A Mazed Cove
[07 degrees 20.92S/157 degrees 06.36E].
Is it possible to tell a story where nothing happens? In a place that is not on any map? Let me try. My husband and I were exploring the Western Province of the Solomon Islands on Compadre, our 55’ cutter rig sailboat. One day we found this place.
This island nation in the South Pacific is not well known and has yet to become a tourist destination. Most visitors come for the superb diving opportunities. It has the lowest population density in the Pacific and most people live by subsistence farming and fishing. It is a beautiful world—a world devoid of heavy traffic, unwelcome noises, obtrusive signs. It is a world with over six hundred uninhabited islands.
We had left Hambere Village on Kolumbangara Island in the morning, motoring across the still waters of New Georgia Sound, heading for Choiseul Island. The air was hot and heavy. The horizon was invisible, the metallic ocean merging with the silky grey sky. Our destination was a small cove, its entrance to be found by weaving through a reef, through a bay, through a narrow winding channel behind an uninhabited island.
We had been stretching our eyeballs for hours, trying to conjure up Choiseul Island ahead of us, but the haze was like a thick veil over our eyes. Perhaps a minor volcano on the Ring of Fire had burped, and its bad breath was drifting over us. Even as we approached the pass through the outer reef, the visibility was meager. We were relying on three things—the chartplotter, the sketch chart and our eyesight.
Let’s say you are driving through an unfamiliar city. Your car GPS plotter says you are on Fifth Street. You look out the window and see that you are on Seventh Street. The charting in this part of the world is off sometimes, just like that.
We were using a sketch chart from Dirk Sieling’s Solomon Islands Cruising Guide, published in 1997. It was out of proportion but offered some clues—where the reefs were, some of the depths, which way to go. The reef was on the sketch chart but not on the chartplotter, so it was time to employ our eyesight.
We went very slowly, spotted the reef and slid by into a large bay. Suddenly we lost our bearings. A large island was sitting in the middle of the bay looking like a huge green pumpkin. “Do you think that’s this little one he drew over here?” I asked, pointing to an islet on the sketch chart that was tiny and close to shore. “It makes no sense.” Our eyes went to work again. We skirted the pumpkin and its fringing reef, and then the little one came into view. So Dirk forgot to draw in the pumpkin, or it grew here after he left.
We nosed along until we found the channel, which then became a maze. Dozens of islets were huddled close together. Finally a small opening in the wall of green appeared off to the right. The chartplotter said our boat was leaving water and heading onto dry land, but as we passed over a shallow bar, we entered a magical cove. Goggle-eyed and clapping our hands like delighted children; we slid in and dropped the anchor.
The cove is small—about four hundred feet wide and six hundred feet long—and completely surrounded by cliffs. There is no place to step ashore, no place to wade in shallow water. No place for a human to make a mark—cut some bush, build a fire, eat some freshly caught seafood.
Sitting on the deck in the evening, we watch, and listen. Color deprivation—nothing but a pastiche of blues and greens. The vegetation is dense green, almost black, its reflection in the water an inky blue. Yellow is hiding beneath in the leaves, purple is skulking under the water, black is wedged in the shadows. Not much red to delight the eye, only our red burgee and two red leaves; four if their reflections are counted. One tiny insect lands on deck; it has translucent scarlet wings.
The steep rock faces surrounding us slant back as they rise up to over two hundred feet. The hothouse atmosphere has encouraged the bravest trees to find a toehold on the upper reaches. They grow with a delicate balance until they create their own fate. Too ponderous and weary, they succumb to gravity and topple, leaving their young offspring to start another generation of struggle.
Those close to the water cantilever out, boldly growing horizontally. New twigs sprout; some up, some down. The down twigs get drenched in salt water each time the tide rises—eventually their leaves wither and slough off, drown and dissolve. The up twigs have an impulse to grow and grow, but the rain and dew will weigh them down. They will collapse eventually and sink beyond rescue. Jungle vines drip down, some straight as a ruler, some with graceful swerves and lacy leaves. Black butterflies flit about.
Dawn is delayed here. Usually, in an open bay, we have no shelter as the sun crests the horizon, piercing our eyes with knifelike rays. Here the sun must climb high to slide into our green hole. It touches the highest edges of our cavern walls and slowly cascades, soaking the foliage in sunlight, prying the colors from the gloom. Finally it reaches the surface of the water, which is already festooned with up-side-down reflections of the cavern walls. A breeze tickles the surface and the images shimmer.
The water temperature is in the low ’90s. The air is humid. This intense photosynthesis factory creates its own scent of high octane oxygen. Our hiding place is an amphitheater—a basin of air where all the sounds are amplified. Our playful shouts are answered by echoes. But the hush is pure. No waves breaking over the reef or on the beach. It’s just us, our echoes, and the birds.
If a fortune teller had said “One day you will become an avid bird watcher,” I’d have chuckled and asked “Will I be good at shuffle board, too?” But now I wish for a reference book, or a CD of bird calls, to help me identify them, sort them out.
Hidden in the foliage, dozens of birds sing out to tease us with their hoots and tweets and squawks. One sings, “Bet you can’t SEE me.” Another whistles a haunting melody, “Sweet pea, sweet pea, please don’t LEAVE me.” The doves hoot out their crying laugh, “Who-who-who-who-whoooo.” The cockatoos and parrots are noisy and busy arguing. The sea eagles watch silently from their aeries above.
Two hornbills are perched in the bare branches of a dead tree high up. We are not sure if any of the sounds are theirs. They take flight, unfurling imperial wingspans, gliding with graceful ease, each wing tip curling upward like a lady’s pinky finger.
Even though we are hidden from view and quite some distance from any villages, we have several visitors. The first day a single man paddles into our cove. He saw us as we passed by his village on our way into the maze. He is just curious about our boat, so we invite him aboard and show him around. The second day a single man, with a single child, came to visit. His son had asked him to bring him here. He has never seen a sailboat before. They come aboard and we show them around too.
On the third day, just as a heavy rain is ending, two large canoes approach, each carrying two ladies. All four are soaking wet. They have heaps of garden produce in the center of their canoes, covered with large jungle leaves. They keep their distance so I beckon them closer. They are laughing and chatting in their own language. When I greet them, they offer me a huge papaya, about 20” long. I try to decline, but they do not understand my reluctance. I try my feeble Pijin. “Mi jes garam tufala popo. Mi no wandem moa (I just got two papayas. I don’t want any more).” But they make me take it anyway.
I ask them what they might want or need. No one speaks English so I try again. “Iufala wandem enisamting? (Do you want something?)” One lady replies “sop” and moves her hands over her shoulders and torso. I think she means ‘top’, but further pantomiming shows me that she is asking for soap. “Ah, was-was!” I hand them each a bar of soap and then Jim hands them some pieces of freshly baked ciabbata bread flavored with garlic. Now they insist on giving me a second papaya! I give them a dozen balloons and lollies to take home to their children. “Tanggio tumas!! Bae, mi go nao.”
As we are leaving the next day, we hear a slow drumming sound—“fwomp – fwomp – fwomp.” Just over our heads the two hornbills swoosh by, their elegant wings flapping slowly. Now we have heard their voices.
Maybe the fortune teller was right. And maybe something did happen—here, in this place that is nowhere.
A Mazed Cove