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Surfing the Cyclone Swells of the Solomon Islands

  • William Darby
  • 6 April 2012

Head northeast from Australia, keeping Papua New Guinea close to your left, and you stumble over an amazing archipelago. Little known to most in the West, the Solomon Islands consist of nearly 30 thousand square kilometres of volcanic islands and coral atolls. Incredible underwater diversity, from pristine reefs teeming with life to sunken World War II ships and aircraft, make the Solomons one of the most unique dive destinations on the planet. The Solomons are also home to a deep, rich and diverse Melanesian culture embodied by the numerous sacred sites and shrines that still contain the skulls of ancestors dotted all over the tropical forests.

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A view looking east toward Munda from the hills of Gizo township in the Solomon Islands. Photo courtesy of Danny Kennedy

In the midst of all the wild beauty, right in the heart of this seaborne country, is Ghizo Island, where a different kind of lifestyle and culture can also be found: one built around surfing.

Quality Breaks

Surfing is a newcomer to the Solomon Islands, but for a handful of locals it has become something more than just a pastime. A few old boards left behind by adventurous surf-trippers have changed the way people on Ghizo look at their waves. The cyclone swells created out in the Coral Sea that have made the east coast of Australia so famous also make their way up to the Solomons – and Ghizo sits right in their path.

The setups in the Solomons are nearly all reef breaks. Ghizo boasts at least two world-class spots, and what they lack in size they make up for in quality. Paelonge on Ghizo island is the most consistent. It regularly offers rights up to a 100 metres long, with two long barrel sections. Titiana is a left and when the swell hits the reef the right way, it’s the best wave on the island.

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Solomon Islands top surfer, Sammy, goes high on a wave. A couple of days later the remains of this board were retrieved from tsunami debris. Photo courtesy of Will Darby

The Solomons are relatively unexplored by surfers; different swell directions and sizes often give birth to waves that have never been surfed, so the potential seems enormous. But the greatest thing about surfing here is that you truly feel like you’re experiencing the place firsthand. There is no surf industry to speak of, so if it’s an alternative to Bali you’re looking for, this isn’t it. But you won’t find a crowd either. This is just a bunch of locals, on battered but well-loved boards, who are really focused on getting the best waves. They’re out every chance they get and know every inch of their breaks intimately.

Getting Practical

November to April is the best time to get the cyclone swells, but generally it’s pretty consistent. The quality of the reefs means that what little swell there may be is usually turned into something really fun. When it does get big, it can be seriously powerful and hollow. That’s when the locals have a new excitement and energy that will set you buzzing with excitement on the paddle out. Often the break is dotted with kids body surfing and swimming around the reef, and only a very elite handful of locals will join you when waves reach six feet or more. It’s always best to trust their guidance; these reefs are as much their home as their local spot.

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Sammy, a number 1 surfer in the Solomon Islands, is right at home with the waves of Ghizo Island. Photo courtesy of Will Darby

Entering the Solomon Islands is only possible through the capital, Honiara, on Guadalcanal. If you’re a historian, there are some fascinating World War II sites dotted around Honiara, which was a key strategic battleground in the Pacific theatre. A tour of Honiara is a great way to get oriented. Generally speaking, though, Honiara isn’t somewhere to linger too long; while it has a kind of gritty (yet safe) charm, you should get out and explore the country’s true beauty.

Getting around the Solomon Islands is done either by flying on Solomon Airlines or travelling via passenger boat. While the latter is often overcrowded, hot, a little smelly and fantastically slow, there is no better way to see the country and meet locals. After all, the Solomon Islands is a country defined by water, so the best way to get around is by boat. The sea trip from Honiara to Ghizo takes around 30 hours – and there are no cabins – but what you will see on your journey you will never forget. If you’re a surfer, it’s also a good way of looking after your boards, as sometimes the airline baggage handlers don’t quite get the ‘fibreglass’ thing! There are also companies that will hire you a boat and driver, or you can hitch rides with locals.

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The laid-back but bustling town of Gizo, on Ghizo Island, is the second most major town of the Solomon Islands after its capital city of Honiara. Photo courtesy of Danny Kennedy

In terms of accommodation in the Solomon Islands, there are plenty of options on or around Ghizo Island. The main town, Gizo (same name as the island, just no ‘h’) has numerous numerous guesthouses and a big hotel, while a nearby island has two resorts if you’re looking for somewhere quieter. Gizo is a really laid-back place, although there’s a vibrant market with fresh fruit, vegetables and fish. There’s also a new hospital, and taxis and trucks run up and down the single street. This is the most major town after Honiara, but don’t expect a metropolis. Still, Gizo is a bustling place, and you’ll feel right at home here in no time, as complete strangers are usually incredibly friendly.

There is not a single surf shop in the Solomons, so remember to bring everything you’re going to need, including a spare board (your usual shortboard size) and especially a decent repair kit. The most important things you can bring however are an open mind, a friendly smile and a healthy respect for this beautiful place and the people who call it home.

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William Darby

Will Darby first visited the Solomon Islands in 2007 when he and Toby Diggens came searching for uncrowded surf somewhere off the beaten track. After a near-miss during the tsunami that hit Ghizo Island in April that year, Will and Toby returned home and raised money to contribute to the rebuilding of the village they had been staying in. They returned in 2008 to begin the work.
William Darby
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adventure travel, beaches, islands, local knowledge, Melanesia, Oceania, oceans & reefs, opinion, personal experience, Solomon Islands, whl.travel,

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