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Wallis and Funafuti

 

 

 

 

 

 

Though a bit rainy, we were lucky on the short east-northeasterly passage to Wallis from Savusavu, as we caught a brief spell of winds with a good deal of south in them, saving us having to beat into the trades. Fortunately the winds had turned more easterly by the time we reached the island, having lain offshore overnight to have daylight, smoother seas and slack water to enter the narrow, but clearly marked pass which opens to the south. Unlike Fiji waters, the very beautiful lagoon at Wallis is extremely well marked. Brief visits to the Gendarmerie and Douanes completed entrance (and clearance out) formalities painlessly. Locals were quick to offer lifts into town from the southern anchorage where we remained for most of our stay during a spell of strong trade winds, when the anchorage off the town would have been at least very uncomfortable if not untenable.

 

 

 

 

The French possessions in the Pacific provide a marked contrast to their less fortunate island neighbours. With the exception of New Caledonia, few of the French islands have any significant economic independence. Employment is almost entirely governmental, yet the standard of living is very high by South Pacific standards. The traditional house above was an exception to the general rule of modern housing. Everyone has electricity and piped water. The island seemed to have more cars than people. As we walked or biked around the island we noted that there was active cultivation everywhere in neat family plots.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we visited the main town we found as expected that the small supermarkets were well stocked with expensive, but tempting French delicacies. There was a single, well-disguised ATM, which was just as well, as at least one of the supermarkets could not digest our credit card.

 

There was an impressive Catholic cathedral built from the local volcanic stone. As usual for these small island nations there was also a philateletic store.

 

Fortunately we had no need to get fuel which would have been difficult and expensive, while water was grudgingly available from the gas depot on the jetty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Given the small size of the island we got out our bikes and cycled most of its length. Though most of the main roads were paved, many of the smaller roads in the interior were pretty rough. In the middle of the island there are a couple of striking and beautiful crater lakes, with tropic birds soaring above them. Surprisingly, toward the north end there was also a good deal of managed pine forest, to contrast with the extensive banana plantations elsewhere.

 

When the trades eased somewhat, we moved back out to an anchorage in the lee of Faioa Island, at the southeast of the lagoon. The island is popular with locals for its long white sand beach, which is well populated with inquisitive land-crabs, while we enjoyed low-tide fossicking on the outer reef.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having departed from Wallis, as we approached the equator, the trades grew lighter and we had a slowish passage north, by-passing the islands of Tokelau further to the east. While in Fiji waters we had only managed to catch one fish, a smallish yellow-fin tuna. As a result we were delighted when we landed a large wahoo the day before our landfall at Funafuti. The light passage also gave us a chance to do a few small jobs, including repairing the Q flag for our entrance to Tuvalu.

 

Once again we arrived too late to attempt the pass at Funafuti and so stood off for the night – during which we were approached at one point by the Tuvalu police launch, which we later learned is a combined Tuvalu/Australian operation.

 

Though none of the navigational marks on the chart were present, the pass into the lagoon was clear enough and any dangers inside the lagoon were also generally visible in the clear water. There are a number of anchoring options. The most convenient is in deepish water near the newer of the two docks – but not near enough to obstruct ships approaching the dock. There are also plenty of spots along the southern line of the island off the hospital or the hotel. There were convenient steps at which to leave our dinghy at the newer of the two docks, with the customs office nearby, though it was necessary to go to the main government building in town to clear immigration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is a good reason that the Prime Minister of Tuvalu has been one of the leaders of the group of island nations campaigning for greater action on climate change. The highest point on Funafuti, the capitol island, is only about 15 feet above sea level. Any significant rise in sea level would be a national disaster. In any case the island has a number of environmental issues. There is no natural drinkable ground water. Effectively all fresh water is from rain and must be stored in tanks. There is also very little fertile soil on an island, which is basically a strip of coral rock rarely more than a few hundred metres wide. Most food is imported. In addition, a large proportion of the original fertile land was sacrificed during WWII to the making of an airstrip. This is now Funafuti’s ‘international’ airport.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In order to create the airstrip, coral rock was excavated from a number of pits around the island. These have never been re-filled and are now home to rats and mosquitoes, as well as the poorest of the over-crowded island’s population. As we rode the length of the island on our bikes two related sights were particularly striking. Because of the nature of the island, there is really nowhere to bury anything. As a result, the island is littered with above-ground graves and rubbish. There are piles of discarded plastic and metal everywhere. The situation was clearly even worse at one time, because the New Zealand Navy actually created a huge tip at the northern end of the island and moved much of the rubbish there a few years ago.

 

All this sounds very negative, but our overall impression of the island was positive, mostly because the people were welcoming, friendly and cheerful. As it happened there was a national election during our stay. There was a genuine feeling of democracy at work, though it was a kind of democracy adapted to the cultural traditions of a society based on extended families, not the mass democracy of a large urban industrial society.

 

 

 

 

In a country of only a few thousand people, spread across a large number of small islands, it was interesting to see most of the elements of much larger administrations. The only sizable modern building on Funafuti is the main central government building. There is also a Tuvalu Telecom and a Tuvalu National Bank – the only bank. These and a few other agencies, such as the police, hospital and schools, provide virtually the only significant employment opportunities. There is very little tourism and though there were two or three largish fishing boats, donated by Taiwan, these did not appear to be active. The country’s income derives mostly from aid from Australia, New Zealand and the EU. Though English is an official language of the country with Tuvaluan, few of the islanders spoke much English, yet the ability to speak English was clearly a passport to a job of some kind with the government or one of the quasi-governmental agencies. Sadly, Tuvalu’s ability to survive in a modern world must be in some doubt unless its delightful people can find ways of coping with the considerable challenges that face them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All this said we had a very pleasant time exploring the island. Unusually for us it was almost impossible to get lost, with only one main road running the length of the narrow strip. As in Fiji there were canoes cleverly made from sheets of corrugated plastic and metal, this time painted bright orange. The philateletic bureau had an astonishing range of stamps some of which celebrated distant events and celebrities, which we found surprising.

 

Felo and Mennia, who befriended us during our stay, exemplify Tuvalu’s potential strengths. They work for the National Bank and Telecom respectively. They both speak good English and have a lively interest in world affairs as well as those of their own country. We were very grateful for their welcome and generosity. With more people like them, we feel sure that Tuvalu could have a positive future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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