March 2023: I will be honest here, in my quest to visit every country of the world, Nauru was a country that I put off the longest because I knew it would be difficult and expensive to visit and there was a could chance of getting stuck there because of flight disruptions. On top of that it lacked any of the normal reason why I visit a place, scenery, wildlife, nature, tribes…. Nauru, I figured to put it bluntly was just a tiny island country that is mostly an open pit guano mine with a few refugee detention camps used by the country of Australia. Well, the day finally came for me to visit Nauru and yes getting the visa was difficult, getting there was expensive, and I did have a flight disruption. Also, the island turned out to be everything I thought it would be, but I have always believed that every country is interesting, has a unique culture, history and landscape that makes it worth visiting at least once and this also turned out to be true of Nauru with its very unique and fascinating country history, although I probably am unlikely to ever return. This is the story of the trip to Nauru that my wife and I took on our “Baby Moon” as part of a larger Pacific Island trip.

 

 

About Nauru

Location of Nauru

Nauru is a tiny country and only San Marino and the Vatican are smaller. It only takes 30 minutes to drive around the entirety of the country. It has a population of 10,000 people that are a mix of Micronesian and Polynesian ethnicity and the island is extremely isolated with the next island almost 200 miles away in Kiribati. The next island with any significant population is nearly 500 miles away in Tarawa. Europeans have mined Nauru for its phosphates from sea bird guano deposits for nearly 100 years starting with the Germans, Japanese and then the British and Australians. Phosphates are important for use in fertilizers and the making of explosives. For the Japanese in WWII phosphate production was important for the war effort and the island was occupied by the Japanese and the island experienced heavy ariel bombardment from allied forces. Like many islands in the Pacific, the Japanese left huge guns and bunkers all around the island as a reminder of WWII. After WWII phosphate mining resumed on the island under the Australians ostensibly making Nauru a colony of Australia. Nauru became independent in 1968 but still remained heavily dependent on Australian mining companies. At the peak of its mining days, Nauru citizens had the 2nd highest per capita income in the world behind the United Arab Emirates. It became clear within the last few decades that the overmining of Nauru had taken its toll. There was little quality phosphate left and most of the island had been rendered an uninhabitable dusty wasteland and the once thriving coral reefs now decimated.  Additionally, the per capita income of Nauru’s citizens plummeted to 3rd World levels.

Today mining continues but barely brings in a trickle of the income it once did forcing the island to find other streams of revenue. For a while Nauru was a hot bed of money laundering until it was effectively paid off by the USA to put an end to the practice. Then Australia in search of a solution to its refugee crisis, started to use Nauru as a detention camp for its refugees in kind of the same way that the USA used Guantanamo Bay as a detention camp for terrorists since it would not be legally possible in either country to have these camps on home soil. The detention camps have brought in much needed income to Nauru and the country has become dependent on them. The camps have also brought international condemnation because of the reported difficult living conditions of the refugees there and in effort to protect itself from prying eyes of journalists, Nauru established a very stringent entry system for foreign tourists. As a result, Nauru is the most difficult country to visit in the South pacific and if you only take tourism and not foreign worker numbers into account, it is easily the least visited country in the world with less than a 100 tourists per year. During our two days stay, we didn’t meet one other tourist.

 

Difficult Visa

As far as Nauru figures, most tourists wouldn’t be interested in visiting the country so only journalists will be entering under the disguise of a tourist visa to expose the difficult conditions of the refugee camps. In order to do this without outright banning tourism, Nauru has made the process of obtaining a tourist visa a difficult one. Not only are there a lot of requirements for the tourist visa, but the process is also confusing, and the immigration department is notorious for not returning emails and in many cases, tourists have had to forfeit their flight to Nauru because a tourist visa was not issued after being applied for months in advance. This was a big reason for why I decided to hold off on visiting Nauru until I found myself staring at the possibility of visiting every country in the world. I have experienced a lot of sleepless nights waking up in the middle of the night to call about visas in the past for countries like Yemen, Afghanistan, South Ossetia…. and I was over the stress of it all but then again, I also do like a good challenge.

My first email to immigration requesting the application went unanswered and it was only because of another traveler that I was able to obtain the visa application and requirements. According to the application a chest X-Ray, letter from a doctor confirming I am in good health and a letter from my local police department confirming I don’t have a criminal record is required. Luckily, I discovered from other travelers that these documents, which would be very time consuming to obtain are not needed. I did, however, have to submit proof of employment, a letter explaining my purpose in visiting, and vaccine cards, airline round trip confirmation and hotel confirmation. There are only two hotels on the island and like Nauru’s immigration department, both hotels were also notoriously bad at responding to emails and any international calls would go unanswered. The whole visa process took me a few months to complete from the time I started trying to gather all necessary documents to when I finally received approval after many follow-up emails and phone calls. I was starting to panic when my emails from the Nauru Consulate in Brisbane were going un-answered after I submitted my visa app and payment, and I eventually discovered the main contact was on indefinite leave and I was passed on to a substitute contact-Kramer and Kramer turned out to be a huge blessing. Once he took over my visa was issued in a matter of days. Just like that Kramer had become my new best friend and Paula and I received both of our electronic visas via email.

 

 

                        Nauru Visa

Getting There

There is only one way to get to Nauru and it is via the national airline, Nauru Airlines. There are no other airlines that fly there and there typically is only a couple flights per week, so if something goes wrong it is possible to end up stuck in Nauru. Nauru is also in the middle of nowhere. It is a 4-hour flight from Brisbane and there is nothing else in the area. Additionally, the flight is not cheap and is far more than I would be willing to spend to visit a place like Nauru if I didn’t need to visit it as one of my last sovereign UN countries.

Photo of Nauru-Detention camps Visible in the Middle of the Island

Our flight via Boeing 737 from Brisbane was mostly empty with the exception of ex-pat workers who were either planning to work in Nauru, usually in mining or in the detention center.  I found out that Nauru Airlines CEO and all member s of top management were also on our plane enroute to an airline meeting in Micronesia. Nauru Airlines has ambitious plans to become an island hopper service to other islands in the Pacific like Micronesia that are not currently served as frequently by other airlines.

After hours of staring out at the vast ocean, the small island of Nauru finally appeared. As we descended to runway, it began to appear dry, and dusty with a ring of houses located along its coast and a carved-up interior of dry thicket among exposed ancient corals where the soil was previously mined. The dry conditions combined with the destabilized topsoil from excessive mining has led to dusty conditions for the island and almost everything including the vegetation on the island is covered in several layers of white dust.

 

 

Dust clouds seen from the plane

Our plane

The flight and landing were without any issues and after dropping a few passengers off, the plane quickly departed for Tarawa and onward to Pohnpei. Paula and I were asked several questions by immigration about our visit and our passports were stamped. Despite my emails to the hotel, it became clear right away to be in the arrivals hall that our hotel didn’t send transport for us and a 3rd passenger who also was staying at the same hotel-Menen Hotel. I asked an airport worker if they could call the hotel and they were kind enough to help us out. Eventually we made it to the Menen Hotel, one of two hotels in Nauru. The Menen Hotel appeared a little and the barracks austere looking buildings around it were the old living quarters built by the British for mine workers.

 

 

Menen Hotel

First Impression of Nauru

After checking into our hotel, Paula and I started to make plans to explore Nauru, find a nice place to eat dinner and to hire a driver to show us the island the next day. The Menen Hotel dropped us off at a beachside cafe down the road and we relaxed to some fish and for me a rum and coke. Nauru was definitely hot and dusty and a little run down but the novelty of being in such a seldomly visited country along with the uniqueness of Nauru was starting to grow on me and I was beginning to like it. The people were kind and there seemed to be a genuine sense of hospitality displayed by the locals towards us. I walked around the restaurant some and explored the beach. Immediately behind the houses along the cost, steep coral cliffs full of dust covered trees and sea birds jutted upwards. I could see small caves and what looked like bunker like structures. I asked a young boy playing nearby if the structures in the cliffs were Japanese caves and bunkers from World War II and he said yes. It was getting dark, and I wanted to return the next to explore them and I asked the Paula’s parents if he would be free to take me to them the next morning and his parents said he would be in school but there would be some older boys hanging around that could take me. I vowed to return in the morning.

Paula and I decided to walk slowily back to the hotel instead of requesting a ride. It was a nice leaisurely walk along the coast. We came across a stretch of ocean protected from the rough waves by a small jetty allowing children to play in ocean.

 

 

Nauru Beaches

Paula on the beach

Sunset over the scrub forest where I spotted Japanese WWII caves and bunkers

Kids swimming in a protected stretch of ocean 

Flight Disruption

Soon after Paula and I returned to our hotel room, and started to settle in for the night, someone unlocked our door and tried to open it but the bolt lock we put in place kept them from opening the door all the way. I thought it was a little weird that hotel staff was trying to open our door at 10pm so I opened the door to inquire. Two hotel staff members apologized to me and explained to me that they were looking for available rooms because the needed to accommodate all of the passengers from the Nauru Airlines plane that had returned after having a malfunction. This seemed weird to me because we exited the plane about 5 hours ago. I knew right away that this news would be bad for us and likely would impact our departing flight the next evening to Fiji on Nauru Airlines, so I immediately went down to hotel lobby to inquire. There were about 20 passengers and the flight crew including a few Australian pilots in the lobby waiting to check in. I asked the captain what happened, and he explained that the plane had a bird strike into one of the turbines after take-off from Nauru after we disembarked. The plane was only 15 minutes from Nauru before the pilots received an engine warning and decided to turn back to Nauru.  Then plane had to circle Nauru for another 45 minutes in order to dump enough fuel to make the landing weight. Once on the ground, the passengers were kept on the plane for another hour while the maintenance crew tried to repair the engine. In the end HQ decided to cancel the flight out of an abundance of caution until they could fly the head mechanic up from Brisbane to inspect it. As a result, the plane or flight which after a few stops was destined to return to Nauru the next evening and take us to Fiji, was cancelled. Instead, a new plane was going to be flown in from Brisbane the next morning to pick up the stranded passengers and take them to Tarawa and to onward destinations. At this point, I realized that if we missed the flight to Fiji the next evening, we would not be able to visit the country of Tuvalu as planned. The only way for us to still visit Tuvalu was to change all of our Fiji Air flights, which would be costly and to get on the Nauru Flight the next day to Tarawa. The only problem was the flight to Tarawa left much earlier than our initial flight the next day cutting our day exploration of Nauru short, and I would somehow need to find a functional internet to reschedule our flights and hotel. I decided to put it off until the next morning and to head to the bar for a drink where I joined a group of drill workers from New Zealand who were enroute to Micronesia but now were stranded in Nauru.

 

 

Exploring the Island

The next day was hectic with all of the time it took to re-arrange our plans and I had to purchase a local sim card to obtain internet and recruit Paula’s mom to spend hours on the phone with Fiji Airlines to help us. After visiting the Nauru Airlines office, we were also able to sowtch our flight to the Tarawa bound plane allowing us to salvage our trip. As a bonus, Paula and I still managed to find time to explore the island with Mahlon who works with the Tourism Ministry of Nauru. Mahlon was optimistic that he could help to persuade the immigration department to simplify the immigration process for tourists so that more would visit. He took us to the island’s interior to see some of the abandoned phosphate mines to see firsthand the environmental destruction that is so widespread across the island and to visit some of the Japanese World WarII guns, and an old German and Japanese prison. Mahlon also took us to a lake, the only natural lake on the island and just se we could say that we had seen all of Nauru, he drove us 30 minutes around the island stopping at a store so that we could buy ice cream.

Old Abandoned Phosphate Mine

A mined out area of deep ruts in the land now overgrown by trees leading to what was a German prison that was later retrofitted into a japanese prison. 

Part of the Japanese prison 

A WWII Japanese bunker among the exposed coral pinnacles left barren after years of top soil being removed from the mining. In the background are tanks that were used to hold mining chemicals. 

A Japanese anti-aircraft gun

Paula and I at the Japanese anti-aircraft gun

Local Store.  The government of Nauru is pushing a big helath campagne to reverse high rates of obsesity, cancer and diabetes among the population. Nauru has the unfortunate title of the most obese country in the world.

 Mahlon took us to see the only freshwater lake on the island, which was a little stagnant and not fit for swimming but in Nauru, where most drinking water is de-salinated from the ocean and according to Mahlon, there has not been any significant rain fall in 5 years and the country is experiencing greatest drought in 100 years, the brackish stagnant lake is better than nothing. 

Buada Lagoon

Ship transfer docks for phosphate materials 

Nauru coral beaches at low tide

Paula at Nauru coral beaches at low tide

After we waited in line for an hour to check in at the airport, we discovered our flight would be delayed by 4 hours, so we returned to our hotel for more beers with the New Zealand workers and we finally did make it out of Nauru in the evening to Tarawa, an hour flight.

As for Nauru, I am glad we visited. It was an interesting experience and the people very kind. I am sorry our trip was cut short, and we didn’t get to explore some more of the country’s caves but in all likelihood, Nauru will not be a return country for me.

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