Melanesia: Real exploring

By Judith Doyle

Landing on coral atolls, snorkelling over coral reefs sparkling with fluorescent fish, kayaking around a wrecked ship and cruising over a graveyard of wartime shipping certainly makes a cruise on the Orion a voyage of discovery.

German-built but Australia-based, the Orion is designed to boldly go where larger cruise ships dare not. Some of the biggest ships carry thousands of passengers but the Orion takes only 106.

This smaller ship is more nimble and can manoeuvre its way into inlets and shallow waters off-limits to the liners.

From Auckland we head for New Caledonia, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

They're all beautiful in different ways but it's in the Solomons that you really feel the "roads less travelled" nature of this trip.

When we arrive at Aveta, on Utupua Island, most of the villagers have never seen a cruise ship. As a result, the spontaneity and exuberance of the welcome is amazing.

A reception party of warriors, brandishing spears, race to the water's edge with blood-curdling shrieks to greet our inflatable dinghies. A bamboo-pipe band greets us and we're formally welcomed by the chief. Then the dances begin, the warriors and women in woven-grass skirts, some wearing painted masks.

One villager says her youngest child, aged four, insisted on coming with her, saying "I want to see the white people."

On nearby Santa Ana, the dances are just as energetic. Red straw headdresses are the trademark here, for both men and women, and beads are worn around necks, wrists, ankles and sometimes foreheads.

Most of our stops are at small villages, deserted coral atolls and unpopulated beaches.

At Mateana Island in the Marovo Lagoon a year earlier, a crew member left his watch on shore while snorkelling. When we arrive it is still there.

Although we eat like kings on the Orion, there are meals on shore too. Once, we have a feast on Kennedy Island, in the Solomons. It includes rum punch on arrival, then a seafood barbecue under large shade canopies on the beach.

The island is named after President John F. Kennedy. During World War II, Kennedy, then 26, commanded torpedo boat PT109. When it was rammed by a Japanese cruiser, Kennedy swam to the island, towing a wounded crew member.

The expedition team or guest speakers give lectures on relevant topics such as the Solomons during World War II, the challenges facing Pacific islands today, the formation of volcanoes, and, of particular use for snorkelling trips, identifying reef fish.

In the Solomons the snorkelling is stunning. At Mateana and Kennedy Islands, the fish and coral are abundant right off the beach. Elsewhere, inflatables take us to the reefs where we drop into a magical underwater world.

There are plate corals, large as dining tables, cushion coral, brain coral, branching coral in brilliant blue with fluorescent tips. School of yellow- and blue-striped fish are everywhere and tiny turquoise fish dart in formation - with the sunlight beyond, they look like waterfalls of tinsel.

At Roderick Bay in the Solomons' Nggela Islands we snorkel around the remains of a less fortunate cruise. In 2001 the cruise ship World Discoverer foundered in Sandfly Passage, and there it remains, now the centrepiece of a vibrant underwater community.

I watch fish darting around the deck rails and crabs clinging to a door. Ferns grow out of a spa pool and fig trees spread across the anchor deck.

Some villagers think the wreck is unsightly but others realise it brings tourist dollars, and Islanders are obviously enjoying the benefits: rumour has it there are some classy double beds with matching bedside tables in some of the thatched huts.

Our cruise ends with a bang, not a whimper, as all good voyages should. At Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, Mt Tavurvur puts on a spectacular volcanic display.

A large mushroom cloud issues forth from the volcano. Later, it's blown sideways into long streamers and loud rumbles continue all day.

It is still erupting as we leave next morning. What a finale.

Judith Doyle travelled on the Orion courtesy of House of Travel.

- Herald on Sunday

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