Nauru Travel Diary

Nauru Travel Diary 2012


Day 1 - Brisbane to Nauru


30 July 2012

Nauru must be one of the world’s most improbable travel destinations.  Unless a country were to be at war or was being threatened with invasion, it is difficult to imagine a country being more forgettable than Nauru as a place to lure the curious traveller.  However, as those who know me well will acknowledge, I am not the average traveller.

Nauru is just a tiny speck of land in the western Pacific Ocean.  Located a mere half a degree south of the equator and so close to the International Date Line that it is twelve hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, Nauru is an independent republic with just 12,000 people (this figure being my driver’s best guest after ranging through various numbers between 4,000 and 18,000).  Most of the population is a Micronesian/Polynesian mix, but the island’s past as a former Australian territory is evident by the remnant population of a few hundred Australians.

I first became aware of Nauru when I was a boy collecting postage stamps.  I expect that a large part of my passion as a geographer began at that time, as I was fascinated by the small pieces of colored paper from exotic parts of the world that showed people and places that were, to a young boy growing up in Sydney, completely alien – and therefore compelling.

The stamps from Nauru seemed to feature either scenes of tropical beaches lined with palm trees (I remember the ones identified as Anibare Bay especially well for their beauty) or less pristine scenes showing phosphate mining.  It was through my stamp collecting that I first learned that phosphate was a more magniloquent word for ‘solidified bird droppings’, that it was an important fertiliser to make acidic soils more productive for farmers, and that at the time, Nauru was the world’s largest producer of it.  It is only now that, with hindsight and reflection, I see that stamps (with the support of some good encyclopaedias) served as the trigger for much of my pre-internet era mental explorations.

So, why would Nauru not be an appealing destination?  The phosphate mining in Nauru declined sharply about a decade ago as the supplies neared exhaustion, and consequently about 80% of Nauru’s surface area today comprises the scarred landscape of an abandoned quarry.  Almost no soil has formed in this area, so cultivation is impossible.  Furthermore,  because the remnant phosphate is so porous, it won’t retain moisture, thus making even the storage of water problematic for the island’s inhabitants (the island’s water comes from desalinated sea water).  It is a classic environmental disaster area, which (again, as people who know me will realise) makes it curiously arousing to me as a geographer.

And so, fast forwarding almost half a century, I found myself late last night standing at the check-in desk for the charmingly named “Our Airline”, which is Nauru’s national airline.  Our Airline is the only airline that flies to Nauru, and their sole aircraft (an ageing Boeing 737-300) is scheduled to make the trip from Brisbane (its only Australian port) twice each week, departing at half past midnight.

Fortunately I was ready to check-in several hours before departure time.  I say this because… it became complicated.

I walked up to the check-in counter and was greeted by two very affable ladies, one a Nauruan and the other a very conversational Australian who gave me a not-so-abridged history of her 35-year career with the now defunct Ansett Airlines.  It was when we eventually got to the real task at hand – checking in – that I learned that every website that describes Nauru’s visa requirements is wrong.  It seems that Australians DO need a visa for Nauru.  It seems that in order to get the free visa-upon-arrival, you need a pre-authorisation letter from Nauru’s Immigration Office.  And, I was told, if I arrived with neither (which was my clear intention before this conversation had begun), I would be placed in detention.  Furthermore, as though I needed this extra detail, I was informed that detention in Nauru is not very pleasant.

I know many places in the world where arriving at the check-in counter without a necessary visa would be the end of the trip.  Not so Nauru!

One of the check-in ladies (the Nauruan, named Fabiana, who had never worked for Ansett I discovered during our conversation), immediately told me not to worry.  She checked how long I intended to be in Nauru, that my purpose was tourism (which, somewhat worryingly, seemed to cause a wry smile to appear on her face), checked my hotel reservation, and immediately phoned the Chief Immigration Officer in Nauru on her mobile phone.  She confided to me that she would probably be waking him up as it was after midnight in Nauru, but she assured me that he wouldn’t mind (!).

How many other countries in the world have a Chief Immigration Officer who would be happy to be woken up after midnight on a Sunday night to arrange a visa for  a traveller who was standing at an airline check-in counter in another country?

After about 20 minutes, Fabiana received a return call, and I received permission to check-in.  “You won’t need the papers, they will know who you are when you get there” she assured me.

Brisbane Airport was surprisingly busy (I thought), with late-night flights leaving for Malaysia, Singapore and New Zealand in addition to my flight.  Being a far smaller plane than any of the other departures, our Boeing 737-300 was parked at the opposite end of the terminal from the other flights.  With just a few tens of passengers waiting for the Our Airline flight, the terminal seemed quiet and cavernous.

When I looked through the window to see my plane and note the registration number (as I do), I was surprised to see that the Our Airline plane was not there, and in its place was a Norfolk Air Boing 737-300 (the same type of plane, but a different airline).  I understood that Norfolk Air (which was set up to provide flights in and out of Norfolk Island) had gone bankrupt a year or two previously, so maybe the plane has been acquired by Our Airline to double its fleet size (unlikely), or maybe the two airlines have the same parent company or lessor (more likely) – anyway, I’ll have to do some more research on that.

Although the crew (from Our Airline) were wonderful, this was not an especially comfortable flight.  Using Nauruan local times, the flight was scheduled to depart at 2:30 am and arrive at 7:05 am, which I think qualifies for the term “Red Eye Special”.  Sleep was really impossible for two reasons.  First, the seats at the back of the old plane (where I was situated) had very little recline (although, to be fair, the leg room was excellent).  More importantly, we had to break the trip by landing in Honiara (capital of the Solomon Islands) to refuel “because of the refuelling situation in Nauru”.  No-one got on or off the plane during the refuelling stop, which took 50 minutes on the ground, but with the extra preparations for the additional landing and take-off, sound rest was simply not possible.

As a result of the additional refuelling stop, we arrived in Nauru a little late this morning at 8:15 am.  There are no air-bridges at Nauru, so we took the short walk across the tarmac to the terminal building where an officer separated passengers according to the type of passport and visa they possessed.  When he heard that I had neither a visa nor a letter of authorisation, his response was a refreshingly amiable “oh, so you’re the tourist”, and he directed me across to the arrivals desk (one of three) where the most senior official was working.  After a short wait, I arrived at the front of the queue and explained the situation.  She asked me to sit on a nearby chair and wait, which I did.

About ten minutes later, she came up to me with my passport in her hand, and said simply “go through and get your luggage, go to your hotel, then come to the Immigration Office today at 10:30 to collect your passport; your hotel will know where it is”.  I may not have had my passport in my pocket, but I was in Nauru, and I had entered legally.

Nauru has only two hotels, and I had booked a room at the Menen Hotel, mainly because the (very reasonable) room charge also included free airport pickup in their minibus.  In some ways, I am glad that I have come to Nauru now and not next month, because I don’t think their bus will still be mobile a month from now.  The bus had holes in it from the rust, many of the seats had lost their covering and were showing randomly shaped eruptions of decaying sponge rubber, and the floor was littered with the remains of what seemed to be a great take-away meal some time back in the early 1980s.  Nonetheless, the bus did its duty, carrying me and two other passengers to the hotel, despite (like many vehicles in Nauru, it seems) being unregistered and having no license plates.

The Menen Hotel was probably a great place to stay when Nauru’s economy was booming a couple of decades ago.  It still looks good from a distance, but up close it is sadly in need of major repairs.  I felt like a shower to freshen up after my all-night journey, but even at full pressure the taps just dribbled a pathetic series of long drips, the reason being (as I soon discovered) there was no electricity at the time.  And despite all this, I hear the Menen Hotel is - on balance - a better place to stay than “the other one”, and the staff could not have been more friendly or more willing to help.

After freshening up under the drips, it was time to go to the Immigration Office and collect my passport.  I arranged for an unofficial taxi (there being no official taxis in Nauru), and I was taken to the Immigration Office, which was in a small, low prefabricated building in a cluster of government offices opposite the airstrip and beside Parliament House.

All three staff in Nauru’s Immigration Office were there when I arrived, including (I presume) the man who was woken up by Fabiana’s phone call from Brisbane Airport last night.  They had not, however, started the processing of my visa.  Nonetheless, when they saw me they sprang into action, and before another hour had passed, the visa was in my passport.  I had never realised before how much work there is in processing a visa – making a photocopy (which also means getting up to plug in the power cord for the photocopier), writing a line of details by longhand in a large red covered book, and testing the ink pad thoroughly before using it to apply the stamp to the passport.  I had a fascinating hour, standing at the
enquiries window and absorbing this wonderful insight into the processes of a post-colonial bureaucracy before happily walking away with my visa (and passport, of course) and returning to the hotel.

Given my lack of sleep last night, I decided to look around this afternoon by walking.  The first part of the route I took was north from my hotel (which is on the south-east coast of the island) around the edge of Anibare Bay.  There is a road that circles the perimeter of the island (21 kilometres), and the section I took was about 3.5 kilometres in each direction.

Anibare Bay is framed by a beautiful palm tree lined sandy beach, broken only by a small artificial boat harbor formed by a couple of large concrete barriers and a decaying round concrete bunker that was built by the Japanese to defend the island during their occupation in World War II.  It is not a bay in the true sense of the word, but it is Nauru’s one and only zone with a slightly concave shaped shoreline.

As the tide was fairly low, I found that from time to time I encountered the unmistakable aroma of an area that was used by the local community as a beach toilet, a timely warning to look downwards and step carefully for a while rather than just admiring the beautiful scenery in the distance.  The low tide also meant that the coral reef that encircles the entire island of Nauru was very clearly seen. The reef area is marked by a huge number of coral pinnacles, many about a metre or so high, but some exceeded 8 metres in height, making quite a spectacular coastal landscape.  The walk was quite hot – think in terms of the equator at sea level, on a sunny day with no clouds, no shade, and reflected heat from a black bitumen roadway.  Nonetheless, it was made bearable by a light sea breeze for much of the time I was walking.

I had almost finished my return walk to the hotel when I noticed a sign at the edge of the roadway identifying a dirt roadway that was a tsunami escape route, up the steep hill away from the coastline.  I decided to take the road in the hope that it might lead into some of the area devastated by the phosphate extraction.

I was not disappointed.  Within a few minutes I was walking through a deeply scarred landscape of worked out phosphate mining.  One tall vertically sided mound had been left for some inexplicable reason marking what I presumed to be the original height of the land before the mining had stripped away the entire central part of the island.  The devastation of the landscape was complete, and a rusting mechanised phosphate extractor completed the picture of a cemetery-like environment.  The one ray of ecological hope was that small trees were starting to establish themselves in places on the exposed phosphate, raising the hope that a vegetation succession will slowly restore the lunar-like landscape to some semblance of its original state.

I had hoped that being higher than the coastline I might get a stronger, cooling breeze.  In this I was disappointed.  Because there was a rim of high coral rocks surrounding the hollow of the disused quarry that is now central Nauru, the sea breeze could not enter the area, and it was very, very hot.  There was no shade, and the bright white rocks of the roadway beneath me were reflecting a prodigious amount of heat and light, not to mention dust.  I ventured a couple of kilometres inland before turning around and re-joining the coastal road near my hotel.

In all, I had walked about ten or twelve kilometres (it’s hard to tell from the sketch map I am using), which doesn’t sound much over a three hour period (despite many stops for lots of photographs), but given the extreme heat and lack of sleep, I felt I had made a pretty serious effort.

I returned to my room via the convenience store where I stocked up on some water, and to my embarrassment, lay down and fell asleep for a couple of hours.  I can only conclude I must have been quite tired.

I woke again at about 6 pm, and after writing some of today’s diary, had a Chinese meal of chicken and mushroom soup followed by sweet and sour pork in the hotel’s dining room.  Having travelled in China in the early 1980s, it was something of a nostalgic experience to be in this hotel’s dining room, with faded curtains featuring flowers and pumpkins and wonky furniture that would not have been out of place in a run down restaurant in (say) Wuhan in 1966 as they awaited their new Cultural Revolution décor.  Having said that, the food was good, well priced and ridiculously generous in its size.

And that was my first day in Nauru, a place that reportedly has nothing of interest to anyone.