Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Snapshot of Life on Kiritimati (Christmas Island)

November 1-November 8, 2013

I mentioned in our "safe arrival" post that Kiritimati is a large, sprawling atoll of "several thousand" people: It turns out that over six thousand people live on Kiritimati. Many of the inhabitants are transplants from Tarawa, an overcrowded atoll in western Kiribati. In addition to foreign aid from Australia and other countries such as Japan, Kiritimati receives income from its chief exports, copra and rock salt. Christmas Island is also a tourist destination famous for its sports fishing industry centering on bonefish, marlin, and wahoo. 

First view of Kiritimati

Deep water ships at anchor off Christmas Island

Sports fishing boat in Kiritimati lagoon

The population of Christmas Island is spread out over four main villages. The port is in Ronton (London), which has the most infrastructure. The largest village is Tabwakea, adjacent to London. Banana is the next village up the road and contains the airport, which consists of a solitary building and a short runway out in the mangrove flats. Finally, on the opposite side of the lagoon is the smallest village, Poland. We didn't visit Poland, due to its distance from the anchorage, but it is reportedly the smallest village. All of the villages have missions and missionaries. 

A living compound in Banana

We were on the island during the annual "blessing of the graves," in which the villagers decorated family graves with banners made from pandanus leaves and colorful flags. We saw this in Tabwakea, but not on the graves in downtown Ronton (London). We wondered if those were the graves of earlier settlers and not related to the current inhabitants from Tarawa? Christmas Island was the first place I've ever been where the crypts have corrugated tin roofs.

The blessing of graves in a cemetery on Kiritimati

The missions are where many of the newer buildings are located: the ubiquitous cement block buildings with corrugated tin roofs found all over the Pacific. 

Tennessee village:  An idea that didn't catch on; This village was basically part of Ronton

More traditional living compounds consist of thatched huts adjoined by outdoor sleeping platforms built on sturdy risers or stilts. The risers are built out of the stocky trunks of coconut palms and are not really tall enough to be called "stilts," but they do lift the sleeping platforms two to three feet above the ground. These days, many of the traditional huts are becoming a hodge-podge of old and new building materials, with patchwork roofs and sides of mixed thatch and corrugated tin. 

Ronton living compound

Part of Ronton compound

Another living compound in Ronton

Village houses on the beach at sunset

Thatching the roof of a newly built community meeting place

Detail of pandanus panels used for thatching

When we arrived on Christmas Island, it struck us with a depressing air of neglect. Rubbish and half-completed---then abandoned---projects were in evidence wherever you looked. Rubbish was often just tossed outside and then blew everywhere, even littering the graves in London's cemetery: a disrespect we haven't seen tolerated anywhere else in our travels. To be sure, some of the neglected feel of Kiritimati was due to the fact that it receives little rain. The atoll was hot, dry, and dusty, and the yellowing, drought-affected palm trees looked anemic. 

Typical Kiritimati landscape

These open bags of cement must have met with a rain shower

View into the lagoon from the atoll's main road
However, the longer we stayed in Kiritimati, the more it began to grow on me. The people on Christmas Island are as friendly as any we've met anywhere. I've titled this post "a snapshot" of Kiritimati because that was all we got. We only stayed for a week, and I think one would have to live on the atoll for at least a year to get a complete picture of this complex and complicated place.

Villagers on Kiritimati have not completely lost their traditional fishing skills; but the many small shops were still stocked with the usual Pacific Islander canned fare for those who either didn't fish that day or didn't catch anything: tinned mackerel, corned beef, and Spam. You could also buy some staples such as flour, rice, and milk, as well as a variety of condiments. There was a notable Asian influence in the selection of condiments as well as in the variety of packaged noodles available. Eggs and some produce are brought in from Hawaii; but once they are sold out, there are no more until the next cargo plane or ship. We found very little local produce available, nor did we see much growing besides coconuts other than a few thin banana trees. Most of the fare available in the shops by far, was junk food: chips, cookies, soda pop, cheese twists, fried pork or bacon snacks, and ice-cream. Considering the fact that all of this junk food has to be imported to the atoll, it is amazing how much energy (both in terms of fuel consumption and the human time and energy to load, transport, and offload it all) is expended on bringing junk food to this and other Pacific islands. 

Many people on Christmas Island smoke, and the cigarettes on Christmas Island are about nine inches long. Imported Gallaher's tobacco from mint green cans is rolled in a pandanus leaf to make this long cigarette. We were told this style of cigarette came from the Chinese. Some western style cigarettes are also imported and sold.

There is a bus on Christmas Island, but its schedule is erratic. I think I spotted it twice the entire time we were there. Since there is no reliable bus or taxi, everybody hitchhikes. It is fairly easy to get around the island this way, and we hitchhiked often across the dusty expanse of the atoll. It's easiest to get rides on the many trucks that clatter up and down the dirt road; but occasionally, a private vehicle will also stop and offer you a ride. On the trucks, you are usually sharing the flatbed with other hitchhikers, so it can be an interesting way to meet the locals. 

A full load

Youthful hitchhikers
Patrick and I had several memorable hitchhiking experiences. Once, we had a thrilling ride into town (red gas jug for the outboard in tow) hanging onto the back of a tanker truck. Another time, we flagged down a truck and when we hopped in the flatbed, we found we (and about six young men) were sharing it with a freshly slaughtered pig. The truck eventually detoured off the main road and out into the mangrove flats somewhere in the village of Tabwakea. We stopped at a hut, where a woman emerged with a large rectangular roasting pan. We saw her draw a can of water from an open well dug into the dirt ground. After she washed out the roasting pan, the young men in the truck hopped out, dragged the pig into the pan, and carried the pig into the hut, where it was to be cooked. That task complete, the young men hopped back in the flatbed and we were on our way again!

While we were waiting in the flatbed for the pig to be delivered, Patrick and I noticed a man in a nearby coconut tree. He was filling plastic water bottles with the pearly white coconut sap used to make syrup. The liquid is cooked to make a thick, brown sweet syrup that reportedly keeps for months. It is also reportedly used to make a variety of coconut liquor.

On our return trip the same day, Patrick and I caught a ride in a truck carrying a load of coral rubble. We balanced with our groceries on the coral as we sped back to London.

Since there are no school buses on Christmas Island, every passing truck is also a potential school bus. Trucks are forced to slow down while passing in the vicinity of schools due to the presence of speed bumps on the road. After school, primary grade children race along the road and precariously hop onto the backs of moving trucks. On one of our rides, Patrick started out alone in the flatbed, while I kept the driver company in the cab. After the truck passed by a school, Patrick was swallowed up in this throng of children:

Patrick is in there somewhere...!

At Christmas Island, you anchor in the ocean because the lagoon is too shallow. Unlike other atolls where we've anchored in the ocean (Niue, Palmerston Island), the anchorage at Christmas Island feels exquisitely safe, because you can drop your anchor in shallow water in sand instead of being on a mooring ball in deep water with a reef for a lee shore. The wind never blew from the west while we were at Christmas Island, so we never felt in jeopardy. 

A tiny Silhouette at anchor off Christmas Island

The anchorage in the ocean near Ronton is stunning, and one of my favorite things to do at Christmas Island was simply to take in the view from the wharf. The surf rolling in onto the white sandy beach at the edge of the atoll was spectacular. At low tide, the villagers set their fishing nets in the surf. Peering down to the coral reef lying just below the water's surface from the height of the wharf, you could see hundreds of fish. Snorkeling the same area underwater revealed thousands of fish, including huge schools of striped and yellowfin surgeonfish. A school of dinner plate-sized Moorish idols frequently swam near one corner of the wharf, looking abundantly picturesque. One or two large manta rays also frequented this area. Best of all, schools of spinner dolphin visited the anchorage almost daily, taking a break from herding fish to perform acrobatic tricks. The spinners frequently surrounded the boat while we were at anchor.  (My spinner dolphin photos are not all in focus, but I include them here to give you the idea of the behaviors we saw.)

Surf fishermen

View from the wharf

Spinner dolphin acrobat

Spinner dolphin doing the backstroke

A school of dolphin around the boat

More spinners

The crew from the New Zealand sailing vessel Saliander organized a tour of the island with the Wildlife Conservation Center. They were joined by us and the crews from Silhouette-Texas and Irie II. We saw very little wildlife, but we did have an interesting tour of the island. Salt is highly concentrated in the shallow lagoon at Kiritimati, and we stopped first at some salt evaporation ponds where the rock salt exported from the atoll is collected. Apparently, brine shrimp used to thrive on Kiritimati, but an influx of milkfish into formerly shallow areas of the lagoon (associated with rising sea levels) was responsible for their demise. The milkfish quickly ate up all the brine shrimp. 

Kiritimati as viewed from the back of a truck

Salt evaporation ponds

Another view of the evaporation ponds

Sluice gate controlling entry of water into the evaporation ponds

Our tour guides and some of our tour group at the salt ponds

Rock salt storage shed on Kiritimati

We spent the next several hours driving through mangrove flats. We passed through some bird breeding territory but did not see any nesting red-footed or brown boobies. We saw a few of each species feeding over the lagoon though. 

Road into the salt flats

Shallow lagoon on Kiritimati
Salt flats on Kiritimati

Road through the mangrove flats

We stopped at a beach on the Bay of Wrecks---another of Kiritimati's stunning coastlines---where sea turtles lay their eggs. (We did not see any turtles because once the turtles lay their eggs, they return to the sea.) After two brief detours to visit the topographic high point of the atoll (11 meters above sea level) and the timbers from one of the wrecks, we then moved on to an area where sea turtles frequently feed on the moss-like seaweed. Unfortunately for us, we arrived at the wrong stage of the tide and no sea turtles were present on the day of our tour. 

Beach on the Bay of Wrecks

Crab burrows on the Bay of Wrecks:  These crabs had very cool stalked eyes but were lightning quick

The stake and tree were used to tie a volleyball net to

Al and Phil on the apex

View from the island's high point:  Mmm hmm.

Timbers from a shipwreck on the Bay of Wrecks

Our Penrhyn island cohort tours Christmas island

Slabs of coral lining the Bay of Wrecks looked like old dinosaur bones

Al looks down on a bunker

Sea turtle feeding beach on the east coast of Christmas island

The island's high point as seen from a distance

...and still more coconut palms and mangrove flats
Finally, we visited a sooty tern breeding ground, where thousands---perhaps tens of thousands---of terns were on the wing. The noise was deafening, and someone in our group kept repeating, "Alfred Hitchcock: The Birds." Obviously, we had reached the zenith of the wildlife tour. 

Sooty terns on Christmas Island
On our return to London, we made another stop on the Bay of Wrecks to see a more recent wreck. This boat had been anchored in the harbor at London only a year before, but broke free of its mooring lines and ended up destroyed on the beach. 

Wreck on the Bay of Wrecks

Detail of shipwreck

Me and our guide, Aubrey, fooling with flotsam

Tiptoe through the flotsam
We also stopped at an air strip used by the British during their occupation of the island. (The British conducted above-ground nuclear testing on Kiritimati during the late 1950's and early 1960's.)

Aeon Field marker

Driving down the abandoned air strip at Aeon Field

Our visit to Christmas Island coincided with the arrival of the sail cargo ship Kwai---outbound from Hawaii---and an Kiribati inter-island passenger vessel. Numerous foreign-flagged tuna fishing vessels---most with an El Salvadorian crew and fisheries observers from the Kiribati--- also dotted the harbor. The wharf was a hub of activity while the Kwai---which brought everything from junk food to new bicycles for the villagers---was being offloaded. The dock was transformed into a rich milieu of stevedores and villagers, offloading the cargo in huge brailer nets and packing it into waiting trucks or containers to be carried to the local shops, while supercargo and locals alike checked items off their respective lists. Crew members from the Kwai rode back and forth in the brailer nets, swinging from the crane high above our heads. Villagers were ferried to and fro from the waiting passenger ship in large open boats, carting away staples and long-awaited items. Patrick pointed out how a fork lift was needed to hold down the back end of the wharf's crane in order to more safely offload a truck from the foredeck of the Kwai. All of this activity occurred in a warm breeze wafting with it the unmistakable smell of copra, which was piled high on the wharf awaiting an exit ticket on a cargo vessel someday. 

The Kwai before offloading:  Note the truck on the foredeck

Fork lift holding down the back end of the crane
After the hustle and bustle of the offload was complete and the Kwai and the passenger vessel left, the floating dock for the passenger vessel was removed (much to our dismay, as we had also been using it for a dinghy dock), and the wharf seemed a little lonely. Only a pile of copra and an empty crane remained. 

Patrick standing on the empty wharf:  The dinghy pontoon has not yet been removed; copra pile to left

A few villagers still came and went, fishing from the wharf and giving it the only sense of life. One by one, the boats we had been traveling with departed the anchorage for Fanning Island, following in the wake of the Kwai. We were the last to leave. 

SV Saliander leaves the anchorage under an asymmetrical spinnaker

Pictures will be added to this post from Hawaii. (added 12/18/2013)

Some Logistics Notes for Cruisers (2013):

Check In/Out: 
Call Christmas Radio on Channel 16 when you arrive. If there is no response, keep trying. They often don't respond right away but will eventually. It will help speed things along if you have printed out four to five copies of your Arrival crew list and boat documentation ahead of time, as well as have a laptop or paper available to print out or write a statement for the Health Department. (Pre-printed forms are not available for yachts because the port deals mostly with commercial ships.) A boarding party consisting of representatives from Customs, Immigration, Health, Quarantine (Biosecurity), and the Police will board your vessel to complete the necessary paperwork. Then, you will be asked to take your passports into the Immigration office for stamping and to pay a $50.00 sanitation fee (Quarantine Department) at the cashier. There is an ATM located in the same complex as the immigration office. The government offices close at 4:15. Upon departure, and additional $50.00 port fee must be paid at the Kiribati Port Authority (KPA) office, located in a Quonset hut at the wharf, before checking out with Customs. If you are going on to Fanning Island, an additional $20.00 must be paid to Customs for an inter-island clearance. Immigration requires a Departure crew list and your passports.

Diesel is available at the petrol station and at KOIL (Kiribati Oil Company Limited). KOIL will deliver diesel to the wharf by truck for larger vessels and amounts; (there is a $180 delivery charge on top of the fuel cost) or in 200 liter barrels for smaller vessels and amounts; (no delivery charge for the barrels, you must pump it into jerry cans and get it to your boat yourself.)

We had issues with filling our propane tank but eventually succeeded. KOIL, the company selling LPG (Liquid Petroleum Gas) on Christmas, only carries 18 kg and 24 kg containers. In order to fill our 9 kg propane tank, we had to purchase an 18-kg LPG tank and gravity fill both our propane tanks. (Our second tank was low but not yet empty, so we wasted some fuel.) KOIL does not gravity fill tanks as a routine company practice, but one of their employees knows how to do it. (He is the only employee who knows how to gravity fill the tanks.) With permission from his boss, he will sometimes fill tanks in order to help out cruising sailors in need of fuel; however, this can take some time and planning. In our case, the employee's wife became ill, causing him to miss work for several days. So start early if you are seeking to fill your propane tanks on Christmas Island.

In addition to the local shops mentioned above, yachties seeking to supplement their provisions may be interested in making a trip to "JMB," which is 15-20 km up the main road, just before the Captain Cook Hotel. (Hitchhiking is possible but weekdays are best for catching a ride.) The owner of JMB imports some American brands from Costco in Hawaii, and although it is necessary to check the dates on meats, we found some useful items there. If they don't have what you need in the shop, ask to see what's in the bulk containers and freezers in the rear. JMB also has the lowest prices on spirits; while we found that Punja's (near the KPA wharf) has a better price on beer.
Posted from Fanning Atoll via Ham Radio.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like you fell in love with Kiribati. Maybe you should stay for a year, but I guessPatrick needs you. Enjoyed your post. Thanks, Sandor