"In the olden days," begins Apinelu, a tone of longing in his voice, "it was never this hot. Never. Now everything has changed, not just the sea." It is a very still 33C and my earlobes are sweating. Welcome to the small island nation of Tuvalu.

"Tomorrow I take you out to the islands, less crowded, more local," he says chuckling. We are driving around Funafuti, the densely populated capital and I'm pretty sure I am the only tourist here.

Tuvalu. Photo / Guy Needham
Tuvalu. Photo / Guy Needham

To answer your "where?" question, Tuvalu is 1000km north of Fiji, an archipelago of six coral atolls and three islands nestled under the equator. It used to be one half of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands before it became independent from Britain and dropped the Ellice name. These days it's better known for being the poster child of climate change.

It's fair to say Tuvalu is unlike any other islands you're likely to visit: small, isolated, beautiful, sleepy and sinking. I was here to explore the country and see what it was like on the frontline of global warming.

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Arriving in Tuvalu is an experience in itself. After two and a half hours flying over the Pacific the wheels are down but there ain't no land. Out of nowhere appears a thin airstrip — lagoon on one side, sea on the other — and the passengers let out a collective breath.

It seems all of Funafuti is here to welcome us: kids waving, locals on motorbikes, and officialdom waiting in front of the world's smallest airport building of Immigration, Customs, Quarantine and Baggage Claim all rolled into one.

Tuvalu. Photo / Guy Needham
Tuvalu. Photo / Guy Needham

The exit door leads to a slower pace of life. Even the wind seems laidback here, as heavily-burdened motorbikes putt along at 20km/h, hammocks in pandanas trees get a solid workout, and schoolchildren kick rocks along the road.

"No need to rush, eh," says Apinelu, his arm resting out the window as we meander up the main island, Fongafale. Tuvalu isn't really set up for tourism but there is one must-see: the Funafuti Marine Conservation Area.

Unfortunately, Apinelu has injured himself so it is up to his neighbour, Villi, and my new friend Kato, from Tuvalu Overview (a climate change NGO), to take me into the lagoon.

Tuvalu. Photo / Guy Needham
Tuvalu. Photo / Guy Needham

"See that island over there," yells Villi over the outboard motor, "that is where our families go for picnics." It was seriously, ridiculously beautiful. The whole lagoon is. Motu (island) after motu of swaying palms on white-sand beaches, stark against the puffy white clouds and azure sky. "But this one we're coming up to, not so good ... "

Tepukasa Vilivili was nothing more than sand on coral after its vegetation had been washed away over the past 20 years. It is a sobering reminder of the challenges facing Tuvalu: rising sea levels, coastal erosion, king tides, increasing tropical cyclones and drought.

We go on to Funafala, an islet inhabited by five families and a church. Kato knows some of the locals from his work planting mangroves there to stop the erosion. Greetings were exchanged but no one gets off their sleeping mats — it is too damn hot.

On we go and eventually Villi drops me back at the main beach just in time for a sundowner at Vaiaku Lagi Hotel, the only hotel in town. It has a pleasant outlook to the horizon that is broken only by foreign fishing vessels. Commercial fishing rights are one of Tuvalu's main revenue sources; the other being the ".tv" internet domain name which the government sub-licences for millions.

By the next day I've learned my lesson and start exploring before the harsh sun hits.

"Hi palangi!" the kids yell out; the adults are more circumspect and simply nod and raised their eyebrows in a cool Pacifika way. I know I am taking a chance walking around when thunderstorms are predicted and soon enough the weather turns. The rain is intense.

Tuvalu. Photo / Guy Needham
Tuvalu. Photo / Guy Needham

"Hey you, come here." A man is hurriedly waving me towards his house, cigarette in hand.

"That's better," Suauili says, with a big beaming smile. "We need this rain eh, but it won't last." It didn't. "You know in Kiribati they have water from under the ground, but not here.

Too salty now." He lights another cigarette as his nephew plays with my camera.

We chat about New Zealand. "You know the 'borrow pits'?" he asks, referring to the huge holes in the ground that had been left when construction materials had been taken by the US military during World War II, and which had subsequently turned into cesspits of garbage.

"New Zealand filled those in. Didn't have to but they did. And they filled over the dump too. You have a good Government," he says.

The rain clears and it is time to head back. As the sun lazily goes down, my ears prick up.

Tuvalu. Photo / Guy Needham
Tuvalu. Photo / Guy Needham

Singing! Not just any singing but Tuvaluan hymms, men and women alternating with highs and lows, harmonies escaping through the open slat windows of the nearby church.

The men are sitting crosslegged in their Sunday best, while the women fan themselves and try vainly to keep the children still.

Religion plays an important role in Tuvaluan life, with 98 per cent of the population being Protestant. Many have faith that God will never let their islands disappear. It says something for their positive nature that despite being able to run off the names of cyclones like old friends — Bebe, Ula, Pam, Winston — they are absolutely committed to staying in Tuvalu.

When it comes to my leaving however, I didn't have to go far. My lodge is next to the maneapa (meeting house) that is next to the terminal. But before the plane lands the fire truck sounds its siren, a signal for everyone to clear the runway. When not in use by the two flights a week, the runway becomes a racing strip, volleyball court and dog park, and a road cuts through the middle of it.

Photo / Guy Needham
Photo / Guy Needham

A cursory security glance in my luggage, a check of my name off a list and I'm allowed to return to the lodge.

"Wouldn't happen at Heathrow," observes a fellow passenger. But neither would the customs officer hand me back my passport with, "Oh, you sunburnt!"

Despite my peeling forehead, Tuvalu really has been a surprising pleasure. If you're after the cocktails of Denarau or Gallic treats of Noumea, it isn't for you. There are no credit card facilities, no resorts, duty-free stores or all-inclusive excursions. What you do is up to you and those you meet.

As Apinelu would say, this is what the Pacific used to be like, "in the olden days".

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Fiji Airways flies from Suva to Funafuti two or three times a week, depending on the season.

Accommodation: The family-run Filamona Lodge is next to the airport.

Top tip: Temperatures vary between 28C-32C° - 32° every day of the year. Try to avoid the Western Pacific Monsoon Season between December and March.