Kiribati is a country made up of small low-lying islands and atolls. It is also one of the most remote countries on earth. The land area of Kiribati is only a little more than that of Singapore, yet its land is sprinkled across an ocean area closer in size to India: 3.5 million square kilometres.¹
The name of the country, despite how it is written, is actually pronounced “Kiri-bas”, as the letters t and i written together create an s sound in the local language. Interestingly, the name Kiribati is actually the local pronunciation of Gilberts, itself a shortened form of Gilbert Islands.
This colonial name came from Thomas Gilbert, one of two captains who sailed through and described some of the islands in 1788. The other captain was a man named John Marshall who gave his name to the Marshall Islands. The two were on their way back from Botany Bay, now located in Sydney, Australia. They had been transporting convicts as part of the First Fleet, a group of 11 ships sent to Australia to establish a penal colony that became the first British settlement in Australia.
Kiribati gained its independence from the UK in 1979. The Gilbert Islands is today just one of three groups of islands that make up its territory. The other two are the Phoenix Islands and the Line Islands. The Gilbert Islands, however, contain about 90% of the roughly 110,000 population of the country. All except one of the Phoenix Islands are uninhabited, and that one island only has about 20 people. Only three of the Line Islands have a permanent population. They have a population of just over 10,000 between them.
Why visit Kiribati
Kiribati is a beautiful country with palm trees overlooking the glistening pacific ocean in many parts. Make sure to get a window seat during the landing in Tarawa, as it looks absolutely incredible from above.
The people of Kiribati are friendly and have an interesting culture which retains a lot of its traditions but is also heavily influenced by western culture, especially through the various Christian churches. I visited at Easter and it was interesting to see the use of traditional singing and dancing incorporated into the Catholic celebrations.
Before I visited Tarawa, I read the book The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific by J. Maarten Troost. While the book has received criticism from some locals, I found it very funny and an interesting primer for my visit. It describes the American author’s two years living in Tarawa with his girlfriend.
Here is how Troost describes the vivid colours of Kiribati:
“There is no place on Earth where color has been rendered with such intense depth, from the first light of dawn illuminating a green coconut frond to the last ray of sunset, when the sky is reddened to biblical proportions. And the blue…have you seen just how blue blue can get in the equatorial Pacific? In comparison, Picasso’s blue period seems decidedly ash-gray.”
The Battle of Tarawa
Those interested in military history may already be aware of the Battle of Tarawa that took place in what is now the Kiribati capital. During World War Two, the Japanese had captured and heavily fortified Tarawa. The Japanese commander of Tarawa reportedly claimed that the U.S. couldn’t take Tarawa with a million men in 100 years.
On November 20th, 1943, a US force which included 18,000 Marines as well as battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers, attacked the island of Betio in the Tarawa atoll. An extremely bloody 76-hour battle ensued, with over 1,000 US troops being killed and over 2,000 wounded. There were at least 4,500 Japanese troops defending the island. Only 17 survived, in part because of their refusal to surrender even after the outcome had become clear.²
Some of the guns and other remnants of the war can still be seen in Betio. J. Maarten Troost, in his book I mentioned above, excellently describes the continuing presence of the Battle of Tarawa.
“If there is one indelible image from the Battle of Tarawa, it is a photo of dozens of dead Marines bobbing in the shallows just off what was called Red Beach II. I often launched my windsurfer from Red Beach II. Just twenty yards from the beach lies a rusting amtrac. At reef’s edge are the brown ribs of a ship long ago grounded, where Japanese snipers once picked off Marines wading and swimming and floating toward a beach that offered nothing better. A little farther I directed my board over the wings and fuselage of a B- 29 Liberator. Clearing the harbor entrance, I confronted the rusting carcasses of several landing vehicles. Near the beach was a Sherman tank, with children playing on the turret. The Battle of Tarawa is an inescapable part of daily life on the island.”
Kiribati is one of the lowest-lying countries in the world. Therefore, it is also one of the countries most at risk of rising sea levels. The majority of its islands are only a couple of metres above sea level at most. The government of Kiribati, along with other low-lying countries, such as Tuvalu and the Maldives, have been pushing for the more action on climate change to avert catastrophe and save their islands.
The former president of Kiribati, Anote Tong, has been at the forefront of raising global awareness of his country’s plight. A new documentary called Anote’s Ark focuses on the effects of climate change on Kiribati. You can watch the trailer here.
A few facts about Kiribati
- Capital: Tarawa
- Population: 110,000 (2015 census figures)
- Currency: Australian dollar
- Official Languages: Gilbertese (Te Taetae ni Kiribati) & English
- Time Zone: UTC+12, +13, +14
- Calling Code: +686
- Internet TLD: .ki
- Drives On: Left
- Can Drink Tap Water: No
- Plugs/Sockets: Type I, 240V (Same as Australia & New Zealand)
There are only two international airports in Kiribati, one in the capital, Tarawa, and one over 3,000 kilometres east of Tarawa in Kiritimati or Christmas Island.
Fiji Airways, Nauru Airlines and Air Kiribati, connect Tarawa internationally. Fiji Airways and Air Kiribati only connect Tarawa with Nadi, Fiji. Nauru Airlines, meanwhile, connects Tarawa to the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru, Solomon Islands and Brisbane, Australia as part of its island hopper service. Bear in mind that each of these routes go only once a week. If you wanted to visit Tarawa for less time than that, it would require arriving from and leaving to a different location.
Fiji Airways is the only airline that flies to Kiritimati, with connections to both Fiji and Hawaii. There are no direct flights between Kiritimati and Tarawa, so a connection in Nadi, Fiji is required.
When to go
The temperature in Kiribati generally stays between 25 and 31 degrees celsius. The best time to visit the Gilbert Islands in the west is between May and November when there is less rain. For Kiritimati, it is best to avoid the rainy months of March and April.
Citizens of all EU countries, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, most pacific island nations and many more can visit Kiribati without a visa. All of these can visit for at least 30 days, many for 120. See Visa Policy of Kiribati on Wikipedia for the full list.
How much does it cost?
Due to so few options, flights can be very expensive. Prices in Kiribati for food, accommodation etc. can also be high because of a lack of tourist infrastructure and the reliance on many imported goods. I paid A$70 per night for a room in a guesthouse. Meals in a restaurant cost about A$20.
- A Big Question on Small States, International Monetary Fund, published Sep 2013, accessed 18 Nov 2018,
- Battle of Tarawa, History, published 17 Nov 2009, , accessed 18 Nov 2018,