Thanks to our avid aid worker, surfer, traveller and friend, Eddie Burton, for providing this insightful and inspiring feature on the Solomon Islands. Towards the end of Eddie’s tale are his reflections, which will pull at the chords of every seasoned Island traveller.
As I sat out the back alone, the last person in the water for God knows how far, awaiting the last set of the day to reach me from its origins in the North Pacific, I couldn’t help but chuckle at how perfect this situation was.
The sun was setting over the dense hills of Kagata Village on Isabelle Island in the Solomon Islands, sending orange jet streams streaking across the clear evening sky. The crystal blue water, finally like glass after days of onshore winds, allowing me to watch an inquisitive rainbow fish explore the fan coral and cracks of the volcanic reef. I sat there feeling like a drop in the ocean and I couldn’t help but wonder, does life get any better than this?
The Solomon Islands
Since arriving in Honiara eight months earlier on a volunteer assignment, the Solomon Islands and the people here have captured my exploratory imagination, and I’m definitely cool with that.
I am the first to admit though that the past eight months of working my first full time job had been far from my dreams of a Pacific holiday of deserted islands, no stress lifestyle and crystal clear waves in an untouched tropical paradise.
I am based in Honiara on Guadalcanal Island, which is the capital of the Solomon Islands and for those who are interested, has quite a history from WW2, but sadly for a surfer, it is so swell locked that despite the relatively frequent earthquakes, a tsunami or even one foot of swell is near impossible.
Men, women, children, chickens, pigs, exotic birds and many more unidentified objects all flock to Honiara from the 900 odd islands of the Solomons, mainly for schooling and work opportunities, or in the case of the latter, dinner, making it a buzzing place to stay.
Sadly due to the transient nature of Honiara many people don’t feel attached to it as they do their home village and treat it as such, leading to littered streets and stained sidewalks. This has left a lot of tourists with a jaded view of the Solomons which no doubt detracts from potential tourism opportunities the country desperately needs for sustainable income.
Many Solomon Islanders are ashamed of the way the Capital is treated and with the upcoming Pacific Arts Festival, the rejuvenation of Honiara is in full swing, which is great for the development of the country.
The rubbish spot fires and betel nut stained sidewalks have taken a while to adjust to, but thanks to the welcoming and generous nature of Solomon Islanders and the stunning contrast of the areas out of town to the city, I am now one of the many expatriates proud to call Honiara my home.
Come Christmas holiday time I was so excited to get out and explore some of the remote surf breaks I’d heard so much about that I was literally wetting myself, luckily it rains regularly so I’m fairly confident no one noticed…. Robbo, one of my best mates who I had learnt to surf with on the packed breaks of the Gold Coast, the quintessential Aussie surfing mate, was coming holidaying, and I was to arrange our exploration surf trip, YEE-HA! BARRELLS!!!
Santa Isabelle Island and Kagata Surf Retreat
I had felt a calling to Santa Isabelle Island (positioned an hour and a half’s flight, or 30 hours on a cargo ship to the north west of Guadalcanal) and I’d been recommended it as a travel destination by both local and expatriate friends for its surf, richness of song and dance culture and something about the beautiful women….
Kagata Surf Retreat, was appropriately priced for my volunteer wage compared to other locations at $120 a day, with food included and was also locally run.
Sustainable income is a serious issue for Solomon Islanders and after seeing firsthand the destructive effects of the main areas of national income (logging, commercial fishing and palm oil plantations), I was happy to be supporting these proud people who have withstood the persuasive suggestions of both local Chiefs and logging companies who are trying to finish off their clearing of Isabelle.
Kagata is a family and community run business, which is where its real charm lies. It was started in 2009 by Lawrie, one of the business minded youths of the community. Along with his cousins fishing one day, they noticed a white man who was paddling around in their area in a canoe. Lawrie explained the chance meeting in his well articulated English.
“We were intrigued so approached this guy in his canoe who was paddling around our islands and found out that the man was named Glen, he was from Australia and he was exploring surf breaks,” he said.
“Glen informed me of the surfing paradise on which I had the privilege to grow up but had never known. From there we talked surfing and the potential of setting up a Surf Camp here in Kagata.”
Lawrie was at the time heading off to study business at the University of South Pacific in Fiji and became enthused with the idea of beginning a family surf stay, not to be confused with party surf retreats you may have visited previously. With the support of his community who shared his thoughts on the destructive and short term financial solution of logging, the ‘Kagata Surf Retreat’ was born in 2009.
It is run by the whole community, totalling around 30 people, who welcomed us with open arms and song as though we were the first guests to ever arrive, immediately we were one of the community. The whole place oozed relaxation and importantly for me, family.
All the food is fresh, local seafood with local vegetables the extent of the menu. The seafood, ranging from speared reef fish, huge fish such as tuna and kingfish, mussels and crab are all caught that day by the youths and prepared by the mothers.
Young and keen as mustard local surfers are your surf guides and the accommodation, although basic is traditional leaf hut housing, cool and breezy, erected by the local men from local materials.
But my favourite part, the enthusiastic ear to ear smiles and non-stop entertainment from the kids, particularly the future pop stars, Lolita (3) and Mellisa (6) who would treat us to our own show every night, strumming a guitar and singing us their favourite church songs with the cheekiest, but cutest grin you will see.
We got to know the community and its history well as it turned out we hit a bit of a rough patch with onshore winds blowing out the first three days of our one week stay, but to be honest it didn’t matter one bit!
But by the time the wind dropped and we could start to see the shape of the wave building, thanks to the swell the wind had brought in, we were amped and got out there as soon as we could (we had actually been having on shore scraps every day, morning and evening in between everything else).
The main wave is a right named ‘Kali’, about 2km boat ride from camp, which according to local charger Jarldo, “Can break the whole way along the reef when it’s on.”
It’s a steep and unforgiving take off, barrel section through the middle, followed by a long wack-friendly wall which bowls around the reef.
We would surf this wave every day we had left and had some memorable sessions. None more so than when I finally got a set wave that linked up (and didn’t kook it) that was calling me into the ‘Blue Cathedral’, when Robbo, with his horse blinkers strapped on, bloody dropped in on me! I couldn’t believe it and I had to control my Gold Coast Heritage surf rage…. but then I remembered we were alone in paradise, just us and two local lads so I paddled back out and got a corker on the next set!
There are several options around for waves, a left just across the channel from the right which was named ‘Tutubau’ looked promising but we never got the best of and also another left and right about 2 km further west off a stunning little deserted island the youths have set up as their little ‘holiday home’, as were to soon find out….
Being a Seventh Day Adventist community, Saturday is a day of rest, or at least no work, which means no boat transfer and when the surfs on, potential disaster.
“What! Really, but it’s our second last day. Is there no other way we can get out to the surf?” We cried out like spoilt little kids as it had finally started to link up, but I knew I was prepared to paddle to get there if needed.
The boys, our surf tour guides were quick to jump to our assistance.
“We could take them to the island today (Friday) and then surf the island Saturday?” They stated suggestively to the family….
So it was agreed. We were to pack up supplies and head out there in the evening; mosquito nets, rice, tinned tuna, our boards and a carton of warm Sol Brew, perfect. I questioned the boys about this ‘rest day’ and surfing and they told me they generally just bring the guests up to the island unless they want to go to church and it’s no worries!
I can’t divulge the details of that night for the safety of those involved in the story (mainly myself), but I’ll just say that it’s the most I’ve ever laughed.
Solomon Islanders are naturally full of jest, but I hadn’t expected a night out on this peaceful, isolated island, beautiful white sand surrounding it, a bright moon glowing on the untouched glassy reef could encourage such cheeky behaviour!
And then, more surf
We surfed a mysterious left hander the next day as the wind was onshore at our favourite…. The left we named ‘Forgottens’ but later found out is called, ‘Kologose’. It was a nice change up, due to the different swell directions, but thanks to the cross shore wind a big wall would come in over this deep channel, looking like closing out, but it would just stall almost calling you into it, allowing a late take off and then allowing you a long wall of fun all the way through. It was like a learners paradise, but 3 – 4 foot over reef!
The break originally got its name as we hadn’t noticed it earlier and were regretting that, but then the name got confirmed…
Grant, our host didn’t have an anchor point at this break and although we’d paddled out there ourselves from the island he insisted on bringing the boat to take us back.
‘We’ll be fine, don’t worry about us’, I believe were my last words.
As it turned out Grant being a fantastic host would drive the boat up to the top of the break then float down with the tide and then drive it back up again waiting for us. He repeated this for what must have been two hours while we exchanged bomb after bomb in the blistering midday sun.
We eventually started to feel guilty (and a little exhausted), so we decided to paddle back to the boat, but the current was so strong, we couldn’t get anywhere, literally staying in the same spot no matter how hard we paddled.
It was at this time Grant started to move the boat, ‘Oh he’s seen we’re in trouble and coming to get us, what a legend.’
But no. He turned around and headed in the opposite direction, back to the other side of the island.
So we decided to try and keep surfing, no point fighting it we thought, but we were too exhausted to even paddle into anything. About twenty minutes later we were thanking our lucky stars as we saw Grant returning. It turned out he’d nearly run out of fuel and we were all nearly stuck out there!
There are so many more great memories from that trip I’ll never forget that I haven’t even mentioned; onshore days skurfing over crystal clear reef (dangerously close to the palm fringed shore), pulling in Giant Trevallies, Yellow Fin Tuna and Kingfish almost at will, paddling the lagoon in locally carved canoes (which I’ll have you know is harder than you would think), and husking and then drinking freshly downed coconuts just to name a few.
Despite all these exciting activities I’m trying to put my finger on exactly why places like Kagata are so special and hard to find, and why it made such an impact on me personally.
Apart from the bleatingly obvious fact that it’s an untouched Pacific paradise with waves, I think it’s that it takes you back to the way life should be, or could be.
I spent a lot of my time watching the confidence of the children and how families work together to bring up their kids and undertake daily tasks. Whilst far too many Western families are battling away solo, Solomon Islanders have a community full of parents, brothers and sisters, all whom love, discipline and bring up the kids as if they were their own. Their sense of family is a special thing and leads to a special way of life.
So if you want a surf stay in an untouched gem of a location, with a family that will open their arms to you, with waves galore to explore and fishing, snorkelling, exploring and generations of stories to fill in any gaps in your day, Kagata Surf Retreat should be at the top of your list of holiday destinations, just be careful, you may never want to leave…..
Thanks to Lawrie, Glen, our marvellous host Grant, our Kagata mum Lydia, Lolita and Melissa, Jarldo the man with the biggest tomatoes and the rest of the crew for a memorable journey through village life, one that I will never forget.