A Tale of Riches to Rags

Satellite map of Nauru

For a couple of months towards the end of 1979 I was priviledged to visit a number of islands in the South Pacific. They were not tourist or luxury liner visits. Most of the time I stayed with locals. My work was representing the ship MV Logos and making advance preparations for the vessel to visit these far flung outposts of our world. If interested I describe the type of work I was engaged in in my posts City of Many Faces or I see men like trees walking! Here I am recalling a visit to a tiny island nation in the vast Pacific.

Location of the Repunlic of Nauru

Visiting Nauru was unintentional. Myself and a colleague were flying from Fiji to Honiara, Solomon Islands on Nauru’s national airline, Air Nauru. We had been encouraged by the cheap tickets on offer. However didn’t realise it would be expensive for us time-wise. Nauru was meant to be just a stopover but the airline had no plane available for our ongoing flight. It didn’t appear any other airline went there. They willingly put us up for 2 days in the island’s only hotel. We discovered most people in the hotel were also stranded for similar reasons as ourselves. Being put up by the airline was apparently a regular occurrence. Hard to imagine such happening with today’s airlines. Perversely I wondered if cheap air tickets and flight cancellations were a way of getting visitors to this remote place not on a normal tourist route. For a small place it boasts quite a few interesting and rather sad facts**.

The airline it seems could afford such generosity. The reason was Nauru was full of the world’s purest quality rock phosphate, used in fertilisers. The population had became very wealthy selling mining rights to big companies. At one time Nauru citizens were the richest per capita in the world. My visit was during the boom times. There were no taxes and the government gave everybody a stipend. The population then was 4,000 (now nearly 11,000). It is the world’s smallest independent island nation. Air Nauru then had 4 Boeing aircraft in its fleet. One aircraft per thousand inhabitants! Even the milk was flown in. Sounds idyllic? Not really as there was no incentive to get jobs, start businesses or diversify its economy. 

Roughly oval shaped and about 6 km long and 4km wide Nauru has a main road round it’s perimeter. My recollection was of local teens racing round and round this looped road in expensive motorbikes. The interior of the island was where the mining occurred. I remember the bioluminescence of the waves at night, their sparkling a wonder to behold. Seeing the coral reef that surrounded the entire island was a constant reminder that a great and deep ocean was just out there. The moonlike standing limestone structures gave a kind of haunting beauty. Standing on a small, fairly flat island in the vast Pacific I felt vulnerable and exposed. It’s nearest neighbour is Banabi island 300km to the east. Yes Nauru had a beauty to it and I could understand why it was once called Pleasant island.

The tragedy of Nauru is that strip mining scarred 80% of the country’s entire surface leaving it a wasteland and the people clinging to the remaining habitable areas on the coast. Added to that was the phosphate runoff poisoning the ground waters with cadmium. When there was no more phosphate left to mine this single source of wealth disappeared. The people subsequently have become poor. Riches to rags. The government did win reparations from Australia for the environmental degradation it suffered. In a controversial development in recent years they have been getting income from Australia by serving as a detention centre for asylum seekers. A recent proposed project, currently of unknown impact on the environment, is deep sea mining of seabed metal nodules. There are also a number of dubious money making schemes.

“I wish we’d never discovered that phosphate…When I was a boy, it was so beautiful… Now I see what has happened here, and I want to cry.”

Rev Aingimea, Nauru Congregational Church, speaking to New York Times 10 Mar 1995.

We eventually did get on our onward flight to Honiara in the Solomon Islands. Accommodation there was very different! We stayed in the convent of an Anglican women’s order. My colleague Jean as a woman had no problem in living in the community. For me the solution was the nuns putting me in an outhouse on a hill. However I could eat at mealtimes with the community. Breakfasts were silent which was fine. Meals when you could talk were often mundane. At other times discussing what the call of God might mean. I was impressed by the energy of the leading sister. The peace of the night would be punctuated by the sound of her battering away on a manual typewriter. 

In a few weeks time the world’s attention will turn to my home city of Glasgow. It is about to host the UN COP26 conference on climate change and the environment. Matters of global concern will be discussed with many voices and opinions. Nauru is literally a drop in the ocean of both the world’s population and land area. Insignificant as it might seem it’s tragic story represents the story of many communities and nations today. Places that suffer from a toxic mixture of greed, environmental degradation and humanity’s ongoing hunger for resources.

** See, for example, “11 amazing facts about Nauru…

East or West?

A few of Stockholm’s 30,000 islands!

My wife is Swedish and for almost 40 years I have been travelling to and from Sweden. Sometimes several times a year and occasionally a year or two with no visits. Short period stays for a few weeks up to one period where we lived and worked in the country for 2 years. It has been a privilege to get snapshots of the changes and trends in a country and culture over a generation. All aided by in-laws and Swedish friends as expert guides. Despite seeing a lot of the country I really have still only seen a small part. Much of the time the places visited have been in the main populated areas in the south of the country. Between the 2 biggest cities and south of that to the coast. Sweden is a big country with relatively few people. As an example the UK has 11 times more people per sq km. than Sweden. It is all relative and the north of the country is far more sparsely populated than the south where most live.

Gothenburg on the west coast and the capital Stockholm on the east. In many ways different but with some geographical similarities. One such is that each city has an archipelago. A string of islands off their respective coasts. Gothenburg’s look like they have exploded out along the coast whereas Stockholm’s seem more swirling in and attached to the city itself. Quite a few who live on these islands work in the cities and commute into their respective metropoli by ferry. A refreshing way to start and finish the work day. The lifestyle reminds me of when I lived in Sydney. There I stayed in the northern suburbs of Manly but went to work in the city by ferry. Salt spray and fresh winds do wonders for the frazzled office worker. 

To me one remarkable thing about Sweden is the eye watering taxes people are prepared to pay. That might sound like a negative but there are advantages to living in what is a very egalitarian society. One of them is that many of these islands have free car and passenger ferries for both locals and visitors. Ran by the state you can enjoy free island hopping by bike, car or on foot. No skimping on the service from early morning to late at night. Some services run every 10 mins during the day.

This generous government policy also keeps the islands populated and accessible. If you have a second home on an island you can regularly visit. Also many go for day trips or weekends so local tourism and businesses thrive. In addition a number of close knit islands have bridges joining them. Further enhancing the convenience of moving around the islands. The islands of Gothenburg’s southern archipelago are car free and there are some passenger only ferries where you do pay. Not sure what the rules are for paying and non-paying ferries.

Lilla Varholmen to Hönö Island ferries

I have only visited Gothenburg’s northern archipelago and most seem to be mainly rocky with not a lot of trees. Not unlike Scotland’s west coast in parts. The few of Stockholm’s inner islands I have seen have more abundant tree life. Although ferry travel is made easy, living on these islands is not cheap. Houses are expensive. Sweden manages to combine a benevolent and generous form of socialism with competitive markets and a very entrepreneurial society. 

Stockholm, sometimes called the Venice of the north, is itself a collection of islands. It has more of everything compared to it’s smaller sibling Göteborg in the west. Thousands of islands in its archipelago (though not all populated), more wealth and more people.

The islands on both coasts often have picturesque harbours and an abundance of pleasure craft. All giving an air of relaxed and lazy living. As a mere observer with no real insider knowledge Stockholm’s islands seem to have more of a cosmopolitan air, perhaps inevitable given it is the capital. Gothenburg’s seem to have more of a local feel and its houses (I imagine) having more vibrant colours. 

The islands, whether on east or west, have a rich and interesting history. One example is Rörö, the northernmost island of Göteborg’s archipelago. Now it is a beautiful nature reserve with lovely walks. In days gone by locals got an income from luring ships with bonfires onto it’s rocks. They would then kill any surviving crew and plunder the cargo. The graves of an English crew are said to be buried along the island’s rocky western shore. In Rörö’s harbour today a lifeboat station has pride of place. Saving lives instead of plundering and killing. Times have changed. 

The islands on both east and west coasts have been strategic to the defence of Sweden through the centuries. Vaxholm is an island cluster on the way in from the Baltic Sea to Stockholm. It has been strategic to the defense of Stockholm from enemies to the east for centuries. A lot of the substantial buildings are of a defensive nature, such as military barracks or castles. The defence of the capital is still a concern today as every so often a foreign submarine appears in its waters. Vaxholm castle even has a mines museum in its courtyard. The Oxdjupet strait was a strategic waterway on the main passage into Stockholm. Guarded on the west side of the strait by Oskar-Fredriksborg castle and Fredriksborg fortress to the east. For 300 years locals worked on filling in this strait (yes 300 years!) as a means of preventing ships entering Stockholm. Times have also changed here and now this waterway accommodates large liners and ferries on their way into and out of Stockholm.

During the Cold War many underground bunkers were installed on both east and west coast as well as on the mainland. Their locations were hard to detect buried under rock and designed to survive nuclear attack. Some years ago I visited one of these in Gothenburg’s archipelago. Located on an uninhabited rocky outcrop it was well hidden from the pleasure boats that passed by. Along with hundreds of others it was destined to be demolished. 

I will not be drawn on whether east is better than west. Suffice to say I come from the port city of Glasgow in the west of Scotland. To the east we also have a capital city, Edinburgh. 

One thing I can say is that on a summer’s day seaside ice cream tastes just as good whether looking over the Baltic or the Kattegat. In fact good ice cream tastes the same wherever you are.