Tuvalu: Visiting one of the world's tiniest countries

At first it looks as if we're going to ditch in the satin-blue sea. There is no seabird's view of jewel-like islands as we approach Funafuti, the main atoll. In fact, there's no land in sight at all. Just the endless glittering Pacific until, seconds before touchdown, I glimpse whitewater fringing the edge of a coral reef and the mop-heads of coconut palms flanking the unfenced airstrip.

That's how tiny Tuvalu is. Halfway between Australia and Hawaii, this daisy-chain of nine "islands" (three true islands and six coral atolls) is one of the world's smallest countries, with a population of  11,000. 

It's also one of the least elevated. If you've heard of Tuvalu at all, it's probably because, along with other low-lying island nations such as neighbouring Kiribati and the Maldives, it's in danger of being wiped off the map by rising sea levels. Already king tides and storm surges regularly inundate Tuvalu; Cyclone Pam devastated some of its outer islands a year ago and Tuvalu's Prime Minister Enele Sopoaga​ has been increasingly vocal about his country's vulnerability to climate change.

"I'm sick of climate change," says Lita Afelee, whose husband was Tuvalu's ambassador to the United Nations from 2006 to 2012.  "You can't think about it every day. You have to live, work, go to the beach, live your normal life," she tells me during my stay at their small, solar-powered lodge, Afelita Island Resort.

Others I meet in this devoutly Christian country believe that God will save them from climate catastrophe. 

Nevertheless, Tuvalu is doing its bit to mitigate the effects of climate change. It plans to be the first country to generate 100 per cent of its electricity from renewables by 2020, for instance, and there's talk of starting up "climate change tours" to showcase climate adaptation projects funded by foreign aid. 

I see some of these projects during my week-long stay: new solar panels on the government building, an impressive solar array at the formerly diesel-fuelled power station, coral reef regeneration projects, solar "Love from Taiwan" streetlights, earthmovers replacing sand on the main beaches and mangrove plantations to reduce coastal erosion. 

Until these tours get off the ground, however, Tuvalu is the destination that tourism forgot. Just two hours north of tourist-savvy Fiji, it has no tour guides, tour operators or organised activities and isn't on the cruise-ship circuit.

On the plus side, there are plenty of places to stay (a government-owned hotel and about a dozen family-owned guesthouses and B&Bs on Funafuti's main island), English is the official language (once part of a British protectorate called the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, Tuvalu has been part of the Commonwealth since it became independent in 1978) and they use Australian dollars – although there are no ATMs or credit card facilities, so you have to take enough cash for your stay. 

The people are friendly, too, if a little unsure what to do with strangers. More than once I was asked, "What are you doing here?" By the end of the week I understand why: I see no other tourists, only visiting expats including a couple of helicopter pilots working on tuna boats, a Japanese anthropologist and two Kiwi solar electricians.

All of which adds to Tuvalu's offbeat charm and takes you back to a time when you could land in a destination without a plan or a guidebook, learn about it from the people you happened to meet and let your days unfold without an  itinerary.

When I arrive, for instance, Tuvalu's tourism officer, Paufi Afelee (Lita's daughter), picks me up and takes me on an island tour – on the back of her motorcycle. It's the perfect introduction to Fongafale, the long, backwards-L-shaped main island, riding palm-lined roads, waving at kids riding in handcarts towed by other motorcycles (it's too hot to walk anywhere), the wind ruffling our hair (no one wears helmets, everyone rides sedately). 

I soon learn that tourism is a follow-the-locals affair and the best way to get your bearings is by chatting with your guesthouse hosts. 

My host at Esfam Lodge takes me to church – also on the back of a motorcycle, barefoot – then to Sunday lunch with her extended family where we all sit on bamboo mats eating fish, chicken and coconut dishes with our fingers. Another local shows me around the Tuvalu Marine Training Institute, which trains about 120 cadets a year for life on international cargo ships (thousands of Tuvaluans work abroad as seamen, cooks and marine engineers).

Don't expect to find anyone to talk to in the middle of the day: that's hammock time. They all emerge by late afternoon, however, and converge on the airstrip, which becomes a cross between a public park and a sports ground at the cooler end of the day; on hot nights people even sleep there, dragging their mattresses onto the tarmac in search of a breeze.

You know you're not in Touristan any more when two of the main attractions are the post office and a hole in the ground. To be fair, the special issue stamps on display at Tuvalu Post are works of art, long prized by discerning philatelists (they also make unusual souvenirs). 

And the hole, David's Drill, put Tuvalu on the map in 1896 when researchers from the Royal Society of London, accompanied by Australian professor Edgeworth David, drilled down to 340 metres to test Charles Darwin's theory of coral atoll formation. (The results were inconclusive, but the theory was supported in the 1950s by drilling to 1300 metres in the Marshall Islands.)

Before my visit, I'd imagined Tuvalu to be an undiscovered Maldives, and it does have natural beauty. You just have to venture off Funafuti's densely populated and rather polluted main island to find it. 

Speeding across the lagoon to the far side of the atoll in an open boat, I watch the bumps on the horizon morph into uninhabited "motu", tiny castaway islands rising out of gin-clear water, each no bigger than a clump of palm trees. This is Funafuti Conservation Area, a haven for hundreds of black noddies, crested terns, manta rays and nesting sea turtles. 

On one island, while I snorkel over colourful coral offshore, my guide, Kaunati, walks up to the soft sand to look for turtle eggs and returns cradling something in his hand: a turtle hatchling with two-heads, dead. He can't say whether it's a genetic anomaly or a consequence of pollution, just that he's never seen such a thing. For me, it's just one more surprise in a week of them.  

The day I leave, there are hugs all around at my guesthouse before I walk to the airport terminal, right next door. Someone ticks my name off a printed passenger list, an air-raid siren sounds to clear the airstrip and, in the absence of an X-ray machine, a young woman in uniform frisks me before boarding. "Have a nice trip," she says. "Come back?" 

Tuvalu won't be everyone's cup of coconut water. It's not the next Fiji or Vanuatu. But for those with time, curiosity and a sense of adventure, it's the kind of place that makes you feel like a traveller again. And for the rest of us? It's a healthy reminder of a world that exists outside the tourist universe, for now.

See also: The world's smallest countries (and why you should visit them)

See also: The six best Australian islands you've never heard of

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

See timelesstuvalu.com 

GETTING THERE

Fiji Airways flies daily from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Suva, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays from Suva to Tuvalu. There are no same-day connections between Australia and Tuvalu so visitors must overnight in Suva each way. See fijiairways.com. Tourist visas for Tuvalu are issued on arrival.

STAYING THERE

On the main island Funafuti atoll, the 16-room government-owned Vaiaku Lagi Hotel has rooms for $126.50 a night and there are about a dozen family-owned guesthouses with rooms from $80 to $120 a night; see esfamlodge.com or filamona.com. Afelita Island Resort has rooms for $120 a night; see booking.com

Louise Southerden travelled as a guest of South Pacific Tourism Organisation.

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