Monday, May 06, 2013

Safari, Kiribati Style!

Expedition planning underway with local Amon taking the lead
Having recently started work for the World Bank based out of the Sydney office, I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to visit some far flung places in the Pacific like Kiribati.  As an engineer I feel  there is a great deal basic infrastructure can do for these developing countries, and anything we can do to help the friendly pacific people with their dire social, economic and environmental problems is a good thing. 

Before you dismiss these trips excessive junkets at the expense of the Bank’s kindly donors , I can assure you the pace of work while on ‘mission’ is frenetic, with 12 hours days and missed lunches not uncommon. The latter can prove particularly hard to bear for this particular glutton, although when it finally arrives, the rich deep fried Kiribati supper  certainly restores the calorie balance.

Occasionally though I’ll get an opportunity to escape the madness and visit a special location which really lifts the trips from mere work visits into the rarefied air of adventure. When this happens I can’t help but be stoked to be working for The Bank, as they are colloquially known.

Pride of the Kiribati feelt at our disposal
Whilst sea level rise is widely touted as the single factor which will spell the end to the coral atolls of Kiribati, water supply is perhaps a more critical issue, with the entire supply coming from a collection of thin freshwater lenses stored beneath the narrow strips of sand. The two issues are linked, with rising sea pushing salt water into the precious fresh water layer, rendering the resource useless. Here is an article giving a good summary of the nation's predicament. Currently the people of Kiribati only receive half of the recommended minimum, a mere 20 litres per person per day. Any measures to supplement this with capture of rain or additional groundwater are of crucial importance for the people of Kiribati.

Last Saturday under the guise of visiting remote rainwater collection and infiltration gallery sites we boarded the pride of the Kiribati fleet for the islets of North Tarawa. The safety of the craft left a bit to be desired, with protruding wood screws from the transom ripping one of our parties shorts (thankfully not undies), and a UV weathered life ring which I’m certain would have disintegrated on impact with the water.  Fortunately on this fine day the tepid waters of the lagoon were far from dangerous.
Captain at the helm
We’d heard atoll legends of international consultants being lost at sea for months after popping out for a spot of fishing, and had stocked up with enough provisions to keep us alive for days. A raid of the local store yielded numerous canned delicacies of Chinese origin, notably a spicy black bean ‘marine fish’, and pork giblets mixed with bamboo shoots. As one of our party pointed out, the former was rather odd given the abundance of fresh fish in the surrounding ocean.

Generally limited stocks at this North Tarawa store

In comparison to barren South Tarawa, where a dirth of organic matter makes plant life limited to coconut palms, the North is a relative jungle, with lush trees providing ample cover for post lunch napping.

Coconut fronds made for a prime napping spot
After inspecting a couple of roofs which we hope to use to collect water and fill large rainwater tanks, we jumped on the back of a flogged Toyota light truck and bounced and bumped ourselves all the way to the Northern tip of the Island at Naa. Here we found sites of some historical significance including in reverse chronological order the final Buariki battle of the savage Tarawa war (WWII), the site of the atolls historic leprosy colony, and the first European landing site.

Backside bruising truck safari
Wading back to the boat just as the sun began to set, we were treated to clear skies and an amazing display of astronomical illumination. I lay on the stern deck of the boat and stared up at the heavens, the boat carefully edging  south in the shallow lagoon, water lapping at the hull.

Sunet at Naa, Tarawa's northen tip
While the adventure didn’t involve bicycles or even a mountain, I was very fortunate to see North Tarawa, and will endeavor to return again when time and equipment allow on my next mission. A colleague has purchased a mountain bike for the princely sum of $150 and after a brief sortie to test its wading capability I’m confident that it’ll be up to the task of a North Tarawa round trip. Will keep you posted how I get on!

Next stop Australia!