They arrived in motorised canoes, walked from villages across mountains, others flew in from distant islands, diverse groups converging on a little town called Gizo with the single, paramount purpose of preserving their culture and traditions.
Gizo, on Ghizo Island, is the capital of the Solomon Islands’ far-flung Western Province, a paradise of coral cays, atolls, lagoons and volcanic islands east of Papua New Guinea where, on a rainy day in late July, crowds flocked to the local netball court for the opening of the inaugural Akuila Talasasa Arts Festival.
Named after the late Akuila Talasasa who had actively promoted the preservation of local customs and traditions as the pillars that held Western Province communities together, the festival embraced dance, music, demonstrations of weaving and the stone and wood carving for which the region is famous.
VIPs, townsfolk, a few tourists and two cheerful stray dogs witnessed the festival opening after groups in palm-frond skirts and semi-naked warriors armed with spears and grimaces had paraded along the waterfront.
Hampered by intermittent tropical downpours, groups of painted men in loincloths with fierce faces and stamping feet took turns showing their dance skills, splashing puddles and working the audience with comical extra-curricular antics.
Island dancers from Ranongga opened the entertainment, followed by more from Simbo and then the shield and spear toting warriors from Vella Lavella. Then came the gentler Gilbertese.
In the 1950s, hundreds of Micronesians migrated to the Solomons fleeing famine in the Gilbert Islands, now Kiribati. Many resettled on Ghizo Island in Newmanda and Titiana villages from where their young descendants had now come together at the festival.
They sashayed in palm leaf skirts and swivelled their hips in the fluid, sensuous motion of Micronesia’s take on Tahiti’s tamure led by Julie Joe whose day job was restaurant supervisor at the Gizo Hotel.
I had visited these distinctively Gilbertese villages a couple of days earlier with driver Peter Pepu in a sturdy 4WD and seen thatch and timber dwellings alongside more modern houses, most with neat vegetable and flower gardens and kids speaking English and Micronesian as they played simple games skipping ropes and sculpting shapes with just sand and water without a flickering screen in sight.
We continued across the island and around the west coast on a rough road strewn with rocks, stones, gullies, washouts and potholes, past modest roadside coconut plantations where copra supply was a cottage industry and along beautiful palm-lined sandy beaches with groomed picnic areas and surf crashing on the outer reefs where fishermen shunned rods for spears.
At Sagheragi Beach, landowner William Giroi showed me his guesthouse, Urilolo Lodge, raised high above the tides. Hammocks swung gently under shady trees and canoes faced the lagoon, a comfortable, truly secluded alternative to Gizo.
Western Province is popular with divers, surfers, fishers and World War II buffs and Dive Gizo, run by Danny and Kerrie Kennedy, offers boat tours to move them around. I joined American tourist Joe Petrulionis on an island tour in one of Kennedy’s motorised canoes to beautiful Vona Vona Lagoon.
At Tahitu on Kohinggo Island, Manu Hardson led us up a track through his coral island jungle to a clearing and the bizarre sight of an American Stuart light tank, a war machine the Japanese had immobilised in its tracks.
On Enogae Island betel nut fan, Thomas Kelika, slashed a path through more jungle to expose one of four large Japanese artillery pieces still aimed at the lagoon. This must have been one hell of a place to fight a war.
We sped past pretty coral cays bristling with coconut palms. At Lola Island, we paused for sandwiches of freshly cooked crayfish at the Entrikin family’s idyllic Zipolo Habu Resort with white sands, a gentle lagoon, an open-sided bar-restaurant and bungalows built with traditional sago palm leaf and betel tree timber.
Across Roviana Lagoon tiny, spooky Skull Island is one of the most sacred places in Western Province, a burial ground containing skull shrines decorated with customary shell money housing the skulls of past chiefs from the dark old days of headhunting.
We snorkelled among vividly coloured fish and anemones on the reefs around Kennedy Island where former US president and Navy Lieutenant John F. Kennedy was marooned after his vessel PT109 was torpedoed by a Japanese destroyer in 1943. It was difficult to imagine war in such a peaceful pretty place.
Back in Gizo, I strolled through the market, a cornucopia of tropical fruits and vegetables, glistening fish, chilled coconut juice, ginger, peanuts, baby clams cooked on skewers, cooked fish to go and a very filling traditional cake made of mashed mangrove shoots cooked with coconut milk.
But the betel nut stalls were busiest, catering to a long-established distraction which involves mixing the stimulant kernel of the areca nut with coral lime powder, wrapping it in leaves of the piper betel plant and chewing the wad until the mouth, tongue, teeth and lips turn an alarming bright red.
Apart from some touches of modernisation, the welcoming Gizo Hotel hadn’t lost any of its Pacific island charm since I stayed there 20 years ago. In the same Nguzu Nguzu Restaurant and bar upstairs in a large open-air “leaf haus” overlooking Gizo Harbour, a new wood-fired pizza oven now crackled and a blackboard menu announced the day’s catch, kingfish, tuna, calamari and crayfish.
It was dance night and about 20 Gilbertese, mostly hotel staff, alternated their nightly chores with gigs on the dance floor, finely chiselled boys and girls blurring, whirling and gently gyrating as they executed dance routines with energy and contagious enthusiasm.
In the dance, in the market, in the music and on the islands I visited it seemed that regional cultures, arts and languages were alive and well. The hope is that the legacy of Akuila Talasasa’s new and eponymous arts festival will help perpetuate these Western Province traditions for generations to come.
The writer was a guest of the Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau and flew Solomon Airlines from Australia (flysolomons.com).
Gizo Hotel has 51 air-conditioned rooms, swim pool, Wi-Fi, seafood restaurant and bar (gizohotel.com).
Zipolo Habu Resort (zipolohabu.com.sb
Urilolo Lodge, Sagheragi Beach, Call William Giroi on 8647684 or book through Dive Gizo (divegizo.com).
Story and Images ©Copyright David May 2015.