As the plane approached Nauru I caught a glimpse of the small island nation in the distance out a left side window. 10 minutes later, I saw it up close on the right, then not at all until we were just about to touch down. That’s how small it is. In fact, Nauru is the smallest independent island nation in the world. After landing, as the plane taxied to the tiny terminal, I could see queues of cars stopped because the road had been closed. “Welcome” was painted, a letter at a time on some large concrete bollards that formed the perimeter of the road adjacent to the end of the runway.
The immigration officers were surprised to see my tourist visa. They had assumed, not unreasonably, that I was there to work. Nauru is a country that gets very few people visiting purely for the sake of it. In fact, many reports claim that it is the least visited country on Earth.¹
The airport was reminiscent of a small rural bus station. It is all that’s necessary though, as it only receives about 5 flights a week. I expected to find someone from the Od-n-Aiwo hotel as promised, but they weren’t there. Luckily the friendly people working in the ticket office were happy to call the hotel on my behalf. Eventually, someone arrived to collect me.
My single room at Od-n-Aiwo was functional, even if its contents had seen better days. The bed was at least comfortable and the air-con worked. The cold shower wasn’t the problem it might have been in a warmer climate. It was actually refreshing.
Next, I went to check out my new surroundings. After walking past a pretty church and a large open-air community centre, I came across the local supermarket. Dim lighting barely lit up the rows of shelves filled with tinned food, cleaning products and even more tinned food. Nauru has to import the vast majority of its food, and I guess this is how it arrives. I bought a bottle of water and continued walking.
I quickly reached the top of the fenced-off runway. A sign warned of the dangers of the jet blasts of arriving and departing airplanes. Directly behind it, another sign warned of the dangers of rip currents. I guess that’s what happens when your runway is so close to the beach.
Further along I got chatting to two Fijian teachers. They told me a little about life on Nauru, specifically that there’s “Not much to do.” Apparently a lot of teachers and government workers on Nauru are from Fiji as the wages are usually higher than in their own country. In quick succession we passed the police station, fire station, parliament, some other government buildings, the island’s only secondary school and a primary school. Schoolchildren here are apparently taught the Queensland curriculum. I had my camera out and some of the schoolgirls raced over to pose for a photo.
At the end of the runway, sloped seawalls stretched down to the ocean. Hundreds of crabs scuttled about on the seawalls and adjacent rocks.
Some more Fijians, friends of the first ones, gave me a lift back to the hotel. I had dinner at the Chinese restaurant next door. The salty fish was tasty and I was pleasantly surprised that they had Matilda Bay’s Fat Yak beer. The other options left a lot to be desired: Carlton, VB, Pure Blonde and Bud Light.
The hotel’s small bar was fairly quiet. It had a pool table and an attached room with a few slot machines. The receptionist had optimistically referred to this as a casino, but that was really overselling the depressing reality.
The next morning I met Jacob, the fifty-something nephew of the hotel’s owner. I had arranged for him to take me on a tour of the whole island for A$60. The tour lasted for about 5 hours and in that time I saw nearly everything in the entire country. We started at the Buada Lagoon, a slightly brackish lake fringed by palm trees. It was here that the first humans on Nauru had engaged in fish farming about 3,000 years ago. They caught juvenile Ibija fish in the ocean and acclimated them to the freshwater conditions of the lagoon.²
Afterwards, we climbed a nearby hill that was pockmarked with the remnants of phosphate mining. What the locals call the “topside” — the centre of the island — now consists of jagged rocky pinnacles that make the land useless for farming, or indeed, anything else. 75% of the island is now uninhabitable.¹ At the top of the hill, there was a Japanese bunker and a large rusting anti-aircraft gun, both left over from the second world war. The Japanese military occupied Nauru for 3 years during the war. Jacob hadn’t been there for decades and consequently, we couldn’t find the plane that had been shot down. Without Jacob though, I would also not have been able to find the anti-aircraft gun as it is off the path and mostly hidden from view.
Back at the bottom of the hill we went into the old Japanese prison. It was overgrown and falling apart, but still very grim-looking.
We then began our trip around the island’s ring road. There were massive cantilevers that still occasionally carry phosphate out to waiting ships. They deliver a lot less than they used to. These days most of the ships are Chinese, I was told. One had “just left” 2 or 3 weeks previously. Island time definitely works differently. When I asked if many tourists stayed at the hotel, I was also told that some had “just left” about 2 months before.
Phosphate had once made Nauru rich. In fact, in the early 80s it was the richest country per capita on earth.³ These days, the phosphate is all but gone, and so is the money. To make matters worse in this riches to rags story, the investments made by the Nauruan government’s Nauru Phosphate Royalties Trust failed to live up to expectations. A BBC article published in 2008 had this to say:
A procession of conmen and carpetbaggers persuaded successive governments to invest in a string of bizarre schemes, including a West End musical about the life of Leonardo da Vinci.
Nauru amassed a property portfolio of hotels and office blocks around the world. But corruption and downright incompetence took their toll and by the early part of this century, most of the assets had to be sold off to pay for the country’s mounting debts.⁴
As we continued around the island, Jacob pointed out more Japanese bunkers. I asked Jacob whether his parents had told him much about the Japanese occupation. He said that his father couldn’t tell him much because he was “in truck.” “In a truck?” I asked, clearly confused. “No. On Truc.” Truc is an island, now part of the Federated States of Micronesia. During the war, the Japanese had apparently relocated most Nauruans there.
We reached Capelle (Cah-peh-lay) and Partner, seemingly one of the most successful businesses on the island. It includes a well-stocked supermarket, hardware shop, bakery, cafe and guesthouse.
A little further on we came to the accommodation for the workers at the extremely controversial Australian refugee processing centres. This accommodation was a 2-storey building made of what looked like stacked shipping containers. Just down the road was some of the accommodation for refugees. This one was apparently for families and married refugees. Apart from being single-storey and having a playground it looked similar to the security accommodation.
Limestone pinnacles rise up out of the sea all around Nauru, but some of the largest are in Anibare (An-bar-ay). They stand up like large rock sculptures and are kind of beautiful in their own way.
Also in Anibare was the boat harbour. Its clear turquoise water doubles as the local swimming pool because it is one of the few places without any rocks.
The nearby Bay Restaurant is reputed to be one of the best on the island. When we visited it was doing a good trade with the Australian security workers. I ordered some tuna sashimi which was fresh and very tasty.
After lunch we drove up a dusty, unpaved road over the hills and to the outside of the main refugee processing centre. We passed a huge new empty prison as well as a phosphate processing facility. At the refugee centre we went close enough to see the security gate, but I sensed that Jacob didn’t want to hang around. On our way around the island he had pointed out the refugees doing different jobs like sweeping roads and working in some of the shops. He also told me that they had previously had one working in the hotel and that he had just been resettled in America.
When the refugees had first arrived on Nauru, they had apparently been very distant, but after a few years there had been more and more interaction between them and the locals. Now many worked all over the island. They are free to to come and go from the centres during the day, but as you have probably gathered by now, there isn’t very far to go. It must have been a huge shock for some of them when they were first relocated to Nauru. I was told that many had never heard of Nauru before arriving there, with some mistakenly thinking they were being sent to Peru.
For the refugees it seems that some of the biggest issues are psychological. Many have been through immense trauma just to get from their own countries to this situation. They are now stuck in a place with very few opportunities and have no idea when or even if they will be allowed to go somewhere they can attempt to build a new life. Many of them have said that they consider the entire country to be a kind of prison.⁵
Most Nauruans don’t share the bleak impression of their home that the refugees and asylum seekers have, but perhaps they can identify with the uncertainty of what the future holds. Their country has already gone from boom to bust, and I’m not sure anyone knows where it is going next.
- 11 amazing facts about Nauru, the least visited, most obese nation on Earth, The Telegraph, published 31 Jan 2018
Ethnic Groups of South Asia and the Pacific: An Encyclopedia, by James B. Minahan, published 30 Aug 2012
Nauru’s downfall from rich nation to poverty, News.com.au, published 29 Sep 2014
- Nauru seeks to regain lost fortunes, BBC News, published 15 Mar 2008
- Nauru’s culinary boom: Locals reap the rewards of stranded refugees, SBS News, Last updated 10 Apr 2017