Kiribati – the Outer Islands

Thursday, 30 November 2017

My visit to Kiribati featured North and South Tarawa, but it was was too short to explore any of the outer islands, you’d have to at least overnight and flights don’t operate every day. Plus you’d have to allow extra time, just in case weather or Air Kiribati malfunctions meant your flight didn’t operate as planned. So what about just flying down to another island and at least seeing it from the air?

▲ I dropped in to the Air Kiribati office in Bairiki and quickly discovered that some flights were booked out weeks ahead. I’d contemplated taking the Saturday flight that went from Tarawa to Tabiteuea North (Tab North to its friends) and on to Tab South and Onotoa before making a U-turn and return via both Tab islands to Tarawa. That way I’d get to see three different islands, but no luck, Tab North was booked out. To the I-Kiribati Tab North is the ‘Island of Knives’ although the sharp knives they’re reputed to wield were mainly used in a dispute with the islanders of Tab South.

Tab North is also the site for Nnabakana, I’d discovered when I visited the Umwanibong Cultural Museum on South Tarawa. According to UNESCO they are:

• … huge stone monuments with associated stories of battles that were fought among islands around the 16th century. These monuments are human-made stone pillars, six of which remain unspoiled, resembling giant human warriors built to scare away enemies. Some of them are more than three metres high. When placed six metres apart in a row on the coastal side of the islet and seen from the distance, the pillars look like an army of giants marching ready for war.

▲  So instead I spent US$38, each way, for the 12 minute flight north to Abaiang. The flight flew along the east side of North Tarawa before crossing the short stretch of open sea separating North Tarawa from Abaiang. There’s the island airstrip coming in to view on the right side of the picture.

▲  On the ground the local kids gave a good impression of not having seen too many I-Matang, that is to say anybody who’s not an I-Kiribati. I had a laptop to hand over to someone waiting at the airstrip for it and then it was back on the Twin Otter for the short flight back to Tarawa. Abaiang has a small local resort so this would have been a good island to stay on. So why isn’t Kiribati a Pacific Ocean equivalent of the Maldives I mused?

▲  Back at Bonriki Airport on South Tarawa I had an hour on the ground (the next flight was late) before departing again, this time on a Chinese Harbin Y-12. It was a longer flight to Abemama which I’d already spotted from my Fiji Airways flight to Kiriabati from Fiji a few days earlier.
▲  The flight took just over half an hour and there was also a longer stop on the ground before we returned to Tarawa. Abemama is only a stone’s throw north of the equator, it’s no surprise the climate is so warm on the islands of Kiribati. Abemama is locally famous as the Kiribati ‘Island of Oral Sex,’ due to the well trained tongue of an Abemama king who was reputed to have been very good at the keeping the women of the island happy. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of visiting the King of Abemama during his Pacific travels in 1899, perhaps not the same king!

A World Bank team I bumped into on South Tarawa overnighted at Marakei Island, a bit further north-east of Abaiang. This island has an almost totally enclosed lagoon so it’s possible to take a bicycle and ride right around the island. Marakei also has four stone ‘goddess’ figures which all visitors are supposed to pay their respects to as soon as they arrive on the island. Not far south of Tarawa is Maniana, I’d met the Member of Parliament for Maniana and a few years previous Anote Tong, Kiribati’s president at the time, who is also from Maniana.

The assorted other Outer Islands include Banaba, once known as Ocean Island, the furthest west of the Kiribati group and the one high island in the country. Much further east are the scattered Phoenix Islands and then, further east again, the even more scattered Line Islands. Kiritimati – Christmas Island – is probably the best-known island in Kiribati and certainly the biggest tourist attraction because of ‘saltwater fly fishing’ for the island’s bonefish. Then there’s Washington and Fanning Islands to the north of Kritimati and Starbuck and Vostok Islands (great names) to the south.