Publish date:


More than 200 years after Captain Cook came upon Christmas Island, the remote Pacific atoll and its splendid fishing have been discovered by a wave of modern adventurers

On the 24th, after passing the line, land was discovered. Upon a nearer approach it was found to be one of those low islands so common in this ocean, that is, a narrow bank of land inclosing the sea within.

So runs the journal of Captain James Cook. On his third Pacific voyage, commanding the ships Discovery and Resolution, he had sailed north on Dec. 9, 1777, from Bora Bora to seek a landfall on the West Coast of North America, but had begun to see "boobies, tropic and men-of-war birds, tern and some other sorts" as early as Dec. 16th.

Not until Christmas eve, though, did he observe from the southwest how the ocean "broke in a dreadful surf" on an uncharted atoll some 110 miles in circumference. He waited until Christmas morning before sending in boats, a channel into the atoll's lagoon having been discovered by no other than 22-year-old William Bligh, later captain of His Majesty's Ship Bounty but then principal navigation officer aboard Resolution. Bligh's men were far from mutinous on this occasion, and they rowed back from the atoll with more than 200 pounds of fish, to be supplemented later by 300 green turtles.

Cook, meanwhile, had taken sightings and had placed the atoll at lat. 1 degree 59 minutes north, long. 157 degrees 15 minutes west, just above the equator in mid-Pacific, Eighteen days later he would discover Hawaii and eventually proceed to arctic Siberia and Alaska. He would remain anchored at this isolated landfall long enough only to plant some yams and coconuts, observe an eclipse of the sun and dub the atoll Christmas Island ("We kept our Christmas here"), thus sowing the seed of two centuries of postal confusion, because an earlier British sailor, Captain William Mynors of the East India Company, had so named another tropic island, that one in the Indian Ocean, back in 1643.

Nearly 206 Christmases later, though, no more than a quarter of a mile from where Cook's anchor chains had rattled down in 20 fathoms onto clean sand, I was expecting no mail but making further discoveries by the minute, such as the fact that my tackle box full of popping plugs—enough to last through half a dozen seasons of striped-bass fishing on Cape Cod—was emptying faster than Macy's at closing time on Christmas eve.

Our flat-bottomed boat, which strictly speaking should never have left the lagoon, was riding the swells close to the barrier reef of Christmas Island, and I could look through 25 feet of flashing neon-blue-and-green water down to white lanes of sand that cut through the dark coral. I put on my penultimate red-and-white popper, sent it whistling 60 yards toward the breakers and began yanking it back. The surface commotion caused by the plug suddenly broadened into a wild eruption of the sea as a huge brown shadow came up behind it, engulfed it, screeched away with it and buried it in the coral.

I hadn't expected anything else, nor that big Eddy Currie would fail to give a joyous peal of laughter. "What you want with that too-big devil for, anyhow?" he spluttered.

As a matter of fact, I wasn't entirely sure. In his log, Cook had remarked on "an abundance of fish" around the island. Alone, that vague statement wouldn't have brought me to an atoll 3,415 miles from Los Angeles. But recently the first outriders of that special class of sport fishermen to whom abundance isn't an especially important word had been making the long pilgrimage.

What had brought these sun-vi-sored and khaki-clad veterans of the Caribbean and Central American coastal flats to Christmas, in the way the sighting of a distinctly rare bird draws birders to an obscure estuary, was a report that on this distant coral interruption of the ocean, bonefish could be caught on fly.

For decades now, the speedy and subtle bonefish has been the target of the saltwater fly-fisher. Hold on, though. These were Pacific bones. So? Aren't there millions of bonefish in the Pacific? Don't the Hawaiians catch them all the time?

Well, yes, certainly, one of those sun-desiccated anglers might reply, but only in deep water, not on the flats, in the skinny ankle-to-knee-depth shallows where they can be artistically stalked. Hadn't the archpriest of the art, Lefty Kreh, written in his seminal Fly Fishing in Salt Water, " far as fly-fishermen are concerned, [bonefish] are found only in Central America, the Caribbean and the Florida Keys. In all other areas, bonefish feed in deep water, inaccessible to fly-fishermen." Kreh could hardly be blamed for that statement; no doubt it will be corrected in future editions—but oh, how joyful to be a Christmas pioneer, to catch Pacific bones on the flats and prove Kreh wrong!

And so, sparsely, since the early part of this year, a handful of fly-fishers had done just that. By the time my 727 began its approach to Casady Airfield on Christmas Island last month, a hemisphere had just been added to fly-fishing history, and I was looking forward to being part of its early chapters. I was unaware then that I would be sidetracked by Eddy and his devils.

The first morning I fished, Eddy, a massively broad and tall islander, born on Christmas 25 years ago, newly a guide but old in the ways of fish and outrigger canoes, instead of heading for the bonefish flats inside the lagoon, had gone straight through the reef gap to the ocean side of tiny Cook Island, where the great navigator had first anchored.

"Try for re rereba," said Eddy now. I looked blank. "Hawaiian men call ulua," he said impatiently, "you call trevally." I placed it. Trevally was the Aussie name for one of the Carangidae, a member of the jack family but one that, like the related Gulf permit, ventured into very shallow water. I'd heard that they, too, could be caught on fly in the Christmas lagoon—gentlemanly sized fish of 10 pounds or so.

This didn't seem to be what Eddy had in mind. Already he'd picked out a 30-pound outfit that I had brought along in case I got a shot at wahoo or yellowfin tuna, and now he rummaged in my tackle box and came up with an immense blue-and-white surface plug that had proved itself on Nantucket stripers. "Throw long way," he said succinctly. "Bring back fast."

And so began four successive mornings of attrition. The typical scenario, in fast sequence, went thusly: The splash of a plug, the appearance of a brown shadow, the explosion in the water, the screaming reel, the thumb foolishly blistered once or twice trying to slow a big devil down, the hang-up in the coral, the break-off. Once in a while the trevally would decide to head for the open sea, and if it were small enough, under 35 pounds, say, I'd get it in. Most of the time, though, the life expectancy of my lures was somewhat less than that of a tail gunner over Berlin circa 1943.

There was no point, I thought, that fourth morning, in giving the last of my poppers the chance to live to see Cape Cod again. On it went, and was summarily crashed. "Big Devil," Eddy said, laughing infuriatingly.

"How big?" I asked him.

"Seventy pounds," he gurgled.

"Last plug," I said.

Eddie stopped laughing. "Last plug?" he said. Something had put him on his mettle. "Take up slack," he said. He started the motor and we inched in, following the line, suicidally close to the breakers. "I see him," Eddy said, tossing the anchor over. Then he dived over the side and I, too, could see in the clear water the line running under the coral and the big trevally hanging on the other side of the reef, the plug across his jaws like a bone in the mouth of a bull mastiff, with Eddy's dark shadow approaching him.

There was no chance, of course, even if the weaponless Eddy had been able to grapple him with bare hands. A shake of the great head, and the fish—and my plug—was gone forever.

"Bad devil," said Eddy, back on board again, shaking his own head. It was a losing game, and we both knew it. "We better go 'way now, catch some bonefish. Moon is right, big bonefish on this moon. They get a hex in the belly, come in from the deep ocean. We should go to Paris."

I knew where Paris was—right across the channel from London, naturally, and 10 miles north of Poland. Nobody lived in Paris these days, but London had 740 people, Poland 175, and down the road from London there were 350 more in the settlement of Banana.

When Captain Cook arrived, he had noted that "should anyone be so unfortunate as to be accidentally driven upon the is hard to say that he could be able to prolong existence." Since then, the island has received occasional, thin emigrations from the Gilberts to the south when workers have been needed for copra production, but much more ominous temporary visitations have occurred.

And they have left their mark. The village of Banana, for example, is served by an airport with a runway of 6,900 feet, capable of handling big jets; there is an even bigger, and quite deserted, airfield at the uninhabited southeast end of the island. If you drive from Banana to London, moreover, suddenly, among the coconut palms, you will come upon a complex of deep-dish antennas and mysterious white constructions agleam with stainless steel that look as though they came off the cover of Analog, the science-fiction magazine.

All of which is somewhat extraordinary for a coral atoll, which, if you discount its tiny sister atolls of Fanning and Washington, must be the most isolated on earth. Honolulu, on the nearest landmass of consequence, is 1,335 miles away. Christmas Island is also part of the world's newest nation. Until July 1979 it was attached to the British crown colony of the Gilbert and Ellice islands. Now a new flag of blue waves, golden sun and soaring white seabird flies over it, symbol of the nation of Kiribati—pronounced kiri-bass—which comprises 33 ocean specks straddling the International Date Line, 264 square miles of land scattered over two million square miles of Pacific.

And for the moment, in spite of that airfield and the sci-fi buildings, it is still one of the world's remote places, with only a ham-radio link with Tarawa, Kiribati's capital, 2,015 miles away. Since 1981, though, it has had an air link with the outside world; Air Tungaru, Kiribati's national carrier, flies there once a week from Honolulu.

And, of course, it is possible to have lunch, or at least a picnic, in Paris, so named by a 19th-century Catholic missionary, something of a freebooter, who quit the Church to raise copra on the island. Now in Paris there are only a few scattered stones left of Father Rougier's settlement and, as we found after lunch, many acres of bonefish flats and bonefish by the thousand. As it turned out, these fish were as particular as any much-cast-for sophisticate that swims around the Florida Keys, but because they are in army-corps strength they offered many more opportunities. They also hit Florida fly patterns and made the line scream out in the same way. Inevitably, there were many small ones, but there were also plenty of five-and six-pound fish and, once, an eight-pounder. For the record, Lefty, there are Pacific bonefish for the fly rod.

After Paris, London turned out to be bustling. Under a drying copra stack a few locals sat around drinking beer beneath a sign that read: E TABU TE MOOI BEER IKAI AO TE TAKAKARO, which forbade loitering and the drinking of beer, the legitimate place for which turned out to be Ambo's Bar on the wharf. At Ambo's a blue-water sailor from Tarawa with flowers in his hair told us his name was Rudolph and apologized because, he said, "I am not very much pretty, I am ugly brute," but nevertheless invited us to join him inside the wire-mesh fence that surrounds the bar so that the local cops can seal it off should trouble come. Gilbertese sailors you can find in all the merchant fleets of the world, and Rudolph was a cosmopolitan. "You like Christmas?" he asked. "It is like Florida. It is flat and it snows not too much." We couldn't linger, though: Eddy's father, Eberi, was waiting for us downtown.

Outside Eberi's house, kids played a kind of blackjack, called kemboro, for Australian pennies—for some strange bankers' reason, Aussie dollars are the currency on Christmas—and in the backyard lay all manner of detritus—old truck motors, two propellers, recognizably from a DC-4. Eberi is an upstanding man in his 50s, father of 10, who had come to the island in '58 from the Gilberts to oversee the London copra plantation and, almost immediately, had found himself in the most hideous period in the history of Christmas.

In a while he was to say of those days, "The military officer told us all to stand in the tennis court the soldiers built and bring a cloth. Then he said, 'Three minutes, one minute,' and we put our cloths over our heads, shut our eyes and faced north as we had been told. We were all frightened. Even the name 'bomb' frightened us. We had heard of this bomb."

World War II, which had ravaged the Gilberts, passed by Christmas Island, but in June 1956 a small party of British troops came ashore at London. In a month there were 2,000 of them; a year later, three H-bombs were exploded at 18,000 feet about 30 miles south of the island. Between then and mid-1962 there were at least 26 more shots. Each time the Christmas Islanders were gathered together and told to protect their eyes against the flash. Toward the end of that span the British were joined by U.S. forces, who also tested bombs, and it was 1969 before they all went home, though some Americans returned briefly in April 1970 for Apollo 13's splashdown.

Huge quantities of matériel—trucks, mighty generators, a complete communications system—and a couple of intercontinental-sized airfields were left on the coral, explaining why Eberi now hefted a prop blade onto his mighty shoulder and, following Christmas Island etiquette, said to his visitor gravely, "Please take this home with you. I have many."

In 1975 a U.S. team established that by then there was no measurable radioactivity on Christmas Island, but there was cause for a slight frisson when Eddy said, "I show you the graveyard on the way back."

The graveyard turned out to be nothing but a vast monument to military profligacy. Lined up in hundreds among the fleshy-leaved saltbushes, hub-deep in the tangled vines of pink-flowered Sesuvium, lay the rusting carcasses of American Dodge trucks, British Bedfords, cranes, bulldozers still painted with regimental insignia and the ironic graffiti of hot and homesick soldiers. IVOR THIRST, one of them had scrawled on the cab of his truck, but his seat was now occupied by aggressive red and blue land crabs, and overhead, like great marine vultures, a dozen man-o'-war birds sailed.

"My father tall as me, hey?" Eddy said as we drove on. I'd noticed both men were taller than other islanders, but it was still a surprise when he said, "My great-grandfather Scotland man. In 1868 he comes, with cons."

For a moment I wondered wildly, was there a penal settlement on the island? "Cons?"

"Sure," said Eddy. "He sell cons. Single-bullet kind. Where my family come from, down in Gilberts on Maiana Island. He come for trading, he sell cons to people on my side of the island. They have very easy war because people on other side only got spears. My people make him like a chief or a king, they give him a quarter of the island, he marry my great-grandmother, stay there till he die. He was big, smart fellow."

Indeed, as I looked at him now, I could see in Eddy the genes of that rascally old Scot, as I could in Eberi's pale blue eyes. I told Eddy that back in Scotland there was a popular folk-song group with his name—the Corries. "You send me?" Eddy asked. "I got some Scotland blahwhee music already. I like this. Can you sing Scotland music?"

Not the pipes, I told him, but we headed down the road from the graveyard to my uncertain rendering of Annie Laurie until we were in sight of the island's only hotel, called, naturally, the Captain Cook—24 rooms, 12 with air conditioning, $8 extra, and one bungalow, proprietor Mr. Boitabu Smith.

Built, like the houses in London and Banana, of old barracks material, the Captain Cook should really have been called the Somerset Maugham; over the bar a massive fan moved lazily above a heterogeneous collection of expatriates. There were ex-colonial British unlikely to go home again—like Peregrine Langston, now a fishing guide, a cloth badge pinned to his shirt proclaiming him the local International Game Fish Association representative—and there was the polyglot crew of the 5,000-ton container ship Fentress, out of Ponape in the Marshall, which, in a memorable moment of inattention the previous week, had run ashore on the reef close to London. There were sun-hardened American fly-fishers, like Doug Merrick from San Francisco and Kathryn and Clive Rayne from Carmel, Calif. There were four other Americans, an esoteric collection of radio hams who had spent weeks on an uninhabited atoll to the southwest called Jervis, earning the envy of all other hams worldwide because they were the first to receive and transmit from there. And, explaining the space-age construction up the road, a tableful of technicians from the Japanese equivalent of NASA sat planning how they would track a satellite to be launched from their homeland in January, since for them Christmas Island was Tracking Station No. 3. Assisting them were three disconsolate electronic geniuses from Santa Barbara who were hoping to be off Christmas by Christmas.

Not that happy, either, was a solitary New Zealander whose baggage had been left behind on one of the six island stopovers he had made on the way from Auckland. He greeted us with an N.Z.-style "Gid-day" and proved to be Richard Anderson, a senior field officer of the New Zealand Wildlife Service, on loan from his government to help newborn Kiribati with its conservation problems.

And after a beer or two he confided that he reckoned he would soon be the most unpopular man on the island. "You love cats, right?" he said. "Nearly everybody loves cats. And it's worse here because cats are pretty special animals in some Polynesian cultures. But I'm the feller that's been sent to get rid of them, right down to the last bedraggled moggie. That's if these people want Christmas to go on being the most special bird island in the Pacific. And, God knows, it's been knocked about enough without the cats."

There were, he explained, more than 2,000 sneaky, lanky, hungry, feral cats on Christmas, an island where Tom has all the advantages and Jerry is, well, a sitting booby. One reason Anderson had been drafted was on account of the experience he'd had in his own island country of planning an anti-feral-cat campaign to rescue the last 30 kakapos in the world, flightless parrots that the cats would tackle even though they weighed 10 pounds and more.

"Here, though," he said, "they mostly hit the shearwaters and terns that nest on the ground. And, man, this little speck in the ocean has a huge importance. Seventeen million seabirds nest here, frigate birds—man-o'-wars—boobies and shearwaters that range for hundreds of miles out to sea to feed but can't land on the water. They have to have a home to go to—this little island.

"They took a terrible battering in the H-bomb tests, millions of them blinded by the flash and millions more young starved to death when the tests coincided with the breeding season.

"Now cats are the deadly factor. With time—and when the airline shows up with the traps I brought—I can probably handle the cats. But nobody is going to love me because the pet cats are going to have to go as well—the Kiribati Government's passed an ordinance to that effect—but how do you tell people their pets are doomed? One other problem I have is that the government can't even spare me a vehicle."

He made me feel guilty. I had a pickup and Eddy, just to go fishing. "Want to head out to one of the bird islands tomorrow and maybe try some fishing on Saturday?" I said.

"Blerry airline got my blerry fishing tackle as well," said Anderson. I told him there was tackle aplenty, waited a moment for him to square his conscience—but how could he work, anyway?—and we were set.

Next morning on a trip to Motu Tabu, one of the bird islands, Eddy was plainly uncomfortable about the expedition. "Don't mess with any birds," he told me. "Don't kill any. Don't eat 'em." It would be much later before I realized he wasn't making a case for conservation but was taking the Gilbertese name for the island—the Forbidden Isle—seriously.

Once we were on the white sand beach of Motu Tabu, it was plain that nothing would be easier than to harm the entirely fearless creatures. "Tameness is hazardous to their health," Anderson said laconically, something the first European sailors discovered when they found big, gannetlike birds sitting in the heliotrope trees waiting patiently for their necks to be wrung and so named them "boobies." Now, as we picked our way through the ground vines among the nesting terns and noddies, they showed no inclination to fly off, nor did the extravagantly handsome red-tailed tropic birds feeding young as big as themselves, nor did the broiler-size booby chicks, fluffy and wacky enough to star in Sesame Street. Translucently white fairy terns whirled overhead, then fluttered close to examine us. Out on the bonefish flats, now stripped by the tide, a golden plover from arctic Alaska was overwintering like a fly-fisher from the U.S.

We'd met Katino Tebaki, the local conservation officer, when we landed on Motu Tabu. Anderson said, "He and two assistants have to look after all of Kiribati, not just Christmas, and they don't even have a Jeep. All over the world conservation is tough, but on this poor and isolated island it's murder."

Katino, of a new generation of Gilbertese, had trained in England with the Nature Conservancy and in Hawaii with the Fish and Wildlife Service. As he cradled a tropic-bird chick on Motu Tabu he said, "Richard's told you about the cats, but the islanders eat birds, too, and it is hard to blame them because their fish and coconut diet is so monotonous. But at least there's no market now for the tropic-bird tails they used for ladies' hats, because they've gone out of fashion." I caught a sharp look of anguish on Eddy's face that I would understand later, but now Katino was bending to release a blue-gray noddy from entangling vines. "A lot of them die this way," he said, "but more by the cats."

When we returned to the boat there were bonefish in the shallows like idlers on a street corner, and blue, flashing trevally came raiding the tiny snappers that fed under coral ledges. "Fish tomorrow," Eddy said, "but I'll see you at the dancing tonight."

At ordinary tourist hotels, the local folklorique show tends to be tired and commercial. At the Captain Cook, though, the dancing was frenetic, savage, the Micronesian choruses overlaid by a shouting soloist giving the theme, as a shantyman did on the old sailing ships. Meantime, I thought I recognized the face of the girl who was wildly stamping and gyrating out front. "You met her at the farm," Eddy said.

On Christmas, where there is no soil to speak of, I'd been to see a tiny establishment where cabbages and tomato plants were grown semi-hydroponically, in moldering coconut husks carefully contained in rusting file cabinets left by the military. "That's Mekara," Eddy reminded me. "Best dancer on the island"—and now I recalled the shy girl who had appeared with a wheelbarrowful of what, at 50¢ a pound, was probably the dearest cabbage on earth. I also recalled Mekara's sad story: When the Christmas Island dancers were scheduled to perform in Honolulu, each had to fill out a visa application for the U.S. consul in Fiji. Mekara had been too honest on a previous application. Under "purpose of visit" she'd written, bluntly, "Marriage." She didn't make it to Honolulu.

Eddy disappeared, returning with cups of toddy, a slightly sparkling drink made of three-day-old sap from palm trees. It was as strong as Burgundy. "Tomorrow," he said, "we'll go for a big trevally, my way. You can get bonefish as well, in the lagoon, back at Y-site."

Y-site—the stark name was yet another military inheritance—was deep in the inner lagoon. "Not too many peoples know about this way to fish, but some peoples know." He chuckled mysteriously and took a little more toddy. "Tonight I'll make special oil," he said. "For magic."

"Magic?" I asked.

Eddy began to explain, entirely seriously. "These trevally," he said, "I can catch, kill, eat. They not my devils. My devils you see yesterday. Tropic bird, man-o'-war bird. Also sailfish, manta ray, porpoise. I must not hurt my devils. If I eat them I die, very quick, two or three days."

Now I remembered Eddy's concern over the tropic birds on Motu Tabu; remembered, too, that barely a generation separated him from tribal life on the Gilberts. I remembered a little anthropology also, about the extended family system of Micronesians and their old animist religion, with its tabu creatures—different ones for each family.

The toddy was low again. I fetched more. "You want to talk to my big ghost-devil?" Eddy asked confidentially. "She is Neikana. She comes like a very old woman. I can hear her in the night sometimes, messing with the dishes in the kitchen. We go."

We left the party, heading through the star-bright dark toward London, and came to a rusting group of oil storage tanks, left, of course, by the military. "We bring her a smoke," he said as we parked the pickup, and I followed him to a recess between two tanks. He struck a match that showed a neat circle of coral, inside it three stones that made an arch. "Light a cigarette now," he said. "Take three puffs, lay it down. You can leave the whole pack. And some matches. This devil likes to smoke. Now you tell her what you like to have. Tell her you want big trevally." It was dark, warm and mysterious. I wished.

"Good for get womans, too, if you want to make more wish," he said.

"I thought you told me you went to church," I said evasively.

"I stop when I'm 15; one day I will go again," said Eddy. "My father go back to church when he is 50, when he is old and don't like womans. Also because my mother burn up his magic book and don't make cookings for him. My devil woman is better than church because she says, have a good time, make a big party. She gives you what you want right away without waiting."

In the morning, what had passed at the storage tanks seemed a little remote. With Richard Anderson we headed to Y-site, and it was a pleasure to see him hook his first bonefish. "Nearly as good as our kawahai at home," he said, which was wild praise from a Kiwi. We both immersed ourselves in the limitless world of the bonefish flats, drifting away from where Eddy had run the boat ashore, drifting back when the equatorial sun demanded we drink some cold water.

By then Eddy was busy. He had brought his own trevally outfit, a mighty surf rod left behind by a previous client. Now he was wrapping his leader in an oily palm frond, threading it into a baitfish and leaving the hook clear. "Devil in this oil," he said matter-of-factly, tied the rig to his line and plopped it out into the deep lagoon channel.

It was time to wade the flats again, picking up bones, small trevally, too, on the fly rods. You lose your sense of distance very quickly on the flats, and when I first looked back the boat seemed tiny. Nonetheless, I could see Eddy's big rod, which he had set in a holder, bouncing wildly. I shouted, and the three of us started to run through the shallows to the boat. By the time we got there, little line remained on Eddy's spool, but his mighty muscles had the boat off in seconds and the pursuit was on.

This time the big devil had no coral to plunge into, but there was heavy work before he was shimmering like a great moon at the side of the boat. "Not too big devil," Eddy said, " 'bout 50 pounds. We get them 80 pounds sometimes. Maybe Neikana don't like your cigarettes much." He went off into gales of laughter.

"What's he talking about?" Anderson said. "What cigarettes?"

"Just his old woman," I said.

Back at the Captain Cook, at 48 pounds the trevally drew admiring attention at the scales, whatever Eddy might have thought, and clearly merited a picture. Hovering nearby was Tekira Mwemwenikeaki, who worked for the government, and I asked him to steady the fish while I took a shot.

He did not demur but seemed a little tentative about holding it. When we were through, I urged him to take the fish.

Tekira was clearly torn. Trevallies, even big ones, are delicious. In the end, though, he explained haltingly that no one in his family cared for te rereba. He slipped away, and other, eager hands stretched forward for the fish. Eddy, meantime, was having trouble stifling laughter. "Tekira," he spluttered, "can't eat trevally. This is devil for his family."

"But he went to the University of the South Pacific," I said.

"He still don't want to die in two, three days, though," said Eddy.

"I'll tell your wife about these tricks," I said. "She'll stop cooking for you."

"Sometimes she go away now," Eddy said seriously, "but then I put special oil on my hand, and she back in two days."

It wasn't surprising, therefore, that Eddy wasn't at church in Banana next morning to hear the Rev. Been Timon, in formal Gilbertese wear of white shirt, tie and black wraparound skirt, admonish his congregation to worship God, not Mammon. The call to service had been made by the striking of an iron bar against an old nitrous oxide cylinder left by, of course, the military.

Neither, naturally, was Eddy one of the white-robed choir that after service sang in sweet harmonic Gilbertese first Hark the Herald Angels Sing then Joy to the World, practicing for one of the special events that in little more than a month would mark Christmas on Christmas Island—a grand competition among the choirs of London, Poland and Banana that would follow the morning service and the midday Christmas feast of pig roasted in an earth pit. A basket of food would be the prize, said the Rev. Timon, and all three villages would assemble for the occasion at the maneaba (the open-air meeting place) in London.

They can expect Eddy, presumably, in about a quarter of a century, around Christmas 2008 A.D. Maybe not even then.



As curious birds wheel about her, an angler plays a bonefish on Christmas Island's expansive flats.



The author found the bonefish to be big and plentiful—this one weighed eight pounds.



London is a place of war-surplus architecture, with a pace of life unthreatening to sleeping dogs.



Abandoned matériel from years of H-bomb testing is examined by local development officials.



Once a crown colony, Christmas became a part of Kiribati when that nation was created in 1979.



Bikini Atoll



Hawaiian Islands

Christmas Island



0-500 miles




[See caption above.]






Christmas Island

South East Point

0-5 miles



Situated on a hook of land at the entrance to Christmas' lagoon and its vast bonefish flats, London is the principal settlement on the atoll.



Some fish, but not yellowfin tuna, give Eddy a devil of a time.



Mekara was too blunt to get a trip to Hawaii.



Eberi, Eddy's father, offers a DC-4 propeller blade as a gift.



Dancing is a genuine pastime for all, not just a nightclub act for tourists.



A Christmas toddy is made from coconut sap.



Growing up in London means learning the game of kemboro, which is very similar to blackjack.