Packing for my trip to Kiritimati Island, I decided I didn’t need to bring a compass, because there are so few roads that even I couldn’t get lost. Big mistake! (Especially considering the lovely compass I got as a farewell present from my colleagues back in Munich.)
On Easter Sunday at 9 am I set out with my beautiful bike to ride towards boating lagoon on the lagoon road. The lagoon road is a sand road along (you wouldn’t guess!) the lagoon, built by the British in the 50th. I didn’t really intend to go all the way to bathing lagoon but only wanted to go a part of the way, see a bit more of the lagoon, and see the condition of the road. So I only brought a camera and one liter of water. (Everyone who got scolded by me when bringing too little water on desert hikes back in Israel is now allowed to sneer!).
At the beginning, I rode underneath coconut palms in the shade along a rather good road. Rather good for local conditions of sand roads, although the road was partially flooded. I actually had to get down from my bike from time to time to cross pond-sized puddles in order not to run over the millions of tiny fish swimming on the road. At least 3 species of fish lived in those road-flooding ponds, some of them obviously nesting.
Sometimes I stopped to watch the Black Noddies, Graybacked Terns or the Golden Plovers – a perfect Sunday naturalist bike ride! After a while, the road became less good and finally was completely swamped and that particular pond looked pretty deep and uninviting. Most motorbike drivers (nobody except me comes here by bicycle) must have thought the same, as all tire tracks took a right on a small path. I assumed there was a small loop to avoid the flooded part and I took a right, towards the lagoon. And after a few more minutes, there were no tire tracks anymore, I have no clue where I lost them. I was standing at the edge of a lagoon flat at low tide.
“Do I backtrack? No…. if I just follow the lagoon coast, I will come to a path or road again.” So I set out over the coral flat, crushing decade or century old, weather darkened corals under my tires.
The coral flat gave way to bush land: low salt bushes and other shrubbery that I was unable to identify.
And then I hit another flat, a lagoon tongue cutting into the land. Well, what to do? Obviously cross it. But on the other side I got stuck in the bush, so I didn’t have a choice but to go back. “Backtrack? No, that’s too much of a detour. I just ride perpendicular to the lagoon coast until I hit the lagoon road, take a left and will be back in Tabwakea in max 1 hour”. As it turned out, in the bush, among coconuts and shrubbery, it is hard to keep a direction without a compass. And at the equator close to 12 noon it is even harder to keep direction using the sun’s position. There were no roads, although sometimes I hit a track. Or I imagined that those were tracks…
By 11 am I finished my first half liter bottle of water and had not yet found the lagoon road. But I found beautiful small lizards. I am not sure if fire salamanders exist here, but if they do, I found them! Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get a picture of the bigger one with the blood red stripe on the back. But I did get pictures of a beautiful ruby-red dragonfly and the endemic Kiritimati Reed-Warbler!
Finally I found a car track, followed it to a bigger track, where I took a left, ostensibly in the direction of Tabwakea. The street was big enough to be lagoon road, so I was happy. Although my last bottle of water was almost empty, it was noon, and there was little shade. The water ponds on the road that I had to bike or walk through were uncomfortably hot. But regardless, fish and crabs seemed to thrive in them. By that time I stopped getting off the bike because of fish and certainly caused some to be roadkill. The street went on and on. And on…
Finally, after what seemed an eternity of biking – thirsty and exhausted; if only I knew how to open fresh coconuts... – I saw a roof.
“Yeah – Tabwakea! But… this is a Manieba, a community hall. In this part of Tabwakea is no Manieba! Where am I?” I got the answer just after I took a left onto the only paved road of the island, when I saw the sign Banana Preschool. “Banana? That is 20 km from Tabwakea! How the heck did I end up here?” Anyhow, I now knew where I was and knew I had “only” 20 km to bike, exhausted, without water. But then, there is always some traffic on the road, some truck that could take me and the mule (that is what I had named my incredibly sturdy bike by then) back to Tabwakea. Hopefully even Easter Sunday at lunch time. Well, there wasn’t.
But after 3 or 4 km I reached the Captain Cook Hotel – I was so exhausted and single minded on getting home that I even didn’t think about its existence before I was the sign – and the hotel meant water for hydration and a coke for sugar as well as friendly faces. I recently had gotten to know two NOAA scientists, Leslie and Paul, performing meteorological studies for the El-Niño rapid response program, who lived at this hotel. And it being just after the launch time for one of the twice daily weather balloons, I knew them to be home. And they were! And even better, some other scientists (studying bubbles in the Ionosphere plasma along the magnetic equator) were visiting and had a free seat in their car to take me back with them to Tabwakea. My bike stayed overnight with Leslie and Paul, after I rinsed the worst of the mud, sand and salt off. And thanks to Paul, it will be treated to some lubricant later today.
My hosts back at the Lagoon View Motel in Tabwakea didn’t see me come back home and started to worry when my bike was not outside my room at night. The following morning they made me promised to take a walkie-talkie with me next time I intend to get lost in the bush!