Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Cocos and Christmas Islands

After a long hiatus and major change in lifestyle, we're travelling again. This time we're staying in Australia but we've found somewhere interesting enough to write home about. 

Our trip started with a visit to Luisa's family in Perth, where Jeremy enjoyed a couple of days being entertained by his grandparents and aunt Julia. A highlight was the local Lake Claremont, otherwise known as Butler's Swamp, recently converted from a golf course into public park, with lots of interesting bird life.
Black swan and cygnets in Butler's Swamp
Perth to Christmas Island to Cocos Islands and return
Are we there yet?
From Perth we flew to Cocos Keeling Islands via Christmas Island. Our plane's arrival seemed to interrupt a soccer match occurring in the edge of the runway. We checked in to a well-designed cottage half way down the runway, unfortunately with prime views of the golf course / runway (and far lagoon) rather than the beach. With an average of less than one plane a day, the runway provides entertainment rather than irritation. Part of the entertainment is watching a ute clear the runway of chooks when a plane is inbound.
Lockheed P-3 Orion interrupting play
The islands are an atoll located in the Indian Ocean, midway between Australia and Sri Lanka. They were discovered by William Keeling in 1609, and later colonised by the Scottish Clunies-Ross family in 1826. Malay workers were brought in to harvest coconuts and for other nefarious purposes. Interestingly, coconuts are not native to the region but need salt to grow. That's why they're always found on tropical islands. The islands were administered by Great Britain from Sri Lanka, Singapore, and then from Australia since 1955. The Clunies-Ross family lived in a homestead on Home Island, but had a falling out with the United Nations over their feudalistic tendencies. The islands were forcibly acquired for $6.25m in 1984 and the Clunies-Ross' moved to Perth.

We started our first evening with happy hour at Australia's westernmost pub. We met locals, tourists, fly in-fly out workers, and the Virgin flight crew we'd flown in with. With only three flights a week, the flight crew have a forced three night layover between flights, with $108 a day spending money. Presumably, it's cheaper to pay the crew a few grand to lie on a beach than it is to redirect a plane to pick them up.

We asked for a weather forecast for the next few days. "24-29 degrees, with the chance of a shower. That's what it is every day."

Home Island now has a population of 500 mostly ethnic Malays. Some of the extended Clunies-Ross family, and other Anglo Australians, form the 100-strong population of West Island. The Malays rediscovered their Muslim religion in the 1970s when travel to and from Malaysia became easier. They no longer harvest coconuts and fishing seems to be their only primary industry. The CentreLink office on the island implies that people aren't as well employed as they were during the Clunies-Ross era. However, they still manage enough income to buy quad bikes in large numbers. We walked the perimeter of Home Island in an hour but there seems to be a quad bike for every person. We saw four parked outside one house. What's the speed limit? "If you can kill a land crab, you're driving too fast."
On the bus to the jetty
Personalised quad bike
Jeremy's first coconut

Sunset on Turtle Beach
Island life has its routines. Bread is baked on Tuesday and Friday, which are also plane arrival days. On Wednesday, the ferry across the lagoon to Home Island comes back to West Island in the evening, allowing you to have dinner on Home Island. Thursday and Saturday are DI days, meaning that the ferry goes to Direction Island, an uninhabited piece of paradise at the north end of the lagoon. Like the rest of Cocos, it appears to be an undeveloped, tropical Asian island. However, occasionally, you'll find a bit of Australian infrastructure, such as a water tank with a "do not drink" sign, a composting toilet with loo paper, or rat baits. DI has two attractions, white sandy beaches and the Rip. The Rip is a channel that's great for snorkelling. The highlights are big colourful wrasse and white-tipped reef sharks.
Swimming off Direction Island
More swimming
Lazing on the beach
We hired bikes for a day and Jeremy experienced his first ride in a child seat. We rode south past the end of the runway to the tip of West Island and on to the yacht club (shed with a few catamarans and windsurfers). After lazing on the beach and chasing reef sharks through the shallows, we walked on low tide over to another picturesque island.
Southward at speed
No Parking
Am I cute or what?
We experienced the reality of Australia's refugee policy during our ten days on Cocos and Christmas Islands. During our stay, 27 boats arrived. A boatload of Sri Lankans had arrived the day before and a Hercules flew in to take them to Nauru. While most refugees arrive on Christmas Island, Sri Lankans head directly across the Indian Ocean to Cocos. We recognised the detention centre on the road north of town by the demountable buildings, a few tents, and groups of Sri Lankans standing around. Security was minimal and we were told that the refugees can swim at the beach if they're keen.
Refugee boats. We also have a photo of refugees sitting in lines on the jetty but decided not to publish it.
After a week, it was time to leave Cocos for Christmas Island, a big volcanic rock 900km to the north east. This is a very different place. Most people come here to visit the detention centre on the west of the island. Others come to mine phosphate. A diverse community lives in the township in the north east, mainly ethnic Chinese, Europeans, and Malays.
Federal police winding down after a day on a customs patrol boat
Despite the significant police and customs presence, crime is low on the islands. Surfboards are left in an unlocked shack at the surf beach on Cocos. To return our hire car on Christmas, we were told to park it in the airport carpark and leave the keys in the ignition. People are also very generous. Two separate people bought presents for Jeremy. Thank you especially to José, the chef on Cocos.

Apart from the detention centre, Christmas Island is known for its red crab migration, around November each year, when the island is inundated by wandering crabs. We were a little early for that but did see red crabs, blue crabs, and robber crabs, also known as coconut crabs. These impressive creatures grow larger than a football and come in colours ranging from blue to red. Unlike sea crabs, none of these land crabs are edible because they feed on rotting vegetation and taste like it too. The island also has a selection of unique birds, including boobies, an emerald pigeon, frigate birds, and bosun. We walked to a beach known for nesting turtles but didn't see any.
Robber crab
Blue crab climbing tree
Red footed booby
Where's my lunch?
Juvenile booby
Not all grasshoppers are green, young grasshopper
Our accommodation was the old morgue, a solid, one room building on the edge of the cliff. It has been tastefully converted into a studio apartment and is arguably the best place to stay on the island.
Captain's Last Resort, formerly the island morgue
The highlight of Christmas Island for us was the Grotto, a sea cave with limestone stalactites and crystal blue water. Jeremy's highlight was playing in the sand at Ethel Beach.
The Grotto
We spent a few days in Perth on the way home, enduring temperatures between 4 and 34 degrees celsius.