Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.
|Sunday, October 10, 2004 14:41:39|
S. Pacific 2004: 2
Saturday, October 9, 2004
Yesterday was a day of surprises - all of them good! The computer at the hotel proved its worth as I answered email and got the first instalment of the trip sent off. A little after noon we were headed for the airport - Air Nauru was to arrive on time.
On the way to the airport I asked the driver about the water supply for Majuro. He explained that the entire airport is their water system. It is designed so all rainwater runs down the gently sloping runway and tarmac area to underground tanks. From there it is pumped to a reservoir about half a kilometre away where it is treated and distributed to the roughly 22,000 people who populate the island.
As I was checking in, which first required finding an agent to check in with, I was approached by a journalist - Karen Earnshaw. She had worked for years for Rupert Murdoch's morning and afternoon papers in Sydney, then 17 years ago met the right fellow who had a sail boat and away they went. They have been in the Marshall's for awhile - Karen is currently doing duty as a reporter, layout artist and pretty much whatever else is needed at the Marshall Islands newspaper. She had been phoned that morning by someone in Brisbane, Australia and asked it she could interview Tim Carlson and I, as she was flying on Air Nauru that day and had done articles on the airline for the Sydney papers previously.
We had a good chat sitting in the shade outside the airport. Karen is a fellow travel enthusiast who has the bug every bit as bad as Tim and I - definitely a kindred soul. We were having such a good chat that the airport security people had to hunt us down to herd us into the airport to catch our flight. Tim was in the boarding area when we arrived - it was great to see him again.
He told me Air Nauru had pulled out all the stops for him, and that he had been upgraded to first class the whole distance to Majuro from Fiji, where he boarded the plane. They arranged for immigration to stamp his passport at the stop in Tarawa, gave him full VIP treatment on board, and upgraded both Karen and I. This was a result of Tim's email exchanges with John Goulding, the airline's general manager in Melbourne.
Because of the time away on each flight the plane has to carry two flight crews. The hour and twenty minute flight to Nauru, Air Nauru's home base, was comfortable and fun as we got to know some of the alternate crew who were also sitting in first class. The crossword puzzle in Pacific Magazine is created by Karen, so solving it became a joint effort between Tim, one of the pilots and I with frequent requests for clues from the crossword's author.
When we arrive in Nauru it was interesting to see that the airport terminal was on the opposite side of the highway from the runway. Before we taxied to the ramp at the terminal building, an emergency vehicle was stationed across both lanes of the road on one side, and on the other side an energetic young fellow flapped what looked like yellow ping pong paddles up and down as he stood in the middle of the highway stopping traffic.
All passengers had to deplane with their carry on baggage, and then check in again. There was a crew change as well. When we went to check in the three of us found first class boarding passes waiting for us and we were accorded the privileges of the VIP lounge. It consisted of two comfortably appointed rooms, complete with coolers containing complimentary cold beverages. One was well air conditioned - the only air conditioned place I saw in the terminal - and the other would have been air conditioned had the system been working, but today it felt like a sauna.
We settled into the air conditioned room where I watched the bags while Karen and Tim went out onto the balcony to look around. Not too much later I was unceremoniously requested to move to the sauna room, as a minister of the Nauru government apparently required the twenty or so armchairs for his exclusive use, even though he was travelling alone. No mixing with the unwashed for him! When Tim and Karen returned we chose to move into the general waiting area where the temperature was not a lot different from the sauna room. We considered ourselves fortunate that the minister did not require the entire first class cabin on the plane as his exclusive domain as well. As Tim said, "Does this give you a clue as to what is wrong with this country?"
The tiny island of Nauru had been a very prosperous country of approximately 10,000 people, supported by a rich phosphate mine. Over the years millions were paid into the government coffers where they were to be wisely administered by the government to provide perpetual income for the people when the phosphate deposits ran out. Predictably, the funds were squandered or stolen by corrupt or incompetent officials, and the country is now bankrupt. It is apparently being used by Australia as a refugee camp in return for some financial support. It is almost impossible to get a visitor visa for Nauru.
Once back on board we crossed the highway, taxied the long distance to the end of the runway, taxied the long distance back, crossed the highway and stopped. Two people had forgotten their passports and we had returned to pick them up. We repeated the procedure but this time we came back down the runway at full throttle and were soon soaring on our way. The new cabin crew pampered us every bit as much as the former one, making sure that at no time did our glasses hit empty.
The one hour forty minute flight to Honiara, capital of the Solomon Islands, passed quickly. We bid farewell to Karen and the crew, were cleared by customs and immigration with no hassles, then went to find a cab - but there weren't any. There were also no hotel shuttles or tour operators. We were wandering around the front of the airport looking like the lost souls that we were when the operator of the airport gift shop, Vivian, pulled up and offered us a ride to the hotel - which we gratefully accepted. When she dropped us off an offer was made and accepted to pick us up Monday morning when we return to the airport. We later found that to be typical of the hospitality and kindness of the people of the Solomons.
To cap off a day of happy happenings, the hotel even had our reservations correctly made! Tim is at one end of the Solomon Kitano Mendana Hotel, and I'm at the other end, but the rooms are great - large and comfortable, right in front of the ocean. Tim and I met in the open air bar/restaurant for beer and a snack for dinner - we were fed pretty steadily on the plane and weren't very hungry. Although the hotel is located in the centre of the city, it fronts along a sandy beach with the bar area right on the beach in the centre of the two accommodation wings. While we were sitting there a fairly substantial earthquake shook the place - there were some very wide eyes among the staff!
We were treated to a display of Solomon traditional dancing as male and female performers in full costume put on a show outside the window of the room in which the Solomon Islands soccer team were having their dinner. The performance was a good luck ritual to send the warriors off to battle fully charged, however something missed this time as the Solomons lost to Australia 5 to 1 in the world cup qualifying game today.
This morning after breakfast Tim and I walked next door to the tourist bureau, which was closed. While wondering what to do next, a young lady from an office under the travel bureau approached and asked if she could be of assistance. When we explained that we were looking for a car rental and some idea of what sights we should see, Solomon hospitality went into full swing. She invited us to her office where she phoned all the car rental places on our behalf. None were open - I got the idea that Saturday and Sunday, with or without a world cup football game in town, are days to close - so she contacted a taxi company she said rented cars cheaper than the car rentals. After inquiring we found that a car without a driver was the same rate as a car with a driver, so that was an easy decision.
Apparently giving the price in advance is not the done thing, so the company owner and a driver brought a car to the office in which we were sitting. Our gracious hostess went to negotiate with the owner, then came back to tell us that the price would be somewhere between 30 and 40 Solomon dollars per hour - about $US 4.78 to 5.38 per hour at the hotel's unfavourable exchange rate. It didn't take much thought to choose the lower rate, so with all agreed we said goodbye to our helpful new friend and headed out of town.
We chose to go to the Western end of the island where there was supposed to be a lot of WWII wreckage. The paved road ended once we were out of the city and dirt road with potholes became the norm. As we progressed further up the coast we hit stretches where the pavement had survived, but overall the road was in pretty dismal condition. We stopped at the entrance to a place where there was supposedly a wrecked ship from WWII, but when a rotund fellow approached the car and mumbled through his mouthful of beetle nut that we would have to pay twenty Solomon dollars to go in we declined, having read that wrecks were plentiful along the coast.
After travelling a long way up the coast we failed to see anything from the war. It would appear that the sea has claimed anything that was there. On our return trip, after making numerous enquiries, we found a "war museum" up a rutted side track. The very helpful caretaker gave us a tour with full explanation of everything there - for him it was obviously a labour of love. The outdoor displays consisted of guns and wreckage of aircraft found in the jungle. I suspect he had not had a visitor for some time, as tourism has been almost non-existent since the tribal warfare of 1999-2000 and his roadside sign was totally illegible. Along the way people were very friendly; waving, smiling and shouting out hello as we went by. If we stopped we were made to feel very welcome.
Our driver, who had never been in this area before, was of no use in locating anything. Tim had copied pages from a guide book that we used that to try to find things. It gave a general idea, but was quite inaccurate on some distances. The driver's main concern seemed to be stopping for a smoke. Because of the road condition our speed was only around 20 kph, however by the time we had been to the war museum the driver was sufficiently stressed that he had to stop at a roadside beetle nut vendor for a chew to enable him to continue what he described as a very long trip. We headed back to the hotel and dismissed the driver, arranging to have him pick us up at 9 AM the next morning.
Football fever here is very much like in Costa Rica, with cars draped in flags, cheeks painted and pedestrians carrying or wrapping themselves in the flag of the team they support. It was interesting how many of the locals were supporting Australia. I questioned one particularly enthusiastic group about this, and was told that they considered Australia their big brother, and that they realized that the Solomons had no hope of going all the way to the world cup, while Australia did. They therefore were hoping for a substantial win for Australia to help it qualify.
The Solomon Islands have a population of around 500,000 people, of which around 100,000 live on the island of Guadalcanal and approximately 50,000 live in the capital city of Honiara. Most or the people we saw outside of the city lived in villages where it would appear little had changed over the centuries. The houses were constructed of bamboo and palm fronds, and a subsistence living was taken from fishing and a little farming. Along the way huge abandoned coconut and cocoa plantations lined the road, full of healthy trees. When asked, our driver explained that no one way doing anything with them because they were too lazy.
Australia sent troops in over a year ago to end the intertribal bloodshed. Most of them went home this month. The Australians also helped quell a riot where 200 inmates took over a prison. These were largely "amnesty" prisoners from the intertribal battle who were awaiting release through the painfully slow court process. In spite of the supposed "peace" there are parts of the island that local residents will not visit for fear of being killed. Our driver and the caretaker of the museum were two who expressed this concern. Frequent signs along the road proclaimed that "This County is a no weapons area". Apparently malaria is rampant here as well - which helped me remember my malaria prevention pill this morning! The net result of the problems is almost no tourism.
In the evening we went to the yacht club, located very near to our hotel. Karen had tipped us off that yacht clubs in the Pacific are great places to eat and drink, as visitors can usually sign themselves in to enjoy the inexpensive food and drinks. This certainly proved the case here - the food was excellent and everything was inexpensive.
We were joined at the table by a Solomons lady, Annie, who was an elected member of the government and various other institutions. She sure could talk! Her husband, Trevor, was a quiet Australian who had come here with Caterpillar years ago and stayed - he is now in the copra business. Between them and another islander who joined the table, it provided an interesting evening.
Sunday, October 10, 2004
Both Tim and I were surprised when our driver, appropriately named "Clazy", showed up on time this morning, so we headed east out of town on schedule. This time Clazy had brought his own supply of beetle nuts which he happily chewed, opening the door frequently to spit. Judging by the red teeth behind many of the big smiles here, beetle nut chewing is quite popular.
Once past the airport the road deteriorated into similar conditions to those experienced yesterday. There were signs on both roads proclaiming that the road was being restored with financial aid from Japan, but so far the only visible spending was on the signs. After bumping along for quite awhile we turned down a side road where the wreckage of a sawmill and a quite substantial village were located. They had been destroyed during what the locals call "The Danger", or the period of tribal conflict. The village was located on what had been "Red Beach", the first allied landing point of the battle of Guadalcanal and the first place in WWII where allied forces attacked Japanese held territory.
We then took a "road" behind the airfield which soon deteriorated into a slippery mud track. Our not so intrepid driver pressed on until American and Japanese monuments came into sight on a hump of ground called "Bloody Hill" where there had been a particularly nasty battle. We had to be content with the view in the distance, as Clazy then stated that the road had defeated him and we turned to make our way back.
He took us to the huge Japanese and American monuments to the battle of Guadalcanal which are located on separate hills behind Honiara. The American one was particularly interesting due to its detailed accounts of the air, sea and ground battles. It also listed the losses of ships by both sides - a phenomenal number including aircraft carriers, battleships, heavy cruisers and so on down the line. The views of the city and its surroundings from either monument were well worth seeing. Our tour complete we returned to the hotel by 12:30 to laze about for the rest of the afternoon.
Tim and I opted for an early dinner, but when we got to the restaurant we were informed it was buffet and show night. Not having a lot of choice, we agreed and were treated to an excellent buffet of Japanese and Western cuisine. When the show started the glass walls of the restaurant were rolled back and we were front and centre for the entertainment, which consisted of a local troop of about 20 dancers. They were quite good as they performed dances from the various Pacific countries. The 7 or 8 year old junior members were particularly good fun to watch - there are definitely some up and coming show people there!
My impression of the Solomons, judging from the one island we have explored, is that it has a lot of the flavour of Africa, from the dark skinned people with tight curly hair to the African style road side markets and decaying buildings. On the other hand, I cannot think where I have met friendlier or more helpful people. There are no beggars here - no one has asked for a handout in spite of the evident poverty, and tipping is frowned upon. Some tourist services are available in Honiara, but not outside of the city, as there are virtually no tourists. Prices for accommodation, food, transportation and other essentials are very reasonable and everyone speaks some English. Ability to speak English is a requirement for immigrants wanting to live here. It would be a great destination for the traveller who would like to go to a tropical country where mass tourism is non-existent, and who would like to explore some of the other islands, and visit some of the resorts. There is a fenced off bay where people swim with tamed dolphins, and we are told the snorkelling, scuba diving and fishing are all world class.
Tomorrow we'll visit the internet café at 8 AM when it opens. I'll also try to pay for my Papua New Guinea visa - the visa was supplied by the Australian High Commission in Canada, but they would not accept payment for it, so it was issued with a stamp requiring payment upon arrival. We would like to get through immigration and customs as quickly as possible in Port Moresby, as our preference would be to spend tomorrow night in Rabaul, New Britain rather than Port Moresby. Everyone we talked to says Port Moresby is to be avoided, as it is a place not worth seeing that is downright dangerous, while Rabaul is very beautiful. Karen's comment on Port Moresby is that it is the greatest place in the world to hitch hike, as the very next car coming along stops and a stern lecture is delivered about how dangerous it is to be there, and particularly to hitch hike!
There is a flight leaving Port Moresby half an hour or so after our arrival, assuming all flights are running on time, and we hope to be on it if we can clear customs in time. The Papua New Guinea consul is right across from the internet café, so if I can pay him we should not be delayed at immigration on arrival. We are also hopeful that our ride to the airport will appear at 11 AM as arranged. Tomorrow will tell!