Strange bird lands with a thud

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel - Barry Oliver

ISHOULD have known from the start that Kiri­bati (pro­nounced Kiribas) was go­ing to be a chal­lenge when I dropped in there a few years ago. I was no fur­ther than the ar­rivals shed (hall would be way too grand a term) when I hit trou­ble.

While is­lan­der pas­sen­gers in lavalavas (sarongs) swept by, clutch­ing wrig­gling sacks, bas­kets of taro and du­bi­ous brown-pa­per parcels, I was the one sin­gled out for close at­ten­tion. Talk about 20 ques­tions. Then my suit­case was emp­tied. Fol­lowed by an­other 20 ques­tions.

Fi­nally my pass­port was be­grudg­ingly stamped and I was left alone to repack.

At least the ho­tel held prom­ise. It was by far the best struc­ture on the is­land (built to host a big con­fer­ence in for­mer prime min­is­ter Bob Hawke’s time). The flag­poles still stood to at­ten­tion but, un­for­tu­nately, lit­tle else worked. As things had bro­ken, they ob­vi­ously hadn’t been fixed. My first shower was cold; but that turned out to be a good day. The next time noth­ing but air came out of the tap.

Din­ner, an omelette, was on the plain side. But when I saw the staff pre­par­ing break­fast for the next morn­ing— in­clud­ing pour­ing milk on to corn­flakes — I re­alised it would be a long week.

My guide was easy to un­der­stand, un­til it came to mak­ing ar­range­ments. See you by the phone at eight, he had told me the night be­fore. At 10am there was a ham­mer­ing on my door: he’d been wait­ing by the phone (which didn’t work) in re­cep­tion for two hours.

Never mind; now I could en­joy my private taxi tour of the is­land (lo­cated about 1500km north of Fiji). I was sur­prised to see the car’s wind­screen was shat­tered on the driver’s side. He neatly solved this prob­lem by lean­ing across me for the en­tire trip.

At least he avoided wan­der­ing pedes­tri­ans (paths were nonex­is­tent) and as­sorted cats, dogs and chick­ens. Hit­ting a pedes­trian would have been bad enough, but wiping out a chicken would have had whole vil­lages chas­ing us de­mand­ing blood and com­pen­sa­tion. Cu­ri­ously, the driver seemed to see noth­ing strange about the sit­u­a­tion. I gave him a hefty tip, rea­son­ing he needed the money for a new wind­screen. On re­flec­tion, it was prob­a­bly nowhere near the top of his shop­ping list.

Things looked up on a boat trip to a nearby is­land for a spot of snorkelling. Nowhere on the is­lands was snorkelling gear to be found, but I con­grat­u­lated my­self on bring­ing my own. (I’d been caught out be­fore in Van­u­atu.) My smil­ing boat­man promised the best coral in the Pa­cific, then promptly dozed off at the con­trols. I didn’t like to wake him un­less we were on a col­li­sion course and there were no other boats to be seen on the hori­zon. When he even­tu­ally woke with a start — prob­a­bly hav­ing night­mares about visit­ing jour­nal­ists — I gen­tly re­minded him about the snorkelling.

He looked dis­dain­fully at the blue fins flap­ping on my feet as if I were a strange bird that had just landed on the boat. The mo­tor died, all went eerily quiet and he was in­stantly back in the land of nod.

Was it safe? Were there sharks? Was this a good spot? How would I get back in the boat? My ques­tions weren’t about to be an­swered, so I plopped over­board and went in search of coral.

Of course, I didn’t find any. Well, one bro­ken piece and a few fish. By that time the boat had drifted well away. Af­ter a long, long swim, I just man­aged to climb aboard, land­ing with a thump at my guide’s feet. He opened his eyes, stared at me in dis­be­lief for a few sec­onds, then gave the mo­tor full throt­tle.

He didn’t ask me about the coral and I didn’t have the heart to tell him. It had been a long day for us both.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Tom Jel­lett

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