Nauru 2013

A lagoon on Nauru

Out of the blue I received a call from a colleague who’d recently sold his Pacific Islands trading business. He told me that one of his customers, a well-established general trading business based on the pacific island of Nauru, was looking for a logistics manager and asked me if I would be interested in applying.

I spoke to previous colleagues who had worked in the Pacific. One response was – ‘There are only two types of people who take up those postings – the newlywed and the nearly dead.’ It wasn’t hard to figure out in which category I belonged.

Another colleague told me – ‘There are actually three types of people who take up these postings – mercenaries, missionaries and misfits.’. I certainly got to observe plenty of the latter two types during my time on Nauru. However, I decided if I was going there then it was not to save the poor heathens from themselves, and nor was it to run away from an unsavory past. I was going there on an adventure and to pick up some cash along the way.

Nauru is a tiny island located in the South Western Pacific Ocean, approximately 3,322 kilometers or 1,794 nautical miles North East of Brisbane. Interestingly, it’s also only 40 kilometers south of the equator. It was originally named ‘Pleasant Island’, but as a friend somewhat unkindly said to me, the people who chose that name had probably been at sea for quite some time before they arrived. With only a 21 square kilometre total area, Nauru is the third-smallest country in the world behind Vatican City and Monaco, making it the smallest republic in the world. The local population sits somewhere between 10,500 and 11,000 persons.

Nauru Airlines (or ‘Our Airline’ as it was called when I first left Australia to fly there in 2013) operated two or three direct flights per week, departing from Brisbane and taking approximately 4 hours and 35 minutes flying time. My first attempt at departing for Nauru was scheduled for late on a Sunday evening. However, after much waiting, we were advised that the aircraft was unserviceable and the flight had been cancelled. We were eventually bused to a hotel in Brisbane CBD where we would be accommodated at the airline’s expense while they undertook the necessary repairs.

The next flight departed Brisbane on the following Tuesday, but because the number of Nauruans that had been inconvenienced by this issue was now extensive and included a number of government ministers, everyone with a Nauruan Passport was given priority status to board this flight and all expats were advised we would have to continue to hurry up and wait yet again. We were also moved, at that stage, to a cheaper motel out in the suburbs, to await further instructions.

Finally, we departed Brisbane late on the Thursday evening, arriving in Nauru in the very early hours of Friday morning. My first impression of Nauru was of a dot in the middle of a vast expanse of ocean. As we got closer and came in to land, I could see a collection of what turned out to be government buildings. There were also a number of simple houses, side by side in some cases with tin roofed shanties and the obligatory swaying palm trees.

As we taxied off the runway across to the terminal building we crossed a portion of the island’s ring road which had been closed to traffic to allow us to pass. The predominant mode of transport, as in most Pacific Islands, was the motorcycle or motor scooter. I found later that there was a thriving trade in the sale of used Australia Post ‘Postie Bikes’ which were everywhere on the island, in a lot of cases held together mainly by a combination of good intentions and duct tape. Let’s just say that roadworthiness was not a major issue for anyone in Nauru and neither were road rules.

Upon disembarking it became evident that there is one set of rules for Nauruans and a different set for everybody else. When it came to queueing to go through Customs on arrival, there was one queue for Nauruan passport holders and one for everybody else. This is not unusual I suppose – however, in our case, there were probably a dozen Nauruans on our flight and over a hundred expats. Once she had processed all the arriving Nauruans, the customs officer on that booth then, instead of waving some of us other passengers across in an effort to speed things up, promptly shut up her booth, turned on her heel and departed, leaving her somewhat frazzled colleague struggling to process the rest of us.

Fortunately, my new employer was there waiting to greet me when I eventually appeared in the crowded and steamy arrival’s hall. His opening remark was ‘What took you so long?’ I didn’t have the heart to criticise any of his countrymen or their aircraft or their efficiency at that early stage so I kept my powder dry.

We drove away from the airport, past dilapidated buildings and rusting infrastructure, along badly maintained roads, past any number of Chinese owned and operated convenience stores and restaurants, which were usually just simple cinder block and tin roof shacks. The goods on sale from them, as I subsequently found out, were of very dubious quality and usually overpriced. However, while Nauruans complained in some instances about the prices, they didn’t seem to have much initiative to set up in competition against the Chinese merchants.

We eventually arrived at the location of my temporary accommodation, immediately behind our main store and warehouse. I had pause to observe that it would probably be the first and only time in my life that a flight with an advertised duration of 4 hours and 35 minutes would take the best part of five days to complete. Perhaps in retrospect, it was a lesson designed to help me slow down and acclimatise very early to what the Nauruans affectionately referred to as ‘island time’.

The company I had agreed to work for was the largest Nauruan owned and operated business on the island. They had traded continuously for 50 years and were extremely successful. They operated the largest supermarket/general/hardware/fishing store on the island, a fully stocked liquor store and ‘The Bay’, the best restaurant on the island. They were also providers of quality casual and long-term accommodation, car hire, mechanical services and a fleet of fishing charter vessels. In other words, if you wanted anything on Nauru, they were your one-stop shop. I started out reporting directly to the son of the owner and ultimately ended up in the role of ‘Claytons’ General Manager, the GM you have when the owner’s son was off island, which happened quite frequently once he developed faith and trust in my abilities.

Nauru proved to be a very interesting place. As I was later to learn, Nauru is the only country that has gone from being a donor to the Asian Development Bank, in the heady days of enormous revenues derived from the mining of once huge phosphate deposits during the 1960s, to having to go cap in hand to that same bank seeking to be a beneficiary. It seems that the once huge phosphate revenues had dried up as early as 1991 to the extent that, prior to the establishment of the refugee processing centre, Nauru was largely existing on the back of aid payments from other pacific neighbours such as New Zealand and Australia since there were no other local industries to assist in gaining self-sufficiency.

Nauruans are a very proud and independent people who do not instantly warm to foreigners and don’t smile all that much. It is not unfair to say that a large number of Nauruans, males especially, are what could best be described as indolent. I found it very difficult to find locals to work in our various business outlets or warehouses and when I did, they were often not what would be considered reliable. Because of this, we employed a liberal sprinkling of workers from other countries such as the Philippines, Fiji, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, who by comparison worked hard while remaining humble and usually quite reliable.

Unfortunately for us, one of the most senior government ministers was at odds with my employer and rather than play by the rules, he would re-write them at any and every opportunity to suit himself and his government while causing us maximum inconvenience at the same time. For example, once the minister in question saw how many foreign employees were on our books, he successfully lobbied to introduce an annual work visa charge of $6,000 per foreign worker. The only exception to this charge was, of course, overseas workers employed by the government or by government-owned agencies. No such thing as good governance or a level playing field existed on Nauru.

In this way, our antagonist was able to employ foreign workers to fill key positions in his public service at no extra cost, while government coffers were profiting from the visa fees we were being forced to pay for the same privilege to hire menial workers. The official government stance was that this visa fee was a way to protect jobs for locals and yet they were as aware as anybody that a large majority of locals were very happy not to work at all.

I must make mention of the Refugee Processing Centre that was in operation during my time on Nauru. While not wanting to take any sort of a political stand on the relative merits or otherwise of such a centre even existing on Nauru to begin with, our business ended up having relatively limited exposure to it. We had been initially appointed as the local logistics service provider to support Transfield, the Australian company who were operating the centre, however this arrangement did not last.

This same influential government minister keenly observed our logistics team in action and saw yet another opportunity to divert revenue away from our business and into government hands. A system of licences was introduced to allow Nauruan-owned companies to provide services to the centre. When we duly applied for a licence, which we thought was a mere formality, we were advised that our application, along with those of every other legitimate privately owned Nauruan business, had been unsuccessful. I wrote a long letter of appeal on behalf of my employer but it ultimately fell on deaf ears.

Not surprisingly, the Government-owned company, Eigigu Holdings, was awarded the sole licence to provide logistics services to the Refugee Centre, with immediate effect. This gave the government exclusive access to any and all forms of revenue to be derived locally from the centre. I would not openly accuse the government or any one individual of doing anything untoward, but there was obviously no shortage of opportunities for corruption to flourish.

Ultimately, the refugees whose bona fides had been established were given the freedom of the island and we subsequently employed many of them in roles within our general store and in our warehouse. With a few notable exceptions, these were good hearted, hardworking people who merely wanted to make enough to be able to live with dignity on Nauru, while at the same time be able to send some money back home to their families.

After I’d left Nauru, I learned that some of the refugees I knew quite well had ended up being granted visas to leave Nauru to live and work in the USA. I’ve since heard from a couple of them who are doing very well in responsible roles in security and hospitality. They are now happily settled and enjoying the type of life they were craving when they set out on their hazardous original journeys to what they hoped would be a better life in Australia.

There were a large number of very talented expats on Nauru, mainly drawn from Australia and New Zealand, and even one from Iceland, believe it or not. They worked in many different roles such as Australian High Commission staff, ROC Taiwan embassy staff, UN representatives, local government advisers, education advisers, teachers and school principals, health advisers, taxation advisers, customs officers, builders, truck drivers etc. Some of these individuals have become firm friends and will be for life.

Together we spent many a Friday night at The Bay or other watering holes such as Jules on the Deck, The Reef Bar or the Od’n Aiwo Hotel, solving Nauru’s problems as well as those of the rest of the world. Apart from The Bay, I wouldn’t want one to think that these establishments were anything flash in terms of their ambience or the food and drink on sale. They were in fact quite ordinary places, with the impressively named Od’n Aiwo Hotel looking like it was due for demolition at any minute, if it didn’t fall down first.

We would also find time each Wednesday evening to gather for the weekly Hash House Harriers walk – it was too bloody hot to run. Members would take it in turns to devise an interesting walk which would go for about an hour after which we may or may not have indulged in a couple of cold libations followed by a quick and tasty Chinese meal.

There are many funny anecdotes I can recount about my time on Nauru but I’m saving most of them for the inevitable book, once I retire and make time to write it. However, I’ll finish with this one. Very early into my stay on Nauru, I was driving home one night from my office to my house in a very heavy, tropical downpour. The main ring road was not lit very well at the best of times and it was very difficult to see what was up ahead. The reason the road was not lit well was because, even though the ROC Taiwan had donated solar street lights that were positioned around the island, the locals had stolen most if not all of the solar batteries to power the lights in their tinnies when they went out fishing after dark.

Anyway, as I rounded a curve in the road, I could see a very large and very deep puddle covering almost the entire road. The reason puddles formed so easily was because the local land owners on whose properties the drainage culverts were located, expected the government to pay them a regular stipend in return for allowing the drains to run across or under their land. When the government refused to do so, the landowners blocked the drains in defiance, hoping to force the government’s hand, while in the process inconveniencing the entire motoring public.

Now, where was I? Oh yes. As I rounded the curve, having slowed considerably to navigate the puddle, you can imagine my surprise when I saw two or three teenage girls emerge wraith like from the puddle and begin to shampoo their hair before submerging themselves again. Water had been in short supply prior to this event, but I don’t think they fully comprehended that they were literally taking their lives in their hands just to have a tub. Fortunately, nobody was injured and I did laugh about it later, as did these girls who broke into uncontrollable fits of embarrassed giggles when they saw me approaching them. Needless to say, it could have resulted in a far less happy outcome had I been going any faster.

Such was life on Nauru. Never a dull moment and it left me with some memories I will carry for a lifetime. At the end of my three-year stint I had been able to satisfactorily answer all my initial questions. No, I wasn’t too old to undertake this gig. Yes, I could endure the rigors of island life for protracted periods of time. And yes, it was bloody hot.

John Murray

March 2021

John Murray works in international freight forwarding in Sydney.

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