A review - Garry Nowlan…….
DIVE MUNDA – MORE THAN A DIVE TRIP, A TROPICAL DIVE ADVENTURE.
Let me start by saying while I am no stranger to the South Pacific Regions, having worked, lived, dived and travelled extensively here for two decades, I was absolutely blown away by my experience with Dive Munda.
Getting There - Regardless of where you come from you must fly into the Capital Honiara, on Guadalcanal. Travelling from Canberra in Australia I flew to Brisbane and boarded an international flight to Honiara. The transition was seamless, the flights comfortable, not too overcrowded and it is a full service, relatively short flight of 3 hrs 15 mins from Australia. On landing at Honiara you collect your luggage and it is a brisk 500 meter walk, or a very short taxi ride to the Domestic Terminal where a Dash 8 aircraft is on standby to take you to Munda and the nether regions of Western Province, Solomon Islands. Make sure you get a window seat as the short 55 minute flight up through the chain of island is spectacular. You then land at Munda, a reclaimed WW2 Regional Airstrip, first built by the Japanese then captured and expanded by American Forces. It is then a short 5 minute walk to Agnes Gateway Lodge the home of Munda Dive, or a quick transfer in the Hotel car.
Agnes Gateway Lodge – This is a 30 year old resort probably 3 Star, which like most places in remote developing destinations, could do with some upgrades. But, that is occurring now, as while I was there they were building a new over-water restaurant with 10 new water-side bungalows to follow. Like most hotels in developing places, you will not get 5 star. But, you will not pay 5 Star prices either. And the place does have a certain laid back, rustic charm about it. As a fairly astute adventure dive traveller, I found Agnes Lodge ticked all my boxes. The accommodation was clean and serviced daily. My bungalow was neat, comfortable, air-conditioner worked well and there were 2 oscillating ceiling fans, so the room was always cool. The bed was comfortable, there was a small fridge, electric jug with tea and coffee making facilities, decent furniture and a nice veranda with table and chairs overlooking the lagoon. They provide soap and towels in the bathroom for washing and there was always hot water, reliable power and plenty of power points to charge devices. Power points are of the standard Australian type. It was a 30 second walk to the restaurant/bar and a 1 minute walk to the dive shop. And it overlooks Roviana lagoon, as pretty and tranquil a sight as you could ever hope to see, anywhere.
Meals – There is a large open restaurant with great lagoon views and I found the meals to be good with most adequate servings. During my stay I had very nice lobster on 4 nights, mud crab another night and fish or chicken other nights. I recommend a meal plan as you can order 3 courses of anything on the menu. It serves 3 meals a day but the kitchen can be rather slow. That is easily overcome with some forward planning. Just walk down, grab a coffee and order your breakfast 30 minutes before you want it. Same with lunch. At dinner time they come to your room and take your order which will be ready in around 45 minutes.
Munda – This is a typically remote, rustic, laid back, sleepy tropical backwater shanty town. It is developing, rather than developed and in many respects a step back in time. Life is simple here. They are a subsistence, sea dependant people. So, their livelihood derives mainly from what the sea, garden or surrounding jungle provides. The lifestyle is still very traditional with the destructive trappings of western culture still fairly scarce. The airport is small but only 100 meters from the main street and 350 meters from the Hotel. So, getting to the airport to catch a plane if you sleep in is never going to be a problem. The main street consists of a variety of small general and trade stores. There is a second hand clothing store, a couple of take way liquor stores, a church, Police Station, some Government buildings and private residences. There are a couple of shanty type bars. It is a quiet town with not a lot of vehicular traffic and people generally travel by power boat, canoe or on foot to get around. There is a small, bustling market situated right outside Agnes Lodge where you can purchase local produce, fruit, vegetables, fish, shell fish or local carvings and souvenirs. The main port is right next to Agnes Lodge where small cargo ships occasionally dock to deliver goods, supplies and basic luxuries. Local villagers and fisherman also use this area when travelling to and from Munda Town.
Dive Shop – Right next to all this activity is Dive Munda, which is part of the Agnes Lodge complex. I have seen the inside of many dive shops in my two and half decades of diving. But, none with a view as good as the one from the window of this dive shop. It is situated right on the edge of Roviana Lagoon with beautiful views over these tranquil waters and the many scattered small islands that dot this diver’s paradise. They have 2-3 dive boats depending on demand, class rooms to conduct SSI diving courses, a refreshment/briefing room, large equipment/drying room, a wide assortment of good quality rental gear and just about everything you will find in a dive shop anywhere. There is limited Wi-Fi reception at the dive shop and they will arrange boat trips to Skull Island or other local tours. But, the management and staff are the real jewels in the crown of this place.
Dive Munda – The Dive Operation is run by Belinda Botha, a nice South African lady who is not only passionate about diving and ocean conservation, but pro-actively promotes diving and other tourism opportunities for the Solomon Islands. Belinda has trained and licenced numerous Nationals as Dive Masters, Guides and Boat Skippers. In fact Belinda has recently qualified the first female Dive Master in this Region. Jose’ and Chevon are another nice South African couple working at Dive Munda as Dive Masters/Guides and sometimes Managers when Belinda is away. And there is Sunga, a local Dive Master with an intimate knowledge of the WW2 history and geography of this place. There are several other Nationals working at Dive Munda as Dive Masters and boat crew. But, the people mentioned are the ones I mainly interacted with on this trip. The staff are all English speaking and are really nice, friendly and always most helpful.
The Dive Boats - As Dive Munda is a smaller dive operation, the dive boats are smaller than in some of the big resorts. But, don’t let that bother you. The boat crews here are so helpful, they not only take care of all your dive gear for you, they help you put it on. Entry is by backward roll. And when it is time to get back in the boat you take your gear off in the water and the skipper will haul it on board for you. You then climb up a small ladder. I am a ‘mature aged’ diver and had no problems with this procedure.
The Diving - Where do I start? This was the scene of many bloody battles on land, air and sea in WW2 and there are remnants of the war everywhere if you care to look. JFK’s PT 109 was sunk in these waters and the Patrol Boat Base at Rendova where Kennedy was stationed in WW2, is just a short boat ride from the dive shop. So, as a person with a keen interest in WW2 history and wrecks, this was paradise to me. Within a few minutes boat ride you can be diving on multiple WW2 aircraft. I dived with Sunga on a WW2 US dump site, which had not been dived for many years. This was an exploratory dive to see if it was still worth diving for future guests. On descent I was amazed to see piles of ordinance containing several hundred unexploded WW2 artillery shells lying on the bottom. Mortar bombs, aircraft bombs, cases of live ammunition and 2 large US barges, all on the same dive. Amazing !! We also did some farther boat trips about 45 minutes to the other side of New Georgia, where we dived another WW2 plane wreck and the Kashi Maru, a shallow shore dive on a Japanese Transport which was sunk in 1943. There are still guns, barges and many war relics scattered in the water and jungle if you have the time and enthusiasm to go looking. And when you are not seeking WW2 stuff, there are plenty of beautiful coral reefs, wall drops offs, plentiful species of tropical fish, turtles, rays and pelagic dives to be had. I did 2 dives at Shark point on the outer edge of the lagoon and saw Grey Whaler sharks each dive. My mate Sunga takes a plastic bottle half filled with water on pelagic dives. He reckons when he squeezes it, it sounds Iike a fish in distress and attracts sharks. I had my doubts, but it worked, so who am I to argue ? Just take it from me, I have dived in PNG, Cairns Australia, Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef, Heron Island, The Coral Sea, Vanuatu, Fiji and Thailand. But, the diving here was as good as and mostly better than just about anything I have seen before. They conduct 2 tank dives in the morning, afternoon and night dives on request.
Safety – World class safety standards are practiced here. There are comprehensive pre-dive briefings in the dive shop or on an island during the surface interval. Plenty of first aid and safety equipment in the boat. They even provide water bottles and towels. Each diver is provided with an EPIRB type locator beacon, which you carry in your BCD and can activate in the highly unlikely event you may need it. But, nice to know you have one. Safety stops and surface intervals are rigidly adhered to. No alcohol is permitted between dives and one diver who tried to down a beer during a surface interval was stopped in his tracks. Dives are only limited by the amount of air in you tank and were usually between 35-50 minutes.
Surface Intervals - The Surface Intervals are the best I have experienced anywhere. No sitting in the boat, they take you to a small, deserted tropical island where you can go for a walk, swim or just chill under a coconut tree for an hour. Tropical fruit, biscuits and plenty of water to re-hydrate is always provided.
Malaria – This is a malaria zone. But, don’t let that frighten you as most South West Pacific locations are. The best way to avoid getting malaria is don’t get bitten. Cover up at morning and evening. I took no malarial suppressant drugs but used insect repellent liberally twice a day and I was fine. I only saw one mozzie in my room on the trip. Keep windows and doors closed and just make sure housekeeping sprays the room during your stay. Remember aerosol insect repellents are banned on flights. So, take plenty of the roll-on, liquid or pump spray stuff. While you can buy this and other basic luxuries in Munda, they are very expensive.
Conclusion - I can’t say enough good things about this place and I am still dreaming about my recent trip to Munda. I am already planning to return in the future. And I hear that around August 2018 they are introducing direct weekly flights from Brisbane to Munda, which will make it much easier and more accessible. And don’t worry about crowds. As this place has so far managed to fly under the radar, you will not yet be sharing dive sites with scores of other divers. On some quiet days I was fortunate to have a boat, skipper, Dive Master/Guide and dive site all to myself. Which is every serious divers dream. So, if you want more than just another dive trip, for a real fair dinkum Tropical Dive Adventure far from the maddening crowd, stop thinking about it and just go to Munda.
Canberra - Australia