Keri Algar finds a peaceful and serene island with a rich history, the Pacific’s equivalent to Venice and spectacular scenery. A place where no happy hour is necessary.
We reach a fork in the tunnel. “One of these is a dead end. Wait here a sec and I’ll take a look.” Scott (my guide) takes the passageway to the right and vanishes with the only torchlight, leaving me in darkness. We’re in the belly of a mountainous Paci c island that no one seems to have heard of.
“Um, how are you going to be?” I call out nervously.
The shuffling of bare feet signals his return and the light reappears. “I didn’t see the end, but I have a feeling we go left.” This is a slightly narrower shaft that steers deeper into the island.
If you’ve never walked through a mountain passageway, here’s a tip: minutes feel eternal. Bent over we slowly venture further until, eventually, I literally see the light at the end of the tunnel and breathe a sigh of relief.
“Have you ever seen a land crab?” Scott enquires casually.
Immediately I imagine a coconut crab, fierce-looking, with claws so powerful they can crack open a coconut.
“A what? A coconut crab?” I splutter. Before I know it, a huge crab comes scuttling down from the entrance.
“No, no, it’s a land crab! It’s different.” My guide is sounding a little amused.
Different it may be, but its claws look the same, reaching up and open in defense as it scampers in fright away from Scott, directly toward me. The path is too narrow, there’s nowhere to go but back into the tunnel, so I hold onto the rocks and shimmy my feet up the sides as the crab hurries underneath. It’s a lucky escape. Fortunately, this is my idea of fun.
Temple of Doom or Treasure Island?
“Growing up on Kosrae has been a bit like living in an Indiana Jones movie,” says Scott as we trek downhill along an overgrown jungle pathway.
Indeed, the almost-forgotten island has an appealing blend of picture-book beauty and story-telling history. Although it is known as the most tranquil island in the Federated States of Micronesia – a notion supported by its unofficial name, the Sleeping Lady – Kosrae (Ko-shry) has experienced momentous history.
Some of its recent past includes the tunnels we have just traversed on Lelu (a tiny island connected by a causeway to Kosrae). Japanese soldiers excavated them during WWII. While no battles were fought on Kosrae, there are also raid shelters, trenches and foxholes to explore, made by the roughly 4,000 Japanese soldiers who were stationed here. Mount Oma is also riddled with a honeycomb of tunnels, far more extensive and complicated than what we’ve just walked through.
Tracking back further in time to the 1870s are tales of Captain William Henry (Bully) Hayes: a US-born cutthroat, swindler, thief and womaniser, put simply, a South Seas pirate. Aboard his dubiously acquired brig, the Leonora, the notorious Bully arrived in Kosrae on a blackbirding mission – this is the capture of islanders by trickery to trade as indentured labour on plantations.
He was shipwrecked in March 1874 while moored in Lelu’s natural harbour. Exploiting his time on Kosrae as a copra trader, Bully established a reign of terror for seven months before fleeing arrest by an English captain who’d got wind of the situation.
The story goes that, in his haste, Bully buried three treasure chests, totaling $1 million in gold coins. Years later he attempted a return to the Sleeping Lady, but experienced a tting end at the hands of his ship’s cook, who reportedly chopped Bully up and fed him to the sharks. Booty or no booty, Bully did leave a more accessible treasure in the sunken Leonora, which today is a haven for marine life and scuba divers.
Just when you thought Kosrae’s history couldn’t get any more intriguing, it does. We’re clambering through the 13th century ruins of an ancient city built from enormous basalt columns. The megalithic city of Lelu was constructed over coral reef that was filled to provide artificial islets for roads and buildings, separated by a complex canal system. It is the Pacific’s equivalent of Venice, and possibly on a par with the enigma of Machu Picchu.
At its peak, Lelu may have had a population of 1,500 people and covered over 20 hectares. Today the ruins are engulfed by forest; giant trees overshadow the once intimidating six-metre walls.
“This is where we think people, probably chiefs, were buried, maybe burned,” says Scott, pointing to a pit, barely discernible through a tangle of ferns.
“Some people believe their ashes were thrown into the blue holes.” The two natural blue holes in Lelu harbour are actually a hotspot for sh life.
Perhaps the greatest wonder of Lelu, and its city sister Nan Madol on the island of Pohnpei, is that it would have required the cooperation – or enslavement – of the entire population to construct. In the Paci c, drenched daily with sun and rain, food and water is in abundance everywhere, so power does not tend to be centralised around resources. Instead, power systems are formed around familial respect: a hierarchical chiefdom would have coordinated the massive effort. Either that, or the basalt columns were transported by levitation (black magic) – a popular theory on both islands.
Modern Lelu village is located right next to its ancient counterpart. So accessing the ruins is easy, if not incongruous: just park at the supermarket and beyond the shipping containers-cum-freezers you’ll spot the ruins – a good example of Kosrae’s quirkiness.