I am not going to lie; when it comes to a good old-fashioned road trip, my family and I are failures on a gargantuan scale. Those who know us laugh about our lack of ability to get out of town without needing a toilet break and we seem to have an uncanny knack for turning a four hour-trip into at least double that, blowing our estimated arrival time well and truly out of the water.
If there was a word to describe the opposite of road trippers I am positive that a picture of my family would appear next to the dictionary definition.
It is not through lack of trying, as over the years we have certainly attempted to improve on our car trip shortfalls with a mixture of little trips, big trips, well-prepared trips and the type of exploring that has no fixed destination except for wherever the road takes us. Despite our persistence, it is fairly safe to say that the open road rarely calls and when it does, I mostly let it go to message bank.
But there is so much to learn about a country and the people who call it home when you find yourself clumsily navigating along a bumpy dirt road with potholes large enough to eat a mini bus. Despite our previous failures, there is no way we could pass up the opportunity to spend the day meandering through the jungles, rivers and villages between busy downtown Honiara and the little seaside convent town of Visale, on the western tip of Guadalcanal.
So after a short stop at the central markets for bananas and little bags of popcorn, we loaded up the bright purple 4WD we had hired and left the Monday morning peak hour traffic behind for a slower pace just a little further up the road. Market stalls lined the roads as we made our way through the White River region. It was a hive of activity and colour as dogs ran in every direction and kids dawdled off to school, looking perfectly groomed in their neatly pressed uniforms.
Groups of mamas and their pikininis stood around chatting and catching up on the weekend’s events, while others shuffled about chewing their first betel nut of the day before heading off for another hard day’s work. As we wove our way further west, the tempo switched and became more relaxed, as we passed tiny villages popping out of the lush green jungle and the palm plantations this area is known for. Beautifully crafted huts became less frequent but there were still plenty of people going about their day and we waved as we passed men, women, children and entire families all with somewhere to be.
Our first stop was in the village of Vilu, where we spent some time at the family-run Vilu War Museum. There is no sign, we were told, but we were to look for a white picket fence on the side of the road. As we drove further into the jungle a white picket fence seemed more and more unlikely but sure enough, just around the bend, there it was like an ‘X’ on a treasure map.
The Solomon Islands were a pivotal location during World War II and many ships, planes and tanks lay where they fell all those decades ago. Since those days, Henderson and his family have been collecting wreckage from all over the island and preserving it for future generations to come and pay tribute to those who lost their lives. “My father-in-law was the one who started the collection many years ago,” explains Henderson’s wife. “He has worked hard to transport all the different wreckage here and our family has learnt a lot about the different relics so that we can educate people and share stories of the Solomon Islands during war time.” Twisted, rusting carcasses tell a story of lives cut short and families torn apart as we explore the planes, tanks and weaponry that is dotted throughout the beautifully maintained grounds. In perhaps the starkest of contrasts against the ugliness of war, are the beautiful flowering gingers, heliconias and tropical plants of every style and colour that the family has lovingly planted in honor of the fallen.
As we continue to wander, the rain comes down and we take shelter under a little hut, sitting in quiet reflection as we read words of tribute on various memorial stones by the Australian, Japanese and New Zealand governments. The rain intensifies and we chat to the family about this ‘not so happy time’ in the Hapi Isles, and are amazed by their commitment to preserving these pieces of history and their knowledge on the war years.
Snaking our way towards our destination we continue to go through villages, jungles, coastline and makeshift river crossings. Our children enjoy stopping to share some treats with a group of children who are helping their parents shop, and a little further on we stop in a village to try a cold Solbrew.
The landscape towards the western tip of the mainland continues to change rapidly and what had been thick rainforest gradually opens out to nutrient-rich farmland and rolling green hills. Encased in such natural, green beauty and then encircled by a wild but perfectly aqua-blue ocean, it would be an understatement to say that Vislae is a pretty little place. The tiny village itself is overshadowed by the brightly painted and beautifully cared-for convent known as ‘The Sacred Heart’.
A much loved centrepiece to the village, the convent grounds consist of a school, a community building and medical centre, all of which are fringed by a shady coral beach and lagoon. It is a beautiful place to call home and many of the sisters of the parish who live here are now well into their eighties and nineties, having embarked on this adventurous posting way back when they were only young women. We are told that on Sundays the convent throws open its gates and the sisters of the Sacred Heart enjoy sharing their beautiful home and grounds with visitors and often joining locals and travellers alike for a beachside picnic.
The church building itself has seen its fair share of changes throughout the generations and has needed to be re-built several times since its initial construction back in 1909. An earthquake struck in 1926 taking the locals four years to re-construct and when it finally re-opened in 1930, 2,500 people packed the grounds to celebrate this momentous occasion. Unfortunately, in 1942 the church took the full force of an American bomb during the military action on Guadalcanal. It would not open its doors again until the war was well and truly over. The church that stands today was finished in 1966. With its striking colour scheme, it is a beautiful monument against the backdrop of the velvet green hills and the tropical turquoise lagoon.
In its hay day, Visale was the Solomon Islands’ headquarters for the Marist Catholic Church. The boarding school had over 150 children attending and the church was built to take around 800 worshippers. These days it is a sleepy little place and we could not help but think about the days gone by and the stories those walls could tell.
As afternoon creeps in, we retrace our slow but steady journey back towards the buzz of the capital. The locals wash their cars, dogs and children in the shallow river crossings, the dogs chasing the pikininis, the pikininis chasing the dogs and everyone screaming, splashing and having fun. This stretch of road connecting Honiara to the outer villages is far from a highway, and it is alive with the activity of the people who call this coastline home.
It is a phrase that is often overused on bumper stickers and key rings, but the old adage is certainly true, life is often not about the destination but very much about the journey. As terrible as my crew are at doing road trips, I think we can all agree that our time spent exploring the jungles and villages between Honiara and Visale was a day we will never forget. This part of Guadalcanal doesn’t see a huge volume of visitors, with many tourists flying straight out to Gizo and the Western Province to explore what is under the water. Our time in the Solomon Islands was made all the more memorable by the things we saw, people we met and places we found that were not written about in our guidebook. It became a real life adventure and really, isn’t that what life is all about?
The Village of Visale and the Sacred Heart Convent is approximately a 50-minute drive west of downtown Honiara.
The Vilu World War II museum is open 6 days a week. A small entry fee is payable and includes a guided tour.
Economy Car Rentals in Point Cruz offer 4WDs for hire. Rates start at approximately SBD$191 per day.
Story and photographs by Danielle Diehm and courtesy of Solomon Islands Visitors Bureau.