It’s our first full day in The Solomons. We’re in Munda, having breakfast at the Agnes Gateway Hotel, just around the corner from our guesthouse. Sarah is having eggs, Samantha is having sausages. I’m the only one having fish. Because apparently, that’s the thing to do here. Heavy breakfasts, like fish and rice and potatoes. I love it. It feels like a very island thing to do.
“So after this head back to the rooms, and a taxi will pick you up for the museum,” Fiona says.
Fiona is our guide for the week. She’s a young, smiley woman, soft spoken, with a slow walk and a kind face.
“After that I’ll meet you guys back here, we’ll head out to the islands.”
Breakfast done, we head back to the rooms to get ready. We’re staying at Qua Roviana, a two storey guesthouse just around the corner from the docks. It’s a small but charming place, obviously built with love. The four of us head straight to the lounge and wrestle with the wifi.
An old lady walks in.
“Good morning!” she says in her grandmotherly voice. She’s a friendly soul we met the evening before, grew up around here some 50 years ago.
“It’s a lovely day, do you have something fun planned?”
“Yeah we’re off to the museum. Then we’re going snorkelling at the islands.”
“Oh fantastic. Which island?”
We all look at each other.
“I think it starts with H,” Sarah says.
“H…” she lady trails off. “Must be…Hopei?”
We all shrug.
An hour later the taxi picks us up for the museum. The driver is a young guy with a funky haircut. His name is Junior. We all jump in and say hello.
“So the museum right?”
“Yep. I forgot the name though,” I say. “How many museums are there in Munda?”
“Well then that’s the one we’re going to!”
The drive out isn’t long, but it’s bumpy. It’s a dirt road, with small shacks and houses every few minutes, potholes, puddles. Junior maneuvres around them slowly, telling us a few bits about Munda.
Fifteen minutes later we pull up a sand driveway to someone’s house.
Waiting to greet us is a stocky man with a childish grin. He’s wearing a camo tee shirt and shorts, his shabby hair hidden under an old baseball cap. His name is Barney.
Barney greets us enthusiastically and welcomes us into an open air garage, two long wooden tables down the middle.
“So this is my collection. I haven’t put labels on anything, I prefer if you want to know about something, you ask me.”
I look up and down the room. The two tables are covered with what looks like scraps – old bottles, scrap metal, bottle tops. But looking a little closer, they’re actually parts of guns, medicine bottles, dog tags. I’d been wondering where the entrance to the museum was, but that’s when I realised – this room is the museum.
During World War 2, the Solomon Islands found itself more involved than it probably wanted. The Japanese and Americans fought over the isles, likely wanting them for resources and strategic bases. Even today there are still buildings and airstrips built by the Japanese. Obviously as history was happening, the Islands were left with their fair share of mementos – army equipment, bullets, guns, blown up airplanes – left buried in the Islands’ sands. For fifty years, anyway. After that, Barney came along to dig it all up. It seems he’s spent most of his adult life beep beep beeping with his metal detector, uncovering every bit of wartime memorabilia he can find. And it seems he’s barely getting started.
He pulls out a box from under the table. It’s filled with old bullets, keys, bits and pieces.
“This is my special box. I keep all the really interesting stuff I find in here.”
He takes out a big keyring of dogtags. There’s at least 200 on there.
“You can see where they were all from – mostly US soldiers. The first dog tag I ever found was a man named Peter Joseph. So I named my museum after him.”
“Do you still have it?”
“Of course! It’s right here.”
We all snap a photo.
While the girls continue looking through the box, I wander around the tables.
“Where do you find all this stuff?” I ask him.
“Just anywhere down there, at the old sites,” he says, pointing in the distance. “Sometimes kids find stuff and they come running down here asking, Barney will you buy this off me? So I give them five dollars, ten dollars, depending on what it is.”
At first glance the whole room looks messy, but on closer inspection, you can see everything has been laid out meticulously in distinct collections. Coke bottles sorted by colour, rifle barrels sorted by length. Each time I stop and take a photo of something, Barney starts telling me about it.
“These ones are all Japanese helmets,” he tells me as I examine a bullet hole.
“How do you know?”
“Mushroom,” he says, moulding the shape with his hands. “The Japanese wore mushrooms.”
As I stop at the guns, he rattles off all the different models, who they were used by. Same with the knives, and the clothing.
“And what’s this, an engine?”
It’s a huge clunk of metal, sitting tucked away in the corner of the room.
“Yep jet engine,” he says, rattling off more fancy names. “All the Japanese planes were given female nicknames by the Americans, like…Betty Bomber, Grace, Louise, Norma. Zeke.”
I look at him stare at the engine like it’s an old childhood toy. He smiles childishly, obviously fascinated by it all.
On the table behind us are bottles.
“Tell me about these.”
“Oh, they’re all different types of bottles. Soldiers used them for liquor, medicine, drugs. See?” He holds one up so I can read the print. “Oh! And look at this.”
He pulls out a small box from under the table.
“Morphine. Still sealed.”
“What’s the coolest thing you ever found, do you think?”
He walks back over to his little box of treasures.
“I don’t know, but when I found this, I thought it was really amazing.”
He rummages through his box and pulls out a lock and key. It’s inscribed with United States Marine Corps.
“It still works.” He turns the key back and forth a couple of times before going back to his little box.
“Oh! And this.”
He twirls a little bolt in front of me.
“What is it?”
“A stamp. Japanese one. Rare”
“What’s the most recent thing you found?”
“Well actually, I found this just the other day.”
He holds up his hand, like a newly engaged damsel showing off her diamond ring. Then he pulls the silver off his finger and sets it on the table.
“It’s from a US soldier,” he tells us proudly. “Just look at the design.”
When you first meet Barney, you kind of half listen. But after a while, he tells you something interesting. Then a few more things. After long enough, you begin to see how passionate he is about everything in this little room. So you start asking questions. You discover how well read and knowledgeable he is. And genuine. Half an hour goes past, and he’s suddenly wildly interesting. Maybe the most interesting guy you’ve met all year.
I ask him if there’s a good book I could read about the Solomons and the war.
“Munda Trail is good. Midnight in the Pacific. Here, take a look.”
He points behind me. I turn around and see a stack of books on the table. Munda Trail. Midnight in the Pacific. Among others. We talk history for a while, a few stories about the Japanese, and that’s when I realise, this is really all this guy does. Looks for artefacts. Reads history books. He’s one of those guys that found something to obsess over, and now he obsesses over it. Not everyone discovers their true love. Barney is one of the lucky ones.
“So you still go out looking for stuff today?”
“Oh my gosh, all the time. I’ll go out tomorrow.”
He points to a metal detector hanging on the wall.
“I just…I have to. It’s in my blood, you know?”
He laughs, like it’s ridiculous, but it’s not. It’s pretty darn cool. In fact, I regret that we’re leaving town tomorrow. If we weren’t, I’d ask if I could join him.
As much fun as Barney is, we can’t stay any longer. The islands await. We snap a photo with the man, share handshakes and pile back into the cab.
If you’re ever in Munda, do make an hour or two to go visit Barney’s Museum (official name is The Peter Joseph Wartime Memorial Museum). Even if you’re not a war history enthusiast, it’s great to meet Barney and support someone who loves what he does and does what he loves. Entry is 50 Solomon dollars (about $6 USD).
“So what are you doing after this?” Junior asks as he pulls out of the driveway.
“We’re going to the islands for snorkelling.”
We’re all silent again.
“It’s the one that starts with H.”
“Hopei,” he says. “Is Billy taking you?”
“I have no idea. Who’s Billy?”
“He’s the boat driver. I’m sure you’ll be going with him.”
“Is he cool?”
“Yeah! He’s a cool guy.”
“Okay if he’s taking us, I’ll tell him you said he’s a cool guy.”
We all have a chuckle.
When we get to the docks Fiona is there waiting for us. She sets the girls up at the dive shop with snorkels and fins. For me, I’ve been dealing with skin issues, so swimming is off limits. I’ll be sitting on the beach, enjoying some sunshine, taking photos.
At the dock, our driver shepherds us all onto the boat. Junior was right. His name is Billy. He reverses the boat out, then powers us out into the open sea. The water here is a sparkling turquoise, littered with islands. Gorgeous, times one hundred.
It’s around a twenty minute ride to Hopei. As we pull up on the sand, a staff of four or five is already there, cooking our lunch. Two large fish are resting over hot stones, sizzling away. I go over and chat with them, ask them questions.
“The traditional way to cook fish,” they tell me.
Under the shade, a spread of fruits and refreshments have been laid out for us. Two of my favourite things in the world – bananas and coconuts.
The first coconut goes down like a milkshake.
“Can I have another one?” I ask Fiona.
“You can have as many as you like!”
She shouldn’t have said that. I grab another. Again it goes down in seconds.
The girls have gone into the water. The water is crystal, the kind where you can walk out to your knees and still see your toes in high definition. Fiona and I sit on the shore, snap a few photos.
With the girls occupied, Fiona asks if I want to take a walk around the island.
Sure, I say.
We call Billy over. I grab another coconut, and the three of us start walking inland.
Hopei isn’t a small island. It’s not huge either. Just good for a day. Billy walks us over to the opposite end, passing under fruit trees, forest. We walk by a cabin where guests can stay the night, nestled in the green. Imagine sitting out here with a group of friends, I think to myself. Eating grilled fish, sipping on coconuts, listening to Bob Marley. What a dream.
On the walk back, we stop at another beach, hidden by some trees.
“This is where the sun sets,” Billy tells me. “The water is shallow – you can walk, all the way out there, watch the sunset.”
He points out to a water line, way out, at least thirty or forty metres. The water is clear as glass. We relax for a while under the trees, talking, sipping my coconut.
“Oh by the way. Do you know a guy called Junior?”
“He says you’re a really cool guy.”
He laughs and shakes his head.
Lunch is ready when we return to the group. The girls are just getting out of the water, ready to eat. I salivate as I watch them lay out the food. Watermelon salad, casava and sweet potatoes, yams stewed in coconut milk, and of course, the pair of marvelous grilled fish. All Solomon Islands favourites, all cooked delightfully.
We don’t use plates, but banana leaves. I stack my banana leaf healthily with everything. It goes down too fast.
“Eat more,” Fiona says.
She shouldn’t have said that.
I have seconds. Thirds. Wash it all down with fresh coconut. Heaven must look like lunchtime on Hopei.
With my pile of empty coconuts stacking up, I ask Fiona if they have a machete to cut them open. The flesh is inside, waiting for me. It would be criminal to leave it to waste.
“Just use this,” she says, grabbing a carving knife on the table. She digs it into the shell, prys it open.
“Do you have a spoon?”
She takes the knife and slices a little wedge off the coconut shell. “This is how we do it,” she smiles, handing it to me. It’s like a little ice cream scoop.
I scrape out a spoonful flesh and suck it off the edge of the shell. My tastebuds sing. I’ve eaten a lot of coconuts in my travels. No lie, these are the best in the world. The best.
The girls lounge around the beach a while, letting lunch digest, while I continue to nibble on tropical goodies at the table. But soon the afternoon rain sets in. After gobbling down six coconuts and every banana on the table, it’s time to head back.
As we pull out into the sea once again, we say goodbye to Hopei – the island starting with H – and thank it for the memories.
All inclusive day trips to Hopei (and many other islands), diving, snorkelling, sunset cruises, and various other activities around Munda can be arranged at the Agnes Gateway Hotel. Just show up and ask – it’s centrally located and very easy to find!
That night we get together for a short sunset cruise before dinner.
The weather is nippy, the girls look half-hearted. Then Fiona brings the wine out, and suddenly the girls can’t wait. Sunset cruise? Yes please!
We climb back in the boat, zoom out into the ocean once more, around twenty minutes out, then sit there afloat as we watch the sun set behind some islands in a purple sky. The girls polish off the wine while I polish off the snack platter. It’s a nice way to wind down the evening. Then it’s back to the Agnes Gateway Hotel for dinner.
On the menu tonight? Crab. Not just any crab. An enormous crab.
The seafood in the Solomon Islands is legendary. Right out of the sea, onto your plate. Every night of the week.
With full bellies and well tanned faces, we head back to Qua Roviana for the night. Tomorrow, we set sail west, for new islands and new adventures. Our time in Munda has come to an end, but our adventures in the Solomon Islands are only just beginning.