism has barely begun to develop.

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The Solomon Islands (3) – journey to New Georgia and Marovo Lagoon

Time now to explore a few more islands, by embarking at dawn on a weekly passenger ferry making the twelve-hour run from Gizo, back southeast towards Honiara. Before long I reached Munda, a tiny township on New Georgia Island. Munda is the gateway to the myriad islands and waterways of Roviana Lagoon or, if local politics permit, the mound of skulls bequeathed by past headhunters.

Next morning, two men in a boat bobbed gently out in the channel and watched the dawn come up over New Georgia. We were waiting for an inter-island freighter expected… sometime that morning. But, just after sun-up, a white blob did appear on the horizon as the good ship Bikoi steamed into view.

Inter-island freighter, Solomon Islands

Inter-island freighter, Solomon Islands

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The Solomon Islands (2) – Gizo, Western Province

Most visitors soon head for the Western Province, a cluster of islands bordering Papua New Guinea, where the waters teem with marine life, a mecca for surfers and snorkellers.

Solomon Airlines, the national carrier, operates a small fleet of prop-driven aircraft on its domestic island-hopping routes, complemented by sea-going passenger ferries and the occasional inter-island steamship operating on ‘island time’.  The ninety-minute Twin Otter flight – the co-pilot doubles as cabin crew – from Honiara to Gizo proved stunningly scenic, passing over emerald islands fringed with golden sand and scattered across turquoise waters.

Flying over the Solomon Islands

Flying over the Solomon Islands

Ghizo Island is so compact that its airstrip has been carved out of an islet across the bay from the one-street town of Gizo (yes, a different spelling).

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The Solomon Islands – Honiara, Guadalcanal (1)

The Solomon Islands have been termed the last frontier of South Pacific tourism, an unspoiled chain of islands, from coral atolls to restive volcanoes, populated mainly by the descendents of Melanesian headhunters, with a scattering of Polynesians, Micronesians and Chinese storekeepers.

So near, yet so far.  Three hours from Brisbane, Australia, but the Solomons might have well as been the far side of the moon when civil strife erupted a few years ago on Guadalcanal, the main island.   Then the April 2007 tsunami struck Ghizo Island, the hub of an embryonic tourism industry which had revolved largely around diving and fishing expeditions.

Then the bad news dried up.  And the air fares began to drop.  But would the natives be friendly?  Unlike neighbouring Vanuatu, the Solomons lacks packaged holiday resorts, so what was there to do above the water line? In May 2009, I decided there was only one way to find out.

Aerial view of Honiara

Aerial view of Honiara

Honiara’s airport soon set the tone: drab, dimly-lit, Third World – but, more importantly,  friendly.  Spreading mango trees shaded the road outside the terminal, which soon became the main drag of Honiara, a dusty town fading out to thatched huts and banana palms.  Continue reading