A relatively short boat ride from Honiara, Savo Island's fish-filled waters, hot springs and traditional villages feel a world away from the hustle and bustle the Solomon Islands' capital city.
It lingers in the distance.
Like a constant reference point for the people of Honiara, the Solomon Islands’ capital, Savo Island is akin to Rottnest for West Australians.
On some clear nights, as the sun sets over Honiara, you feel as though you can almost touch Savo — just like Rotto hovers majestically in the distance looking out from Freo, or one of WA’s south-metropolitan beaches.
But that’s where the comparisons end.
The volcanic island, a 90-minute boat ride from the capital — which cuts down to a 30-minute ride after an hour-long road trip to Visale, Guadacanal’s northernmost tip, the most common way to get there — is like something out of Jurassic Park.
On approach over the glassy waters of Iron Bottom Sound, Savo quickly starts to impose itself.
As we swing around to the west of the island towards our accommodation, the aptly named Sunset Lodge, our 8m fibreglass boat, called a kanu in the Solomon Islands no matter what size it is, traverses the shore. The ominous jungle is so close you can make out the wrinkle lines on the trees.
It is captivating. About 20m inland from the pebbled beaches of the island, mountains with trees that seem to defy gravity encase Savo’s still-active volcano. But we’ll get to that. First, it’s time for a swim.
The waters around Savo are typical of much of the Solomon Islands (bar the polluted water directly outside Honiara). It’s crystal clear, 30C bathwater with untouched reef that’s teeming with fish; just perfect for snorkelling.
After cruising on the water for 30 minutes, actually getting in it is amazing.
Sunset Lodge ($25 per person per night) is the only major accommodation on the island, bar a couple of eco lodges, and is our base camp for the two days.
It is basic, at best, with thin-walled rooms with a kind-of sea view and a shared bathroom. But it has a bed, the fan works (there’s no air-conditioning), the beer’s cold and the food — a kind of buffet option for about $20 —is solid.
And then there’s the sunset. Hooly dooly.
It is why Savo is often just a day trip for travellers based in Honiara, and a short escape from the hustle and bustle of the capital for the army of expats.
A two-night stay is more than enough, and you can apparently walk around the island itself in five hours (though Solomon Islanders and the concept of time don’t exactly go hand-in-hand).
But in saying that, there’s a lot to do on this fantastic little island and Sunset Lodge will organise activities for a small fee — part of which goes to the big men (village chiefs) whose land the activity sits on.
After a welcome coconut (there’s nothing better) our first activity awaits us: swimming with dolphins ($7) in the aptly named dolphin cave.
The cave is a 10-minute boat ride from our accommodation, and about 30m from the shore. According to the big man whose village it sits near, the dolphins — there are roughly 50 of them — are like the guardians of the village.
He has no idea how long they’ve lived in this particular spot off the island, telling me in Pijin English, an alternative to Savo’s traditional language Savosavo, that it has been “for as long as I remember”.
No one seems to know 100 per cent, but the general consensus is the dolphins, called “gulia” in the Savosavo language, feed in the underwater cave, an area of roughly 50sqm.
But one thing is 100 per cent certain: there are always dolphins to be seen. Every single time.
For tourists, it is an unreal experience. The canoe drives slowly behind the dolphins. Two people dive off and, holding on to ropes, are dragged along the side of the boat (it sounds dangerous but it’s perfectly fine).
The dolphins love the boat and swim underneath as you’re dragged along.
It is amazing. And it's the type of tourist attraction that would get thousands of people every day in somewhere like Thailand or Bali — but this is the Solomon Islands. There are no other tourists around. And even if you went there every day for a year, you’d be very unlucky to run in to someone.
For all its beauty, Savo Island also has a darker side.
It was the site of the battle of Savo Island, or, colloquially, the battle of the five sitting ducks during World War II. It was the battle which effectively kicked off the Guadalcanal campaign and saw the sinking of the Australian warship the HMAS Canberra, killing 82 Australians, and is considered one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the US Navy.
August marks the 75th anniversary of the battle, and war veterans and history buffs are expected to descend on Honiara and most likely Savo to commemorate.
On the north-east side of the island, two heavy-duty guns still stand, though not for much longer, because the water is slowly eroding them away. And it is quite amazing to cruise around the island, which can be done in about an hour, and think about the legendary battles that took place in the sound.
Visiting one of the 10 or so major villages is also one of the island’s drawcards. Although it is close to Honiara, the 90-minute boat ride is expensive for locals; a bridge too far for most and the island’s population of about 4000 mainly live a very traditional, simple life.
Sunset Lodge can organise a village trip but, if you desire, you can just pull in to one of the villages and say hello — if you’re with a local, it’s generally fine.
One village we visited, Panueli, had a curious tradition centred around a bird, the megapode bird. The black birds, which look like chickens, fly in at dawn to a landing field near the village in an area that kind of resembles a sandy bush runway.
The birds are attracted to the hot volcanic soil and bury their eggs about 1-1.5m below the surface to help with incubation.
Once the birds leave, the locals at Panueli go digging, with their hands — as any instruments could break the eggs — with bums in the air in search of the little fellas.
It is extraordinary to watch. The end result, if they pick the right spot, is an egg, just slightly larger than a duck egg, which they eat or sell at the market for about $2 each (they can also be traded for a can of tuna or four cigarettes).
The added bonus is that they are delicious. But, of late, overharvesting has meant the birds have started to disappear and the locals have introduced a dance, the megapode dance, to entice them back.
But the central attraction of Savo is its still-active volcano. According to the locals, it last erupted in 1842, and they are currently creating an evacuation plan in case it happens again (the time before that was 1568).
It is not a volcano in the Hollywood sense; you won’t see liquid hot magma and Pierce Brosnan a la Dante’s Peak. But what you do see is pretty awesome. The trek to the volcano is about two hours each way. From the shore, the walk follows a path created by the last eruption that curls up towards the peak, with thick jungle on either side.
On the way up there’s a hot spring to jump into and a cold-water stream — how convenient. As you get nearer to the top, the water gets hotter. Close to the peak you have to jump over a boiling-hot stream that will scald you if you stand in it for too long.
The walk is challenging and it gets the adrenaline pumping. And then the smell of sulphide starts to cloud the atmosphere.
It is putrid. But it signals you’re near the top. On the peak, if you can survive for long enough breathing in sulphide-tainted air, the guide brings out the cassava and megapode eggs to be cooked in the boiling water of the volcano.
Now that’s extreme eating.
After our volcano-boosted meal we head back to Sunset for a well-earned beer. From here you can make out the buildings of Honiara, but on Savo Island, it is a world away.
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