Nauru: The World’s Smallest Island-Nation

In the middle of the Pacific

Nauru seat of government at Yaren District

A phosphate rock island: The beaches are strewn with ‘pinnacles’. Menen Hotel, where I stayed, can be seen at the background.

Arriving  for the first time in Nauru  in 2007 (from Brisbane with a brief stopover at Honiara, the Solomon Islands); I briefly feared that the plane would actually end up floating in the Pacific waters. The airstrip is precariously tucked along the island’s south-eastern edge, its tip almost dangling over the water. Having landed safely, the plane follows the tarmac along the cluster of government buildings at Yaren district then crosses a major street creating a funny traffic scene – commuters stopping to let a 737 jet cross the street – before we were allowed to disembark at the terminal.

Formerly known as Pleasant Island, Nauru is the world’s smallest island nation, with an estimated 9,300 population in 2010 and covering just 21 square kilometres (8.1 sq mi). Originally settled by Micronesian and Polynesian people, the island was declared an independent state in 1968 after a long history of occupations/administrations by the Germans, British, Japanese and Australians.

Anibare Harbor: An enclosure for small boats, also good for swimming and some morning exercises.

Buada Lagoon: The biggest body of fresh water in the middle of the island

Imagine a phosphate rock protruding on the Pacific’s surface — that’s what Nauru is — a phosphate rock island.  The deposits are close to the surface thus allowing simple strip mining operations to extract phosphate — the country’s main product.  Because of the huge deposits and its small population; Nauru briefly boasted the highest per-capita income enjoyed by any sovereign state in the world in early 1970s.

Phosphate Mines: Located in the middle of the island, the phosphate mines are basically the only source of state revenues

Too Deep: The waters around Nauru are too deep that ships’ anchors cannot reach the bottom. Bouys such as this serve as the ships’ mooring.

Cantilevers: The monolithic steel structure loads phosphate to cargo ships

A Monolith: The cantilever dominates the Naurun seascape

I had to stay in the island for a month during my first visit and, knowing that I was living in the context of a whole country, I was always amazed that almost every destination is just close by.  I stayed at a place called Menen Hotel where, being just a few meters away from the Pacific ocean, huge waves pounding the shores at night can be unnerving.

A well-paved road stretches along the whole coastline and a public bus traverses the route several times a day. We used to drive around but the more adventurous can also rent a mountain bike from the hotel and cycle to any desired destination in the island. I once joined a 7-kilometer fun run joined by school kids and, although I shamelessly walked half of the distance just taking pictures, I felt proud having walked almost halfway around a country.

Waiting: A cargo ship stands by for the cantilever to pour phosphate into its bowels

An early jog to Anibare harbour, just west of the Menen Hotel was what kept me busy before breakfast. The harbour has a small enclosure that protects smaller boats, mostly used for fishing tours, from the often inclement conditions of the pacific waters. The surfaces of the seawalls provide a good platform for stretching and other exercises but it is also used by local fishermen to do line fishing. On a good day, the friendly fishermen would generously offer part of their catch for a good chat. One of my favourite restaurants happened to be in the area and its enterprising Chinese operators were always happy to cook the fresh fish for me.

In the Neighborhood: A short drive across the country will bring you to Capelle, the biggest grocery store in the island with products mostly coming from Australia and other countries.

Just a short drive towards the center of the island is the Buada Lagoon, the biggest body of fresh water in Nauru tucked amidst the shade of coconut trees. Within this area, also called the Central Plateau, are the phosphate mines; a maze of white lime protrusions (called ‘pinnacles’) combined with thin vegetation and is the primary source of all the Nauruan phosphate. Also, on the highest point of island just above the phosphate mines is the Command Ridge, a complex with the remains of many guns and tunnel complexes used by the Japanese to defend the island from the invading American forces in WWII. A careful trek through the thickets could lead to a discovery of a downed WWII bomber.

Lifeline: Everybody waits for phosphate to continually flow out of the cantilevers once again

From the center of the island, the phosphate is transported through trucks and conveyors to the Cantilevers, the monolithic steel structures that stretch out to the phosphate cargo ships like massive robotic arms. It is said that the waters surrounding Nauru are so deep that the anchors of cargo ships are not able to reach the bottom. There is no commercial scale wharf in Nauru thus cargo ships are moored into floating bouys and the cantilevers are used to load the phosphate into the ships. The coastline is also filled with rough-edged ‘pinnacles’ but one can always find a small quiet nook of fine white sand beaches for a good afternoon dip in the pacific waters.

Being descendants of a seafaring people, Nauruans share the colour, vibrancy and liveliness in their culture. Seafood is a chief component of the Nauruan cuisine although it has been influenced by the food patterns of its migrants, colonizers and neighbors.  It took some effort before I could take in a meal of rice topped with raw slices of fresh tuna (distinct from the Japanese sashimi) but I eventually got used to it. A similar but more amiable dish common among many pacific islanders is made of raw fish enhanced by fresh coconut milk and garnished with spices. The less adventurous can always order Chinese food or steak or burgers in many restaurants. Or one can just drive up to Capelle & Partners (also halfway across the country from Menen Hotel) and pick-up something to cook.

At some point in time, the Republic of Nauru owned cruise ships, several jets (they had to be kept somewhere else because the island can only accommodate one), and properties worth billions of dollars in other countries. It’s unfortunate that the country has not been successful in managing its resources and had to eventually become dependent on foreign aid.  There were serious efforts to revive phosphate mining in recent years and it’s everybody’s hope that the effort succeeds and that this time this small nation will be able to sustain this vital lifeline for its future generations.

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