It may have taken me the best part of two months to get here from New Zealand, but I’m proud to announce that I AM NOW IN NAURU!!!
The Scarlett Lucy arrived on schedule at 6am. I dragged my carcass out of bed around 7 and waited for cargo operations to commence so I could hope a lift to the mainland. Well, I say ‘main’land, but Nauru is unique in the Pacific – the entire country comprises of just one tiny island. All other independent Pacific nations consist of a chain or archipelago.
With less than 10,000 inhabitants, Nauru is the smallest member of the UN and has the dubious distinction of being the least-visited nation on Earth – more people visit Somalia – which makes it all the more remarkable that I got here at all.
There is no marina in Nauru, no yacht club, no cruise ships pass by, and as far as I can tell, The Scarlett Lucy is the only container ship that calls here, and she does that just once a month. If Neptune Shipping had said they weren’t going to allow me on board, it would have taken me much more than two months to get here: needless to say my debt of gratitude to Neptune, Swire, Reef, PDL and PIL is immense.
Nauru has two hotels, no capital and in the 1980s was the richest per capita country in the world. Today it’s one of the poorest. Strangely enough, its dramatic rise and fall is all connected to bird poo. Over hundreds of thousands of years, birds used Nauru, situated just 42 kilometres south of the equator, as a rest stop / breeding ground on their long migratory journey from the northern to the southern hemisphere and visa versa. For some reason birds don’t seem to like to poo in the sea, they hold it in like they’re at a music festival or on a long African coach journey. But when they got to Nauru it was bombs away.
Over the course of untold millennia, the accumulated crap from a million generations of seabirds became compacted. Periodic submergence of the island by the ocean washed away most impurities and what was left was incredibly pure, high-grade phosphate. Millions of tons of it. Ka-CHING!
Nobody knows exactly when humans made it to Nauru, but like Hebrews and Lemmings, apparently there were twelve original tribes. Much in the manner of tribes all over the world, they liked nothing more than to kill one another. In the 1880s a civil war on the island (fuelled by European weapons) decimated the population. Kind of like Battle Royale I suppose. Less than 900 Nauruans were left alive when in 1886 when the Germans surprised everyone by actually stopping a war rather than starting one. Although this did involve annexing the entire island, a process that the Germans are possibly a little more familiar with.
In 1900, a British chap called Albert was examining his doorstep. He wasn’t waiting for DHL or looking for miniature Jehovah’s Witnesses, he was a geologist and the stone had come from Nauru. And – By Jove! – he found to his surprise that the thing was entirely composed of high-grade phosphate. Ka-CHING!
After the Germans lost World War I, the allied powers decided that the best way to prevent another war would be to take all of Germany’s overseas possessions and dole them out between the British and the French – the UK got Nauru and all that yummy phosphate. France got Burkina Faso. Nice! Phosphate is used in fertiliser and explosives – the stuff is worth a fortune. In 1947, Nauru was declared a UN Trust Territory, administered by the Aussies, Kiwis and Poms, and in 1968 Nauru was given independence. Since the Nauruan parliament (all 18 members of it, including the speaker) knew they could make Brewsters out of this quality bird-turd, they chose not to throw their lot in with either Micronesia or Kiribati and instead go it alone.
For thirty years, this seemed like a damn good plan. In the 70s and 80s, Naurans were the richest people in the world. With up to two million tonnes of phosphate leaving the island each year, most Nauruans didn’t bother working, opting instead to make money by leasing their land to the phosphate company. The vast majority of mine workers were imported from Kiribati or Tuvalu.
Traditional subsistence farming and fishing techniques were forgotten as the population ran around their island in fancy sports cars and jetted around the world on their fleet of five jumbo jets. All was peachy.
That was until the late nineties when the easy-to-get-to phosphate started to run out. Gearing up for a post-phosphate world, the government promptly blew all of the country’s not-very-hard-earned cash on a series of ill-judged or ill-timed ‘investments’ – including buying dodgy property in Fiji, Hawaii and Melbourne, taking over the failing Footscray AFL team and a investing in a musical called ‘Leonardo The Musical’. The property was a dud, Footscray continued to fail and the musical was the biggest West End flop since Oscar Wilde’s wedding night.
In a riches-to-rags story to rival Enron, within ten years Nauru was broke. The mine shut down, the foreign workers left and unemployment hit an incredible 99% – in other words, there were only about 100 people left on the island with a job. And all because the poor old government listened to some moronic (or just plain evil) financial advisors, possibly from Australia.
That’s the economic disaster, now for the environmental disaster.
100 years of intensive mining has left the interior of Nauru irreparably scarred. The topsoil has been removed, as has the phosphate, leaving only bleach white coral pinnacles upon which not much can grow. Where there was once lush forest (Nauru was known in the West as ‘Pleasant Island’) there is now baking heat, rocks and inedible shrubs.
There are a few knock-on disasters as a result: firstly, Nauru now suffers terribly from drought. The reason for this is that the exposed white coral reflects sunlight back up into the air, creating a thermal updraft that pushes otherwise promising clouds away. As there’s not enough rain, there’s a major water shortage on the island. Secondly, the birds that provided the poo in the first place have all but stopped coming here – and no wonder – their habitat has been destroyed. Thirdly there is now not enough arable land for Nauru to return to the days of subsistence farming, even if they wanted to.
A painful irony: the country that for a century provided fertiliser to the world is now, well, pretty much infertile.
A similar phosphate-y situation occurred on nearby Banaba Island, the most westerly island of Kiribati. Only there, instead of investing in West End Musicals, fancy cars, jumbo jets and crappy football teams, the people of Banaba bought themselves a whole new island. They packed everything up, left a handful of people behind to feed the cat, and moved wholesale to a new South Seas Paradise in Fiji.
Things have improved slightly for Nauru in the last few years. The mine has reopened, although they’re moving a fraction of what they were in their heyday. Unemployment is down to just(!) 90% and there’s a chap here from Korea making a roaring trade collecting scrap metal from all over the island. There’s enough here to keep the world in Coke cans for at least another 20 years.
That said, Nauru is a little heart-breaker. A loveable tramp who drunkenly laments his lost millions to the other bums around the brazier. If only I had bet on black, he pines. If only…
It wasn’t until after noon that I managed to get onto the island. Once ashore I danced a goddamn jig – 195 countries down, 6 to go. I went for a little bit of an exploration, heading north along the coastal road. I walked past broken down warehouses, factories lying idle, the rusting remnants of yesteryear strewn about the place with reckless abandon. The barracks once used to house the hundreds of foreign workers now lie in a mournful state, graffitied and trashed, a few families remain, maybe squatting, maybe unable to return home.
Beyond the barracks is the RON Hospital – seriously underfunding and struggling to make ends meet. RON stands for ‘Republic of Nauru’. Again, I’d talk to the people in marketing. Call your own country what the hell you like, doesn’t mean you can’t razzle-dazzle the world with what you demand they call you. What sounds more enticing, ‘The Gold Coast’ or ‘Ghana’? ‘The Friendly Islands’ or ‘Tonga’? ‘Pleasant Island’ or ‘RON’? I know which one I’d plum for and I’m not even a copywriter (although I’d be damn good at it, I’m sure).
Up towards the interior now and it’s a bit of a trek up a hill. Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, apparently, and I’m seeing that more and more as I travel around. Here I am, 42km south of the Equator and I’m trekking up a damn hill: it’s so hot the sweat is stinging my eyes. There is nobody else around except for some kids swinging in the vines that hang in the shade of a giant buttress tree. I’m an idiot, obviously.
At the top I reached the former President’s residence. It was burnt down in 2001 by a rampaging mob, presumably pissed off that the government had blown all the country’s money on snake oil and homeopathic remedies. Now it stands abandoned, just a shell, but a shell with a cracking view over the harbour.
I then turned around and headed south parallel with the coast road, but inland and further up. I passed the shells of houses, the shells of cars, the shells left from World War 2… every type of shell except the ones that grow in the sea. After a good twenty minutes I arrived at the (amazingly) still functioning phosphate processing plant. Man, this place looks like somewhere Batman would go for a dénouement: broken windows, rusted metal, dilapidated conveyor belt housings, long-abandoned machinery… this entire island has this eerie ghost-town feeling about it – not that the locals notice. Every time a school bus goes past, the kids are singing like it’s Mardi Gras.
I made my way down the hill towards the coast, near the now-defunct first cantilever; a huge metal half-bridge that swings out into the sea. Conveyor belts transport the phosphate to the end of the cantilever where it drops down a large tube into a waiting break-bulk cargo ship, filling the hold like a disgruntled McDonald employee fills the coffee machine.
This cantilever is dead, hasn’t worked for years. A shame, really, there’s enough metal here to build a bridge over the River Mersey. One day it’ll probably fall into the sea. There’s another cantilever, one that is still in use. It sits opposite the Scarlett Lucy’s mooring.
There’s a part of me that can’t escape the fact that this place reminds me of growing up in Liverpool in the 1980s. The feeling of abandonment, the wastelands and disused lots. An entire industry reduced to rubble. The plans for a brighter tomorrow that went nowhere. Twisted metal left strewn about, covered in weeds. Warehouses filled with nothing but debris, factories that once ran 24 hours a day now running silent. The disused railway lines, the general feeling of malaise: the feeling that we had drawn the short straw. Somebody made a lot of money out of all this tragedy, but it sure as hell wasn’t us.
And so I find myself feeling an affinity for Nauru. Not in that wanky art-student ‘isn’t urban decay interesting, non?’ way. I don’t find people living on the poverty line in the least bit arousing, there’s no beauty in smashed windows, collapsed roofs and concrete shells, and as far as I’m concerned graffiti has all the artistic merit of a child drawing cartoon penises in his biology textbook. Like Liverpool, Nauru had one major industry: ours was shipping, there’s was phosphate. And like Liverpool, the glory days are over.
Back on the Scarlett Lucy there was much excitement in the water. It’s spawning season so once the sun sets and the moon comes up, millions of fish go ape-shit – the upshot being a) that the sea water started looking (and sounding) more like a Jacuzzi and that b) dozens of dolphins turned up looking for a feast. It was an incredible sight.