Merry Christmas Island

Then what to my wondering eyes should appear, but an odd little atoll and great birds with no fear. A slightly unusual holiday in the far Pacific.

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Ambo Keebwa, an I-Kiribati, was 22 and living in Tarawa in 1957 when he heard that able-bodied men were needed to work for the British on Christmas Island. The place name transfixed him. "I like Christmas so much! I kept thinking, 'There must be many nice things there.'" Imagining the bounty of a year-round yuletide, Ambo signed a three-year contract and traveled hopefully to this magic-sounding place, 2,300 miles away. A few months after he arrived on the arid, empty, coral-crunchy shore, the British exploded an H-bomb 18,000 feet over the island and shattered Ambo's eardrums.

On that early morning, this, the largest atoll in the Pacific, trembled like a meringue. The earth and sea quaked, and millions of seabirds, the feathered glory of Christmas Island, were instantly blinded and scorched. The birds flopped and screamed piteously, and the whole lot of them starved to death in just a few days, right under the horrified eyes of the several hundred Kiribati ditchdiggers and gruntworkers and the thousands of British soldiers. When a second bomb was announced a month later, Ambo and his fellow islanders begged to be sent back to Tarawa.

"We put a complaint to the big man," Ambo said. "We wanted to go home. We were afraid. We were praying to God to help us be safe. The air vice-marshal said, 'We will look after you. Don't be afraid.'"

The night before the second H-bomb was dropped above the island, this time at 8,000 feet, the Kiribati (pronounced "kiribass") men were taken to a ship that was anchored offshore and shown cartoons and cowboy movies, one after the other, from 7:00 in the evening until 4:30 the next morning, when suddenly the same searing pain exploded in their ears ("much worse than when you are in an airplane"), and the ship shuddered so violently that rust flaked from the ceiling and walls of the cramped cabin in which the non-English-speaking islanders sat watching the bewildering films. The men went up on deck and saw again the aftermath of a thermonuclear explosion. "Like a big flower opening," Ambo recalled, "the color of clouds, with flames inside."

Millions more birds died. Uninhabited parts of the island were closed, the vegetation charred and blackened. But it was nowhere near the end. In the succeeding four years, there were at least 30 additional explosions, the last 24 conducted by the United States in just three months in 1962. Some were the most powerful ever detonated on the planet — up to 25 megatons, quite a lot for a small coral atoll. By then the authorities had become so blasë that they simply handed out blankets to the Kiribati and told them to gather at the tennis courts in town.

"They said, 'Turn away from the blast,'" Ambo's friend Tonga Fou told me. "But even so, we saw the light through the blanket and got the pain in our ears and felt the heat on our back."

I asked the men, "What would you say if someone came today and said they wanted to test a bomb?"

"Now I would say, 'No! Get off!'" Tonga said.

"Did anyone die from the effects of the blast?"

"No one examined us," said Tonga. "People died. We don't know why. No doctors have ever looked at our bodies."

In 1969, seven years after the tests ended, National Security Council chief Henry Kissinger had this to say about radioactivity and Pacific Islanders: "There are only 90,000 people out there. Who gives a damn?"

Merry Christmas, suckers!

I had stopped by Tabakea village to see Ambo and Tonga on one of my paddling trips through the atoll's main lagoon. Tabakea was halfway to London, the northwestern settlement where most of the island's roughly 3,500 people live. The other villages of any size were Poland and Banana. Paris, across the channel from London, was just a ruin. Most of these places were named by a whimsical French priest who came here in 1913, planted 600,000 coconut trees, and ran the copra plantation that still employs many islanders. Abandoning preaching in favor of being Coconut King, Father Rougier lived in Paris, on the southwestern horn of the atoll. He earned a reputation as a slave driver, Mistah Kurtz in a dog collar, and retired to Tahiti, another rascal in paradise.

Christmas had been occasionally visited by whalers and castaways and perhaps in an earlier epoch by Polynesian voyagers who had been driven off course. To the ancient Kiribati it was known as Abakiroro, "Distant Land." But it never qualified as an inhabited island, and until early this century the atoll was as barren and unpopulated as it had been around Christmas Eve 1777, when Captain Cook first anchored near the lagoon entrance and named it. When Britain granted independence in 1979, the Gilbert and Ellice chain, along with the Phoenix and Line Islands, became Kiribati (a corruption of "Gilberts"), a republic of islands scattered over two million square miles of open sea. Christmas Island's name changed to Kiritimati, although people seldom call it that. It is still not much more than a copra operation, though the National Space Development Agency of Japan has been given permission to develop a "spaceport" on the southerly portion. No one on the island has any idea when this will happen, or whether it will happen at all.

I had taken the once-a-week, three-hour Aloha Airlines flight from Honolulu — Hawaii is Christmas's nearest neighbor of any size. After I got my bearings I headed for the empty interior. I camped and kayaked alone at the eastern side of the lagoon, among the low salt bush. This shrub, a feebler cousin of the mangrove, covers the island but offers no shade. There is very little fresh water, either — persistent droughts are one of the reasons the island remained uninhabited for so long.

Perhaps it should have remained uninhabited. Christmas is a dazzling place, an arid Eden that even H-bombs could not destroy, a giant bracelet of coral dappled with the hardiest shrubs and a million coconut trees; a lagoon that is not only shaped like a palette, but a palette splashed with every shade of green and blue; and the most fearless and friendly birds I have ever seen. Much of the island is still empty — just screeching terns and the wind in the salt bush. But the heresy that occurred to me again and again on this unusual island, blessed with birds and fish and balmy air, is that it is hard for such a place, with its hermetic ecosystem and peculiar fauna and flora, to be shared with humans.

In the island's interior, the sameness of the salt bush and absence of palm groves, or any other landmarks, means that it is very easy to become disoriented. I got seriously lost twice and found that on the idlest paddling jaunt away from my tent I was constantly using my compass. Two of Captain Cook's men got lost the moment they stepped ashore. They groped for 24 hours and survived only by killing a turtle and drinking its blood. Many of the islanders I spoke to had gotten lost themselves. I had been proud of my sense of direction until I began kayaking Christmas's mazelike shores and inner lagoons. The disorientation acquainted me with a suffocating breathlessness; the bone in the throat, the rising sense of panic; the wavering compass needle. All the while curious birds squawked overhead — boobies, frigatebirds, tropicbirds, and terns in the thousands. They were absolutely unafraid, and many of them flew near my head and nipped at my paddle blade when I raised it.

My camp was near a sanctuary for red-tailed tropicbirds, on the water. I had to tie my tent down with guylines, and in paddling I always seemed to be fighting the wind, even in the recesses of the inner ponds. But it was impossible to peregrinate the lagoon and not feel haunted by the nuclear events. One of the bombs was detonated by mistake at a lower level than planned, and it flattened the whole southeast end of the island: The damage is still obvious.

Being old-timers, Ambo and Tonga are among the few people on the island who live on their own land, in the village of Tabakea, on the narrow edge of the northern part of the island between the lagoon and the sea. The rest of the island is the now-government-run copra plantation, though a heavily subsidized one, because the price of copra, the dried coconut meat that yields coconut oil, is so low. Apart from picking coconuts and fishing, there is little else on the island to keep the 3,500 inhabitants busy. Farming is limited to a handful of breadfruit trees and some taro and bananas; even the greenest thumb cannot produce much in the crushed coral.

"Anyway, they are not cultivators," the local priest, Father Gratien Bermond, told me. A native of an Alpine village in the Haute-Savoie, Bermond has lived in Tarawa and on Christmas Island for 37 years, is fluent in Kiribati, and encourages traditional dancing and drumming in his Catholic church. "They are people of the sea."

It's true: They are good fishermen and canoe builders, and as for downtime, many engage in traditional Kiribati pursuits, though some, I was told, are more likely to fire up the VCR, crack a beer, open a can of Ox and Palm Prime Luncheon Beef, and settle down in front of a movie. Drunkenness is a serious problem, everyone was quick to mention. Littering, too: Where there are no people, there are masses of birds and wind-scoured beauty and wind-driven waves lashing the emptiest beaches imaginable. But the settlements and villages and picnic spots are sensationally littered with beer cans, as well as Spam and corned beef tins that pose a particular hazard to the unshod foot.

To be fair, a blight of cans is small compared to the reckless detonation of nuclear devices, and as for trash piles, few junk heaps can compare to the vehicle graveyards that the British and American militaries left behind. There are whole five-acre motor pools decaying in the coconut groves. In the remotest recesses of the atoll are collapsed drums and rusty paraphernalia dating from the tests, mercifully decomposing into dust.

Some of the islanders are expert fishing guides, eagerly scoping out clients at the airport when the weekly flight from Honolulu touches down. In the last 15 years, Christmas Island has been justifiably regarded as one of the greatest bonefishing spots in the world. Much has been written in praise of the quality of the fishing in the lagoon flats — not only bonefish, but milkfish, goatfish, and trevally. World records are set here, and there is hardly a wall at the Captain Cook Hotel, one of the island's two hotels, that does not exhibit a photograph of an I-matang, a stranger, pop-eyed under the weight of a potbellied, scaly, slack-jawed trophy: the mirror image of its captor.

No, I am not a fisherman. I went to Christmas Island to find some solitude, go bird-watching, and paddle my Klepper single. The wildlife warden in London sold me a $5 permit to enter a Closed Area — where visits are regulated because of the many nesting birds. He said I could camp for one night. I was intentionally vague about the number of days I would be out, and he was much more worried about the bird poachers. He was a scowling man named Utimawa who, like so many others, had come to Christmas in the 1980s from distant Tarawa. Compared to Kiribati's overcrowded and unsanitary and drought-stricken capital, this was heaven. Here, you just reached out and there was food. The trouble was, the reaching out was regarded as poaching.

Bird-catching was easy because the birds were so numerous and so innocent. Utimawa: "You will not need binoculars." It was a serious problem, he said. "We have one or two incidents a week. We find corpses of tropicbirds and boobies. They also get the eggs — they eat them on the spot or take them home."

I asked him why and he delivered what I consider to be the epitaph for many endangered species. "Because they taste good." A red-tailed tropicbird is plump enough to feed two people; its decorous tail spike is prized by the islanders. And they only breed once a year.

Some islanders have been caught and fined U.S. $125, but poaching was still said to be brisk. It is a hungry island. A can of corned beef or Spam is expensive. Never mind that world-class sashimi and the choicest cuts of tuna are easily available to any of the fishermen. Boobies are tastier. "All you do is put a red rag on a stick," an islander told me. "They are attracted to the color. You wave the stick, and when the booby swoops down you whack it."

"When we first arrived on the island," Ambo said, "we ate the birds all the time. I like the tei-tei — frigatebird. It's very easy to catch. Offer it fish with your left hand, and when it comes down to take it you grab the bird's neck with your right hand and twist it."

On Christmas Island, it's simple to snatch tern eggs from nests on the ground. Or to pluck up the tropicbird chicks huddled under the salt scrub and wring their necks. "I like crabs," a man named Tabai told me. "No, don't need a trap. Just pick them up with your hand."

That was the trouble with the Peaceable Kingdom. All these serene creatures were there for the picking; the island was full of sitting ducks. I asked Ambo, "Why does the government stop you from eating the birds?"

"Because people come from overseas and want to see the birds," he said. "I-matang like birds."

I found this word interesting. I-matang is generally used to mean "foreigner" (there are four such people on Christmas Island), but etymologically it is "the Person from Matang," said to be the ancestral home of the I-Kiribati, the original fatherland, a place of fair-skinned people. The word implies kinship. By the way, it is an actual place — Madang, on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea, thought by historians to be the origin of these Micronesian people.

Terns strafed my camp; boobies followed me when I was paddling — sometimes large numbers of them, 30 or 40 big brown birds, shadowed by the larger frigatebirds, which seemed, in spite of their thieving ways, angelic guardians. The sky was always filled with birds, and ghost crabs scuttled and crunched across the smithereens of infertile whitish-gray coral that passed for earth, and large fish were constantly thrashing the shallow lagoon. I could see them: bonefish and milkfish, and spotted eagle rays and yardlong black-fin reef sharks, moving like torpedoes.

I could not remember ever having camped in a place so blindingly bright, where there was so little shade. In the heat of the day I crouched under my flapping tent fly and read Celine's Journey to the End of the Night, in which the main character, in Africa, speaks of "ten thousand kilos of sunshine," or again, "If you don't want the sun to burn your brains through your eyes, you have to blink like a rat."

The words resonated at the back of the lagoon, where it was dark at 6:20 and then everything went black: Too ambitious a walk or paddle meant groping my way back to camp in moon shadow. For four days I saw no other people, and I would have stayed longer but for running low on drinking water. Even so, an old-timer told me that I was only the second person who had ever gone camping on the island.

When I had first arrived I had wandered through London, the small sleepy beat-up town, the cheery people in its cheerless shops selling identical canned goods, the shuttered businesses like the Atoll Seaweed Company, a victim of El Ni˜o. The island had so few motor vehicles that mongrels slept contentedly on the main street, and only the foraging piglets were active. In one of London's tiny shops, a young girl in a T-shirt leaned on a counter, murmuring as she read a foreign magazine she had borrowed from the library. "One of the very nicest treats arising from an English summer is to be able to have afternoon tea in the garden ... elderly retainers tottering under the weight of silver trays groaning with plates of thinly cut cucumber sandwiches, tall silver teapots, and the best china. Superior cakes, madeleines, sandcakes, meringues, and Sacher torte" — at which point she said to me (I was buying beer), "Mister, what is this word?"

From the shore outside town, where junked trucks were rusting, I could see the two nearby surf breaks — one just off London Point, the other near Cook Island, where in season there were great ridable waves. London was obviously hard-up, but it had a blessed serenity and a palpable sense of peace.

That changed overnight. I returned to London on the day the Crown Princess, a cruise ship fresh from Maui, was anchored offshore. Boat day! The whole somnolent place came alive — though the cruise passengers, many hundreds of them, squinted in skepticism at the low tin-roofed buildings of the improvised town and tried to avoid stepping on the torn-open corned beef cans. But the most surprising thing was that the boys I had seen a week earlier frolicking in the schoolyard or at Father Bermond's church hall were now circulating among the cruise passengers, whining for cash. "Give me money!" The little girls were no longer in school uniforms, but instead wore tremulous grass skirts and seductive makeup, with shell necklaces and flowers plaited in their hair; they sidled up to the visitors and winked and had their pictures taken — Christmas Island coquettes — and they asked for money too.

Islanders hawked shell bowls and shell necklaces, palm-leaf hats and shark jaws, postcards, sea urchins and giant clams. The post office in town had closed and become another stall at the boat dock, selling Kiribati stamps depicting birds and butterflies for twice their value. People danced the explosive Wantarawa, the comic travesty of what was originally a war dance. A semicircle of hunkered-down men were harmonizing. Each group of performers flourished a plastic bucket, soliciting donations.

"There was no begging before the cruise ships," Kim Andersen told me. The island's only American, he runs the well-equipped dive and offshore-fishing outfit Dive Kiribati. (The diving off Christmas Island is world-class, he told me. He should know, having worked off the Turks and Caicos.) The island's largest entrepreneur was a Kiribati-speaking Scotsman named John Bryden. "The cruise ship visits are important to the island," he said. "They definitely inject money into the economy, and they get people busy."

Few of the visiting passengers got farther than the edge of town. I heard one woman say to her companion, "I don't think there's much on the island to see."

Most stayed only an hour and headed back to the ship. You couldn't blame them. But it was a pity, for even in the eight hours the ship stayed at Christmas they could have gone 15 or so miles past the town line, where habitation ends and the richness of the island begins, the wild birds, the lagoon fringe, the one million coconut palms, the great windy emptiness, and the storm-free weather and silky air — the serene epitome of nature so safe and unthreatening that birds such as the golden plover and the ruddy turnstone flew thousands of miles from Alaska to winter here, a place so perfect in its way, so isolated, a kind of Shangri-la that had hardly known humans, that British and American scientists, and ambitious soldiers, were encouraged to come here and deliver the ultimate Christmas present: 32 nuclear bombs.

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