We were doing a bit of spring cleaning the other day and came across a pile of old postcards – remember them? Those funny little bits of cardboard that people used to post long before emails, Facebook and Instagram. One of the quaint old cards really caught our eye. It was posted from Nauru, way back in the 1980s and bore the rather unusual descriptor “Pleasant Island”.
The irony was immediate, given the almost daily reports of human misery and deprivation that leak from this 21square kilometre sandpit in the middle of nowhere. That of course is the grim reality of today, even though refugees on the island are now allowed to roam its moon-like landscape at will. But what was it like back in 1986 when we received this card from an Australian friend who had gone to work on the island as a teacher?
In the 60s and 70s phosphate royalties meant that Nauruans were per capita, amongst the wealthiest people in the world. Much of that wealth was channelled into projects such as a skyscraper in Melbourne and their own somewhat grandiose airline, as well as some more speculative investments which later turned out to be complete disasters. By the mid 80s however, much of that wealth remained, Nauruans were doing it easy and the future looked relatively bright.
The postcard read:
“Arrived a few weeks ago on the Air Nauru flight from Melbourne. Can’t believe how tiny this island really is and the sense of isolation is overwhelming. You might as well be on the moon and that’s what much of the interior looks like with thousands of tiny craters left from phosphate mining. Not much seems to grow here despite the abundance of fertilizer and nearly all food is imported from New Zealand and elsewhere. A lot of it is processed junk, high in fat and sugar and Nauruans have a real problem with obesity, dental health and diabetes. Yeah – as you would expect, not much to do in the way of entertainment here. There’s an international hotel, built when Nauruans believed their island might become a tourist destination but one of the main pastimes is a custom called “going around”. You load up a car with friends and a couple of slabs of beer and just drive endlessly around the island. If the car gets pranged it’s no big deal as the money is there to get another one shipped up from NZ. I’m on a three year contract here, but after three weeks I‘m wondering whether I’ll see out the year. Love to say wish you were here but….”
By the early 2000s the Nauruan economy was effectively bankrupt. The 52 storey Nauru House (aka ‘birdshit house’) in Melbourne has been sold and the airline’s only Boeing 737 repossessed, the value of the Phosphate Trust had shrunk from over $1 billion to around a tenth of that sum. The Nauruans were in big trouble – and then of course came the godsend from the Australian Government with the establishment of Alcatraz in the Pacific. The phosphate may have been exhausted, but human misery was now the new growth industry.
“Pleasant Island” was once the tourist label that Nauru affixed to postcards and other promotional material. We doubt whether it still gets a run these days unless you’re a shareholder in Wilson security. We threw our postcard out with the trash.
with Coffin Ed, Jay Katz and Miss Death