A Pattern of Islands, Atoll Holiday and An island in the autumn are three books written by people who have visited what is now Kiribati and been captivated by its Micronesian culture, physical remoteness and quirky charm. Atoll Adventure would be the working title of my book: Kiribati offers a lot to see, visit and experience if you have the time – and an adventurous spirit.
Kiribati (pronounced kiribas) sits in the equatorial Pacific, three hours’ flight north of Fiji and 95 minutes northeast of Nauru. In fact, it is almost in the middle of the earth just near the junction of the International Date Line and the Equator. Formerly part of the British crown colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Kiribati become an independent country in 1979. It consists of 33 islets or atolls in three groups, the Gilbert, Line and Phoenix Islands. Around 21 of the 33 atolls are inhabited. The two most popular atolls to visit are Tarawa and Kiritimati (Christmas Island).
I vividly remember the first time I visited Kiribati. The flight from Fiji left early in the morning, timed to land just after daybreak (there are two flights a week from Nadi and two flights a week from Brisbane via Nauru). As the plane circled Bonriki International Airport I looked out the window at the bluest water I had ever seen – it looked hardly real. “How could water be that blue?” I thought to myself as the plane banked for landing. The thin, L-shaped Tarawa atoll below me looked barely wide enough for a runway, let alone to be home to more than 50,000 people – half the country’s population.
Kiribati is a low-lying atoll country with a pleasant equatorial climate, at its best during the drier season from April to October. The predominantly north-western winds provide a welcome relief during the hottest parts of the day and especially at night. The sound of the breeze moving through the palm trees that fringe the lagoon and ocean shore is quite entrancing.
With limited physical resources and infrastructure, Kiribati faces many environmental challenges. For example, the lagoon at Tarawa is lovely to look at but off limits for swimming due to pollution and sanitation problems. But don’t worry – there are plenty of other places to swim.
On the port and port administrative centre of Betio the places to stay are Betio Lodge and the George Hotel. Both are pretty busy with a mix of consultants working on various development programs and locals visiting from outer islands. I met people from all over Kiribati, including the occasional member of parliament and the winner of the ANZ Bank-sponsored Kiribati Idol competition.
Accommodation options just over the causeway from Betio include Mary’s Hotel and Tarawa Boutique Hotel in Bairiki. Further up the atoll is Utirerei Motel and Fema Lodge near Antenon. Dreamers Guesthouse in Ambo offers home-style accommodation on the ocean side of the atoll.
The dining options in Kiribati are limited. There are a couple of Chinese-style restaurants in Betio and Bairiki and a few holes in the wall serving local food. Most hotels have a restaurant of sorts.
The tuna harvest off Kiribati is abundant, and what is not processed for overseas markets is readily available locally. The crayfish and mantis shrimp are plentiful. Access to fresh fruit and vegetables can vary so if you see tomatoes for sale by the road, buy them – they may not be there next time you pass. Try the smoked flying fish – you will find them where you see the smoke billowing across the road from the home smokers. For a couple of dollars (they use Australian currency in Kiribati) you can enjoy a whole fish, but mind the bones.
If you are craving the comforts of Western-style food or espresso coffee while visiting Tarawa don’t despair. Chatterbox Café in Bikenibeu village serves coffee, toasted sandwiches and wraps from 7am to 4pm. The best hamburger in the Pacific is at Titarbakti Café (that is Starbucks to us) near the airport, which also serve a delicious fried chicken and rice and a very nice egg and bacon sandwich, even though bacon seems an incongruous thing to find in the middle of the Pacific. If you have a sweet tooth ask for some kamaimai, a syrup concoction made from unfermented sweet toddy. It is delicious on ice cream or pancakes.
Talking of toddy, I loved watching the daily ritual of the men climbing the palm trees to collect the sap to make it. The sap first becomes sweet toddy and is then fermented into a sour-tasting highly alcoholic brew – rocket fuel comes to mind. For me it is an acquired taste. Kava is also available in Kiribati. Try Ueen Kava Bar near Betio Lodge, a local karaoke club with country-and-western singing and pool tables. One night I went to Ueen with an i-Kiribati colleague. After several shells of kava (the locals used the Fijian word yaqona) he jumped up on the stage to sing and if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes I would have thought it was Conway Twitty up there!
On Tarawa, I found a remarkable number of World War Two relics and learnt about one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific war– the Battle of Tarawa. In Betio you can see what is left of Japanese military buildings, batteries and gun emplacements, with the former Japanese headquarters just behind the Police Station. There are even the remains of the gun battery tramlines that run through the grounds of what is now Kiribati Institute of Technology. Be sure to visit the Vickers 8” gun emplacements on Betio, and Red Beach 1, 2 and 3 where the US Marines landed in 1942. At the Betio Cemetery is the Coastwatchers’ Memorial, a chaste monument and poignant reminder of the brutal massacre of seventeen civilian New Zealander and British coast watchers by invading Japanese forces.
After you have visited South Tarawa it is time to go further up the atoll or visit an outer island. If you are pressed for time, book the Abatao Cultural Tour with Tobaraoi Tours. Abatao is a small village in North Tarawa. The day tour will give you an insight into traditional cultural practices that still thrive in Kiribati such as weaving, garland making, clam farming and local storytelling. For the more adventurous you might be able to help with the toddy cutting. Don’t forget to take some Irish Cake tobacco (available in local stores) before visiting the village, to give to the chief as a sign of respect.
At Tabon Te Keekee Eco Lodge near Abatao you can stay in a kia-kia (traditional Kiribati hut) over the water. Further afield is Teirio Islet Beach Escape on Abaiang. It is a two-hour boat trip from Betio harbour and the perfect place to unwind and enjoy Micronesian hospitality and the beauty of Kiribati’s pristine blue water. Abaiang is sometimes known as the garden island of Kiribati so be sure to walk through the hinterland and some of the lush native vegetation.
My favourite place to stay is halfway up North Tarawa, Tabuki Lodge. Mike and Riteta Savins are your hosts and they have created a tranquil oasis “just opposite the second broken bridge” – that’s the way they name locations in Kiribati. My kia-kia came complete with mosquito net and palm blinds which were let down to provide privacy and also protection from overnight rain. Riteta is in charge of the kitchen and we ate delicious food with lots of local ingredients. Lunch and dinner started with breadfruit chips (which could have been a meal in themselves), then beef and fish dishes, rice and vegetables and the local mantis shrimp, simply grilled with salt and pepper. Breakfast was coconut pancakes, eggs and bacon and fresh fruit. Don’t expect to lose any weight while staying at Tabuki Lodge, notwithstanding the long walks along the lagoon and swimming in the clear water of the channel.
I have been to Kiribati many times over the last ten years for work. Each time I discover more and more of this atoll nation’s quirky charms and the warmth and generosity that always make me feel welcome. Being so far off the tourist track is another compelling reason for visiting Kiribati, where a wonderful culture and heritage is waiting for you to discover – just don’t go as a tourist.
Story by Anthony Bailey. Photography by Anthony Bailey and Jan Paaskesen. Anthony Bailey is an education advisor who travels frequently in the Pacific.
Tabuki Lodge. Ph: + 686 73028107. Email: [email protected]
Teirio Islet Beach Escape. Contact Betio Lodge. www.betio-lodge.com. Ph:+686 25377
George Hotel. Ph:+686 26340.