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Three years on an island

A little over three years ago, I was given what I now understand was a sort of Golden Ticket to an extraordinary experience. Taking a job in the Solomon Islands, a country I knew very little about – beyond the fact that it was north of Australia, and that the Australian and New Zealand military and police had gone in a few years earlier – felt like a scary step, a complete unknown.

My initial few days were hardly the perfect start. Out on a police patrol boat within six hours of being in the country, I was involved in a rescue of 13 people, whose fibreglass boat had sunk in rough seas. Thankfully, all survived, but the faces of those freezing, terrified children is something that still makes me wince whenever I think of that bizarre first afternoon in the Solomons.

And a few days later back in the capital Honiara, I was checking out the shops in my new town, and was put in a headlock by a spakamasta (the pidgin word for a drunk), whose equally-spaka mate then tried to take my wallet. While I pushed them off and got away, it was a bizarre entrance to a country that I was supposed to be calling my home for the next 12 months.

In the end… I’ve stayed in the Solomons for three years, two years longer than I’d planned. Maybe this is the point where those wiser than I will talk about ‘baptism by fire’, etc and talk about the symbolism of those tough first few days. Who knows. All I know is that while that headlock was definitely not a reflection on the warmth and generosity of Solomon Islanders, the rescue of those 13 people was definitely a reflection on the adventure that would lay ahead.

And these past three years have been a pretty extraordinary existence. I worked for two and a half years as the on-staff journalist/photographer for the Australian-led peacekeeping/aid mission known as the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI). The job gave me the chance to travel to some of the most remote parts of the Solomons, and throughout the Pacific: to Samoa, Vanuatu and Kiribati, countries I knew almost nothing about.

Early on I came to realise just how special the opportunity in front of me was. The Solomon Islands are, in many ways, a photographer’s dream. It is beautiful, it’s incredibly diverse, and it is completely unexplored. There are thousands and thousands of stories just waiting to be told. As a result, I’ve carried my camera every day, nearly everywhere I’ve gone, for three years. During these three years I’ve seen some extraordinary things, some truly stunning places, and met some inspiring, genuinely unique people. And (the key reason for somewhat self-indulgent blog post), I’ve been able to photograph a lot of this stuff too.

The result? It’s called SOLO: life in the Solomon Islands.

It is my first book, a 68-page book of my photographs that document of life in the ‘modern’ Solomon Islands, the country that I’ve called home for the past three years. In SOLO I’ve tried to showcase the Solomon Islands that I’ve seen and come to know: as much a tropical paradise in the South Pacific as a country with more than its fair share of problems, where the balance between kastom (tradition) and the realities of modern life often do not sit well together.

Be sure to take a look at the PDF sample (2.2MB) to get a sense of the book, and if you’re keen to get hold of a copy, head on over to PayPal to order a copy and I’ll get it over to you quick-smart.

For those who are keen, there’s also a Facebook page where you can leave your comments, suggestions and ideas for Solomon Islands photography. Or if you’ve got any comments, feel free to leave them below.

So whether you’ve lived in the Solomons your whole life or are just looking to discover a bit more about a special part of the South Pacific, I do really hope you enjoy SOLO, as I can promise you that putting it together has been a pretty wild adventure.

Trailing Ho Chi Minh

“A deserted ribbon of perfection, one of the best coast roads in the world…” 

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These are the sort of words you’d expect for roads around the French Riviera, or even Australia’s Great Ocean Road. But Vietnam’s Hai Van Pass, a 21km over-mountain stretch that just 10 years ago was considered one of the most dangerous roads in Asia?

And these words didn’t come from a guidebook or a tourist brochure, but from the notoriously grumpy TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear, who rode the Hai Van Pass on a motorscooter during the BBC series’ Vietnam Special in 2008. Furthermore, prior to riding this stretch, Clarkson had nothing but snide remarks to say about motorbikes. Clearly the Hai Van Pass changed all that.

I know the feeling; riding a motorbike in Vietnam does that.

Over 12 days and 2000 kilometres, me and a group of mates took a bunch of clunky old Hondas along one of Asia’s most legendary journeys; Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The Trail was the hidden supply route used the North Vietnamese during the ‘American War’ (as it’s known locally). Actually series of hidden routes straddling the Vietnam-Laos border , the Trail remains the stuff of military legend; it’s exact location eluding American forces for much of the 10-year campaign.

I hopped on a motorbike and road this incredible journey for Jetstar magazine.

Crossing Guadalcanal

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Guadalcanal.

The Solomon Islands’ largest island, named after a small Spanish town, inspires many thoughts for many people. For historians it stirs visions of tens of thousands of American and Japanese troops battling for control of the Pacific during World War II. For nature lovers, it represents the home of countless rare species of birds, marsupials and reptiles. And for those fascinated by black magic, Guadalcanal is home to endlesskastom storis featuring an array of spirits that still inspire real terror.

But for me… it’s home. (For the past three years anyway.)

With my time in the Solomons – and on Guadalcanal – soon coming to an end, I decided to take up the challenge of completing a journey that I’d thought countless times about, but had been too wary of attempting: crossing the island. For three tough days me and five others trekked across this incredible island, from the tough, black sand beaches of the appropriately-named ‘Weathercoast’, through the seemingly impassable mountains of central Guadlacanal, and through the countless rivers and streams to the end point: the mouth of the Poha River.

The story is published in edition 58 of Solomons, the Solomon Airlines magazine.

By the rivers of Kalimantan

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In late 2011 I was given the chance to hop aboard the Rahai’i Pangun with the crew from WowBorneo for a journey throughout southern and central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo).

While my mind was firmly set on getting close to Borneo’s famous native, the orangutan, it was the journey itself – throughout the hundreds of rivers, creeks and canals of Kalimantan – that will remain my most lasting memory from this incredible part of the world.

By the rivers of Kalimantan was published in the March 2012 edition of Get Lost mag. Have a read and let me know what you think.

‘Voluntourism’

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Call me a cynic, but – like most people – it takes a special kind of ad campaign to have much of an impact on me these days. So when a friend sent me a link to the When children become tourist attractions campaign put together by Cambodian NGO Friends International, and it had an immediate, lasting impact, I realised it had struck a nerve.

The campaign essentially encourages tourists to Cambodia to think twice before ‘helping out at an orphanage’. As the campaign helps inform, the reality is that in most cases, a ‘voluntourist’ is going to be of limited value to the organisation they are supporting, and more importantly in the case of orphanages, may actually have a detrimental impact on many of the kids they are there to help.

For me, one of the reasons the campaign hit home is because I’ve been that guy. So have many of my friends. We’ve been on a gap year / sabbatical / year off – and thought, “I’d really like to do something helpful, something that will help others” and turned up for a week or two thinking I can make a difference. And the reality is that voluntourism is now big business, with many people forking out thousands of dollars for the chance to build housing, teach English, or help out at an orphanage in a developing country.

With that in mind, for Get Lost mag‘s ‘Responsible Tourism’ section I decided to take a bit of a look at voluntourism, its impacts – and suggest some potentially more helpful alternatives. Have a read and let me know what you think.

(Image courtesy Friends International)

Riding the rails in India

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Back in November, I was given the opportunity to ride the rails in India for a month by the crew from Get Lost.

Organised by the good folk from Vodka Train, I covered many thousands of kilometres by train – from Kolkata, through Varanasi and Agra, across Rajasthan, into Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and all the way back down to Dehli. It was a phenomenal opportunity, and one that I’m still – even well over two months on – still struggling to get my head around.

The result was On the rails in India, which is in this month’s edition of Get Lost and is available to download (PDF file, 1.7Mb).

Be sure to also take a look at Flickr for plenty more photos from the trip.