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Banaba My Experience

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Banaba - My Experience

by Natalie Minnis, Scotland



Taken from Issue No. 26 of the 'Banaba/Ocean Island News' - July,Aug,Sept '97


In the South Seas Hotel in Suva, Fiji, there is a very lonely man. He’s a retired American who lives in New Zealand and "winters" in Fiji He lives in a single room. He eats dinner alone every evening. He watches television a lot, and goes to the cinema a lot - on his own.

I stayed at the South Seas for two weeks before the Banaban Homecoming Trip began, and when I returned there, six weeks later, I was glad to see a familiar face "Hi!" I said, "How are you?"

The American man returned my greeting and then said, with a big grin, "Sorry to hear your trip didn’t work out",

"But it did work out in the end, I said. "We got to Banaba and had a great time!"

"No you didn’t," he argued. "I read all about it in the papers. Your ship never turned up!"

"No, but we still got there,’’ I protested.

"No, you didn’t. I saw it on the news when you got back to Suva. And there were some people here who...

"Yes, we had to pay a bit more to fly to Tarawa with Air Nauru, but I’d planned to go to Nauru anyway, and it was on the same ticket..."

"How much did you have to pay altogether, then?" he challenged, jutting out his chin.

"$1,500, but that was..."

The American man’s grin was turning into a petulant sneer "$1,500? You could get to Tarawa for $200 by sea and stay in a hostel for US $10 a night. "But we didn’t have to pay for our accommodation, food or internal transport on the islands, and we had the most fabulous entertainment...

But the American man didn’t want to hear any more. He’d clearly been gloating over our "disaster" for the entire time I’d been away! I decided not to dampen his pleasure at our misfortune any more, as I guessed he was the type who could never appreciate the taste of freshly caught fish cooked over an open fire, roasted with fresh coconut, or not cooked at all! Or the joy of beautiful soaring voices singing in harmony, or the rousing spirit of Banaban dancing. Banaban entertainment is first class, and it’s clearly practised constantly!

Rabi is absolutely beautiful - lush, green and serene. Banaba has a very different kind of beauty. Far from being the stereotypical tropical paradise island, Banaba is wild, dramatic even. Wherever you are on the island you can hear the surf pounding against the reef, a reef which is about as treacherous as a Pacific island can offer. The currents around the island are so strong that bathing is never a gentle experience - you’re constantly tugged to and fro, and if you swim at the wrong time or in the wrong place you could be cut to shreds on the sharp coral, or swept right away.

Banaba’s famous coral pinnacles that mark the island’s gouged-out interior are no less razor-like than the reef. They are so sharp they leave their mark on any part of the body they come into contact with. Falling against one would not be a pleasant experience, and protective clothing is essential. It’s almost impossible to imagine that they were once buried underneath pleasant village communities. Tangled scrub now grows between them where the phosphate used to lie, adding mote dangerous traps for the unwary rambler. You need a machete as well as protective clothing to explore Banaba

For people who remember the 60s and early 70s, Banaba is a surreal time warp. The BPC apparently didn’t pack up when they left. All signs of the traditional Banaban way of life, their houses and coconut trees, were consumed by the mining operation, to be replaced by a very different European lifestyle Now the rocky outcrop that lies isolated in the vast Pacific Ocean is host to a decaying museum of 1960s Eurobilia. A power station, warehouses full of rusting machinery, floodlit tennis courts, redundant multiple power points, ensuite bathrooms with showers and mini-baths, all remain as disintegrating monuments to a brief period of excess and ludicrously lavish displays of wealth on an island where most natural resources were in short supply and had to be shipped in from overseas!

Nature and the Banaban people are starting to reclaim their territory, but it’s not going to be easy. It took billions of years for Banaba to evolve into an island fit for human habitation, Now there’s the small coastal fringe for its 500 people to live on -most of the island is a dark, bushy jungle overshadowed by towering pinnacles, a mausoleum to our incredible technological ability to destroy in just a few decades what it took nature several million years to build.


Nauru has some striking similarities to Banaba. Geologically they differ only in size, Nauru being larger by a few square kilometres. Nauru’s surf is just as powerful and as treacherous as Banaba’s, Nauru is actually a lot more pleasant and interesting to visit than all those sneering articles written about it would suggest. But on the negative side, Nauru has had the privilege of being able to carry out its own mining self-·destruction, starting where the BPC left off at Independence in 1988. The landmark cantilever, the industrial plant, the conveyor belts and mining machinery are all still in use, as Nauru’s phosphate isn’t quite exhausted - yet. The large colonial houses are there too, and the two I visited were in great condition, well-maintained by people who have the money and the material supplies to look after them. Nauru’s good fortune in lying on the right side of the old Anglo-German dividing line means that today it has many things that Banaba lacks, such as trees, supply ships and a regular air service.

Sadly, Nauru has maintained the old colonial tradition of "them and us" in the British-built foreign labourers housing, soullessly named "Location’’, a large, overcrowded slum area. Location’s school receives just a small percentage of the public funding that Nauru’s other schools receive, and I could sea no other obvious signs of public expenditure in the area.

Nauru’s phosphate fields are if anything an even more horrifying sight than Banaba’s, as there is less of the shrub growth that clothe Banaba’s mining scars. In Nauru, you can stand at the north of the mining area, where mining is still in operation, and feel a truly eerie sensation, as you are completely surrounded by pinnacles as far as the eye can see. Some areas are white with newly-exposed phosphate, many on their second excavation. As the phosphate is running out, Nauru’s financial future is rather uncertain, and some Nauruans are returning to their traditional ways of living. The seas around the island are often crowded with small fishing boats, and if you visit the interior, Topside, in the evening, you’ll probably pass quite few young men out hunting for noddy birds, with nets at the end of long metal poles.

Maybe Nauruans are taking heed of all those finger-wagging articles about their country’s poor health statistics, as the tennis courts and sports fields seem to be full most of the time. But no doubt there are still many Nauruans who prefer to spend most of their leisure time slumped on the couch in front of the telly eating pizza and drinking beer. Rather like the British backpackers, I’m hostelling with in Sydney at the moment, in fact...

Maybe we could all do with a course in Banaban-style home entertainment!

Copyright: N. Minnis, 24th. September 1997


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