Travel literature review: The Last Wild Island

The Last Wild Island: Saving Tetepare by John Read

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Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Reviewed by Rowan McKinnon

I met John Read briefly in the early 2000s at the tiny Munda wharf in the Solomon Islands' Western Province. I was in the Solomons on assignment for Lonely Planet, and John was there with his wife Katherine Moseby and their tiny baby. I remember his broad smile and how he spoke with almost maniacal enthusiasm for a conservation project he was trying to get started — Tetepare, the world's largest uninhabited island, untouched by loggers and developers. Soon after my Sol Air prop plane put down on Munda's lumpy grass airstrip and I had to leave for Honiara.

Perhaps a decade later a book came across my desk — The Last Wild Island — that chronicles the extraordinary trials and tribulations of those two Australian biologists John and Katherine as they fought, negotiated and cajoled Solomon government ministers, logging interests and traditional landowners over years and years to have Tetepare protected as a wildlife sanctuary in perpetuity. And it's a terrific read. John writes articulately with endearing self-deprecation in a rollicking boy's-own-adventure narrative style.

The commitment of John and Katherine — who volunteered their time and annual leave from their day jobs — is a story in itself, but the focus of the book is very much the machinations of Solomons village politics and Machiavellian federal bureaucracies. John and Katherine learn (sometimes the hard way) the subtleties of Melanesian kastom ways, and exercise considerable cultural sensitivity and adroitness changing eons-old village practices — like harvesting leatherback turtle eggs for food — toward a pervasive grassroots awareness of wildlife conservation and sustainability. That Tetepare is now a sanctuary owned and operated by local landowners is a great victory over the indifference and intransigence of officialdom at every level.

The book's perhaps a touch long and occasionally mired in needless detail, but it's a terrific story about one of the most beautiful parts of the South Pacific.

Rowan McKinnon is a longtime Lonely Planet author who specialises in the island states of the South Pacific. He's authored several editions of LP's Papua New Guinea & The Solomon Islands, the South Pacific, Australia, Eastern Caribbean, Colorado et al.

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