March 18, 2013

Fanning Island Kiribati: Paradise Found?

david ellis

BLINK while you're looking at a map of the Pacific and you'll miss it, this tiny dot whose few visitors will tell you its the closest they've come to Paradise Found.

Fanning Island is part of the independent nation of Kiribati in the Line Islands, a remote group in the central Pacific that stretches 2350km north-west to south-east, and yet contains just 503 square kilometres of land area.

But that tiny area is home to lagoons with picture-perfect turquoise waters, powder-white beaches, drooping palms – and the largely-drowned remains of a trading ketch that sank years ago, and which now looks somewhat like a carefully-staged Hollywood prop.

Visitors to Fanning liken it to TV's Gilligan's Island, the South Pacific of the 19th century, and a kind of tranquil Heaven on Earth all rolled into one – indeed to the 2500 islanders who live here, it is called Tabuaeran, which means "Heavenly Footprint."

So why don't people flock to this Pacific Paradise?

It's because it's 1600km south of Hawaii and is lucky to be visited by a passenger ship once a month, and a cargo ship with a few adventurous passengers every couple of months.

But those who do get there do find it's Paradise Found with that setting, no cars, just five trucks, twenty motor-scooters and 270 bicycles.

And bizarrely that it's also been subject to a German naval raid, and as part of the independent nation of Kiribati, uses Australian paper currency, and coins the same size and face value as Australia's, and keeps these on par with the Aussie dollar.

And islanders' favourite beer is VB, while the door on their minuscule 2.5m X 2.5m jail cell is from Alcatraz Penitentiary, complete with signage. How it got there is anyone's guess.

Fanning Island was discovered and modestly named after himself by US trader Captain Edmund Fanning while sailing to China in 1798. Fifty years later Scotsman William Greig bought it to grow coconuts, and as it was unoccupied, engaged workers and for himself a wife, from the neighbouring Cook Islands.

Greig's heirs subsequently sold out to trading firm Burns Philp, who in turn sold Fanning in the 1980s to the nation of Kiribati.

Cable & Wireless built a relay station on the island in 1902 for their cable that connected England to Australia by way of Canada, Fanning and Samoa, but in 1914 the warship Nurnburg sailed all the way from Germany, cut the cable, smashed much of the equipment in the relay station, and sailed away.

The cable was retrieved, repaired and used until 1964 when radio spelt the end of international cable communications.

During its pioneering days, the International Date Line sliced vertically through the Line Islands, and wiley workers realised they could walk off Mr Greig's plantation and sail across to the next island that was on the 'other side' of the Date Line – giving themselves two Saturdays and two Sundays off work every week.

To their indignation Mr Greig had the Date Line zig-zagged around them, ending their regular long-weekends.

Fanning Islanders are welcoming hosts to visitors, with school and church groups performing dances and songs, and villagers selling necklaces and other souvenirs made from shells, driftwood, coconut palms and animal bones. Visitors can also take village walks and bike rides, swim with the fish in the shallow lagoon, surf the big Pacific rollers, sun themselves on the beach and explore the coral reefs.

But the Kiribati Tourism Office readily points out that Fanning has no electricity, no telephones, no internet, no TV and no running water, and often runs out of imported food basics, the islanders and any visitors relying on subsistence gardening and fishing until the next ship arrives.

There are three small guest houses, and three primary schools built with funds given mostly by visitors. And when its one-cell jail is full, other felons on minor charges like riding their bicycles while drunk, are chained to the police station flagpole and their mates and family allowed to spend the day chatting with them. Such is "island time."

Holland America Line's Westerdam and Seabourn's Silver Spirit visit Fanning Island during voyages from the US mainland to the South Pacific Islands and Hawaii. For schedules see travel agents or visit


[] BLINK and you miss it: Fanning Island from the air. (Georgia Inst. Technology)
[] ENTRANCE into the lagoon from the sea. (Wikimedia)
[] SIMPLE village homes on Fanning Island. (Flickr)
[] LONG way from anywhere. (TripAdvisor)
[] ISLAND children all smiles for the camera. (Flickr)
[] OLD shipping container makes a cosy home, complete with verandah and bike rack. (David Ellis)

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