Solomon Islands : Scrambling around the WW2 wreckage on Guadalcanal

The Solomon Islands are apparently amazing for diving….. shame I don’t like fish!  However, for a raw look at Melanesian culture, and to check out some interesting Guadalcanal history, Honiara is definitely worth a (short) visit.

What to do in Honiara!

Vilu museum

Visit the WW2 relics

The easiest place to do this is to go to the Vilu museum on the North Coast of Guadalcanal.  It isn’t signposted from the road so it is probably easier to take a taxi (I rented one for a few hours).    Created by the current owner’s father, and by the current guide – Talia’s grandfather, when he collected all the best examples of old aircraft and relics from around the island, it is a fun place to visit and Talia is as passionate about the planes as her granddad.  (S$100).  My other favourite location was the Sherman tank just across the road from Ruaniu, which was interesting to see but probably not worth the S$30 entry fee

Tens of thousands of young men who fell in battle sleep here.  May the tragic events that occurred on this island during WW2 be forever inscribed in our memories.  War brings all sides nothing but deep grief and distress. To the souls of these departed youth our only words of tribute are the renunciation of war.  May the blue sea, the great expanse of sky, and this green island be a testimony of eternal peace.  Sleep peacefully, fallen friends.    – Words on a monument erected by a Japanese soldier

Philip the taxi driver couldn’t resist climbing on the tank – I actually got in it too

Practice you pidgeon

I was delighted to learn that I actually speak the local language, well I can understand it.  My favourite signs in Honiara were no torowem rubbish hia and hem half past four nao? – a sign for the beer company.  I also conquered the basics of ‘mi laek go long…’=I want to go to, and ‘hao long nao bae hemi tekem fo wakabout go….’= ‘how long does it take to walk to…’.   I had quite a lot of fun practising and the locals were surprised how much I understood.

The sunk Japanese ship

Go snorkelling at Bonegi/Ruaniu

The remains of a 6500 tonne Japanese transport ship was sunk here in 1942 and it is a great location to check out the fish or have a swim

Go swim in a waterfall

Both Mataniko and Tenaru were easy to reach but not hugely spectacular

Stroll around Honiara

None of the sights are amazing but you can check out the National Parliament building (where long shirts and cover your shoulders if  you want to go inside), the National Museum (not scintillating), and the catholic and melanesian anglican churches.   Go to church on Sunday if you are there, the singing is pretty good!

Go shopping

Ok, so there isn’t anything to buy, but checking out the pretty grim supermarkets with their out of date products and limited variety will make you feel pretty good about how good your supermarkets are at home.  The exception to this is the central market, which is worth a visit for some decent fresh veg and fruit

Plane ruins at Vilu

Check out the drunks/betel nut chewers

I have never seen such a high proportion of bottle stores to food shops!  On the road from Honiara to Vilu there were 27 bottle shops on the outside of town and probably two food shops!   I also saw more stalls selling betel nut than vegetables.  Hmmmm.   Perhaps that explains why there were numerous signs around town banning chewing, spitting and alcohol.  I did have a run in with a gang of drunks near the market who started yelling ‘what ya want white man’, but I wasn’t too bothered as was entirely confident I could outrun them if they made a move.

Additional notes

  • I stayed at the Chester Resthouse, which at S$330 per night ($45) is the cheapest in Honiara – sadly expats and aid workers have inflated the prices of the few western hotel rooms to egregious levels, and I wasn’t prepared to pay $300 per night.   The Resthouse was clean and safe and $45 for a small room sharing a bathroom with the 9 other rooms.  Unfortunately there wasn’t a lot of soundproofing, and there were a lot of kids and babies, so I didn’t get much sleep.  I probably would still stay there again in spite of the noise, given the lack of alternatives, but can’t really recommend it
  • I ate mostly from the market and the ‘bulk store’, but can recommend the Lime Lounge which was the only wifi I got in Honiara – decent coffee and a small but perfectly formed burger with fries.  I also recommend the Frangipani ice for a cone and the Honiara hot bread kitchen for a nutritionally void donut.
  • Taxis from the airport cost S$100, and then about $100 per hour if you want them to take you around the Island.  My driver was the helpful Philip, who can be reached on 7833203.
  • Note that while NZ/AU phone companies roam in the Solomons, EE in the UK definitely did not

Jezebel the Sherman tank

The rest house takes shell art to a whole new level

One of many bottle shops

Honiara, march 3, 2017

Palau – kayaking the Rock Islands

Palau – the worlds best diving and super friendly people at the heart of Micronesia……..
Palau is an interesting place….if all you ever saw was the main street of Koror, you would think you were in some dodgy craphole.  All but the extraordinarily expensive tourist hotels are little more than grubby doss houses, largely catering to the migrant Philipino and Bangladeshi workers who are here en mass serving the largely asian tourists.   The number of Chinese  tourists has increased ten fold in the past five years and as a result there has been rapid growth in chinese businesses.   40% of visitors come from mainland China, 25% from Japan and 15% from Korea and Taiwan.      Similar to Yap, the antagonism towards the chinese tourists, who are perceived to only ever spend money in chinese establishments, runs high.  By contrast the Japanese are very popular (and they did own the country up until after ww2, where Palau had one of the bloodiest battles in th pacific).   The government has cut the number of charter flights from china by half since last year, and is focussed on attracting only high end tourists from now on.
Mens house in Elechui

Its a slightly weird place.   Koror has some charm, a couple of decent coffee shops, several supermarkets (each and every one with out of date dairy products for some reason), and some decent restaurants.  But it isn’t somewhere you would want to spend a lot of time.

Rock islands 
Things to do
Kayak the rock islands
  • I did two kayak tours with Sams Tours, though there was a lot more snorkelling and sitting on the boat than paddling.   Apparently they used to do real kayaking tours for 6-8 hours but the tourists used to be exhausted after an hour so they changed to a lazier approach.   It is a nice day out but not a work out
Rock islands
 snorkel and dive
  • Snorkel – even if you don’t dive the snorkelling lets you see plenty of fish and wonderful coral.  If you don’t want to go out on a boat, the snorkelling under the Japanese bridge in Palau is excellent
  • Diving – I don’t dive, but Palau is apparently one of the best places in the world to do so.
Japanese cannon (right hand side)
Take a land tour of Babeldaob island
  • See the Badrulchao monoliths and stone faces – these have been here for 2000 years and no one actually knows what they are for
  • Visit the Bai – men’s house at Elechui.  Note that unlike most of the Pacific, Palauans have a matriarchal society.   They still have men’s houses, and the chiefs are men, but importantly the chiefs are chosen by the women and will be fired by the women if they are not doing a good job.   And while the men have a men’s house, normal houses are actually referred to as ‘Blai’ which is the feminine version of the word for men’s houses i.e. all the normal houses are women’s houses and the men are only in charge in the men’s house
  • Swim under Ngardmau Falls – if you fancy you can pay $40 to ride the ‘monorail’ down, but it is only 15-20 minutes walk each way
    If you go with Malahi, you also get the botanist tour, we stopped for soursop, limes, kalamansi, imsur (a type of star fruit).  She was awesome – it was like been driven around the island by a friends mildly eccentric granny
  • If you have time you can also take the Land tour to Peliliu – I didn’t go but you can get a local ferry there and back for about $5, although it requires an overnight stay.   Apparently it is super interesting for history buffs
Decoration – men’s house at Elechui
Decoration – fruit bat on men’s house at Elechui

 

  • Work out on the track –

By far the most fun thing I did in Palau was go to the free fitness class at the track behind the community centre (Mon, Tues, Thurs at around 5.15pm).  The locals were incredibly friendly and welcoming, which was great as busting out burpees in 90% humidity is easier with company.   For the rest of my time on island people I met at the class kept saying hello in the street. Alternatively the track is the place to run in Palau, as the roads are a bit dangerous.

Ngardmau Falls
Badrulchao monoliths
Additional Notes
  • Palau is eye wateringly expensive. I stayed at Pinetrees hostel, $80 for a room with shared bathroom (one shower for up to 17 people).  I would recommend it, as it is the best value on the island – get used to Palau pricing.
  • Sams tours are good for everything you need but assume every tour will cost $150.  If you are canny you can find a cheap kayak to rent at a gas station for ten bucks a day, you can also find rental cars for $30 per day, ask a local or Baba at pinetrees
  • Eating is overpriced – best supermarket was Surangel & sons, although also try Payless for rotisserie chicken.  Thursday morning market next to gymnasium for fresh fruit.   The sashimi and bento boxes at Yanos were also good.   Every meal I ate out was disappointing at best and vile at worst (and pricey), and this included three of the top five restaurants on TripAdvisor

The Milky Way – for palauan skin cream
Kayaking the mangroves on Long lake
 

January 20, 2017; Koror, Palau

Micronesia….Yap yap yap

Stone path on the Tamilyog trail

Yap is one of the rare places in the world where instead of going to on a tour to ‘see what life used to be like in the traditional culture’, you can walk around the island and experience the traditional culture alive and kicking…… go now while you still can. 

Men’s house – western side of yap
Boarding the flight to Yap was a curious experience.  United called for a passenger by name to board before everybody else, as he was a ‘global services’ member.  And they did mention (loudly but in a friendly fashion) as he boarded, that he was slightly more relaxed than the average premium customer.  Visually, he didn’t appear to be the standard business class passenger – his teeth were bright red and largely rotted away, he had a flowery pair of board shorts, a faded t-shirt and some beat-up flip-flops.  He wasn’t alone, the business class cabin was entirely stacked with board shorted young dudes with red rotten teeth.  Hmmmm, it was a mystery that was solved after a few days on the island.  He was one of Yap’s most active betel nut runners who carry the world’s best betel nut from Yap to Guam, carrying the maximum legal personal allowance on every single flight.  Yap isn’t well connected, so there are only flights twice a week, and only from Guam.  Everyone in Yap is addicted to the nut, and when you first start to talk to people, you wonder why they are slurring their words….., their mouths are stuffed with the nut…. and most people over 40 don’t have a lot of teeth.

Mongyol stone money bank
Getting off was even more curious.  It was pissing down with rain, but there was insufficient space in the immigration hall for all the passengers, and not quite enough umbrellas for everybody, so half the plane stood in the torrential downpour waiting for the two immigration officers to process us at all at a rate of 1 person every 4 minutes (largely due to their inability to type or spell correctly as they manually inputted all the details into the computer).   There was no rush, as it took them an hour and a half to unload the luggage.   The delay was somewhat compensated for by the wonderful Yapese welcome from a young traditionally dressed lady who presented every arriving passenger with a wonderful lei.   It was an apt introduction to Yap.

 

Beach at the abandoned village view resort
For those of you not familiar with Yap – it is one of the four federated states of Micronesia, together with Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kohsrae.   Yap is extremely traditional.  Women (including tourists) are not allowed to show their thighs, but boobs are just fine.   Everyone belongs to a village and a caste.  All land on the island is owned by the villagers and while there are wonderful beaches, tourists are not allowed to access them without permission, which is rarely granted.  However, I did get to spend a wonderful afternoon on the beach when I was there thanks to Jenn at the Oceania hotel.

How to recycle cars in yap
What to do in Yap?
  • Visit the stone money banks – Yap’s is the self proclaimed “ Land of Stone Money”, and these limestone disks can be found across the island, but nowhere else on earth. The stones were brought by bamboo canoe to Yap from Palau as early as 500 CE. They remain the currency in the negotiation of marriages, land ownership, and village alliances.   The nicest example on the whole island is at Mangyol, where they have applied for Unesco world heritage status.
Stone money
  • Hike on the stone paths, including the Tamilyog trail. These traditional paths are beautifully crafted and are maintained in the mandatory monthly community clean up.
  • See the villages.  I walked a 15 mile loop of the main island one day, and was interrupted multiple times by locals offering to give me a ride or say hello.  Make sure to carry a green leaf in one hand to convey to the villagers that you mean no trouble (seriously!!!)
View of Colonia from the top of the telecom Tower Hill
  • Try and visit on Yap Day (early March)- an annual event with traditional dancing.  Note that if you go, you are requested to wear traditional dress, and yes ladies that does mean going topless (although you can pretty much cover up everything with a well placed lei).  Book well in advance as Yap fills up with those coming home plus visitors from the outer islands.
  • Go diving – I don’t dive but apparently Yap is the best place in the world to see the Manta Rays
‘Slow’ – a good description of life in Yap
  • Hang out and have a beer at the Mnuw, the famous bar in Yap on the boat in front of the Manta Ray Hotel.
  • Stay at the Oceania hotel.  It is a wonderful wonderful hotel.  Blissfully tranquil!  Mark and Jenn, the owners, are extremely cool, their hotel is the best on the island, the restaurant is amazing and outrageously cheap, and I could have stayed forever.  (see my review on trip advisor)
License plate
Truthfully there is bugger all to do in Yap, but it is a blissful place to while away a few days.  I could have happily stayed for weeks.   There is a wonderful oddball collection of expats on the island, all of them just slightly bonkers.  These included a kiwi who was literally shipwrecked two years ago, an american couple who were moving there to set up a disaster relief capability, two New Yorkers who are running the nicest hotel, several well meaning mormons from Utah, some Australian peace corp workers and a lot of passionate scuba divers.  All of them congregate at the MNUW and the Oceania restaurant. I can see the allure of hanging out in Yap, although the isolation (and lack of a wide variety of foodstuffs) would drive me bonkers.
Many thanks to Jenn, Mark, Tara, Spencer, JR, Deb, Cecelia and Mars for making it a memorable visit.
Note, if Yap is of interest I would recommend going sooner versus later.  Sadly the day I arrived, so did a fleet of Chinese long liner fishing boats, the first in over a decade.  They were fishing right on the reef with government permission and if this continues it won’t be long before the marine wildlife is decimated.  I am hopeful the locals will mobilise against this awful infringement of their traditional fishing rights before it’s too late.
Traditional yap house at the museum in Colonia






January 14, 2017;  Colonia, Yap

Off the Beaten Track – Tuvalu

Tourism development

So, if you thought Kiribati had not many tourists, Welcome to Tuvalu.  Apparently there are less than 1000 tourists per year!  Actually Tuvalu is delightful, and I did meet an American aid worker there who was in charge of building the tourist industry.   His challenges will be numerous

  1. Air Fiji flies only twice a week (Tuesday and Thursday) and only from the secondary airport of Suva (not Nadi).  And it would be a bit of a stretch to say they fly twice a week as the flight is regularly cancelled for weeks at a time……  I flew up and back with one of the Air Fiji staff and they hate flying to Tuvalu as the runway is not maintained properly – his job was to come up and check it periodically.  On the bright side the airport code for Funafuti is FUN
  2. Food shortages are rife on the island.  I went everywhere trying to buy cake, ice-cream or chocolate.  There was no cake!  There was no cake because there had been no eggs on the island for a few weeks.   There were no eggs because the ship hadn’t come and there was never room on the plane for food.   A whole country with no cake – my definition of a bad day.   I did manage to track down ice-cream and chocolate at the ‘chinese supermarket’ (how the locals describe it), after visiting the other ten shops that were closer to my hotel.  It is always amusing in almost all the countries I visit to hear the locals complain about ‘the chinese’ stealing their jobs and customers.  Well, hard not to be stolen as a customer by the only shop in town that has ice-cream and chocolate (albeit out of date)
  3. The hotels need a little development – I stayed at Filamona’s moonlight lodge.  I think the cleaning and design staff were moonlighting somewhere else.  The bathroom suite was salmon pink.  The mattress was new, and came complete with the plastic still wrapped around it – it made for a slippery night’s sleep.  And the window looked out over the living room, with a sheet for a curtain so everyone could see in.  (the pictures on the website aren’t doctored but are definitely misleading)
  4. The only tourist operation in town – the town boat that takes you to marine zone is a tin dingy with no chairs or shade.  It was fun, but can’t imagine any posh tourists using it

That said, I found Tuvalu perfectly touristy enough for me.  The locals were friendly, the beaches were beautiful, and you could swim!  I had a blast and I would go back, but I would make sure to take more food with me

So, what are the tourist highlights?

Meet the locals at the bar

The main bar in town was at Filamona’s so I pretty much met everybody.  Well by everybody, I mean all the men, as all the women were probably off doing more productive things like working or feeding their kids.   My favourite interaction was with an 80 year old Tuvalan who had come home for a month for christmas.  He gave me a long lecture on why I would never find a husband (I didn’t bother to correct his assumption that I didn’t have one).  Apparently I looked too bony and therefore I must come from a poor family that didn’t feed me enough.   I was also not going to be any good as a wife as I wouldn’t be able to dance given I didn’t have hips.  Bummer for me!

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The view from Filamona’s balcony of the airport…. We landed, and I was at the hotel 4 minutes later (including clearing immigration)
I was also very entertained for an hour by a french tuna boat captain and has alcoholic alaskan helicopter pilot.  I only learned this when I was in the pacific, but all Tuna boats have helicopters that they send out to look for the fish.  This pilot had clearly had enough of the job and was desperate to get off the boat and out of the islands.  Six packets of cigarettes and countless beers later, the French boat captain abandoned him and the pilot spent the night in the hammock as he couldnt figure out what to do next.  I am still mildly curious as to whether he went back to the boat, I am assuming he did as he wasn’t on our flight, and it was the only flight for the next week

Tuna boat - if you look closely you can see the helicopter
Tuna boat – if you look closely you can see the helicopter
head out on a boat to the marine reserve

You rent a boat from the town ‘hall’, anyone can drop you off there.  It was AUD 150 including the gas.  For that I got two personal guides and we went to 3 different islands.  They didn’t bring any lunch, but I had packed enough over processed carbs for us all (its pretty much all you can buy to eat in Tuvalu).  The islands were divine, the water the clearest I had ever seen.    The snorkelling would be terrific if you weren’t terrified of fish.  I don’t know why, but I don’t like it when scaly fishy things swim towards me, so I am a bit of a snorkelling failure.  Even without the snorkelling, it was a magical day

The guys trying to start the boat....
The guys trying to start the boat….
Marine reserve
Marine reserve
Marine Reserve - storm coming in
Marine Reserve – storm coming in

Hang out on the run way

The runway, which only gets used twice per week for a plane, is the central hub of social life in Funafuti.  When the sun starts to go down, and it gets a bit cooler, it is the location for speed walking, rugby and quite a bit of volleyball.

 

Boys on the runway
Boys on the runway
go for a run

As well as the runway which is a pleasant run, you can also run from one end of Funafuti atoll to the other – well almost all the way to the end as you have to stop at the rubbish dump – it is a nice round 10k ish.  At some points the atoll is only about 4 metres wide so you have the waves crashing on one side and the lagoon on the other.   The highlight of the run will almost certainly be the kids yelling “Palagi, Palagi”, to warn everyone that there is some weirdo foreigner running past.  For those of you who didn’t grow up in the Pacific, Palagi means white person.  (well literally it means a bang from the sky, and thats what Europeans were called as they came with guns and wiped us all out, but now they use it to mean white person).   I am sure I amused some of the adults at least as I ran by and corrected them that I wasn’t a Palagi, but a Maori.

The 'highway' to the edge of the atoll
The ‘highway’ to the edge of the atoll
Additional tips
  • There is a tasty, albeit greasy, cafe in the airport.  Good fried random things.   After my cake disappointment I needed some fried stuff and this did the trick
  • Ask for fish for dinner – no-one local actually likes the tuna as it is the food of last resort.  Everyone eats ramen noodles, fried rice and chicken that was rejected from Australia.  I preordered fish and it was always amazingly fresh tuna!
  • Take food with you if you are coming from anywhere with good fresh fruit and veg
  • There are no ATMs in Tuvalu and no-one takes cards.  Bring boatloads of Australian dollars!  The National Bank can’t help you
  • You can rent a moped for $10 a day, but you can walk everywhere in five minutes.  Also if you are walking everyone will think you are nuts and stop and try to drive you wherever you want to go.
  • Learn a bit of Samoan, it helped break the ice.  Hello (Malo) and thank you (Fa’afetai) would be a good start.

Recommended Hikes in NZ

I have met many wonderful people on my travels who want to come to NZ, and have asked for my top tips on where to hike.  Apologies for the tardiness, but here are my favourite places to run and hike in the worlds best hiking country

The Great Walks

There are nine great walks in NZ, and they are justly named as they are some beautiful tracks (what we call trails in NZ) – including the Routeburn, Kepler, Milford, Abel Tasman and Tongariro.   I would no longer do any of these walks as hikes, as there are too many people on them and you have to prebook the huts.   However, if you are new to hiking, and/or want to be sure of company, then you will be happy walking any of these Great Walks.

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the Heaphy Track

If you are a trail runner, I can highly recommend running some of the Great Walks as the trails are all beautifully groomed, my fave runs are:

  • Routeburn from the Glenorchy carpark end up to the Harris Saddle or onward to Conical Hill, and back down to the carpark
  • Abel Tasman from  Awaroa back to Marahau or vice versa using the water taxis to transport you one way – about 4-5 hours (tide dependent and with some paddling stops), 30k and pretty easy
  • Heaphy as a two day run, with an ultra light pack as you only need a bit of food and a sleeping bag
  • Rakiura is an easy 4-5 hour day run around Stewart Island
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Running up to the Harris Saddle on the Routeburn
Terrific multi day hikes which are not ‘great walks’

New Zealand is a land blessed with wonderful hikes, and ones I would highly recommend are (* means trails are extremely runnable)

Near Auckland 

  • Hilary trail which is a lovely stroll along the west coast of Auckland

Near Nelson/St Arnaud

Near Wanaka

  • Wilkins Gillespie Circuit near Makarora with a side trip up to Lake Crucible
  • Matukituki valley tracks near Wanaka with some wonderful shorter walks based out of Aspiring Hut
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Fording the Rees river heading up the Rees valley

Near Glenorchy

  • Rees Dart circuit * – one of my absolute favourites, simply a stunning run/hike up the rees valley and down the dart.  This can be joined up with the Matukituki valley tracks in good weather with a traverse over the Cascade Saddle into the Aspiring national park.  Note the Dart part of the track is currently closed
  • Greenstone/Caples track *- two good day runs, or a nice 2-3 day round trip, much less crowded than its popular neighbour the Routeburn
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Tuatapere Humpridge Track

If you are feeling super energetic you can join up the Wanaka/Glenorchy trails in a big long loop – hiking from Arrowtown to Wanaka on the Motatapu Trail, hitching a ride from Wanaka to Makarora to walk the Wilkins Gillespie, and if you have alpine experience traversing the Rabbit pass directly from the Wilkins to the Aspiring Hut (near Wanaka), and then taking the Cascade Saddle over to the Rees track to come out at Glenorchy.   This is a pretty epic route and I am looking forward to seeing if I can make it work this summer

Near Te Anau

  • Hollyford track – a wonderful walk and you get to see the seals at Martins Bay.  This can be a bit tricky, as the ‘demon trail’ is aptly named.  If you want to go a bit upmarket and take a boat around the tough bits you can pay for a guided tour and they also chopper you out from the end
  • Tuatapere Humpridge*  – a very good track, privately run, which means you can upgrade to a private room if you don’t want a dorm.  You can also buy food in the hut, so you really don’t need to carry anything.  And they have hot showers!!!
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Hollyford Track

If you are looking for somewhere to base yourself for these hikes, I would recommend the quieter bases of St Arnaud, Motueka, Wanaka and Glenorchy.  I tend to avoid Queenstown these days as it is too busy!

There are hundreds of other hiking opportunities in NZ, including considering embarking to Te Araroa – the long pathway which runs for 3000km from the top of the country to the very bottom, I have only picked my favourites, and I am sure others would prioritise different hikes

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Rakiura on a Rainy Day
Accommodation/Transport
  • If hiking, you can get a great value pass from Doc for $122 which will allow you unlimited nights in back country huts for a year (excluding Great Walk Huts)
  • There is lots of good free camping in NZ, and I use the camping NZ app to find free campsites – many of these are pretty basic and administered by DOC.
  • I highly recommend that you DO NOT rent an RV and drive around the south island – our roads are not terrifically well designed for big slow vehicles and it is much more sensible (cheaper and easier) to rent a small car and stay in hostels or camp
additional information
  • Doc – the department of conservation is a wonderful source of info with track maps and the local office can advise you of trail conditions
  • Good too maps are free to download from http://www.topomap.co.nz

 

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West Sabine River

Off the Beaten Track – Kiribati

Kiribati – one of the least visited countries in the world, less than 5,000 tourists a year!!!!  It definitely felt like it as only 8 of us got off the plane and everyone else was an aid worker.

Just to clear up the obvious – it is pronounced Kiribass….  the ‘ti’ is pronounced as ‘ss’, so the Kiritimati part is pronounced almost exactly like Christmas (as that was what it was called when the anglos colonised it).

Kiribati has a land mass of 811 square  kms, spread out over 3.5 million square kms of ocean.  And that land mass is likely to be under water in the next 30 years.  The government apparently have bought some land in Fiji for when that might happen, but no-one wants to go!

So Kiribati is picture perfect, so much so that the Huffington post wrote an article about how beautiful it is.  However, i question whether the reporter has ever been to Tarawa Atoll!  Yes it is beautiful, the lagoon is stunning!  but you can’t swim in it under any circumstances, at least not any where near anyone lives.  Why?  very few people in Tarawa have running water, let alone a flushing toilet, so the lagoon is basically one large, exceptionally pretty, open sewer!  Everyone craps on the beach and then it floats out to sea.  I have never been anywhere so nice and not gone in the water, especially in 35 degree heat with 80% humidity.   Kiribati is really really poor!

I stayed in Tarawa for a 6 days, due entirely to the vagaries of flight timetables.  There just aren’t that many people coming and going to justify much traffic.  The people were lovely, and I met almost every foreigner on the island and probably half the locals, so if you feel like it you could just sit in Bairiki square and chat to the people going by.  If you want some other things to do, here is my list:

Attend all the events associated with domestic violence week

Not kidding!  Kiribati apparently has the highest rates of domestic homicide in the world!  Really!  I met three NZ policeman who visited twice a year to work with the local police and they told me that if you were a Kiribati woman it was a very common way to die.  They also told me under no circumstances to leave the motel after dark.  They were confident I would be fine wandering anywhere during day light, but that the local guys were insensible once drinking, and drinking started promptly at 6.30pm when the sun went down.   Given it was such a big deal there was a four day event at the local police station where local kids sang, weird middle aged guys did karaoke, someone else did a home made rap, and some kids acted out what looked like a play about violence in the home.  I didn’t understand anything that was going on, but there was genuinely nothing else to do, so I hung out and watched.  The highlight was these young boys doing a local dance

Local Dance
Local Dance
Kids doing Gangnam Kiribati style
Kids doing Gangnam Kiribati style
see the guns at betio

Its an easy walk from Bairiki across the causeway to Betio (pronounced Besso).  Betio has some ruined guns and bunkers from WW2 (things were pretty ugly here at that time) and if you look carefully you can find them falling apart on the beaches.  Betio is probably the poorest and most densely populated part of Tarawa, but I felt very safe wandering around.

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Betio
go fishing or head out to the Northern atolls

I tried to go fishing or at least head out on a boat to the North island!  Renting a boat was going to cost $300 and as I was by myself it isn’t worth it.  You can also take a ferry, but I took one look at the ferry and didn’t fancy it – a combination of questionable seaworthiness, amazing over-crowding and no shelter from the sun.   I don’t dive, but if you do, I suspect the outer islands would be paradise

Visit parliament

Not really!  but the building was quite interesting

Parliament building
Parliament building
GO running

I ran every day! Option 1 is the causeway, but take care as the drivers don’t give a crap about you, and they have to veer all over the road to avoid the potholes.  I didn’t take it personally as size matters – the trucks pushed the vans off the road, the vans did it to the cars, the cars pushing the motorbikes off the road and everyone trampled over me.  You also suck in a lot of dust on the causeway.

Causeway between Betio and Bairiki
Causeway between Betio and Bairiki

 

Option 2 is the ‘stadium’, which is a pot holed asphalted track.  I would recommend Option 2 as it is quite entertaining in the late afternoon.  The local guys gather to play football in the middle of the stadium and the women all play a pretty fierce volleyball.  Once night the local running club ran with me (or ran past me), most of them were shoeless, but we managed to get some good sprint intervals in.

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The Olympic Stadium of Kiribati
Additional tips
  • Stay at Mary’s, eat at Marys.  If you have a car, stay somewhere else and then eat at Mary’s.  Everyone ate at Mary’s every day, there isn’t really anywhere else between Betio and the airport to go.  They were nice to me and got me fresh fish and steamed veg every days as I couldn’t bear the battery chicken and the fried rice.  Note that the steamed veg consists mostly of cabbage.  On a good day you might get some frozen carrots and corn.   I did try to go to the grocery store to top up on vegetables and fruit, but there wasn’t really anything that wasn’t rotten.  Honest!
  • When you leave, you ‘clear immigration’ and then go outside again to wait.  There is a spectacular banana cake for sale at one of the huts selling coffee across the car park.  Ok, well spectacular might be pushing it a bit far, but I hadn’t had any cake fore weeks.
  • I walked everywhere, clocking up 20-25 k per day.  I tried to rent a bike but no-one had any.  I suspect there is a taxi service.  There were local buses too….
  • For some ideas check out kiribatitourism.gov.ki, but don’t expect any of the tourism operators to actually help you.  I tried to book stuff but no-one was interested
  • You can get there with Air Nauru (connecting through to the Marshalls and Pohnpei, from Nauru and Brisbane) and Fiji Airways

Visited November 2015

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Off the Beaten Track – Nauru

Visiting Nauru was a bit challenging and conflicting.  Challenging as the flight was outrageously priced on the monopoly airline carrier and it took me 47 emails to the consulate in Brisbane to get permission to travel.  Conflicting as I am deeply troubled by the Australian governments approach to ‘outsourcing’ their ‘refugee problem’ to the pacific.   (For those of you who are not familiar with the refugee camps Australia has opened and funded in Nauru, the Guardian has decent coverage of the events and issues http://www.theguardian.com/world/nauru)

It started off well!  At the check in counter, the conversation went like this….
A: Why are you going to Nauru?
M: I’m a tourist
A: They don’t have tourists, are you one of those crazy people that are trying to visit every country in the world?
M: Yes, how did you know?
A: Well you weirdos trying to tick off all the countries are the only ‘tourists’ who visit Nauru as there is nothing to see!
The old phosphate mine - which created all of the islands historical wealth
The old phosphate mine – which created all of the islands historical wealth

Hmmm, ok.   Went to the boarding gate and was surprised to be surrounded by at least a hundred buff tattooed ozzies and kiwis in shorts and jandals.   I got chatting to a few of them (they were friendly even though burly), and they were all working on Nauru.  It was considered a major hardship assignment (worse than Coober Pedy for those of you who know where that is), and they were all dreading going back.    Curiously, when I boarded, there were only six female passengers on the plane – and we were all seated together in the same row.  I asked the attendant why this was, and apparently they had had a few problems with other passengers being a bit drunk and harassing women on this flight before so they put us together for our safety.  To clarify, it was 7am! and in Australia!  I can’t imagine being worried about serious harassment from an Australian at any hour, let alone 7am on a plane surrounded by people.  And the guys all seemed to be polite!  But I guess there must be some history there…..,   Nothing to report on our flight, though I had braced myself for some entertainment 🙂

Landed in Nauru, and was told by the immigration official that I had to go sort out my visa but the hotel would help.  Of course the hotel shuttle wasn’t there.   O2 didn’t roam in Nauru, but one of the Ozzies called the hotel for me and an hour later Jasmine showed up.   “Sorting the visa out’ required visiting the visa office (a non air-conditioned shipping container) to fill out a form, then going into town to pay a fee at the revenue department and then back to the shipping container.   Two hours later I arrived at the ‘glamourous’ Hotel Menen – the best and most expensive hotel on the Island.  Fortunately I had been warned by my fellow adventurer Evelthon, that the Menen was minging and I wouldn’t want to sleep in the sheets or walk on the floor barefoot.  He was right!  The water didn’t  work half the time (so no toilet flushing or showering!), the hallways smelled like cooked piss, and I got a rash sleeping in the bed (even though I slept in my clothes).

Eroded Phosphate on the beach
Eroded Phosphate on the beach

Fortunately forewarned, I had packed enough food for three days (berries, vegetables, eggs, dehydrated couscous, salami), as had been told the food on the island was dire.   Having seen the cleanliness of the room there was no way I wanted to eat anything out of the kitchen.  Nauru probably doesn’t make it into global stats given the population size of under 10,000 but I would bet that this is the most obese nation in the world (and I have been to Tonga and Texas).  The diet consists of spam, fried chicken and fried rice!   Without a hint of sarcasm, I have never seen motor scooters working so hard to support the weight of the drivers.

the pentecostal church!
the pentecostal church!

I set out to tour the island.  Inspired by a post I read on Gunnar Garfors blog (http://www.garfors.com/2011/04/nauru.html), I decided to run around the island – it is only 16km to circumnavigate the whole country.  That was a hoot!  I didn’t get to run uninterrupted for long as the locals kept stopping their scooters to ask if I was ok.  “Girl, what you running from????”.   And I wasn’t running that fast in 30 degree heat with 80% humidity.  I don’t think running is much of a local sport.  There isn’t really much to see on the island, but the remnants of the phosphate mine are interesting, and the rock formations from the erosion on the beaches were also pretty cool.

Possibly one of my favourite store names ever
Possibly one of my favourite store names ever
I also managed to chat to a bunch of people on my slow run around the island.  The refugees I met were universally friendly, but desperate to be anywhere else.  They were mostly concerned about the quality of healthcare and education available to their kids locally.  Apparently the refugee camp school had been terrific, but due to funding cuts it was closed, and now their kids had to go to the local school which apparently didn’t have flushing loos.
The locals I met were friendly too, though they hated the refugees and wanted them to leave.  The common concern was that the men were stealing their wives!  I was too polite to ask how they thought Nauru would survive without the Australian aid provided for the camps, as the government had blown the billions of dollars that Nauru once had from phosphate (at one time Nauru had the highest wealth per capita in the world).  Curiously, most of the locals had never left Nauru and had no desire to…… and they thought I was odd to be travelling at all….
And the Australians, well most of them really didn’t wanted to be there either, and I couldn’t blame them.
However, every single person I met was friendly, albeit with very strong and opposing view points.
It was interesting!   Am not sure I would go again, but it was certainly a thought provoking trip.
Additional tips
  • Yes you kind of have to stay at the Menen as there is nowhere else.  You will be ripped off to the tune of AUD 150 per night, and the hotel is always full of aid workers so book ahead
  • Take food with you!!!!  there is a fridge and a kettle in the hotel, so I boiled eggs and steamed veg in the kettle.
  • Transport is non existent but hitching is easy.  I wanted a ride to the airport the day I left and the hotel were faffing about.  So, I asked the first person I saw checking out for a ride and of course he said yes.  (happened to be the pilot for my flight, so I felt like I was in business class getting a free limo to the airport)
  • If you want to go for a swim, pretty much everyone swims at the harbour at Anibare as the beaches are too shallow and rocky.  It is a short walk north of the Menen
Anibare - the best swimming spot
Anibare – the best swimming spot
Visited November 2015