Kiribati: The Most Beautiful Island you’ve Never Heard Of


Words and photos by Andrew Jolly

I’ve spent the last 6 months in Kiribati, pronounced ‘Kiri-bass’, working to support a rehabilitation service attached to the principal hospital in the nation’s capital, South Tarawa—I’m a prosthetist/orthotist myself.

The Tungaru Rehabilitation Service is one of only a few centres of its kind in the Pacific region. It provides physical therapy, prosthetic limbs, orthoses (splints and braces) and mobility devices—such as wheelchairs and walking aids—for people with disabilities.

Not a lot of people have heard of Kiribati, so when I get talking about life on a remote island in the equatorial Pacific, I am often asked how long I spent in the hammock. In reality, life on South Tarawa was a bit different to what you might expect. Like many parts of the world, Kiribati is facing complications from increasing urbanization; people from outer islands are coming to South Tarawa for work, access to services, and access to imported goods, among other things. The tiny atoll that I lived on was congested, bustling, busy, loud, a bit smelly, and endlessly beautiful.

Kiribati is a pretty remarkable place geographically. If you put together all 32 of the Kiribati atolls (and one island), you’d only have the same land area as Canberra. Though from east to west, the expanse of Kiribati’s territory is equivalent to that of China. South Tarawa is pretty typical for a Kiribati atoll—it’s a long, thin strip of coral sand that has raised up out of the ocean to only a few meters above sea level. It is over 60kms long, and about 100 meters wide, very different to the jagged volcanic islands of Polynesia. It has beautiful white sand that illuminates a huge lagoon to turquoise at high tide (you can see a pretty spectacular green glow on the bottom of the clouds as you fly in).

The warm, sociable people of Kiribati are undisputed experts at fishing, and are nearly all music-lovers, though to be honest their music taste is pretty wild (cue Shakira, Bollywood, and anything 90s-house). In many ways, probably due to its remoteness, Kiribati has held on to its traditional culture. I-Kiribati use historical dances to celebrate formal gatherings, or to tell stories of legends and ghosts (many of which have to do with fishing).

Upon arriving on Marakei, near Tarawa, I couldn’t leave my accommodation until I had circumnavigated the island anti-clockwise and delivered a bundle of pandanus cigarettes to each of the shrines of the four famous Marakei female ghosts. My Marakei hosts even had me put sand on my cheeks and drink a mouthful of seawater to see if I had received a blessing of fresh water from said ghosts—sadly, no luck this time.

Special events anywhere in Kiribati are called ‘Butakis’, be it a first birthday, a wedding, or a Christmas party, and, they’re a big deal. It’s pretty typical to rock up to a Butaki to find a hundred or so assorted tubs of chop suey, garlic chicken, fish patties and boiled breadfruit, and occasionally, a huge cooked pig. Before food, a huge crowd sits around the Maneaba to watch an eclectic and often hilarious mix of dancing. Events are always led by an MC, who will get away with saying the same joke two or three times, and each time still get a raucous laugh from the crowd. Solid joke mileage.

Food in Kiribati gets a bit of a bad rap due to how difficult it is to grow veggies in the sandy soil. Evidently, most of the easily accessible food is imported and is often preserved, salty/sweet stuff. A typical daily meal in Kiribati might be some fish, cooked or uncooked, with white rice and sweet and sour sauce, and a few slivers of coconut flesh. If I felt like splashing out, there were a handful of Chinese restaurants that serve up fish and rice with onion, cabbage and MSG for less than $4AU.

Toddy, a sugary liquid tapped from palm trees, can be boiled down to make a sweet syrup called ‘Kamaimai’. That, added to anything, is pretty damn good. There’s a locally available mantis shrimp called ‘Waru’—cooked with garlic that’s pretty delicious too. Great quality fish was readily available and cheap as a result of the numerous mammoth commercial fishing boats sitting in the harbour at the end of Tarawa. I got into a bit of game fishing while I was there, and was lucky enough to enjoy some freshly sashimi’d Yellowfin, Trevally, and my favourite, Wahu.

Every now and then a lady would visit work with a bucket of cooked lobster for sale at about $3-5AU each. I have good memories of getting stuck into some lobster and pot-noodles with the team for lunch (is there a name for that dish?). On a side note, I’m quite sure I reached my life’s instant-ramen quota over that 6 months.

In some parts of Tarawa, the groundwater has turned salty due to rising sea levels, which not only affects the drinking water, but also makes it difficult to grow root crops such as papai. The issues related to urbanization and the subsequent overcrowding of Tarawa present more of an immediate threat. In the time that I was there, my landlord was under pressure to share her land with families that had moved from outer islands and more congested areas of Tarawa. To give you an idea, there are parts of South Tarawa that have the same population density as Hong Kong, just without the high-rise apartments. It’s sad to think that Tarawa may be unliveable within our generation—I have heard that Kiribati owns some land in Fiji as a bit of a plan B. My experience has been that the people of Kiribati are an extraordinarily resilient bunch, and I think the Kiribati identity and spirit will live on, no matter where they find themselves in the future.

There is so much surf exploration to do in Kiribati. So many atolls, all with short outer reefs of different shapes and contours, with so much space around each atoll to catch any direction of swell. There are some reasonably well-known high-quality waves in the far east off Kiritimati island (it’s closer to Hawaii), and to my understanding not a whole lot is known about surf in-between, except surrounding Tarawa.

Access is the biggest barrier—even getting to the brawly right-hand point break of Naa at the northern tip of Tarawa takes an hour by speedboat across the lagoon. Heading to another island means crossing open ocean, which in a speed boat can be downright uncomfortable, and expensive. Surf exploration in Kiribati needs time, and that’s probably why my fellow Aussie mate Jack has gone a bit troppo and decided to stay in Kiribati after his assignment finished in February this year.

Along with Jack, I am lucky enough to call myself a member of the Kiribati Surfing Association (KSA). Total core membership: currently 5. The KSA is headed up by the legendary Nick, who has been sharing surfing with I-Kiribati on Tarawa and surrounding islands for over 10 years now. Thanks to the efforts of Nick and a few others along the way, there’s a good number of used boards dotted around the place. As a result, surfing is a genuine past time for I-Kiribati.

Sitting around with fellow KSA members over a few beers one afternoon at sunset, naming some of the breaks for the website has to be one of my favourite memories of my time in Kiribati. Out the front of my house was a short rocky outcrop with a shallow covering of sand that made for a decent wave at high-tide. Being out the front of the hospital morgue, we wittily called it ‘Morgues’.

If I happened to score the high-tide before or after work I’d inevitably share a surf with my neighbour Iakobo, or any one or two of his family members. Iakobo is one of Nick’s protégés and has a really classic style on the longboard. I snapped a photo of him on a small wave striking a soulful pose with a pretty epic sunset behind him. Thanks to Nick’s influence, Iakobo makes sure that the boards are passed around. It wasn’t uncommon to see eight or ten people wading in the water cheering for every wave while they waited their turn.

By far the coolest experiences in Kiribati were interacting with the kids next door. They were champs and so interactive with each other, so funny, so social; always making their own fun, playing games with whatever was lying around. They would get so stoked anytime I would head out for a surf, catch a fish, or even walk by on my way to work. It didn’t cease to put a smile on my face. Seeing the lives of those kids gave me a bit of insight into one of the strengths of Kiribati culture– life is dependent on family and community in a way that makes the day-to-day a little less about the individual, as compared to my life in Australia.

After living in Kiribati, I am just overtly aware of how much waste I produce. On a low-lying atoll, there’s not much space for all of the plastic waste by-products of the imported goods to go. As a result, plastic sometimes ends up filtering into either the lagoon, or the ocean. Sadly, the beautiful Tarawa lagoon is so polluted in some areas that you can’t safely swim in it.

Public transport rocks in Kiribati. You’ll never spend any longer than 5 minutes waiting for a bus—usually a Chinese rip-off of a Toyota Hiace—which inevitably has the speakers cranked so loud that you can hear the bus coming before you can see it. I genuinely think I have hearing damage from trips to and from the Chinese restaurant. The bus will stop literally anywhere for you, so long as you yell ‘Ikai Taikoka’, which translates to ‘Here please, mate!’ For some unknown reason, a white bloke yelling that always makes everyone on the bus crack up laughing.

You’ll be pleased to know that a standard national hairstyle for men in Kiribati is the mullet. Better known locally as a ‘Pungi’, which has some distant relation to ‘Punk-ey’, the mullet still lives on strong, and is often donned by blokes who get around on ex-Australia Post C110 bikes. It’s a slice of home!

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