I guess I should keep this blog in the key of "Mellow" after that last story, which should not be hard as nothing since has been quite so wild.
Christmas has come and gone (Hope yours was merry) as has New Year's (Happy 2013) along with two tropical cyclones out here but by far the highlight of the last few weeks, was a five day expedition to the remote island of Bellona, in the Renbell province. I put forward the exercise as a way to collect endemic species of Solomon Island's plants, to bring back to the regions capital for use in our landscaping projects over introduced species, both to encourage ecological benefits, as well as give tourists entering the city an immediate visual taste of the surrounding provinces. My management had immediate concerns about our time of travel though, as Christmas fever had gripped the islands and with everyone returning to family events in their home provinces, transport would likely bottleneck during the time. Concerns were also raised about the cyclone season with Bellona always in the firing line and after the island was hit this week by Cyclone Rita I guess we were lucky.
Anyway everything looked good on paper, so we were allowed to embark on the mission. With limited funds available and the safety concerns of our organisation, we were to take a plane while our local counterpart, David, would take a ship (not overly fair I thought). However it turned out that the planes had been booked out for weeks and the ship (one of only a handful to the island each year) kept getting postponed in true Solomon's style. So when an extra flight was created to accommodate the masses, we nabbed seats and made sure David was on board too.
The Solomon Islands are remote and off the beaten track enough as a whole but Bellona, at 10kms long and 3kms wide, with only a handful of foreign visitors per year, is something else altogether. The Renbell Province consists of two islands, Rennell and Bellona, with the latter being far smaller and the last to be Christianised in the late thirties. I should be careful here too, as it would be great to try to jam in all the culture of the place but I am no historian and I'm still not sure which of my facts are straight. I will include what I can though and hopefully my mistakes are forgivable, as many of the islands kastom stories have been passed down through spoken word and as such are almost alive, constantly changing with the change in storyteller. One thing I am confident of is the quirk that though the Solomon Islands are regarded on the whole as Melanesian, the occupants of Renbell are actually Polynesian. With visibly lighter skin and some of the best tattoos around, I can now pick them a mile off in Honiara.
We arrived on the island to friendly welcomes, with everyone relaxing in island style on the incoming tide of Christmas. David was home and for him it was time to relax, though he made sure we had accommodation and we were well fed. There was fresh crayfish for breakfast coconut crab and fish cooked on the beach with many families insisting we join them for food, so as the days passed and we combed the coast both hunting for plants and site seeing it was never more than a few hundred metres in between meals.
Three days into the trip the island started buzzing with news that the ship I mentioned earlier was due to arrive and as it was carrying hundreds if Bellonese, who couldn't afford the plane fare and many of the islands supplies for Christmas and following months, the majority of the island came to the beach to wait. Unfortunately the ship had had to turn back to Honiara for a part before resuming the voyage so didn't arrive until after 10pm and as such unloading had to wait until the morning (including the passengers who spent another night standing, sitting and lying anywhere they could find a spot including the bridge roof). The next morning was a busy one as there is no docking platform for ships on Bellona, they have to stay out in the bay and be unloaded piece by piece or passenger, into two or three banana boats until the job is done. It was a busy day too for the driver of the island's single truck…
A solitary road runs end to end, east to west on Bellona and up until now we had spent our time at the West Coast, on David's tribal land which was fantastic, though we were keen to see more of the island. When you look at tourist sites for the area there is a guesthouse set in a cave on the cliffs of the east coast we had planned to go there but land disputes and local advice got in our way. So when two of my students arrived aboard the ship, with differing lineage to David and with access to land housing the Tapeuna Caves, one of the most culturally significant areas of the island, we had to feel lucky. I was disappointed to read that the islanders once possessed stone carved idols something like those found on Easter Island but these were destroyed by Seventh Day Adventist missionaries long ago and only rubble remains so the opportunity to see something still intact was gold.
The caves are spectacular, as is the journey through jungle and across shallow coral with pools containing giant urchins and sea cucumber at the base of high cliffs to get there. After scaling the cliffs, the caves tell the story of how the islands original Melanesian inhabitants (or Hitchi) were killed off and the Bellonese people of today came to solely occupy the area. We were walked through the whole story but this is getting long enough and I won't do it justice so I will wind up but many of the rock formations in the photos were said to be (and possessed the characteristics of) slain Hitchi or weapons.
We trekked back for our last night prepared our esky of plant material and left early on a plane the next day to a gathering of onlookers while carrying a watermelon that had come from somewhere in the crowd and with that the Bellona adventure was over.