38 seconds, the time it took for the first drop of sweat to form on my forehead as I stepped out of the old-looking Airbus 320 operated by Solomon Airlines, bought second-hand from Air Canada as the logos and french/english labels over the whole aircraft suggest. In the terminal, a band plays in loop the same song as we clear immigration and customs. A man from the tour agency helps us with the transfer to the domestic terminal – first time anyone is waiting for me at the airport. New check in, but this time both luggage and passengers have to step on the scale for the staff to write down the weight on a piece of paper. Everything makes sense boarding the plane, a Twin Otter, which can only take 19 passengers (but surprisingly has 6 emergency exits). We land at the Suavano airfield, located at the very north of the Saint Isabel Island, only to jump on a small motor boat that will take us to our final destination, Papatura Island Retreat.
The small island of Papatura is one of three islands covered in virgin forest and surounded by crystal clear water, coral reefs, and abundant marine life. The bungalows of the “retreat” are the only buildings, and the nearest fisherman village is a 20min boat ride away. For our first night, we are welcomed with a spectacular sunset over Suavano, accompanied with cold gin and tonics.
As Drew puts it when we arrive:
Have we died in a plane crash?
The first impression for the three of us is indeed to have arrived in paradise. The nature is stunning, the facilities are simple yet perfect to enjoy a break from the city life. Sadly, after a few days we realize that despite being branded as “sustainable tourism”, the Papatura retreat business is not exactly sustainable. On the enviromnental side, a lot is done: dry toilets, minimization of plastic waste, recycling of aluminium cans. The island is pristine and the waters around it are just as clean. On the social and economical side however, the owners (an Australian couple), who have a lease of the island for 50 years, show a very patronistic attitude towards the locals. The Islanders are responsible of driving tourists around, cooking, and cleaning the bungalows, but they do not seem to have the oportunity to take more responsibilities in the business or to interact more with tourists. English, despite being the country’s official language, is still a barrier to communication. Why not provide english lessons to locals? Why not train staff to become bar-tender instead of hiring someone from Australia? Why cooking pizza, pasta, and burritos with imported products instead of buying from the nearby villages? Maybe the target clientele is not adventurous when is comes to food, but who will refuse a fish caught in the morning? Not everything is bad though, part of the profits are reinvested in local communities to help build schools, clinics, and incentivate recycling. But to be truly sustainable, such business should make sure that money is direclty reinvested in the communities, for instance by buying local products, or creating homestays. It also needs to ensure that it can operate in the medium term with only local staff and management, which require to train staff and to give them a chance to be more involved.
Aside from that, for the next 12 days our life is divided between surfing, snorkeling, fishing, and being amazed by the nature aroud us. The surfing is confronting at first. It’s the first time I surf on a reef break, and the clear waters do not help. At each take off, the colourful reef appears uder my feet. The waves break on enough water, but more often than I would like, the coral reminds itself to me. After a few sessions both confidence and stamina are up and I finally manage to get a few good rides. The great thing is, there is nobody else on the spots we visit! At most a dozen of surfers share the many waves generated by Pacific Ocean swells.
Days go by with this simple routine, and before we realize it is time to fly back to Melbourne. I feel like I would have liked to explore more the country, but at the same time it seems that tourism is not developped enough for independent travelling. Hopefully it will develop in the coming years in a way that both profit to the local communities and preserves the amazing fauna and flaura.
First day back at work I discover that coral poisoning is not a myth, and I enjoy for the first time the benefits of having Medicare: having the choice between paying $1,500 to be treated in a clinic or waiting hours in a public hospital.
Surf photos credit: Drew Stansbury