Abgelegen | Remote Insel | Island Reportage

Oceanian adventures: Travelling to Abaiang, my first Outer Island

I wrote this little guidebook just before the introduction of the Covid19-related travel restrictions. One year later, Kiribati remains one of the last Covid-free places on the planet, but travelling there has not become an option again. Now I decided to publish the entry nevertheless – lest it invite to some armchair travelling to the remotest place I have ever been!

This is a guidebook for visitors to Abaiang, composed after my visit in autumn 2019.

Travelling to countries like Kiribati, Tuvalu or Micronesia is great and exotic, indeed – but the real deal are their “Outer Islands”. Most Oceanian nations are composed of one or two islands with an international airport, sometimes called “Mainland”. They are exotic, but there is electricity, hotels, restaurants and even limited touristic infrastructure. Not so the Outer Islands: Travelling there requires patience, connections and some creativity.

This is why tourists usually don’t go to Outer Islands – a foreigner usually cannot simply pop up and do sightseeing like elsewhere. The only foreigners going there are usually Mormon missionaries and from time to time a development worker. Therefore, most Outer Islands remain uncharted territory for tourism. And that is also very likely to remain like this. However, there are a few Outer Islands which are more or less accessible. Abaiang in Kiribati is one of them.

ABAIANG is an atoll just north of Tarawa, the “mainland” of Kiribati, with 5.500 inhabitants. Teirio, the main island, is about 30 km long. There is no running water, no electricity, no restaurants; and the airfield is just a gravel strip in the forest. There are 18 villages in Abaiang, 16 of which on Teiro, Abaiang’s 30 km long main island. Here is what you can see and experience on Teiro island, from North to South:

Takarano is the northernmost point of Abaiang, and the first place a tourist has to go. It is the location of the Island Shrine. Visitors are supposed to bring tobacco sticks (strangely called ‘Irish Cake’) as a sacrifice there. We had no clue what to do with it, but a man living nearby approached us, took the tobacco and proceeded to perform some rites. In the end, he made a wreath from a plant and put it on our heads – that was it. I was not sure whether this was just a trick to get hold of the tobacco or what we were actually supposed to do.
From Takarano, the view towards the smaller islands is impressive.
Tebunginako is a village partially drowned in the lagoon. I am not expert enough to recognize why this happened – due to rising sea levels, erosion, or just the usual shifting of islands in Oceania. Whatever the case, the villagers rebuilt their houses nearby and there are few traces of drowned Tebunginako.
Koinawa is the main village of Northern Abaiang and the seat of a cathedral in some kind of Neo-Gothic architecture, which looks totally out of place on this island, where most buildings are traditional wooden structures . The decoration is made with seashells. The Catholic Our Lady of the Rosary Church was built in 1907 during the presence of a Belgian priest.
At the seaside in Koinawa are the grand maneabas, the biggest structures on the island. Maneabas are the traditional gathering places of villages or family clans in Kiribati. They are still very much in use all over the country, even on the main atoll.
That’s how gas stations look like in Abaiang. The first one we stopped wouldn’t serve us – they delivered gas only to south-bound traffic! In Koinawa, we found a north-bound gas station, which would pump the fuel in a rubber tube into a metal bucket and then into the bike’s tank.
Terau Beach Bungalows is where we (I was travelling with my brother) spent the nights. Very basic: No running water, no electricity, shared bathrooms. This was more than compensated with the most scenic setting I ever experienced in a hotel – all rooms are in traditional huts above the lagoon. Tinaai, the friendly owner, organized transfers, rental motorbikes and cooked food for us. (See Terau Beach Bungalows on Facebook.)
The airfield is just a dust/gravel track in the forest. There is no terminal, just a wooden hut with no clear purpose – probably a shelter for the rare occasions when it is raining. We were met directly at the plane by a motorbike driver sent out by Tinaai.
Video of my short flight from Tarawa to Abaiang – an unforgettable experience.
Tebunginako is the main port of Abaiang. It sits at the southwestern tip of Teiro. From here, “ferries” and other boats leave to Tarawa and other atolls. There is not much to see and unlike the northern tip with its shrine, the locals don’t consider it a special place. For a mere port, it is an incredible setting, though.

Getting there (in non-pandemic times): Air Kiribati has two weekly flights from Bonriki International Airport to Abaiang Airfield – a gravel strip in the forest. The flight (ca. 80 AUD) takes 20 minutes and is quite an experience – see the video below. There are also two ‘ferries’ for Betio on Tarawa Atoll, the main harbour of Kiribati. The ‘ferries’ are slightly bigger than normal fishing boats, leave several times per week around noon and cost about 20 AUD for the three-hour ride.
Transport: A gravel road goes along all of Teiro. The only vehicles are four or five flatbed trucks, which apparently also serve as a kind of public transport. And there are plenty of Chinese motorbikes, also available for rent (about 20 AUD/day). But watch out – they are quite tricky to ride. Luckily, the locals always helped me out when I had a problem, as everyone owns the same bike.
Accommodation: I stayed at Terau Beach Bungalows, a row of traditional wooden beach houses for rent. Terau is a unique place with a helpful host close to the airport on the lagoon side. Very basic, but I loved it. There are two more resorts on the little islets of Ouba and Teirio (see map), which are however further away from the settled part of the atoll. A Swiss expat once als run a guesthouse, but according to this newspaper report, it is not operating at the moment.
Food and Drink: There are no restaurants or bars in Abaiang. Guesthouses prepare food for their guests. There are kiosk-like shops in the bigger villages which sell a very basic range of conserves and other imperishable food. Beer and Coca Cola is sometimes available at one of those kiosks at the airfield, depending on supply. I had heard that they sold traditional beer there and was very curious. Disappointingly, it was just a Chinese beer brand called ‘Traditional’.

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