Days 1,066-1,067: The Canary in The Coal Mine


Meet Tuvalu, the modern day Atlantis. If anyone fancies their chances taking on my Guinness World Record, you better get your skates on because very soon Tuvalu will cease to exist. If you have any friends who proudly swagger around in their pig-ignorance and brand themselves ‘climate change sceptics’, punch them in the face and shout ‘That’s For Tuvalu, Bitch!’. Because, like Atlantis, all nine islands of the nation of Tuvalu will soon disappear under the waves. And all the crackpot books and theories written by morons without a real science doctorate, PhD or Nobel Prize between them won’t save them. An entire nation destroyed while the same lousy arguments are trotted out… The water isn’t rising! The islands are sinking! It’s a cyclical thing! There are too many people in the world anyhows! Al Gore is rich! There was one insignificant email out of thousands which proves it’s all a hoax! CO2 is a minor gas! Er… we’ll think of something!

These arguments (as well as being breathtakingly idiotic, contradictory and about as logical as a David Lynch movie) are f—ing dangerous. Politicians don’t care about you, or your mum, or the environment, or the giant panda… all they care about is being re-elected. If that means playing up to the paranoid (but somehow comforting) notion that climate change is a big hoax, then so be it. Arguing to me that ‘there’s money to be made out of climate change stuff’ is as inane as it is weird. In 2006, 84,000,000 barrels of oil were sold worldwide per day. That’s 30,660,000,000 barrels over the course of a year.

Considering oil recently hit a high of $150 a barrel, that’s a worldwide turnover in excess of $4,599,000,000,000. If the noughts are making your head hurt, that’s four and a half TRILLION dollars.

In a year! That’s more than the GDP of most countries. Now, being a Bond Villain (with a moustache and a cat and everything), I know a thing or two about being an evil, moneygrabbing bastard… and given the choice between training to be an evil scientist or becoming an evil oilman, well, I’m never going to make my first billion studying evil iron molecules in the evil Antarctic. Myself and the Beverly frikkin’ Hillbillies can’t be the only ones who understand this BLINDINGLY OBVIOUS FACT: if you want to make a mountain of dough, sell fossil fuel. That’s why Roman Abramovich owns Chelsea football club and Steven Hawking doesn’t even own a football. Although, credit where credit’s due: he is good at dribbling.

But, oh well, only 9,500 people live in Tuvalu. They’ll all just move to New Zealand, right? Along with the 96,000 I-Kiribati who also live on coral atolls just inches above sea level. And the good people of the Marshall Islands, most of French Polynesia and the Federated States of Micronesia: I’m sure they’ll be welcomed with open arms into that completely non-xenophobic-at-all continent of Australia. It’s the 200,000,000 Bangladeshis who are also going to (quite literally) find themselves up shit creek without a paddle that I worry about; but I’m sure the already incredibly over-populated sub-continent of India will be happy to give them all new homes and new jobs. Maybe they’ll even buy them a car each, just in case the oil companies need to burn us some more fossils. Hell, they might need a bigger yacht or something.

But look on the bright side, once EVERY BEACH IN THE WORLD is underwater (it would only take a few inches, people!), I will no longer have to concern myself with making excuses for not going to the beach. See ya later Bondi, Copacabana, Miami, Cannes and Blackpool. Woohahahahaha.

Yes Mrs Lincoln, but how was the play…?

Well, since you asked, we entered Funafuti, the capital atoll of Tuvalu, on Saturday morning. The atoll is shaped like a ring with a lagoon in the middle. I love the word ‘lagoon’, you should say it out loud while you’re reading this. Go on… LAGOOOOOON! See? I bet you feel better already. Coral atolls are fascinating things. How they came into existence was first correctly postulated (like most things) by a Brit.

Say THANK YOU BRITAIN. Out loud. Good, now you may continue.

The Brit in question was none other than Mr. C-to-the-D, Charlie Darwin himself; the big clever-clogs who has made the American Mid-West seem lacking in their mental capacities since 1859. He saw an atoll or two on his famous voyage of discovery on the HMS Beagle (think Star Trek without the wrestling with rubber aliens) and thought maybe they were formed by volcanoes that rose to the surface, gained a fringing coral reef, then after a few million years sank beneath the waves, leaving the coral reef surrounding a lagooooon. Simple and, even better, subsequently proven correct by modern science. Way to go, Ape-Man Slim!

To get to the port of Funafuti, you have to enter the lagooooon. It’s a tricky business, even in these days of GPS navigation. The channel into the lagooooooon is incredibly narrow and not particularly well marked by buoys. You know how Americans say the word ‘buoy’? They say boo-ee. A-hahahahaha. Idiots! No wonder they allow mentally ill people to own assault rifles. To make things even more tricky, the US Coastguard had parked their big fancy ship just a few metres back from where we needed to park ours. Happily, Captain Don and Captain Malfi (who is acting Pilot on this adventure) spun the Southern Pearl on a sixpence and slid us into place like a long piece in Tetris.

I hoped that the US Coastguard wasn’t onto me after I took that naughty little trip from Key West to Cuba back in March 2009.

The atoll looked magnificent. Some of it is submerged so there are gaps in the ring of green, but the coral only drops a few inches below the surface, creating a natural barrier against ships that did not invest in Admiralty Charts. How all the green got on top of the coral is again, something rather fantabulous: when the coral dies, its hard shell remains. After millions of years, these shells are compressed and provide the solid ground: limestone.

I recently learnt that the top of Mount Everest is limestone. Yes, the top of the highest mountain in the world is made from crushed-up coral. Nine kilometres above sea level. Seriously: coral is amazing stuff.

Anyway, this limestone atoll gets bleached by the sun and is, generally speaking, about as hospitable as a gang of Muslim fundamentalists clutching blasphemous cartoons. However, there is one plant on this planet hardy enough to grow in this harsh environment. And it’s one that can survive as a mighty big seed (carrying all the food and fresh water it needs to germinate) for weeks at sea, so getting to these places is just a matter of time: yes folks, let’s hear it for the humble coconut.

Once you get a few coconut trees, word gets around the seabird community pretty fast… soon this otherwise barren atoll will be stop-off point for thousands of migrating birds, all wanting rest their weary wings and leave their mark. Their mark being guano, or bird poo. Over the course of untold millennia, these splats of nitrate-rich bumgravy team up with the rotting vegetation from the coconut trees to create a fertile top soil. And thus, a rich coral atoll covered in plants and trees (the seeds of which are also carried in bumbricks) is born.

Hurrah! Well done, Tuvalu.

After breakfast and customs, I headed down the gangplank and busted a groove as I stepped into country number 189 of The Odyssey Expedition. Only 12 more countries to go! I’m beginning to think I might actually finish this stupid adventure before start drawing a pension.

I walked out of the port, turned right and headed towards the airport, passing a police shed full of what looked like a bunch of young Americans drinking. Maybe they were something to do with the large US Coastguard ship that had been hogging our dock. I could have stopped and asked, but I was on a mission: I had been told that it would be easy to hire a little motorbike to explore the islet, so I headed into town and started asking around. Well, I say town, but when your country is only a few metres wide, I guess the best descriptor is ‘the place near the airport’.

The Deep South. Of Funafuti.

After walking for the best part of an hour, I arrived at the airport. The first seventeen attempts to secure me a run-around were unsuccessful, but I managed to snag the use of one off a lad called Ola for the princely sum of ten Aussie Dollars. They use Aussie Dollars in Tuvalu. I had it for 24 hours and could just leave it near the port when I was done. Bike theft here is not a problem: good luck riding it to the next islet, loser.

I headed south, intending to see the end of this long, narrow, C-shaped island. Sadly for Tuvalu, the concept of sustainable waste disposal techniques is as alien as a motorway service station and it was with great disappointment that I found that the islet’s southern tip was actually a tip. A rubbish tip. Maybe the good people of Funafuti are planning to use small mounds of plastic bags and used beer cans in order to fend off the inevitable effects of global warming. Ack, the tide has washed over the entire islet! Quick! To the tip!

The smell was pretty bad so I turned around and headed along the road towards the northern end of the islet. On the way I stopped off at the airport, the centre of island life. Here you’ll find kids running about, men playing cricket and big old ladies playing volleyball in their brightly-coloured Sunday dresses. It’s okay: only two planes land here each week, and the next one is not due for three days.

The Most Fun(afuti) Airport in Ze Vorld!

I was filming the old ladies when I was joined by another would-be cameraman. Only this cameraman had a semi-professional camera (mine’s a hemi-demi-semi professional camera). Leon had arrived from Germany a couple of weeks ago and was fulfilling a life-long dream to come to Tuvalu. It wasn’t long before we were joined by another couple of Germans (of all the atolls in all the world…), Martin and Corinna, who were on a yacht (one of two in the lagoon), sailing around the Pacific, and heading to Palau in February. Via Kiribati, The Marshalls and Micronesia.

Wait. What? Crikey… that’s exactly where I need to go!

I asked for a place on their yacht and they said yes. But then the cogs in my head creaked into action…

If I went with them, I would still have to get to Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand and Nauru. All those countries, thanks to Pacific Direct, Neptune and Reef are within my grasp. The Southern Pearl is taking me to Kiribati and The Marshalls anyway. That just leaves Micronesia and Palau that Martin and Corinna could help me get to. I could go with them now and then head back to Oz to do the others from The Philippines next March. But, on the other hand, if all goes well and I get on all the cargo ships I need to travel upon, I could stick with Plan A and have ALL of the islands of The Pacific visited by next March.


Hell, maybe they could come and pick me up from Nauru next February and take me straight to Micronesia and Palau without me having to a) go back to Oz b) bum a ride up to Taiwan and c) then take a ship via The Northern Marianas and Guam. But then Nauru is in the Southern Hemisphere and probably way out of their way, and who the hell wants to go to Nauru?

For the moment, I opted to stick with Plan A. But further conversation on this matter would be an excellent idea, so I arranged to meet them at the beach after I checked out the northern end of the islet. Back on my little motorbike, I trundled up to the end of the road only to find another damn rubbish tip at this end too. This did not make me happy. However, I could see that the rocky (corally) beach lead up much further north past the rubbish tip. I abandoned my scooter and headed off on foot.

By this time, the sun was setting so I had to pick over the beach as fast as I could. My phone wasn’t working, so I had no way of getting help in an emergency. Even worse, there was no way for me to update my Twitter feed. Crabs scuttled under rocks as my rapidly-falling-apart Vans did little to a) help my grip b) protect my ankles or c) keep my feet dry. I scrambled over the wet stones for about a kilometre and just about reached the end of the islet as the sun descended below the horizon. I got some lovely photos of the sea, the clouds, the atoll and the lagooooon and was impressed by the newly-acquired knowledge that presumably as an effect of the moon’s gravitational pull, the lagoooooon is a couple of inches lower than the surrounding sea water… you could sea the Pacific Ocean gently trickling into the lagoooooon. But then had to race back in the failing light. In hindsight, not the best idea I’ve ever had.

But it did all look rather spiffing...

I got back to the beach by the airport just after dark, but unfortunately Martin and Corinna were nowhere to be seen. So I headed back to the seaport, and more importantly, to that shed full of Yanks and, even more importantly, their rather impressive supply of beer which still hadn’t run out. A group of Tuvaluan police officers had gathered around outside the shed. Chatting with one of them I learnt that after a joint operation between the US Coastguard and the Tuvaluan police, they had snagged a couple of ships for illegally fishing in Tuvaluan waters. One ship was Taiwanese and the other was Chinese. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree eh, Taipei? Anyway, the next time you hippies moan about the USA being the world’s police force, bear in mind that Tuvalu didn’t get any assistance from your stinking piehole of nation. Or mine for that matter. And my flag is in the corner of their flag. Ygads.

The Americans were due to leave the next day, so in fine maritime tradition, they were getting wasted the night before. But first… the dancing girls! No, really. There were dancing girls. And then the Prime Minister of Tuvalu got up and made a speech. No, really, here’s a pic of me with the Prime Minister of Tuvalu:

At this juncture I was considering asking the Prime Minister for an interview in the morning about the threat climate change poses to his fragile nation, but I was informed of the hogroast going on inside the shed and so opted to stuff my face with pig instead. I was then left to explain my presence with a mouthful of pork crackling, but the Yanks liked my tall tale about traversing the globe with nothing but a camcorder, boundless enthusiasm and a over-optimistic sense of reality. They also liked the fact that I introduced them to the game of ‘Wanker’, you know the one where you all put your hands through the loops of a plastic beer can holder, all quickly pull away on the count of three and then point to the person left with the plastic around their wrist and shout ‘Wanker!’ at them until they cry. Not only is it a marvellous wheeze, it saves dolphins, which is more than I can say for Ludo.

Damn you, Ludo.

After drinking the port police station dry, me and my new team of miscreants from the other side of the pond teamed up with a gang of Polynesian ladyboys (I swear I am making none of this up) and headed back to the airport to the only club on the island. And possibly in the nation. After paying $10 a bottle for horrible Aussie lager for the best part of a year, it was an incredible relief to only have to pay $2.50 a bottle for horrible Aussie lager and, since I was the only Boy Scout in town (yes I have Aussie dollars, and American dollars, and Euros, and Pounds… and a 50 Billion Dollar note from Zimbabwe) I was actually happy to get a round in. The club closed at midnight and as we finished our lagers sitting on the airport runway under the starry starry South Pacific sky, I started to wonder if this wasn’t all some sort of surreal dream sequence.

My Ladyboys could totally have your Ladyboys in a fight.

But, believe it or not, there was more drinking to be done. Back to the police station! And so there I was as what was left of the constabulary of Funafuti doled out portions of Johnny Walker Black Label in a cut-open lip-gouging half-can of Coca-Cola. My new top chum Jim from Minnesota (I knew my knowledge that St. Paul is the capital of Minnesota would come in handy someday) and I fought valiantly into the night, he being a Catholic, gun-owning libertarian and me being an atheist, gun-hating librarian. But by the end, I think we both totally agreed that I was in the right: there is no God, guns are bad and rich people like Bono and Penn Gillette should most definitely pay tax.

Then again, I’m probably making that bit up. The next thing I remember was waking up in my cabin at midday wondering if anybody got the number of the train that hit me.

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. segacs

    Awesome! For this alone, I’d say Tuvalu deserves a spot in your all-time top nations.

  2. Helen

    I once spent a week on a dive boat with a bunch of US divers trying to work out what the hell a boo-ee was. Nutters.

  3. Carlos

    Really amazed with your adventures, meanwhile was reading your post in another tab seeing tuvalu on google earth and mi imagination seeing you biking/walking from tip to tip, really awesome.

    First country you do that dont`you ?

    Go ahead my drunken hero !!

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