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Food & Travel

Apr 5, 2011

Letter from … Nauru — the worst place in the world?

Not many people go to Nauru unless they absolutely have to, writes Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet.

Not many people go to Nauru unless they absolutely have to. After all Alexander Downer announced in 2008 that it was the worst place he ever had to visit during his time as our foreign minister. If I stayed on the plane I could have continued to the second worst place Downer’s government job took him to: Kiribati. When I heard him dismissing Nauru, he  went on to talk about his heroics visiting our boys in Afghanistan, but clearly that wasn’t as horrible a place to visit as Nauru. Or Kiribati.

I wasn’t the only genuine, didn’t-have-to-go-there tourist on the Our Airline flight to Nauru. Albert Podell, a semi-retired New York lawyer was also on the flight, but Albert was exactly the sort of voluntary visitor I’d expect to find in Nauru. He was busy visiting every country in the world and once he’d put a tick in the Nauru box he’d be into single figures, just nine countries to go and he will have been to everywhere.

Me? Well I’ve always had a deep fascination with weird lands, places that seem to exist in another dimension from everyday national reality. Nauru certainly fits that definition. After all Nauru enjoyed a spell in the 1970s as the richest country on earth on a per-capita basis. Then there was a long string of silly investment decisions — from the Fitzroy footy club to a London West End theatrical flop titled Leonardo: A Portrait of Love. Throw in bad bankers (they got taken to the cleaners by at least one international bank) and outright profligacy (government-financed shopping trips to Tokyo) and it seemed inevitable they should also end up with semi-innocent involvement in an Australian legal scandal.

Poor Nauru got roped in to the 1990s Adrian Powles affair when a managing partner of the very strait-laced and old-school legal firm of Allen Allen & Hemsley went postal and took assorted clients’ (including Nauru’s) money with him. All the unfortunate, bad, mad and plain crazy decisions meant that even the good ones, like building Nauru House (aka Birdshit House in honour of Nauru’s guano financed wealth) in Melbourne, would eventually end up shipwrecked.

Air Nauru would have to rank as one of the best ways the Nauruans found to burn money, which was why I wasn’t flying with it. Its last 737 (it had five aircraft at one stage) was repossessed at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne in late 2005. Fortunately those friendly Taiwanese Chinese came to the rescue and gifted it with a nice pre-loved 737-300 … well it did have to agree that the capital of China was Taipei, not Beijing, but otherwise no strings attached. The ‘Our Airline’ handle came about because it was going to share the plane with Solomon Airlines, except the Solomon Islanders backed out after the name had been painted on.

They confiscated my passport (and Albert’s) on arrival, but that’s routine. I popped over to the Border Control & Immigration office later in the day, handed over the $A100 visa fee and got it back. That’s a very pricey visa, but I suspect Downer probably didn’t have to pay for his, so that can’t be why he took such a dislike to the island. The government offices complex, which houses the visa department, also includes the President’s office, the Parliament building, the radio and TV station and almost everything else of an official sort you’d need in Nauru. “On average we get 13 visitors a month,” the guy behind the counter told me. “They come from all over and the arrivals flow ticks up when it’s cold in Europe.”

If you want to visit Nauru from Australia you can stay two days, nine days or multiples of those numbers. The weekly Our Airline flight from Brisbane continues on to Kiribati (No.2 on Downer’s hate list) and Fiji, then returns two days later. Nine days was probably a bit long so although two days was tight I set out to explore as much of the island as I could before Wednesday’s return flight.

I rented a car from Capelle’s, the biggest shop on the island, where Sean Oppenheimer, who seemed to be the boss, was very upbeat about Nauru — “the new government is honest, the NRC (Nauru Rehabilitation Corporation) is doing what they should have done about rehabilitating after phosphate extraction years ago, there is still another year and a half of primary phosphate they can extract, then there’s years of secondary phosphate extraction possible and then they can do something with all those rock pinnacle.” Oh yes? “And the fishing around the island is fabulous, we used to bring in 20 game fishing groups a year.”

It doesn’t take long to drive around the island, 18 kilometres after I drive out of the Menen Hotel’s car park I’m driving back in to the Menen Hotel’s car park. But I do spend longer visiting “Topside”, where all that birdshit was extracted. Topside is also home to one of the Nauru attractions I really want to visit, the Topside refugee centre. The other centre, Government House, is closer to the coast and is currently functioning as a school, after one of the island’s schools burnt down.

The Topside centre is now occupied by the NRC and seems to be used as a plant nursery, although they’re going to need an awful lot of plant nurseries to rehabilitate the whole island. They were quite happy for me to wander around the rooms, all recently repainted so there wasn’t much graffiti or other reminders of what the centre’s involuntary residents had thought about their stay at the worst place in the world.

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11 thoughts on “Letter from … Nauru — the worst place in the world?

  1. Had Enough

    The detention centre will help their economy

  2. Stevo the Working Twistie

    @HAD ENOUGH: Where do you think refugees come from moron? Places where we (westerners) have sucked everything we want out and left nothing but the shell for the locals. A run-down bird-shit mine should be the symbol of our Foreign Affairs department.

  3. Had Enough

    @ Steve

    where have the westerners sucked SriLanka, south east asian countries, pakistan dry? Drugs sucked Arghanistan dry.

  4. bally

    I had the dubious pleasure of visiting Nauru in 2001; with my wife and two year old son in tow, I was on my way to Guam for business. At one-fifth of the cost of flying Continental via Cairns, we had elected to fly straight from Brisbane to Nauru on Air Nauru’s one remaining formerly Ansett 737, spend four hours enjoying the delights of a guano-built coral island while the plane took people to Kiribati and back, then on to Guam via Pohnpei. There were lots of happy and excited people on the flight, and the hostesses were a credit to the industry. But what an adventure it turned out to be.

    First sighting of this tiny atoll on the equator lead everyone to comment on the unlikelihood of landing a 737 without the brakes being applied by the Pacific Ocean. The method, apparently, was to slam the thing down with enough force to use the very earth to pull us up, and pull up we did, with the vessel limping back to the terminal virtually on one wheel. Ai Nauru Problem 1 – we’ve broken the wheel. Problem 2 – we only have one plane and no spares. Problem 3 – we owe Ansett money so they aren’t going to fly an engineer and/or spare part over until we’ve paid. It might be a long four hours.

    Thus, those of us with $200 (cash) to spare were offered a few hours’ rest at the island’s ‘resort’, the Menen…good. Henceforth, five locals rolled up in their cars to drive us the few kilometres to this haven. I’m sure at one point the place had been a resort, alas it had been some time ago. The newly arrived guests had a great laugh watching as the receptionist tried to get the credit card machine working, while we all sweated profusely in the 42 degree, 90+% equatorial climate, licking the sweat off our lips in anticipation of the “air-conditioned” room.

    Upon arrival in said room, there was indeed a discernible improvement in the conditions. We reckoned it was only about 35 degrees in the room as the poor old aircon rattled and battled the conditions as much as we did. At 4pm the electricity suddenly went off, and stayed that way until 545pm, when everything unexpectedly kicked back into life for a full ten minutes. Unfortunately we missed that seminal event as we were being driven around the island by a lovely local who just arrived at the hotel and offered to take any comers on a tour. It lasted only half an hour, but she told us everything about Nauru and its amazing history, especially that of the despotic presidential escapades. The electricity was run by a diesel generator, and Nauru could only afford to run it four hours per day. Think about that. A place with 12 hours of sunshine per day, wave power smashing into their shores since time immemorial, enough phosphate (still) to fertilise half the world’s farms, and they relied upon a diesel generator for electricity. How I hope things have changed.

    Our return to the hotel coincided with the news being announced that, after eight hours of negotiation, Ansett had agreed to come fix the aeroplane. Sometime the next day. The hotel staff were optimistically positioning candles around the public areas of the building, leading to bets being claimed among the Aussies as to how long they would last in the humidity. In the end it was seven minutes before the first one drooped to its inglorious death, never to enjoy the dignity of actually lighting a space. The others followed in quick succession. The airline/hotel/government representative offered to put on a reasonably priced smorgasbord dinner, and was laughed off the floor as we communally discussed refridgeration. Some hardier types ventured into town, in the dark, on foot, and apparently discovered a local quite prepared to cook a couple of chickens in exchange for duty free goods.

    The rest of us made do without dinner that night, except for a hungry two year old in my room who survived happily on milk formula using two bottles of water we had kept from the flight. It was so hot and humid that missing meals hardly mattered to the adults, the miracle was actually getting some sleep. I arose in the morning and proceeded for a walk to look at the ocean pounding the coral barrier. The sea appears to be higher than the land, and is only kept back by its wonderful natural border. [This recently proved effective at keeping the tsunami waves at bay across the Pacific].

    Happily, as the sun climbed over its daily peak, the airline/hotel/government rep returned with the news that the aeroplane was now fixed and would be proceeding to Guam. Kiribati passengers would have to wait until tomorrow. With a cheer, we loaded back into the island’s five cars and had the perplexing experience of a thorough questioning from the immigration official, followed by a demand for the visa fee. Or no flight. Incredulous as we all were, I couldn’t pay it quick enough.

    Years later I watched in horror as the Australian Government shanghai-ed Nauru into accepting our wannabe refugees in return for vast sums of cash. Most stunning of all the wrongs in that decision, was that, having built a detention centre in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, thousands of kilometres from anywhere, in a place where the electricity runs four hours per day while people get beaten down by the forty degree heat, they put a fence around it! Where did they expect people to escape to?

    I left Nauru really feeling for the people who lived there, as happy and lovely as they were. And strangely, I would like to go back sometime. But not on Air Nauru!

  5. zut alors

    Tony Wheeler and Bally are most informative, Nauru is even bleaker than I imagined. Wish we had a photo of Lord Downer’s expression on the occasion of his inaugural visit.

  6. Sue

    What ignorant comments about one of the most amazing places on our planet. If these people (and Tony Wheeler should know better) had bothered to take a bit of time they would have discovered some of the most warm and hospitable people in the world. I agree wholeheartedly with Sean Oppenheimer who was “very upbeat”. There’s a lot of good things about this island nation and unfortunately we only hear negative comments about it. The new airline Our Airline offers a fine service but without the extras of major airlines. The smiles on the flight attendants faces and their warm welcome makes up for the lack of inflight entertainment. I’m always happy to visit this wonderful place and not because I have to but because I want to.

  7. Bob the builder

    That was a very picaresque story from Bally, but the claim that it was 42 degrees made me suspicious. It’s an equatorial island! It may be humid but there’s no way it would be that hot, surrounded by the deep blue sea. And all the weather records seem to confirm that. So how much is faithful reporting and how much colourful story-telling?
    But on the more general point, it does seem a place that’s been sucked dry, a place with a barren future, except according to Tourism Nauru’s undercover mole, Sue.
    An article and commenters befitting an exceptional place!

  8. Venise Alstergren

    Whenever I have any problems on my travels I calm myself down by thinking.. “Cheer up, I could be in………..” Now I know the country to fit the dotted line. Thanks guys.

  9. Elan

    True or not , BALLY give me a damn good laugh, particularly the plane landing. I am not laughing at the people SUE..

    HAD ENOUGH: you are indeed a moron.