During July 2017 we sailed up to a small group of “Bounty chocolate bar advert tropical paradise” islands near Gizo, in the north of the Solomon Island’s. It rained most days, but the sun was roasting when it eventually peaked out behind the clouds making a wee white sand bar island with a few trees glow.
Our expedition guide was busy telling me about the location and started saying “ That small island would be perfect for….” I finished her sentence with “paintball guns!” She looked horrified, as if one of the Solomon Island’s famous crocodiles had snapped at her heels. “I was going to say cricket.” Just then the captain walked past and I casual asked him, pointing at the wee strip of paradise, “ what’s that perfect for?” He never missed a beat replying “paintball.” The guide again looked on in disbelief. “What is it with you guys? Imagine a nice relaxed game of cricket, a couple beers, the sand between your toes.” This led to an animated argument that ended with her describing cricket as golf without daft trousers (I think her description was “stupid” but “daft” sounds better and gives a more vivid picture in my head.) That’s when I knew it was a lost cause. How dare she take the only true sport’s name into disrepute and against the sport of guys good with colours from south of the border. (This is a poor attempt at a cricket joke and not anyway trying to display any narrow homophobic, xenophobic and nationalistic stunted views…..honest). We did end up agreeing that 20/20 cricket is entertaining. I stayed in Plymouth (South West England) for a wee while and enjoyed a televised cricket World Cup with the help of cheap lager and missing a few University lectures. We both went on to agree that the cricket five day series is waste of time or basically, just a chance for blokes to get drunk while thinking they are accomplishing a task.
Anyway, some of the folk on the other boat must have had the same idea as the next morning twenty paintball guns rocked onto the wee island. Normal paintball in Scotland entails heavy coveralls, slick with mud and rain after rolling about on the ground. The beasties and potential poisonous creatures on tropical islands stop the rolling around on the ground and any soaking wet coveralls would have acted as a barrier for the coloured missiles that normally only end up stinging a wee bit, but running about in the humid conditions with shorts and a t-shirt offered no armour to the paintballs at all. They were extremely sore. In fact worse than that, some of them even broke the skin on the more sensitive types amongst the crew.
There were not many rules. You were out when you ran out of ammo or couldn’t take getting shot anymore, which ever came first. Then you’d then wipe the sweat off yer forehead, refill the ammo and start again. During the carnage I was talking to a guest and we were laughing and joking describing the rush and excitement about how our wee hearts were banging in our chests with the thrill of the gun and the chase.
A few days later I was stitching together the video footage of the recent submarine dives on US destroyer Aaron Ward in 70m water depth at Iron Bottom Sound. You could see the guns trained skyward trying unsuccessfully to stop the Japanese planes hitting their target.
I thought back to the paintball day when we were filled with excitement, running about the tropical paradise trying to stop our opponents with small paint filled balls. Imagine what it would have been like in Guadalcanal in full naval carnage during the Second World War. Over fifty boats sank during the battles. Bombs, planes, explosions, bullets. It would have been absolutely bloody terrifying.
During the trip we were given coordinates for what we thought were confirmed location’s for some of the sunk US fleet from the Battle of Guadalcanal. We went wreck hunting and scoured the seabed in our submarine on 2 locations over 650m below the surface and drew a blank both times. We did see some wild creatures though.
Not these wild creatures
A few weeks later we had sailed south east to Vanuatu. We started in the South at Port Villa and then headed up to Espiritu Santo where we dived another world famous wreck the SS President Coolidge which was a converted 190m long cruise liner with its arse lying at the same depth as the Aaron Ward at 70m.
During the trip up from Port Villa we stopped off at a couple islands. We were lucky enough to get a visit from a whale one evening. It was circling the boats for a few hours. I had just finished work and walked down the stern for a glimpse before heading off to bed. I was joined on the back deck by one of the deck crew. We both mentioned that we should get some googles and jump in. Excitement grabbed us and within minutes we were changed into board shorts and rashies. I took the precaution of attaching a Gopro to a pole and sticking it underwater to confirm it was a whale and not a big toothed hungry shark. Before I knew it I was dangling off the back of the boat waiting. The whale was pretty regular in its swimming pattern taking about 8 minutes to circumnavigate of both of the boats.
A few minutes later there was the sound of air expulsion from the whale followed by a couple of quite high pitched cries from us, trying not to disturb the guests, saying, “There it is”. “Its coming”.
I ducked under the water. Everything went silent. No chatting, giggling or waves slapping the boat side.
An eerie ghost like massive fish appeared in the glooming light. It was not the size of a full grown humpback but still good 4m-5m long.
It floated right under me about 5m down, my heart was racing. What do you do when confronted in the dark by a big subterranean monster? Yes that’s what I did, I quickly lifted my feet up to my chest in case it found my bare toes tasty.
I was joined by a couple of the crew during the next passes and over the next hour we got more confident trying to get closer to the whale as it swam by. We climbed out the water pretty happy and cold after an hour in temperatures over 20 degrees. I was shivering. Back home the water is 15 degrees and it’s too warm for most of the folk I swim with, they ditched their wetsuits as soon as it gets above 10 degrees centigrade. I am going to look like a wimp with the shakes after wearing a 5mm suit going for a wee swim when I get home to Scotland.
Years ago, working in the oil industry just off the coast of Rio de Janerio, at the start of the trip everyone would make plans to visit the Amazon and other Brazilian wonders once the 6 weeks work was finished, but after weeks of constant toil and even the thought of even just a quick walk up to the Jesus Christ statue was too much effort, a few beers at Copacabana beach is just about the maximum effort we could all manage before heading off to the airport and the strong pull of home and family.
At the end of this trip to the Soloman Islands and Vanuatu. I was desperate to get home but tales of the volcanic bellowing crater and flying lava was too much and I jumped on a short flight to Tanna or as it is also know the Fire Island. I shared a taxi from the airport with Frank my Danish neighbour on the flight. Our accommodation was close by and he was lucky and staying for 3 nights whereas mine was a short over night stay and then back to complete sub maintenance before heading home.
We sat on a wooded bench in the back of a 4×4 taxi and shared fresh peanuts and giggled all the way waving at local children with smiles just as big as ours. In Europe we are brainwashed to think that without a seat belt and traffic lights we would become vehicular soup on the first bend. We took great delight in our carefree transport.
I arrived at my accommodation to be told I was the first guest ever to stay in the tree house. After meeting John and his family who owned the property I headed straight for the Virgin bed and slept for two hours. I woke and enjoyed lunch of carrots and cabbage cooked in coconut milk, infused with the smoke from the fire. It was simple but tasty and perfect and just what I needed. We spoke and organised a wee bit of Kava for on my return from the volcano that evening.
Earlier, when I was introduced to John’s family, his mother was weaving banana leaves and I noticed that the toilet and shower looked like they didn’t have any doors for privacy. Later on I was happy and relieved to see that his mum had made doors for them during my morning nap from the banana leaves. Genius.
After lunch I went straight back to bed. After eight weeks of waking before six and falling into my scratcher close to ten at night it takes it toll.
I woke at 3pm and enjoyed some fresh coconut before John showed me the way to the bottom of the volcano.
We walked for thirty minutes. He was full on Presbyterian Christian and looked happy when I eventually remembered nearly all of one verse of “One day at a time Lord”. Even writing this I still get it confused with “Lord won’t you you buy me a Mercedes Benz.”
One day at a time sweet Jesus
That’s all I’m asking from you.
Just give me the strength
To do everyday what I have to do.
Yesterday’s gone sweet Jesus
And tomorrow may never be mine.
Lord help me today, show me the way
One day at a time.
Years ago I worked with a Nigerian lad, Samni, that sang songs of God and Jesus constantly. I think and hope Samni will be smiling that I still sing his song even though it’s a struggle to remember it.
I jumped into the jeep with the Frank, the Danish dude from earlier, which was to take us up to the car park just below the crater. There must have been nearly a hundred people there to see the rocky lava fireworks. It didn’t disappoint. Again me and the Frank could only laugh and giggle at the experience. At one point an Australian girl took great delight in capturing on video me exclaiming loudly. “Holly f#$k check the size awe that hing” as a massive lava boulder the size of a car sailed through air as effortlessly as the whale did through the sea a couple of weeks previously. I apologised but in fact she looked delighted that my Scottish accent would be on her “firie loud explosions” sound track.
We were lead off the crater after a hour but I think we could have all stayed up there the whole night with a multitude of stars above us and the red hot explosions in the crater below.
Back at the tree house I enjoyed some Kava with John. I had Kava for the first time eights months previously. We were out on the north east of Fiji in Lau group and went ashore to a wee island to ask permission to anchor. We took rugby balls for the children and we’re bemused when they didn’t seem interested. It was only when we walked up to the village centre we discovered the whole village watching a volleyball tournament. The Chief spoke over a loud speaker and then the heavy hardcore techno music would start until the Chief decided to speak again. We sat in a line watching the volleyball when a dude rocked up with a large bowl of dirty water in a half filled coconut shell. I necked the first Kava offering, checked my phone then started laughing. The captain looked at me worried but I explained, “it’s the 16th of December which is exactly 2 years to the day since I had my last beer”, (in fact last stimulant of any kind). The captain and myself laughed and joked about me tearing off like father Jack from the Father Ted TV show wearing only my boxers shouting “DRINK GIRLS FECK DRINK” never to be seen again.
Sitting with John after volcano. I felt the relaxing effects of Kava like chamomile tea but with more of a calming dunt. This stuff seemed a lot more potent than the last offering I had tried. My mouth went numb. We chatted until our laughing woke up one of his kids and then I retired to bed and got a amazing sleep.
Meeting the friendly local people of Tanna was worth all the effort I took to get there and the volcano was massive bonus, it is truly a magical island.
I am truly grateful and feel blessed to meet, not only the folk from the island, but the folk I met on the boats and wish them awe the best with their own adventures.