In the mid 1950s there were only two sources of European style groceries in the
Solomon Islands, the Trading Company in Honiara which was often out of stock or
the item was "on the next ship", and the old firm of Mcllraths of Sydney. This firm had
been supplying wholesale groceries to the South Pacific since well before the war.
The firm supplied a catalogue and price list and several evenings were spent making up
the order based on what was necessary or what couldn't be resisted from the lyrical
description. The pantry had to be checked, the consumption rate of various items
calculated taking into account the delays that could occur between sending and receiving
the order. Then allowance had to be made for visitors, and functions such as the Queen's
Birthday. Finally the budget had to be considered.
One of the problems was that the new order often had to be dispatched before the
current one was received and you never knew what could not be supplied or what was
certainly not going to be ordered again. Even though the Sydney ship came every six
weeks a cyclone or a strike could delay it by two or three weeks so that uncertain period
had to be taken into account. Then when our order was complete and ready to post was
there a ship likely to be going to Honiara within a week or two? Of course the letter could
arrive in Honiara the day the fortnightly plane had already departed. So that was a
minimum of two months before we could see the order on the back verandah.
We considered ourselves lucky; times in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands were much longer.
So it was a long time between the making up of the order on the back verandah under
the glare and hiss of the pressure lamp until we opened up the cases in the same position.
There were other problems due to the long wait. Some items had fallen out of favour by
the time they arrived, children had switched from baked beans to spaghetti, tins of meat
ordered by the beauty of the label and the glowing description in the catalogue had by
now been uncovered for their false advertising and here was another case ordered before
we had decided how to dispose of the first case.
So the arrival of the Mary off Kira Kira as described in Mail Day
was exciting not just for the mail but whether our new grocery order had been shipped.
Whether the station orders had been supplied. Was there rice for the hospital patients and
drugs, what about the new drugs promised two months ago, and was the drum of petrol
for the radio battery charger, missed from the last ship, finally on board, and what about
the vital building materials holding up work on the new hospital?
Our other concern was whether there had been sufficient time between the arrival of
the Australian ship and the sailing of the Mary for the customs agents to have cleared
and loaded our grocery order and whether unloading was going to be accomplished
without any dinghy capsizes. Kira Kira had only a bay protected from the worst of the
SE weather but open to the north and north west. During the SE period landing was no
great problem with only a small surf onto the sandy beach. During the months of
November and December there would be occasions when a huge low swell would be
running and then the surf could be horrendous breaking far out and giving little warning
of its coming.
It was strange that so much food had to be imported but it was the lack of variety in
the local produce. Living on the coast one could be expected to have plenty of fish but
not only were they difficult to catch but the local people were gardeners not fishers.
The few Polynesians on the station sometimes would have fish for sale but even they
found fishing difficult. There were always sweet potatoes for sale and some local
"greens" but there was no established market, possibly because of the low population
density. Fruit was hard to find. We did grow pawpaws, tomatoes and sometimes
managed to buy a bunch of bananas. One group of people to the east had as their basic
diet green bananas, usually boiled - not very appetising.
There were two ancient grapefruit trees which yielded wonderful fruit for several
months of the year. This seemed to coincide with an influx of visitors from Honiara or
there would be a plea from Honiara as to whether we could spare a few for an important
visitor. But these fruit were no respecters of authority. Sir Christopher Cox, then the
adviser to the Colonial Office on Education, caught an eyeful of juice one morning.
Many Europeans even imported potatoes and onions but they were often a mass of rot
when they arrived so we decided very early to make use of the yams, taro and sweet
potatoes. We did however keep a tin of dehydrated potato in the pantry for our visitors
whose taste buds couldn't take the local root vegetables. Several times we tried to bring
down from Honiara fresh meat and butter and as there was no refrigerator on the ship I
suggested if the parcel was put high on the foremast it would keep cool for the eighteen
hours - but of course it didn't. Whenever there was a local feast in which a bullock or
pig was killed then we usually ended up with some meat - usually very tough but a nice
change from tinned meat.
There were at times errors in our overseas grocery order which could not be easily
corrected, such as ordering a case instead of a bottle of coffee essence. We sold on
bottles, used them for presents and even bequeathed the remaining bottles to our
successor. Large rounds of cheese wrapped in cheesecloth were wonderful for the first
month but then tended to develop strange moulds. But there must have been a stage in
the maturing process which we did not see in our cheeses. Father Devlin at Dala in
Malaita invited me in for lunch one day as I walked by. After lunch he asked if I liked
cheese and sent off his house servant to "fetch the cheese from the shed". A few minutes
later I detected a very strong odour closely followed by the cheese held at arms length by
the small boy. Holding noses we cut pieces and the flavour was wonderful and there was
no mould; perhaps the mould could not stand the stench. Apparently the cheese had been
lost in Honiara sheds for several months before being "found".
A side of bacon packed in salt was imported and hung over the fuel stove in the
kitchen. It remained in good condition for a number of weeks before turning rancid.
Even then I found that taking slices packed in salt on tour then grilled over the village
fire removed the rancid flavour.
So with the groceries opened and the next order sent off, the next few weeks would be
devoted to answering the personal mail, paying the bills, and reading the magazines and
enjoying the whole process and even looking forward to the next mail day.
Meanwhile, I had a tour on the morrow and attention would be turned to other
matters. It was only after I had left that the station could lapse back into its routine not to
be disturbed until I returned or the next ship arrived from Honiara.