London, Jan 25, 1997

Last sunset of the 20th Century

by Cleo Paskal


The Republic of Kiribati (formerly the 'Gilbert' of the Gilbert and Ellis islands) is still shuffling and shifting, trying to get comfortable in it's new chair of nationhood. Independent only since 1979, it has had to recover from heavy handed British colonization (one side of the story was told in the perennial school classic "A Pattern of Islands" by Arthur Grimble) as well as destructive guano mining, Japanese occupation during WWII and, awkward geography. At independence, its 33 islands, almost all coral atolls, were scattered over 3.5 million square kilometers of the Pacific, straddling both the equator and the International Date Line.

The Date Line was particularly irksome. With half the country 23 hours ahead of the other half, there were only three working days a weeks when the entire country could be expected to be in the office. Slack, even by the standards of a south seas paradise.

So, in 1994, in a move initially not much noticed outside Kiribati, President Teburoro Tito unilaterally shifted the International Date Line to the country's eastern extremity. According to the I-Kiribati -- and since, The Royal Greenwich Observatory -- the entire country now lives on the cusp of tomorrow, with Caroline Island, getting the best view of what's to come.

What is the next millennium going to be like? Well, if Caroline Island is anything to go by, it's going to be nearly impossible to get to and practically deserted but "[drinking] water can be had by digging".

Hidden away in the Southern Line Islands, Caroline is a ten kilometer by 1 kilometer atoll made up of over 20 tiny islets. It had a bustling 27 citizens in 1868 but since then it's been pretty much down hill. The coconut treed shores have seen few people this century, though roving colonizers occasionally stopped off long enough to rename it. Over the years, it's been called Hirst, Clark, Carolina, Independence and Thornton.

Party goers wishing to get to the island before the year 2000 may want to leave soon. There is no good anchorage or proper airstrip. And, at last count, Kiribati's domestic airline had only one (mostly) functioning plane, a ten seater with such an unreliable schedule that flights are generally announced only on Radio Kiribati and usually never more than 24 hours before departure.

In fact, with their pristine beaches, aquamarine lagoons, tropical fish encrusted coral reefs, deserted equatorial islands and largely pre-cash and pre-electricity economy, the outer atolls of Kiribati might be the best place in the world to forget the new millennium.