As if 992 islands weren’t enough in the Solomons, villagers are still ‘building’ more in the Lau Lagoon off the north-east tip of Malaita, where islanders cling to age-old traditions.
Originally forced into the shallow waters of the lagoon by fierce headhunting warfare, the ‘Too i Asi’, or Saltwater People, have in the past 300 years built more than 100 islands, scattered along the 35km length of the lagoon. Using little more than a dugout canoe, villagers have for centuries collected coral rock to build islands upon which to raise their children.
Island building is often a community event, involving the wisdom and supervision of the elders, the bulk labour efforts of the women and the muscle of the young men. But if a villager needs an island built and has the means, he can employ the services of a local man to do the hard work for him. Payment can be made in many forms of currency, from live pigs, dolphin’s teeth and shell money, to the preferred Solomon dollar.
The corners of an island are always built first, followed by the walls, wide at the base and rising eight feet to clear the highest spring tides. Rocks are then tossed into the centre and brittle branch coral will be crushed to fill in the gaps. It is long, back-breaking work. There is no machinery used, and the artificial islands have only ever been built by human toil. The tools of the trade are a long metal bar, a diving mask and, most significantly, plenty of muscle.
These amazing islands vary in size from the largest island of Sulufou, which has taken over 300 years to reach its present proportions of 1km2 with a population of over 1000 people, to dozens of scattered islands supporting three or four generations. As the families grow, so too will the islands.
Most islands are built no more than a few hundred metres from the mainland, and are free of malarial mosquitoes that plague the coast. In this space between the Saltwater People’s water world and the humid confines of the coast, there is always a constant stream of activity and traffic. Young schoolgirls wade through the high tide, books held high above their heads, a boy heads off in his dugout to collect firewood on the mainland, locals fish in the shallow waters and islanders return from their gardens laden with taro, sweet potatoes, yams and cassava.
Darkness begins to fall on the artificial islands of the Lau Lagoon. Under the warm glow of kerosene lanterns villagers relax on their verandas chewing betel nut and smoking tobacco. As the moon casts a trail of silvery light, the dozens of islands that sprawl out to the horizon appear suspended, like stepping stones across the reflected heavens.
There are flights from Brisbane with Solomon Airlines. The island of Malaita, east of the Guadalcanal, is accessed from the capital Honiara by daily flights to Auki.
Transport around the island consists of a seat on the floor of an open bed truck or motorised canoes along the coast. Getting to the Lau Lagoon requires finding a truck (usually leaving the Auki market) going to Sulione or Foula where the road ends.
Only resorts and major motels in the capital cater for tourists while rest houses, guest houses and small hotels located in provincial capitals cater for locals, missionaries and government officials, but accept travellers. In remote areas where no accommodation is available, it is often possible to stay in the village visitors’ hut. Always ask to see the chief first to ask his permission to stay.