CHRISTMAS ISLAND RE-VISITED
Another story from John Curtis
I served in the Royal Air Force police for 22 years and during that time completed many overseas tours of duty. The one that I most remember was the twelve months from November 1959 to November 1960 that I spent on Christmas Island in the South Pacific.
In early 2002 I was reading an article in the Sunday Times travel section in which comment was made about Japanese fishermen spending time at a hotel on the Island and indulging their skills with rod and line. I followed up on the article and established that there was indeed a hotel, somewhere on the old main camp I think, and tourists were now visiting the Island. They mainly came by air from Honolulu but some cruise lines did visit the island as part of a longer cruise programme.
I established that the Orient Line had a programmed cruise, on the Crown Odyssey, out of Los Angeles on the 1st December 2002 which would be visiting the Hawaiian Islands, Christmas Island and on down to Tahiti. It was a 16 day cruise with a very brief four hours at anchor at Christmas Island on Friday 13th December. We were scheduled to arrive at our anchor point at 08.00 and depart at midday. A tender boat would be used to get those passengers ashore who wished to spend a brief three hours on land. I booked a disabled cabin for my wife and I.
During the ten days we were cruising towards the Island I was pleased to find out that out of the 904 passengers (made up of 580 Americans, 240 British, and others) there were two other ex-Grapple hands making the journey.
23237582 Sapper Colin Richards a member of 28 Field Regiment, 64 Field Park Squadron. He was on the Island from June 1956 to September 1957.
23372697 Sapper Andy Swann. RE. He sailed from Southampton on New Years Eve 1957 on the good ship Duneera. He spent six months on the island as a plumber on barrack room construction and running the generators to power the decontamination laundry. He was also the mobile barber. He returned to the UK by air in November 1958.
At 06.15 on the morning of Friday 13th December 2002 the low profile of the Island came into view as the sun rose above the horizon. Crown Odyssey approached from the North and standing on deck as the sun came up there was clear evidence of new buildings, some satellite tracking dishes, a large fuel tank farm, and a jetty running out over the reef where the old camp used to be. This I found out later was for the visiting sports fishermen to gain access to their boat without having to go down to the port. There was also a number of smaller buildings which turned out to be part of the new village of Tabakea which I was privileged to visit later in the morning.
We approached Cook Island and dropped anchor at 07.15 about half a mile off shore. An inflatable from our boat went ahead and established the route in through the reef and at 08.00 I was privileged to be on the first tender boat to make its way ashore. The route was primitively marked for us by a line of floating white polystyrene boxes. Out of each one was stuck a piece of bamboo cane with a red flag made from plastic bags flapping on top. The boxes were attached to a line and piece of coral on the sea bed to anchor it in place. We moved slowly along the edge of the reef, the sea was calm and cerulean blue. We turned into the marked approach point that gave us access to the rusting dock at Port London.
It was by now 86º as we stepped ashore at 08.25 to be met by a party of pre-school children singing Christmas carols. At the rear of the dock were a number of locals sat under a corrugated roof selling stamps, envelopes and trinkets. There were also two parties of local men and women, who sang and danced to traditional Kiribati songs accompanied by very primitive homemade instruments.
I had made prior arrangements, using the ship’s purser’s office and information given to me by Tony Bugbird, who gave the lecture at the recent reunion, to meet up with various local people who were going to be organising the distribution of the books purchased with the £700 donated by the members of this association at the hi-annual meeting at Weston Super Mare in October.
There was no one there to meet me. I found out that although we on the cruise were working on a calendar that said today was Friday. The Kiribati calendar said it was Saturday. The school, library and tourist offices were all closed. I was faced with a Port London that looked nothing like my recollections of forty years ago. In fact my first impression was one of dereliction and decay. The remains of military craft and vehicles and obsolete equipment were laying around the area. There was no sign of any of the activity I would expect from a dock area.
There were now large storage buildings were I remember open spaces and it was in one of these that I found an English speaking employee who rang the tourist officer at his home and within ten minutes Kiraren Tirate the Tourist and Development officer for this and Fanning Island came to meet me. After some discussion he agreed to be the person who would accept and distribute the books as and when they arrived on the Island.
I explained to him that my second task whilst on the island was to try to get a message to Teeua Teitiaki who lived with her family at the new village of Tabakea. Teeua is the sister of Terri Pollard who wrote the very informative article on the web page in the "Stories/anecdotes" section. Terri was born on the island in 1958 and came to England in 1982. Kiraren offered to take me to the village and introduced me to the family.
I spent a very enjoyable hour taking photographs and generally feeling at home with Teeua her husband Taukaro and their five children and two grandchildren. Teeua is the village pre-school teacher for 35 children and they are desperate for any items to aid the development of the children. I have promised to help in any way I can. Any member who feels able to help me to obtain any aids for pre-schoolchildren I would be most grateful.
I was then taken to the site of the old camp at Port London. I was able to identify the location of various buildings from the concrete foundations which still mark out their original space. The edges of these sites are gradually being eroded by debris and vegetation and the Tourist Officer was most interested as he has no records of what used to be on this site 40 years ago. If any member has any old site plans or sketches of the location of buildings they would be most appreciative, It was sad to see the ruins of the church that was built and consecrated in 1960 being nothing more than a roofless pile of stones. If you look at the photo gallery submitted by John Noble you will see the church as it was and now it is a derelict site. The original three fuel tanks, between camp and the port, have almost collapsed. I recall a night in the spring of 1960 when a group of naval personnel climbed the tanks and in white paint wrote individual letters on the three tanks to spell out RIF-RAF. (Who were those men?? The case file was never closed.)
An interesting fact to finish on. I was told, by Kiraren, that there are no female dogs (bitches) on the Island by law. Anyone wanting a new dog for a child or to replace one that has died they have to be brought from another Island. It would seem that the problem I had when I was there in early 1960 when all of our troops went home and left their pet dogs behind. We, the four RAF policemen who remained, had to round them up and put them down. On other islands in the group where feral dogs and rats have decimated the bird sanctuary’s the islanders will not let that happen here.
My impression of Christmas Island today was one of a lack of resources to control the environment. Pride in their surroundings is difficult without a substantial input of funds. No attempt has been made to attract tourists to that part of the Island. Cruise boats tend to pass the Island and go onto Fanning where, I am told, they can berth and discharge passengers straight onto a dock and not have the bother of tendering a few passengers at a time through a difficult reef. I was told that a scheme is in progress to open up the reef to allow boats easier access to the dock area. I got the feeling there was a lot of wishful thinking and, who knows, maybe a letter to Santa Claus would do more good for the current ever friendly inhabitants of Christmas Island.
At 11.30 my three hours were up and I boarded the last tender back to the Crown Odyssey. At midday we set sail for Bora Bora but that’s another story.
©: John Curtis 26 Jan 2003