Capt. Thomas Gilbert sighted Tarawa in 1788 but the surrounding group of islands were given his name only in 1820. In 1892, the 16 Gilbert Islands became a British protectorate that was later extended to include the 8 Phoenix atolls to the east and the 9 Line Islands still further east.
When phosphate was discovered on Banaba Island in 1900, it was promptly annexed by Britain. The exploitation of Banaba's rich phosphate deposits was undertaken and it was later joined to the Gilbert Islands Crown Colony in 1919. Phosphate exports by the British Phosphate Corp. reached 550 000 tons a year in the '70s and phosphate remained the colony's major source of revenue until Banaba's guano deposits ran out in 1979. That year, Kiribati was granted independence from Britain.
Now, about 5 000 Banabian refugees live on the small island of Rabi in Fiji. Only
10% of Banaba's once lush tropical land remains unmined. The whole centre of the island
is a desert of limestone pinnacles which make the island's interior impassable.
Masses of rusting mining machinery lay rotting while a small Banaban community of
less than 500 people live a traditional lifestyle amongst the ruins of the old company
buildings on the rim of the island.
The 33 small islands of Kiribati are dispersed in an enormous ocean territory of
five million kmē that stretches almost 4 000 km from east to west. All the islands
total only 811 kmē and are inhabited by less than 90 000 people. Thirteen of
the islands are uninhabited. They are nevertheless important for they determine the
extent of Kiribati's exclusive economic zone and leasing fishing rights has become
the country's major source of revenue since the phosphate ran out.
I was attracted to Tarawa for having read a book about the terrible fighting between Japanese and American forces on Betio in 1943.
The Fiji - Tarawa - Nauru - Tarawa - Fiji flight, with a stopover in Tarawa, cost 500 $US but my desire to see both islands was great so I booked it.
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I took this picture of the Abemana Atoll on the Fiji - Tarawa flight. About 3000 Islanders live from subsistence farming on this typical atoll.
This picture shows the series of islands that form the eastern side of the triangular Tarawa Atoll.
The landing strip of the Bonriki International Airport.
And here is the airport. The airplane stopped here refuel on the way to Nauru. There was no problem and I sat in the waiting room for half an hour with the few other passengers going to Nauru.
On the way back on March 28th, I was prevented from making my planned stopover by the immigration authorities who announced that Canadians needed a visa to enter Kiribati since January 1st, 2002.
My return flight to Nadi was booked for 4 days later. I offered to pay the visa fees on the spot and even pay a penalty if need be but the immigration officer was inflexible and I was forced to get back on the same Air Nauru aircraft for the flight to Nadi.
Upon my arrival in Nadi, I immediately complained the to the Air Nauru personnel who admitted that checking visa requirements before selling tickets was their responsibility but they claimed that they had not been informed by the Kiribati authorities of the change regarding Canadian passport holders. I spoke to Mr Meita Beiabure, the first secretary of the Kiribati High Commission who said he would look into the matter. Then, I wrote to Air Nauru to request a reimbursement but they did not bother to reply.
Unfortunately, this picture taken from the airplane as it took off for Nadi is all that I can offer on the Kiribati way of life for the reasons explained above.
This line of islands forms the southern side of the Tarawa triangle
And finally here is crowded Betio with the eastern side islands in the background across the lagoon.
Back in Nadi, I had to wait four days for my flight to Rarotonga. I had plenty of time to meditate on the incompetence of the Air Nauru personnel and on the mindless rigidity of the Kiribati bureaucracy.