Melanesia − Winter 2018

You've heard of Polynesia and Micronesia, right? But where the heck is Melanesia? Click the map below to zoom in for more detail:

This is a part of the world that I've never visited and that I know almost nothing about. So, before coming here, I've learned a few things that make this remote region special, unique and worth seeing:

  • Melanesia may have been first inhabited as much as 40,000 years ago when there was a land bridge from southeastern Asia to Australia.
  • Melanesians are not related to Polynesians or Micronesians. Their DNA suggests a third archaic Homo species along with Denisovans and Neanderthals.
  • Although Melanesians are dark-skinned, some of them have naturally blond hair.
  • By one count, there are 1,319 languages in Melanesia, which works out to be one language for every 716 km2. This is the densest concentration of languages in the world. (I'm hoping to learn just one of these languages: Indonesian.)
  • From photos, I know that these islands are fabulously beautiful with lush rain forests, rare flora and fauna, turquoise tropical water, and a few smoking volcanoes.
  • The sailing, snorkeling and scuba diving are world class.

Sound interesting? Let's go!

Bali & Flores − 17 February 2018

Indonesia is the gateway to Melanesia, and it's one of my favorite countries. It's colorful, exotic and friendly. There are hundreds of different cultures, languages and ethnic groups in this vast archipelago. (I like that word.) It's also warm all year round.

My journey begins in Bali, which is full of beaches, temples and monkeys. Bali is a Hindu island smack-dab in the middle of the world's largest Islamic country. Yet Bali is full of gods and goddesses. Pork and Bintang beer are on the menu. This says a lot about the accepting, inclusive attitudes of this country.

Bali is easy to get to. One third of the 10 million tourists who visit Indonesia every year go to Bali. Whether you're coming from Bangkok or San Francisco, there are inexpensive, direct flights to Bali.

Monkeys at Uluwatu Temple in Bali

Dan, me and Mikka in Bali
So, I invited my two children, Dan and Mikka, to meet me in Bali.

For most of the past 10 years, I've traveled alone. But this trip begins with a family adventure. The three of us share a common interest in scuba diving. Dan and Mikka earned their PADI Open Water certifications in 2004 on the island of Roatan just off the coast of Honduras. We've also taken dive trips together to Australia and New Zealand.

Dan and Mikka know that if I'm somewhere in the world that they want to visit, all they have to do is send me an email and I'll send them an airplane ticket to come see me. Although 20-somethings don't generally want to spend their vacations with their parents, I figured that a scuba diving adventure in Indonesia would be an attractive incentive to meet me. I didn't have to twist their arms too hard.

From Bali, we flew about 500 kilometers east to the island of Flores. In all, we were a group of four with Mikka's boyfriend, Adam, joining us.

Our destination was the harbor of Labuan Bajo. Uber Scuba Komodo arranged for us to dive 3 times a day for 3 days. This is a friendly, professional, and well-run dive shop. I'd dive with them again anytime.

Diving in Flores is fun and challenging because of "drift diving." As the tides ebb and flow between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, scuba divers get carried along with the currents. There's no stopping. All you have to do is maintain neutral buoyancy as the corals and fishes go zipping by. Wheee!

The biggest excitement was seeing mantas close up. These enormous creatures (with wingspans up to 4 meters) flock together at "cleaning stations" where small fish nibble parasites off their bodies. On one of our dives, we were treated to 23 of these playful and graceful monsters.

Me, Mikka, Adam and Dan ready for another dive

Wreck diving in Thailand, before coming to Indonesia
It'd been a few years since my last dive. So, before coming to Indonesia, I did some refresher dives in southern Thailand, which is another nice place to dive.
Waiting for the mantas at a "cleaning station"

Being observed by a manta (photo by Markus Nork)
To observe mantas, empty your BCD and lie quietly on the ocean floor near a "cleaning station."

Mantas are curious creatures. They'll come to look at you!

Click on this image to watch mantas swim (video by Nassib Sawaya)

Happy divers after a day with the mantas
Diving is one of those sports where participants gather at the end of a good day to share stories and observations. The little port town of Lubuan Bajo is full of bars and restaurants perfect for these sorts of gatherings.

This is also a good time to exchange photos and videos. I don't have an underwater camera ... yet. Much thanks to my fellow divers who provided the photos and video posted above.

If you ever visit Lubuan Bajo, I can recommend the Green Hill Hotel. It's centrally located and has a spacious bar/restaurant with a stunning view over the harbor.

One of the reasons we chose Labuan Bajo for our diving adventure was for the added attraction of being near Komodo National Park. There are four islands here where the infamous Komodo dragons live. This is not a zoo. The dragons aren't in cages. They range free throughout the jungles on four protected islands.

A Komodo dragon pretending to be asleep
On Rinca Island, a guide − with a big forked stick − escorted us to where the dragons could be found.

Watch out and don't get bitten! These monsters feast on buffalo. It takes about a week for the virulent bacteria in the dragon's mouth to weaken the prey to the point that the buffalo can be eaten alive.

Along with the mountain gorillas of Africa, Komodo dragons are some of the wild and strange creatures that I've always wanted to see.

The dragon awakes! Animation by Dan Stifler
After our excellent adventures, Dan, Mikka and Adam flew back to San Francisco for work. As for me, my job as a "wandering scholar" will continue. From here, I'll head further east into Melanesia.

Timor Leste (East Timor) − 27 February 2018

The second stop on my journey towards Melanesia is the little country of Timor Leste. Before coming here, all I knew about this place was its long and bloody war of independence from Indonesia. For 27 years, the only news from here was of guerilla warfare and brutal massacres. One third of the East Timorese died in the war. Consequently, I was mildly anxious about coming here.

When the war ended in 2002, Timor Leste became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century. Today, it's a safe and beautiful country. The people are friendly and inviting. The capital city, Dili, is bursting with new businesses. Timor Leste is a fresh, new country worth visiting.

To get to Dili, I flew from Kupang, which is at the west (Indonesian) end of the island of Timor. Kupang, by the way, is where Captain Bligh drifted after 47 days at sea following the emasculating incident on the Bounty. It's much quicker to get to Timor today. There are flights to Dili from Bali, Singapore and Darwin.

Tourists haven't discovered Timor Leste yet. Not having too many tourists is a blessing. In Labuan Bajo, there were sometimes 10 dive boats crowded around the same dive site. During the three days I spent scuba diving in and around Dili, the only dive boat I saw was mine.

Timor Leste is a mostly Catholic country.
Timor Leste has a different vibe from Indonesia.

Being a former colony of Portugal, many people still speak Portuguese.

Christianity is the primary religion.

Timor Leste's territory is divided into two pieces. The port where Portugal first settled in 1556 is an enclave called Oecussi.

Timor Leste uses the US dollar as its currency.

Fish is on the menu in Kupang's night market
The island of Timor consists of beautiful beaches, impenetrable jungles and steep mountains. The roads are narrow, winding, and sometimes unpaved. Boats and ferries are available along the coast. Planes are the fastest and easiest way to travel. The passenger terminal in Oecussi was the smallest airport terminal I've ever seen. It serves the Twin Otter which flies down from Dili six times a week.

The plane that flies between Dili and Oecussi

The passenger terminal in Oecussi

The beach in Oecussi

A beach in Dili
With almost no tourists, the beaches are clean and never crowded. The water is wonderfully clear. The reefs are untouched.

Another beautiful beach in Dili

Inflating an SMB (Surface Marker Buoy)
So why come to Timor Leste? One of the best reasons is to go scuba diving. I came here to take a 3-day Advanced PADI scuba diving course in which I learned and practiced several new skills such as ...
  • Underwater navigation
  • Deep diving
  • Fish identification
  • Drift diving
  • Night diving
The dive shop that I used was Dive Timor Lorosae. It's a professional, well-run and friendly dive shop. It was a fun place to take a dive course. Highly recommended.

With my Advanced certification, I'm ready for my next adventure.

My Advanced Diver e-card

Raja Ampat − 11 March 2018

I'm turning into a fish. In my dive log, I count 39 Scuba dives in 3 countries in the past month. That's a lot of diving. I feel as though I've spent as much time under the water as out of the water. I'm starting to get good at this sport ... and I'm loving it.

Indonesia is full of world famous dive sites. The tides draw the waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans back and forth through straits between islands. This brings nutrients, plankton and big fish into the area. The water is relatively cool: 29°C (84°F) which makes for very comfortable diving. The water is cooler than the air temperature in the afternoons. Unlike Thailand, the reefs are healthy because they haven't been bleached by warm water. Indonesia's national parks and conservation areas have put a stop to dynamite and cyanide fishing.

The Mari, my home and diving platform for one fabulous and unforgettable week
For $2200, I splurged and booked a week on a liveaboard: Mari Dive Cruise provides a full-service and comfortable way to visit the underwater marvels of the archipelago known as Raja Ampat.

I was joined by five other divers. We did four dives per day. By the end of the trip, we were all good friends.

Our dive boat

Bennie and Ungke, our divemaster guides

Vast schools of fish *

A Scorpion Fish − don't touch it!!! *

Click the photo to watch the video *

I travel light and don't carry my own Scuba diving gear. The Mari provided all the dive equipment I needed.

Ungke and Bennie, our divemasters, were with us on every dive. They knew the reefs, the currents, the flora and the fauna. They made sure that we safely saw all the wonders that are under the seas.

In addition to our two divemasters, the Indonesian crew did an excellent job taking care of ancillary details like prepping the equipment, loading the dive boat, driving the dive boat, helping us into our BCDs, cleaning equipment, and providing snacks or meals at the end of every dive.

I was also impressed by Holger, the skipper and boat owner, who ensured with his German precision that everything happened on schedule exactly as planned.

It was really amazing to spend hours swimming through one of our planet's few remaining and unspoiled marine environments.

Here are just a few photos and videos taken by my fellow divers. Click on any photo to zoom in, or to see the video link.

The mantas were particularly impressive. I'd seen many mantas in Komodo National Park near Labuan Bajo. But here in Raja Ampat, I was close enough to these huge, graceful creatures to feel their "wings" brush across my head.

I should add that Raja Ampat isn't a dive site for novice divers. The biggest challenges to deal with here are tidal currents. Almost every one of our dives was a "drift dive" in which currents carry you along past all the corals and fish. If you wish to stop and take a look at what's around you, you must drop a hook to anchor yourself.

* Photos courtesy of Claude Ghibaudo

Our gang going ashore

A Clown Fish ... I found Nemo! *

A Hawksbill turtle looking for a snack *

Click the photo to see the octopus change color *

Hooked onto the reef in a strong current

Click the photo to see the mantas swim *
Above water, Raja Ampat is also an extraordinarily beautiful place. The islands are made of limestone. Millions of years of erosion produced a Karst topography which has been flooded by rising seas. The resulting seascapes are stunning.

Our dive team at the viewpoint on Palau Penemu

The famous view from the top of Palau Penemu

A rustic beach bungalow

Beautiful scenery day and night
I ended my time in Raja Ampat with a few days in a rustic hut on the island of Kri. For $30/day, I had a place to sleep, fresh water, three meals a day ... and cold beer! Snorkeling on the nearby reef was free, which brought the average daily cost of my two weeks in Raja Ampat back within budget. Yay!

I continue to be amazed by what a beautiful planet we live on. I'm thankful for having the opportunity to see it.

Inter-village "puddle jumper" in Papua

Papua − 21 March 2018

There aren't many roads in Papua. When the monsoons come, the paved roads get washed away and the unpaved roads turn into muddy rivers. So, travel in this wet wilderness is limited to two options: Boats and airplanes. For the three places I wanted to go in Papua, planes were my best option. Conveniently, there are lots of "puddle-jumpers." The flights are not expensive. Tickets are sold at airports like bus tickets. Locals check their larger bundles and board the plane with their hand-woven tote bags.

Destination #1 was the town of Nabire on Cenderawasih Bay. According to Nomad Expeditions, this is the best place on our planet to swim with whale sharks. This big, calm bay on the north coast of the New Guinea is the size of Lake Michigan. It's a breeding ground for whale sharks. If you want to see a whale shark, Cenderawasih Bay is the place to go.

An island in Cenderawasih Bay, West Papua
Even without whale sharks, Cenderawasih Bay is a remarkable place. There are beautiful islands.

The warm, clear water is teeming with fish. The fish attract fishermen and whale sharks.

A floating fishing platform, called a bagan

Yours truly snorkeling with a 7-meter whale shark
Cenderawasih fishermen fish with nets from their bagans. The whale sharks like to dine on the small fish that escape from the nets. On any given day, there are dozens of bagans busy filling their nets with fish.

To see a whale shark, all you have to do is hire someone with a motorboat to take you out to visit the bagans.

Scuba gear is not needed. The whale sharks are near the surface. A mask and a snorkel are all you need.

That's me inches away from its mouth.
So, what's it like to swim with a 7-meter whale shark? It's scary. It gave me goose bumps to feel the water surge back and forth as this powerful animal casually flicked its tail. Even though whale sharks have no teeth, their mouths are large enough to swallow a person. When this one opened its mouth to inhale plankton and small fish, I could feel my body being sucked towards its throat. I held onto the bagan's net with both hands to avoid ending up like Jonah.

In other places like the Caribbean, the Maldives or the Great Barrier Reef, you'd be lucky to spend 2 minutes with a whale shark as it swims by. My group enjoyed two full hours of snorkeling in the presence of an adult and a juvenile whale shark as they circled underneath the bagan. Seeing whale sharks close up was an unforgettable experience. It's been on my bucket list for a long time.

Dani women carrying their shopping in Baliem Valley
Destination #2: Baliem Valley in the high mountains of central Papua. This is the home of the Dani people who were not known to the western world until they were accidentally discovered in 1938.
Farmers market in Wamena, Papua highlands
Since 1938, Dani life has changed superficially, with stone axes being replaced by mobile phones and animist belief systems with Christianity. In general, these changes are only skin deep. The Dani have adopted western dress styles. Women cover their breasts. Only a few old men come into town for the day wearing penis gourds.

Still, most of the Dani live very close to nature, tending their vegetable plots and pigs. They live in circular thatched huts called honai. There are few roads, just footpaths through the mountains. The raging rivers are crossed on hanging footbridges held together by natural twine.

The Baliem Valley and surrounding highlands are one of the world’s last non-western traditional regions. Coming here felt like being part of a National Geographic documentary.

Traditional Dani honai in Jiwika village

Dani tribesmen displaying their 300-year-old mummy
The villagers have learned the commercial value of their traditions. For about $20, they'll dress up in their traditional garb and display their 300-year-old mummy for the tourists.

If you look closely at their costumes, you might see a cell phone or a wallet tucked into their waist bands.

Penis gourds for sale

Exotic, endemic flora at Lake Habbema (elevation 3400m)

My naturalist hiking companions
On both sides of the Baliem Valley are high mountains. I lucked into joining a group of doctors for a naturalist expedition up to the foot of Gunung Trikora (elevation 4750m). We spent a day hiking through the alpine grasslands beside Lake Habbema, looking at birds and flowers. These doctors knew a lot more about Papua's flora and fauna than I did. It was refreshing to be cold so close to the equator.

A rusted tank from World War II on the beach at Jayapura

A lake house on stilts
Destination #3: Jayapura, the capital and largest city of Indonesia's Papua province. I had to come here to get my visa for Papua New Guinea, my next destination.

Jayapura has some famous World War II history. In 1944, 80,000 allied troops landed here to dislodge the Japanese in the largest amphibious operation of WWII in the southwestern Pacific. Later, this port was General MacArthur's headquarters until he moved to the Philippines in 1945. Today, there are a few rusted tanks remaining on the beach to remind us of these events.

I travel with almost no luggage. One of the benefits of traveling light is that my shirts and pants get worn out quickly. This gives me the excuse to go shopping. Yesterday, I bought a locally made shirt that's perfect for this hot, humid climate. I'm now dressed like all the other gentlemen in Jayapura. If I'm lucky, this comfortable shirt will last for the duration of this trip, and I'll come home with a shirt that I could never have found at an American mall.

Today is my last day in Indonesia, which is still one of my all-time favorite countries. If all goes well, I'll do a land crossing this afternoon into Papua New Guinea where I'll start my next adventure.

My new shirt

Papua New Guinea− 28 March 2018

New Guinea is the second largest island in the world, after Greenland. The western half belongs to Indonesia. The eastern half and the Bismarck Archipelago belong to Papua New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea (aka PNG) is not a well-known or heavily-touristed country. That's fine with me. It's fun to go to places that few people know about.

Getting into PNG isn't difficult. If you fly into Port Moresby, PNG's capital, you get a free 60-day visa on arrival just by filling out a form. For me, it was more complicated because I wanted to walk into PNG from Indonesia. For my visa, I had to write a letter to the consulate in Jayapura explaining why I wanted to visit this country. Then, I had to wait 3 days ... perhaps so that someone might take the time to read my letter.

It was worth the wait. PNG is wonderful.

Morning on a deserted beach near Vanimo

A "road" through a jungle full of flowers, birds and other wildlife
As I walked across the Indonesian border heading towards the fishing village of Vanimo, the pavement ended. This was my first indication that PNG is less-tamed than Indonesia. Outside of Port Moresby, there's not much modern infrastructure in PNG. The Vanimo airport terminal is a one room building with wooden tables and a fruit stand. Over the next week, Air Niugini delayed, rescheduled or canceled about half of my flights due to equipment problems. Air conditioning, internet, and 24-hour electricity were expensive luxuries, which I generally did without.

Meanwhile, nature is everywhere, and everyone lives close to nature. Except for cell phones, pickup trucks, plastic bags and churches, Papuans are living almost the same way that they've lived for the past 40,000 years.

A beach house on stilts

A tidy little native village
The Papuans are friendly. Everywhere I went, people said hello and wanted to shake my hand. They invited me into their villages. When I walked on a road, I was always offered a lift − often for free.

I read that PNG has social problems related to high unemployment and drug usage. Corruption of public servants is also a concern. The crime rate in Port Moresby is among the highest in the world. Other risks include drunk drivers, poorly maintained vehicles, rock throwing, over-crowded transportation and bad traffic. These problems are concentrated in Port Moresby. I stayed in small towns, passing through Port Moresby only to change planes. So, I didn't see any of these problems.

I also heard that cannibalism still exists in the mountain highlands. No worries. I kept to the coastal areas.

A tranquil beach near Vanimo at sundown

Fresh coconut donuts

School boys at the beach

Betel nut and mustard sticks for sale everywhere
Although there are 852 known languages in PNG, the common language is pidgin English which makes it fairly easy to be understood and to get around. When I went for walks, children followed me through the villages. I gave them ballpoint pens. They gave me smiles. Between villages, I took public transit, which consists of a pickup truck or a minivan. These are called PMVs (public motor vehicles). PMVs go everywhere, fast and cheap.

Everyone in PNG seems to be chewing betel nut. Most adults have bright red mouths and stained teeth. Chewing betel nut is not particularly healthy, but then neither are the world's other popular psychoactive substances: Nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine.

With limited time, I had to pick one place in PNG that I was most interested in. So, I went by air to the northeast end of New Britain Island, in the remote Bismarck Archipelago. Here is the ruined city of Rabaul. During World War II, Japan made Rabaul their military headquarters in the South Pacific. More than 100,000 Japanese troops were stationed here. After the war, Rabaul blossomed into a prosperous trading and shipping center ... until 1994. That's when the volcano next to the city erupted and buried the city under volcanic ash. Today, Rabaul is an historic ghost town. People come here to see Japanese tanks, supply barges, submarines and aircraft which are in the jungles and in the sea around Rabaul. This makes for great wreck diving.

Japanese anti-aircraft gun

Rabaul's Simpson Harbor, with Mt.Tavurvur in the distance
Mt.Tavurvur is the active volcano which guards the entrance of Simpson Harbor. I climbed it in the hot sun, while trying to stay upwind of the hot gases. Although the volcano hasn't erupted for 10 years, it still smokes and belches sulfur fumes. At its base are hot springs which pour scalding water into the sea. I had hoped for a cool swim after my climb, but swimming near the volcano is like taking a bath − in hot saltwater.

Hot springs at the foot of Mt.Tavurvur

The smoking crater of Mt.Tavurvur
Although it's a bit of a ghost town, Rabaul is an exciting place geologically. Every day that I was in Rabaul, there was an earthquake of magnitude 5.0 or greater. The seismologists at the Volcanology Observatory have plenty to keep them busy.

Teams of international scientists monitor the five volcanoes around Rabaul. Modern instrumentation allows them to estimate the size and movement of the magma plume underneath the harbor. At this point, there's no prediction as to when or where the next eruption will occur − except to say that it will happen.

In Rabaul, there's a welcoming hotel within walking distance of the hot springs and the volcano: The Rabaul Hotel. This hotel is one of the few structures in Rabaul built before 1994 that's still standing. In 1994, while the rest of Rabaul was being crushed by tons of volcanic ash falling from the sky, the staff of the Rabaul Hotel worked round the clock sweeping ash off the roofs during the eruption. One wonders if perhaps the rest of the city could have been saved by similar efforts.

Seismologists at the Volcano Observatory

The view across Ataliklikun Bay from the Kabaira Beach Hideaway
After my blistering hike up the volcano, I retreated to a cool and relaxing place on the other side of the hill from Rabaul. It's the Kabaira Beach Hideaway.

This lodge is run by a family that's been on the island for generations. The staff provides first class service and delicious home cooking in a gorgeous setting. The bungalows and the guest rooms are right on the beach. I'll come back here some day and stay for a few weeks.

The clear, tropical waters in the Rabaul region are famous for snorkeling and diving. Because Rabaul gets so few tourists, the reefs are untouched and unspoiled.

The Ataliklikun Bay has calm water, no currents and great visibility.

The Kabaira Beach Hideaway has a private reef with stunning hard and soft corals, schools of tropical fish, and irridescent blue starfish. Kayaks are available for when you want a break from being under water.

Kabaira Beach's reef and its crystal clear waters. Can you spot the blue starfish?

Local boys swimming on the reef
The only people you'll see on the reefs are the local fishermen and their children. They seem to be having a wonderful time living by and in the sea.

Port Moresby may not be an attractive place to visit, but what I saw of PNG fits my image of a South Pacific paradise.

With only a week, I saw very little of Papua New Guinea. There is much, much more to see in this exotic, multi-cultural country.

Next stop, the Solomon Islands.

Solomon Islands− 2 April 2018

The first Europeans to visit these islands were Spanish explorers in 1568. Anticipating riches of biblical proportions, the Spanish named these islands the Islas Salomón. When they didn't find gold, the Spanish sailed away.

The Spanish returned 30 years later with plans to colonize the Solomons. Apparently, the Solomon Islanders remembered that the Spanish had stolen food and desecrated sacred sites on their previous visit. On this second visit, the Solomon Islanders killed some of the Spanish sailors − and ate them.

The Solomon Islands' reputation as an unfriendly place persisted into the 20th century. When Jack London sailed from San Francisco to the Solomons in 1908, his logbook describes his captain's beheading by cannibals.

The Solomon Islands had very few visitors ... until the Japanese decided in 1942 to build an airfield on the island of Guadalcanal.

People came to these islands a long time ago
After living on these islands in quiet isolation for 29,000 years, the Solomon Islanders must've been shocked when thousands of Japanese soldiers arrived unannounced in June 1942. Then, just two months later, in August 1942, the U.S. Marines, Army, Navy and Coast Guard landed.

The Battle of Guadalcanal lasted six months. In all, about 100,000 ground troops were involved − which was about four times the native population of the island at that time.

Overnight, the Solomon Islanders went from being cannibals to working as guides and radio operators, assisting the Americans in finding trails through the jungles, and as Coastwatchers reporting on the movements of Japanese ships, planes and ground troops. When the Japanese sank John F. Kennedy's PT-109 patrol boat, the Solomon Islanders rescued Lt. Kennedy and his crew.

Sometimes, the only way to really know a place is to learn its history. I learned a lot of history on Guadalcanal.

The Battle of Guadalcanal was a decisive victory for the Allies, and a costly defeat for the Japanese. The Japanese lost dozens of ships, hundreds of airplanes, most of their elite naval aviators, and about 2/3 of the 30,000 troops on the island.

Guadalcanal was the first land battle between America and Japan. The Allies' victory preserved shipping lanes between the US and Australia, and reversed the Japanese advance across the Pacific.

Looking down on Guadalcanal's beautiful green hills, it's hard to imagine that this island was the scene of incredible carnage.

Guadalcanal's primary battlefield, viewed from a Japanese observation post on Mt.Austen.
Bloody Ridge, Henderson Field and Iron Bottom Sound are in the distance.

My Aussie diving buddies, Kris and Alec
There are few signs of the battle on the surface. The tanks, guns and cargo have all been salvaged, recycled or put into museums. Fields have been turned back into coconut plantations, banana orchards and rice fields.

If you want to see war relics, you have to go under water in the channel north of Guadalcanal. I wanted to see some of these World War II relics. So, I found two fellow scuba diving enthusiasts to share a boat with me for a couple of days.

In the cockpit of a sunken B-17
With more than 200 ships and 1000 airplanes sitting on the bottom of the sea, the channel has been named "Iron Bottom Sound." It's probably the world's best place for wreck diving. We saw ...
  • A Japanese submarine
  • A B-17 Flying Fortress
  • An American seaplane (the PBY Catalina)
The I-1 Japanese submarine is famous because the US Navy extracted from it the cyphers with which Japan encoded their military communications. With these codes, the Americans were able to shoot down General Yamamoto's plane a few weeks later.

The I-1 Japanese submarine
We also explored two vertical lava tubes that are part of an extinct volcano that rises in the middle of Iron Bottom Sound. Very cool!

Diving the lava tubes was breathtaking. The tube walls were lined with corals and sea fans. Fish were swimming in all directions. Large lobsters were on the walls. A reef shark was waiting for us on exit.

Descending into the first lava tube

As I was doing these exciting dives, I was thinking to myself "this is why I got my Advanced diving certification!"

Twin volcanic tunnels

2003: The end of gun violence in the Solomon Islands
In recent years, life in beautiful Guadalcanal has not been peaceful.

Starting in 1998, there were six years of ethnic violence between local residents and settlers from other islands. With ineffective police, lawlessness, corruption and extortion, the Solomons appeared to be a failed state. In 2003, Australia and New Zealand intervened with 2,200 troops. They negotiated a peace agreement, and collected and destroyed more than 3700 guns, including police weapons and licensed firearms. Today, the Solomon Islands has one of the lowest rates of gun-related violence in the world.

This wasn't the end of troubles in Guadalcanal. In 2006, resentment against the minority Chinese business community led to rioting and arson in Chinatown. Hundreds of Chinese were evacuated by chartered aircraft back to China.

Then, in 2007 and 2013, the Solomon Islands experienced deadly magnitude 8+ earthquakes with accompanying tsunamis.

There were minor earthquakes almost every day that I was in the Solomons.

Today, Americans are well-received in the Solomons. I enjoyed a happy week on Guadalcanal. Instead of worrying about being eaten, I was counting calories. The food was good. I ate a lot of fish. The beer was cold.

As with the other Melanesian countries I've visited, the Solomon Islanders are friendly and welcoming. I used public transit − which consists of minivans packed with shoppers going between villages and markets. I had no trouble getting good service and finding what I needed. As a tourist in the capital city of Honiara, I felt safe and was treated well everywhere I went ... and always with a smile.

If you want to come diving here, I can recommend Tulagi Dive. Troy Shelley, the dive master, runs a professional shop. Buy him a beer at the end of the day and he'll entertain you with his own scintillating war stories.

From here, I'll continue island-hopping across the South Pacific to see more of Melanesia. My next stop is the island nation of Vanuatu.

Fresh fish at Honiara's Central Market

Island hopping across the South Pacific − 9 April 2018

East and south of New Guinea are hundreds of islands, spread out over an area that's almost as large as Australia. It would be a fantastic adventure to sail to every one of these islands, to anchor inside every lagoon, and to meet the people who live there. But, that would take years. In the interest of time, I traveled by air, hopping down this chain of emerald isles.

Distance and isolation have led to each island evolving its own culture. In the 18th and 19th centuries, European colonization re-shaped each island's economy and demographics. Then, World War II brought changes that affected some of these islands dramatically. Today, it's no surprise to find that each island is unique.


From the Solomon Islands, I hopped to Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu.

Vanuatu consists of 83 frangipani-scented islands. Thatched roof villages are nestled under palm trees beside turquoise lagoons ringed by golden beaches. The reefs are full of tropical fish and turtles. The menu features fresh fish cooked in coconut milk.

Yet, all is not perfect in this South Pacific paradise. Vanuatu sits on the leading edge of the Pacific Plate, on top of a subduction zone. There are nine active volcanoes. Port Vila is the world's most exposed capital to natural disasters. Cyclones, earthquakes, volcanic activity, and tsunamis strike regularly. In 2015, Cyclone Pam wiped out 95% of Vanuatu's homes, along with vital crops and plantations. When I arrived here, there were still broken boats beached on the shoreline.

Until its independence in 1980, Vanuatu was known as the New Hebrides Islands, a territory claimed by both France and England. The New Hebrides were governed by an unusual Anglo-French system in which there were two health services, two education systems, two currencies, two police forces, and two prison systems. Overseas visitors had to opt for either British or French authority. British law was stricter, but the British jails were considered more humane. The French jails were very uncomfortable, but the food was better. The English population drove on the left-hand-side of the road, while the French population drove on the right. And yes, this caused a bit of a problem. When France fell during World War II, the French side of the government was technically at war with the British half. Flag of the New Hebrides
In Port Vila, I lucked into an AirBnB apartment upstairs from Vanuatu's best dive shop. Nautilus Watersports offers wreck and reef diving, as well as deep-sea fishing.

From my balcony, I had a stunning view of Port Vila's harbor. In the mornings, I could practically roll out of bed onto the dive boat.

The harbor in Port Vila, Vanuatu

A woman with her dinner
Vanuatans are friendly. They speak a mix of pidgin French and English.

Every island in Vanuatu has its own language, culture, masks, dances and rituals. If you had a few months to spend here, you might be able to visit them all, see wonderful scenery, bargain for shell jewelry, attend a few festivals, and paddle an outrigger canoe. With only a few days, I had to be satisfied with the collection of traditional artifacts at the Vanuatu National Museum in Port Vila.

Tamtams (slit drums)
Ceremonial festival mask
Vanuatu has some unusual beliefs and rituals.

Yam cultivation is at the center of the village culture. Yam farming determines the cycle of the year. Months are named after yams.

One of the highlights of the Yam Festival on Pentecost Island is land diving (Nahgol or N'Gol). Men make spectacular leaps from high towers as a gift to the gods to ensure a bountiful yam harvest. The ropes are made of liana vines tied around the ankles. There is no safety equipment. For a land dive to be successful, the man's hair must touch the soil to fertilize the yam crop.

It's said that Vanuatu is where the worldwide phenomenon of bungee jumping originated.

Land divers − the original bungee jumpers
One of Vanuatu's officially recognized religions is the Cargo Cult of Tanna Island. In the 19th century, Melanesians had occasional contact with more advanced societies who brought with them "divine gifts."

The Cargo Cult got a huge boost in World War II. Anticipating a Japanese invasion, the Americans arrived in 1942, bringing with them supplies for thousands of troops. With Japan’s defeat in 1945, the Americans withdrew, abandoning huge quantities of cargo.

The religious figurehead of this cult is an American soldier named John Frum. ("John Frum" is a corruption of "John from America.") February 15 is John Frum Day in Vanuatu. The John Frum movement has its own political party.

Today, followers of John Frum perform various rituals to encourage American airplanes to bring more "cargo." They build symbolic landing strips, march in parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles, carve headphones and wear them while sitting in fabricated control towers, light signal fires to light up runways and lighthouses, and build life-size replicas of airplanes out of straw.

A John Frum airplane, made of thatch and bamboo

New Caledonia

New Caledonia is a French territory − but perhaps not for much longer. The native Melanesians, who call themselves Kanaks, have been protesting and fighting for their independence ever since the French started taking away their tribal lands 150 years ago, and forcing the Kanaks onto reservations in the mountains. The French introduced the Kanaks to the guillotine in 1867.

On November 4, 2018, there will be a referendum to become an independent nation. If a majority of the people vote for independence, New Caledonia will be our planet's next new country, named Kanaky. If they vote no − as most of the city-dwellers hope they will − then New Caledonia will continue to have its roads, schools, postal services and security paid for by France.

In either case, someone will benefit from the fact that this island has 25% of the world's nickel deposits and a thriving tourist economy.

European architecture in the capital city of Noumea

Gardens, statues and fountains in Place des Cocotiers

Girl selling fish at the market
Coming from primitive Vanuatu, I was amazed to arrive someplace with multi-story buildings, 4-lane highways, 24-hour electricity, and fast wifi.

The capital city, Noumea, has a sophisticated European air. There are sidewalk cafes, a cathedral on the hill, a waterfront filled with million-dollar yachts, a central city plaza with statues, fountains and benches, gourmet food beneath palm trees, and beautiful beaches lined with resorts and bungalows.

The urban population is a multi-national mix of Asians, Europeans and Melanesians. All the signs are in French. About half the people speak English as well.

Like Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, there's a lot of World War II history here. Between 1942 and 1945, more than one million Allied soldiers − mostly Americans − passed through Noumea.

Gentlemen wiling away the afternoon in the park

St.Joseph's Cathedral and Jean d'Arc

A Kanak chief's house
I learned about the Kanak culture at the beautiful and iconic Tjibaou Cultural Centre.

The Kanaks are a mix of the ancient Melanesian settlers and the seafaring Polynesians. They worship their ancestors. They have rich traditions of fishing, wood carving, drumming and dancing.

In Kanak villages, life centers around the grande case, the chief's hut. The roof is designed to allow smoke to go up and to keep out the heavy rains. Fierce warriors guard the entrance.

Today, Kanaks are a marginalized segment of New Caledonia's population. They comprise 39% of the island's population, but are a majority of the prison population. Will they get their independence in November? This is a big question in New Caledonia.

Warriors guarding the chief's house


My last stop in Melanesia was Fiji. From its flag, it's easy to see that this was a former British colony. Fiji is a thriving, independent nation. If paved roads, good schools, clean drinking water, and direct flights to LA are an indication of success, Fiji is the most modern and successful country in Melanesia.

Fiji's success has a lot to do with a well-established tourist industry and plenty of foreign investment. I saw more tourists in Fiji than I've seen anywhere in the past two months except for Bali. Many expats come here from Australia and New Zealand to start businesses, build homes, and eventually retire.

Fiji enjoyed lots of media attention in recent years. Tom Hank's Cast Away and the 1980 classic The Blue Lagoon were filmed here. Fiji won its first ever gold medal in Rugby Sevens in Rio in 2016.

I came to Fiji for one thing: To go shark diving. Many shark species are endangered. The Chinese eat a lot of shark fin soup. Often sharks are caught, their fins cut off, and then dropped back into the sea to die. Some shark populations have declined over 90% in the past 40 years.

On Fiji's south coast, Beqa Adventure Divers has created a shark conservation program. For $200, you dive twice to a depth of about 20 meters to watch shark handlers feed tuna heads to bull sharks and reef sharks. Part of your dive fee goes to the local villagers who have agreed not to hunt sharks or to fish in their habitat.

Click the photo to see the video

Surrounded by playful bull sharks, average length ~3 meters
By turning a shark habitat into a commercial operation, the organizers make enough money to pay the local fishermen not to fish in this channel, to patrol the area to keep international shark hunters out, and to support research on shark biology and behavior. This is not unlike how the mountain gorillas in Uganda or the elephants of Kenya are protected. It's enough of a money-making tourist attraction that the community at large supports it. Naturally, the animals become somewhat habituated to humans, but at least they're alive. Thanks to this program, Fiji's shark population is growing.

On the morning that I was there, I was in a group of about 15 divers. Our group crouched or lay down on the sandy bottom. I counted 24 adult bull sharks, plus a few dozen reef sharks. Some of the sharks were close enough that their fins and tails brushed my head as they swam over me. Wow!

School boys enjoying their assigned reading
Fiji’s greeting "Bula" is more than just "Hi." It literally translates as "Life" − an apt salutation from a spirited people who seem to live theirs to the fullest.

The children are especially friendly. It must be wonderful to grow up in a world where it's always summer and the beach is a 10-minute walk away.

The cyclone that cut my visit to Fiji short
I would like to have stayed in Fiji a little longer. But March and April are cyclone season in the southern hemisphere.

Instead of hunkering down for a few days of torrential rains until the cyclone blew over and the airport could be reopened, I opted to fly out before cyclone Keni hit Fiji.

Melanesian fishermen throwing their nets
From Fiji, it's a 10-hour flight across 4 time zones to Singapore. From there, I flew 2 more hours across 1 more time zone to get to Bangkok. This is a good measure of how big Melanesia is and how far I've traveled in the past two months.

Now, I'll spend a month "at home" in Thailand checking on the bakery ... while I plan my next adventure.

Having visited about 125 countries, I'm often asked which one I like the best. I can't choose just one place, so I've nominated my favorites and posted a music video on youtube. Click here to see my Top 15. Click here to return to the world map. Feel free to email comments or questions.