I was greeted by rain as I arrived in Honiara, Solomon Islands on Saturday the 25th August and I immediately began to wonder if it would be safe to travel to Malaita Province in such weather conditions. My intention for this trip was to assist the Solomon Islands MESCAL National Country Coordinator (NCC), Hugo Tafea, conduct fish surveys and mangrove ground truthing at the project’s demonstration site, located in the South Malaita Constituency of Malaita Province.
After meetings with Hugo, it was confirmed that the weather was not favorable to travel to Malaita. Hence my stay in Honiara had to be extended for three more days before I could leave for the demonstration site.
The gripping 12 hour boat ride
Four days after arrival, the weather finally cleared and our team of six was on our way to Malaita in an open 21 foot fiberglass boat. We were heading to Maramasike Passage, our chosen survey site. Maramasike Passage is a narrow passage which separates the two islands of Malaita Province - the larger Malaita and the smaller South Malaita Island.
The ocean was quite flat as we started our journey at 7am on Wednesday 29 August. This was mainly due to the fact that we were in the leeward side of the Island and would get a taste of the predominant southeast winds once out of the shadow of Guadalcanal. We made a quick phone call to the local Meteorological Service and we were advised to expect 15-20 knot winds, moderate to rough seas, 1-2m swells and heavy rain. It would be a very wet and long journey but we were all determined to get to Maramasike, as the trip was already delayed by two days.
At 11.15am (3hrs 15mins after departure) we rounded the last point and headed into open waters for the crossing to Malaita. This trip I was told would take five hours max, 4 hours into our journey and we had not even covered a third of the way to Malaita; the weather was really slowing us down. And to top things off, our 70 horsepower Yamaha outboard engine was playing up and had to be restarted several times. Ominous signs for the journey ahead.
Lost at sea
At around 12pm I noticed a small island to the right of the boat and approximately two hours later it seemed that the same island was now located to our left; we were going around in circles for the last two hours. At this time the weather had worsened, visibility had reduced greatly and waves with white caps were hitting the boat hard. What worried me the most was the constant bailing of water from the rear of the boat and the engine dying several times. After several discussions amongst ourselves we realized that the island we were seeing was still in the Guadalcanal Province and therefore our compass was faulty. We were definitely panicking and fearing the worst. Luckily, Hugo brought with him the MESCAL GPS unit and he handed this over for the captain to use. With eyes fixed on the cloudy horizon, we were all saying our silent prayers hoping that we would not encounter any further glitches.
Land in sight
We breathed easy when the boat captain assured us we still had enough fuel to get to Malaita. Sure enough, after a very bumpy and spine breaking boat ride we arrived safely at Afio station at around 7pm, a central resting stop for outer island travelers. But our hopes of getting to our base camp (located beside an intertidal channel off the main passage) at Maramasike sooner rather than later were put on hold as it was still low tide at Afio which meant we had to wait around till high tide to get across. I was thankful too; after that long and rough boat ride it was good to be back on land.
We remained at Afio for four hours; cooked some rice, drank hot tea and shared a few jokes with the locals. At midnight, the tide came in and we continued on to Maramasike. After a 20 minute boat ride, we arrived at our base camp, Eliote village, at approximately 1am (a whopping 18 hour boat ride from time of departure!). Eliote village is one of the villages along the small Malaita side of the passage that belongs to the Apuilalamoa clan.
Field work began at 7am the next day; our schedule was strictly restricted by the daily changes in the tide. I was adamant that we complete the required sample for one river system (upstream and downstream zones; 2 sites in each zone) by the time I left Maramasike.
It rained every single day of the 3 days I stayed at the demonstration site and ever in the back of the mind was the presence of crocodiles. Every log in the water and scuttle in the short shrubbery, that was common on the banks of the streams, I scrutinized as it could be a crocodile.
For the survey we had to use different types of nets, I was anxious when we used seine nets in the stream as this involved walking to the middle of the stream hip deep in mud and pulling in the net to the bank.
Luckily, no one was hurt during the survey; while we didn’t encounter any crocs we also worried about poisonous snakes, spiders and malaria. We managed to complete surveying Teili River (upstream and downstream zones) before I left Malaita on Saturday 1 September.
I left Eliote village and the Solomon Islands with some very good experiences and memories. Even though the boat ride was not so memorable this journey has been worthwhile as it has allowed me to understand the various challenges faced by Hugo as the NCC to carry out project plans for Solomon Islands. And also my first-hand experience of village life in the Solomon’s has been precious and will not be forgotten.
By Viliame Waqalevu, MESCAL Technical Officer, IUCN Oceania