Children on an impoverished Fiji island will soon be driven to school in style - on Mercedes-Benz buses, once the pride of Auckland's public transport system.

Two of the last of the 300 buses which began appearing on Auckland roads in the 1970s were shipped to Fiji last week.

The buses, one of which Stagecoach has donated and the other for which public contributions are still being gathered, are ultimately bound for Rabi Island just east of Fiji's second- largest island of Vanua Levu.

They will be barged from Suva to the island to replace its sole existing bus, which is riddled with rust and frequently breaks down, leaving children to walk to school for up to two hours from some villages.

Stagecoach intends donating a third bus to the Museum of Transport and Technology in Western Springs.

Rabi was where the entire population of Banaba, also known as Ocean Island and about 2000km northwest of Fiji, was transplanted 60 years ago to make way for the extraction of phosphate to fertilise New Zealand and Australian farms.

The current population of about 4000 is descended from about 1000 Banabans whom the British Phosphate Commission, in which New Zealand and Australia were partners, moved to Rabi just after the Second World War.

Although Rabi was considered a beautiful island with plenty of water when the British Government bought it out of the Banabans' own provident fund, the new arrivals were left there during the cyclone season in tents with just two months' rations, and many died from pneumonia.

Wellington dance teacher and writer Jennifer Shennan, who learned of their plight during field studies in the Pacific, approached Stagecoach for help with the islanders' transport needs when she heard the company was retiring the last of its Mercedes 305 fleet.

Through a wide network of contacts, she and Auckland lawyer Derek Firth also raised donations of books and other goods such as refurbished Singer sewing machines from communities as far spread as Waiheke Island and Pahiatua in the Wairarapa.

The buses, which Reef Shipping is freighting to Suva free of charge, are also carrying cards and letters from New Zealand children.

These include pupils of the Good Shepherd Primary School in Balmoral, who hope to become penpals of Banaban youngsters.

Stagecoach spokesman Russell Turnbull said although the buses were too old to remain in service in Auckland, they still had a lot of life left.

"They are good buses to send away - they were made to last," he said.

Mr Turnbull had no doubt the buses would be looked after well, as he understood the Banabans made up for a lack of material riches with plenty of ingenuity and resourcefulness.

* More than $1500 has already been donated towards the $8000 cost of the second bus. Further contributions can be sent as crossed cheques made out to "The Banaban Trust" and mailed to Jennifer Shennan, 92 Maida Vale Rd, Roseneath, Wellington.