Breakfast began at 06.30am this morning in anticipation of arrival at South Tarawa at 07.30am. We came alongside at the dock, newly opened in 2014, an hour later than anticipated. Assembled on the dock for our arrival was an impressive welcoming “committee” of Kiribati people. A brass band, very smart in pale blue shirts and dark trousers played enthusiastically as our ship was tied up. While the gangway was prepared a group of traditionally-dressed men and women who were waiting on the dock sang us songs in their language.
Once we were able to disembark the cultural performance/welcome continued with dancing. Some of this was like a “haka” and some was like a synchronized tapping of the ground while the participants were seated. We may not have understood the words or the symbolism but the sentiment – “pleased to see you” – was very apparent.
Tarawa is an atoll in the western group of islands of the Republic of Kiribati. The atoll is triangular in shape with the eastern side being known as North Tarawa and the southern side is South Tarawa. North Tarawa is the string of islets from Buariki at the northern tip of Tarawa atoll to Buota in the South, with a combined population of 6,102 (as of 2010). It is administratively separate from neighboring South Tarawa, and is governed by the Eutan Tarawa Council (ETC), based at Abaokoro village. South Tarawa, where we docked, is the capital and hub of the Republic of Kiribati and home to approximately half of Kiribati's total population. South Tarawa consists of all the small islets from Betio in the West to Bonriki in the East, connected by the South Tarawa main road, and has a population of about 50,000 people.
After our welcome ceremony we boarded our 4 small buses for the tour of South Tarawa. This began with a photograph stop at a gun emplacement left from World War II.
Tarawa was the site of a major battle in 1943. In the Battle of Tarawa -which lasted 3 days between the 20th and 23rd November- the U.S. began its Central Pacific Campaign against Japan by seizing the heavily fortified, Japanese-held island of Betio in the Tarawa Atoll. The 18,000 U.S. Marines sent to tiny Betio were expected to easily secure it; however, problems quickly arose. Exceptionally low tides prevented some U.S. landing crafts from clearing the coral reefs that ringed the island. Japanese coastal guns pounded the snagged vessels and desperate Marines gave up on freeing the boats and instead waded toward shore – hundreds of meters away – through chest-deep water amidst enemy fire. Despite heavy resistance from the 4,500 Japanese troops dug in on Betio, the Marines finally took the island after a bloody, 76-hour battle in which both sides suffered heavy casualties.
After seeing the WWII gun emplacement our tour, we continued eastwards through the many villages which crowd the islets of the southern rim of the atoll. We made a photograph stop at the home of the President, opposite the sports stadium, before continuing on to the principle Catholic Church, the Cathedral. Here a nun (from Australia) took us to her cell where she is custodian of a declaration from 1941 signed by the commander of the Japanese forces on Tarawa. In the document it states that the Japanese authorities will treat the Kiribati people well if they do not resist the occupying forces.
From the Catholic Cathedral we drove on to the Parliament building, a modern and impressive building standing in gardens on the lagoon side of the main road. Here we could refresh ourselves with fresh coconut water and walk around the Parliament area.
The road connecting all the islets on our itinerary was definitely “under construction” and we encountered many road-works. The people of Kiribati receive money from Australian aid organizations as well as support from the UK, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. There are also many Taiwanese–owned businesses in Tarawa.
After seeing the outside of the Parliament building we drove further eastwards to the headquarters building of the tour organization with which we were travelling and there was an opportunity to buy souvenirs and postcards from their shop. Our final stop on this tour, the Museum of South Tarawa, was a five minute drive further east. Here we were able to look at display cases of traditional weaving styles, baskets, and mats, view some artefacts from the war years, and look at some cooking implements; we also had a chance to visit a full-size, traditionally-constructed, meeting house in the grounds of the Museum.
After our visit to the museum we returned to the ship and lunch! The day was getting very hot and Louis arranged that two of the buses would wait at our ship and take those who wished on a tour of the World War Two gun emplacements and memorial sites after lunch. Malcolm and Louis had scouted out these sites in the morning and initially we were going to go on an Expedition Team member led walk from the ship. In view of the heat, however, Louis decided that buses were a better option.
At 3pm two buses left the ship for a tour of the war sites near the ship on Betio Island. Our first stop was the Memorial to the U.S. Marine Corps. More than 1000 marines had died in defeating the Japanese at the Battle of Tarawa. We then went to Red Beach 2, one of the main landing sites in the assault on Betio. After that we visited a major gun emplacement on the coast and then a Memorial Monument to the “Coast Watchers”. Twenty two of these men who hid on the islands of the Pacific, including on Kiribati, and spotted airplanes and ships and communicated this intelligence to the allies, were rounded up by the Japanese in 1942 and executed on Tarawa. After visiting the “minor” gun emplacements near the new jetty we made a final brief stop at the Japanese War Memorial before returning to the ship.
At 4:30pm all were aboard and we took our leave from Tarawa. In the Explorer Lounge Tua introduced a film of an epic voyage across the Pacific, in which he took part, which involved seven large Polynesian voyaging canoes.
At 6:30pm Louis gave us a briefing about tomorrow at the atoll of Butaritari where we will have options to visit a village, dive, snorkel, or go birding on an uninhabited islet of the lagoon. The recap included articles by me (Susan) on why the oceans waters are salty, by Uli on the whale we saw yesterday – a Bryde’s whale – and by Malcolm on the history of the Battle of Tarawa and also about some of the birds we saw today, including an Imperial Pigeon.
The atoll of Tarawa was not the most beautiful we have seen –it is extensively polluted and the waters are murky, hence no snorkeling or diving today- and the islands of South Tarawa are also crowded with people who are struggling to make a living. I do not think, however, that anyone could fail to have been moved today by the stories of suffering, sacrifice and heroism that form part of the World War Two legacy of the island, and there was no doubt that the welcome we received was both warm and enthusiastic.