The Solomon Islands are a chain of islands scattered in a Northwest/Southeast line directly East of Papua New Guinea. This is not a well-known country, but I was determined to make it my last foreign destination before moving from New Zealand to the United States. I was drawn by two main things - rich World War Two history and spectacular underwater sights. If I were making the journey again today, I would add another - exotic wildlife.
The Solomon Islands share with Midway Island the distinction of being one of the two main turning points of the war in the Pacific. Japan had stormed unstoppably from the home islands all the way South through China and South-East Asia through the Philippines and across New Guinea. By the middle of 1942 they started to build an airfield on the island of Guadalcanal, and it was decided by the Allies that a stop had to be put to it. In August of 1942 American troops landed on Red Beach and seized the airfield. Although the landings there were virtually unopposed, there was more determined resistance on the small islands of Tulagi and Ghavutu, which were won over after two or three days of heavy fighting. However, this early success was little indication of how heated the fighting would become, as both sides rushed more and more troops and equipment into the fight. In the end it took a full six months to overcome the Japanese, and several times it seemed as if the Americans might be overwhelmed. As well as all the men who died in fighting on land, the Solomon Islands were the site of the greatest Allied naval defeats of the war, with so many ships of both sides being sunk that the waters off Guadalcanal are known to this day as Iron Bottom Sound.
Underwater, this area is famed both for its sea life, especially sharks, and for the opportunity to scuba dive, and even snorkel, on ditched aircraft, sunken ships such as the two World War Two Japanese freighters beached off Bonegi Beach, and even the remains of a Japanese submarine which was rammed and sunk by two small New Zealand ships, the Kiwi and the Moa. At Ghavutu there's an American seaplane base with a seafloor littered with abandoned airplane parts, and nearby a beached American tank landing ship, LST 324, in the ironically named Tokyo Bay. There's also a wealth of wildlife above water, though unfortunately at this time I was somewhat oblivious to the possibilities in this area. Nevertheless, you can explore some of the photos I took of the local birds and the insects, including some cool dragonflies.
Like New Guinea and its neighbour Vanuatu to the South East, the people of the Solomon Islands are Melanesians, characterized by frizzy hair like sheep's wool. Unlike straight-haired Polynesians who speak basically the same language throughout the triangle from Tahiti to Hawaii to New Zealand, Melanesians speak a mind-numbing variety of mutually incomprehensible languages. For instance, in Papua New Guinea there are roughly 800 separate languages - not just dialects, but languages so different that people in one valley cannot understand the speech of people in the next valley. In part, this situation arose because of the cannibalism which was endemic throughout the Pacific - meeting strangers, let alone speaking to them, was a risky proposition. The solution to this Babel of tongues is "Bislama", or Pidgin English, an often amusing mixture of local and English words and phrases. Because of the proximity of Australia to these islands, it's no surprise that Bislama is somewhat earthy - the Down Under phrase "buggered up" became the Bislama word "bagarap", the standard word for "broken"! You'll find examples of Pidgin English, as well as other entertaining uses of language, on my page of Solomon Islands signs.