May/june 1993 | Volume 44, Issue 3
J. L. O. Tedder missed the battle, but his peacetime pursuits are heroic enough
Every so often one comes across a writer who should be awarded the literary equivalent of the Victoria Cross or the Medal of Honor—one who gazes into the jaws of a hellish assignment and goes forward, resolute paragraph after resolute paragraph, knowing that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, that the end will be cruel and the reward negligible.
Such a man is J. L. O. Tedder, the author of Walks on Guadalcanal . I picked up his sixtytwo-page booklet at the government tourist office in Honiara, the principal city of Guadalcanal as well as the capital of the independent nation known as the Solomon Islands.
My wife and I had flown to Guadalcanal to do research on Time and Tide , the novel I was writing about the Navy during World War II. After hours of staring at the blank Pacific, we suddenly descended on an island where walking did not seem a very good idea. Most of Guadalcanal, except for the coastal plain around Honiara, where U.S. Marines and Japanese infantry blasted bullets and shells at each other for six months half a century ago, resembles a gigantic corrugated roof. A series of precipitous mountains rise and fall across nine-tenths of the island’s ninety-two-mile length, their slopes covered by the densest imaginable vegetation.
We toured the battlefields and drove out to Cape Esperance, where we got a graphic view of Savo Island, off which two of the war’s most ferocious naval engagements were fought. On Edson’s Ridge a tiny weathered tablet paid tribute to the U.S. Marines’ heroism (this has since been replaced with a more impressive one, on the fiftieth anniversary of the struggle). On a plateau overlooking the coastal plain, where the Japanese had an artillery piece that save the Americans a lot of grief, there is a majestic shiny Japanese monument, with apostrophes to world peace.
Beyond Honiara, in the village of Vilu, a cheerful whitehaired man named Fred Kona operates a grim museum full of crashed planes. Kona professes to be pro-American. But all his wrecked planes are American. I asked him why there were no Japanese planes. “They fall in the water,” he said. At Kona’s museum the Japanese had erected another memorial. At the Hotel Mendana the Japanese outnumbered the half-dozen Americans thirty to one. They came regularly in large groups to pray for the souls of their dead. None of them seemed interested in walking. They traveled to their gravesites in vans.
Nevertheless, after a week in Honiara we understood why Tedder wrote Walks on Guadalcanal . A more unpromising place for a writer to set up shop cannot be imagined. The local newspaper looks as if it had been printed on one of those presses for eight-year-olds sold at Caldor. The telephone directory has a page entitled “Oops! We missed these” and another page in the back for “Missing and New Numbers.” Although the government proclaims the official language to be English, a sign in the lobby of the Hotel Mendana, Honiara’s finest hostelry, says, WELKOM PRENDS! At last count the Solomon Islanders spoke at least eighty-two different tribal languages; the lingua franca is pidgin English.
Put yourself in Tedder’s place, now, and imagine his reaction when the government asked him to write Walks on Guadalcanal . Could any writer in such a situation turn it down? It might be his only assignment for a decade! I can see him, sitting down grim-eyed at his mildewed 1939 Royal.
He begins by refusing to let the geographical facts intimidate him. He insists that “regardless of age,” anyone who is “reasonably fit” can explore Guadalcanal on foot: “It is really only a matter of adjusting one’s thinking.” Once the heat (“never very bad”) and the humidity are accepted, walking the island offers a world “quite different from that seen from the air conditioned bus or aeroplane.”
Next comes advice about taking short walks in the lowlands around Honiara. Few of these sound particularly difficult; nevertheless, Tedder offers a few warnings in capital letters to deal with the “hundreds of tracks” in the area: “If you get lost, STAY WHERE YOU ARE and light a fire”; “ DO NOT START TAKING WHAT MIGHT APPEAR to be short cuts.” And of course, make sure to leave a note at your hotel telling where you“re going.
In his directions for visiting Mount Gallego, west of Honiara, Tedder notes that “care needs to be taken not to fall down some of the cliff-like northern faces. Although there are some excellent swimming holes in the Lunga River Gorge, “care should be taken…as crocodiles have been reported this far up in the river.”
These observations are only warm-ups for “General Notes for Longer Walks,” which take the traveler into the corrugated rooftop world known on Guadalcanal as “the bush.” Here Tedder hits his literary stride.
There is, to begin, no such thing as an accurate map. “The detail of the country is hidden from the mapper’s eyes under the thick rain forest and rivers are likely to change course after frequent floods.” As for clothing, shorts are the only possible outfit. Slacks and even shirts quickly become soaked. No need for a raincoat: Thanks to the humidity, “one becomes wetter [with one] than walking without one.”
Tedder zips through more clothing advice (“lightness is essential”) and shelter information (mosquito nets are useless against mosquitoes but may keep away “other bugs such as centipedes”). Camping in the jungle requires an hour or so of cutting down vegetation, but stopping in a village also has its disadvantages. Few have latrines. Some set aside special areas, but visitors “may find it more convenient to dig their own hole in a nearby patch of bush.”
Finally Tedder tackles the technique, one might say the feat, of going for a walk on Guadalcanal.
“The technique of walking in rain forests is quite different to that required in more open country. There is generally so much mud, so many roots and slippery stones, so many minor observations which lie hidden by ferns at the side of the very narrow footpath, that there is more involved than just putting one foot steadily in front of another. In fact it can be disastrous to try to maintain a steady and regular pace. The length of the stride and the speed depends on the ground conditions which change constantly. When walking your eyes should be upon the place where you will next place your foot and walking should be done on the balls of the feet so that you are poised to leap to the next foot if the previous foot slips. If there is something to be admired, stop walking before looking at it. The moment that the eyes leave the path to look at something else then a slip or fall may occur. Never step on roots while going up or down hills if the roots are not at right angles to the slope. Never step on large leaves where these lie on slopes, bamboo leaves are very banana like.”
From here (after a glance at the fact that some of Guadalcanal’s slopes rise ) at an angle of sixty degrees) we proceed to a section called “Hazards.” At first I thought this apparent abandonment of the order of climax meant that Tedder was losing control of his material. But I was wrong. Tedder’s list of hazards makes walking in the rain ” forest seem benign.
If walkers become lost, Tedder instructs them not to “follow along down a water course because many streams end up in gorges, waterfalls or swamps.” He adds a touch to his urgent advice not to trust maps. They may lead the walker to slopes that are “often convex and once too far down it is impossible to climb back up again if cliffs develop in your path.”
Poisonous snakes: There are only two kinds to worry about. The black-ringed Micropechia alopoides comes in white or yellow versions; the other, cozily called Guppy’s Viper, is brown, has a small head, and “often will attack.” However, the snakes are not numerous and “generally move away before you.” The same cannot be said for centipedes. “These are to be feared because of the excruciating pain which lasts for 24 hours or more following a bite.” They grow up to thirty centimeters long, but they “do not often come into villages if the surrounding vegetation is kept under control.” If you are mosquito-netless and find one walking on you, “remain calm and it will often move away but if it has to be brushed off then do it in the direction in which it was walking at the time.” How you ascertain the centipede’s plans for touring your anatomy in the dark, Tedder does not say.
There are also scorpions in the bush. Though they are “not numerous,” Tedder advises the walker never to go about the campsite at night without footwear and to carefully check all clothes and footwear the next morning before putting them on. Stinging plants are trickier. If brushed on the underside of the leaf, the “kirape” causes nettlelike stings that may last up to a week and are aggravated by water. Another vegetable menace, the Hailasi, causes “large swellings and big blisters on some people.” And there are five species of thorn. “Care must be taken before you grasp anything to help you when climbing or descending a hill,” Tedder notes.
None of these hazards, except Guppy’s Viper and his friend Micropechia alopoides , kill (though one suspects that by this point the walker might welcome death). The same benevolent observation cannot be made on behalf of Guadalcanal’s rivers, which “are one of the greatest hazards to be met with on this island.” Most are “swift flowing,” and all can “flood with little warning.” Tedder once saw a river rise five feet in three minutes. If you become lost and decide, against Tedder’s advice, to follow a riverbed, be sure to look around for thunderheads first. A cloudburst can drown you.
Tedder moves on to the minor hazards: “There are always plenty of ants.” Large black ones met on the bush paths have a painful bite, but “most others are just a nuisance.” Leeches are few and “quite small,” but rats are plentiful in the villages, and walkers will want to hang their food from the roofs of their huts by night. Cockroaches and bedbugs abound, especially if the government has recently done any antimalaria spraying. Chemicals seem to excite the bedbugs in particular, and “people often move outside to escape them.”
Tedder slogs on (I see him at his typewriter in the breeze-swept central patio of the Hotel Mendana, within sight of that sign WELKOM FRENDS !), laying out some twenty pages of two- and three-day walks, all of which he has obviously taken himself.
These expeditions too abound with cautionary advice. On Gold Ridge you must by no means pan for nuggets in the streams because it will upset the nearby villagers, who might retaliate by adding your head to their collection. The temperature on top of some of the higher mountains drops to fifty-five degrees at night. It is vital to hammer out a firm agreement with local guides (going rate, $1.20 per day); otherwise “it may be difficult to accomplish the journey.” Some walkers may think twice about camping on Vurakirapa, which translates as “the place of the stinging tree.” The site also has another problem: The nearest water is a “ten minutes clamber” down a steep ridge.
Tedder points out the bright spots too. At Tanggilanggila Village, for instance, there is piped water, which means “a shower could be taken in the main street.” There are airstrips on the southern side of the island that give the stung, blistered, thorned, bitten, dehydrated walker the opportunity to fly back to Honiara’s Henderson Field. But more determined types who want to explore the lowlands on this side face a hazard or two.
At Tiaro Bay the Variana River has to be crossed, and it is wise to “keep a good look-out for crocodiles.” This coast should not be walked from July to September, when it receives most of its fifteen hundred millimeters of annual rain. “The rivers flood and cannot be crossed so the traveller is trapped because of the seas which are usually too rough for canoes,” Tedder reports, sounding very much as if this had happened to him once. If one is wise enough not to venture that way during the rainy season, one can look forward to reaching the airstrip at Avu Avu. There stands a “resthouse,” which is “comfortable,” although it is not staffed and has no “soft furnishings or linen.”
Even those who want to walk the northern coast beyond the Bokokimbo River, where the road from Honiara ends, need their share of grit. There are five rivers to cross, and canoes are urgently advised because of frequent shark attacks. “It could take a whole day to go from Poposa to Marau if trouble is met in finding a canoe,” Tedder warns. Three kilometers beyond Totongo, the Bo’o and Singgilia rivers form deep channels, and “there is therefore little alternative but to swim them.” After all these heroics Tedder concludes that it is “not a very interesting walk compared with some on the island but it is different and can be quite rewarding.”
On that doleful note Tedder’s contribution to Walks on Guadalcanal trails off. There is a page of closing notes, obviously written by someone else. These inform the reader that there are many more I walks on Guadalcanal than have been described in this booklet and that the Department of Lands and Surveys has maps for sale. The writer of this appendage obviously did not read what Tedder had to say about these maps.
What happened to Tedder? I searched for him in vain in Guadalcanal. The genial Melanesians at the Tourist Office were reticent when I inquired for him. I was left to wonder if in the line of literary duty, he tried to get from Poposa to Marau without a canoe or somewhere between Mount Popomanaseu and the Sutakiki Valley he met a Guppy’s Viper that declined to move away before him. Or if, forgetting his own advice, while putting one foot after the other in a rain forest, he looked up to admire a bird or a bush without stopping first and one of those disastrous “slips or falls” into the devouring mud occurred.
Whatever Tedder’s fate, his work lives on.