The Location: Papatura Island Retreat, Isabel Province
It is close to dusk at the end of a 22-hour boat trip when I realise I’m not sure where I am. As the ship’s tender approaches a bay I spot a man in boardies, probably in his sixties, standing alone on the typically tropical beach. He gives me a broad smile as I jump out of the boat.
“G’day,” he calls out, and I introduce myself. “I’m Pete Blanche,” he says, still smiling, but I spot a slightly puzzled expression cross his face. “You’re not expecting me, eh?” I ask. “Nope, but you’ve made it this far, so welcome!”
We laugh and Pete invites me up to the bar for a coconut. “Communication around here is a bit touch and go,” he says.
I take a quick stock of the place. Half a dozen or so traditionally built rooms connected by a wooden walkway, a generator for electricity, a bar and restaurant, a beach with lots of toys; no mobile reception, no landline, no internet, no village, no shop, nothing else. The sense of isolation is immense and even though I can pin point this speck of an island on a map, I feel lost. Perfect.
Pete’s wife, Marge, wakes up from a nap and we get stuck into a good natter. The two quintessential Gold Coasters talk about their love for the Islands and it’s people – they’re no strangers to it, having first arrived in 1989 to market the Solomons via the family-run travel agency, Go Tours. “The climate, the people, the lifestyle, the culture, we love it,” says Marge. You can take people away from the Goldy, but you can’t take away their lifestyle.
They’re also excited about the two-year-old retreat and it’s hallmark remoteness.
“That’s why we like it here. People come and they can totally relax, no phone calls, emails, work, stress. They arrive and some are really uptight, but you leave ‘em to it and they learn to let go.”
Pete flinches when I use the word ‘retirement’. “Retirement doesn’t even come into it,” he says. “I can’t even use the word. We’re babysitting it for the family.”
So, it’s a family run business and over the following days I understand that guests are just part of the extended family. The Blanche’s hospitality is unequivocal.
Later, as I walk away along the wooden pathway I hear Pete say to his wife, “Darl, what’s that?”
“What do you do with it?”
“Oh darl, you use it like ordinary flower, for tempuras and stuff, you know?”
The retreat is tucked into the lee side of the island and faces south-west, so dawn is a gradual affair of the lightening of the skies from blueberry black to grey and then blue – witnessed through curtainless windows without lifting your head from the pillow.
Situated where it is though, it’s hard to see what the waves are doing and I’m antsy so I ask Pete if there are any indicators. He points to the distant Isabel Island and says that when there are waves you can see the sets break against the cliffs. No waves.
It’s well into the off-season at the end of May (the northern facing Solomons enjoy the Pacific winter swells that hit Hawaii first) so it’s not looking good, but as fortune has it a category two typhoon off the Philippines, Typhoon Songda, has stirred up a bit of action.
One of the boat drivers, Roe, takes me round to the other side. I jump in at Kumma’s and get into some two-foot tropical splendour; Roe drifts away in the boat happily making his way through a packet of Pall Mall. Yeah it’s small, but it’s beautiful translucent water, glassy, warm, and as I trim along the left-hander I reckon I’m the only surfer for hundreds of kilometres in either direction. Picking off any wave I please, the sense of solitude is more intense in the water than it was on land. There are dozens of waves around Papatura and at any one time no more than 16 or so guests are lodged – you do the math.
After another night on the cans with the other guests – four friendly Queensland fishermen who are revelling in the world-class fishing – I wake to see some white water action on the cliffs opposite.
On the other side it’s twice as big as yesterday but a bit windy and the sea looks like it’s brooding. After skimming around a few options and watching a couple of sets come through I settle on surfing PT’s, it looks like a demanding right-hander breaking nicely, if a bit all over the shop, in deepish water. I jump in, super psyched; the waves are solid, got some tight togs on, got a Go Pro securely fastened near the nose and I’m paddling hard for the first wave of the set. But you’ve got to hand it to Mother Nature, just when you think you’ve got something dialled she deals you a wild card. I totally underestimate the power and get smashed, bang, the rest of the set on the head, dragged into the inside section, bang, again, and this pretty much sums up the rest of the session.
It’s frustrating because the take off zone looks like the only challenging part of the wave; it throws over into a thick-lipped barrel but then fattens out not much further down the line to what looks like could be a whackable wall – not that I get a chance. I turn off the Go Pro pretty sheepishly and am just grateful that there’s no one around to witness the spectacle. (John, today’s boat driver, is puffing quietly through his packet of Pall Malls in the distance.)
The following day I surf with Roe’s son, Chris, a lovely local lad who has just started working on the island and has been surfing for one season. Yesterday’s waves are long gone so we sit and chew the fat.
I get that funny feeling surfers sometimes get. “Chris, are there any crocodiles around here?”
“Oh yes, there are many,” he replies. Mmm.
“Are you afraid of them?”
“Oh no,” he says, giving me a funny look as if it’s a ridiculous idea.
“They are our ancestors, they protect us.”
This is a far-flung island off another island province with only one other commercial tourism venture; you want swashbuckling adventure, you got it.
The resort has a full quiver of boards including SUP’s which you can use to discover the scattering of other tiny islets, perfect for running about with your kit off; there’s not a soul in site.
There’s a sunken WW2 fighter plane, Japanese I think, that’s in shallow water and in really good nick. The battle of Guadalcanal (where Honiara is situated) was decisive in the war in the Pacific; the area is a history buff’s dream and the Blanche’s have a few interesting books about it all.
Three different fresh water rivers are within easy access on Isabel and offer superb fishing: Mangrove Jacks aplenty. And out at sea Giant Trevally, Spanish Mackerel, Coral Trout, and Dog Toothed Tuna, to name just a few, make for sensational eating at the retreat, which by the way, puts on a mean feast daily.
There are different tracks around the 274-hectacre-jungle island, which is teeming with lizards, hermit crabs, wee spiders, and the occasional croc. I started to go a bit troppo with fear, though I never saw one. If that doesn’t freak you out, maybe Gideon (John Teropa), the residing skeleton, will. Gideon was from Kiribati and worked on Papatura when it was a copra plantation. No one knows how or why he died and the Blanche’s stumbled upon his grave by accident.
On the main Isabel Island you can discover the nearby villages of Kolopakisa or Baolo, where most of Papatura’s staff come from. They are humble settlements and offer a candid look at village life – “unmanufactured” I recall someone saying.
It’s sunset. I lie in my hammock with nothing on my mind. Pete calls out to me from the bar: “Kez, how’s the serenity, eh?” For real, I shake my head in wonder. “Come and have a drink, mate.” Talk about being at home, especially at the bar where guests are allowed to drink their own duty free grog. Tell me I’m dreaming!
NB: I took the boat, but you can leave from Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane and arrive at Papatura in time for a sunset session by connecting with a domestic flight to Suavanao.