We visited the island atols of Kiribati in the mid nineties, staying at Tarawa and Abiang. Recent graphic footage clearly indicates the effects of climate change and risks to their water supply, so that inevitably they will be underwater. I have fond memories and below is a story about our trip from Abiang to what we thought was a deserted coral island.
The deep blue sea was tranquil and shimmered like a precious stone sparkling under the noonday sun as our small boat headed for a deserted island not far from Abyiang. The oceans in that region can be treacherous; a sudden squall or storm turns the ocean into a cauldron of white tips and high waves like our journey so far; a mixture of excitement and relief. We had left the most populated island of Tarawa to visit Abyiang; to be guests of volunteer Australia and Canadian teachers who worked for the local Catholic mission school. Previously we planned to fly to Abyiang but the plane service was cancelled due to a breakdown. We had negotiated the trip with local boatmen but it soon became apparent they were not sure of the way. Finally, after spotting a landmark, we all trekked across the coral reef, knee deep in water with our boatman carrying our provisions to finally arrive both hot and exhausted.
I remembered my wife sitting quietly in the bow; fully recovered from an earlier ordeal when she awoke as if from a sudden nightmare to a raging shivering fever in an unfamiliar thatched hut on Abyiang. The schoolchildren brought us coconuts, confident the juice from the green adolescent coconuts would immediately restore her to good health. True to their word my wife was soon up and about as if the fever was no more than a bad dream, to our mutual relief. During the course of the week we joined in with school activities, then were told of a trip organized for us to visit a nearby deserted Island.
The first glimpse of the island from our boat was one of undisturbed pristine white sand and crystal clear water with almost jungle like thick foliage intruding in a wide arc onto the foreshore, hopefully imaginable from the above photo. .
After landing we cleared an open space within the thick foliage to make up a rough camp but were soon interrupted by the arrival of a local family. Oh dear! We soon leant the island was not only inhabited but the islanders were concerned over our lack of protocol; strangers were expected to introduce themselves to the spirit of the Island by traversing it from one end to another.
The family finally departed amicably and we were left to explore the coral reef and its wondrous underwater sites. To our surprise the family returned again but this time with a number of large brightly coloured crayfish, caught specially to be consumed for our lunch. Furthermore after learning some of us were to soon return to Australia, they performed a special ceremonial dance of farewell on the sand. A most elaborate and complicated long dance ritual; in the spirit of friendship- extended generously to strangers, to whom they were unable to converse or ever likely to see again.
The dance reminded me of the ceremonies that must have been performed to farewell canoes long ago from Polynesia and Melanesia as they set out to populate the many Islands that now make up what was once known as the Kingdom but now a Republic ( since 1979) of Kiribiti.
Their history is recorded in the many dances and songs, words to exquisite harmonies lasting for several hours, never written down but handed down orally from the one generation to another.
When I was in Tarawa earlier on I witnessed these dance ceremonious and singing, representative of an oral history from first migration, maybe from Tahiti about 10,000 years ago in giant canoes. The training and rehearsal extended over several months before each important celebration and the elaborate dance routines were both graceful and beautiful.
I learnt from a local volunteer from Canada, who had decided to learn their language and dance that they were arduous and difficult to remember.
She recounted a story to me of a young man who had kindly dedicated himself to train her for a dance but died several months before the intended celebration. During the dance she lost her way as her mind went blank. Immediately the image of the man came to her and she had no further recollection other than when it was completed several hours later. Many complemented her on her performance afterwards.