Island Worlds - Travels in the South Seas


Immediately to the north of Australia lies a world of islands. From the island chains of South-East Asia, through the dragon-shaped island of New Guinea and its trailing archipelagos, to the Solomon Islands in the South-West Pacific - this world was collectively referred to as 'The Islands' when I was growing up in 1950s Australia. Someone who had lived 'up in The Islands' (as the saying went) was excused for any eccentricities that he or she might exhibit; for it was widely believed that no-one could live 'up in The Islands' for any length of time and remain unchanged.

As I grew older, this island world fascinated me, and the appeal of life in some insular paradise in the South Pacific was never far from my thoughts. In shaping such an existence in my child's mind, I had foreseen a considerable portion of my adult life - for in 1969 I left Australia to live in the Solomon Islands for the next quarter century. As I lived out so many of my childhood dreams in the Solomons, and during frequent trips into neighbouring Papua New Guinea, the gentle influence of these Melanesian island cultures upon me was inexorable and absolute.

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From childhood I had maintained an interest in photography; largely due to the influence of my father who, during the Second World War, had carried an old Zeiss camera with him while on active service with the Australian Army in North Africa, Greece and later in New Guinea. His collection of photographs fascinated me - especially those of the peoples of these far-away places, and over the years his voluminous photo albums became tattered and dog-eared as my brothers and I pored over the exotic images.

As a professional photographer and writer in the Solomons, I travelled to many remote areas - the interiors of the major islands, and the outer islands rarely visited by any outsiders. During the 26 years I lived in the Solomons I was able to visit virtually all of the islands of the group - both large and small. But it was the major island of Malaita that drew me back time and time again; sometimes for a few days, other times for a month or more.

The American author Jack London referred to Malaita as "...the most savage island in the Solomons." In the context of that time, the 1920s, his sentiments probably had some justification, for the early contacts between the peoples of Malaita and the outside world - the world of the European - were indeed turbulent and all too often involved the concomitant spilling of blood - on both sides.

Modern-day Malaita is the most populous island of the Solomons, and what remains of the Solomons' traditional cultures are at their most vibrant on Malaita. Furthermore, most of my friends from the early years were Malaitans, and I tended to empathise with their free, wild natures. Many outsiders are quick to define Malaitans as arrogant, self-opinionated, aggressive - quick to anger and slow to forget a slight - real or imagined. For myself, on so many trips to Malaita, I have experienced nothing but kindness and hospitality in the villages in which I have stayed; I have always been treated as a privileged guest. And this observation is true of virtually every village I have ever stayed in throughout the Solomons. There's an inherent tranquillity in traditional Melanesian village life that cannot be appreciated by those who have never experienced it, and so often I've found that candid and spontaneous photographs taken in villages result in wonderful character studies.

But not all my photography is of enthographic subjects. Natural history - both above and below water is also an important component of my work. In the 1970s I spent 3 years on an underwater research vessel based at the small island of Malaupaina in the Eastern Solomons. It was here, in the company of biological researchers from around the world, that I undertook much of the field studies that culminated in the 1980 publication of my illustrated book on the reptiles of the Solomon Islands. Several years later I worked for National Geographic Magazine in the Solomons and the Philippines on underwater photographic assignments. In 1992 I was again contracted by National Geographic as still photographer on their television documentary, The Lost Fleet of Guadalcanal, working on this latter assignment with Robert Ballard of Titanic fame.

In 1983 I made the first of many working trips into Papua New Guinea. Although I'd visited New Guinea in the late 1960s, I'd only been able to spend time in a few of the larger cities and towns. Now, on a 1,000 kilometre round trip, I drove from the coastal city of Lae, up into the central mountain range - the Highlands, Papua New Guinea's central cordillera. I also explored the more remote areas, photographing as opportunity permitted at various ceremonies, markets and sing-sings (traditional dances).

Over the years I travelled throughout virtually all of mainland Papua New Guinea, and by sailing yacht, I explored many of the satellite island groups lying to the east of New Guinea's trailing "tail". But like the island of Malaita in the Solomons, the Sepik River and its peoples soon became a major focus of my work as I travelled its muddy length by outboard-powered dugout canoe by day, staying in the riverside villages at night.

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Now I live in Australia, the country of my birth, but it is the Solomon Islands that will always be the country of my heart. My memories of these islands will remain among the happiest of my life; for twenty-five years my life was a great adventure and I consider myself privileged to have known these islands and their peoples in the twilight of their innocence.