We slid over the side of the Adventure Sports dive boat into 28 deg C (83 F) water that felt like a warm bath. About 12 metres below was the port hull and midships superstructure of the Japanese transport Toa Maru. Dive guide Lucas and I descended over the aft part of the ship heading towards the stern. As we swam past the sterncastle, my computer started beeping a 30 metre depth warning at me. In the interest of maximising bottom time, I decided not to go down to the stern gun which stood on the sand at 37 metres. The ship has a beautifully curved stern so I swam around it to see the rudder and shaft. The propeller itself was salvaged over 30 years ago.
Early in 1943, the Japanese transport Toa Maru was attacked by American dive bombers and their fighter escort while on a trip to Kolombangara Island near Gizo. The ship was carrying a cargo which included fuel, timber, trucks, bags of cement, bottles, steel girders, ammunition and a two-man tank. With a big hole in the bow and the fuel in the stern hold on fire, it appears that the captain tried to run the ship aground. The ship is about 140m (450 ft) long and lies on its starboard side on a sandy bottom in the sheltered Kololuka Bay, about seven kilometres north of Gizo. You could not hope to find a better wreck site!
I swam past the load of fuel drums in Hold 6 and into Hold 5 which is cluttered up with timber beams and logs. There are a few vehicles on the sand below including a fuel tanker, and two trucks. I swam through the interior to Hold 4 and emerged behind the midships superstructure.
There was insufficient time on this dive to explore the crew quarters, engine room, medical supply room and bridge, so we swam past the engine room skylights, lifeboat davits, funnel and bridge structure. In front of the bridge, Lucas disappeared and came back with a collection of artefacts including a 1940’s telephone handset and medical supplies.
We moved forward past the kingpost where Lucas pointed to what looked like a pile of junk on the side of the hold. Going in closer, I realised that this was a two-man tank, tipped upside down. It is similar to those that I had seen on the Nippo Maru and the San Francisco Maru in Truk Lagoon. I stood on my head and poked my torch up into the turret. There is not a lot of room in there! If you go into Hold 2, you will see steel girders, lots of bottles and some live ammunition. Down on the sand there is a wheeled vehicle which might have once been a motorcycle.
We swam past the mast and into the forward hold which contains many rather solid bags of cement. The forward gun is missing so we drifted out onto the port hull which is covered in coral. From here we moved over to a large field of staghorn coral and commenced our safety stop.
Honiara to Gizo
It was only mid-morning on that Saturday that I boarded a Solomon Airlines De Havilland Twin Otter at Honiara for the 1.5 hour flight to Gizo. I managed to get a seat in the first row and took some photos of the landing through the windscreen. The airstrip at Gizo has been carved out of the tiny, narrow Nusatupe Island. I was met at the airport by Danny Kennedy and taken in the dive boat the 2 km to Gizo. I checked into the Gizo Hotel, had a quick lunch with Danny and then off we went to dive the Toa Maru.
The premier hotel in Gizo is the Gizo Hotel which is located near the harbour and has its own private jetty. All rooms in the Gizo Hotel have private bathrooms, ceiling fans, refrigerators, tea and coffee-making facilities, and IDD telephones. I had one of the newer seaview rooms with air-conditioning and a balcony with a splendid view of the harbour, Logha Island close by, the airport island of Nusatupe, and the 5,800 ft (1770 m) extinct volcano of Kolombangara Island looming in the distance.
The Gizo Hotel has a popular restaurant, bar, dive shop, tour desk, gift shop, and saltwater swimming pool. Breakfast in the restaurant can be chosen from a light, continental, or full hot breakfast including local fresh fruits. They have tasty dishes like calamari, seafood stirfry, pepper steak and chicken parmigiana for dinner.
Gizo is a quiet little town surrounded by hundreds of palm tree studded islands which are ringed by coral reef and clear blue seas. This is a great base to explore the Solomon Islands on active adventure trips, scuba diving, snorkelling, sea kayaking and trekking.
Since I was flying back to Honiara early on Monday morning, Sunday was one of those ‘no diving before flying’ days so I decided to go on the excursion to Kennedy Island with Danny and his students. This island is where the young Lieutenant John F. (Jack) Kennedy and the surviving crewmembers swam ashore after their boat PT109 was run down at night by the Japanese destroyer Amagiri. (See National Geographic, Dec 2002) Lucas brought a group of Rotarians and their families to the island in the second boat. These people were in Gizo to have a short holiday and to help with the rebuilding of part of the Gizo Hospital. It was an interesting 7 km boat ride to the island for a day of snorkelling and beachcombing on this tiny deserted islet. Danny cooked a delicious barbeque lunch of dorado fillets, pumpkin and fried rice.
Activities around Gizo
Scuba diving is the main activity in Gizo and is available through Dive Solomons, which is located on the premises of the Gizo Hotel, or Adventure Sports Gizo nearby. These dive shops offer a variety of dive courses and have equipment for rent. There are numerous dive sites including shallow lagoons and fringing reefs, dramatic vertical walls and drop-offs, and intriguing sunken war wrecks such as the Toa Maru, a Grumman Hellcat and a Corsair fighter.
Various other activities can be arranged from the hotel tour desk including sport fishing, island tours, romantic picnics on deserted islets, nature hikes, cultural tours, or sea kayaking.
There are several small islands nearby that can be quickly reached by motor canoe where visitors can experience the local culture. Some of the Rotarian group went on the 30 km trip to Simbo Island where there are archaeological sites, skull houses, petroglyphs, tuna-worship shrines, megapode bird hatcheries, thermal areas and a sulphur lake. The somewhat arduous 1770 m (5,800 ft) climb to Mt Rano on Kolombangara Island was reported in a Solomon Airlines Inflight Magazine as an exhilarating experience, but only for those fit enough to complete the journey!
Visiting the Solomons
Solomon Airlines flies from Brisbane to Honiara on a regular basis. The main port of entry into the Solomon Islands is at Henderson Airport on the island of Guadalcanal, situated approximately 10 minutes drive from the capital of Honiara. The town is situated on the northern coastline and incorporates a small picturesque seaport at Point Cruz. Scuba diving is available on liveaboard cruise vessels based in Honiara, or from Tulagi, Maravaghi Resort, Yandina Resort, Munda, Uepi or Gizo.
King Solomon Hotel
While in Honiara, I stayed at the King Solomon Hotel which is situated in Hibiscus Avenue, on the side of a hill facing north towards Iron Bottom Sound. There are 60 guest rooms and self-contained units at various levels on the hill with a cable car to take you up to your room. Two traditional 'Leaf Haus' lodges cover the foyer, reception, lounge, gift shop, offices, and also the bar and restaurant which are popular with both guests and locals. The area is decorated with many beautiful carvings depicting traditional aspects of life in the Solomon Islands.
All rooms are large, air-conditioned and comfortable, with satellite television, refrigerators, IDD telephone, ceiling fans and tea/coffee making facilities. The rooms have been recently refurbished including new bedspreads and curtains. I had a seaview room on level 3 complete with balcony, cane chairs and superb views of Iron Bottom Sound, Savo Island and the Florida Islands on the horizon.
The cable car leaves from the rear of the 'Leaf Haus' lodges and takes you up the hill through a tropical landscaped garden to the wooden platforms at each level. A series of short elevated walkways and paved paths lead to the verandahs of the various buildings that accommodate the large guest rooms.
“Le Rendezvous Restaurant” in the King Solomon Hotel caters for all tastes and specialises in French Cuisine, local fresh fish and seafood. There is an elevated stage at one end for the evening entertainment such as custom or tamure dancing. The hotel has a shady swimming pool on level 1, hire cars, laundry services, gift shop, tour desk, and airport transfers. There is a conference centre next to the restaurant.
Honiara town centre has a bustling air and interesting shops, some specialising in local handicrafts, others in duty free goods. This is also the centre for commerce, banks, postal service, Telekom, restaurants, tourist information centre and local tour operators. A wonderful opportunity to mix with the locals presents itself at the several colourful outdoor markets around the town. Here you will find an interesting array of local goods and produce, from fresh fish and vegetables, fruit, peanuts and betel nuts, to carvings, basketware, calico laplaps and shells.
There is a good selection of restaurants in Honiara offering a variety of cuisine. I had dinner with friends at the Sea King and the Fortune Chinese restaurants which were spotlessly clean and the food was excellent. Try the Hot and Sour soup for something a little different!
The Point Cruz Yacht Club, the Honiara Golf Club, the Mariba Club and the Executive Club are situated downtown and welcome overseas guests for drinks and light meals. Several casinos in Honiara cater for both the casual and serious punters who enjoy Baccarat, Blackjack, Roulette and the famous Pacific Poker. Other places of interest include the National Parliament building, the National Museum, and the Botanical Gardens.
Both the US Memorial, atop Skyline Ridge, bearing a detailed description of the battles fought during the Guadalcanal Campaign, and the Japanese Peace Memorial, with it's four white monoliths on Mt Austin, offer panoramic views of the capital, Iron Bottom Sound and the Florida Islands.