Taking the passenger ferry was one of those bucket list items that we didn’t really want to do, but felt like we probably try at least once before we left.
So, of course, we left it to the last minute for our final big trip – Dan and Nid go lo Morovo Lagoon… by ferry! Seemed like a cool idea at the time.
Marovo Lagoon is the longest saltwater lagoon in the world and surrounds the eastern coast of Western Province. The Lagoon is destination to numerous lodges and it’s easy to understand why, it’s just so bloody beautiful. The snorkelling and diving around these waters is spectacular.
It was hard deciding where to stay and there are a number of great accommodation options. Some people spend their whole time at one lodge, others do the lodge-hopping thing. Most of these lodges will require inter-island boat transfers on top of just getting to Morovo Lagoon. In the end, we chose to stay at Driftwood Lodge and Minado Eco Lodge. By no means are we suggesting that those are the best ones, we just ran out of time to stay at any others.
There are two ways to get to Marovo Lagoon from Honiara. The first is to take the one-hour flight to Seghe airport and have your lodge sort out the boat transfers for a no-fuss experience. This is often the easiest and fastest option, however, keep in mind that Seghe is on the western end of the lagoon and some resorts are on the eastern end. This means, if your lodge is on the eastern side of the lagoon, your lodge may still be several hours boat ride away from the airport. A one-way flight to Seghe costs around SBD 1,500.
The second and more adventurous way is to go via passenger ferry and get dropped off at the port closest to your lodge. Lodges will arrange for boat transfers. At only SBD 370 to 480 depending on where you stop, it’s almost crazy not to take the ferry, right? Almost, until you consider it takes 10 hours to get to Western Province’s first stop.
Passenger ships Fair Glory and Anjeanette do the Western Province run every week. When we bought our ferry tickets, Nid was worried they might have been sold out because we’d got them so late in the game and in the middle of the holidays.
The ferryman cheerful informed him, “No wari. Mifala never sell out.” In the Solomons, overloading = overrated. If it floats, it goes.
At 7 am on Sunday morning, two hours before the Fair Glory was scheduled to leave, we were already on the boat trying to find some seats. Being our first trip on the ferry and in the middle of the holidays, everyone had told us the same thing – get there early to put your mats down!
Seating on the ferry is on an ‘I put my mat down first’ basis. People bring large mats and mattresses to mark out their territories. If it is super packed, especially during the beginning and end of the school and Christmas holidays, you might need to use the sharp end of your elbows or risk standing for the entire journey. When a ferry is packed, every inch will have a person on it. In the corridors, on the stairwells, on top of cargo, in the toilets.
Fortunately, our ferry wasn’t too packed as everyone had already returned to their villages two weeks prior. Even with the head start we still missed getting a spot inside. But that’s ok. Getting a spot inside is stuffy and smells of engines and humans who have been sitting down for a long time.
So we set up our yoga mats on the top deck where there was space to stretch out and the air circulation was strong. As long as it didn’t rain much everything would be peachy.
We hit the seas with the 2ic optimistically telling us that with this weather we could be at Bunikalo, the first stop, in eight or nine hours.
What do people do on the passenger-ferry? Nothing much. Toktok, storistori, watch videos on phones, chew betelnut under the sign that says “No Chewing Betelnut”, and sleep. Most people had walls of stakka cargo around them. Produce, rice, clothes, all those miscellaneous things you have to stock up on for the village when you’re coming from the big smoke.
Around the three-hour mark we started heading into open seas. Without the cover of land, the winds got windier and the waves got bigger right before the horizontal rain hit. This is the problem when travelling during rainy season. Instead of 8 or 9 or 10 hours, our journey took a wet 30 hours.
Luckily the boat wasn’t as full as it could be meaning everyone was able to stay half dry when it wasn’t raining from the sides. Water was sloshing over everyone’s cargo and people were vomiting over the edge and not always making it all the way over. More than a few people on the bottom decks got someone’s lunch on their heads.
Fair Glory had begun to develop an incline to the left. Was someone was stacking all the cargo to the left of the boat, or was it a crapload of water where it shouldn’t be? At what point is tilting to the left, too much left? Who the hell thinks it’s a great idea to feed kids ice-cream for lunch on a boat trip (oh God, it’s coming this way)?! And while we’re asking questions, am I going to die and where did I put that sat phone just in case?
I mean, the situation wasn’t dire enough to qualify as a near-death experience but uncomfortable enough for us to put our life jackets on and imagine what the Solomon Star’s badly worded headline on the front page would be: Fair Glory Disaster Sinks On Passege, RSIPF Probe Shipping Company Owner (along with a picture of something entirely unrelated).
When we reached the halfway point the wind was so strong the only momentum seemed to be the backwards kind. Almost like we were stuck in place despite the engines sounding like that were about to pack up from being pushed to the limit.
Realising we weren’t going to get any closer to Marovo than this, the captain decided we’d be better off taking cover for the night. That meant backtracking to the nearest port, Yandina, Russell Islands. Yandina port is only three hours away from Honiara, which by anyone’s calculations means, we really should have looked at the weather forecast before getting on the boat.
We arrived at Yandina Port as evening was settling in. No shops, no food, no bathrooms, not even any lights. Surprisingly, everyone was pretty upbeat given the situation, it is what it is. The families on board were the most prepared and started pulling out the extra food they’d packed for doomsday situations: rice, boiled root veges, and biscuits.
Nobody had told us to pack for two days worth of food. The only food available to buy onboard was cup noodles and an announcement was made informing everyone that they could boil water on Level 1. The smell of cup noodles was too close to what people had been throwing up so we settled for our leftover popcorn and muesli bars for dinner.
By about 9 pm most people had picked a bench or spot of floor to sleep on for the night. Everyone was scrunched up trying not to put their feet on anyone’s face. Sleep was pierced by bursts of half-awakeness every time someone walked over you or you needed to adjust the crick in your neck. It was, to say the least, a long night.
Everyone was up by 5:30 am and bang on 6 am, Fair Glory was blowing its horns and pulling out of port. We left in a wake of a stadium’s worth of cup noodle cups and biskit wrappers. A trail of breadcrumbs we’d left all the way from Honiara that one could use to track Fair Glory in case we actually had sunk to the bottom of the ocean. Lucky we gapped it before the ten people in Yandina could figure out we’d turned their port into a dumpsite. Sorry bout it.
The rest of our ferry ride was uneventful. Exactly how it should be. The winds had died down enough for the boat to get some going forward action. In good weather, taking the ferry is a great option. It’s slow going but the views are nice and there are lots of opportunities for interesting chats with other passengers who are also going bored out of their brains.
By midday, Bunikalo had came into view through the humid haze of a week’s worth of wet weather. We were starving and busting, and running out of leftover popcorn kernels to chew on.
Before the boat had even touched port people were already jumping onto the jetty and hightailing it to the market. We should have taken this as a sign because all of the stalls had run out of anything edible by the time we had got there in our orderly fashion. Nothing left but betel nut.
So, would we do it again?
Taking the ferry can be a nice experience. For a song and a few extra days, you can get all the way to the other side of the Solomon Islands. Taking the ferry is both interesting and so very boring. It is an excellent opportunity to practise your Pijin and storistori with the locals. Take some hand sanitiser because the ferries are not clean places, pack enough food, and don’t be surprised or upset if you get delayed.
Other friends swear “never again”, either because they’ve gone in terrible weather, or the boats are extremely packed. In either of those two situations, don’t take the boat! Don’t say we didn’t tell you so.
Personally, we’re glad we did it once but we aren’t chomping at the bit to do it again. Our experience was a bit shit but it’s not always like that.
If you’re trying to make a decision whether to ferry or not, here’s some advice. If you’re watching the pennies and are ok with being a bit uncomfortable, go team ferry. If you are a bit more high maintenance and like your odds of being safe high, fly. We’ve only heard of doors flying open on the planes while in flight, only like, twice.
Organising the Passenger Ferry to Marovo Lagoon
*There are other passenger ferry ships. The following information is only for those going to Western Province.
You can’t buy tickets online or over the phone, and good luck finding a schedule online.
Fair Glory tickets can be bought from the Fair West shipping sales office. From Central market head towards the Honiara City Council roundabout and immediately before the roundabout is a road on your left that goes towards the sea. You’ll see a rundown building with the sign “Fair West” on the roof. If you buy your tickets early enough, you can choose to get a private cabin for SBD 1,500. Totally worth it because you get your own personal space, however, we were about two weeks late for that option. The Fair Glory leaves for Western Province every Sunday at 9 am. Report in at Point Cruz and look for the big ship that says Fair Glory on the side. If unsure, any local will point it out to you.
Alternatively, you can go on the Anjeanette instead. Their tickets can be bought at their office in Point Cruz, a bit further down from Lime Lounge and on the other side of the road. They leave for Western Province every Saturday at 9 pm and do an overnight passage instead, arriving in Bunikalo at 7 am. Can’t comment on the overnight ferry, but friends have warned us with a desperate glint in their eyes, “Don’t take the overnight ferry.” Probably because they forgot to take their orthopaedic pillows like us.
If you’ve left it to the last minute, you can also buy your tickets on the boat when the ticket man comes around. As previously mentioned, they never sell out!
- Don’t go during busy seasons. If you have to go during the holidays, go a few days after the initial influx of passengers.
- Get to the boat several hours early to put your mat down. Make sure it’s a good place for lying down as well.
- Buy your tickets early and get the private cabin. There are only a few of these available but they are private and indoors where it’s always dry.
- Pack light so that you can carry all your stuff on and off the boat fast and in one go.
- If you’re a young female travelling solo, go by plane.
- Make friends with a New Zealand volunteer and bring them along. VSA NZ actually love their volunteers and make sure they are armed with a Sat phone and a PLB, each. Take more than one VSA friend to increase triangulation and your chances of being found if you get lost out at sea.