ON the southwestern part of Guadalcanal, we found home.
While waiting for the high-pressure system to subside before we could go on to New Caledonia, the people of Wanderer Bay gave us a pleasant surprise when they rowed out to the Uto ni Yalo in their dugout canoes and invited us to their homes.
"Lako mai, vano i vale (Come, let's go home)," said Brian Ashley, 24, pointing towards the dense jungle.
The escape from the storm to the bay on Saturday after sailing 465km south into the open towards New Caledonia from Honiara had taken us to a place whose people spoke the Hari dialect, which is similar to that which my kin from Ra speak.
Brian is from Malaga, a hilltop village overlooking the bay and Suqu and Pasana villages, hidden in the shade of the coastal palms that grow on the edge of the beach of black sand.
It could easily have been mistaken as the Ra coast near Saioko close to where Captain William Bligh followed the winds in his tall ship between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu to escape a party of war-faring Fijians in a fast-travelling drua during Fiji's cannibalistic days.
The unannounced arrival of three double-hulled canoes — Uto ni Yalo, Cook Islands' Marumaru Atua and New Zealand's Te Matau — had raised the curiosity of the bay's inhabitants.
With Brian were some children and youth of the three villages. They circled the three vaka that were tied alongside each other that afternoon, inspecting them from front to back and all over again.
These people were among the thousands who could not afford to travel to Honiara on the other side of the island where the 11th Festival of Pacific Arts was coming to a close that afternoon.
They had heard of the vaka fleet that some of their relatives had met while paddling out in their tomoko, the traditional Solomons canoe, during the welcome ceremony for the Pacific Voyagers.
Here was their festival, a chance to see what Honiara had seen.
That night — as the voyagers from the vaka celebrated their flight to safety while the Hine Moana, the fleet's lead vessel with a mixed crew, Tahiti's Fafaite, New Zealand's Haunui and Vanuatu's cargo transportation canoe, Okeanos, fought the storm towards Rennel Island — the villagers waited for daybreak to return alongside the vaka in the bay.
The next day, the crew scrubbed the deck on which our two matua — Joe Browne (JB) and Master Mausio Mario Mafai — had slipped and injured themselves at the height of the storm.
Captain Johnathan Smith did a stocktake of our food and water supply. It had taken two days to backtrack through the squalls to Guadalcanal and we needed to restock.
Water was most important. After conversing with my kai in the dugout canoes, Teddy Fong, Peni Vunaki and I informed skipper we'd go ashore and refill our empty drums from a stream on which only two families relied on. No one else lived upstream. We had to save drinking water and use stream supply for bathing and washing.
The two families are Catholics and live 100m from Suqu, an Anglican village in which Chief Pastemo and 20 other families live. On the other side is Pasana, a modern village of Catholics of 22 families and above them in the hills is Malaga.
Brian, fifth in a family of 10 siblings, and the 18 other families there are Catholics and they rely on another stream for water.
Suqu and Pasana have a piped water supply which we were advised against using so we opted to go up a stream and fill our gallons with clean water in the cool of the shady jungle, a relief from the humidity and heat on the Uto ni Yalo.
The villagers had advised us of a crocodile idling in the bay the past few days so we were wary while paddling the Zodiac there. On the way we saw how rich the reef was. The sight of a giant speedy bumphead parrotfish (varivoce) underneath us triggered our already heightened senses. We thought it was a croc, then a shark and finally realised what it was when the school of parrotfish, about one metre long each, followed. It excited Teddy, our biogeographer whose thesis was on the parrotfish that had eluded him all this time.
On Sunday, after getting approval, Skipper, Marumaru Atua captain Peaia Patai and two crew dived for lunch. Teddy, myself, Peni, Iva Vunikura, Agnes Sokosoko and Kelekele Lausi restocked our water from the stream.
Brian and the boys from the village supplied the vaka with slippery cabbage (our favourite bele or deke in the Hari dialect), chinese cabbage, oranges and green coconuts. Whatever Solomon currency we had left from Honiara was spent on them.
Fijian hospitality reigned. The locals only frequented the Uto ni Yalo, climbing on board to ask what this and that was for.
It was a pleasant surprise when Gideon, one of the bele sellers, asked if we had a copy of The Fiji Times. Setareki Tukuna had an old copy of The Sunday Times which he gave the excited Wanderers who pored over its pages.
Gideon had a relative who studied at the University of the South Pacific and had brought home to the Solomons a copy of The Fiji Times which had a picture of him.
Then tragedy struck again. Nick White, one of the two exchange crew from Shark Angels on the Sea Sheperd's Brigitte Bardot, partly severed his little right toe and crushed another under the hatch cover during heavy rain. He was given antibiotics by Skipper who treated his wounds. There was nothing much else that could be done to ease his agony.
That night it rained heavily and not even the awning covering the back of the deck was enough to keep us dry. The Cook Islanders, Maori, JB and us sat it out over kava to keep Nick company and take his thoughts away from his pain.
At dawn, Master, accompanied by Abraham, one of the boys in the dugouts, went ashore to visit the chief at Suqu and inform him why we were there. Chief Patemo said we could use whatever we could on land and in the bay.
Then Abraham, accompanied by Iva, Uto traditional navigator on the Marumaru Atua, Jim Fuluna, and Galen McCleary, from the Brigitte Bardot, transported Nick to Tangarare, a 30-minute ride away by fibreglass boat.
He was given five stitches by the lone-nurse who is married to Padre from Kalekana, on the outskirts of Tangarare, a one-shop settlement. Padre explained to the Fijians that they had relatives living at Kalekana outside Lami in Fiji.
Nick was told he had to return for a medical review in seven days and could not sail. They returned to Wanderer Bay.
That afternoon, the two exchange crew left for Honiara, sad that their adventure, as dangerous and exciting as it was, had come to an end.
Later, Peni and I were taken by Brian to Suqu and Pasana in search of cigarettes for Teddy, who waited at the stream with Filomena, Agnes, Miss South Pacific Alisi Rabukawaqa and Kele.
There, in the clean village surroundings, in houses raised on stilts of coconuts trunks, we met some wantok elders and found there were more similarities that connected us to them. We have the same words for a lot of things.
Duawaqa, which means leg in the Ra dialect, means the same to them. The hair is ivuqu (uluqu in Fijian) and the ear is kuliqu (skin in Fijian). The mouth, though, refers to the female genital in Fijian.
"You talk me talk," said Brian laughing. "But it's all jumbled."
The theory that we originated from them among other South Pacific islands during those early migratory days is backed by these similarities. The only recorded movement of Solomon Islanders to Fiji was during the era of blackbirding in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Most of their descendants live in Solomon settlements around the country.
Brian said he wanted to "vano i waqa (go to the boat in the Ra dialect)" to inspect it. He followed us in a dugout after getting cigarettes from a canteen at the Chinese logging company on the other side of the bay. The three canteens in Suqu and Pasana were closed while their owners vano to their farms i muri (at the back).
Our last night in Wanderer Bay, again under the rain, was short as everyone tried to get