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How to travel in Iceland on a budget

I just came back to Europe from New Zealand, Hawaii and California, where everyone was raving about Iceland. Icelanders seem to have invested a lot in marketing their island. Since Iceland’s experiments in banking ended in a fiasco, tourism took over as the next big thing. It’s not hard to attract people to Iceland – it is easily one of the most beautiful places on earth and the culture is OK too:) Tourism always means easy money for some locals, but, hey, that’s not MY money and let it not be yours either.

Landmannalaugar is very popular and crowded. Lónsöræfi is similar but a lot quieter.

Landmannalaugar is very popular and crowded. Lónsöræfi is similar but a lot quieter.

First, for those who don’t know: I spent six full years in Iceland plus a few summers and I know the country inside out more or less. On the other hand, I haven’t been there for a year and a half now but my information is mostly up to date. I am going back this summer and I am excited.

Iceland is generally quite expensive and inaccessible and I have been thinking for a while about writing something for the budget traveler so here it is, at the start of the season. I hope it’s going to be useful and its also going to generate some clicks on my blog this summer:) If you are looking for 5-star hotel recommendations, you are going to be disappointed. If you are looking for a million star hotel (read camping) recommendations, read further.

In Iceland you can walk on glaciers but don't do it by yourself unless you really really know what you are doing. People (read Germans) have died trying this on their own. If you save enough money using my tips, go on a guided tour for this.

In Iceland you can walk on glaciers but don’t do it by yourself unless you really, really, REALLY! know what you are doing. People (read Germans) have died trying this on their own. If you save enough money using my tips, go on a guided tour for this.

First of all, to get an idea of how I like to travel –> I believe the whole world should have allemansrätt. Allemansrätten (“every man’s right” in Swedish) is something typical of the Nordic countries. Namely Sweden, Norway and Finland (not the Åland islands though – shame on you, Åland!) have this type of law that says that every person has the right  to roam, camp and – very importantly – pick mushrooms and berries as they please, even on private property (with few restrictions). In Iceland I have only seen some edible mushrooms around the university campus, but don’t eat those while hitchhiking please! Save them for when you are camping and need to talk to the flowers! (more…)

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Tambora: The Big Bang in Practice

Exactly 200 years ago, as I am writing this, the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history had just started, blowing almost 2,000 meters off the top of a mountain called Tambora on the island of Sumbawa in Indonesia. It was a devastating event for whole world. The eruption caused the “Year without Summer” in the northern hemisphere when it snowed in London and New York in July and crops failed all over Europe, North America and China. There was famine in Switzerland (they must have cut down on the fondue over there). The more indirect effects include the birth of the Frankenstein story and Mormonism, some pretty works of art, real estate bubbles, cholera going global and Arctic exploration.

 

Tambora from above (Nick Hughes, June 2008)

On April 10, 1815, Tambora woke up, blew up and completely destroyed its immediate surroundings. Whole cultures were wiped out, including the Tambora people and their Tambora language that was the easternmost non-Austronesian (Papuan) language at the time (little known fact, you are welcome!). Alas!

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Cycling 🚲 New Zealand: West Coast of Northland

Maungaturoto to Ahipara 296 km in four days (three days of cycling + one rest day)

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I had a rest day in Waipu with my warm showers hosts because of the bad weather that was passing over New Zealand. That day it rained and the wind was too strong to even walk, let alone cycle. The next day the rain had stopped but the wind was still there. I had planned to continue north along the east coast but now the wind was coming from the east so it made sense to go west. It didn’t take long to make the decision and I was on my way to the west coast.

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Cycling New Zealand: West of Auckland then north

 

Starting a long cycling trip (actually anything longer than a few hours) is not easy on the mind or the body. After buying and preparing Traicho Junior (the bicycle) in Auckland, I was ready to leave on the slightly overcast December 11.

Auckland is a city made for cars but there are some bicycle lanes. Getting out of Auckland directly north though is a bit complicated, so I decided to go west first and then north. And to avoid breathing all the car exhaust, I took the suburban train for 6 NZD to a station in the west. Bikes are allowed on trains but not on buses in Auckland.

In four days I did 224 km over quite a few hills and some rain.

(more…)

How to buy a bicycle in Auckland

On the last day of November, I found myself in Auckland – the largest city of New Zealand. This was my second time here. The first time was six years ago on my round the world trip when I was too lazy to write a blog. However, back then I wrote an article about Auckland (for money), whose main purpose was to explain how the North Island of New Zealand looks like a fish and Auckland would be its anus

 

Auckland is not exactly a Manhattan but coming here after five months in Melanesia it felt like a super busy place. The first day I had problems crossing streets and I got completely lost in a shopping mall - took me about an hour to find an exit. It was refreshing to be in a place where I could be anonymous, but then noone would say hello on the street.

Auckland is not exactly a Manhattan but coming here after five months in Melanesia it felt like a super busy place. The first day I had problems crossing streets and I got completely lost in a shopping mall – took me about an hour to find an exit. It was refreshing to be in a place where I could be anonymous, but then noone would respond to my hellos on the street.

I wanted to buy a bicycle in Auckland and then spend the next few months (as long as New Zealand’s summer weather allowed) cycling. Back in 2008 I travelled mostly on the South Island (including by bicycle) and now I wanted to concentrate on the North Island.

I spent ten days readjusting to civilization and rediscovering shopping therapy. (more…)

Memories of the tropics

Having my last tropical breakfast in Port Vila.

Having my last tropical breakfast in Port Vila.

I’m sitting here at the airport in Port Vila, Vanuatu, waiting for my flight to Auckland. It’s going to be 15 degrees in New Zealand. First thing to do on arrival: buy some shoes.

It’s been one day and 13 months since I arrived in India to join a yacht as crew. The idea was to sail all the way to New Zealand. I jumped ship already in Malaysia and since then it’s been a wonderful tropical adventure through Myanmar, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. I will miss most things, but most of all the generous people, thirst quenching coconuts and “drinking” pineapples and mangos!

Some selected moments:

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Bali – the island of the gods… and the tourists

“Hello? Bali Airport?”, he said in English and was told to immediately identify the airplane if they did not want the Indonesian army to shoot them down.
“My name is Dollars”, said Allan. “One Hundred Thousand Dollars.”
Not a sound came from the tower…
“Right now the flight dispatcher and those around him are calculating how much it is per person”, explained Allan.
“I know”, said the captain.
A few seconds later the flight dispatcher said:
“Hello? Are you there, mister Dollars?”
“Yes, I am here”, said Allan.
“I am sorry, but what was your first name, mister Dollars?”
“One Hundred Thousand”, said Allan. “My name is One Hundred Thousand Dollars and I am asking permission to land at Bali airport”.
“I am sorry, mister Dollars. I cannot hear you very well. Would you be so kind to say your first name one more time, please?”
Allan explained to the captain that the flight dispatcher had started negotiating.
“I know”, said the captain.
“My first name is Two Hundred Thousand”, said Allan. “Do you we have your permission to land?”
“One second, mister Dollars”, said the flight dispatcher, got permission from those around him and continued, “You are very welcome to Bali, mister Dollars. It will be our pleasure to have you here.”
….
“You have obviously visited this part of the world before”, said the captain and smiled.
“Indonesia is the land of possibilities,” said Allan.

One of my favorite parts of the Swedish book “The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared” by Jonas Jonasson (the loose translation is mine). It is quite funny and I highly recommend it. It is certainly not only about Indonesia (I have to say that before some Indonesian official declares the poor author persona non grata).

My first two months in Indonesia started in Bali and ended in Bali. Flights to Bali are the cheapest.

Most tourists in Bali stay in an area known as Kuta (best avoided!) and nearby Seminyak and so on. These are all places close to the airport and it is one of the world's worst demonstrations of what mass tourism can do to a place. South of Kuta and the airport there is a peninsula with a few incredible beaches like this one.

Most tourists in Bali stay in an area known as Kuta (best avoided!) and nearby Seminyak and so on. These are all places close to the airport and it is one of the world’s worst examples of what mass tourism can do to a place. South of Kuta and the airport there is a peninsula with a few incredible beaches like this one.

On your way to the beach you will be greeted by many signs (did I mention how well organized Indonesia was). This one is my favourite. I wonder if they have cameras in there. Or maybe someone goes after you and tries to sense the smell? How much would they charge for a quickie? So many questions, so few answers!

On your way to the beach you will be greeted by many signs (did I mention how well organized Indonesia was). This one is my favourite. I wonder if they have cameras in there. Or maybe someone goes after you and tries to sense the smell before they do the billing? How much would they charge for a quickie? So many questions – so few answers!

Bali is certainly a magnet for tourists worldwide. It is quite beautiful indeed, although (more…)

On the Annapurna tragedy or Why the government of Nepal is full of it

Unfortunately a couple of weeks ago a bad snowstorm cost the lives of around 40 trekkers in Nepal in the area of the Annapurna peak – the world’s tenth highest. I was there some three years ago. The tragedy happened on the Annapurna Circuit Trek that goes around the mountain. The trail includes a pass at about 5000 masl – where the tragedy happened. I did the Annapurna base camp trek – that climbs to the base camp at 4200 masl and takes shorter time.

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Nepal is by far one of the best countries in the world for trekking. The landscapes are absolutely fantastic, it has some of the best bits of the Himalayas and it is quite affordable. However, it was easy to see right away how disorganized everything was.

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Now the Nepali government very obviously failed to warn trekkers, guides, hut keepers or national park guards (if there are any on the mountain itself) of the coming storm. Simply because the government of Nepal does not care about these things. Now they are blaming it on the backpackers who went there without a (proper) guide and want to restrict budget tourism:

It is better to have less tourists who pay more than thousands who come but flout rules,” said the tourism ministry’s joint secretary, Mohan Krishna Sapkota“. (Reuters)

Here is how trekking works in Nepal (more…)

Solomon Islands

Imagine two chains of relatively big islands surrounded by reefs, blue lagoons and countless small islands, lined with coconut palms and mangroves. A high cliff rises directly from the sea here and there with caves along the water edge. Mountains rise above the bigger islands with the odd volcano. The people – always smiling, giggling at anything that life might offer and genuinely curious and friendly. Many kids running, jumping or diving around – little curly heads (sometimes blonde) sticking out behind every tree, wharf or umbrella and out of the many wooden canoes crisscrossing the lagoons. You are in the Solomon Islands.
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So after two months in Papua New Guinea of paddling, cycling and hiking, and crossing the border from Bougainville to Choiseul, I arrived in Gizo, the second biggest town in the Solomons.

Gizo's airport is on a small island. This is the airport shuttle.

Gizo’s airport is on a small island. This is the airport shuttle.

I got my passport stamp, did some shopping and some walking and cycling around in Gizo. I couchsurfed with Warwick and his wife Samantha and their lovely son Lomoso, who was the first kid in the world not to run away screaming when he saw me.

Gizo market has great and cheap fish. (3 SBD < 0.50 USD)

Gizo market has great and cheap fish. (3 SBD < 0.50 USD)

why not
My pancakes proved very popular. We even had them for dinner.

My pancakes proved very popular. We even had them for dinner.

At a random beach in Ghizo (the town is spelled Gizo, the island - Ghizo), this tree was probably unrooted and brought down by a huge tsunami some years ago. The thing hanging from the tree is a bra - just for the record.

At a random beach in Ghizo (the town is spelled Gizo, the island – Ghizo), this tree was probably unrooted and brought down by a huge tsunami some years ago. The thing hanging from the tree is a bra – just for the record.

On Ghizo there is a road of about 20 km to a beautiful beach called Seragi. I wanted to go there by bike. There is not much tourism in the Solomons and it’s mostly divers who come so hiring a bike was not easy. The dive shop offers bikes for hire – 150 SBD (20+ USD) a day. No gears, the bike almost works, lousy breaks and “it’s better to push it uphill because the chain is weak”. I couldn’t say yes!

Instead I took a long walk along the beautiful beach south of the town and met a boy named Kenny who told me that his uncle had a bike.

Instead I took a long walk along the beautiful beach south of the town and met a boy named Kenny who told me that his uncle had a bike.

Sepere, Kenny's uncle, had a nice bike with gears, a bit old and the brakes didn't work, but I managed to fix the rear brakes and took the bike for a ride the next day. Sepere, as most people in his village Tatiana, were relocated here from Kiribati in the 1950s by the British (both the Solomons and Kiribati were still British colonies at the time). The official reason is that their islands were sinking or that there was not enough fresh water but Sepere is sure it was because radiation pollution from the nuclear tests in the Micronesian islands to the north. "Over a few years our coconuts became from this big to this small", Sepere said. There are a few communities of Kiribati people in the Solomons. They stand out with their lighter skin.  The Kiribati language is has very interesting phonology and phonotactics. The "ti" is pronounced as "s"  so you should say Kiribas and not Kiribati. They also pronounce the name of their village as Sisiana although it is spelled Titiana. Loan words from English take unrecognizable shapes. Kiribati is how they pronounced "Gilbertese", the name the British had for their islands. Sepere stands for Geoffrey. Kirimati, the second most populated island in the country stands for Christmas (island), as it is also known. The Kiribati settlers generally live in peace with the rest of the Solomon Islanders. Only once someone told me about them: "We don't like them. They eat raw fish."

Sepere, Kenny’s uncle, had a nice bike with gears, a bit old and the brakes didn’t work, but I managed to fix the rear brakes and took the bike for a ride the next day. Sepere, as most people in his village Tatiana, were relocated here from Kiribati in the 1950s by the British (both the Solomons and Kiribati were still British colonies at the time). The official reason is that their islands were sinking or that there was not enough fresh water but Sepere is sure it was because radiation pollution from the nuclear tests in the Micronesian islands to the north. “Over a few years our coconuts became from this big to this small”, Sepere said. There are a few communities of Kiribati people in the Solomons. They stand out with their lighter skin.
The Kiribati language is has very interesting phonology and phonotactics. The “ti” is pronounced as “s”  so you should say Kiribas and not Kiribati. They also pronounce the name of their village as Sisiana although it is spelled Titiana. Loan words from English take unrecognizable shapes. Kiribati is how they pronounced “Gilbertese”, the name the British had for their islands. Sepere stands for Geoffrey. Kirimati, the second most populated island in the country stands for Christmas (island), as it is also known.
The Kiribati settlers generally live in peace with the rest of the Solomon Islanders. Only once someone told me about them: “We don’t like them. They eat raw fish.”

Allen lives at Seragi beach and is building a bungalow to accommodate tourists. He's a great guy. I shared my lunch with him and he showed me the best snorkeing spots.

Allen lives at Seragi beach and is building a bungalow to accommodate tourists. He’s a great guy. I shared my lunch with him and he showed me the best snorkeing spots.

My next stop was Munda, which is connected by road to Noro, an international port town. Munda is pretty but when I was there it rained buckets for four days. A couple of times it stopped raining so I borrowed my CS hosts Ben and Uma's bike and went for a ride in the bush only to come back completely soaked. It never stopped raining for more than an hour or so.

My next stop was Munda, which is connected by road to Noro, an international port town. Munda is pretty but when I was there it rained buckets for four days. A couple of times it stopped raining so I borrowed my CS hosts Ben and Uma’s bike and went for a ride in the bush only to come back completely soaked. It never stopped raining for more than an hour or so.

Munda couchsurfing pancake frenzy

Munda couchsurfing pancake frenzy

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View over Munda's lagoon and the airport, which is the only international airport outside of Honiara. There are a flight or two per day, the rest of the time the runways is used for promenading:)

View over Munda’s lagoon and the airport, which is the only international airport outside of Honiara. There are a flight or two per day, the rest of the time the runways is used for promenading:)

One of the few industries in the Solomons is a tuna cannery in Noro. Soltuna is very very popular and it was pretty tasty. They sell cans of chilli tuna which is just fantastic with something inside that is either cherry tomatoes or small peppers - I am not sure but they got it right.

One of the few industries in the Solomons is a tuna cannery in Noro. Soltuna is very very popular and it was pretty tasty. They sell cans of chilli tuna which is just fantastic with something inside that is either cherry tomatoes or small peppers – I am not sure but they got it right.

Noro market. See if you understand Solomon Pijin

Noro market. See if you understand Solomon Pijin

This place sells sigarettes and betel nut.

This place sells sigarettes and betel nut.

This man is 94 years old and we talked for hours while waiting for the cargo ship from Noro to Honiara. The ship was 24 hours late but it was worth the wait because the weather had a chance to clear up and the ride to Honiara through the Morovo lagoon and other islands was magical.

This man is 94 years old and we talked for hours while waiting for the cargo ship from Noro to Honiara. The ship was 24 hours late but it was worth the wait because the weather had a chance to clear up and the ride to Honiara through the Morovo lagoon and other islands was magical.

For traveling in the Solomons, ship is certainly the way to go. Everyone wanted to talk to me and I got a dozen of invitations to visit people in their villages all over the Solomons. Too bad I already had a flight to Vanuatu in a few days.

I told someone that I had a laptop with me so we had a movie night that was not such a success. On my hard drive I have mostly documentaries and some TV series. “Friends” turned out to be less popular in the Solomons than where I come from and soon people started asking to see cartoons or a musical. I have no cartoons and the only thing close to a musical I could put on was Dancer in the Dark but I thought that wouldn’t go down too well so everyone fell asleep quite soon.

Note to self:
Bring some Tom and Jerry along next time you visit the Solomons.

sunset

"Good morning. How much is the pomelo" "4 dollars for the small one, 5 dollars for the big one" "OK, I will take the big one. Here is five dollars" "Thank you! I love you!"

“Good morning. How much is the pomelo”
“4 dollars for the small one, 5 dollars for the big one”
“OK, I will take the big one. Here is five dollars”
“Thank you! I love you!”

Naturally blonde

Naturally blonde

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Market at Russel island

Market at Russel island

Honiara, the capital, is a shithole. It has a large harbor, no need to say more. I loved the market though. It is dirty, smelly and disgusting but the fish and chips go for 5 SBD (0.70 USD) in the evening (compared to 20 SBD in most other places so far) and there are heaps (literally) of pineapples for as little as 3 SBD (10 for a huge one). Back in Papua New Guinea I had been eating a pineapple a day but in the Solomons I only found pineapple once in Munda. In Honiara I ate three huge ones in two days.

I stayed at Hibiscus homestay. All the cheapest guesthouses are on the same street, one block up from the main street. They’re all too expensive still at around 40 USD and I needed something cheaper. Just as in most other places in this part of the world, outsiders only stay in Honiara if they are working here and basically someone else pays for their accommodation. At Hibiscus homestay there were two long term tenants, a Philippino guy working for a Chinese company and a Korean who was training the Solomons’ taekwondo team for the Pacific games next year. Since I have my beautiful tent that I once paid for what would be a night at the Ritz, I was determined to find a place to camp to cut the cost. The United Church Guesthouse wouldn’t hear about it, the Anglican brothers at the Chester guesthouse needed to consult the main brother, who had to ask an even mainer brother who probably also asked the top brother (it did take a while) who said no. When I stumbled upon the Hibiscus guesthouse, Sara there laughed her face off when I said I wanted to sleep in my tent but finally agreed for me to camp on her veranda with a nice view over the sea. Her only argument against was that she would feel sorry for me sleeping in a tent. She was great company, herself from the Temotu province, which is tiny islands that fascinated me when I was planning this trip. It is the most remote province of the Solomons with many small Islands, far away from each other, where people are of Polynesian descent (they settled there from Tonga and Niue) and speak Outlier Polynesian languages. She taught me some of her language.

WW2 through SI eyes

WW2 through SI eyes

a boat, an engine and beer - what a Solomon Islander needs

a boat, an engine and beer – what a Solomon Islander needs

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Honiara market

Honiara market

Marugoana is very popular in the Sollies, apparently

Marugoana is very popular in the Sollies, apparently

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Everybody loves germany

Everybody loves germany

Honiara has a nice museum. These Polynesian sailing canoes are really nice. There is a real, full-sized one on display (without the sail though).

Honiara has a nice museum. These Polynesian sailing canoes are really nice. There is a real, full-sized one on display (without the sail though).

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PRACTICAL INFORMATION
It’s not easy to find information about the Solomon Islands. The Lonely Planet is practically useless. It’s 1998 edition of the Solomon Islands guidebook is a detailed cultural and geographical study of the country. Since then they have merged the Solomons in the same book as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands chapter is basically a newspaper article with a telephone directory of expensive resorts. Most provinces are covered by one sentence, literally. This is very unfortunate since the Solomon Islands are one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world.

Much has changed since 1998. Most of the big islands lack any roads apart from a logging road here and there. Most travel within the islands will therefore be limited to places with some kind of road or by small boats.

Solomon Airlines has flights to virtually everywhere but these are expensive. Cargo boats (slow!) run to basically every province from Honiara weekly or fortnightly or more often to Malaita. I haven’t seen schedules posted anywhere. I suspect they are non existent. The boat I was on was dirty and smelly and I suspect all of them are the same. I wouldn’t go without a mattress. The boats are also great places to meet people and get invitations to see village life. Many Solomon Islanders will love the idea of bringing a white man home to show to their friends and family. With a lot of time and flexibility a great trip could be had this way.

The price for a boat ride between Gizo and Honiara is 300-500 Solomon dollars. Right now there are three boats doing that route – LC Phoenix, Kosco and Chanella. They charge different prices and all run on the same day of the week (Sunday from Honiara, Tuesday morning from Gizo – all three of them!) Another ship – Fair Glory is being repaired in the Philippines and who knows when it’s gonna be back. I heard that the 3-day ride to Temotu province costs 500 SBD which isn’t bad at all.

Accommodation is very expensive. I liked having a tent.

From Bougainville (PNG) to the Solomon Islands

Most people enter Papua New Guinea by plane through Port Moresby. The only official land border is with Indonesia at Vanimo/Jayapura. Locals traditionally also travel by boat between Bougainville and the Solomon Islands and between Daru and the Torres Straight Islands that are occupied by Australia. However, those two are not official border crossings.

I had read about travelers successfully crossing between the Solomons and Bougainville so I planned my trip that way. It’d better be successful because flying from Bougainville through Moresby to Honiara is otherwise ridiculously expensive. Still there were many variables – where to get immigration stamps (or if i should get an exit stamp from PNG at all), how to find a ride across, how safe it would be…

On the Internet I found out that there were immigration offices in Buka and Arawa (noonsite.com – for sailors) but of course tracking down the immigration officer wouldn’t be easy – apparently I’d have to go around the streets and ask people “Where is Nancy?” If Nancy was not in Buka, then I’d have to travel to Arawa and look for her there (and hope she won’t be traveling back to Buka at the same time).

I also found out that there are flights from both Choiseul and Shortland – the two islands of the Solomons that are closest to Bougainville – on to Gizo and Honiara (the two biggest towns of the Solomon Islands). At least according to the Solomon Airlines website.

The 2007 edition of the Lonely Planet had information about this border crossing but it was not in the 2012 edition anymore. Did this mean that the authorities of one or both countries were not happy about foreign travelers using this route and had asked for the information to be removed? The central government of PNG is certainly not encouraging people to use this route. During the ten year crisis on Bougainville this route was the lifeline for many Bougainvilleans – the PNG army established a blockade that left Bougainville without any supplies, health care, education whatsoever. Everything came from the Solomons. Many Bougainvilleans even moved to live on Choiseul and the PNG army even went there to harass them, invading Solomon Islands territory.

In 2012 Tony Wheeler, LP’s founder traveled the same route from the Solomons to Bougainville and posted about it on his blog. Maybe the PNG government had asked LP not to advertise this “illegal” border crossing and Tony Wheeler was just making a statement about how illegal it actually was. Who knows…

Then there were some Slovakians on a forum who said they got arrested on arrival in Choiseul by the RAMSI police in the Solomon Islands. The crossing would normally involve getting to Shortland or Choiseul first, by banana boat, and then flying or boating to Gizo where there’s an immigration office to get a stamp. So basically I would be “illegal” in the Solomon Islands until I get to Gizo but this kind of arrangement is not too unusual. In Chile and Argentina I’ve had to get stamps way before or after the border. The RAMSI police are foreign (mostly white Australian) policemen who’ve been in the Solomon Islands to restore peace after the ethnic tensions some years ago. They have authority and guns (and I’m sure the ones on Choiseul were also bored). On the other hand, no one had any problems with the Solomon Islands policemen and they were all happy to see travelers coming this way. I certainly didn’t want to run into the Australian policemen. On their website I read that they had pulled out of Shortland but I didn’t know if there were any still in Choiseul.

Then, to make things more complicated, some years ago an American was caught smuggling fake money through that border. He was bringing in a suitcase of newly printed Bougainvillean kinas, which is a currency created by Bougainvillean leader, banker, entrepreneur and nutjob Noah Musingku (who markets himself as King David Peii II). He created a financial pyramid and even his own central bank and currency some years ago.

He was able to travel to his ancestral village of Tonu, where he established his bank headquarters in an old cattle farm owned by the paramount chief. This, he said, was the manger from which would issue salvation of the world.
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/U-Vistract

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His Majesty the King himself. I didn't have a chance to meet him. The picture is from http://www.bougainville-copper.eu

It all ended up with him stealing a lot of people’s money and then hiring six Fijian mercenaries to train his army, promising them one million kina each. Soon they found out they weren’t getting any money from the guy either, and five of them abandoned him. One actually stayed in southwestern Bougainville and still lives there to this day. They say the only reason Musingku is still alive is that people still hope they will on day get something back from him. To be on the safe side, he is said to never leave the area of his own house these days. So, yes, although the currency that the American was smuggling was not really real and not really worth much, the fact that he was caught wouldn’t seem to make my task of crossing the border any easier.

And then everyone was telling me how dangerous Bougainville was so it wouldn’t be a place to hang around and wait for a boat to show up and take me to somewhere.

This was all before I arrived.

In the end the most important thing was networking. I couchsurfed with Ute and Andre – German development workers in Buka – who introduced me to Moniek – a Kiwi development worker – who had been to the Solomons this way. Moniek gave me the number of Gerald who lives in Arawa and had traveled to the Solomons this way. Gerald asked around and sent me a message that a Philip was going to Choiseul and Gizo the following week. I made my way to Arawa, met Philip, discussed the issue and had to wait until the day he was going to leave. Arawa is a friendly town and I was hanging out with Kerstin from Austria and her friends.

I left Arawa a day later because Philip had to organize his daughter’s graduation party. “I’m not going anywhere before my daughter is completely happy,” he said. Fair enough. I wasn’t in too much of a hurry anyway although I was two days past my exit stamp datr.

We finally left on a Friday. The crossing to Choiseul was nothing crazy, in fact the ride was much smoother than most banana boat rides I had taken in PNG. Philip had three boats going that day – two of them had buyers waiting for them in the Solomons. Apparently banana boats and engines are much cheaper in PNG and it’s a good business bringing them over the border.
The main town on Choiseul is called Taro and is on a small island offshore. On an adjacent small island Philip had some property where we made a landing early in the afternoon. I thought we’d continue to Gizo the same day but it turned out some of his boys there had been drinking and making trouble so he had to deal with that first. Things around here don’t happen quickly so by the time the issue was addressed it was Saturday. Philip is a Seventh Day Adventist so he doesn’t do much on Saturdays. During his relaxation on Saturday he had decided that he was not going to Gizo and he’d go to Honiara by plane instead to see one of his six wives. So, early on Sunday morning we were at the airport in Taro to meet the two planes – one would bring Philip to Honiara and the other would bring me to Gizo. The Gizo flight was however full so I would have to wait till the next day. One more day of snorkeling and snoozing in a hammock on a beautiful beach? Bring it on!

I had no cash on me and I had paid Philip to bring me to Gizo so he very kindly paid for my flight to Gizo and even gave me enough Solomon dollars for me to pay for the airport transfer boat from the airport to Gizo and to buy some biscuits in case I’d go hungry.

On Monday morning I was brought to the airport by one of Philip’s boys and had to collect my ticket first. It had been reserved under the name White Man in the reservation system (a school notebook).

At the airport there were two other white men, obviously Australians, who were going to fly that day. When we landed in Gizo they quickly put on their uniforms with name tags that said RAMSI – the same Australian policemen I’d been trying to avoid were right there now chatting to me and asking me what I’d been doing in Choiseul. I didn’t lie and they didn’t seem to care: “What an adventure!”

In Gizo they even escorted me to the bank so I could get money and to the telecom company so I could buy a Sim card to call my couchsurfing host Warwick. Later that day I found the immigration office. Rose, who mans (or shall I say womans) it, gave me a long hard look. She was strict but understanding. She asked for my flight out of the Solomons and a copy of my passport. I had prepared a fake flight ticket to Vanuatu for two weeks later but I needed to buy one anyway so a trip to the Solomon Airlines office produced a real ticket for the exact same flight I had the fake one for. I made a copy for Rose and she gave me permission to stay in the country until exactly the day of my flight. Did I mention she was strict? When I was leaving her office, she quickly said the permit was extendable, in case I changed my plans. Or got malaria or was bitten, but not eaten, by a crocodile. The Solomons have plenty of crocodiles since the UN disarmed the people after their conflict some years ago. Now people don’t have guns anymore to shoot the crocodiles. But that’s another story…

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A WW2 tank in Kieta

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Not a bad place to spend three days waiting

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Philip with some of his kids/grandkids/nephews. Philip wished Bougainvilleans had had rehabilitation programmes soon after the war was over. "because we are all confused in here", he said pointing a finger at his head.

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The kids kept calling me Masta

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Jungle gym

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Ben is one of the many people working for Philip. He spent the entire three days I was there reading my Lonely Planet for Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. He was fascinated by it. Another guy I spent a lot of time with had starred in the Mr Pip movie and we watched it together on my computer. It was the first time he saw the film - the producers never sent a copy to the Bougainvilleans who starred in it, he said.

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On my way to Gizo

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

This file can be imported into Google Earth.

Here’s what I’ve found out on the ground that might be helpful.

First, Bougainville is not any more dangerous than anywhere else. In fact I found it quite safe and friendly.

PMVs run from Kokopau, across the passage from Buka every day (except maybe Sunday) around noon (from 10 am) for 50 kina to Arawa. Back from Arawa to Buka they leave around 4 am. From Arawa there should be regular PMVs to Buin in the south, two leaving very early on Saturday for the market in Buin.

There are two ways to make the crossing. 1) As I did, on a banana boat from Arawa (they might actually depart from Kieta or Koromira – one hour drive to the south), to Choiseul. You might get a boat from Bougainville all the way to Gizo this way, or from Choiseul (Taro) you can fly to Gizo. The airport is called Choiseul Bay. 2) From Buin take a short truck ride to Kangu beach from where you can see Shortland. They say at low tide you can almost walk to Shortland. The “almost” part is essential so you’ll need a boat. From Shortland some people have managed to find banana boats going to Gizo but apparently it involves rough seas. Otherwise you can fly from Balalae airport (on a nearby island) to Gizo. Right now there’s one flight on Thursdays, but I’d not count on the plane coming 100%. There’s a smaller market in Buin on Thursdays for the Seventh Day Adventists (the big market is on Saturday). If some Shortland Islanders come to the market, it might be possible to find a passage with them. The flight is in the afternoon, so they can drop you off directly at the airport island to catch it. It’s a half hour ride so it shouldn’t cost too much. I’d first call Solomon Airlines to make sure the plane is actually coming, otherwise it might be a week long wait until the next plane. These flights were not operated at all last year but I assume they go now since they sell tickets online. I heard of someone doing it this way and buying a ticket directly from the pilot. Australian dollars might be good to have. The ticket can also be bought online of course.

The banks in Bougainville can sell you Solomon dollars but only if they have any (they didn’t when I was there).

Shortland island is supposedly paradise on earth so spending a few days there shouldn’t be too bad. If you look at the blue lagoons around Shortland on Google Earth, it looks just like a place that would be great for swimming and snorkeling. I’m not sure about the crocodile situation.

If there are no flights, you will have to find a boat to take you from Shortland to Gizo but those are irregular. I heard of people who waited for many days and finally gave up. Also, I met a Solomon Islander nun in Arawa who traveled this way but she knew in advance about a boat that was leaving on a certain day. She paid 500 kina for it, which is more than the online price for the flight.

When you arrive in Choiseul or Shortland you should report to the police to announce you are in the Solomon Islands. They will write down your name and passport number (on a random piece of paper) just to know about you “in case your boat sinks on the way to Gizo” 🙂 There were no Australian policemen in Choiseul when I visited the police station.

The boats apparently do sink. It’s a long passage from Shortland /Choiseul to Gizo and they sometimes carry too much cargo and the open sea there can get rough. Sometimes apparently they also miscalculate how much fuel they need or the engine might break. Forget about life jackets. Philip, who I traveled with, has done Arawa – Choiseul – Gizo for many years and seems to be very experienced. They even had paddles in the boat (I guess just in case). He has a business in Arawa (ask for him at the Green House or Arawai guesthouse). He also has property and a store on Choiseul (on a small island next to the island of Taro where the town and the police station is) and a house in Gizo. It would be best to give him a call and ask when he’s planning to go. Apparently he goes every week or so to run his business. His number is +675 733 70 671 in PNG and +677 7745763 in the Solomons (I asked his permission to publish it) but don’t expect him to wait for you especially or to depart and arrive at the exact days he tells you. Of course he’ll be attending his business and you’ll be tagging along. It’s a lot of fun, just don’t be on a tight schedule.

Philip charges 200 kina from Arawa to Choiseul or 4-500 kina from Arawa to Gizo when he’s going anyway. As for the ride from Buin (Kangu beach) to Shortland, if you manage to get a ride with the people from the market, it should be cheap (I imagine 20-40 kina). If money’s not an issue, you can just show up and someone will probably be more than happy if you chartered their boat, both from Arawa, Buin, Choiseul or Shortland or whatever.

If coming from the Solomons (exit stamp in Gizo or Noro) it would probably be safest (and cheapest) to fly to Shortland (Balalae airport) then find a passage to Buin and then PMVs onwards on Bougainville.

On Bougainville there are three customs offices that can stamp you in or out. I posted the addresses on Wikitravel.org. The one in Buin does not have a stamp but if coming from the Solomons, I would first report there. If coming from Bougainville, I’d first try in Buka. I never met Nancy but I met John who was very friendly and gave me a stamp for a few days later (when my visa was actually expiring and when I was planning – or hoping – to be able to leave). I actually left two days past the date on the stamp (Philip’s daughter had her graduation so we got delayed, and the weather had been kind of bad so it was probably a good thing) but no one seemed to care.

Of course any of this information can change without any notice. Right now the situation in Bougainville seems stable but who knows. An independence referendum might be held in the next years and the situation might dramatically change (for the better or for the worse). Once in Bougainville, if you have any concerns about safety, try talking to the New Zealand policemen in Arawa or Buka who are only advisors and will know best what the security situation is.

Apparently no more than 40 tourists visit Bougainville every year, so people will be very glad to see you.

Wanbel Haus in Arawa is a friendly Catholic compound where people are helpful.

If you see white people anywhere on Bougainville, they are probably development workers (unless they are businessmen) and they will probably be happy to help you with anything or give you contacts. Everyone knows each other.

I’ve crossed many borders so far and this one is by far my favorite. Actually it feels like there’s no border – that’s the beauty of it.