“Apollo! Apolloooooo!” The voice of our new friend James thundered across the bay into our wooden bungalow. James did not have a habit of being very subtle every time he needed Apollo’s help but couldn’t locate him on the small island called Pogepogere. “Apolloooo!” his voice bellowed again over the lagoon. The man James was calling for was a family member whom he’d asked to come over to his island to help him with some menial jobs while we were there. We were his only guests and the only buildings on the island were James’ house, his sister’s house, and our bungalow, all of which he had single-handedly constructed. This island was his own private property, handed down in his family for generations. First, he had built his own home, a simple but large and breezy wooden house on poles. Then, a little off on a hill, he built a home for his aging sister whom he had invited to live with him after she complained about her many children and grandchildren who were disturbing her peace at her old home on a nearby island. So he built her a house. Then, a few dozens of meters from his own house, he constructed the bungalow we were now staying, a wonderful wooden affair with a touch of reed and a veranda right over the water, a ladder diving straight from the deck into the lagoon.
“Apolloooo!” – the call continued to thunder across the island. Apollo was born in the year 1969, when even in the remote and unknown island paradise of the Marovo Lagoon all radios were tuned to the live broadcast of the Apollo 11 mission which delivered the first man on the moon. Later that night, the radio broadcast was repeated, now translated in to Pijin, the local language of the Solomon Islands. James had explained to us that Apollo’s parents had been so impressed with the event that they decided to name their son after the spacecraft. Unfortunately for his twin brother, who was second to exit the womb, his parents’ creativity was limited as he received the less inspired name Apelle.
We had come to the Marovo Lagoon in our quest to find the ultimate tropical paradise. Not long after arriving, we were quick to agree that we had found it. A private tropical island, surrounded by blue waters full of colourful sea life, white beaches and best of all – not a single other traveler in sight. We were not only alone on James’ island, but seemingly in the entire lagoon as we never saw any other tourist during our stay. Getting there took some effort, admittedly, and this may explain why we were the only ones there. In Honiara, capital city of Solomon Islands, an archipelago of hundreds of islands in the South Pacific, we boarded a small 10-seat propeller plane with open views into the cockpit and cockroaches scurrying over the interior walls mid-flight. On its way to Seghe in Marovo Lagoon the aircraft flew very low over the islands and reefs . Marovo is a large saltwater lagoon, its many small islands protected by a double barrier reef. The airstrip at Seghe was nothing more than an open field, its grass cut and dogs and children jumping out of the way just in time before the plane touched ground after less than an hour of flight.
We had booked James’ bungalow through the Solomon Islands tourist promotion website, and were not entirely sure if our booking had gone through. But thankfully, James and his son Kieran were waiting for us as we exited the plane by the small air stair and took our bags directly from the cargo hold. “You are very lucky! A number of previous flights had to be canceled because it has been raining. Rain makes the airstrip too slippery for a safe landing,” James explained. But today was a dry day, and we had made it to Seghe. The next section of our trip was a boat ride to James’ little island, further away in the lagoon. James was a cheerful, round-bellied, relaxed and grey-haired man to whom we couldn’t help but take an immediate liking. We hopped into his small boat which he had tied to a pier just behind the airstrip. We put our backpacks in front, sat down in the boat and James started the motor. It would be another hour and twenty minutes by boat to our destination, but in the middle of the lagoon the boat’s motor stopped running. It was 5 PM and evening was about to fall, and there we were drifting aimlessly – James trying to activate the motor again to no avail. Another boatman was moving past us at some distance and James was able to get his attention – his voice roaring over the quiet water. “This man will bring you to your bungalow while I try to fix this motor. Then at least you’ll arrive there before darkness. I’ll catch up with you later.” A little wobbly, we transferred from one boat to the other, and took off again after James had given the man directions, leaving our host behind in the twilight of the lagoon.
The last light of the day was fading when we arrived at James’ deserted island. As our temporary boatman turned his small boat around and motored off into the dark lagoon, we walked into our bungalow where we put down our bags and waited for James. Would he be able to get the boat’s motor working again? And what if he didn’t, would he be doomed to spend a night out on the water? But luckily it did not take long for us to hear the sound of James’ boat approaching in the distance, and it wasn’t much later when we had dinner together in the sheltered veranda of his house.
The next morning we awakened to a loud and stretched “Apolloooooo!” James was fixing our breakfast. “I don’t receive many guests. In fact, you are my first guests in a long time,” he told us while running back and forth between his kitchen at the back of the house and his veranda were we were seated, his wooden floor creaking under the weight of his potbelly. He chaotically struggled to serve all breakfast items without forgetting anything – the tea, the eggs, the home-baked bread for which he had gotten up extra early this morning so he could bake it for us. “I try to organise, but I’m still not organised,” he laughs thunderously. “I can barely manage to cater for two guests. I don’t know what I would do if I’d ever have 5 or 6 guests show up here at the same time!” He went out of his way to make us comfortable and we loved the company of our host, whose chaotic approach to serving his guests we found absolutely charming. We did not mind the fact that things were a little slow – this was exactly the island life we were looking for.
Our time on the island blended from one glorious day into the next. James took out Apollo’s wooden dug-out canoe and paddled us to a nearby island, where we snorkeled in a colourful fish soup, James staying close to us in the water and navigating us some way out of the shore where a sheer reef wall dropped meters deep into the ocean to disappear in a dark blue void. The wall was covered in a multitude of corals in a ray of colours, the sunlight filtering through the waves above our heads, creating thousands of tiny dancing spots of light on the coral and the fish and the lone reef shark that was hovering in the still part of the water, where the movement of the waves did not touch him. Back on the beach James prepared fresh papaya and coconut for us with a big machete. Once dry and our stomachs satisfied, we set off in the canoe again to look for dugongs in the shallow waters near the mangroves on one of the islands. Unfortunately we did not spot them, but it had been a perfect day also without dugongs.
On another day, Apollo took us on a canoe trip to a village on a nearby island where we went for a little hiking to see the school and the local clinic, which had a solar panel to provide it with electricity. There is no running water or electricity in the Marovo Lagoon, and like most, James uses a kerosine fuelled lamp or halogen lamps running on batteries when it gets dark.
Our dreamy days continued – waking up with the smell of the fresh bread that James was baking for us, enjoying his jokes while he struggled to serve breakfast properly, reading or dozing on our bungalow’s veranda, more canoe rides (once we borrowed Apollo’s canoe to try to paddle it around the island ourselves – not an easy feat), more snorkeling, more laughs during dinner and more blissful nights with the sound of quietly lapping waves drifting through the glass-less windows and through the mosquito netting into our bed.
Decidedly, we had found paradise. Except that even in this paradise there was a fair share of nasty big spiders, a family of black-and-white ringed sea snakes that lived at the pier where James docked his boat, and a bunch of sharks whom James feeds when he sees them, in a half-hearted attempt to turn them into semi-pets (“I know that this probably doesn’t work. Even a crocodile can’t tame a shark!”). The creatures I feared most were the giant black centipedes whose bite cause excruciating pain. One morning, James had found one in his bed and had chopped it to pieces. That evening after dinner he carried the anthropod’s remains to the table on a sheet of paper, and we were amazed to see its pieces move independently even though they had been cut apart some twelve hours earlier.
Also present in the mangrove forests of the lagoon are crocodiles. We went looking for them one morning in James’ motorboat, which he skillfully piloted into a slowly flowing river of brown water that emerged from a dense forest across the bay from our bungalow. “A year ago, a lady from a nearby village was washing some dishes at the edge of the river. A crocodile grabbed her arm.” James waved his hand in the general direction of the river bank. “While the crocodile ate her arm, she managed to save herself by holding on to a nearby tree. Once she had escaped the animal, she bound the stub of her own limb and paddled back to her village with just one arm. She survived because she was flown out to Honiara.” With this cheerful story in mind, we continued to boat upstream through a fairy tale jungle of ferns and lianas. We did not see any crocs, and then we came across a group of men who were collecting wood at a part of the river that had become so shallow and full of rocks that our boat could not continue. James conversed with the men and informed us, “these guys have seen some crocodiles lying on the river banks earlier this morning, but they have disappeared. Let’s get out and have lunch here.” Not entirely sure if that was the brightest idea given the supposed proximity of big, carnivorous reptiles, we followed James across the shallow river until we had found a couple of suitable rocks in the shade to sit on. James pulled homemade bread from the picnic cooler he had brought onto his boat, and together with Apollo started to fill it with tomato and lettuce. The lunch was as delicious as it was simple, and after we ate we dove into one of the river’s shallow pools to cool our bodies and heads that had been heated by the midday sun of the equator. On our way back to our own island we stopped at a fresh water spring where we showered under a constant flow of cool, sweet water which we drank directly from the source.
That evening, while sitting on James’ veranda on our last evening on the island, we told James that we had had spent such happy days with him. We had been given a taste of island paradise life, and had felt so well cared for by him, his son Kieran and Apollo. “You know,” James said with a cheeky smile, “I enjoyed it even more! It was so much fun to explore the lagoon together with you, to go snorkeling… these are things I normally don’t do. I really had a good time.”
When the time came to leave, we were not sure what we would miss more: this tropical dream of lazing on an island in a blue lagoon, or James’ bellowing laugh, mischievous jokes and frequent calls for “Apollooooooo!” Our stay here had been so very simple, in a wooden bungalow without windows or doors, without light and running water, but a five star resort could not have given us the unique and unforgettable experience that James had created for us. It was truly world class.
The motor of James’ boat lasted all the way back to Seghe, where we were asked to weigh our backpacks on an old-fashioned personal scale before boarding the small cockroach-infested plane again. Travel can fill your heart with wonder, joy and life lessons, but from time to time it also breaks your heart a little when the course of your journey forces you to say goodbye to new friends – to those special people we meet along the way, the ones who infuse our minds with their contagious laugh and their wisdom, the ones who live the life we’ll never have but who are willing to share theirs with us for a little while, so we can taste what it is like and then forever miss it – and them.
The plane ran along the bumpy airstrip and from the tiny window I saw James and Kieran standing on the side of the runway. The propellers turned and soon we were airborne, the blue waters and emerald islands of Marovo Lagoon disappearing from our view.
Create your own adventure!
Marovo Lagoon is situated in the west of the Solomon Islands archipelago. It is less than an hour flight from the capital Honiara.
There are direct flights connecting to Honiara from Brisbane and Sydney (Australia), Nadi (Fiji), Port Moresby (Papua New Guinea) and Port Vila (Vanuatu). Solomon Airlines operates a direct flight from Honiara to Seghe.
Marovo Lagoon is large – it encompasses 700 square kilometers. However, accommodation is limited. There is one upscale resorts (Uepi Island Resort) and a handful of more simple and small scale accommodation.
We stayed with James at his Kopikorapa Eco Holiday Destination – since our stay he has expanded his lodging by building one additional bungalow.
To book this or another accommodation, I can recommend the use of the website www.solomonislands-hotels.travel on which you can find places to stay throughout the Solomon Islands.