The Solomon Islands and Marovo Lagoon - On assignment for Time Magazine
One of my TIME magazine assignments to the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific was a story on child vulnerability. I was working with writer Rory Callinan and we both made the two-hour flight from Brisbane, Australia to the capital Honiara. The following day we flew out to Sehge in Marovo Lagoon in the remote Western Province.
After an hour or so of flying, we approached the small township of Sehge. The smallish De Havilland DHC-8 Dash 8 dropped out of the clouds to reveal a stunning maze of fringing islets and clear blue waters. We skirted the large island of Vangunu which not only gave us a bird's eye view of lush green forests but also some of the logging operations scarring the pristine environment.
With our gear unloaded onto the grass beside the aircraft we caught up with a local fisherman to transport us further into the lagoon to Uepi Island we would be based for a few days. Already perspiring from the tropical humidity we piled into a motorized canoe and began the hour-long ride through the lagoon to Uepi. The canoe sliced through the calm waters as we raced over spectacular coral reefs winding our way around small palm-fringed islets.
Taxi - Marovo Lagoon transport.
The physical beauty of this place is breathtaking but its scenic splendor masks an uglier human and ecological tragedy. With beautiful stands of hardwood forests and abundant fishing grounds, international companies have moved in to exploit these reserves. Apart from decimating the environment, loggers and fisherman also pillage the local population exposing teenagers to prostitution, child marriages, and unplanned pregnancies with no support.
Daily Life - Marovo Lagoon, Solomon Islands.
We arrived at remote Uepi Island with its incredibly clear waters and palms gently swaying in whispers of breeze. We planned our travel for the next few days over a lavish meal of fresh seafood prepared by locals who worked at the small resort operated by two Australians. I remember looking out across the tranquil lagoon as the setting sun bathed wooden fishing canoes in an ethereal golden glow and wondering how such an idyllic setting could hide a more tragic character.
At daybreak the following morning we sped by motorized canoe across the calm waters of the lagoon and visited a distant village to gain some understanding of life in the province. The slightly cloudy sky and mirror-like lagoon made for a surreal experience as sky and sea became one vast panorama of vivid blue and green color. On reaching the village of Chea, I set out to make some photos of daily life and walked the dirt paths amongst the weathered thatched huts nestled amongst palm trees.
Portrait - Chea Village, Marovo Lagoon.
I came across a local school teacher patiently watching for his students arriving by timber canoes for the days lessons. When asked about the impact of logging and fishing he explained that locals have reservations about these operations but the offers of jobs and infrastructure such as new churches and schools for the communities often overrides these. I left Chea with some good photos of the sleepy village and headed for one of the logging camps further along the lagoon.
The weather had begun to close in as I stepped onto the muddy bank of Merusu logging camp. Huge timber logs lay strewn alongside the soggy dirt roadway leading from the camp while further along the shoreline a large ship was hauling the massive timber cargo aboard from storage stockpiles.
Logging camp, Marovo Lagoon, Solomon Islands.
It was here I gained first-hand knowledge of the terrible human exploitation that is an undercurrent of these foreign logging operations. In a fairly modest timber house at the camp we met a local girl and her family. The house had a couple of rooms including a dining room and kitchen. Although sparsely appointed by western standards the house had furniture and electrical goods not often seen in regular village houses. While the younger children played video games on the family television we sat outside the house in a timber pergola and listened to the father of the girl explain to us the arrangement his daughter has with the foreign mining camp manager. I found it difficult to comprehend as the father explained that the mining camp manager had asked him to "supply" his daughter to him in exchange for goods and housing. The teenage girl would stay with the camp manager when he desired and return home occasionally and when he left the camp. I recall making the pictures of the teenage girl with her younger siblings and thinking of the father’s disgraceful abandonment of his daughter’s rights not only as an underage teenager but her rights as a human being. We later found that the girl was also pregnant with the camp manager’s baby.
Family support - Young girls are taken advantage of by foreign logging contractors in exchange for household goods and appliances.
Further, into the lagoon, we found a woman with another story of mistreatment and violation that had left her with a fair skinned son. She explained how she and her friends had been asked to perform local dancing at a logging camp Christmas party and as the night went on she was approached by a logging contractor who offered her money for sex. Three years on and she has the responsibility for her young son and has not heard from the father who has returned home at the completion of his contract at the logging camp. In failing light I made some portraits of the young mother, son, and grandmother at their hut and around the village. Cloudy conditions made for soft lighting and I used a telephoto zoom and wide angle zoom lenses with available light to make a series of portraits.
Fatherless - A young mother and her son she had to a foreign logging contractor who left without further contact.
I always try to travel as lightly as possible when documenting stories. I'm a big fan of Nikon camera gear and I still use some of my lenses I have had for 30 years and they still work perfectly and produce crisp sharp images. When I plan for an assignment camera gear gets first priority over clothing. I always ensure I have good comfortable footwear to suit the location I'll be working in and I keep trousers and shirts to an absolute minimum. When I'm working in the Pacific and Asia I can always grab some cheap shirts from stalls and markets while I'm on the road if I need them. I'll be writing a detailed post about how I travel and pack in a forthcoming post.
My kit for this assignment included:
- 2x Nikon D2x cameras
- Nikon 80-200mm f2.8 zoom lens
- Nikon 300mm f2.8 telephoto lens
- Nikon 180mm f2.8 telephoto lens
- Nikon 17-35mm f2.8 wide angle zoom lens
- Nikon 85mm f1.4 lens
- Nikon 105mm f1.8 ais telephoto lens
- Nikon 1.4x converter for the 300mm lens
- Manfrotto monopod
- 2 Nikon flash units
- Small translucent umbrella
- Domke F1x camera bag
- Lowepro backpack
- Photo vest
- Apple laptop
- BGAN Satellite transmitter terminal
SOLOMON ISLANDS TRAVEL TIPS and INFORMATION
Solomon Islands is a country in the Oceania region of the Pacific Ocean. It lies to the east of Papua New Guinea and northwest of Vanuatu.The country has 6 main islands with over 900 smaller islands and islets.
Dialing code: +677
Currency: Solomon Islands dollar
Official language: English
Population: 561,231 (2013 figures)
Why would you visit Solomon Islands?
Travelers looking for some great rustic Pacific Islands adventures will enjoy Solomon Islands. Diving is big in this island nation. It was a major battleground during the second world war and divers can dive some great warship and plane wrecks. Visiting Gizo and Marovo Lagoon in the western province will provide great diving and fishing adventure.
Marovo Lagoon is a massive expanse of water hosting many small communities and villages. You can easily spend a week or two just exploring Marovo Lagoon.
Where to stay in Solomon Islands
The capital Honiara offers some comfortable accommodation. King Solomon Hotel, Mendana Hotel, and Heritage Park Hotel are good staging points for your exploration of the islands. Marovo Lagoon has Uepi Island Resort which is lovely island
Marovo Lagoon has Uepi Island Resort which is lovely island accommodation nestled amongst swaying palm trees and a great adventure to get to. You don't get the glitz and
At Gizo in Western Province, there is Gizo Hotel, Rekona Lodge along with a few other hotels and B and B's.
You don't get the glitz and glamour you would find at Fiji or Bail resorts but this is not the experience travelers are looking for when they visit Solomon Islands. Its a typical Pacific Islands frontier and what it lacks in glitz it more than makes up for in adventure for the intrepid traveler.
Getting there and away
You get to Solomon Islands from Australia, Fiji Islands or Vanuatu, all great destinations to visit on their own merits! At the time of writing, Solomon Airlines and Virgin Australia were offering flights from these destinations to the capital, Honiara. It is about a 2-hour flight from Brisbane Australia and around 3 hours from Sydney Australia.
How to travel around Solomon Islands
Interisland flights are the main mode of transport between islands. Solomon Airlines has a fleet of Twin Otter aircraft that service the small airstrips in the outer islands. You can expect to pay approximately $600 aud for return flights to Seghe or Gizo from Honiara (this is just a guide, see Solomon Airlines here). During my travels to the islands, I have also hired small motorboats to travel between closer islands and these are negotiated costs with the boat owner on the day. The boats generally don't have a cover so you are at the mercy of the sun and weather but shouldn't worry an intrepid traveler dressed and kitted appropriately for this mode of travel.