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Friday, 24 December, 1999, 16:14 GMT
Voyage to the third millennium
Click here to watch Mike Donkin's report
It is Christmas Day on Christmas Island, and our voyage across the Pacific into the third millennium is almost under way.
We will be five days on the ocean travelling to Kiribati's most easterly outcrop, to Millennium Island (formerly known as Caroline).
A tiny dot in a vast ocean, it is about to find fame as the place on Earth which will see the first stroke of midnight and the first sunrise of a new age.
An advance party has already made the 1,000-mile voyage on a cargo ship to set up camp on the beach of Millennium Island which faces due east for that moment when the Sun's rays will brighten the Pacific skies.
Dance of the buttocks
As we prepare to embark, first reports have reached us of what awaits.
Rehearsing on the beach for the moments they will share with viewers and listeners around the globe are a troupe of Kiribati dancers who will perform a tradition routine called the "dance of the buttocks".
The dance echoes the elements on which they depend, this time especially the Sun.
The high spot comes at dawn. The elders will sit cross-legged on the sand and start a slow chant.
Then the dancers, wearing ribbons of palm leaf as their skirts, will stretch out their arms and entice the Sun to cross the horizon.
Just now, we are told, the dancers are putting last stitches into their costumes and - as they await the arrival of their president, his entourage and our broadcast team - they are exploring an island that is as unknown to them as it is to us.
An ecological survey charted Caroline Island a few years ago and reported a "pristine tropical environment, home to a host of seabird colonies and remarkable marine creatures".
It recommended that the island be designated the first major wildlife reserve of the third millennium.
There are nesting grounds on the atoll for frigate birds, noddies and sooty terns. There are rare green turtles and brilliantly-coloured giant clams in the lagoon.
Coconut crabs live among the roots of the trees whose fruit they eat - seizing and splitting the husks in pincers with a span of a metre from claw to claw.
Bathing in the turquoise waters is not recommended though, the advance party advises.
There are also large reef sharks, all the more ferocious as they see man so rarely.
"There are many of these sharks," the message comes. "They will attack anyone in the water."
At the centre at last
The leaders of Kiribati have planned long months to make the most of this one chance when their nation is in the spotlight.
At a feast on the shore of Christmas Island to wish the millennium team bon voyage, President Teburoro Tito spoke emotionally in Kiribatese of the special responsibility the islanders felt to strike the right chord for people everywhere.
He responds with apparently equal gravity when asked why he thinks that Kiribati has suddenly found itself at the centre of the universe instead of on an exotic fringe.
"Our elders tell us that in our ancient myths and legends these islands were where creation began. This particular moment in history seems to confirm the mythology of our ancestors."
The president deals more wryly with the accusation that Kiribati would not be leading these celebration at all if had not shifted the International Dateline six years ago so that Caroline, now "Millennium" Island sits right on the edge of a huge easterly kink.
"We did this because it was impossible to govern and to do business when half our islands were on one day and the other half were on the next," he says.
"The Royal Observatory at Greenwich did not question the change then, and they have now declared ours to be officially the first dawn."
The presidential yacht - usually ploughing the Pacific as a fisheries protection vessel - is ferrying the dignitaries from Christmas to Millennium isles.
The rest of us are set to heave a stack of broadcast tackle, along with tents, freshwater and food aboard a cargo steamer.
The ship's Kiribatese name is "Matangare." That translates into English as "The Smile," so we sail in hope.
Christmas Day and Boxing Day are due to be spent on the high seas, sleeping on her open-deck. Disembarkation is scheduled 120 hours later.
We shall have one eye on keeping the equipment out of the water and the other on the sharks.
The best inducement to the shore may come from the troupe of dancers, who we are assured, will welcome us on the beach that is to be their stage.
We do not expect to be serenaded ashore but, once camp is pitched, music will be order of the day.
All that the ancestral gods of Kiribati are being asked to provide is the clearest and most stunning sunrise over the Pacific - to get the next 1,000 years off to an auspicious start.
The BBC team on Millennium Island are World Affairs Editor John Simpson, Producers Simon Wilson and Dee Simpson, Cameraman Nigel Bateson and News Correspondent Mike Donkin. They will brodcast live across the BBC's home and world television and radio networks and send updated despatches on their trip to BBC Online.
Links to other Asia-Pacific stories are at the foot of the page.
Links to more Asia-Pacific stories
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