News: Pacific Island Explorer Pohnpei, Micro

Posted: 20 August 2018

After delayed flights and an eventful journey, I arrive in Pohnpei, Micronesia, part of the larger Caroline Islands group. Arriving in the afternoon gave me a magnificent birds eye view of how green the island is. After a short queue for immigration, I am met by Nadia from the Island Palm Hotel, 5 minutes’ drive from the airport. Island Palms is the newest hotel on the island. The interior is bright and clean, and the rooms are spacious with king size beds and ensuite bathrooms.

No sooner than I am shown into my room I am leaving again to begin a half day tour of Kolonia, the capital of Pohnpei state. Our first stop was the Spanish Wall and the German Bell Tower, both remnants of when Pohnpei was under the administration of the respective countries. We continued to a local handicraft workshop, which are heavily influenced by Polynesian rather than Micronesian cultures. Most handicrafts are made from wood, taking the shapes of animals such as sharks, but more recently wooden hooks and turtles are in demand due to Disney’s Moana. Our last stop of the day is Sokeh’s Ridge. My guide Shawn tells me it is a steep hike, but worth it for the view. He wasn’t wrong, the walk is steep on a gravelled path, and can take anything between 30 minutes to 1 hour. When you reach the first level you can see the old, Japanese anti-aircraft missiles which were used to shoot down any incoming planes. Carry on walking to the tower following another steep but shorter path and you are awarded with a spectacular view over Pohnpei. After a long day, I was grateful for an early night.

After a hearty breakfast of eggs and toast, I am ready for a full day tour of the island. Pohnpei is an island of waterfalls, and our first stop was one of them – Kepirohi Falls. Following a small but flat path through forest leads us to the falls, a very scenic spot where many used to come to swim and have lunch, however the platform has been removed due to safety concerns. There is talks about putting a new platform at the falls, but no one is really sure when. Despite this, it is possible to swim and cool down from the heat. Next was the ruins of Nan Madol, an ancient Venice-like city dating from 500AD to 1500AD. To reach the ruins there is a walk of about 10 minutes on rocky ground followed by crossing the river (visiting the ruins does depend on the tide for this reason). Made up of around 92 man-made islets, and built for the purpose of residency for nobility, it is very easy to lose track of time here. After an hour or so exploring, I was back in the car heading to Palikir, luckily missing the torrential downpour that had started. Palikir is the seat of the government of the Federal State of Micronesia. No one lives here, it is home to the buildings and offices of the government. We also drive through the university campus before heading back to the hotel.

A 3am airport pick-up made me aware of just how tired I was, but I was to catch the Nauru Airlines island hopper towards Brisbane at 5am. Pohnpei airport is small but efficient, and the flight was on time. After a touchdown in Majuro I land in South Tarawa, Kiribati. After passing through immigration and customs I am met by my guide and headed towards Tabon Te KeeKee Ecolodge in North Tarawa. After a 20-minute drive I am told to board the ‘ferry’, which was a wooden canoe with a man using a stick to get us to the other side. This is used in low tide but if it was any lower then I would have walked across! I arrive at the lodge to my overwater buia and I am in paradise. Crystal blue waters, very quiet and no internet! The buia is basic – a wooden bungalow on stilts, with a mattress and mosquito net, one chair and a table. The toilets and showers are communal.

Breakfast the next morning was just after sunrise, and a selection of eggs, toast and pancakes. My guide met me at 9am for a cultural tour around north Tarawa. We started with a walk through the local village, where everyone knows everyone and live as one big community, all in traditional buias. Everyone we pass says mauri or hello, and all give a warm, welcoming smile. The locals here are very friendly and you can stop and chat to any of them. We pass a local primary school which came out on top for hygiene for children. Some of the measures they have taken is ensuring they have running water and taps for the children to wash their hands and they all have their own toothbrush. We then walk past what used to be a coconut farm, but the owner sold the land and the new owners never continued with it. After a slow, 30-minute walk, we have reached the end of the island on the north which shows how small Kiribati, or Tarawa, really is! The tide is low so it is possible to walk to the next island/village, however we turn around and walk back through the village as although it is just after 10am, the sun is getting stiflingly hot!

Our next stop was to a clam farm. In Kiribati, those who don’t have ‘jobs’ are fisherman. The clam farm has 3 different types of clams at various different ages ranging from 1 year old to 20+ years - running a clam farm is similar to looking after children with how long they need to grow! Some of the clams are exported to other countries including the US, and sold to aquariums. They are also running a sea cucumber breeding program, as they are now endangered in Kiribati and illegal to fish them. Eventually they plan to release those they manage to breed back into the ocean.

We walk back to our eco lodge in time for lunch. Whilst waiting, I am shown how to make traditional toys and handicrafts out of the leaves of the trees. All parts of the trees are used, from the roots to the leaves and flowers. They are used in handicrafts, building and construction and traditional medicine, including cures for pink eye and hepatitis. I am first shown how to make a ball, used in their version of rounders and tag, as well as some toys for the children - a pair of glasses, a watch, a crown and a paper windmill, as well as making my own coaster. They say it takes 3 days to make a full mat, judging by my handiwork on the coaster, it would take me about a month!

The next morning it was time to say goodbye to the tranquil north, and as I started to wade towards my transfer on the other side of the river (it was very low tide so no need for the ferry), I found myself missing the peace and quiet of my buia. The culture in South Tarawa is different to the north and more like the outer islands where locals from the same islands come together as a community. Many people have also relocated from the outer islands to South Tarawa due to better facilities and education. We drive through the main villages where the difference in houses is clear, and you can see the ocean to the left and right. I arrive at the George hotel in time for lunch and had the rest of the afternoon to relax.

The George hotel is in a gated complex with a nice seating area and restaurant. Th rooms are basic but clean, however there is a night club right opposite the hotel, so bring ear plugs if you are a light sleeper!

My last full day in Kiribati is spent exploring the relics and monuments left behind from the Japanese during their occupation of the island during the Second World War. We don’t usually hear this side of war and the battles within the Pacific, but some of the bloodiest battles took place in Kiribati - thousands of Americans, Australians and New Zealander’s, as well as local Kiribatians were killed during 1 or 3-day battles back in 1943 by the Japanese after the attack on Pearl Harbour.

Memorials have been erected to commemorate the fallen, and left behind are 500+ guns around the island from the Japanese, as well as lookouts and bunkers along the harbour. Some bunkers are now being used by locals as the foundations of their homes, but most remain unused. Bombs are also still being found on the island left over from the war, all unexploded, and have to be removed in the correct manner.

I then meet a nun who was living on the island when the Japanese first came with their ships at 3am. She fled to Brisbane and came back to Kiribati by ship more than 60 years ago. Although she is struggling to speak, she tells me when the Japanese came, which she can remember so vividly, and now has in her possession the declaration of war by the Japanese commander from 10 December 1941, which she has had framed in order to preserve this piece of history.

The next stop on my trip is Fiji for an overnight stay. The Nippon causeway connecting the villages in South Tarawa is currently under construction, so the journey took longer than usual, about an hour.

Kiribati airport departures is something to behold - your bag is searched by one woman before you join the queue to check in, and the check in is one computer printing your boarding pass, whilst another man manually weighs your bag and puts it on the pile to be loaded on to the plane. Next is immigration and then security which is through a door of the same small building, and then into the ‘departure lounge’ which is one room of plastic seating and some toilets. Being such a small airport, they are efficient and we board the plane for the 3-hour flight to Fiji. The flight isn’t full, and I have a row to myself, looking out into the ocean as we take off and land.

Arriving into Nadi, the island looks like to be made up of small sand dunes and mountains in the distance, painted in green. Getting through arrivals in Nadi is smooth sailing albeit slow as another flight arrived from Brisbane at the same time. I find the Tanoa International Hotel shuttle bus with the help of a member of staff, and 20 minutes later I am standing in my room at the hotel with a welcome drink in hand.

This hotel is ideal if you are only here for a short stay due to flight schedules - very close to the airport and has all you could need - a gym, swimming pool, 4 different restaurants, currency exchange and a tour desk if you have a couple of free days. The staff are friendly and ready to help at a moment’s notice, and there is certainly no shortage of staff.

I manage to squeeze in a short, half day tour of Fiji. First stop was the ‘Garden of the Sleeping Giant’, which contains a large variety of orchids and other native plants, and was once the private collection of the late American actor Raymond Burr. After spending some time walking through the garden, I am then taken to one of the first Fijian villages, where families have lived for generations and still follow ancestral traditions. After the village tour, it was back to the hotel in time to catch my flight to Noumea.

Arriving at Fiji airport it did seem very empty, with the reason being that all but one or two flights had been cancelled due to a volcanic ash cloud from Vanuatu. Unfortunately, I never made it to Noumea, New Caledonia, so I spent a further two nights in Fiji before travelling back to Brisbane for my international flight.

These islands in the Pacific are some of the least-visited nations in the world, especially Kiribati. Some say it will be underwater by the end of the century, although the locals I spoke to don’t seem to concerned about it as land keeps ‘popping up’ elsewhere when some disappears. Some might say this was a long way to travel for a short amount of time and to only see 2 islands. But for me, it was worth the tiredness and jet-lag as I have come away with a lasting impression of just how friendly these people are and a real appreciation of their lifestyle as one community.

If you’re looking for adventure and getting off the beaten track, join us on our 27-day Pacific Explorer tour.

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