After leaving Tarawa it was a short 805 mile flight to Funafuti, Tuvalu,
but it still took about three hours in the HS 148. The aircraft carried more freight than it did passengers, because not many people visited Funafuti, other than returning residents, and the occasional businessman, i.e your truly.
As we made our approach to land I could see a long green field, which I realised was the landing strip for this ‘airport.’ Wheels down for landing and all of a sudden we banked and aborted the landing because the local children were using the landing field for a game of football! Round we went and this time the strip was clear of children and dogs.
The aircraft came to a halt near a small concrete structure.
Steps were pushed out to the aircraft, and we disembarked. One of the crew stood at the bottom of the stairs and waved towards the small concrete construction. At first glance I was reminded of a large garage come work shop, until I realised this was the immigration and customs post.
An officer, in traditional island dress of sandals, and lungi tied at the waist, and a uniform shirt stood waiting at one side of a concrete table with a stamp and an ink pad. I was welcomed to Tuvalu and my passport was stamped. Customs asked if I had anything to declare – I said No, and was waved through the concrete area to a grass patch outside the open walled government building.
Local people milled around on both sides of the ‘security area’, some helping to unload the cargo from the plane, others had just come to see what was happening as part of the day’s entertainment. The sun was hot and nobody moved at any great pace – I was on island time, and I should relax.
I anticipated that my business would not take more than a day, but due to flight schedules I was going to be ‘island bound’ over the weekend. I’d arrived on Friday, and booked my onward ticket to Fiji for Monday. I looked around for an airline employee to confirm my onward flight and found a young lady in a island skirt and an airline type blouse. I asked her if I could confirm my flight for Monday – she looked at me and asked if I was the business man from Sydney?
I confirmed that I was, and she then told me that as I was the only person who wished to go to Fiji on Monday, they were not going to bring a plane in just for me – I was told to come back the following Wednesday!
Eventually I found my way to the local hotel (Vaiaku Lagi Hotel, government run and the only hotel on the island) and checked-in. I was given a room over looking the lagoon; it was air-conditioned. Later I found out that most of the rooms didn’t have air-conditioning, which would be a problem for Europeans. The only other guest was a Japanese merchant seaman waiting for his ship to return. He’d been put ashore for medical treatment. He couldn’t speak English, and most of my Japanese, picked up during my time on the Japanese coast, had faded in to history. He did teach me how to play Othello and I liked it so much that I bought the game for my children on my return to Sydney.
This is a picture of Vaiaku Lagi Hotel taken recently.
I doubt that this view would have changed much – the view is across the lagoon from the hotel guest rooms.
After unpacking my few things I made my way to the bar and asked the barman, who was also the check-in / doorman / waiter and I am not sure what else, what type of cold beer did the hotel stock. ‘We have Fosters’ was the reply – ‘What other kind of beer?’ I asked not being a great fan of Fosters – ‘We have Fosters’ was his reply at which point he opened the door of a very large walk-in fridge behind the counter, allowing me to see that the fridge was stacked high with cartons of Fosters beer and nothing else. ‘I’ll have a Fosters !’ I said with a smile on my face.
‘Supply ship just unloaded, the other day, plenty of Fosters’ was his comment while pouring the glass of cold beer. At times like this Foster’s was the nectar of the Gods.
In the evening I decided to stay in the hotel for my evening meal. The hotel didn’t have a menu, the Japanese and myself were asked what we would like to eat.
I asked what was the choice and was told fish or meat. I asked if the fish was fresh and was told that it had arrived in the morning, so I chose the fish. The meat was a mixture of chicken (locally grown) and meat from Australia, which was expensive.
I asked for salad with the fish and was told that they didn’t have any, just vegetables – so I ordered the vegetables, which when they arrived turned out to be from a tin – I was hoping in such a lush climate to have really fresh vegetables. Let’s say it was a disappointment.
I asked if they had any cold white wine to go with the fish – ‘We have Fosters’ was the reply.
Later in the evening while listening to the radio in the bar, I heard the news, and included in the news was the fact that a business man from Sydney had arrived that afternoon. Was this my fifteen minutes of fame, or was the radio station really hard up to fill broadcasting time?
I completed my business the following morning and decided after lunch to have a look around Funafuti.
Knowing that there wouldn’t be any aircraft landing between that Saturday afternoon and Wednesday, and noticing that the immigration and customs posted had been abandoned, I walked across the football pitch, come runway, to the other side of the island. I passed huts inside a fenced area and wondered what this area was because the gate was wide open.
On reaching the water’s edge (the opposite side of the island from the lagoon) I watched Pacific ocean rollers charging towards the little island and smashing their way on to huge man made blocks, which dissipated their energy. I was grateful for the blocks, because the highest point on the island was only fifteen feet (4.5 meters) above sea level.
It was later that I found out about the gated area was the local prison. The above picture is a recent photograph. I did ask why the gate was open and was told – ‘Where are the prisoners going to escape to?’.
The population of all the atolls making up Tuvalu was around 8,500 people, but the limited usable land created a high density of population at 340 people per square kilometer in 1987, which was during my visit.
Everything shut down late Saturday and the only entertainment for me was sitting in the hotel bar with a book and the occasional game of Othello. Trying to get through to Sydney by phone, to keep them informed of my movements, helped pass the time. The fact that they had no idea that I was not lying on a beach in a fancy beach side resort somewhere in the tropics, didn’t help matters.
Sunday was a drag, but Monday was far more exciting after the post office opened at 10.00 am, because I was interested in stamps, and at that time I collected stamps from certain Pacific Islands. It turned out that philatelists are one of the best contributors to the Tuvaluan economy, along with cash sent home by Tuvaluan seaman working on foreign ships.
The enforced rest can be a strain knowing that all your plans have been shot to pieces and communication with the outside world was difficult. E-mailing was still in the future, as was the mobile phone.
Overall I enjoyed my enforced rest in Tuvalu, because it was completely different place than anywhere else that I had visited.
Eventually I was back at the airport waiting for the plane to Suva in Fiji. Large international airlines use Nadi but as we would be a propeller job it would be Suva, which is the capital.
The airline that was supposed to fly us ( fourteen passengers) failed to show and a substitute had to be found – Sunflower Airlines from Fiji. Our aircraft, was built in 1956! It was over thirty years old when I boarded.
The aircraft sat seven a side, and operated with a pilot and co-pilot. Forget any cabin crew, and the rear toilet was blocked in with cargo and passenger bags. The picture above shows the aircraft at Nadi airport in Fiji, not the grass strip in Funafuti.
The aircraft turned up and we fourteen brave souls boarded. Once all on board we taxied out to the end of the grass runway. The door between the two pilots on the ‘flight deck’ and the passengers wouldn’t close and banged and banged as we trundled along the runway in the hope of gaining enough speed to lift off the ground. At last I felt the plane rise in to the clear blue sky.
The distance to Suva was 915 miles and our top speed was around 183 mph according the to the manufacturer in 1956 . . . so we had four hours to hope that nothing would go wrong.
The noise of the engines killed all hope of conversation across the aisle, so I watched the pilots manhandling the joystick to keep the aircraft level in a slow climb. We never did get too high and I found it fascinating to watch the ocean waves break below. This view was something one didn’t normally see, unless you were coming in to land over water. The breaking waves accompanied us all the way to Fiji.
Two hours in to the flight the co-pilot comes out and shouts that it is lunch time, and bends down to grab a cardboard box from under the seat of the first passenger. He then walks slowly down the aisle and hands to each passenger either a coca cola or a lemonade. None of the passengers were offered a choice. I was handed a lemonade and was about to open it when the passenger across the aisle spoke to the co-pilot stating that he didn’t like coca cola. Immediately my lemonade was whisked from my grasp and replaced with a coca cola – the guy across aisle received my lemonade.
The co-pilot returned to the front of the plane and pulled another box from under the first seat on the other side of the aircraft. This was our lunch – plastic wrapped sandwiches – and he was not going to get in to a conversation about likes or dislikes, because the sandwiches came through the air and the passenger was expected to catch his lunch.
It was fortunate that we were only given one small drink because there was no way we could have climbed over the cargo to get to the lavatory.
Although I am not a Catholic, I can sympathies with the Pope when he steps off an aircraft and kisses the ground, because most of us wanted to do that in Suva!
The picture shows what is left of this aircraft at Bankstown Airport in Sydney. Picture was taken in 2004.