1. Ride “around” the island. One of the best things to do on your first day is rent a motorbike (for $10 a day, ask at your guesthouse) and ride around Fongafale, the main island in Funafuti atoll. Because it’s a long, thin island there’s no loop road; instead, you’ll ride about 10km in one direction to the northern end of the island, then turn around and ride back to the southern end. Or you might be lucky enough to hop on the back of a local’s motorbike, for an unofficial guided tour. Either way, it’s a great introduction to Tuvaluan life (about half of Tuvalu’s 11,000 people live on Fongafale).
2. Get active on the airstrip.
Every afternoon, when the Equatorial sun starts to lose its bite, the place to be is Funafuti’s unfenced airstrip. It’s only used two mornings a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays; the rest of the time it’s a cross between a public park and a sports ground. Of course during the day it’s too hot and humid to be outside, but come late afternoon, people gather there to walk and talk or play soccer, volleyball or touch football. Join in, watch from the grassy sidelines or just enjoy the open space and cooling sea breeze. There are even a couple of local landmarks either side: the solar-panelled power station and the prime minister’s residence, Tuvalu House, where Tuvaluans are apparently welcome to drop by for a chat with their esteemed leader.
3. Have a castaway day.
In addition to Fongafale, there are about 20 smaller islands in Funafuti atoll that encircle a large, protected lagoon. Several of the most pristine and uninhabited of these “motu” lie within Funafuti Conservation Area, established in 1999, which is a 30-minute boat ride (about 15km) from the mainland. Most are barely big enough for a dozen palm trees, but home to hundreds of nesting seabirds such as black noddies and crested terns. Endangered sea turtles also nest in the soft white sand, and you can often see them (and manta rays, colourful coral and tropical fish) swimming in the gin-clear water offshore. Take a picnic lunch, walk right around some of the islands, go snorkelling – this is one of the gems of Funafuti.
4. Stay in an eco-lodge.
Ten minutes by boat from the northern tip of the mainland, Afelita Island Resort (on Mulitefala Island) offers a back-to-nature experience, Tuvaluan style. This solar-powered, 4-room (soon to be 8-room) beachside lodge opened in 2013 and although it’s still a work in progress (“island time” makes everything take a little longer), the rooms are clean and there are plenty of nature-based activities, including fishing, kayaking, beachcombing, weaving lessons and hanging out in one of the hammocks. The resident owners, Lita and Afelee, are delightful hosts, as interested in the world as in their idyllic corner of it because they lived in New York for six years when Afelee was Tuvalu’s ambassador to the UN. See www.facebook.com/AfelitaIslandResort/
5. Visit merchant seamen-in-training.
The Tuvalu Marine Training Institute occupies Amatuku Island, which is next to Afelita Island Resort (see above) so a visit can be arranged during your stay at the resort. The college trains about 120 cadets a year for life on international cargo ships (much of Tuvalu’s revenue comes from Tuvaluans working abroad as seamen, cooks and marine engineers). You’ll be met at the jetty by a uniformed student then allowed to wander; in addition to the college’s ship-like facilities, you’ll see Tuvalu’s oldest building, a whitewashed coral hut built as a school by the London Missionary Society in 1904.
6. Go to church.
Christianity infuses much of life on Tuvalu, so don’t be surprised if your guesthouse host invites you to a Sunday church service (which will be in Tuvaluan or English, but not both) and offers to take you there on the back of his/her motorbike, then to a traditional family lunch called a “tonai”, where you’ll have a chance to sample typical Tuvaluan fare such as fresh fish, “coconut apple” (sweet, germinating coconut) and breadfruit loaf. Just remember to wait for someone to say grace before you start eating…
7. Shop for stamps.
With limited souvenir-shopping opportunities, Tuvalu Post (formerly Tuvalu Philatelic Bureau) is worth a visit; it’s open weekdays from 8am to 4pm (1pm on Fridays). In this modest concrete building you’ll find, under glass at a long table, sheets of rare and beautiful stamps issued for special occasions (everything from the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War to Charles and Diana’s royal wedding) since Tuvalu became independent in 1978. Many have been collectors’ items, but if it’s on file, it’s for sale. You can also order stamps online at: www.stampsoftuvalu.com
8. Step back in time.
In the absence of major landmarks, a hole in the ground is one of the top attractions in Funafuti – but it’s made interesting by the story behind it. Between 1896 and 1898, researchers from the Royal Society of London (and Australian professor Edgeworth David from the University of Sydney) drilled into Funafuti’s main island, at a spot now known as David’s Drill, to a depth of 340 metres, to test Charles Darwin’s theory of coral atoll formation. (The results were inconclusive, but the theory was later supported in the 1950s by drilling to a depth of 1300 metres in the Marshall Islands.)
9. See some culture.
Although geographically Micronesian, Tuvaluans are almost all Polynesian (with the exception of those on the island of Nui) and have their own distinctive songs, the most common being the “fatele” or dancing-song. Almost every night, there are impromptu performances in family homes and public meeting spaces called “maneapa”; there’s one next to the airport terminal and Hotel Filamona, another family-owned guesthouse (see www.filamona.com). Ask your host where to see a fatele during your stay.
The Tuvaluan version of a siesta, called “Pacific exercise”, is one of the most popular “activities” in the island nation. It’s easy to do: just stretch out in a fishing-net hammock or on a mat under a tree (preferably not one with dangling coconuts) in the middle of the day, usually after lunch, when the heat is too intense to do anything else. It’s guaranteed to revive you for the cooler evenings, and it’s part of getting into the groove of life in tropical Tuvalu.
All the photos credited to: Louise Southerden
For more information, see www.timelesstuvalu.com and Louise Southerden’s blog post On being an un-tourist in Tuvalu
By Louise Southerden