With my time in the Solomons soon coming to an end, I decided to take up the challenge of completing a journey that I’d thought countless times about, but had been too wary of attempting: crossing the massive island of Guadalcanal.
For three tough days me and five others trekked across this incredible island, from the tough, black sand beaches of the appropriately-named ‘Weathercoast’, through the seemingly impassable mountains of central Guadlacanal, and through the countless rivers and streams to the end point: the mouth of the Poha River.
(The story was originally published in edition 58 of Solomons, the Solomon Airlines magazine.)
There is a well-known spirit that lives in Guadalcanal called the ‘Vele’.
The Vele is a dangerous spirit and with just the simple touch of his finger, he can curse or even kill you, instantly. And the Vele is also said to have a very special asset: a ‘bush motorcycle’. With this supernatural ride-on vehicle at his disposal, the Vele has the power to travel through the bush at lightning speed, whisking him through the trees to wherever he desires in seconds.
On my third day of hauling myself up the sides of steep valleys in an attempt to cross the island of Guadalcanal, I thought of the Vele often. But not out of fear nor even out of some interest in Solomon Islands' mythology. No, I just would have loved to have had his motorcycle.
Having flown over the Weathercoast and the mountains of Guadalcanal countless times, this was a journey I’d ranked alongside kayaking Marovo Lagoon and diving around Gizo as a Solomons’ ‘must do’.
But when our group met at the Point Cruz Yacht Club prior to departure, it was clear as we cross-checked our packs - laden with tarps, cooking equipment, sleeping matts and a big pile of snacks and energy bars - that we weren’t heading out on a friendly weekender at the beach.
An early morning boat journey took us around the western side of Guadalcanal, past the towns of Visale and Lambi and on to the western end of the island’s Weathercoast. As our boat moved slowly along this spectacular stretch of coast, I began to see these steep hills behind Visale with a new perspective. They had changed from being the postcard-perfect image of Guadalcanal into the giant obstacles that we would, over the course of the next few days, be attempting to cross.
Coming to shore on the black sand beaches of the trek’s starting point at Tangarare, we were greeted with a mix of curious smiles and suspicious looks from those on the beach. Paul, Joe and I - the three whitemen - began to kit up, pulling on double-layered socks, double-knotting the boot laces and strapping on hiking gaiters, much to the bemusement of our guide Stanley and his two helpers, who were not only doing the trek in bare feet but were doing it carrying the heavy hiking packs.
We set off at a solid pace, making our way through the muddy path under the low hanging fruit trees behind Tangarare. Those first few minutes of our trek were, as it turned out, the only time for the entire three days that anyone would keep their feet dry. Less than 10 minutes into our walk, we arrived at our first river crossing - the first of hundreds we would make in the coming days - and we stepped straight into the cool waters of the Pusu river, stumbling over the unseen riverbed, before squelching back onto the shore until the next river crossing.
Making solid progress along the flat plains alongside the river, we reached Stanley’s home village of Sohati within a few hours. Stopping here for lunch gave us a chance to meet Stanley’s 85-year old mother Salome, who at the age of 15, had helped run supplies for American soldiers during the Battle of Guadalcanal, and whose faint voice spoke of a life that has seen many things.
As we said our good-byes and headed out from the village, specks of rain began falling. As we walked on, specks became drops, and as we reached our first real climb of the trek, drops became a thunderous downpour. Within minutes we were drenched with a mix of tropical rain and sweat, clambering our way up the side of Mount Taona. It was a tough climb, but a good test for what lay ahead of us in the coming days. Two hours later as we reached the peak, the rain ceased and we set up for the night at Taona Camp, an opening in the trees used occasionally by villagers out hunting wild pigs.
Rising early the next morning, we set off strongly attacking the ascents and descents of each hill at a solid pace despite the wet conditions underfoot. Very little was said by anyone in the first few hours of the day. Sounds were limited to the snapping of a branch, the swing of a bush knife or the occasional curse and thud as one of us - Paul, Joe or I - tripped on a vine or lost our footing on a muddy slope.
By lunchtime, with weariness setting in, we reached the welcome break point of Koia waterfall; an impressive sight and the perfect place to refill water bottles and reenergise for the tough stretch ahead. And tough it was. While the morning’s climb-descent-climb-decent was physically draining, the slow clamber along the banks of the Koia and Mataniko rivers - where we stepped from one rock to the other for two very tough hours - pushed everyone’s balance, attention and patience level to the limit. Very little was said by anyone in the first few hours of the day. Sounds were limited to the snapping of a branch, the swing of a bush knife or the occasional curse and thud as one of us - Paul, Joe or I - tripped on a vine or lost our footing on a muddy slope.
As delirium began to set in, I considered asking Stanley if he knew of a way to ‘summon’ the Vele spirit to meet us up ahead, with the idea of hitching a lift on his magic motorbike the rest of the way home. But we pressed on, making it through the worst of the rocky path unscathed. By mid-afternoon, we’d returned to the more familiar territory of making our way up and down steep, slippery hills, and we soon passed the ‘kastom border’ - and half-way point - known as Tangonogono, a large sago palm tree that marks the divide between the Takusumba and Kakabona territories.
An hour later, we dropped our packs and set up camp along the banks of the Koloki river. Setting up camp along the river provided a brief relief from some of the aches acquired the previous day and a half, and saw us falling asleep as fireflies floated casually around us. By mid-morning the next day, we emerged through the trees to see our first sight of the ocean - and nearby Savo Island - in three days.
Up until this point, we’d been virtually surrounded in dense forest, with very little sense of our progress or direction. It was an energising moment. Our pace quickened, and by early afternoon, the small changes that we’d began to notice became more defined, giving us all a sense that the end was in sight. Jungle gave way to tall stands of bamboo and the first houses, and soon we had our first sightings of other people in well over two days. We descended sharply and by the time we’d arrived at the spectacular ‘American Pools’ - at the intersection of the Poha and Taoahi rivers - we knew we were just a few hours from the finish. Following a swim and a quick fix of canned tuna, we pressed on for the final stretch - the 26 crossings over the meandering Poha river.
As we passed through more settlements, we received a mix of smiles, confused looks and pats on the back from those we passed along the way. By mid-afternoon, we emerged dishevelled but relieved at our end point: the mouth of the Poha river, near Kakabona village. As we lay down our bags and laughed about the tough few days we’d just endured, I heard the distinct sound of a high-pitched engine nearby. Even though it turned out to be the rattling sound of a chainsaw, it did cause me to look around in hope, thinking that perhaps the Vele had come on his bush motorcycle to pass on his congratulations.