Our first day on Kwajalein, we got a quick drive-around tour in a van. We’ve lived here a month, so I may not be the best person to give a tour, but I imagine I’ll enjoy looking back on this post at the end of this adventure and reading about the island through my newbie eyes. Our island tour more than four weeks ago started with, “So this is the lagoon side … ” A few minutes later, we had driven a short arc around some houses, and our guide said, “There’s the ocean.” So let’s start there.
Ocean and lagoon
By now, I’ve adapted pretty quickly to orienting myself around the two major landmarks. “Lagoon-side” and “ocean-side” directions on Kwaj are like opposing cardinal arrows on a new compass. These two bodies of water – both enormous in their way – may seem indistinguishable in some photos, but they create distinct sides to this tiny U-shaped land mass.
On the ocean side of Kwajalein, along the outside of the U, rocky reef slopes out gently from the island a short distance before dropping off – sometimes nearly vertically – to the 6,000-foot sea bed. The water past the reef is rough, deep sapphire blue and wild, especially on stormy days. A sea wall and mounded rock protects the length of the island on its ocean-facing side, and at high tide with a good storm, the water pounds against the rock, a constant white noise background.
Facing the ocean from atop the sea wall, low tide reveals a moonscape of sharp reef rocks dotted with crabs, sea snails, tide pools and sea urchins. Waves break on the reef and beyond their briny foam, India-inky water stretches to the curve of the earth, blue water to blue sky and white clouds, no land to offer relief.
From the northern tip of the island along its outer edge, a few buildings perch above the reef – some houses (with great views and a stiff ocean breeze), the family swimming pool, an open-air bar, the scuba club, an adults-only pool, the ham radio shack and the Kwaj Lodge (the local “hotel”). On the southeastern side, where the U begins to curve around to the west, the runway begins, running east to west. The golf course – nine holes here with the other nine on another island – is wedged between the tarmac and the ocean along the island’s southern edge.
The lagoon side of the island is gently lapped by turquoise waves that are choppy at worst and flat as glass on a windless day. At low tide, coral that has grown above the surface of the lagoon throws gnarled rocky fists above the water. Buoys mark paths through the lagoon coral for ships that cross the water, and a few other atoll islands dot the horizon, their palm trees waving like friendly neighbors across an open field. The bowl of Emon Beach, further protected from waves by a jetty at one end, sits near the northeast tip of the boomerang-shaped island. A rocky wall extends from the the jetty along the lagoon edge to the island dock. A pier, small boat marina, warehouses, and the water treatment and power plants edge the inner eastern curve of the island, and a narrow strip of sandy white beach lines the remaining section of lagoon-facing land all the way around the rest of the U to the northwestern tip.
Is there an inland on Kwajalein?
From tip to tip, Kwajalein is about two miles long, and at its widest, the island stretches 800 yards across. Between the ocean and lagoon – I suppose what you’d normally call “inland” on a wider island – are the stores, homes, shops, offices, storage buildings, police station, bakery, cafeteria, post office, baseball fields, hair salon and schools that make up the Kwaj community. Tradition and shared history have given some of the neighborhoods names – dome homes, zombie housing, new housing, old housing. The grocery store is “Surfway,” and “downtown” is an intersection with a shopping center, post office, hair salon, food court and bakery.
The entire population, all 1200 plus of us, share approximately 1.2 square miles of land with everything we need for daily living – from a wastewater treatment facility to the warehouse that stores extra items for the grocery store.
This morning, Jake and I took a long, two-hour bicycle ride around the island, poking around on the beaches and snagging a few photos for this post. Ocean, lagoon or inland, Kwaj is packed with interesting people and history-laden places. Like our tour on the first day, including everything in one blog post proves impossible. Still, if you ever find yourself headed to Kwajalein, at least you’ll have one bit of knowledge to carry with you: “Over on the ocean side …”