Days 1,162-1,166 The Kings of Kiribati

Wed 07.03.12 – Sun 11.03.12:

We arrived in Tarawa Atoll, Kiribati on Wednesday morning. Some infernal fishing vessel had stolen the one and only parking speck (don’t you hate it when that happens?) so we were forced to drop anchor in the lagoon and use the two barges to ferry the containers back and forth. This also provided the means for getting ashore (presuming you didn’t want to get wet). But I wanted to get ashore as soon as possible, so I hitched a ride with the customs team who had their own speedboat.

Re-familiarising myself with Betio, the port area of Tarawa, didn’t take long: on a coral atoll such as this, there’s really only one road. I mooched around in the old haunts before wandering down to the Captain’s Bar to met (funnily enough) the Captain of the Scarlett Lucy. After a couple of cans of more-reasonably-priced-than-in-Australia Victoria Bitter, I was given a lift back to the port by the Pilot in order to find the rest of the crew. In the Seaman’s Club I found the cook, the chief mate (whose family are actually from Tarawa) and crewmen Rusi. They were already working through a slab of beer when I got there.

I was only then I realised that I hadn’t picked up my change from the bloody Captain’s Bar. I jumped on a passing minibus, rushed back, but the girl in the bar shrugged and said that she left the change on the bar and didn’t know who took it. I was a little suss about this explanation, mostly because there was only about ten people in the entire bar. Well there’s $40 up in smoke I thought: I may as well head back to the ship.

But calling back in at Seaman’s Club on the way proved a great move. Every couple of minutes another beer was shoved into my hand by one of the crew. Before too long I was feeling rather inebriated and almost willing to dance to the utter garbage they were spewing out over the PA. Bad music is one thing, but these guys had a playlist that quite literally consisted of five songs. The seventh time I heard ‘Summer of 69’ by Bryan “F—ing” Adams I was more than ready to leave.

So we stumbled over to Gateway, a club across the road. There I embarrassed myself at pool before finding a not-very-attractive local girl had me in her sights. I tried to shake her, much in the way you shake off a TIE fighter when you’re destroying a Death Star, but it was no use. At the end of the night, she followed me back to the barge, so I was explained in no uncertain terms that she couldn’t come back to the ship as it was against company policy (or some such excuse). Unfortunately for me, some of the crew who were coming back on the barge said it was fine if I wanted to bring a girl back. I loudly protested out the corner of my mouth, but it was no use. She was now on the barge.

There was only one thing for it: when we got back to the Scarlett Lucy I made sure I was first up the rope ladder and bolted for my cabin, locking the door behind me.

Phew! Haven’t had to fend off a demented filly like that for a long time. A cup of tea down in the mess before bed would have been nice, but to be honest with you, I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

The next day we were gearing up to be out of here by nightfall, but Kiribati had other plans. One of the two barges had stopped working for a few hours in the morning, which had the knock-on effect of meaning we wouldn’t finish the cargo operation until 7pm, just a tiny bit too late to leave the lagoon before nightfall. As the lights on most of the shipping buoys in the lagoon are broken, to boogie on out of here in the dark would be something so idiotic, only a manic (or the captain of the Costa Concordia) would attempt it. We would have to stay in Kiribati an extra night. The plan was to leave the next day at 1pm.

Drinkies chaps?

Once again I found myself out on the lash with Rusi, Labe, Cookie and Chief Tarawa: only this time getting back to the ship was going to be a lot more difficult. With her at anchor and the cargo operation complete, the only way back would be to find a little speedboat at some ungodly hour of the night. Best see what happens eh? We started the night as always in the Captain’s Bar, Rusi and Labe coming with me to get some shots of the big Japanese guns nearby – relics from The Battle of Tarawa. After a round of pool in the driving rain, us Three Musketeers headed back to Batio, cadging a cheeky lift with a jolly nice Japanese guy and his wife.

After one too many cans of SolBrew with the locals (that stuff is 5.7%! Rocket fuel! Woooooo!) it came time to somehow find our way back onto the ship. Miraculously, after Labe swearing blind that there was no chance we’d get a lift back across the lagoon to the ship at 4am, we got a lift back across the lagoon to the ship at 4am.

However, jumping off a barge and climbing up the good ship Scarlett’s rope ladder when you’re relatively sober is one thing. Clambering up from a tiny tin speedboat when you’re totally blotto is another entirely. Especially when the damn boat is bobbing up and down like a hyperactive merecat causing the first rung of the ladder to oscillate wildly between 2 inches and 6 feet up in the air. Oh, and you’re carrying your bag containing your laptop, your video camera and your rather bulky copy of Lonely Planet.

Foolishly, I took hold of the two ropes that hang either side of the ladder, rather than the rungs of the ladder itself. I lost my balance, swung hard to the left and lost my grip on the right-hand rope. If the speedboat hadn’t miraculously sprung up under me at that precise moment, I would have surely gone into the drink. The second attempt was a lot more successful. It took a good twenty minutes to get my heartbeat back to normal.

The next day I woke up (feeling rather worse for wear) around noon. I had a shower and wandered down to the mess to grab a bite to eat – only to be greeted by the second mate, Douglas. He told me that the ship wouldn’t be leaving today either. Why not? Because the captain just got word that the Nauruan dock workers are no longer prepared to work on Sundays, or scheduled day of arrival. Considering Nauru has an unemployment rate of 90% and the fact that the Lucy is the only container ship that calls in to Nauru, and it only does that once a month… ah, sod it, welcome to Island Time.

Not that I’m complaining: one more night on the sauce in Tarawa! Yay!

A speedboat had been arranged to collect us at 6pm. It didn’t show up, so after much whistling, shouting and waving (we’re high-tech on the Scarlett Lucy) we finally – after an hour and a half – managed to get back onto the island. Tonight was Friday, so half of Tawara was out on the tiles. After a pit-stop at the internet café, I met up with Rusi and we headed over to the Captain’s Bar, and thus the night went down. All I knew was that there was a speedboat had been arranged for four o’clock and there was nothing to worry about.

I was woken up at 4.30am. I found myself laying on my back on the quayside having fallen asleep waiting for the others to turn up. Groggy and bewildered, I tried to get my waker-upperer to leave me the hell alone, when I realised it was the captain – accompanied by the local police in a car. Eek! I jumped to my feet, coughed and straightened my non-existent tie. Sorry about that, capt. The police nodded and drove off, job well done and damn did I feel sheepish.

After collecting the cook (he had found a fishing boat to snooze on) we jumped into a tin boat, waited for the outboard motor to be lowered into place and set off across the black lagoon. Someone from the crew had helpfully lowered the Lucy’s rope ladder so yesterday’s little, er, mishap did not re-occur. Opium addicts don’t sleep this soundly.

At 12.30pm on Saturday I felt the distinct low rumble of the engines turning on. Soon after, I watched the shadows move across my cabin. By the time I managed to pull myself kicking and screaming (mentally) out of bed we had already left the lagoon and Kiribati was but a distant dream. A rather intoxicated one. Tomorrow we’d shut off the engines and drift for 7 hours – there’s no point arriving in Nauru at night.

Nauru. Monday morning. 6am. Set.

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.

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