Nauru Travel Diary

Nauru Travel Diary 2012


Day 2 - In Nauru


31 July 2012

Continuing yesterday’s theme of fatigue, I had a great night’s sleep, and woke at about 8:00 am to a stream of tropical sunshine coming in through the window of my room, reflecting from the breaking waves on the coral reef just a few tens of metres away.

When I had dinner last night, I was told that breakfast would be available in the same room used for the Chinese restaurant.  When I arrived, I discovered that the room is also used for meetings, as a very official looking one was already underway.  Looking on was a very shy local girl, a hotel employee, who whispered to me that I could get a breakfast brought to my room.  I agreed to this, and ordered some scrambled eggs and a glass of fruit juice from the menu scrawled on a whiteboard.  She seemed very concerned about the fruit juice, and whispered something about glasses not being able to be removed from the restaurant.  Eventually I signed a piece of paper agreeing to bring back the glass after breakfast, and all seemed hesitantly well.  She said the breakfast would be brought to my room in five to ten minutes.

It wasn’t.  However, it did arrive 25 minutes later – a flimsy plastic plate with a sausage, some scrambled egg and three slices of board-like toast with a thin scraping of jam on the top slice together with a melting glob of butter that would have been sufficient for a small half loaf of bread.  This was accompanied by a very inadequate, extremely flexible, soft plastic spoon that was apparently supposed to serve as my set of cutlery.  And, of course, the precious glass containing my fruit juice was also there.  As a finishing touch, I made myself a cup of instant coffee using the electric kettle in my room and the cups provided, which puzzled me by having the old logo for the Southern Cross Hotel in Melbourne together with three letters in Hebrew on their sides.  I wouldn’t say it was the best breakfast I have ever had, but it seemed sufficient to sustain me for the day ahead.

When I was asking about places to see at the front desk of the hotel yesterday morning, I was surprised to learn that the hotel could arrange a tour “of the whole island” for $30.  “It will take about two or three hours” I was told.  This sounded like an amazing opportunity, too good to miss – an individual tour in a place where I told there was nothing interesting to see.  I immediately asked for this to be arranged.

I went to the foyer at the appointed departure time, which was 10 am.   No driver was anywhere to be seen, so I enquired about his whereabouts at the reception desk.  “Oh, the driver decided that 10:30 would be better” was the cheerful response (all responses are cheerful here, by the way!).

And sure enough, there he was, ready to go, when I returned at 10:30 am.  We began the trip by getting onto the island’s ring-road (which goes past the hotel’s entrance, and almost every other Nauruan’s front entrance as well) and we proceeded in a clockwise direction towards the airport.

The ring road splits around the airport runway.  As we took the southern road around the airstrip, the driver (perhaps needlessly) told me that Nauru has only one airport and does not have domestic flights (which seemed reasonable for a country that is only 3 to 4 kilometres across at its widest point.  He was keen that I saw Nauru’s most significant government buildings – Parliament House, Government House and the Republic’s only high school, built with significant foreign aid from Australia according to the sign on the front fence, although he also seemed a little worried that everything else on the tour would be anticlimactic after these pleasant important which resembled scaled down but better maintained versions of the front entrance to my hotel.

After showing me the disused cantilever phosphate loaders at the old wharf, he seemed a little relieved when we approached Nauru’s Civic Centre (which comprises one building) and I enquired about the availability of postcards.  In a very helpful display of local knowledge, he told me that the only place to buy postcards was Nauru’s Post Office (there is just one post office in the country).  As I entered the doorway, I found this to be a fairly spartan place, with bare walls and just two bare counters with no-one present at either of them.  Again displaying local etiquette, the driver made a screeching whistle through two fingers and soon a short, extremely plump lady with a huge smile waddled out to greet us.

I asked about postcards, because none was on display, and she retreated to the back office where I heard the sound of shuffling papers and drawers opening and closing.  She soon returned with six postcards – her total stock – each different and most of them printed with badly misaligned colors and looking between ten and twenty years old.  I resisted the temptation to buy the particularly misaligned one showing the devastation of abandoned phosphate mining and chose instead the one showing the pleasant public buildings we had just driven past, even though someone had clearly been using the back of it to test the effectiveness of some rubber stamps.  After solemnly taking a photo of the exterior to remember my experience at the nation’s only post office, we processed on our journey.

We deviated almost immediately from the ring road and started heading inland, past the huge abandoned phosphate crushing factory to an area where phosphate mining was currently taking place.  The decline of Nauru’s phosphate mining industry was immediately apparent, as there were just four items of machinery visible in the quarry – two scoopers and two large trucks for transport.

Our drive continued with a circuit of the beautiful Buada Lagoon (a natural lake surrounded by tall palm trees) before proceeding to the office of the Nauru Rehabilitation Corporation (NPC).  My hotel had made arrangements for the PR Officer from NPC to drive me through the mining areas and to show me the work that is being done to rehabilitate the environment after mining.

We had a short wait when we arrived, but the wait proved fortuitous.  My driver casually mentioned that until a few years ago, the NPC offices had served as the camp for refugees sent there for offshore processing by the Australian Government.  (Prior to that, it been an athletics field, but that land use is now little more than a fading memory).  This was a place crying out to be explored!

Considering that at its peak, about 1,500 refugees were housed in the camp, it was far smaller than I had imagined.  The barracks comprised prefabricated metal buildings, similar in nature but smaller in size than the portable classrooms used in many rapidly expanding Australian schools.  The buildings were probably in reasonable condition in their day (each was air conditioned, for example), and certainly better (if much smaller) than the average Nauruan house, but after years of having been abandoned, many were in a sad state of repair with missing doors and broken windows.  The barracks were arranged in a rectangle around what used to be the track and field space, an area now occupied by rows of greenhouse nurseries cultivating plants for the rehabilitation of abandoned mining areas.

I mentioned in passing to my driver that there was some speculative discussion in Australia as to whether the refugee camp might be re-opened, and he immediately replied “I sure hope so!”.  He felt that the refugee camp was extremely helpful for Nauru’s ailing economy, and at a more personal level, he had worked as a guard at the facility during its operational days.  He did acknowledge that from time to time he feared for his safety because the refugees became angry and violent, but on balance, he still felt the facility had been “a good thing”.

Eventually the NPC’s PR officer arrived accompanied by a media officer (cameraman).  Perhaps not surprisingly, they explained, they don’t get very many tourists wanting to visit a declining phosphate mine, and they had decided to use my visit as an opportunity to get some video footage of my visit for marketing purposes.

I was fascinated by what I saw.  We began with an elevated view of an area of active phosphate mining, before moving on to the phosphate stockpile and another area where mining had to cease recently when the digging exposed subterranean brackish water.  Our next stop was supposed to be another area of primary (surface) mining, but all the workers were apparently away having lunch (with all their heavy equipment!!!), so we proceeded to climb a massive hill of black soil that had been scraped from the surface before mining began and was being stored for later use in rehabilitating the land.  The summit of the hill provided a great view of a RONPHOS (Republic of Nauru Phosphate Corporation) conveyor belt and crushing plant, beyond which we could see some very old areas of abandoned mining where the vegetation was re-establishing itself naturally.

I asked how long Nauru’s phosphate would last, and the media officer told me he had attended a meeting the previous day where it been reported that the supplies of ‘primary mining’ phosphate would probably be exhausted “next week”.  The immediacy of this startled me.  ‘Primary mining’ is the surface phosphate that can be mined quickly and cheaply.  Once this was exhausted, only ‘secondary mining’ would remain, which was deeper and thus more costly to extract.

Our penultimate stop overlooked the pride of the NPC, a small area of successfully rehabilitated land.  The area had received a layer of black soil and was now covered with a fairly verdant mantle of green grass interspersed with a few different types of young trees.  Less impressive was a nearby area where rehabilitation had been less successful, I suspect because insufficient soil had been used to cover the remains of the phosphate mining.

Our final stop with the NPC was towards the south-east of the island, very close to my hotel.  Standing incongruously in the middle of a small area of abandoned phosphate mining was the stark cubic outline of a concrete bunker.  It had been constructed as an underground medical centre by the Japanese during World War II, and was subsequently forgotten until phosphate mining excavated the structure.  Mining in this area ceased shortly afterwards when locals became convinced that spirits of the dead had been released.

We returned to the NPC office where I thanked the PR officer profusely for her wonderful commentary before getting back into the Menen Hotel bus to continue the circuit of Nauru.  Noting that the bus was unlicensed and had no registration plates, like about 80% of the vehicles on the road, I asked the driver whether it was actually necessary to register vehicles in Nauru.  “Yes, of course, it is illegal to drive a vehicle that is unlicensed,” he replied cheerfully.  Being in an unlicensed, and thus illegal vehicle, I asked whether the police often checked on this fine legal point.  “No, never,” he laughed, as though such a concept verged on the incomprehensible.

Returning to the ring road that encircles the coastline of Nauru, our next stop was Nauru’s new (I use this term loosely) port facility.  Dominated by two huge conveyor belts that extend seawards to a couple of cantilever loaders, the dock area was depressingly silent during our visit.  My driver suggested that a phosphate ship calls in once every couple of months or so, and all other ships anchor offshore where they are laboriously unloaded by barge.  One such ship was in port today, although not much unloading was taking place.  “They are probably all having lunch”, commented my driver.

We continued our clockwise drive by proceeding northwards along Nauru’s west coast, through small villages of ribbon development comprising run-down (and often abandoned) houses and small shops, occasionally punctuated by primary schools.  Given Nauru’s small size, it didn’t take very long to reach the northern coast, where we made one stop to see a place where frigate birds are being bred.  These large, majestic, black and white, fish-eating birds are native to Nauru (and presumably also to other Pacific islands), and seeing them brought back mental images of old Nauruan postage stamps that featured frigate birds in flight.  Some of the frigate birds were in large cages, but many others were free, perching on the roofs of buildings or on some T-bar posts that had been erected out to sea on the coral reef.

Returning to the hotel along Nauru’s east coast, past Anibare Bay where I had walked the previous day, just one stop remained – a special request I had made to visit a bookshop (any bookshop) where I could learn more about Nauru and its environmental challenges.  The driver informed me that it was not a question of “a” bookshop, or “which” bookshop, because Nauru had only one bookshop – “the” bookshop.  It was administered by the Government Printing Office, and was located at the end of a road that also included the now abandoned State House (a collection of green metal buildings, not unlike those at the former refugee camp, that used to be the former residence of the President, and was also used for state visitors).

We arrived at about 2:00 pm, but found the bookshop – another small metal, prefabricated, unlabelled, building without any windows – closed.  A security officer informed us that the staff were out having lunch, and suggested we return at about 2:30 pm or shortly thereafter.

I arranged to meet my driver at the hotel’s front door at 2:30 pm, but he was not there when I arrived, right on time.  I waited until 2:45 pm, and then asked the receptionist where he might be.  “He’ll be out having lunch”, came the reply, followed by a promise to phone me when he returned.

I was still waiting for the call at 4:00 pm, at which time I returned to the front desk, worried that the driver might have forgotten.  I saw him chatting to some friends as I walked by, so I went up to him and asked about our trip to the bookstore.  With no hint of anxiety (or apology for that matter), he offered to drive me there immediately if I wished.  So off we went, arriving about ten minutes later.  The shop was still closed, so I enquired whether the staff might still be at lunch.  The driver seemed to think this was a reasonable hypothesis, so he asked the security guard.  “No, they just felt like going home” came the very honest reply.  I suspect that given its out-of-the-way location, the fact that it has no signs to identify it, and the continual absence of any staff, the bookshop does not sell many books!

I’ll try again at about 9:00 am tomorrow morning.  As I said to the driver, “we should get there early because I guess he will go to lunch at about 9:30 am or so”.  Without any hesitation whatsoever, the driver smiled and nodded his head in fervent agreement.

Today’s extra bonus images