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Pedalling in to the Solomon Islands


A horde of coffee-coloured urchins in dugouts swarmed out to meet us. They were earthen and shirtless with mad frizzy hair, not an ounce of fat on their pinched, wiry torsos. Sitting with knees folded to their chests in the bottom of crudely carved boats that wobbled alarmingly, the rug rats of Auki ran rings around Moksha, zipping to and fro with the wilful agility of a cloud of gnats. In the distance, behind a sullen drape of trees, stilted huts fashioned from the forest looked like they’d been there a thousand years—which they probably had. Cockerels crowed in the dusty shadows, and invisible drums pounded out a tattoo, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.

Tah-duh-duh … Tah-duh-duh … Tah-duh-duh …

I thought: What an utterly unique entry into a magical land. Arriving at an airport, railway station, even seaport, ensured for the most part the same mundane experience wherever you went in the world circa 2000: dreary officials, uninspiring fast food franchises, glassy-eyed chauffeurs clutching scraps of cardboard marked Arthur Ellis Pty Ltd, and so on. Such sterile introductions afforded little if any insight into the heart and soul of a country and its people. In contrast, arriving in Moksha in the arse end of nowhere, buck naked and by the grace of human power, provided about as authentic an initiation as could be had.

“Is your canoe any good?” I asked the nearest waif, signalling to the blue-stained boat he was paddling; it looked set to tip over at any moment. This was Alphones, twelve perhaps, his sun-scorched Afro streaked with natural highlights. He wore Adidas sweatpants and spoke a little English.

“Yess,” he hissed. “Fairy gud.”

“Fast?”

“Yess. Fairy fass.”

His canoe bucked and weaved and water slopped over the side.

“Bet ours is faster,” I challenged.

Alphones looked at me and grinned, revealing a set of pearly teeth.

“Noo. We beat you tumas.”

“Rubbish.” I laughed, looking to egg him on. “Fancy a race?”

He beat us easily, of course, despite Chris pedalling for all he was worth. Alphones and his friends then escorted us to a dilapidated wooden pier obscured by a large, steel-sided passenger ferry, the Ramus II, billowing evil black soot.

The second book in the trilogyWe’d opted at the last minute to stop in Auki, twenty-five miles down the west coast of Malaita, in order to clear immigration and get the latest on the security situation. It had taken all day pedalling against a deceptively strong current, time slowing to an agonizing dawdle as our eagerness to make landfall mounted, compounded by the sight of columns of smoke rising from the jungle only a mile off the port beam.

Arriving outside the lagoon entrance with less than half an hour of daylight remaining and no adequate chart, we’d elected to wait, taking it in turns to hold our position through the night, before navigating the last few miles in the morning.

As we squeezed in behind the Ramus II, hundreds of prying heads gathered on the wharf above us, displaying every hair style, colour, and skin tone imaginable: the coal-black face of a scowling man from Bougainville Province here, the horrified expression of an albino there. Chris threw the painter to a teenager with the reggae look down to a T: fake designer shades, shoulder-length dreads, and marijuana leaf depicted on his shirt. Another Bob Marley devotee watched idly from the sidelines, the sweltering fabric of his wool beanie dyed the Rastafarian colours of red, yellow, and green.

Many of them were disembarking refugees from Guadalcanal, wildeyed and traumatized by the fighting. Some jostled and gawked. Others bared their teeth, black gums showing horribly. Were they smiling? It was hard to tell. Perhaps David Stanley was right: Malaitains were cantankerous all the time, with or without regional disputes. And where were the women? Looking up at the faces, all of them belonging to men, I noticed another common trait, one that sent a chill through me. Smeared around every mouth and staining every set of purplish lips was fresh blood. Even their teeth were streaked with it.

Recalling our banter about hot tubs, I nudged Chris, cocking my eyebrows at the wall of ghoulish expressions.

“Betel nut,” he muttered.

“Huh?”

“Betel. That’s what they’re chewing.”

The penny dropped. The habit of mixing the areca nut with betel leaf and lime was widespread throughout Oceania, producing a foamy red residue and mild euphoria when chewed.

A big man in a pork pie hat, his shirt streaked with betel juice, barged to the front. “You comin’ from where?” he demanded, gesturing at Moksha.

“Tarawa,” I replied, trying not to look as alarmed as I felt.

Big Man frowned. He obviously hadn’t heard of Tarawa. Hacking a gob of crimson slime onto the wharf, he glared suspiciously at us.

“From Guadalcanal?”

Chris pointed to the north. “No. Kiribati. But originally from England.”

A flicker of recognition. “Motor?”

“No motor.”

“Sail?”

“No sail. Human power.”

The second book in the trilogyBig Man had no idea what Chris was talking about. To better explain, Chris unlatched the pedal unit, lifted it onto the roof of the cockpit, and spun the propeller. “Like a bicycle, see?”

A low murmur rippled through the crowd.

“Let me see,” said Big Man, taking the unit.

Using the utmost caution, as if the thing might explode at any second, Big Man examined the propeller, shaft, pedals, and the collar that locked it all down to the stainless steel box. He worked the cranks, shaking his head as the propeller turned. Finally, his disbelieving gaze came to the inscription that Scott Morrison had hammered into the casing.

“What dis?” he asked, tracing a giant finger over the immortal words.

“That’s the name of the pedal unit,” replied Chris, smirking. “‘Cos it’s the dog’s bollocks.”

Big Man grimaced. “Da what?”

“The … Never mind. It’s the motor.”

“Look. Deez men.” Big Man turned to the crowd and held the unit high above his head. “Dey use dis comin’ awl the way from England to Auki. No gazoline!”

The people swayed and groaned, and for a moment it looked as if they would all fall to their knees and start worshiping The Dog’s Bollocks. Big Man then handed the unit back to Chris, smiled a broad, betel-stained smile, and said, “Plees, you are both fairy welcome to Malaita.”

And with that, Chris and I clambered onto the pier, and the crowd, still whispering and murmuring, parted like the Red Sea, allowing us to take our first tentative steps into the realm of the so-called Happy Isles.

Except the situation in the Solomon Islands was anything but happy. With the oil close to running out, the economy in free fall, and shops running out of food, the old timers simply went back to growing taro in their gardens. The younger generations, in contrast, weaned on a money economy, loafed around aimlessly like exiles in their own land. Only the churches and money changers seemed to be doing well out of the crisis.

The second book in the trilogyAn Australian war journalist and his local stringer were nosing around for stories. Otherwise, we were the only outsiders in Auki; all the expats had been evacuated. A general air of despondency greeted us as we stumbled punch drunk through the dusty streets in the direction of the police station, our first port of call to see if we could clear immigration. An inquisitive crowd followed, asking a barrage of questions.

“What about da rough sea?”

“Any sea monsters?”

“This expedition is very interesting. We haven’t seen anything like this before in Auki.”

A sweating man labouring under an assortment of woodcarvings blocked our way, looking desperate. “Where you from? Where you going? When you leaving?” He shook a salad bowl in my face. I shook my head in reply. A salad bowl would find scant use aboard Moksha. Besides, we needed to conserve what little money we had left for buying supplies to reach Australia.

I told him as much.

“But I need food for my family,” he protested.

At the police station, we introduced ourselves to the two officers on duty, George and Basil.

“Come back at nine,” said Basil after hearing our request. “The line to Honiara is cut.”

It was eight. We went away, changed a little money at the Chinese store, and chanced upon a bakery selling frosted buns.

“Just coconut sprinkled on freshly baked rolls,” said Chris, pushing the better part of a bun into his mouth. “Tastes fantastic, though.”

At nine, we returned to the police station. We were told to come back at eleven. At eleven, we were told to come back at two. All we could do was shrug, smile politely, and comply. If we got shirty, we would likely end up waiting even longer.

At two, the police chief, a tall man with greying hair, ushered us into his office. A sign on the wall listed three directives to be a better policeman: Distinguish Sense from Nonsense, Learn to Listen, and Learn the Facts. His desk had four trays on it marked In, Out, Pending, and Action. They were all empty.

“The line to Honiara is still cut,” said the chief. He did a convincing job of sounding resigned, but a ballpoint twirling happily up and down his fingers like a baton told another story. “We also tried contacting them by radio, but there was no response.” Leaning over his desk, he pursed his lips at us in feigned sympathy. “I am sorry my friends, but you cannot stay in Auki. You will need to leave for Tulagi as soon as possible.”

This seemed harsh. Pedalling away without even washing off the salt wasn’t quite the reception we’d been hoping for. Then, out of the blue, a magical solution came to me. “I know. You could use our satellite phone to call them.”

This threw him. The chief of police made jibbing noises and stabbed the air with his pen. Clearly, he had no intention of making contact with his superiors on Guadalcanal. As long as the line remained cut, he would continue to enjoy full autonomy of his little fiefdom and have a nice holiday to boot. A satellite call would ruin all of that.

In the end, citing mechanical difficulties, unfavourable tides, and the wrath of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II should we drown en route, Chris and I managed to negotiate a 48-hour layover. Leaving Alphones and his friend Calvin to keep an eye on Moksha, we booked in for a night at the Auki Motel, a yellow brick affair filled with excitable young men who turned out to be fighters with the Malaita Eagle Force (MEF). They were awaiting orders to ship out to Guadalcanal. One insisted on showing us his gun. Ushering us into a room, he reached under the bed and pulled out a yellow dry bag containing an AK47.

“I have many guns,” he boasted, snapping the magazine in place. “I am commander.”

This seemed unlikely. He looked about ten.

“Where did you receive your training?” Chris asked doubtfully.

The boy tapped the side of his head. “Awl in ‘ere.”

Making our excuses, we hurried off to meet George the policeman at the Auki Lodge, side-stepping Bowl Man who was waiting in ambush. As a thank you for guarding Moksha overnight (“Adults, they won’t touch it,” George had warned, “but the children, they may take things”), we’d invited him to dinner. There was only one item on the menu, a dulltasting omelette served with rice costing fifty-three Solomon dollars for three portions. Tourist price.

The second book in the trilogyWhen I returned from the boat with more cash, Chris was engaged in a spirited conversation with another MEF soldier, Paul, well on his way to oblivion at the hands of the local palm wine known throughout the Pacific as arrack. They were getting along famously, laughing and carrying on, demonstrating how easy it is to make instant friends wherever you are, regardless of language or cultural impediment, if your knowledge of one particular topic is up to scratch.

Soccer.

England had just beaten Germany one-nil in the European Championships.

We slipped out of Auki in darkness on the evening of the second day. A crowd had gathered on the wharf to bid us bon voyage. George and Basil were there, along with Paul, nursing a hangover, the rest of the MEF fighters from the Auki Motel, and a friendly furniture maker from Papua New Guinea called Eekai. A solitary light bulb at the end of the pier illuminated a sea of hands held aloft.

“Thanks, Malaita,” Chris called out, waving as I pedalled. “Be lucky.”

The last goodbyes faded, and we pushed into the night, accompanied by a flotilla of splashing dugouts led by Alphones. When we reached the harbour limits, they, too, melted away.

“Special place,” I said.

“Yeah,” Chris agreed, reaching inside the Rathole for his shell jacket. The wind had freshened from the northeast, whipping the waves and sending water into the cockpit. “Really good people. It’s just not true what you read in the books—as far as I’m concerned. Malaitans, a fantastic bunch.”

In spite of the oil running out, the fear, uncertainty, and skyrocketing cost of a pound of rice, the people of Auki had taken us in, embraced us like family and protected us, reinforcing in my mind a growing truism of travel, that the places others tell you to avoid often turn out to be the best-kept secrets.

Extracted from Jason’s second book in the trilogy that describes his circumnavigation of the world – by human power alone – The Seed Buried Deep. Buy it here.

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