PLN Trade Wind Whispers – Tourism Operators Eagerly Waiting for the COVID Storm to Pass
Interview with Matt Woodfield, Driftwood Lodge Ecolodge, Marovo Lagoon, Solomon Islands
By Dirk Heinz
In the farthest flung region of one of the South Pacific’s most stunning and unheralded provinces, a unique off-grid ecolodge awaits the return of adventurers seeking the ultimate island experience. Marovo Lagoon in Solomon Islands’ Western Province is paradise in its purest form. This remote gem is the world’s largest saltwater lagoon, which means an expanse of over 700 square kilometres of coral ringed reefs, translucent turquoise waters, untouched golden beaches and tropical island landscapes that even the fanciest cameras couldn’t do justice.
Lazily nuzzled in a lushly vegetated natural bay at the foot of the once mighty (but now extinct) Gatokae volcano, sits Driftwood Lodge, a self-sustaining island haven set up over eight years ago by Byron Bay export Matt Woodfield. Dirk Heinz from Pacific Legal Network (PLN) (a two-time guest of Driftwood Lodge!) sat down for a video chat with Matt to talk about the lodge and how things have faired since the COVID pandemic shutdown global tourism.
What took you out to such a remote place to set up a tourism venture?
I’ve always been fascinated with destinations which are pristine and untouched by the outside world. As a free-diving spear fisherman, you look for those environments because they are the most enjoyable to dive. When I found this place, the colours and visuals that came with the meeting of land and sea here in Marovo Lagoon were beyond anything I could imagine. I didn't think scenery like what I was seeing existed anymore. It’s still like that today, not toxified by the outside world. The remoteness of it all is what makes it special. It’s still how it should be.
Tell us a little about the origins of Driftwood and why it’s so special?
Driftwood is special to me because of what it has grown into and become from very humble origins. Originally, 9 years ago when I first came over, not even the “adventure tourism” market had heard of these parts of the Solomon Islands. What I wanted to do was come over here and set up a spear fishing lodge for myself and my mates in some of the most bountiful and beautiful fishing areas in the world. At that time my aim wasn’t much more than to construct a little island shack. To do that, I was travelling here for weeks at a time back and forth from Australia. As time went on and I started to feel a connection with the area and the people, I felt this draw to come over to Marovo more permanently and make something of it. I workshopped the idea with some mates and thankfully had a friend who wanted to do something similar too. So, we came here with some basic power tools and supplies and just thought we’d stick around as long as we could and see what we could build. So Driftwood started off with just this homestay idea, a rustic island shack really. As things tend to go in the Pacific, everything took a lot longer than we thought to set up. We were naïve adventurers and the reality checks came thick and fast! But slowly, we built relationships with the local community and got their blessing to set the lodge up. It was a really mutual era of learning. The people of Marovo Lagoon are skilled natural carvers and craftsmen. In return for us doing what we could to pass on our craftsmanship and trade knowledge, they taught us a lot about how to work with local wood and other materials and how to farm and crop in the area. So as things grew, I became more and more obsessed with making the idea work. We saw the beginnings of a new way to do homestay and ecolodge experiences for tourists who longed for an off-the-beaten track experience and the Driftwood you see today is the culmination of that.
How has the COVID pandemic and its effects on the tourism sector impacted the local community?
For the local community, it’s been a funny thing. We provide employment to a lot of locals, both women and men. The place would not operate without the buy-in of local chiefs, cooks, craftsmen, fishermen and mariners. That’s how I’ve always wanted it. I think a big part of what attracts people to come here is the unique immersive community experience you get. Obviously, tourists aren’t coming at the moment and that has impacted the local economy. A lot of the money generated by Driftwood goes towards school fees and the education of the kids, so that money drying up has made things tough. But Solomon Islanders are incredible survivors. Everyone has gone back up to the garden or the lagoon and, in many respects, rediscovered life without western influence. The gardens are looking unbelievable at the moment, there is so much food! For all the local artists who make money out of carvings and crafts, the absence of tourists means the practices and traditions surrounding arts and crafts have stopped, which makes me really sad. Everybody is missing the tourism.
What have you been doing since the travel lockdown has been in place?
Trying to keep myself sane! I keep video diaries so that I don’t go full Tom Hanks in Castaway. I’m the only outsider on the island at the moment so it’s nice to get thoughts out about things that are more difficult for my local friends to relate to. Though it doesn’t sound that exciting, I’ve started pulling power tools apart and putting them back together to see how they work. Sounds pretty dry I know but it’s helped me enormously with self-reliance from a mechanical viewpoint. And because I’m such an advocate for the arts and crafts of the area, I’ve started working with local craftsmen on a new project we’re calling “Driftcraft”. We’ve been experimenting with traditional materials and some new ones, all sustainably sourced. The geology of these islands is the result of the build-up of fossilised corals over countless millennia. We’ve been using some of those rock deposits as building blocks for our craftwork. The products and patterns look amazing. We’re making things like sinks, vanities and even a full fossilised coral bar! And I’ve learned some new skills carving with traditional species of wood and other organics. We’re looking forward to showing them off to guests.
What are you most looking forward to showing your guests when travel to the Solomon Islands is back on the agenda?
Not having guests has given us time to make some nice little improvements to the lodge. We recently got given a really top-notch portable sawmill which has been super handy for building new things. When we first started things, it took years to cut and move the wood to make the original lodge, now so much easier! So now, we’ve put up some new guest bungalows by the water, experimented with new flavours in the kitchen and put in huge new veggie and salad gardens which have increased our self-sufficiency enormously. The reefs are pristine and pumping with coral, the fish are running and because of where we are, there is no evidence of coral bleaching at all. Everything is looking stunning.
To keep up with the adventures of Driftwood Lodge, visit their website.