Kiribati (formerly the Gilbert Islands) can be confusing. It certainly confused me, the fact that I would officially land here three times (same as Nauru) on the one trip, yet only visit it once, i.e. leave the airport and see some of the country. Even more confusing, people were classing Tarawa as the “capital” but there is no city of Tarawa – it isn’t even a settlement – it is a series of odd shaped islands known as an Atoll. We toured a few islands in the Tarawa Atoll, some of which were now joined by funding-built causeways (e.g. Stewart Causeway, Anderson Causeway).
In Kiribati, we toured Bairiki (where we stayed and it felt like the “capital”), Betio (which was a big city and had lots of Japanese war history) and Baekinibao (which houses the country’s main museum and cultural centre), as well as a few other islands and small villages including New Jerusalem / Abatao.
We came to Betio for an afternoon of exploring the World War II history, as the Japanese controlled the islands before the US and Allied Forces invaded to win the bloody Battle of Tarawa in November 1943. Betio is one of many settlements in South Tarawa, but for sure the best one to visit for any war buffs. We saw remains of tanks, shelters, prisons, hospitals, bunkers, tanks and boats all here plus we met the locals and enjoyed beers and dinner.
I was on the Least Visited Countries Tour with Young Pioneer Tours and our guide was Molly Brown, well recommended. Please note you will need a car to visit all these places – you drive and stop off at various points. Molly is well recommended, please book her here –
P: (686) 73001016
1.Betio Sports Complex
Despite the fact that the National Stadium is in Bairiki, Betio has a much better Sports Complex. We headed here for a quick look and saw kids doing weightlifting. They were able to lift some really heavy weights. But this is a multi-sports arena.
Inside the complex was volleyball and basketball and outside there was a huge field, where locals were playing football. I got to keep up my record of watching football in every country. There is a small stand here for sitting and watching as well as two monuments – an Olympic monument and a war memorial.
All the beaches in and around Betio have codenames, dating back to World War 2. The Japanese were controlling Tarawa in Kiribati during the war and a bloddy battle ensued, beginning on 20th November 1943. Known as “The Battle of Tarawa”, the US and Allied Forces brought their ships and tanks across the Pacific and fought against the Japanese strongholds here.
Red Beach had some red rusty pyramid shaped shelters and remains of more guns.
The Battle of Tarawa was a bloody battle, with many lives lost and in the end a narrow victory for the USA at a huge cost of lives and machinery. These days, some 80 years on, the guns and tanks and all sorts of wreckages still remain. Red beach was the first beach stop on our tour with Molly.
3.Black Beach 1
We visited 5 beaches in total, including both the black beaches, the green beach and the red beach. Black Beach 1 had some gun remains down by the sand.
4.Black Beach 2
There are two guns and a shelter at Black beach 2, which we check out. Some of us climb on the cannon of the gun at Black beach 2.
5.Green Beach / Temakin Point
Green beach is also referred to as Temakin point. Similarly to the previous beach hat-trick, rocks and guns are on the beach.
The Japanese Hospital was also just remains of where the building once was.
7.American War Memorial
The American War Memorial is inside the Sports Complex in Betio. 30 were killed and 59 wounded on the November 20th 1943, date of the Battle of Tarawa.
8.Betio War Memorial and cemetery
Lots of British and Allied Forces soldiers were killed here during the war and a memorial in the cemetery pays homage to the other groups of fighters, separate from the American War memorial. These fighters came from UK, Australia, New Zealand and other countries.
It’s in the same park at the Japanese Hospital and the cemetery also faces the beach.
9.Betio Peeler Station
We stopped by the Peeler station in Betio. There was a prisoner in the cell at the back, a statue of a Peeler out the front and we learn that the Peelers in Kiribati still use the British Police Uniform.
As a bonus, as well as seeing the uniform and the police station, round the back is another war bunker…
10.Betio Beachside Neighbourhood
Probably the highlight from our time in Betio was being followed by hoardes of children who were so happy to see us and spent a lot of time talking to us and wanting to play. We headed through their neighbourhood and they followed us right down to the beach.
The children knew English and were asking us our names whilst being very interested in chatting. It was moments like this, that I realised we were off the wheaten craic (off the beaten track) and were genuinely in one of the world’s least visited countries.
We had our dinner at the splendid George Hotel. On our trip to Solomon Islands, Marshall Islands, Fiji, Nauru, Kiribati and Nauru, this was possibly the most modern hotel I saw.
The staff were friendly, the food was good (and varied) and there were ice cold beers. There were two bars here – one bar was showing rugby and boxing and the other bar was outdoors with a canopy and was the place we had our dinner. I ate chicken curry with rice and had a hat-trick of Victoria Bitter beers. Kiribati doesn’t have its own beer! That was slightly disappointing as a geek for local and nationalistic separatist things. At least they had their own postcards, stamps, coins and a fridge magnet.
A night on the rip is also possible in Betio. Not only the bar at the George Hotel, but there are two other bars in Betio including Amazing Bar. My friends from Young Pioneer Tours made it to all three bars on the trip, but sadly on the last night, I was ill and bed laden when they backpacked to the Amazing Bar in Betio. I did mange to visit two bars in Bairiki on the first night in the country though.
12.Japanese Command Bunker
One more quirky war related sight is the remains of the Japanese bunker which is in central Betio, we drove to it but it is walkable from the George Hotel.
We visited just one church in Betio, and it was in the same neighbourhood as the kids followed us. We caught a wonderful live singing performance (captured on one of my videos below). We also stopped outside a few other churches, but didn’t go in. It’s a very Catholic country.
Overall, looking back now we packed a lot in to our two days and two nights in The Tarawa Atoll. We also watched a live dancing performance, toured the national museum in Bikenibeu and went to the peak (the highest mountain is 3 metres above sea level.
Here are some videos from my time touring Betio in Tarawa, Kiribati: