Fly fishing on Kiritimati: Part 1–The getting there part
June 18, 2019
Just to clear things up, Kiritimati (a respelling of the English word, Christmas) is pronounced ‘Kirismas’ in the Kiribati language.
Having never been on a destination fishing trip, a recent visit to Kiritimati aka Christmas Island (or CXI if you’re just too busy to spell it out) was a big deal, and it exceeded expectations. I define ‘destination fishing trip’ as a distant location to which one must travel a great distance by air to go fishing. Full disclosure: I once flew from Seattle to Boise (and from there drove a few hours to Victor, ID, to fish) but it was only an hour-long flight so it doesn’t qualify.
The trip to CXI Kiritimati was hosted by my buddy, Joe Willauer (a hobby fishing guide in Montana whom I met many years ago when he was just a boy and a dirtbag real fly fishing guide). The trip package was through Flywater Travel and was very well done. Pre-trip communication was quite thorough and included what we should expect—and not expect—on the island, which really isn’t an island but rather a raised coral atoll (and in fact the world’s largest one at that). Our guides on the island atoll were through Christmas Island Outfitters, and were excellent. We stayed at Sunset Horizon Fishing Lodge, and from what I was told by Joe (who had been to Kiritimati several times previously), it was an upgrade from previous locations he had stayed, in particular with regards to the dining arrangements.
From Seattle we flew to Honolulu on Memorial Day and overnighted at the lavish Waikiki Sand Villa Hotel, a building that may well have been one of the first high-rise hotels in Honolulu following Hawaii’s statehood in 1959. It clearly caters to foreign tourists and despite that we couldn’t read any of the signage in the lobby, it provided us with all that we required for our one night stay on Oahu. It was the perfect transitional housing before spending the next 7 days on Kiritimati.
That evening we met up with the rest of our group for supper. Joe was accompanied by his dad, Billy Joe, and his buddy Cap’n Jesse (a real, live fishing guide who lives on Oahu). These three had been to Kiritimati several times and were all chill, like, “Yeah, CXI, no big deal.” Also in attendance were a couple of fellas from the Lone Star state, Gus and Woodrow, whom Joe had known for years as they drive cattle travel to Montana each year to fish. We enjoyed fine island fare at Uncle’s Fish Market & Grill and shared conversation with friends new and old. On Tuesday morning we boarded a Fiji Airways flight from Honolulu to Cassidy International Airport on Kiritimati. This leg of the trip was aboard a Boeing 737-700 (not a single engine prop plane) and the flight crew was fantastic (airlines in the states could learn a little something about hospitality from the Fijian crew). The 3 hour flight went by quickly despite that we left Oahu on Tuesday and landed on Kiritimati on Wednesday (time travel is hard to wrap my head around). I’m not sure when we crossed over the International Date Line but I was completely alert and glad to have had a window seat when Kiritimati first came into view. The anticipation had been great, and seeing the island from the air added to the excitement.
Joe had prepared us for the worst part of the trip, which would be the customs “holding pen” at the airport on Kiritimati. In years past, foreigners would have to spend a few unpleasant hours in what sounded like a non-air conditioned chicken coop as they waited for their outbound flight at the end of their trip. Much to our surprise and delight, a new airport facility had been constructed in the past year, opening in February 2019. There was nothing shoddy about the modern facilities at Cassidy International airport, and while it would be several days before we had to concern ourselves with outgoing customs detainment, there would be nothing to dread.
There is one incoming flight from and one outgoing flight to Honolulu each week, so Tuesdays Wednesdays are kind of a big deal on the island. We were greeted at the airport by Bita Kairaio, owner and head guide at Christmas Island Outfitters. We then loaded into our Uber X transport truck for a 20 minute drive to the lodge. Kiritmati is part of the nation of Kiribati which is said to be one of the 12 most remote countries in the world and is described as sub-third world (whatever that means). Along the drive (on the wrong side of the road, mind you) it was immediately clear that the people here don’t have much. Streets were intermittently lined with elevated water tanks and shipping containers as we passed schools and churches and a couple of small, simple stores on our way through the town of Ronton (London). Houses varied from 3-sided huts with roofs made of woven coconut palm leaves to tidy concrete block homes with metal roofs, and everything in between. Children frolicked and adults of all ages milled about, all appearing to have good posture (not a single one of them had their faces buried in a smart phones because, well, there aren’t too many smart phones on the island). Motorcycles and a variety of cars and trucks, in a wide variety of physical condition, zipped about town. Light duty Isuzu diesel trucks were predominant while Toyota Hilux diesel trucks were also common (wish we could get those in the states).
We arrived at Sunset Horizon Fishing Lodge, a modest but attractive facility on the beach in the heart of the town. Three concrete block buildings, two units per building, provided very simple but clean rooms that each included two twin beds and an adjoining bathroom (a sink, shower and toilet). We were glad to have a new AC unit which kept hour room as cold as we wanted it at night. A large, covered patio served as our central gathering place and dining room. The beach was just a few steps from there.
Meals were served to us by a very friendly and accommodating staff. Our hostess, Lisa, is a local employee of Flywater Travel and was on hand each evening to make sure we had everything we needed. Beer choices consisted of Heinekin and Budweiser, served slightly below room temperature. Fortunately I am as far from a beer snob as a person can possibly get, so I had no issues with the selection of swill beer. That said, it was rather nice to have purchased some liquor at the duty-free store in the Honolulu airport. The rum went quickly (note to self: bring more next time). The food was better than anticipated, with fish, chicken, and lamb being frequent visitors to our dinner plates. Breakfast was quite good as well, with usually eggs and a breakfast meat, and there was plenty of it. I never left the table hungry. Lunch was—as we were told to expect—rather minimalist. The PB&J sandwiches were robust and filled a void, but we supplemented with protein bars, dried fruit, and jerky. On the third day I opted for the fish sandwich and was glad I did because it was delicious. A tuna type spread with sweet onions. Two thumbs up.
This gives you a very brief glimpse into what it took to get to Kiritimati, and what we encountered upon arrival. Next up, the fishing part (because that’s why we were there, right?).