Running the entire 19. 5km road around the whole island, almost a half marathon, that was my one big ticket item I was keen to achieve on my visit to Nauru, the least visited country on earth (160 tourists per year!), a tiny island deep in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Having spent months in the Pacific Islands over two separate trips, I had left Nauru to almost my last country in the region. It was partly because it didn’t hold a huge amount of interest for me, and also that the return flight from Fiji costs $1300 AUD. But eventually in my quest to visit every country in the world, I’d hit it, and now was the time.
There are two reasons that make Nauru a super interesting place to make the effort to visit. One, you become one of the few tourists in the world to have come here, and two, if you put in the effort, and risk the wild dogs, you can brag to everyone you meet that you’ve ran around a whole country. Pretty cool.
THE NAURU HALF-MARATHON
Last Winter I was in the worse shape of my life, the best part of a year in West and Central Africa had taken its toll on me. Comfort eating, too many casual beers and no motivation to exercise as I was bogged down with the stresses, corruption and danger of traveling in Africa. Follow that up with Christmas with my family, New Years Reunion in Dublin with some of my best friends and you can quickly see how I managed to pile on the pounds, all the way to 85kgs. So disappointed in myself. Never again.
I knew, however, about the ‘Nauru half marathon’ (not an official event, I just named it that to keep myself motivated), and 19. 5km is no joke. I wanted to do run around the island so much, so I used my month in the Pacifics leading up to Nauru to try to get back in shape, running 5km to 10km every day in the sweltering heat hoping I could pull it off, kick the belly into touch and be in ok condition to try to run around this strange, tiny country.
March 19th 2016 soon came, and I was ready to give it a bash. I don’t think I’ve ever run this far before, so to attempt it when I’m still out of shape was probably stupid. Or more likely, my male ego told me I could do it. 32 year old man thinking he’s still 22, that’s me. Stubborn and proud!
I had told a few of the hotel staff my plans, and they instantly told me it was an idiotic idea and that there were horrible wild dogs all across the island.
“Bring a huge stick, and a handful of rocks, they will DEFINITELY bite you, it happens every day”
“A girl was killed by wild dogs last year”
“Cycle instead, the dogs have rabies here too, and the hospital is full of asbestos, awful standard”
I was already pretty stressed about not being fit enough to do it, now I was seriously reconsidering the run at all. Is it worth it? To lose half my calve muscle in the jaws of some feral dog? Or even worse, get rabies? Eurrrgh. It was the one thing I wanted to do here though. Hmmm.
I’m not good at listening to people’s advice, so March 18, I went for a warm up run, planning to do the big one the next day, on my only full day in Nauru. I ran 10km into the interior of the island, where I saw huge, ugly phosphate mines and the entrance to the Australian Detention centres (the two main sources of Nauru’s income), these two places have created a very weird atmosphere on the island. More on that later.
Anyway, it’s bloody hot in Nauru, and the 10km felt like it nearly killed me. Tomorrow was gonna be tough. I planned to wake up at 7am, and head off as soon as possible, hoping to be back around 9 or 10am when the sun would really starting punishing me. Nice plan in theory.
What’s more is that my accommodation was dingy as hell. There are only three hotels on the island, and they had made a mistake with my booking, they were all full. After begging and pleading, I get put in the ‘overspill room ‘for $100, no hot water, power cuts, ants and rats. This would not be a nice place to recover in. But, life on the road meant I had no choice. So I go to sleep in my dingy room, forget to set my alarm, and sleep like a baby.
10am I wake up, it’s already roasting hot, my air con has broken and I wake up sweating. SHIT. This is my only full day, so I have no choice but to do it today, I gotta go. I pull on my running gear, have an awful processed-ham sandwich for brunch, and hit the road around 10.30am. I planned to do it in thirds, 6.5km then water break, 6.5km then water break, 6.5km then water break. Breaking challenges down into small benchmarks has always worked for me, and when you’re tying to visit 197 countries over a decade, you need that skill for sure.
As soon as I set off, it was ridiculously hot and I was drenched in sweat after about ten minutes. This is gonna be tougher than I thought. The night before, I had eaten some truly awful Chinese food for dinner, but that was around 6pm, so I was running with only the dodgy sandwich I had for breakfast as fuel, not great preparation.
The food choices leading up to my run are kinda forced upon you in Nauru. Nauru is unfortunately officially the fattest country in the world, with the highest diabetes rate in the world. They sold their country out to phosphate mining and it has destroyed their land and their top soil, so now they can’t really grow anything other than a few coconuts, and some bananas. The only food they do have access to has to be shipped in from Australia, meaning fresh produce is almost non-existent. Fruit and veg? Either extortionately priced (I’m talking watermelons for $100 kinda expensive), or simply not present. So it’s processed meat from cans, sketchy Chinese food laced with MSG or nothing. Great.
As I’m running, I’m thinking about ill prepared I am for this, and how I always make these stupid decisions, assuming I can do anything. Frustrated with myself, I speed up as a kind of punishment. I managed to reach the first 6.5km checkpoint after about 40mins, but I was truly knackered already. And this is where I owe you guys here, on my facebook page and on my instagram a huge thanks. I started to make excuses in my mind – this is crazy, it’s too hot to run, it’s dangerous. I’m gonna be so sunburnt, that’s really bad, I’ll be suffering for days. There’s gonna be so many wild dogs and I’m gonna get bitten around the next bend. It’s better I just quit, say I gave it a try, but maybe next time when I’m properly prepared. Terrible attitude. Shame on me.
Anyway, then I thought about you guys, about how I said I was gonna do it, about how much I would let myself down if I came back and said ‘couldn’t do it, too hard’. So I sucked it up. Took a five minute break, and hit the road again. The second leg began.
It was getting hotter, and hotter, and hotter though. People were looking at me like I was some sort of alien. “What’s this weird white dude running at almost midday? Does he have a death wish”. Trying to focus though. Small checkpoints created every minute or two. . The next corner I’ll check Google maps again. In nine minutes, I’m allowed to check my progress. Mini-goals all the way.
A few packs of dogs were around, and when they see you running, they attack you, they love nothing more than to sink their teeth into a running victim apparently. Charming. I was under strict guidelines to stop running when I see any dogs on the scene dogs. So turning a corner, I finally come across them. I did just that, stopped running, walking briskly, but still three of them came at me. I didn’t carry a strick, or any rocks. I could barely talk I was so tired, carrying a stick for 19km ? Not happening. Thankfully, two ladies came to my rescue and scared them off, chucking rocks at that, laughing hysterically, and on I went.
Leg two done. 13km down, 1 hour 30 mins gone, two thirds of the way there. I was seriously tired, my legs were aching and I wanted to quit, but I had passed half way, so I knew there was no chance of that. I had reached the airport, and stupidly took a wrong turn and added another kilometer and a half to my journey. I didn’t know it at the time thankfully, but the next day, driving back to the airport, I noticed it, I had to laugh. If I had worked it out when I was flagging, I would have quit on the spot, I reckon.
Sunburn kicking in, tshirt off and wrapped around my head and neck to try to minimize the burn, and fairly spread the damage across the rest of my body! 5 minute water break, more wild dogs, off for the last leg.
That last section was a killer, it seemed so far. And when a tropical storm hit the island, everyran ran for cover. Expect me. I was absolutely delighted. It gave me the last push I need so when I finally stumbled into my hotel, I had done it. Completed my longest ever run, no dog bites or third degree sunburn, I flopped into the shower and sat in there with the cold tap on for about twenty minutes. Then a long deserved nap.
Anyway, now I’m on a flight to Fiji, I’ve left Nauru behind. Legs absolutely aching, stinking clothes shoved into my backpack, still wet. Nauru has been interesting stop, but it’s not somewhere I’d recommend to be honest. I’ve written a little more about my opinion on Nauru below here, so have a look and make the decision for yourself. But of course, if you wanna share the bragging rights about running around a whole country, then get here soon as possible. Until then, I’ll be bragging alone! Safe travels!
TIPS ON HOW TO RUN AROUND NAURU
- Eat properly, the day before and the morning of the run
- Get a proper night’s sleep
- Wake up early to start, 6am would be a winner
- If you’re fit enough, bring a stick, or at least some rocks to throw at the crazy dogs
- Break it into legs, you need the water breaks in the crazy humidity
- Download your journey on Google maps before you go
- Wear sunscreen
WHAT’S NAURU LIKE?
Nauru, I can honestly say, was one of the weirdest countries I’ve ever visited. It’s the smallest independent Republic in the world (the Vatican City and Monaco are indeed smaller, but not entirely independent), and it has gone from being one of the richest countries in our planet per capita, to one of the poorest, due to one thing. Phosphate mining. They discovered phosphate across much of the country 70 years ago, and sold out to Australia. The good times were enjoyed by all, with no view to the finite nature of a resource like this on a tiny country, by either the Government nor the people themselves, spending was excessive and now, the money is pretty much gone. Not to mention a huge chunk of that wealth got sucked into a Brisbane-run pyramid scheme, recommended by the Government officials no less, so lots of locals pumped their new wealth into a get-rich quick scheme, and it soon disappeared. Now the phosphate is running out, the rumours are they have ten years worth of mining max, poverty is rife and it’s sad to see.
The Australians have come again though. Every asylum seeker, economic migrant or refugee, attempting to illegally enter Australia, gets sent to Nauru for ‘processing’, which essentially means getting flown to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, living in detention centres here in Nauru for years on end while Australia work out a plan. A select few Nauruan’s are making an absolute fortune from all this (corruption, and the ‘old boys club’ is part of the lifestyle), renting their land for the detention centres for millions of dollars. all the expat staff for Australian organistations renting accommodation for $3k a month, when most people earn $500 a month for full time work, although with the world’s highest unemployment rate (90%+), people are eking by on less than that. There is no trickle down at all. The President is vastly wealthy AND in perhaps the occasion like this in the world, the President decided to leave the country he is governing, Nauru, and now lives in very comfortable Brisbane, in luxury. He flies back a lot though, so that’s fine apparently. Great guy, right? Hmm.
All-in-all, the energy in Nauru is not running on positive vibes. The refugees don’t wanna be there, the expats are generally there for their six figure salaries while they count their days until they can get off the island, the locals who I spoke to dream of a life in Australia instead, the supermarkets are empty due to how remote the place is, and the cost of everything is more than Europe. Sexual assault, misogyny and violent alcoholism are all part and parcel of weekly life here. I went to a bar on the Saturday night, and saw a lot of it first hand. Very uncomfortable.
The Chinese run a lot of the commerce here – restaurants, stores etc, and although the Nauruan’s complain about their presence, the country wouldn’t function without them. Motivated, entrepreneurial, diligent, perhaps less animosity towards them, and trying to be a little more like them would drag this country forward. Until then, it’s waiting for the next Australian organization to arrive with a pay cheque. I would go as far to say that Nauru is a great case study for ‘aid’, where people become used to hand outs and aren’t willing to work hard to better their situation. One great example is that due to the wild dog problem, the government has promised anyone who catches a wild dog will be given $50 per dog. They are all over the island, causing problems. Now if this happened in almost any other nation in the world, the dogs would be gone in a week, people wanting a better situation for their family would be out hunting dogs all day and night. In Nauru? Not one dog has been caught, yet people are sitting around all day, with nothing to do, complaining about finances. Like I said, a very strange energy permeates the air. And on a personal level, I love self starters, I love people and countries who drag themselves up, improve their situation, are proactive, laziness grates me. So the dog situation, I find infuriating to be honest.
In my opinion, I would only recommend people to visit Nauru if they’re curious about visiting the least visited country on earth, that’s pretty cool and I can relate to people wanting to do that. OR, to run around a whole country – again, really cool. Other than these two attractions, I’d stick to Vanuatu, Samoa, Palau or Tonga – really cool, positive countries, with awesome stuff to see and do. Nauru is in a tricky situation, and when the phosphate finally runs out, and the Australians pull out from the detention centre policy, I worry about the future for this tiny nation.