If you have been following my site for a while, or have gone back to read my old posts, you will remember the discovery I made in the Solomon Islands. I found a moon rock from the Apollo missions in an open display cabinet at the national museum in Honiara. (I think that post has been read more than any other one I’ve written.)
Before I left the Solomons, I had contacted a few people about the rock in hopes that they would do something about it. Even moving it to a different building and hanging it on the wall would have been enough.
Wan Kong Yew at CallToReason.org, a Malaysian national currently living in the Solomons, read my article. He went to the museum and confirmed that moon rock is still there (good) but it doesn’t appear to have moved an inch (bad).
On Sunday, I asked if there were any trails I could take to go see the cliffs. I think they were confused why I would want to go there, but they obliged.
We took off across the lake again to go to the village. The same one we were at the previous day. The trip across the lake is almost reason enough to visit Rennell. The lagoon area is dotted with small islands which are home to the birds of Lake Tengao. Some of the islands are so small, they are home to only a single plam tree.
I should take a moment to talk about the lake and the lagoon itself. Rennell is noted for its bird life. I’m not even a casual birdwatcher, but it didn’t take an expert to realize this place was special. You could watch birds flying and diving all day long. I assume they were eating tilapia, which is the only fish I knew of in the lake. The tilapia was actually introduced several decades ago and was the biggest reason why malaria was eradicated on the island. Rennell is in the Pacific malaria belt and has an enormous body of standing water. By all rights, it should be a hot spot for malaria. However, malaria has been gone from the island for a few decades now, in large part because of the tilapia eating the mosquito eggs in the lake. I noticed only a few mosquitoes, certainly nothing in comparison to what I’ve seen in the Midwest.
On the drive in to the lake, during one of our eight flat tire stops, we found a few kids who had a small fire going. They had shot a few small birds with their slingshots. I wasn’t able to identify the birds because they were well past the point of identification by the time got there, but they couldn’t have been any bigger than a sparrow. Some of the guys with me chipped in to take the feathers off the bird to help cook it. They didn’t bother to gut the birds or anything, they just put it in the fire as is. The cooked product looked like a thanksgiving turkey shrunk down to the size of your thumb…above the knuckle. To say it didn’t have much meat would be an understatement.
As you crossed the lake you could see birds flying, diving, and sitting in palm trees all over the lagoon. Anywhere a stump or log jutted out of the water there would be a bird perched on top. I wish I knew more about birds. I spent the entire weekend looking at them and to this day I have no idea what they are called.
The March to the Sea
We got to the village and two of the guys grabbed a machete and we started our trip down to the sea. Most of the people of Rennell don’t seem to spend as much time with the ocean as inhabitants of other islands do. The cliffs prevent easy access to the shore, so unless you live where there is an easy path down to the water, you probably just didn’t go that often. I wasn’t sure why they grabbed a machete, but I’m the new guy so i just followed along.
The path was through the forest. What I found strange were the flip flops you’d see long the trail every so often. Everyone on the island wears flip flops. Walking through the bush is rough because the rock is all jagged limestone. When a sandal would break, they would just abandon it on the path. This actually happened to one of my guides on the way back so he just walked with bare feet. I tried taking a few steps with just my socks during a break and I found it painful. How he managed to keep up and walk without shoes is beyond me.
The hike was about an hour and, like the tourist I am, I had my camera bag and tripod with me, whereas the guys just had the machete. By the time we got to the cliffs, I was really sweating and thirsty, damning myself for not bringing water.
Despite the twice weekly flights, most of the major supplies the island gets is delivered by boat. We were taking the trail to the old “port” where the boat used to land. The current landing site is more situated towards the middle of the island, close to the road with a reasonable gentle slope. Our path down to the water was to where the old port was. There were some old cement steps leading down to the beach at a slope which was something close to vertical. Before the current port was built (and calling it a port implies there is some sort of structure. There isn’t anything, it’s just a landing spot and a break in the reef for ships)
Prior to the new port and the landing strip, everything that go on this island had to be hauled several hundred feet up these steep stairs and an hour through the bush to get to the village. Boats, barrels of fuel, everything had to be brought up this way and carried by hand. (After I got back to the village I expressed amazement at how they used to have to carry everything up the cliff and through the forest. One of the men told me that he thought the people of Rennell had gotten soft since they now had life so easy. I almost choked when he called life on Rennell “easy” as it might be the most difficult existence I’ve ever seen)
We get down to the beach and it was like no beach I’ve seen in the Pacific so far. It had shells scattered all over the sand. All of the beaches I’ve been to tend to have the shells picked over by locals and tourists. This beach, for all practical purposes, never saw people anymore. There were giant clam shells and snail shells all over the place. Let me also add that the image of a pristine beach on an uninhabited island is wrong. Beaches are usually filled with debris from the sea and trees.
I also finally found out what the machete was for…
Rather than lugging around water, they just climbed a palm tree when we got to the beach, took down a bunch of coconuts and opened them with the machete. Bingo. Instant natural Nalgene bottle.
We hung out on the beach drinking coconut milk and eating coconuts and sleeping for about an hour before heading back up the cliff and to the village.
The flight back to Honiara was scheduled for Tuesday, so we had to leave early Monday to make sure we got there on time. Given our problems on the drive in, I mentally gave the over/under on the number of flat tires we’d get at five. We loaded up at the village and to my surprise, we had 10 people again for the ride out to the airstrip. Mostly women and children, but still a full load.
We had our first flat tire 15 minutes after setting out. After two hours, we had gone maybe a mile or two and had three flat tires. I was getting frustrated and bored and decided to start walking ahead on the road, figuring they would eventually catch up to me at some point and I couldn’t get lost because there is only one road. This turned to to be a decision that had much bigger ramifications that I ever expected….
After I began walking, it started raining. All of the rain I had experienced in the Pacific to date had been brief showers that come in, dump water, and stop. I didn’t think much of it and kept walking. Eventually the rain stopped and I was about an hour’s walk away from the truck.
..and then it stared raining again. And it did not stop for the rest of the day.
I was in the middle of the bush with no rain gear. i was soaked. The rain was warm so it wasn’t that big of a deal, but I had my passport in my pocket. By the time I eventually walked back and met the truck, my passport and wallet were drenched in water. (My bags in the back of the truck also got pretty wet, but nothing was damaged. I keep all my important electronics in waterproof bags inside of my camera bag). While I was out walking, they transferred most of the passengers and baggage to another vehicle and that solved our flat tire problems. We actually only had those three flats on the way back.
I stayed at a guest house near the landing strip and went to “check in” at the “Solomons Airline office” in the village that night, which was a desk in the bottom of another guest house. I was told that the schedule was really spotty and the plane just might not show up tomorrow, or there might not be seats. It was Solomon Airlines and anything could happen.
I was also told that I wouldn’t have to pay the full SBD$500 fee for the ride to the lake, just my share, so the cost turned out to be reasonable. All my fears about not having enough cash at the start of the weekend turned out not to be warranted. I had just enough for everything.
When I got back to Honiara, I also found the ATM working and accepting my card again. I had just tried to withdrawal within 24 hours after taking out the maximum (which is only like US$120).
I’m really glad I took the time to get to Rennell. With the travel schedule I’ve had the last few months, it was my only real chance to visit an outer island and Rennell is more unique than any other place in the region. It was also an accomoplishment to visit a place that few people have heard of and even fewer have seen first hand.
I had a few people email me asking if it was worth going. My reply is, if you are willing to put up with everything I described, go for it. Else, I’d wait a few years and hopefully they will have built a new runway on the east side of the island. If they ever do that, then travel to Rennell shouldn’t be any bigger of a hassle than traveling elsewhere in the Solomons.
The “tourism” business on Rennell is informal to say the least. Not only was I the only real tourist on the island, but I really didn’t know how I could go about exploring the lake and the island once I was there. There are obviously no cars for rent (or roads to drive them on if you could rent them). I woke up on Saturday not knowing what the day would bring.
My breakfast was as bland as my dinner was good. I was served white bread. Not bread with jam, butter and toasted mind you – just white bread. Plain white bread. Smooshed white bread if I can be more accurate. The loaf must have been brought in on the plane and got smashed on the trip.
I’m trying not to sound like I’m complaining. I’m just trying to be accurate. The people of Rennell are poor. Very poor. So poor, that using the word “poor” to describe it really doesn’t do justice. Its the same word used to describe people in the first world, and the two things are very far apart. I’m not complaining because you need to have very low expectations when traveling. These people don’t have much, and if plain white bread is what they have for breakfast, then so be it. I’m eating bread.
(I’m tempted to use the word penury from now on when describing third world poverty. We define poverty in the US based on a standard which is well above the norm in the rest of the world. Most people under the poverty line in the US still have cars, homes, appliances, televsions, etc. The things found in the average trailer park would make you one of the elite in the Solomon Islands. Using the same word to describe such radically different conditions I think confuses and doesn’t really give a true indication of how bad things really are.)
The communication between the people at the lodge and myself wasn’t the best. The guy who owned the lodge didn’t speak a word to me my entire stay. I don’t think he knew English very well. When there was any communication needed, it was done through this son (who was the one who straightened everything out with the money back at the airport). Eventually, someone came up as asked if I wanted to go to the village. I said, “Sure, my schedule is open today”.
I think the primary purpose of the trip was to get fuel for the outboard motor on the boat, but it was also to show me around the lake. The part of the lake where most of the people live is the lagoon. It is dotted with dozens of very small islands, some so small it can only hold a single tree. There was one species of bird, and I don’t know the name of it, which was all over the lake. It was black and white in color with a long neck and beak. Sort of looked like her heron or something similar.
I really managed to notice the limitations of my camera on the boat ride. So far in my trip, I’ve mostly taken photos of landscapes and people. I haven’t done any wildlife (mostly because there hasn’t been much to photograph). You really need a good zoom lens to do wildlife properly. Especially if you want to photograph birds at a distance. You can see some of the photos I have on Flickr, but they are mostly at max zoom and still turned out sort of fuzzy. The video I shot turned out much better I think.
The village we visited was a haphazard collection of houses. Most of the houses in Rennell appeared to be two story houses and the construction was much better than I expected. I saw cut lumber in all the villages we passed through. When I asked about it, they said they cut all their own lumber. They use a portable sawmill that is fitted with a chainsaw to make the boards. It just holds the chainsaw in place and you run the wood past it.
The biggest source of money for the Solomon Islands is logging. I actually saw a ship full of logs off Honiara on my flight in from Vanuatu. They don’t export lumber mind you, just logs. The actual processing of the logs is done is Malaysia or Japan. Most of the money is made outside of the Solomons. They are cutting down trees at a very rapid rate in the Solomons. Many of the western islands have been cut almost bare. Rennell, however, hasn’t been touched by logging. Why? There are two reasons: First, most of the land in the Solomons is owned by the government and most of the logging deals are made by the them (and kickbacks are made to government officials). On Rennell, the land is under customary land ownership – it’s privately held by the people of Rennell. When I asked why they don’t have logging on Rennell, I was told flat out that few people who own land here would never agree to it. The reason why they have different land ownership goes back to the ethnic differences between Rennell and the rest of the Solomons.
(In fact, Rennell is the only UNESCO World Heritage site which is not owned by a government. East Rennell is not a National Park and has no official, or even unofficial, status by the Solomon Islands or the Province. I was told that one of the reasons why East Rennell was chosen as a World Heritage Site was precisely because it was under customary land ownership and UNESCO wanted to see how well a site could be protected under that system.)
The second reason why there is no logging on Rennell, is because it would be very expensive to get the logs off of the island. Rennell is surrounded by 300-1000 foot cliffs. Getting the logs to the water would be a chore in itself. Getting a large enough boat past the reef to pick up the logs would also be difficult. The landing strip on the western part of the island was made by a Japanese mining company in the 1970s who was looking into setting up a mining operation. They eventually never went through with it due to the costs of operating on Rennell.
Because of those two factors, Rennell has remained mostly untouched by any sort of major logging, mining or fishing.
The Village People
During my entire stay on the island, whenever I walked through a village, the children would stare at me and giggle. To paraphrase Eminem, “They acted like they never seen a white person before”. For all I know, they hadn’t.
While most of the adults knew some English, none of the children did. Rennell and Bellona speak their own form of Polynesian. One man I spoke with that went to study in New Zealand said he could understand Samoans and Tongans if they spoke slowly. I’d like to actually read more about Polynesian languages. They seem to all have some sort of similarity. In Hawaii, one guy I spoke with explained the similarity between Hawaiian and Maori in New Zealand. I’d bet that someone has written a paper on the evolution of Polynesian languages as it spread throughout the Pacific. (When Captain Cook visited Easter Island, he had a native Tahitian with him who was able to communicate with the locals. I think that fact alone would have been enough proof to shoot down Thor Heyerdahl theory that the people of Easter Island came from South America).
Because they don’t learn English until later through school, I could only goof around with the kids. What they really seemed to enjoy was seeing photos of themselves on the camera. I’d take a photo, show it to them on the LCD, and they’d go nuts. I took out my video camera and let the kids hold it and it seemed to be a big hit.
All of the children below of age of about three would run around buck naked.
Everywhere I went, I heard music. Groups of older kids had cheap boom boxes with cassette players and play mix tapes they got from Honiara. All of the boom boxes were battery operated. They didn’t have chargers for the batteries and just threw them away when they were done. I saw several littering the ground in the village. I would have assumed that given the difficulty of getting supplies to Rennell, they would have used rechargeable batteries – but no. There didn’t appear to be any sort of consistency to the music to which they listened. I think they listened to whatever music they could get. I heard songs which seemed like they were sung by local groups and I also heard Kenny Rogers. Go figure.
Some of the men in the village would go out of their way to come and greet me. I think they wanted to talk to someone from the outside and were genuinely glad that I had bothered to make the trip to Rennell. None of the women did. In fact, I don’t recall speaking to a female the entire time I was there, save for a British woman who worked for an NGO in Honiara and married a man from Rennell.
The population of Rennell is very young. It seemed that most of the villages were made up of children. I don’t recall seeing anyone who was very old. The oldest person I saw seemed like they were in their 50’s. There are no hospitals in Rennell and the nurse is on the west side of the island. If you are on the east side and get sick, its a very long trip to go and see someone. I’d guess the life expectancy on the island is very low.
I was told by more than one person that they very much wanted to expand the tourism in Rennell. Some of the young people especially were interested in building their own lodge and hosting tourists. There is a lot which Rennell has to offer, but there are some huge obstacles standing in the way of them increasing tourism. First, they are part of the Solomon Islands. The Solomons gets the fewest number of tourist of any country in the Pacific. What few tourists do visit the Solomons tend to go to the few resorts which are on the western islands or just stay in Honiara. The bad reputation the Solomons has is for the most part, well deserved. Honiara is a dirty city, the infrastructure is not well developed, and the recent violence and tsunami didn’t help matters. On top of that, most people aren’t even aware that the Solomon Islands exists.
Assuming people were to come to the Solomons, there are still enormous barriers to visiting Rennell. As I noted in my previous post, a nine hour, 20 mile car trip isn’t very appealing for most people. You can’t build a tourism infrastructure around 3 vehicles and no spare tires.
That being said, there is some hope.
While I was there, there was a lot of construction going on. A conference of the premiers of the provinces in the Solomons was going to be having a conference there in September. That would bring about 200 people to the lake at one time, which I’m guessing is far more than have ever been there at once in the history of the island. For the conference, several new vehicles, owned by the province, will be delivered to the island, which should dramatically decrease the transportation costs on the island.
There has been talk for several years of building a second landing strip on the east side of the island. If they did that, it would change life dramatically for the people who live on the Lake. the need for the car ride would be eliminated totally. People could fly in and immediately be taken to a lodge by boat.
Rennell is a small place. They don’t need a lot of tourism. A ten fold increase would be just 100 people a year. That is very doable, especially if they promote it as an eco-tourist destination (which is really the only thing they can promote it as). I was asked by some people via email if it was worth going to Rennell. My answer is, “wait a year or two”. If they build a landing strip on the west side of the island, I would definitely recommend going there. Until then, its a real pain in the ass.
That night after dinner (coconut crab again), I hung out with some of the guys who were building the expansion to the lodge for the upcoming governors conference. Most of them were guys who were on the drive with me from the landing strip. There were a mix from all the islands of the Solomons. Unemployment in the Solomons is high, so most were probably happy to get the gig, even if it meant traveling to Rennell. In addition to building a new lodge building, they were building a bar, and outhouse and shoring up the landing area with limestone they excavated from the hillside. Digging a hole for an outhouse is really difficult in solid rock. Just like with the tire repair, I was amazed at how well they managed to use what they had to build reasonably good structures.
Within a day, most of the packaged cigarettes had been smoked so the guys that night resorted to cutting up small plugs of tobacco and rolling it in loose leaf paper. Everyone I saw in the island shared these makeshift cigarettes when they met. They’d roll one (literally with blue lined, three hole punched, loose leaf paper) take a few puffs and pass it on. In addition to smoking, the other thing they did was chew betel nut. (Chewing betel nut is the national passtime in the Solomons and the one thing I really had no desire to experience. I have no idea how it tastes, but I find the the blood red spit everyone leaves behind disgusting. That will be another post however. It is also popular in the Philippines and Taiwan.)
After shooting the breeze with the guys for an hour or so, I went to bed ending day two.
My trip to Rennell is certainly the biggest feather in my travel hat to date. Why? The number of non-Soloman Islanders who visit each year is around 10. You’ll probably understand why when you’re done reading this. The thing which made this my biggest adventure isn’t any one thing so much as the sum total of everything which happened.
Rennell Island is part of the province of Rennell and Bellona which is the smallest province in the Solomon Islands (by a wide margin). It is also ethnically Polynesian, whereas the rest of the Solomons is Melanesian. Geographically, it is also isolated from the rest of the Solomons, sitting to the south of the main archipelago. If you look at the satellite photo of Rennell above, you can see that the most distinctive feature of the island is Lake Tegano. Tegano is a slightly brackish lake which is home to an enormous variety of birds, some of which are only found on Rennell. The Eastern part of the island has also been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the only one in the South Pacific other than Easter Island. The population of Rennell is about 2,000 people. Geologically, the island is an uplifted coral atoll. As such, the entire island is surrounded by cliffs ranging from 300 to 1000 feet high and all the land surface is a rocky limestone with very thin soil.
The unique nature of the island, in all respects, is why I wanted to visit.
Friday, July 27
I had purchased my ticket to Rennell several days before in Honiara. I went into the Solomon Airlines office and had no problem getting the ticket. Getting lodging was more difficult. The guidebooks I’ve read didn’t have much information about Rennell, but the few lodges they had listed had no phone numbers or email addresses. The Solomon Islands tourism office had to make the reservation for you via radio.
The one thing I read everywhere I got any information about Rennell was that the car trip from the airstrip to the lake was expensive. I had read it cost anywhere from SBD$500-900 each way. (US$70-120). The travel office quoted me a price of SBD$500. That’s pretty pricey, but not crazy given how hard it is to get fuel on the island and the difficulty of driving (more on that later). Moreover, they only took cash on the island, so you had to have all the cash you needed on you before you left for the island. Room and board was about SBD$200 per day (US$27). I figured I needed about SBD$2000 for the weekend. That works out to US$66 per day for everything, which isn’t too bad.
The flight was scheduled to leave at 7am and I had about SBD$1,000 on me. I took out SBD$2,000 the previous day and spent about $1,000 on some wood carvings and shipping it back to the US. I figured I’d just get out another SBD$1,000 at the airport ATM.
I get up stupid early and get to the airport at 5am and I am the only human being there. No airport workers. Pitch dark. The domestic terminal wasn’t the same as the international terminal. The domestic terminal was a dump. As I sat there with my bags in the dark, I stared at the door wondering how clumps of mud managed to get that high…and why someone hadn’t cleaned it up. Like the rest of Honiara, there was garbage everywhere on the ground.
About that time I realized that there wasn’t an ATM at the domestic terminal and that the international terminal wasn’t open. I was screwed. I had enough cash for transportation or food/lodging, but not both.
Eventually other people started showing up. A few taxis were there so I grabbed one to drive me to the nearest ATM in town. I figured I’d have enough time to run there and back and still have 15 min to spare before boarding.
I get a cab, get to the ATM and…….TRANSACTION DENIED!! I couldn’t take out any money. I started freaking out. The trip to Rennell aside, not having access to your money is never a good thing while traveling.
I go back to the airport (out another SBD$40 for the cab) and meet the guy from the tourism office who booked my lodging on Rennell. He told me that the flight was delayed until 8:30am. There was no reason for the delay, that is just how Solomon Airlines works. Having gotten another 90 minutes, I took another cab into town to see if I could work something out.
I tried another ATM. TRANSACTION DENIED!! I went to my hotel to see if they will do a cash advance off a credit card….they wouldn’t. (Most descent hotels will do this for a few hundred at least) As a last resort I went to the Western Union office to get a cash advance. The Western Union office didn’t open until 8:00, so I had to just sit and wait for an hour.
…so I waited….
8:00am arrives….no one shows up. 8:05…..nothing. 8:10….zip. Its a 15 min drive back to the airport from the Western Union office. The tourism official said he was going to check me in (they’re pretty informal about that stuff here). At 8:15 no one had shown up to open the office so I figured I was just shit out of luck and went back to the airport, less SBD$100 for the 90 min cab ride.
I get to the airport and tell the tourism guy that I wont be able to go because I just can’t access enough cash right now. He just shrugged and said “here is the son of the man who owns the lodge”. He spoke to him in pidgin and said “it’s no problem. Just pay whatever you need to when you get back”.
Well, that was easy. The very same lax Solomon Island attitude that didn’t open the Western Union office saved me by delaying the flight and working out payment details.
It was 8:30am, I had been up four and a half hours, almost had a heart attack and I hadn’t boarded the plane yet.
I didn’t expect much more than a puddle jumper and that was what I got. The plane had to be at least 40 years old. It was a De Havellin Twin Otter Series 300. The only comfort to flying on a really old airplane is the knowledge that it has survived that long without crashing.
Most of the people at the airport weren’t there to get on the plane, there were there to drop off packages. Most of the cargo was small boxes and plastic bags full of bread, cooking oil, cigarettes, betel nuts, etc. Four of the seats in the plane were taken up by a mattress.
There were no boarding passes. When the flight was ready to board, a Solomon Airlines employee sitting on the counter (not on a chair mind you) just yelled “you can get on the plane now!” There was no security check.
The flight itself was fine. The landing strip on Rennell was just a strip of grass cut out of the forest.
The entire village was lined up at the landing strip when we arrived.
The plane arrived twice a week and was the primary link to the outside world. There is also a boat which brings supplies once a month, but the schedule is very irregular. ( was told that the boat had been past due for several weeks due to weather and supplies of everything were running low.) Each flight to Rennell is loaded down mostly with packages of stuff which are sent from relatives working in Honiara.
The village with the landing strip (Tigoa) was on the west end of the island and the lake is on the east end of the island. It is about 20 miles from the landing strip to the lake. Tigoa is the “capitol” of Rennell and Bellona. They had a police building, which was by far the nicest structure on the island. It had 24 hour electricity and the police had a newish pickup truck. It was also staffed by members of the RAMSI force which was deployed on the Solomons after the civil unrest there several years ago. (Why they put RAMSI officials on Rennell is beyond me. RAMSI was deployed to quell violence on the island of Guadalcanal between natives of Guadalcanal and Malaitans, both of which are Melanesian and are far removed from anything on Rennell). There were a few other government buildings in the village which had some form of at least part-time electricity.
The 20 mile drive took 9 hours. During that time, we suffered 8 flat tires.
There was no spare tire.
There are several reasons we had so many flat tires. The biggest one was the fact that we were carrying 10 people and a full load in the back of the pickup. We had 5 people in the cab and 5 sitting on the edge of the bed, with all the packages and supplies sitting in the middle of the bed.
The road (the only one on the island) at first glance looks like a gravel road, but it wasn’t. It was bare rock and the rock was a very sharp limestone.
The tires and the inner tubes were all in poor condition and had been punctured many times previously.
I’ll be honest, I was astounded that they were able to fix the tire so many times. They eventually ended up crimping the leak and wrapping rubber around it. The inner tube ended up looking like something far from a circle. They would cannibalize other inner tubes and put layers inside the tire to protect the inner tube they were using. It was all pretty ingenious actually. They had gotten tire repair down to an art with nothing more than some scraps of rubber, some rubber cement and a bicycle pump. Necessity really is the mother of invention. The people of Rennell rely on this road and four vehicles on the island. They have no resources to fall back on, so they make due with what they have.
The trip is normally three to four hours, so we spent a lot of time just sitting around. Most of the guys that were along for the ride smoked like fiends with cigarettes which came aboard from the plane, and chewed betel nut (that subject is another post entirely). It so happened that the man who was the head of the East Rennell World Heritage board was riding along so I was able to talk with him, as I did on the way back to Honiara.
By the time we arrived at the lake the sun had set. I took my stuff out of the pickup and we got in a boat with an outboard motor to go across the lake to the lodge I was staying at. I couldn’t see much given the low levels of light, but the lake was very serene. We were in the lagoon part of the lake which was dotted with small islands. (some barely enough to hold a single palm tree). We arrived at the Kia Koe Lodge and I was given my room and served dinner which had been waiting for me for several hours.
The meal was actually very good. Everything was local: coconut crab, tilapia from the lake, taro and coconut milk straight from the coconut. I had dinner by kerosene lantern as there was no electricity anywhere in the facility.
I went to bed that night knowing that I was probably more isolated on Rennell than I have ever been. Even though Easter Island was more geographically isolated, they had large jets land several times a week and paved roads throughout the island. If something were to happen on Rennell, there was no way to help.
Looking at the lake at night, I saw something strange. Even though there were several villages on the lake, there were absolutely no lights.
For those of you who don’t know me personally, let me explain something about myself. I’m a smart guy who is socially retarded.
I can explain calculus to people who don’t know math. I own at trivia. I have a capacity to remember all sorts of stuff that most people, rightfully so, would never bother to remember. Sometimes it’s spooky.
However, I will also probably forget your name if I meet you and there is a good chance I’ll make a very bad first impression, probably inadvertently saying something offensive. (I was told at my going away party I yelled at someone telling them that “BORNEO ISN’T A COUNTRY. IT’S AN ISLAND!”)
..anyway, I digress.
The reason I bring that up is because I noticed something today that I am probably one of only a small handful of people who would have noticed and been in a position to notice.
I visited the Solomon Islands national museum on Wednesday. The National Museum isn’t really anything to write home about. It’s surrounded by a rusty fence. The one building with exhibits is pretty old and grungy. I was the only visitor there and they had to open up the gift shop just for me. So I suppose that’s the first thing….most people who visit the Solomons (and there aren’t many) don’t bother to go to the museum.
In the museum, they had all sorts of carved sculptures, artwork, photos and artifacts from the Solomon Islands. It wasn’t the level of a display you might expect at a western museum, but that shouldn’t be expected. It got the job done and the lady working at museum was very nice and informative.
While wandering around all the Melanesian artwork and artifacts I came across something which was very out of place. It was an engraved plaque.
It was an engraved plaque with the Apollo XVII mission patch on it.
On the plaque was a small acrylic sphere with a tiny piece of rock in the middle. A moon rock. It was collected in the Taurus-Littrow Highlands of the moon, and it was sitting in a exhibit of Melanesian artifacts in Honoria.
The plaque said it was given to the people of the Solomon Islands by President Carter on July 7, 1978 on the occasion of their independence.
Most people would have noticed the moon rock. There is nothing special in that. I however knew something else. There have been several hundred moon rocks given as goodwill gifts by the United States. About half of them are missing. They might be sitting in a cabinet somewhere or might be in the home of some bureaucrat who was in a position to take the moon rock home 30 years ago.
However, many of them have been flat out stolen and sold on the black market to collectors. On a per gram basis, moon rocks might very well be one of the most valuable things on Earth. One recent case in the news (where I read about all of this) had someone trying to sell the stolen moon rock given to Malta for $5,000,000!!! In public auctions, pieces of the moon have sold for $400,000 for tiny fragments.
It was that knowledge that had my heart racing when I noticed something else…..
the glass display case had no lock….
the glass display case was wide open…..
I was alone in the room…..
I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was a moment of temptation. I, and I alone it would seem, was the only person who had laid eyes on this thing in years who probably knew the real value of it to collectors. No one probably would have noticed it missing for months if not years. (If I had replaced it with a fake, maybe even longer) Five million dollars in the size of a big marble just sitting there unprotected.
With my warped values however, I figured it would make for a better blog post that it would selling it. Besides, I’d really be a shitty human beings if I stole from the poorest country in the world.
I mentioned going to the museum later in the day to the guy at the travel agency who booked my tickets through to Honolulu. He mentioned that there had been several break-ins at the museum.
What was stolen you ask??? Shell and feather money which is still used as currency on some of the islands.
If you want an example of the different values other cultures have, I can think of no better example. They broke in to steal the pacific equivalent of wampum and left the $5m moon rock.
Anyway, having decided not to turn to a life of crime, what to do next?
Given how these things have disappeared over time around the world, it is probably just a matter of time until someone steals it. (It may have been stolen before during the civil unrest here in 2000) If I tell someone who works at the museum about the value of it, there is a good chance they might just take it.
I have no clue who to talk to in a position of authority and, honestly, I don’t think the security of moon rocks is very high on the agenda of the government of the Solomon Islands.
I figured the best thing to do was to make it public and hope that someone will pass this along to someone in NASA or the State Department who might be able to suggest to the Solomon Government they put it away. Also, by making it public, if it disappears, it is going to make it very obvious that is it stolen and at least give and indication of when and where it happened. (I suppose there is a risk of someone reading this, taking the first flight to the Solomons and stealing it, but I think that is slim, and moreover, having made this public, it would make it much harder to sell).
I will probably also stop by the US Consulate today because the office is in the same building as DHL and I need to send a package home.
So if anyone reading this knows someone in some position to do something, please pass this along. It would be a shame to lose another one of these rocks to thieves.
The Solomons isn’t turning out like Vanuatu….thank God.
I got my flight to Rennell Island booked which worried me. i had read that it was usually booked. Likewise, my flights out of Honoria all the way to Hawaii should be fine with minimal sitting around time. I should be in Honolulu on August 14th and In Guam about the 19-20th.
I should have some amazing photos when I’m done here. I’m off to see some WWII relics and the US memorial on Guadalcanal.
The CIA World Fact Book lists the Solomons as tied for the poorest country on Earth. I don’t’ know if it’s true, but if not, it’s damn close.
I’m writing this in route from Port Villa, Vanuatu to Honoria, Solomon Islands….
I had an interesting experience at the Port Villa airport. When the flight with my plane to Honiara landed, there were a bunch of police and TV cameras waiting. I didn’t know what was going on. I assume it was a politician or a celebrity which was arriving. The flight had come in from Fiji.
After everyone got off the plane, a man exited and was thrown to the ground by the police after he got down the stairs. Turns out he was a counterfeiter from Fiji who had been coming to Vanuatu to make fake notes. The police made a big show of it for the cameras (some things are the same everywhere I guess) and put him and two accomplices who were arrested waiting for him in a cage in the back of a pick-up truck and drove off.
Frankly, it was the most entertaining excuse I’ve had for a flight to be late.
I was worried about my flight to Honiara. When I got my tickets for this part of my flight in Apia, the flight from Vila to Honiara was full. I was put on a wait list and decided not to get any tickets beyond Honiara if I wasn’t sure I could get on the flight. I figured it was a small plane because the Vila to Honiara route couldn’t possibly be that big.
Well….the flight was 50% empty. It was a Pacific Air 737. Why in the hell they had this marked as full was beyond me. Yet another story to throw on the pile in my Pacific travels. I had I been guaranteed a seat on this flight, I would have taken care of my flights beyond Honiara sooner. Now I have to cross my fingers and hope I can get a ticket there an back to Rennell Island, my objective here in the Solomons. I really don’t want this to be another Vanuatu. I also have to book my flights to Tarawa and back to Fiji. From Fiji I’ll take a brief weekend to Tuvalu, then to Hawaii
I’ll stay a bit in Hawaii so I can send mail out and finish up the video that I keep talking about but never showing (I think you’ll find it worth the wait). Then I finish up the Pacific in August in Guam, Palau, the Northern Marinas, Micronesia and the Marshalls.
Then…..JAPAN!! I look forward bullet trains and not being trapped in one small spot for a week at a time…..and quality internet.
Your things to see/do in Japan suggestions will be welcome. The help I got from everyone in New Zealand was really appreciated. I got to see most of the things that were suggested.