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Tarawa: Kiritbati's destination for travelers

By Naziah Ali Posted 27 Oct 2014

Author and Fijian Regional Officer for Climate and Oceans Support Program, Molly Powers-Tora explores the hidden joys and warm hospitality of Kiribati’s Tarawa Atoll.

I’ll admit, had it not been for work, I probably would never have found myself on Tarawa. This volcanic atoll just north of the equator is the administrative centre for the Independent and Sovereign Republic of Kiribati - also known as the Gilbert Islands. But thanks to a five-day workshop with weekends on both ends and a delayed flight or two, I had the opportunity to explore the subtle charms of this congested, sun-scorched, and cheerful island capital. And I was enchanted.

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Warm people in a fragile paradise

I was surprised by the number of misconceptions I had held about Tarawa prior to my arrival. Originally, I had imagined a fragile and tiny island, walkable from one end to the other and partially submerged at high tide because of sea level rise.

Indeed, one cannot help but appreciate the vastness of the Pacific Ocean when living on a tightrope of sand spotted by coconut palm and breadfruit trees. But Tarawa Atoll is no sinking ship. The vulnerability of the Pacific Islands to changes in climate and sea level cannot be overstated, but for all their challenges, what struck me most were the resilience and joyfulness of the iKiribati people.

With the growing population on South Tarawa, access to sufficient land and fresh water is a huge issue but the predominant vibe on the island is not one of fear or panic. Laughter and teasing, fishermen relaxing in a hammock on a hot afternoon, gleeful children playing, fresh fish and coconut toddy dominated the landscape.

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A Living Memorial

I was fortunate that my trip coincided with the 70th anniversary of the infamous Battle of Tarawa. Fought from November 20-23, 1943, the battle was the first American offensive in the central Pacific and was one of the bloodiest of World War II with more than 1,000 American and nearly 5,000 Japanese casualties over only 76 hours.

Remnants of this period litter the islet of Betio at the end of South Tarawa, including coastal defence guns, concrete bunkers and pillboxes. These bastions of a by-gone era have since become part of the landscape, covered with graffiti and playful children. Memorials to the British, American, and Japanese casualties are worth a visit, as is the Red Beach Park, which is a new and well-maintained multipurpose park with a basketball court overlooking one of the main invasion sites.

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At 6am on November 20th, I joined numerous American military representatives and families of Veterans who had travelled all the way to Kiribati as they attended the sunrise memorial service for the fallen US Marines. His Excellency, President Anote Tong spoke eloquently of the sacrifice those soldiers made in the name of freedom and an iKiribati elder gave a firsthand account of his childhood memories of Betio before and after the War.

The ceremony was solemn and moving. When the dignified and elderly representative from the American Foreign Legion slowly spread his wreath and then stopped to give a sharp salute to the memorial, I felt a lump grow in my throat. To think about the different world our grandparents lived in and to contemplate the sacrifices of that time was very humbling. Nothing takes you back to that era more than a walk through a living memorial like Betio.

A Blissful Escape

After a full week of workshops, I felt the need to escape the dusty and densely populated hubbub of South Tarawa. To remedy this, my colleague and I drove as far as we could along The Road, past the airstrip toward North Tarawa. We were looking for a nice swimming spot and since swimming in the Lagoon is not advisable – as it serves as a communal toilet for many villages- we drove at the end of The Road. It was low tide and much too shallow for a proper swim.

Feeling hot and deflated, we were approached by a gregarious local fellow covered in tattoos who introduced himself and told us about a little guesthouse just across the inlet. Wasting no time, we started wading across the shallows and to our delight, found ourselves at Tabon Te Keekee Eco-Lodge

After one day at Tabon Te Keekee, I was almost ready to scrap all of my belated honeymoon plans and reroute to Tarawa. The family-run spot is blissfully secluded. It is a tidy and sandy property featuring a handful of thatched open-air huts (buias) wired for electricity and with nothing but a mattress and a beautiful view. The food was delicious- fresh fish served anyway you can imagine with pumpkin, rice, vegetables, and fried breadfruit- and the green coconut juice was the sweetest I’ve ever tasted.

The lodge’s two overwater buias appealed to the romantic in me. Jutting out over the inlet, the breeze flows freely through these spacious bures, which boast killer views of the gorgeous sunset. I could just imagine being lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves passing beneath.

Walking the sandy footpaths of North Tarawa was a totally different experience to the congested traffic of South Tarawa. We passed by smiling children and friendly families calling ‘Mauri!’, and were overtaken only by the occasional bicyclist. We eventually found our perfect swimming spot- where the water was clear and even a little cool as it rushed into the lagoon from the sea on the incoming tide. All in all, it was a perfect day of unexpected adventures.

There’s a saying that Kiribati is for travellers not tourists, and for someone who shuns the well-worn path, this made the country all the more attractive to me. There are also just enough activities available, sights to see, and restaurants to keep a visitor busy for a week or more. The Kiribati Tourism Office has recently launched a series of Visitor Guides which are comprehensive and very useful for planning a trip or just learning more about the country and culture. This information can also be found online at www.kiribatitourism.gov.ki.

Getting there and away

Fiji Airways flies twice weekly to Tarawa Atoll. Check out our special offers for flights from Nadi to Tarawa.

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