Country number: 40 (Australia)
Territory number: 218
When? August 2019, coming from Timor – Leste, going on to the Cocos Islands
On my seven days at Christmas
I went out and I saw
Seventy square miles of rainforest
Six scuttling blue crabs
Five gold beaches
Four frigates fanning
Three robber crabs
Two tropic birds
And a nasty vicious booby
I’d fondly imagined white coral beaches and coral atolls, but apparently that’s Cocos and that’s next. My heart is sinking as I drive into town. I was under the impression that this was an external territory of Australia, but most of the signage refers to ‘The shire of Christmas Island’. The majority of the islanders live on the northern tip of the island. The main settlement (according to Wikipedia) is at Flying Fish Cove and it’s imaginatively named Settlement. The buildings around the bay are mainly dilapidated apartment blocks with cracked concrete, serried rows of satellites on the roof and washing draped over the balconies. There’s a huge gantry across the entrance to the main bay to transport minerals from one of the mines at the top of the hill, which is helpfully named Phosphate Hill. It’s all too eerily reminiscent of Nauru.
My RAV 4 hire car reflects the state of the buildings. It’s got 170,000 kilometres on the clock and is scratched and battered. My apartment has also seen better days. It does have a view of the sea as stated. There’s just a crumbling car park between me and the water.
There’s no hot water in the apartment. The owners have thoughtfully left a contact mobile number on a notice on the wall. Though I haven’t got a signal – except for emergencies. I eventually sort it by emailing Lisa, the travel consultant I made the booking with.
I’ve been trying to plan what to do on the island, talking to Lisa and the Visitor Centre. The latter has three employees, which is curious, considering there don’t seem to be any other tourists, and the employees seem astonished to be asked questions about what to do.
It emerges that roughly half the roads and boardwalks (there are a lot of boardwalks) are closed for renovation, so quite a lot of the island is out of bounds. Much of it also seems to be accessed down rough tracks – 4 WD only. There’s a big red sign board down by the island’s only roundabout, at the bottom of the hill. There are blackboards there too, where the locals write up all the latest announcements. It’s fascinating – I have to be careful I don’t crash while I’m reading it all.
I’ve asked about snorkelling, but the boats aren’t going out, as there are no tourists. The flights from Indonesia have been cancelled, it’s a bit chicken and egg. I don’t know if there are no tourists because they cancelled the flights, or if they cancelled the flights because there were no tourists. Anyway, it’s more or less just me. A friendly dive-master tells me that the best snorkelling is off the jetty in Flying Fish Cove, anyway. The beach just under the gantry and opposite the blocks of grubby apartments.
And I’ve been warned about being very careful where I go on my own. Two tourists have disappeared completely in the rainforest over the last couple of years.
I decide to have a lazy day wandering around town and sitting on my balcony…
I’m feeling braver after my rest, so I set off exploring towards Ethel and Lily beaches (Five of the six main beaches have women’s names. Winifred is the one where the tourists disappeared. But they’ve closed that track now.) I’m feeling more upbeat. I’ve been reading about all the amazing wildlife on this Australian Galapagos and the scenery improves the moment I get out of town. I’m already captivated by the tropic birds wheeling, seabirds popping out of holes and little scarlet Tao temples.
The coast is a winding line of volcanic and coral crags, very spiky, with blowholes that are spectacular today, as the sea is rough. There’s no-one else around and I navigate slowly to a limestone grotto, replete with stalactites and bright vermilion crabs, cautiously waving their claws from beneath the rocks. The island is renowned for its crabs and the vivid red (with an angry face cunningly drawn on the carapace) and pastel blue crabs are endemic. The red crabs undertake a massive annual migration across the island to spawn and the moving sea of bodies at that time is sufficient to close some of the roads (again). There are numerous yellow road signs warning of crabs on the highway and requesting that they are driven round and not over. The huge robber crabs (largest invertebrate in the world, at up to a metre wide including the legs), have a tendency to latch onto the chassis.
It’s been suggested that I swim at the grotto, but the swell is making a great deal of angry noise, as if the cave god requires propitiation, so I decide not.
The trees along the route are inhabited by a profusion of red footed boobies, at least one on each branch, supplemented by sunning frigate birds, as I descend a steep hair-pinned hill. The birds are stretching their dark wings on the branches (for a moment I think they’re bats) and even squat on the tarmac. It’s a little precarious stopping for pictures, but I haven’t seen another car at all.
Eventually, Lily and Ethel Beaches, both small, one golden sand, one shingle and both beset by a great deal of surf. There’s a slatted boardwalk between them with more spray and cliff views and numerous adorable fluffy booby chicks; paths are carved between the coral pinnacles for easier observation. I change my camera battery and am happily watching, until I’m attacked by a brown booby mother, who deems me to be too close to her chick. (I read afterwards you’re supposed to stay 10 metres away from these – but they seemed so unconcerned). She has a long sharp beak and, thoroughly startled and more than a little afraid, I pitch over onto the coral. The booby’s now standing guard over my sunglasses and I have to wander away until she’s lost interest and I can venture in and retrieve them. That’s when I notice all the blood running down my leg.
Back to my vehicle then, so I can go back to town and deal with my wounds. Except that I’ve lost the car keys. Panic. Retrace steps – can’t see them. and I’ve been walking a long way, scrambling over rocks. I’m searching near the booby with trepidation and no enthusiasm. And my leg hurts. There’s no-one to ask for help and I have no mobile signal except for emergencies. So, I call the police.
Two cars arrive complete with flashing beacons and three officers. They’re very kind (I think they’re glad of something to do) and take me to hospital. They also find the car keys – just up the boardwalk. The nurse cleans me up and says I’m not to get the wound wet under any circumstances. Somebody up there is very much against me snorkelling on this trip. And I bought that new camera.
Today was much too exciting. And none of my pictures of Lily Beach have been saved – the battery obviously malfunctioned before I noticed. I shall have to go back…
The Dales misleadingly sound like bucolic Yorkshire. They are a series of inlets in the jungle carved by rainforests, important wetlands, the sign says. Hugh’s Dale has a waterfall. I fondly imagine ( I shall have to stop doing this) parking up and eating a pleasant lunch by the waterside. I can’t go in the water now as I’ve been forbidden.
The approach is well inside the national park , on dusty sealed roads and then steeper bumpy tracks, the rainforest closing in dramatically on all three sides, fronds brushing the windscreen. The waterfall is a half hour trail, mainly on boardwalk, through Tahitian chestnuts with tentacles for roots. There are plenty of blue crabs, enjoying the stream, claws flailing in an attempt to look fierce, as they scuttle away and sink into their mud burrows, some distant robber crabs in the gulley and too many mosquitoes.
Up the steep steps to a trickle of water over an escarpment and a naked man standing underneath, splashing. It seems there are two other tourists on the island – Sonal and Chris from Sydney. They assure me that Anderson’s Dale is also easily accessible, with robber crabs to be seen, though the sign said moderately strenuous, and I set off hesitantly down another track.
The path is more level, but not flat. It’s a scramble over lumps of coral and under branches and there aren’t enough of the red arrow markers. The jungle is very dense (and tall here). At one point I can’t see the way ahead at all and wander around lost and starting to panic – again. Perhaps I should carry my Rescue Remedy with me while I’m out exploring here. Then I notice an arrow and relieved, follow the signs once more. Ending up back where I started. Anderson’s Dale is not meant to be.
More dusty roads down to South Point ,through mining country with ‘road trains’ full of rock roaring past. There are three Tao temples, each having ownership of the best sea views.
This island is a curious fusion of oriental and western culture, perched between Asia and Oceania. I eat kung pow chicken and salt and pepper prawns with my new Australian friends (Chris has put his clothes on now) – it’s one of the best Chinese meals I’ve had.
I’ve decided I have to stop worrying about the perils on the island and enjoy its natural wonders. So, I’m driving to Dolly Beach, which is at the end of a steep and stony 4 WD track. My destination is famous for its beauty and its robber crabs. After a little slithering, and one or two nasty sounding bangs, I arrive. It’s a two kilometre jungle walk this time, but it’s a relatively straightforward one, with a plethora of pink ribbons on the trunks to guide me.
Dolly is indeed gorgeous. If you discount the rubbish lodged all around the edges, piles of bottles, rope and flip flops (or thongs as they say here) drifting in from Indonesia. It’s a stretch of silvery beach, backed by bendy palm trees and cliffs. There are basalt peaks and rock pools and the sea is surging in and around them, huge waves throwing up waterfalls of spray. It’s a great spectacle and a good place to spend a couple of hours lazing.
The famed robber crabs nest around the streams behind the beach, their carapaces a striking psychedelic mish-mash of purple, blue and red. They would fit in very well on Doctor Who. They’re called robber crabs because they do indeed scavenge and steal and are not averse to shiny objects, like saucepans. Unlike the blue crabs, they stand their ground, as I approach, brandishing feelers and claws threateningly. Their alternative name is coconut crab, because they can crush and feed on these fruits. After my previous experience I have no intention of initiating a skirmish with an armed member of the animal kingdom and I lurch round the trees and across the many husks on the damp ground in order to evade close contact.
After this and another uneventful return walk (it goes without saying I’ve met no-one) I’m very pleased that I’ve managed to use the correct gear mode and gain enough traction to return back up the almost vertical hill and to the main unsealed road. My worries are over. Until I smell burning rubber and the car bumps ominously. One very flat tyre. This time I have no mobile signal at all, not even for emergencies only.
Fortunately, the seventh cavalry arrives in the form of Kenny, a Chinese-Australian mine worker from Perth. He’s a practical sort, who decries the poor equipment in my car (sad to say there’s not much hope of me being able to use it correctly on my own anyway) and cheerfully sets about changing my wheel. ‘Your tyre is wrecked,’ is the diagnosis. No other vehicles have passed by; it’s Saturday afternoon. How lucky am I?
The evening is spent watching the new version of The Lion King at the open air cinema with Sonal and Chris. He buys us Choco-pots. There’s almost enough (hard bench) seating for the whole of the island. And most of them are there.
As I have no spare tyre I decide to stick to the paved roads and return to Lily Beach in search of replacement photos.
The golf course lookout en route seems like a good idea. But nothing on this island is straightforward. The lookout path is a skiddy 15 minute descent on gravel. The lookout carved out of a towering clifftop gives way to a panorama up the coastline, palm trees and azure sea. It’s very blustery today. The blowholes are burgeoning down below and the sea birds wheeling frantically above. I’m clutching the rails. It’s uphill all the way back.
There are fewer frigate birds roosting; it doesn’t seem to be their allotted day of rest. Most of them are down at picturesque Lily Beach instead, chasing the smaller birds round the cove, until they drop their catch and the frigates can scoop it up. They are well named. There are five trucks parked at the beach this afternoon and a family enjoying the waves. Sunday is obviously the day to lose your car keys.
Christmas comes but once per life time – if that – so I’ve decided to go snorkelling at Flying Fish Cove. I’ve bought waterproof dressings. They weren’t cheap. The snorkelling is more scenic than the surroundings and there are some very unusual fish. My dressing comes off almost as soon as I enter the water.
My last full day and I’ve errands to do: buy more dressings and get a new tyre. The Chinese owner of the car hire gives me a dressing down. ‘You shouldn’t drive on a puncture’. No good trying to explain that I couldn’t even hear that I’d got a problem on a road that bad. He’s more affable after I’ve paid the 265 dollar bill.
No more dodgy roads for me then. I explore the inhabited areas: Poon Saan, Kampong, Silver City, Drumsite. There are pretty bungalows on the winding roads beneath the apartment blocks. Nearly all of them have a boat in the garden. This, more Chinese residential area, also boasts restaurants and a row of modern(ish) cafes and shops. There are worse ways to live.
Round to Smith Point, past the island’s only traffic light. This is because it’s a one way road constructed on the edge of the cliff. There wasn’t a road here at all when the governor’s house (called Tai Jinn but known as Buck House) was built at the end.
More snorkelling. The fish are plentiful this afternoon and I stay in the water so long I resemble a prune.
I’ve been cooking most evenings, buying from the supermarket, but I’ve nothing left in the fridge and I decide I must eat out. Nothing is open. I suppose I should have expected that on a Monday, but there are some odd opening times. Friday night’s Chinese restaurant doesn’t open on Saturday evenings and most of the cafes close after lunch. Or earlier. Gin and salt and vinegar crisps for supper
August 27 Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
A final snorkel – the bay is so accessible and so rewarding and a last visit to Ethel Beach. The frigates are back on the road today. This is a weird, unique and wonderful place. Christmas Island has grown on me, the shabbiness diminished with familiarity. It’s not a place for the faint hearted and not really a safe destination for the solo traveller. But I shall be sorry to leave. Next stop, the Cocos Islands.
Christmas Island, officially the Territory of Christmas Island, is an Australian external territory. It is 19 kilometres long and 14 kilometres wide and has an area of 135 square kilometres (52 sq. mi).
Christmas Island has a population of just over 2,000 residents. Around two-thirds of the island’s population are Malaysian Chinese. Several languages are in use, including English, Malay, and various Chinese dialects.
Buddhism and Islam are the main religions.
The first European to sight the island was Richard Rowe of the Thomas in 1615. The island was later named on Christmas Day (25 December) 1643 by Captain William Mynors, but only first settled in 1888 by George Clunies-Ross, who together with Sir John Murray, a British naturalist, was granted the first land lease. Murray had analysed specimens of rock and soil taken from the island and found them to be composed of nearly pure phosphate of lime (originally guano). Phosphate mining on the island commenced in 1897.
From March 1942 until the end of World War II in 1945, Japanese forces occupied the island.
Christmas Island became an Australian Territory on 1 October 1958 with the proclamation of the Christmas Island Act 1958–59. Prior to this it had been administered as a British possession by the Colony of Singapore, and had, from the middle of nineteenth century, been administered by British Governors in Ceylon or Singapore under the Straits Settlements.
The island’s geographic isolation and history of minimal human disturbance has led to a high level of endemism among its flora and fauna, so it’s of igreat interest to scientists and naturalists. 63 percent of the island is included in the Christmas Island National Park, which features several areas of primary monsoonal forest.
The island is also sometimes used as a detention centre by the Australian authorities. The centre is currently open.
To see more of my photos of Christmas Island visit this page.