Gilbert Islands

Travel Guide Oceania Micronesia Kiribati Gilbert Islands

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Introduction

The Gilbert Islands are a chain of sixteen atolls and coral islands in the Pacific Ocean about halfway between Papua New Guinea and Hawaii. They form the main part of Kiribati.

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Geography

The atolls and islands of the Gilbert Islands are arranged in an approximate north-to-south line. As the crow flies it is approximately 780 kilometres between the northernmost island, Makin, and the southernmost, Arorae. In a geographical sense, the equator serves as the dividing line between the northern Gilbert Islands and the southern Gilbert Islands. The International Hydrographic Organization (IHO) considers the Gilberts wholly within the South Pacific Ocean, however. Another method of grouping the Gilbert Islands is by former administrative districts, the Northern, Central, and Southern Gilberts (Tarawa once was a separate district as well). A group of the southern Gilberts is called the Kingsmill Group, a name that in the 19th century applied to all of the Gilberts. The Gilberts form a continuous chain of seamounts with the Ratak Chain of the Marshall Islands to the north.

The Northern Gilberts (mweang) geographically and traditionally encompass Butaritari, Makin, Marakei, Abaiang (literally northland) and Tarawa. They have unique tonal accents with differences particularly noted amongst Butaritari and Makin inhabitants. Traditionally, Butaritari and Makin were ruled by a chief who lived on Butaritari Island. This chief had all the powers and authority to make and impose decisions on the islanders, a system very different from the Southern Gilbert Islands where power was wielded collectively by the unimwane or old men of the island.
The northern Gilberts have a greater mean rainfall in comparison to the southern and central Gilberts allowing cultivation of a wider crop range. Butaritari and Makin supply most of the bananas sold in Kiribati. The cultivation of taro or babai (Colocasia esculenta) has been historically easier in the northern Gilberts due to a higher water table and regular rainfall.

The Central Gilberts or nuka have traditionally included Maiana, Abemama, Kuria and Aranuka. However, the latter three are considered the main islands that have unique historical and cultural characteristics which distinguish the Central Gilberts from the north and south. Tembinok', the last king of Abemama, Kuria and Aranuka died in the early part of the 20th century.

The Southern Gilberts include the atolls of Nonouti, South and North Tabiteuea, Beru, Nikunau, Onotoa, Tamana and the most southerly island of Arorae.

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Islands

  • Abaiang - 18 km², population about 5,500 - has at least one hotel and a couple of guest houses.
  • Abemama - 27 km², population about 3,400.
  • Aranuka - 12 km², population about 1,200.
  • Arorae - 9 km², population about 1,300.
  • Beru - 18 km², population about 2,200.
  • Butaritari - 13 km², population about 3,300.
  • Kuria - 16 km², population about 1,100.
  • Maiana - 17 km², population about 2,000.
  • Marakei - 14 km², population about 2,800.
  • Nikunau - 19 km², population about 2,000.
  • Nonouti - 20 km², population about 3,200.
  • Onotoa - 16 km², population about 1,700.
  • Tabiteuea (Tabiteuea North - 26 km², population about 3,600 & Tabiteuea South - 12 km², population about 1,300).
  • Tamana - 5 km², population about 900 - the smallest of the Gilbert Islands (too small to construct an airstrip).
  • Tarawa (Tarawa North - 15 km², population about 5,700 & Tarawa South - 16 km², population about 40,000) - Tarawa South is the location of Kiribati's capital.

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Sights and Activities

Abaiang

Abaiang which basically means north land is the most easily accessed of the outer islands. Still, like many island of Kiribati it offers a fantastci remote experience. For example, children shout a mauri to an I-Matang (white person) and women can be seen weaving thatch or salting clams to send to Tarawa. Activities include a bit of hiking or biking towards the Catholic church, which has rainbow-coloured window frames. It is a 15-minute plane ride or a 4-hour boat ride from Tarawa.

Abemama

Abemama almost became the capital of Kiribati after WWII when the islands were still called the Gilbert Islands. In the end though, Tarawa won out because of the easier access through its surrounding reef. The island has its own royal family and apart from culture, there is nature to explore as well. For example a meeting with a rare species of tiny yellow 'barking' frog, which probably was introduced from Tuvalu to prevent the mosquito population growing to fast. In 1889, famous Robert Louis Stevenson dropped by and the British placed the Kingdom of Abemama under their protection in 1892, and it was declared a Crown Colony in 1911.

Butaritari

Another, Butaritari is one of the Outer Gilbert Islands and is in fact the greenest island of Kiribati. You can see breadfruit, coconut, pandanus and other fruit-bearing trees flourishing on its rich soils. Apart from nature, Butaritari also has something to offer for fans of culture and history: there is a lopsided wreckage of a Japanese seaplane near Butaritari village.

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Events and Festivals

New Year’s Day

Kiribati is the first country in the world to welcome in the New Year, albeit at the Line Islands, and events go off nationwide. All bars and guesthouses have something going on, along with traditional celebrations at the local maneaba (meeting house).

Independence Day

This is the main event on the Kiribati social calendar, celebrating the day the Gilbert Islands gained independence from Great Britain in July of 1979. Though the holiday officially takes place on July 12, the festivities last for several days, starting around the 9th. South Tarawa sees most of the action, including obligatory canoe races, kite-flying and traditional dance, along with wrestling, rugby and other sports ventures.

Youth Day

August 4 sees the forward-thinking government focus its energy on the Kiribati youth, with the promise of better opportunities through various workshops and programs. Churches and meeting houses see most activity.

Christmas

Locals attend church followed by much eating, gift-giving and merriment, just like they do back home. In Kiribati, however, there’s also choir singing, dancing, canoe racing, and a myriad of other sports right up until New Year. Locals also go camping in Taiwan Park and visit nearby islands.

New Year’s Eve

A huge event in Kiribati due to its position in the world, this island nation is the first place to countdown the New Year. There are low-key parties on the beaches and in the towns, while all expat bars and guesthouses put on special events.

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Weather

The Gilbert Islands enjoy a pleasantly warm, but humid tropical climate. Daytime temperatures hoover around 30 °C yearround with little variation throughout the year. Nights are still pleasantly warm and generally above 20 °C. The wetter period lasts from December to May and concentrates more on the northern part of the island chain. Trade winds blow from March to October. The most pleasant time, weatherwise, is from May to September. Tropical storms can hit the islands during the wet season, but are rarely a reason not to visit the islands during this time, although the humidity and heath combined with the absence of tradewinds from December to March makes this a slightly less pleasant time to visit.

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Getting There

By Plane

From Tarawa's Bonriki Airport, Air Kiribati has international flights to/from Brisbane Nadi, Honiara, Air Marshall Islands to/from Majuro, Fiji Airways to/from Nadi and Nauru Airlines to/from Majuro, Nauru and Pohnpei.

By Boat

Supply ships might visit Fiji and Tuvalu occasionally. Contact Kiribati Shipping Services Ltd (kssl@tskl.net.ki) for prices and information about any planned departures to Tuvalu and Fiji.

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Getting Around

By Plane

Air Kiribati, the national airline provides regular services to most of the major islands from Bonriki International Airport (TRW) on Tarawa.

By Car

It is possible to rent a car on Tarawa, providing you are aged over 17 years old and have a valid overseas driving license. Be aware that driving is on the left in Kiribati and the speed limit is 40 km/h in the towns and up to 60 km/h on the highways.

You can try the following rental agencies.

  • Toyota Rent-a-Car, Bairiki, Tarawa. Phone: (686) 21 090.
  • Mary’s Motel, Bairiki, Tarawa. Phone: (686) 21 164 Fax: (686) 21 362.
  • Otintaai Hotel Bikenibeu, Tarawa. Phone: (686) 28 084.

By Bus

Privately owned buses provide a cheap and efficient way to get from the airport to the main centres on South Tarawa. Flag one down on the main road and get off at any point. Shout out "I-Kai" to let them know you want to get off. If they sound their horn when you are trying to get a ride, it means they are full.

By Boat

Most of the outer Gilberts are serviced by supply ships from Tarawa every month or two. There is a regular boat from Tarawa to Abaiang, the nearest of the outer Gilbert Islands.

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Eat

The variety of food on the Gilbert Islands is limited. If a shipment of imported food has just come in, buy it now, as it won't last long! The variety and amount is increasing and improving all the time as is the number of supply boats that arrive. While Western style products will always be slightly limited you will find that the basics are generally available. Fruit and vegetables availability is limited. The staple diet of the I-Kiribati is fish and rice and this is reflected in many of the eating outlets on Tarawa. It is worthwhile trying the local sashimi which is supplied straight from the ocean to your plate. Western-style meals are best found at the two hotels: Marys and the Otintaai. There is also a variety of Chinese restaurants.

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Drink

The local drink is toddy made from the sap of a coconut tree. This sweet toddy can then be fermented for a couple of days into the alcoholic sour toddy that is favoured by locals. The original sweet toddy can also be cooked into a syrup called Kamaimai. The Kamaimai can then be drizzled on sweet buns or ice cream. Kava is also easily found throughout Kiribati with a large number of Kava bars appearing throughout Tarawa. The two main bars in Tarawa are Captains Bar in Betio and the Lagoon Club in Ambo. Friday nights at the Otintaai is dance night. Supply of wine and spirits is limited, however there is a good supply of beer which is always cold. There is a single night club in Tarawa called the Midtown which is open till late. Alcohol is not sold on a number of Outer Island in the Gilbert group.

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Sleep

The range of accommodation in Kiribati varies depending on which part of the country you are in.

South Tarawa

The two main hotels on South Tarawa are Marys Motel and the government owned Otintaai Hotel. Both offer motel style accommodation each with a restaurant and air-conditioning. They are located at different ends of South Tarawa and the decision on where to stay is usually made based on your activities while you are in South Tarawa. There are also a variety of other smaller properties scattered throughout South Tarawa. These hotels can get very busy throughout the year so it is advisable to book ahead.

North Tarawa

A visit to North Tarawa is the easiest and most convenient way to experience village life in Kiribati. North Tarawa offers a number of guesthouses and traditional style accommodation. Tabon te Keekee is the closest option, offering traditional Kiribati accommodation in an I-Kiribati family environment. Located at Abatao it is only 10-15 minutes north of the airport. Biketawa Islet, run by the Otintaai Hotel, offers traditional kia kia accommodation. Run in a similar fashion to a retreat meals and sleeping equipment can be arranged, along with boat transfers.
A council guesthouse is located at Abaokoro.

Gilbert Island Group and Council Guesthouses

The Outer Islands are the essence of Kiribati and not enough people make the time and effort to visit these remote islands. Each has a distinctive culture and story to tell of its history. Each of the outer islands of the Gilbert Group have, at the least, a council guesthouse. Standards vary across the group however they are usual a mix of the local style houses known as Kia Kia’s and an open style guest rooms. Each guesthouse usually has a communal living area where meals are served and the cost is approximately AUD30 per night including 3 meals a day.

The facilities available vary from island to island, however they are located in isolated communities and expectations should be altered accordingly. Electricity will usually be supplied in the evening and throughout the night. Food will mainly be based on the local fare and it is recommended that you take anything additional you may need. It is also recommended that fresh drinking water is taken. Most guesthouses are perfectly located on the beach or causeway and a lovely spot to stay easy for swimming and exploring. These guesthouses are run by the Island Councils and it is one of the very few ways the council earn revenue. Each council will normally have a truck and driver that you will be able to hire to help you discover the island. Alternatively many of the locals will be keen to hire out the motorcycles and scooters to you.

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This is version 3. Last edited at 12:40 on Aug 22, 18 by Utrecht. 6 articles link to this page.

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