The Republic of Kiribati (pronounced Kiri-bahs) is a country that not many people have heard of, outside of those who live in the Pacific. Kiribati is an island nation, located right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, straddling the equator. The country’s small tourism office promotes Kiribati as the only country that is in all four hemispheres. That’s sort of true, because it also straddles the international dateline, although in 1994 the dateline was amended to take a diversion around Kiribati so that all of its islands were in the same time zone.
Kiribati covers a vast area of the Pacific Ocean but has only 800 sq km of land area, a few metres above sea level. It stretches nearly 4,000 km east to west and just over 2,000 km north to south.
The 33 atolls that comprise Kiribati are in three groups – the Gilbert Islands to the west where the capital, Tarawa, is located, the Line Islands to the east, and the Phoenix Islands in the middle. Only one of the Phoenix Islands and three of the Line Islands are inhabited. However, the largest atoll, Kiritimati, is located in the Line Islands.
Kiritimati was once known as Christmas Island, but is now usually referred to by its local name (in the Kiribati language ‘ti’ is pronounced like an ‘s’) which avoids confusion with Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean. Kiritimati is the largest coral atoll in the world, and in the 1950s and 60s it was the location of nuclear bomb tests by the UK and US. These days only about 3,000 people live on Kiritimati, and the only visitors are sports fishermen who come for the game fishing or bonefishing.
Most of the population live in the Gilbert Islands. This is where one of the biggest Pacific battles in World War II took place – the Battle of Tarawa – which killed more than 6,000 Japanese and Americans. These days the beaches of the Betio islet on the southwestern corner of the Tarawa atoll – where the worst of the fighting took place – are still strewn with old guns, rusted tanks and other wreckage from World War II.
It’s mainly Tarawa’s gruesome history that attracts the small number of tourists that visit Kiribati these days. Sons and daughters, and grandchildren, of servicemen who lost their lives in the Battle of Tarawa who come to pay their respects. Aside from the sports fishermen who head to the Line Islands, there’s not much else to attract visitors to Kiribati because there is little infrastructure to support tourism.
That’s not to say Kiribati isn’t an interesting destination. It is a tropical paradise in terms of its climate, clean air and crystal clear waters, the diving and snorkeling is good, but it’s a long, long way from anywhere else, and the only other visitors aside from those going to Kiribati for work purposes, are member of that small group of travellers who spend their lives trying to visit every country in the world.
That’s how I ended up visiting Kiribati. I wasn’t trying to visit every country in the world, but I had to go there for work purposes. At the time I visited in 2005 there were two flights a week into Tarawa from Nadi on Air Fiji. There’s now an additional Air Nauru (also called ‘Our Airline’) flight once a week, but it is still not an easy or cheap place to get to.
When I made my trip to Kiribati, even though I needed to stay for only one day, the minimum I could stay was three days. That I didn’t mind because it gave me an opportunity to look around the Tarawa atoll.
The flight from Nadi took two and a half hours. The immigration facilities at Tarawa comprised one immigration officer standing behind an old wooden counter in a shed. She processed each passenger one by one, with the majority of the plane’s passengers having to queue outside in the hot sun until there was enough room inside the shed to accommodate them. On the other side of the shed, baggage is inspected by three quarantine officers before you are allowed to exit the shed through a pair of heavy wooden doors which one of the quarantine officers will heave back to let you out. Once outside, it seemed like the entire population of Tarawa had come to the airport to greet the plane, with hordes of children pushing forward to see who was exiting the terminal shed.
After pushing my way through the crowd, I was approached by a representative of the organisation that I was visiting. He loaded my luggage into the back of a Toyota utility, which had ‘Assemblies of God’ written on the side (which had nothing to do with the organisation that I was visiting) and introduced me to the General Manager who was driving it.
The shape of the Tarawa atoll is like an italicised reverse L. It is made up of many islets stretching a distance of about 80 kms. Most of the islets are only 300-400 metres wide and in some places they are less than 100 metres wide. There is a single road running the length of the southern half, with causeways linking the individual islets, but it is necessary to take a canoe to reach islets making up the northern part of the atoll.
About a third of Kiribati’s 110,000 population lives on Tarawa, in two small towns – Betio and Bairiki – near the south western end of the atoll. The rest of Tarawa’s population live in open huts thatched with palm fronds, basic concrete block and fibro dwellings, or crude shelters made out of corrugated iron, spread out in villages along the atoll.
Accommodation for visitors is limited. I was advised that the best accommodation was the Mauri Paradise Ambo – a two room ‘resort’ that goes for AU$80 per night, but it is on the opposite end of Tarawa to where the organisation that I was visiting is located, and involves a two-hour journey in a 40 ft outrigger canoe to get there.
The second best I was told was Mary’s Motel, which is a six room motel with air-conditioning and hot water (sometimes), for AU$77 per night. The third option is the Government-owned Otintaai hotel, about 15 minutes from the airport. I was advised it was overpriced at AU$80 a night, as the rooms are quite basic, but they do have air-conditioning and hot water. The organisation that I was visiting was located at Bairiki, and Mary’s Motel was close by, so the staff had booked me there.
Bairiki is about 50 minutes drive from the airport which is located on the eastern side of the atoll. The road has a speed limit of 40 kph (it is pot-holed and has many speed bumps so average speed is less than that). As we headed off from the airport, the General Manager said that he had met one of his directors at the airport who was insisting that I stay at his guesthouse instead of at Mary’s Motel.
When I arrived at the guest house I discovered it was a very basic concrete block and fibro dwelling with a bedroom that had nothing more than a wooden frame and a foam mattress. There was an air-conditioner but it didn’t work, there was no hot water, no fan, and no mosquito net (there were no windows, only louvers with insect screening, but there were holes in the insect screening).
I suggested that Mary’s Motel might be upset if we cancelled the booking so late, but the General Manager was insistent that I stay there. I didn’t want to offend his director, so decided that I just had to make the best of it. I initially thought that I was being invited to stay there as a guest of the director, but when we walked inside he said: “You can stay here for $50 a night”. Then after a brief pause, he said “No, let’s make that $60 a night”. (I thought he might be joking, but when I checked out three days later he charged me $60 a night, plus 10% government tax!).
I’d noticed a sign on the track to the guesthouse which said “Lagoon View Lodge – Accommodation and Meals” so I asked what time dinner was served. He replied that guests have to cook their own meals and said there was a village store about 200 metres down the road from where I could buy my provisions. He then showed me the kitchen which was in an open lean-to structure at the back of the guest house.
After dropping my luggage off, we went into Bairiki for our meeting. As I had had to get up at 4.00 am that morning to catch the flight from Nadi, they suggested during the afternoon that I go back to the guesthouse for a nap, and we agreed to meet again the next morning. I was there for three days, so there was no hurry.
As the guesthouse was located in a village 25 minutes from Bairiki, the General Manager gave me his ‘Assemblies of God’ utility to drive myself back to the guesthouse and we arranged to meet for dinner with some of the staff later that evening. He said: “There’s only one road so you can’t get lost”. (They let me have the utility for the rest of my stay – the only other foreigners that I saw on Tarawa during the day were two church missionaries, so people probably thought I was one of them too).
As I had not had any lunch, before going back to the guesthouse I went looking for a shop to buy a sandwich or some fruit, but after driving around Bairiki and Betio for the best part of an hour, I discovered that there is nowhere on Tarawa where you can buy ‘ready-to-eat’ food, apart from biscuits, crackers, cheese and soft drinks. Everything else is bulk staple foods (bags of rice, flour, etc) or canned meats and vegetables, as nearly all food is brought in on a monthly ship from Australia or New Zealand. There was plenty of dried fish available from stalls along the road, but dried fish is not something that I would want to eat for lunch.
So for the next three days my lunch comprised crackers and cheese and a can of Coke. (Check the expiry date on everything you buy in Kiribati – the first can of Coke that I bought had an expiry date of July 2004). There are a couple of ‘supermarkets’ in Betio and Bairiki (actually small warehouses with goods stacked on pallets and steel racks) and the only other shops are the little wooden village stores, similar to what you see along the sides of the road in rural areas of countries like Indonesia and Sri Lanka..
We had dinner that night at a Chinese restaurant in Betio. It seems that apart from the two very small restaurants attached to the Otintaai Hotel and Mary’s Motel (each has four tables), the only restaurants on Tarawa are Chinese restaurants – about 6 or 7 of them – run by Chinese workers whom I was advised don’t speak a word of English (the General Manager commented to me over dinner: “Amazing people these Chinese – the only thing they seem to be interested in is making money”). Their restaurants don’t look very enticing from the outside but the food was edible.
The following nights I ate on my own at the Otintaai Hotel – the food was not very good but edible, and it was the closest place to the guesthouse. Driving back to the guesthouse at night was difficult because there are no street lights or road markers, and there are many coconut palms close to the winding road that are difficult to see in the dark (as well as the pot holes and speed bumps).
Trying to find the dirt track that led off the main road to the guesthouse, when there were hundreds of other such tracks that all look the same in the dark, was another challenge. I was going to try the restaurant at Mary’s Motel one night, but after driving past it during the day, I decided to give it a miss.
The first night at the guesthouse was very uncomfortable. It was extremely hot and with no air-con or fan, and when I shut the louvers, I was dripping in perspiration. If I opened the louvers to try and get some breeze, I got eaten alive by mosquitoes. The mosquitoes in Kiribati are a vicious species – they just keep attacking until they get you. The next day I tried to buy some insect repellent but none of the stores sold any (perhaps no demand from the locals) but the owner of the guesthouse managed to find me a mosquito coil.
I had to keep the louvers shut though to keep the smoke in the room, so it was difficult to sleep because of the heat. The third night I went looking for the owner to get another mosquito coil, but I discovered he had gone and I was all on my own in the guesthouse (apart from three barking dogs, a squealing pig and what sounded like a large rat in the roof). So it was back to being eaten by mosquitoes again.
On the second day I drove into Bairiki to continue my meetings. In the afternoon, after my meetings were over, I went back to the guesthouse to work on some presentations that I was due to give at the weekend in Honolulu, but had a lot of difficulty preventing perspiration from dripping from my face and head onto the laptop keyboard. I had to have a cold shower every 30 minutes in order to keep cool. I also caught up on some of the emails that I had downloaded when in transit in Australia at the weekend, but although I was ‘answering’ emails, I could not send them because there is only one ISP in Kiribati and they are not part of any international roaming systems.
The organisation I was visiting tried to get me a dial-up Internet connection at their offices several times so I could check my webmail, but they were never able to get through. They said the service is very unreliable, very slow (fastest speed 16kbps) and expensive (AU$8 an hour). I was therefore not able to upload my email replies until I got to Honolulu on the Friday night.
The next day (Thursday) was so hot, I couldn’t work on the laptop without making the keyboard so wet with perspiration, that I thought I might short-circuit it – so I gave up on work for the day and went for a drive in the utility. At least the air conditioning in the utility helped to keep me cool, and it gave me an opportunity to take a few photos.
Tarawa has some very pretty spots and apart from a problem with garbage being dumped indiscriminately in some places, most of the atoll is quite unspoilt. In the three days that I was there, I didn’t see another foreigner, except for the two American church missionaries on the road one day, and a couple of Australian contractors in the bar at the Otintaai one night, so the feeling of being one of the few foreign visitors on the island is quite unique. What I particularly liked was the friendliness of the local people. Most were happy to be photographed, and the kids all seemed excited to see a foreigner with a camera – but they didn’t come crowding around like happens in many Asian countries, and best of all nobody asked for any money to be photographed.
On the morning of my departure I was dozing in bed at about 7 am, when there was a knock on the door and a woman’s voice said: “Hey mister, your plane come early. You go airport now”. I jumped out of bed and asked her why it was coming early. She said she didn’t know but said there had been an announcement the previous night that the plane would leave at 8.00 am.
So I started throwing my gear into my bags (I hadn’t packed the night before because I thought I had plenty of time to pack in the morning as the plane was scheduled to leave at 11.30 am) and halfway through the process she stopped by again to say that I needn’t rush because it wasn’t leaving at 8.00 am after all, it was only arriving at 8.00 am. She couldn’t explain why it was coming early (she was one of the women I had seen cleaning the house on previous days) but I thought I now had a chance of getting to the airport on time. If I missed this flight, the next one to Majuro would have been the following Tuesday.
I threw my bags into the utility (it was raining at this time so everything got quite wet) and was about to head off to the airport on my own when the General Manager arrived to tell me the plane was leaving at 9.00 am. When I asked him why it was early, he simply said it had been ‘rescheduled’, which is apparently quite common in that part of the world. We got to the airport at about 8.20 am but the plane didn’t arrive until 9.30 am.
It left at about 10.30 am which meant that I would have most certainly missed it if I had not gone to the airport early because I was originally intending to check in at about 10.30 am. I can only assume that the airline notified passengers directly of the change in schedule, but because their records would have showed me staying at Mary’s Motel, they would not have been able to reach me the night before (it hadn’t occurred to me to advise the airline of the change in my accommodation arrangements).
Whilst we were waiting for the plane to arrive, I noticed villagers walking and riding motorbikes across the main runway, and children playing football on the runway. The previous day when I drove past the airport I had noticed a woman sleeping on the runway with a baby crawling over her. The General Manager told me that the runway was on villagers’ land and they regarded it as recreational space. When a plane is about to land or take off, an airport security car with flashing lights and a loud siren races up and down the runway to warn villagers to move to the sides.
As we took off from Tarawa, I could see kids playing at the side of the runway. They looked so close that I thought they would be blown away by the jet engines. I was half expecting to hear a thud as we hit someone on take-off, but fortunately we left the ground without incident and headed north to the Marshall Islands where I would overnight before connecting with my Continental Micronesia flight to Hawaii.
SOME KIRIBATI TRAVEL TIPS
If you have the opportunity to travel to Kiribati, here are some tips to make your stay more comfortable:
- Be prepared for some very basic accommodation (probably best to book, and if possible prepay, before you leave because there are not many rooms available).
- Ensure the airline has your correct contact details in Kiribati in case of changes to the flight schedules.
- Pack some sandals. Most people go about their daily lives on Tarawa in bare feet (including offices and shops) although some wear sandals. You will feel very out of place wearing shoes.
- Pack all the Hawaiian beach shirts that you have and leave anything more formal at home. Again, you will feel very out of place wearing anything other than a light cotton short-sleeved beach shirt, even for official Government meetings.
- As Kiribati is right on the equator, be prepared for it to be VERY hot and humid all the year round.
- Take lots of mosquito repellent with you.
- You cannot take any food with you as this will be confiscated by quarantine on arrival, so expect some very basic meals or be prepared to cook your own.
- Take sufficient Australian dollars to cover all your expenses (Kiribati uses Australian dollars as its currency). The Otintaai Hotel is the only place in Kiribati that accepts credit cards (and then only Visa and Mastercard). There are two ANZ Bank ATMs on Tarawa, but I do not know how often they are restocked with cash.
- Keep AU$20 for your departure tax on the last day (older guidebooks say it is AU$10 but it was increased to AU$20).
More photographs from this trip can be seen in the author’s Pbase gallery.