The one-time Gilbert & Ellice Islands Colony (now Kiribati and Tuvalu) covered
such a vast and otherwise empty area along the equator - two million square miles, of
which only some three hundred was land - that few of even its inhabitants, indigenous or
expatriate, ever had the opportunity to visit much of it.
Colonel Dan Raschen had this chance in 1959 when sent (as a Major in the Royal
Engineers) to Christmas Island in the extreme east of the colony, a thousand miles
south of Honolulu, to command the Army detachment left there when the UK nuclear
weapons testing was suspended.
On arrival at Christmas, his first job, at the request of the Colony's Government, was
to survey as many of the islands as possible - most between one and two thousand miles
away - and advise how (and if!) boat channels could be blasted in the coral reefs
surrounding the islands to improve ship-shore communications for the islanders.
Don't Step on a Stonefish is largely his very entertaining account of this 10 days
survey, travelling by whatever ship could be found to go his way, from Christmas
through the Phoenix Group to the Gilberts and the Ellice. But he also gives a rare picture
of activities on Christmas, the largest coral atoll in the world, at the end of the first nuclear tests; and his anecdotal descriptions of government and expatriate life towards
the end of colonial rule sometimes recall Maude's comment on "the soul-destroying
trivialities of European headquarters life".
Necessarily he spent much time at sea, and records honestly the difficulties (and his
own discomforts!) in small ship travel, even to one ship being unable to find the island
he planned to visit; though Wilkes had the same problem in the last century, finally
concluding that the islands he sought didn't exist.
He is particularly fascinating when describing in detail his work in the more remote
islands, often surrounded, indeed hindered, by crowds of children shrieking with
amusement at this European's peculiar antics in the water. His enquiries constantly lead
from one subject to another - and all is duly recorded - how to make grass skirts; the
best way to blow up coral heads, what happens if you ignore the way a giant walks round
an island; how a pre-war DO (unreported to the survey team) had begun to blast reef
channels (his method of drilling gave the clue on the best way to blast through the hard
slabs of coral, though Raschen had to ferret this out from an old Ellice Islander). This is
where an index would have been handy.
It is a pity that the standard of reproduction of photographs fall below that of the
excellent maps and diagrams; and although it is a solidly produced hardback, when
compared to recently published paperbacks about the Pacific such as Bevington's, the
price of #14.95 may deter some would-be readers. The occasional misprint or slip has
crept in - the long-time owner of Christmas was Father Rougier, and the first drillings on
Funafuti (reaching 1114 feet) were by the Royal Society expeditions a hundred years
ago. And as a European doctor at Tarawa found to her great relief, the Gilbertese do
have a cure if you step on a stonefish!
But this is a lively and well worth reading contribution to the sparse material about
the Central Pacific, as well as a light-hearted record of the initial stages (the channels
were blasted in 1962) of help rendered by the Services to a very small and distant British