October 07, 2013


David Ellis

IT'S a mere 110 square k's in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, has just six hotels and fewer restaurants, but it's a scuba-divers and snorkelers Utopia, an unexpected goldmine for archaeology buffs – and has connections to the Pacific's worst-ever rogue, buccaneer, swindler, confidence man and bigamist, the infamous 'blackbirder' William Henry 'Bully' Hayes.

And with all this, and the famed Frommer's Travel Guides putting it on their list of top places to visit for its beauty, peace and slow-pace of the South Pacific of 30 years ago, you'd think it would be now over-run with tourists.

But far from it: for getting to this minute speck just north of the equator and half-way between Guam and Hawaii is, as one traveller put it, "like taking a grand tour of the Western Pacific."

We're talking about Kosrae in the Federated States of Micronesia, and those visitors who do make the journey there have to first get to Guam, which is circuitous enough itself, and from there take the four-times-a-week island-hopper air service via a couple of equally miniscule islands to Kosrae… from Australia, something like a near-two-day journey.

But divers, bushwalkers and history buffs who do make that journey, say it is the ultimate find, although don't expect to see yourself checking into 5-star resorts: the half dozen hotels here are described officially as "rustic," with a total just-60 clean and tidy rooms and facilities, and excellent dining that includes Western and Asian and local dishes based on chicken, fish, pork, taro, breadfruit and bananas.

Rugged and smothered in rainforest, Kosrae has some extraordinary archaeological finds, including the ruined walled city of Lelu that was built by hand over several hundred years from massive basalt prisms hauled across the island in the 15th century. Today Lelu's crumbling walls still stand 6m high in places, and there are jungle-wrapped remains of residences of the one-time king and his family, royal tombs and hand-dug channels along which canoes carried-in food and other supplies.

There're also the Menke ruins with their religious platforms to Singlaku, the Goddess of Breadfruit whose magical powers produced food for survival during droughts; legend says she fled with the arrival of the first Christian missionaries, but many islanders believe her spirit still lives on today…

Hiking trails also take visitors to the 600m peak of the island's highest mountain, to a massive cave inhabited by thousands of swifts, a one-time Japanese WWII command post, and spectacular waterfalls.

But most visitors go for the diving and snorkelling, for here are vast hard-coral gardens, plunging walls, several ship wrecks, and marine life a-plenty including sharks, tuna, schools of barracuda and eagle rays in waters so clear visibility is a-near 60 metres.

And those wrecks include the few remains in just 9m of water of the notorious Bully Hayes' schooner Leonora; he had been trading in Kosrae when a cyclone struck in March 1874, the Leonora (named after his favourite daughter,) sinking under him. Hayes and his crew, when the cyclone passed, are said to have hauled four vast chests of treasure from earlier raids in the South Pacific into the Kosrae jungle and buried them.

Japanese troops, according to rumour, in WWII found one of the chests, but the other three with their-now millions of dollars in loot are still supposedly laying somewhere out there in Kosrae's steamy rainforests…

Hayes stayed on the island for seven months, terrorising local residents as he did wherever he went on his buccaneering and sickening "blackbirding" missions to kidnap local villagers as forced-labour for plantations in the South Pacific and Queensland, and when finally arrested by the captain of Britain's HMS Rosario, somehow escaped and fled in a 4.5m boat he'd built with timber from his sunken Leonore.

Hayes eventually got to San Francisco by way of Guam, acquired another vessel and sailed back to Kosrae to collect his shipwrecked cargo from the Leonore. But in a violent argument there with his ship's cook, 'Dutch Pete' Radeck he was shot dead and his body thrown overboard.

But instead of being charged with murder, authorities turned a blind eye and after being feted by locals as a hero, 'Dutch Pete' simply sailed away over the horizon...

For information about visiting Kosrae go to www.kosrae.com


Photo Captions:

[] MINUTE speck in the Pacific, but Kosrae proves the ulitimate find. (Kosrae Village Resort)
[] PICTURESQUE canoe rides one of Kosrae's many attractions. (Katrina Adams)
[] RUINS from the 15th century can still be found. (Wikimedia)
[] VISITOR accommodation is largely rustic, as seen here at Kosrae Village Resort.  (Katrina Adams)
[] INFAMOUS buccaneer, swindler and 'blackbirder' Bully Hayes met a fitting end on Kosrae Island. (FlickRiver)

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