24 hours

Writing about a day in your life is more than keeping a logbook of the day’s events. Even though it is arranged hour-after-hour it contans observations, ideas and thoughts that spring off your excperiences of the day. This story draws on an actual day’s experience while working in the Solomon Islands…

6am:
Awake. The sun is painting the clouds over the distant, grey cone of Kolonbangara island with the pinky-yellow colours of morning. It is not yet full daylight but there are already a few people up and about here at the guest house in Ghizo.

Steve, the Solomon Islander I am travelling with on this mission, and I make a quick breakfast. The young woman who works at the guesthouse and whose home village is on Vella LaVella way to the north up towards Bougainville, and who Steve was chatting-up last night, is in the kitchen. We don’t talk for long. We want to get going.

Packs on back we hurry down to the marketplace by the lagoon. We say hello to a group of young men there and look for the motor canoe in which we will make the five or so hour, depending on the weather and the sea state, voyage to Choiseul.

8am
Underway at last. Like so many motor canoe departures we have spent time waiting. Waiting for what was unclear, but eventually two middle aged women from Sasamuqa village, our destination, climb aboard and move to the bow.

A boy probably in his mid-teens, who seems to be the second part of the crew, scampers to midships as the helmsman, a man of late middle age who has probably made this open sea crossing numerous times, pushes the motor canoe away from the shore and starts the outboard.

8.30am
We motored over the smooth, protected waters near Ghizo, past an Australian navy patrol boat anchored there, and were soon in the low chop of open water. Motor canoe operators like to travel in the morning as seas are smoother than than in the afternoon.

Kolombangara is off our starboard now, a big volcanic cone. It was a distant grey shape in the early morning light but close by now we see that it is clad in the greens of tropical rainforest. Down by the shore we notice the occasional house of thatched palm leaf and I think about how people live here by the sea from which they draw part of their sustenance, much of the rest coming from their bush gardens.

10.30am
It is hot now, the sun is beating down and I am fortunate to have pasted my skin with a good coating of suncream. We are well out into the straits. Kolombangara is again a grey cone on the horizon, only now it lies in the direction from which we have come.

About an hour ago we noticed an Australia army Caribou, a transport aircraft, off in the distance over towards Vella LaVella. It was cruising out over the sea between us and the island, flying low. What was it doing so far from land?

Vella LaVella we see as a faint blue presence over to the north west, a long distance off. We have now come within sight of Choiseul and it appears as a long blue line on the horizon. It is our destination.

We rise and fall over a long, low swell coming in from the north. The weather is good. We are in good spirits. We don’t talk much. There is a rhythm out here on the sea that wants to lull me to sleep.

11am
It was sudden. We look up, startled, Not startled by some loud noise but by a complete lack of it. The outboard, its sound our constant accompaniment, has stopped as has the canoe.

This can only mean trouble, I think, recalling how colleagues were once travelling by motor canoe when their motor abruptly stopped. The pin holding the propeller to its shaft had fallen out. So had the propeller. We are too far out into the straits to deal with that, I think, looking around to notice the only other form of propulsion is the canoe paddle in the boat.

The helmsman hinges the outboard up and we see that it has snagged on a length of ship’s cable. I expect to see him reach for a knife to cut the cable free, but he untangles and tugs it to reveal it disappearing into the depths some metres from the canoe. Now, rather than release it back into the sea, he moves to the bow, gets the two women there to move back, and, hand over hand, starts to pull the cable aboard.

11.15am
Now aided by his offsider, the helmsman continues to pull in the cable. It forms a growing coil there in the bow. And still it comes.

But enough is enough and I notice the canoe now sits a little lower in the water. He takes a knife and cuts free what must still be quite a length.

11.30am
“Lookim, hem big fish”, the offsider calls in Solomon Island Pijin before we restart the motor.

“Hem shark”, says the helmsman.

“No, hem bigfella fish”, his offsider responds.

I look and not all that far away a large shadow is cruising just below the surface. We can now see that it is some kind of fish and not a shark. The motor comes to life and we are off again towards a long blue ridge that gets bigger and bigger as time passes.

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1.30pm
Close to the shore of Choiseul now, small coastal hamlets are visible as clusters of palm-thatched houses. The island has resolved itself from a long blue line into discernible coast and forested ridges. This is a continental island, one rising to a high central ridge.

We are approaching the shore on what I guesstimate to be an east-north-east bearing. Soon I notice the white church on the headland that signals Paranui village. That’s close to Sasamuqa. I recognise this bit of coast from a previous visit.

Now we slow to enter the reef sometimes just a few centimetres from the coral heads below in the shallows. The shore is ahead, the motor is turned off and the helmsman takes a long pole and pushes us into the shallows. The two women scramble over, take their bags, then Steve and I pick up our packs and step out into the warm waters of the lagoon. We have arrived. We are at Susamuqa. It is several years since I have stood on this shore.

2pm
Gwendolyn, a local woman who we have worked with before, is there on the shore to meet us, along with a few locals. We exchange greetings.

“You are staying at the prient’s house”, she informs Steve and I. She leads us towards it.

The priest’s house is a rambling fibro building with a galvanised iron roof. It is what is known locally as a ‘permanent house’ to distinguish it from the traditional thatched houses which I regard as better suited to the climate.

On the seaward side of the house is the family vegetable garden. Protected from the sea winds on the other side are some fruit trees. The priest’s family spend most of the home time on the verandah out back where they eat and, in the evening, sing melodic religious songs with that harmony that you hear out here in these isolated regions. We are far from cities. I am far from my city life.

Over the coming week I will see how people live simple but happy lives and exhibit a contentedness that I can only envy. I think it would be the envy of a great many where I come from, too.

6pm, or thereabouts
I am operating on Solomons time now, not ‘Japanese time’ of clocks and watches. Time, thus, is rather vague as are the hours I register now in this tale. We are in a different place, a different mentality when it comes to time here. My own watch has been consigned to the pocket of my pack. It is a tool of the cities.

Now, or thereabouts, one of the family calls Steve and I for dinner, the evening meal. This is in one of the front or seaward rooms from where we look out onto a lagoon taking, like the sky, the pastel colours of the approaching evening. The volume of food arrayed here is stupendous, far, far more than we could ever eat. Rice, the ubiquitous sweet potato, reef fish and greens are in superabundance on the table. We assume the family will eat what we don’t, which is much.

10pm
Before night fell, and it comes suddenly here only eight or nine degrees latitude south of the equator, Steve and I sat and made rough plans for the coming week in Sasamuqa. Rough, because our experience in the Solomons, especially in remote regions like this, had taught us that detailed plans often amounted to wishful thinking. Here, where times are at best approximations, the world of detailed planning is another planet.

We had each gone to our rooms by eight but, being a person used to being awake long into the night, I lay unable to sleep on the hardest mattress I have ever encountered. I didn’t know how long the electric light would be available. The generator comes on only in the early evening and I have yet to discover its shut-down time. An incandescent bulb glows on me from the ceiling. Surely it is time for sleep.

6am, or thereabouts
Dawn in Sasamuqa. It is quiet but the murmur of voices comes from the kitchen. Soon, we are called to breakfast.

Hard navy biscuits more suited for use as kinetic munitions are on offer accompanied by a tin of strawberry jam. So this is what locals think we eat for breakfast in Australia? I know that this is typical of breakfasts we will be offered, and it will still be the same in coming weeks out on North Malaita, the big island on the Pacific side of Guadalcanal.

Steve come in a little later. He has already been for a walk through the village. This is regarded as a big village stretching for some distance along the shoreline. We eat and talk in start and stops. We are to meet people today, he says.

8am
It is twenty-four hours since we set off from Ghizo in the motor canoe to cross the straits. I look out past the coconut palms lining the shore, over the lagoon and out to sea.

Seen silhouetted against the blue of the lagoon, a couple people walk along the shore. A male voice calls from somewhere beyond the trees at the side of the house. The sky is blue and cloudless. The day is going to be hot as they all are at this time in the Solomons, but here in the shade on the verandah it is still that pleasant morning warmth you get at this time of day.

The thought comes to me that life continues in the village as it has always done. Now, I am here again. And that feels good.

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