It had been high on my wish-list of things to do in the Solomon Islands, and when the small plane descended to the airstrip of Gizo on an early morning, I was on the right side of the aircraft for a spectacular view of Mount Kolombangara, basking in a totally clear sky. The view was impressive, and when I took the small boat from the airport to Gizo, I saw that small clouds had flocked to the summit of the volcano that rises directly from the sea. I was even more eager to climb it, because I had been travelling around atolls and other rather flat islands for a month, and longed for a hike up a mountain. It seemed easy to arrange, and on the day I was supposed to leave, I wanted to go for an early morning walk in town. To my dismay, I found that my hiking shoes had disappeared from the spot where guests of the resthouse were supposed to leave their footwear. The first thing to cross my mind was: how will I still be able to climb Kolombangara? Going around town, I could not help but look at people's feet; I did not see my shoes on one of them, but I did notice that a majority of people were walking barefoot, and that their feet were so broad, I realized none of them would fit into my shoes. I searched for shoes that would be passable for the two-day hike, and found a pair in a Chinese shop that didn't look too bad. When I waited in vain for the guide to show up, I felt like it had been a lost day; fortunately, two expats were kind enough to give me the phone number of the guy, but his phone was switched off. Early next morning, I just asked around the jetty, and found a driver from the Shortline Islands who was willing to take me across; moreover, I could use his phone and confirm with the guide who by now had switched on his phone, that I was on my way. Some quick shopping resulted in a full bag, and the drive across was shorter than I expected, after I had sent away 3 half-drunken guys who showed up claiming to be crew, wanting a free ride across. The guide was waiting for me at his picture-perfect lodge at the mouth of a river coming off the Kolombangara, and we were soon on our way - finally. A porter came along, and so did Haze, the 8-year old son who literally wanted to step in his dad's footsteps. Even though I had heard it before setting off, I was surprised to see all three walking on their bare feet, which did not seem to hamper them in the least, no matter what soil we were threading.
We soon had a break at the first river crossing, and then continued. While the volcano had appeared almost completely clear when I arrived, we walked into serious rain within the hour, and at the second river crossing, it appeared my camera had died, despite my efforts to keep it as dry as I could. I was very worried, as I still had a long way to travel before reaching home, but also had to pay attention to the treacherous vines and branches on the ground that regularly managed to trap one foot. It seemed impossible to avoid them, as there were simply too many, and most of them did not pose a threat. It was annoying enough, and I quickly learnt how to kick my feet back and lift them high, which worked in most cases. The guide was sharp enough to spot a venomous snake just before he stepped on it, to my surprise, he chased it away instead of hacking it to pieces with his machete. The trail went slowly up, and I was happy when we finally reached the forest, which had a different kind of trail. We inevitably had to climb more, but then the going was good. Also, the trail was much less muddy than I had anticipated. At one point, the guide cautioned me to stop, uttering animal-like noises, and it soon turned out he was communicating with a wild boar which we could see not far away from us. The animal was making threatening sounds, and the guide motioned us back. Eventually, the boar backed off, and we could continue to a next river and break, where we spent an hour. From there, the trail finally went up a little steeper, and before I realized, we had reached Professor Camp at around 1000m altitude; we had hiked only some 4h15. We went to fetch water in a nearby stream, pitched a tent, and then the guys had their hands full trying to light a fire which they thankfully managed to do - considering the ultra-wet environment we were in, quite a feat! There were good views of the island below, and some islands further away, but clouds still blocked much of it; the top of Mount Kolombangara is not visible from here. A little later, just when the light was disappearing from the sky, but without the spectacular sunset I had hoped for (we were facing directly west), we had dinner under a cover that protected us against the rain that had returned. My camera turned out to be still partly functional, but when we went for a very early sleep, I was still worried, and tried to put it next to me in the tent in such a way that it could dry a little.
The next morning, most of my things were wetter than the evening before, and even though it was still dry, the clouds creeping up the slopes of Kolombangara left no doubt: we were in for rain again, and would not have the clear morning we had hoped for. I dreaded the moment I would have to stick my reasonably dry feet into the soaked shoes. We waited several hours, until the rain seemed to get less, and there were some lighter patches in the cloudy sky, but within ten minutes, we were all drenched. The climb was steeper now, we sometimes had to use roots to work our way up, had to be careful not to step into one of the holes in the ground, that at times veered up and down like a soft cushion. Within the hour, we reached the summit of Mount Kolombangara - or at least, that is what the guide and porter told me; for me, there was no way to confirm that we had. In any case, the porter and I continued through a forest consisting of many moss-covered trees, until we reached the end of the trail. The porter looked disappointed; there are supposed to be views both of the crater, on one side, and the sea on the other. In fact, without being able to see the crater, to me, there was nothing to suggest that we were on an extinct volcano: we were hiking in a rainforest that did not give any hint of growing on volcanic ground. The shape as I had seen it from Gizo of course left no doubt. I congratulated Haze for his accomplishment (no minor feat for an 8-year old!), and we went down to camp for something to eat. Where I had assumed we would be descending in pouring rain, it turned out we were lucky: it stopped raining when we broke off camp and headed down. Going down was not as bad as I thought, and when we reached the logging area, a fragile sun even tried to force its rays through the clouds - at once, it was much warmer, and I was happy we had not climbed the mountain under the hot sun. It was especially at the river crossings that I missed my hiking shoes, but to be honest, the ones I was using turned out to be quite OK. The first thing I did when we reached Hambere village, was to get my wet clothes off me, and dive into the cool water. A copious dinner followed; Haze had something to eat and then just dozed off. It was a good example that his father and I soon followed. The next morning, while having breakfast on the verandah while dolphins and a shark were passing by in the calm water, the guide explained to me that the Kolombangara is dubbed the Sleeping Lady: if you look well, you can see a woman lying on her back, with her hair extending to the east, her profile jutting into the sky. But this is only visible on those rare moments when the clouds are absent.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Kolombangara climb (). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Kolombangara climb.
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