Chasing shadows

Chris Beattie | VOLUME 29, ISSUE 4
If you're a fly fisher, there is one place you must visit before you fling your final fly...
If you're a fly fisher, there is one place you must visit before you fling your final fly...

There were times when water obstinately refused to flow from bathroom fittings - despite sometimes heated vocal encouragement. At other times electricity would fail to conduct itself from powerpoints on command. Again, any verbal abuse directed at the offending outlet failed to elicit a positive - or even negative, for that matter - response. Presumably in retaliation for my decadent western insolence, both utilities combined to deliver me a mild electrical jolt while in the shower one evening.

There were other times when things didn't quite work out the way a typical tourist might expect. Like when asking for a cup of tea or snack between meals. The response was something akin to ordering a bottle of Evian while under fire in downtown Mogadishu. You could say that, initially at least, there was something of a yawning chasm between expectations and outcomes.

Mostly due to ignorance on my part as I came to discover.

Kiritimati (pronounced 'Kirimas' and derived from 'Christmas' - the name bestowed by Captain Cook when he arrived at the island on December 24, 1777) is a large, flat expanse of limestone and coral in the middle of the Pacific. In fact, it's the world's largest coral atoll and forms part of a chain of islands called the Phoenix Group, itself part of the Republic of Kiribati.

Kiritimati's other main claim to fame is that it is the first point on earth to greet the new day, being just to the left of the International Date Line.

Draw a line between Sydney and Hawaii and just north of the equator is roughly where you'll find Kiritimati. Locals mostly refer to it as Christmas Island, but given the somewhat negative connotations associated with the island of the same name off the north-west coast of Australia, we will refer to it by its indigenous title to avoid confusion.

On the fly

I was to spend a week on the island in early March in the company of Gordon Howlett from Fishing Getaways, a Melbourne-based international fishing charter specialist. Gordon was there to scout out Kiritimati as a destination for Australians of the fly fishing persuasion. As I came to appreciate, fly fishers are not your average fisher persons. In fact, after spending a week in their company, I believe they may be of an entirely different genus to us mere fishing mortals - and quite proudly so.

If naturalist Sir David Attenborough were to encounter fly fishers in their native habitat I believe he would approach them warily and, amongst other oddities, marvel at their complete lack of dress sense. With their large floppy hats, heads cocooned in weirdly patterned scarves, khaki bushman jackets festooned with pockets packed with all manner of fly fishing paraphernalia, military-style toolkits bristling with lethal-looking hardware and baggy outdoorsy pants, to the uninitiated they might appear to be members of some extreme enviro terrorist group intent on creating international angling mischief.

But as I came to appreciate, your average fly fisher person is quite comfortable with outsider perceptions of weirdness. They seem to bask in them and, in fact, seize every possible opportunity to reinforce their stereo-non-typical image.

Like moths to a flame, fly fishers mostly from the US, Canada and to a lesser extent Australia have been drawn to Kiritimati since the early '80s in search of their Holy Grail - the bonefish. While bonefish are to be found in many locations, including the Caribbean, some Pacific islands, Central America, Australia and elsewhere, Kiritimati is considered an absolute 'must do' on the international fly fisher's manifesto. The vast, shallow inner lagoon that spreads from one end of the atoll to the other is the perfect playground for both fishers and fish. A protected species - bone fishing is strictly catch-and-release in Kiritimati - bonefish thrive in its sheltered, food-rich waters and bone-fisher people spend many joyous and quite intense hours casting flies at them in the hope that the fish will be taken in by their tactics and tackle.

Having spent much time in their company while on Kiritimati, I have discovered that the only two things fly fishers like doing more than actual fishing are making flies ('lures' to normal people) and talking about making them.

I also discovered that common after-hours fly fisher activities can include enthusiastically drinking themselves to bed every night, pipe and cigar smoking, occasional spontaneous outbreaks of singing and even forming impromptu musical ensembles, as in the case of an American string trio on one particularly memorable night in downtown London, the capital of Kiritimati.

In short, fly fishers, in my experience at least, can be an eclectic, eccentric and determined lot, not inclined to take their pastime lightly, but equally very quick to welcome those of a lesser angling cast to share in their post-fishing festivities.

During our stay I actually had the opportunity to practise the dark art of fly rod casting during a day on the lagoon in search of bonefish. Our patient and experienced guide went to great lengths to point out the subtleties of fly casting, including casting technique, where to place the fly and how to strip the line in order to entice the fish to the hook. Given the almost transparent body of the bonefish, I found them close to impossible to spot, so the guide's eagle eyes were an essential aid in the sandy-bottomed lagoon.

A few hours wading knee-deep in the clear and warm waters resulted in countless near (and far) misses - plus one misfire resulting in a hook painfully embedding itself in my calf. Three fish were eventually caught and released and a very tired and relieved guide subsequently bid me farewell at the end of his ordeal. Still, I can now claim to have cast to, and caught, a bonefish - which, in some circles at least, is deemed quite an achievement. As a measure of my success, most experienced fly fishers we encountered were hooking up to 10 or more fish a day.

There is much more to Kiritimati though. Even from an angling perspective. On a couple of occasions we ventured outside the lagoon in search of the usual tropical pelagics, including wahoo, tuna, GTs and barracuda. We fished from timber outrigger canoes mostly lashed together with rope, nails and good intentions. Our efforts were rewarded with a mixed bag, including dropping one apparent monster that seemed intent on towing us to Honolulu before it straightened an industrial-strength treble, and we managed to boat a stridently reluctant 25lb GT while casting poppers into the surf.

Despite their seemingly flimsy construction, the outriggers proved surprisingly sturdy in sometimes quite lumpy seas and we found them to be fairly reasonable and stable fishing platforms. Yamaha was the powerplant of choice, with 40hp two-stroke units on most boats.

I also did a spot of scuba diving outside the lagoon and was rewarded by a spectacularly colourful panorama of exotic corals, teeming with fish of all hues, sizes, shapes and varieties. The gear was all first rate and the dive instructors were certified professionals with years of experience between them.

Explosive history

Historically, Kiritimati has had a mixed and somewhat explosive past. In the late '50s and early '60s local wildlife was jolted out of its tranquility with occasional nuclear detonations as both America and the UK thought it the ideal place to test their atomic weaponry. And speaking of the military, both nations also used it as a staging post for their campaigns against the Japanese in WWII. Rusting relics of their presence used to be common, but sadly for history buffs it was all removed by the British a few years ago.

Local place names reflect Kiritimati's colonial past more literally than most other Pacific nations. We stayed in the main town of London, which is fittingly just across the channel from the uninhabited and desolate Paris, while the tiny and remote settlement of Poland is a considerable distance further up the road. And just a short stroll from London is the small hamlet of Tennessee.

Each location's name is linked to early missionaries, traders or the military. Curiously, the settlement of Banana bore no signs of the fruit for which it was named - indeed, I can't remember seeing a single banana during our stay on the island.

I have been fortunate to visit quite a few South Pacific island nations and in my experience many have managed to quite successfully merge traditional cultures with the modern western lifestyle. Life on Kiritimati, on the other hand, displays little of its Polynesian origins and culture. Most dwellings are either fairly basic cinder block or corrugated iron and with little in the way of local industry or employment, life for most is close to subsistence level. Industry is pretty much limited to fishing tourism and copra production, while the government, based nearly 1600km away on the island of Tarawa, reaps revenue from fishing licences issued to large commercial tuna fishing operations.

High salinity levels mean that whatever soil there is is not suitable for most crops and much of the food has to be imported from either Fiji or Hawaii - Kiritimati's closest neighbours.

Geographically, Kiritimati is a typical coral atoll - albeit the world's largest - with an average height above sea level of barely a couple of metres. The island's highest point is a 10m knoll on its south-eastern extremity so there's no need to pack the mountaineering gear. Vegetation is limited to the ubiquitous coconut palms, with salt bush taking up most of the remaining space. From the air the lagoon is a spectacular multi-coloured patchwork of turquoise pools, sand cays, dark blue channels and pink salt flats, surrounded by the thin fringing atoll.

Dances with crabs

Birdwatchers will enjoy the two main sanctuaries on Cook and Motu Tapu islands, while if you are without shame and don't mind making a public spectacle of yourself, you might want to engage in the Kiritimati Crab Dance, which involves sneaking up on lively ghost crabs near the water's edge and weaving from side to side as they attempt to outrun their protagonist. They tend to tire quickly and eventually just wave their claws around as if to dismiss the antics of the stupid tourist (me). Their much larger cousins, the timid coconut crabs, are seen pretty much everywhere on land, but mostly only come out of their burrows after dark in search of food - and hapless barefooted tourists.

Accommodation standards are mostly below average, with no expectation of regular hot running water or a reliable supply of power. Drinking water is limited to the bottled variety and most hotels only offer set menus, with lobster and tuna being the common dinner fare. Lunch normally involves do-it-yourself ham or tuna sandwiches. The best hotel we stayed at, the Ikari, at least had good in-room facilities, though it, too, was prone to bouts of water shortages due to the failure of the main pumping station in London.

Outside communications were virtually non-existent during our stay, although we met two Australian telecommunications technicians who were in Kiritimati to launch the island's 3G network providing internet and international phone links.
But as with so many other tropical island experiences, it's the people who leave the most enduring impressions. Almost without exception, I found the resort staff, guides and others I encountered to be incredibly welcoming, open and helpful. All were quick to smile or share a laugh and the fishing guides, in particular, certainly knew their stuff and, especially when it came to stalking bonefish, they didn't fail to deliver.

What impressed me most, though, was the resourcefulness of the people. Despite their geographical isolation and almost complete lack of resources, they manage to do a lot with a little. Certainly from a pampered western perspective, the Kiritimati people could teach us a lot about making the most of what we've got.

There is a very definite enthusiasm to attract more tourism to this remote atoll, but as a regular holiday destination, Kiritimati has some way to go to match its Pacific counterparts. With only one flight a week, a Fiji Airways Boeing 737 that jets in early in the morning from Nadi, before flying off to Honolulu and returning later the same day and then flitting back to Nadi, access to the island is limited. Hotel operators are geared into the flight arrivals and departures, as each facility empties and fills again on the same day each week. Local officials we spoke with were hoping to increase regular air services, but I get the impression that any change is likely to be some way off.

Those looking for a quality tropical resort experience with plenty of recreational options would be disappointed. But if you are of a more hardy disposition and your idea of a great time is to spend a week casting flies at shadowy shapes in a pristine tropical lagoon, you can find out more by going to: Typical fishing packages start from $3995 per person (based on two anglers, 10 days/9 nights), and include return international airfares (via Fiji), seven nights twin-share accommodation, all daily meals, bonefishing guides, plus a one-night stopover in Fiji. There are also scuba diving packages available.

Fiji lay-over

"Our first guests arrived 3500 years ago and liked the place so much, they stayed..."

So states the webpage of the First Landing Resort, which hosted us with stopovers on both legs of our Kiritimati trip.

According to local legend, the first Fijians arrived around 1500 BC, landing on the beach where the resort is now located, hence the name.

Conversely we arrived at nearby Nadi Airport and took the 20-minute taxi trip to the resort, which is located on the west coast of the main island of Viti Levu.

The resort is well worth considering, whether transiting to other holiday spots or as a holiday destination in its own right.
Located right on the shoreline, it offers a range of accommodation options, from affordable bures to luxury private villas and apartments.

It also offers easy access to the nearby Mamanuca Islands, which can be reached by boat from the resort's new jetty or the adjacent Vuda Yacht Marina.

The resort offers indoor and outdoor dining options and a varied menu using many fresh local ingredients and produce.

We found it to be a very welcoming spot, with friendly staff and plenty to see and do, while there were plenty of hammocks spread between the palms for those who prefer a more laid-back approach.

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