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.