It’s 28 degrees Celsius on the shady deck of Uepi Island Resort’s dive centre when Dili pats me on the shoulder with a huge warm hand and enquires, “You going diving this afternoon?”
“No,” I say. “I can’t dive… But count me in for snorkelling!” This 2.5 kilometre long and 300 metre wide raised barrier reef island is one of several hundred found in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands. Uepi sits within the world’s biggest saltwater lagoon, Marovo.
Continuing our conversation, we establish Dili is that rare citizen in this deeply traditional country: an unmarried man in his 40s. And I’m that rare breed of tourist in this diving-obsessed resort: a non-diver. Naturally, we’re a curiosity to each other.
“Why you don’t dive?” Dili asks, fixing me with his dark brown eyes. He looks perplexed. I explain that I’m scared of diving. The sea can be a dangerous place, with creatures under the surface that bite. He takes a moment to mull this over, before adding: “You should dive, I think. And you should learn here at Uepi. Why don’t you?”
It turns out I seriously consider Dili’s suggestion many times in the couple of days I spend at Uepi Island Resort. It’s hard not to. There are exuberant divers around every corner, crowing about what they’ve seen on their latest scuba, their smiles a mile wide. On this week’s list are mating octopuses, groups of eagle ray, and dolphins galore, as well as talk about a pod of roaming orca sighted a few months back.
You should dive, I think. And you should learn here at Uepi.
Seated around the resort’s breakfast table each morning, I listen to Uepi guests discuss the day’s diving prospects as they fuel up on fresh papaya, plunger coffee and reloadable plates of toast, bacon and scrambled eggs. Australian resort owners Grant and Jill Kelly, experienced divers themselves, are quick to answer their guests’ questions and contribute to the morning hype.
Jill outlines what’s in the water right now and details the tidal and weather conditions. Grant notes exactly where in the Marovo lagoon their diving guests will plop overboard. Both are quick to say the water temperature is a delightfully warm 26 degrees. By breakfast’s end, the diving buzz is at fever pitch.
The afternoon Dili and I catch up, guests from Southern California and South Africa are hoping to swim in flawless conditions with hammerhead sharks at the curved wall of ‘The Elbow’. The thought of joining in fills me with both awe and dread, notions I sheepishly share with Dili as I look for suitably-sized snorkel and fins from Uepi Island Resort’s lending library. Dili gives me a kindly grin, the type one would get from their first schoolteacher. “You just start with snorkelling off the jetty,” he says, pointing to the bluer-than-blue water out front. “Right there, you’ll see fish, coral, maybe even a couple black tip reef sharks.”
“Oh, nooooo,” I say, feeling a bit shivery and wanting to disbelieve the sharky bit.
“Oh, yes, yes,” counters Dili, handing me a child’s mask and snorkel — the perfect fit for a tiny face like mine, he reckons. Time to get in.
Pretty soon, I’m nosing my way along the coral reef in Dili’s wake. I’m careful not to let him get too far ahead, though at the same time I want to take the slow lane and linger; savour the moment, gliding atop this massive lagoon. Then I see a black tip reef shark appear out of the deep and start to shadow my movements. What to do?
But it soon disappears and, before I can think too much about it, Dili stops to tread water and pass me an electric-blue starfish he’s snatched off the rocks. Its chunky tentacles are stiff in my hand, and — like everything in the water today — it’s utterly entrancing.
Uepi Island Resort owners Jill and Grant first arrived here in 1982. At the time, Grant was a surveyor and Jill a teacher. They came to Uepi on one of their many dive adventures, and it was a life-changing vacation. “The diving really is that good. And the people, too, are amazing,” says Grant. “Most expats who’re up here in the Solomons love the place and the people. And that’s how it was for us… After three months diving the lagoon and photographing the reef underwater, we’d basically fallen in love with the place and wanted in on the business,” he says.
Their wish came true shortly afterwards. By 2000, Grant and Jill were headed back to the Solomons to take over from managers who’d called it quits. Uepi Island Resort was now theirs. However, the millennial year wasn’t an easy one for the developing country’s half million population — or for the Kelly family, either. A militia-led coup forced the prime minister to resign. About 100 Solomon Islanders were killed, and peacekeepers called in.
“Our business stopped overnight and was affected for quite some time,” says Grant. However, “The people of Marovo are incredibly self-sufficient and confident of tomorrow taking care of itself, which was reassuring at the time. And still is. We’ve learned a lot from this community over the years — and we’re very much people who believe in earning our right to be here.”
The Kellys employ all 50 staff from one extended family, and run a regular carvers’ market within the resort for locals to sell their work. Jill has been instrumental in helping lagoon locals set up as fishmongers and chicken and egg farmers, keeping the resort’s menu fresh and locally-sourced while giving sellers a chance to make some money. Both she and Grant have trained locals, like Dili, to dive and become Dive Masters, as well as investing in others to become skilled mechanics, builders and chefs. The couple also set up a charity to finance a range of social initiatives in the Marovo area.
These days, people travel to Uepi Island from all over the world. They come for the diving to start with, but are soon impressed by the overall feel of the resort itself. Grant describes Uepi as “a no-star resort in a five-star environment. We’re low-key… But what we offer — the food, the grounds, the staff and the environment — is extremely high quality.” As a non-diver now head over heels for Uepi, I can’t help but agree.
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