Country number: 40 (Australia)
Territory number: 219
When? August 2019, coming from Christmas Island, going back to Perth
How? Boat and bike
‘No man is an island’
There are 27 tiny islands here, in Cocos, on two atolls and the airport is on the largest of them, West Island. First impressions are exciting – this is how one expects coral islands to look. It reminds me of Funafuti, the main island at Tuvalu, in that half the island consists of runway and the houses are built alongside it; but this is way more sophisticated. No games on the runway here. In fact, nothing on the runway, unless you want a hefty fine. It’s also used regularly by the Air Force. The bungalows are large and well-tended and the few shops, one supermarket and restaurants are clustered in and around the airport. My lodging, like Tuvalu is just over the road (hopefully no rats this time) and is elegant and modern.
Wi-Fi has to be paid for and even then is only found in certain hot spots. I buy three hours, but then park it, as I realise if I go just up the road I can get a free connection from the airport. I sit on the benching outside for a couple of hours catching up, enjoying the balmy breeze.
More free Wi-Fi very early (the Air Force are in, noisily showing off) and then they cut the connection. So, I go back to my hotspot . Except you have to use your time consecutively here and it all got used up last night, even though I wasn’t online . You win some and you lose some.
The same applies to my planned trip to Direction Island tomorrow. You have to go on the special big ferry to Home Island, which then continues on to ‘Australia’s Best Beach’, Cossie Beach. But they’ve cancelled the ferry tomorrow (it only goes on Thursdays and Saturdays). The Visitor Information Centre (who actually seem to enjoy helping visitors here) say they can get me a glass bottomed boat trip that will include a visit to the beach, providing I can find three other people to join in. Sonal and Chris, from Christmas Island, are staying at the same place and there’s an English couple, Donna and Barry from Essex, in the villa next to mine. Job done.
A quick bike tour down the side of the runway, to the southern tip of West Island, where there’s a gorgeous beach, islets floating beyond, in shallow glimmering water. The crabs here are mini robots, fast running, with vertical square heads and revolving eyes on top. Tiny reef sharks are so close in I can see the tips of their dorsal fins above the water.
All the islands, except one are in the southern atoll and I’m off to explore that on a motorized canoe tour today. It’s an idyllic afternoon scudding round little palm topped dots. I’m allowed to be a princess, as Anthony from Perth does the necessary with the little outboard and we follow a rainbow of bright bobbing plastic boats. Sonal and Chris and Donna and Barry have come along and there are more folk I recognise – they were on the plane from Perth.
We snorkel in a channel running half way round one island. It’s a natural water park – the current wafts us along the chute, past all the fish who are lurking in the overhangs and then catapults us into the ocean on the other side. Very clever. There are a multitude of garfish (under the surface), clams and sea cucumbers, as well as more small sharks and a couple of turtles. The current is so strong, it’s like watching a movie in fast forward and I’m hanging onto clumps of rock to try and take photos. We walk back the few metres across the island.
Julia and Tony are celebrating their 48th wedding anniversary and the next stop involves champagne, curry puffs, hordes of hermit crabs (I’m sure they can smell food, like robber crabs) and clouds of ravenous mosquitoes. (These can also smell a meal).
We meander round the atoll and take a jungle walk to the highest point in the territory, on another island, used as a lookout during the war. It’s 13 metres high – this would not be a good place to try to survive a tsunami. Then we fill a sack with plastic rubbish that has drifted onto the beach (a dent in the heap) and return to our boats, more alcohol and more meanderings.
The trip is timed perfectly, so that we return as the sun is setting over the islets.
Today, the north part of the atoll in our glass bottomed boat, with captain, Peter. The journey commences with a stop in the lagoon, for too much fishing, in my opinion. Chris and Peter enjoy themselves hugely, with the aid of some intricate red and white lures, and land some large coral trout, which Peter excitedly explains, are a gastronomic delight.
Next, Horsbrough Island, which is surrounded by huge green turtles and more small black tipped reef sharks. We snorkel at a coral bomie with white tipped reef shark lurking and then at a wrecked nineteenth century barge, an apartment home for golden yellow striped goatfish..
Peter promises more sharks on our way to Direction Island and bangs the glass panel with a brush. Nine sharks appear, the usual white and black tipped reef sharks and some larger, two metre grey reef sharks. They circle impatiently, waiting for the fish scraps that Peter feeds to them. Peter invites us to swim with the sharks, but they are much bigger than those I have previously encountered in the water and I decide to abstain. My wound is also open again. It’s a very good decision. Chris descends the ladder, putting one leg into the water, and then appears again in the boat announcing he has been bitten by a shark. For a moment, I think he is joking, but then I spot the crimson fountain spurting out of his shin. Peter instantly springs into action, grabbing a towel a to fashion into a compression bandage, before we head for the clinic on Home Island, where a sizeable proportion of the population reside. Peter is bailing out bloody water. Direction Island recedes into the distance. I’m thinking it might be one of those places that’s just not meant to be.
An ambulance waits on the quay and Chris and Sonal are ferried off. Peter then announces that he will take the rest of us to Direction Island to wait on the beach while Chris is tended to. It’s a hollow victory. We’re all feeling shocked and sober.
This beach has been named Cossies Beach after Peter Cosgrave, a recent governor. It’s a classic arc of pale white sand backed by palm trees (not bendy), giving way to clear azure water. I’ll mark it eight, or maybe nine, out of ten. More small black tipped reef sharks are circling in the bay and I’m not to be persuaded into the water again today (or maybe for a long while). Eventually, we return without Chris and Sonal, and Barry accidentally does a Colin Firth impression, his white cheesecloth shirt soaking in the bow spray.
Peter returns for the patient later. It’s a nasty bite, sixteen stitches in a shark’s mouth crescent shape, but not life threatening, provided he keeps it clean and elevated. Sonal and Chris have another four nights here and Chris will be confined to base for all of that time. We’ve booked dinner at Maxi’s restaurant tonight (she only opens Thursdays) and she cooks the coral trout for us. Sonal and I ferry some up the road to Chris. It’s delicious.
It’s flight day and the little airport comes alive. The cafe/bakery does a roaring trade as folk congregate round the tables after they have checked in. The enterprising owner manifests again, once we have cleared security, with a chef’s hat and another, tiny coffee bar.
I was wishing I had arranged to spend more time here (the next flight is on Tuesday), but now I think I’m happy to be going back to Perth. Sonal comes to wave me off at the gate.
The Cocos (Keeling) Islands, officially Territory of Cocos (Keeling) Islands, are a remote territory of Australia in the Indian Ocean. The islands became an Australian territory under the Cocos (Keeling) Islands Act 1955 An administrator appointed by the Australian governor-general is the senior governmental official in the Cocos. A Shire Council administers most local government services. Many other services are provided through agencies of the Western Australian state government, but Cocos Islanders vote in federal elections as part an electoral district of Northern Territory.
The territory’s administrative headquarters are on West Island in the southern atoll. Total land area 5 square miles (14 square km). Population (2016) 544.
North Keeling Island is located about 15 miles (24 km) north of the main lagoon (South Lagoon), which is surrounded by the numerous islets of the South Keeling Islands.
The highest point in the territory rises to only about 20 feet (6 metres) above sea level.
The islands were uninhabited at the time of their first European sighting, in 1609, by the English mariner William Keeling, who was working for the East India Company. They were first settled in 1826 by an English adventurer named Alexander Hare, who brought his Malay harem and slaves
The production and export of copra is the territory’s economic mainstay. The inhabitants are predominantly the descendants of the original coconut plantation workers, mostly of Malay origin, who were brought to the islands by John Clunies-Ross, a Scotsman who had also settled here, in 1827–31. Some four-fifths of the population – Cocos Islanders, or Cocos Malays, as they are often called, together with the descendants of the Clunies-Ross family – live on Home Island. Most of the Cocos Malays speak a dialect of Malay and are Muslim. Numerous Cocos Islanders moved to the Australian mainland in the mid-1950s, because of overcrowded conditions on the islands.
As the location of several rare ecosystems—including an intact coral atoll environment—and a notable seabird breeding ground, North Keeling Island and its surrounding waters were designated a protected area, Pulu Keeling National Park, in 1995.
To see more of my photos of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands visit this page.