An endless expanse of indigo stretches out to the horizon. Gazing down on it from our aeroplane, the sheer monotony of it lulls me to sleep. “I can see the islands ahead,” says a passenger beside me, and I wake to see a Maldives-style paradise unfolding below.
Coconut palms by the thousands materialised as the plane landed on West Island, one of two small communities on Cocos Islands. An absurdly beautiful island paradise located in the Indian Ocean, midway between Perth and Sri Lanka, Cocos (also known as Cocos-Keeling or Keeling Islands after Captain William Keeling, who is believed to be the first European to sight the islands in 1609) is one of Australia’s most spectacular offshore territories.
I was welcomed at the airport by a gaggle of giggling Cocos Malay kids, along with my smiling partner and a sign emblazoned with “Welcome to Pulu Cocos (Keeling) Islands, 10ft above sea level”.
We went to collect our hire car, or hire truck, to be more accurate. Stylishly painted baby blue with yellow dolphins, it would never have passed a roadworthy on the mainland, but over the next 10 days of driving up and down the 2km length of West Island, it never gave us even a hint of trouble.
Even if it had, it wouldn’t have been a problem. There’s a simple rule of thumb for getting anything fixed on West Island – go to the pub and ask someone. If there’s no one there who can help, there will at least be someone there who knows someone else who can. Located in the middle of a small scattering of buildings that forms the main township, the pub is the local newsroom, information centre and the social hub of the 100 or so Aussie residents who call the island home. Nightly island news is scribbled on the chalk boards outside for all to see.
Within hours of our arrival, I felt an overwhelming urge to ditch my watch. Time behaves differently on Cocos. The heat will wake you and the nighttime rain will sing you to sleep. Life operates around the rise and fall of the tide. This casual, laid back atmosphere is evident in the faces of stress-free locals, who are always willing to help visitors explore their island home.
We dropped my gear at the Cocos Beach Motel, across the road from the airport, and took off in our dolphin truck for an afternoon snorkel at a popular local beach called Trannies. This was my first real glimpse of Cocos. Powdery white coral sand, gin-clear waters and basic barbecue facilities under the coconuts. As we entered the tepid seawater, a small black-tipped reef shark darted off into deeper waters. Perhaps we’d interrupted his siesta?
Eventually, we tore ourselves away from the stunning coral reef as the sun lowered on the horizon. Sitting on the edge of the water, mullet fingerlings drifted past our feet as the sun sank into the sea. I found myself thinking that Trannies was Utopia. I couldn’t possibly imagine anywhere more beautiful. However, over the following 10 days, I was proved wrong – repeatedly.
Ringed by coral atolls, the central lagoon of Cocos is impossibly scenic. A multitude of different coral habitats are home to a wide variety of fish, the sheer numbers of species rivalled by few other locations on earth.
Pleasantly, and unlike other coral reef systems, there seems to be a lack of stinging creatures like scorpionfish, stingrays, sea snakes and blue-ringed octopus. At low tide it is possible to walk between some islands with no fear of your stroll ending up with an ambulance ride or hospital visit.
Charles Darwin was the first to document the natural history of Cocos. He came ashore here in 1836, during his round-the-world journey aboard the Beagle, and he evolved his theory of atoll formation while he visited these islands. Awestruck by the beauty of the lagoon upon entering the channel, Darwin penned the following description:
“This brilliant expanse, several miles in width, is on all sides divided, either by a line of snow-white breakers from the dark heaving waters of the ocean, or from the blue vault of heaven by the strips of land, crowned by the level tops of the coconut trees. As a white cloud here and there affords a pleasing contrast with the azure sky, so, in the lagoon, bands of living coral darken the emerald-green water.”
Due to the archipelago’s remote and isolated location, the marine environment has thrown up some rare peculiarities. A sole dugong, affectionately named ‘Kit’, lives in the lagoon and occasionally shares his underwater world with two resident manta rays. In one spot, the largest growth of turbinaria reniformis coral in the world characterises a popular dive site called ‘The Cabbage Patch’.
Petals of the brittle green and gold corals are a nursery for baby reef fish that dart into the gigantic florettes seeking shelter from predators. In the 12 months preceding our visit, a green sea turtle that had been tagged at Ningaloo Reef, some 2700km to the east, turned up in the lagoon to forage.
Midway during our stay, we made an executive holiday decision to hire bikes and take the local ferry across from West Island to Home Island, home to generations of the Clunies-Ross family since 1827. Forming a miniature empire fuelled by the wealth of extensive copra plantations, the Clunies-Ross family encountered very few competitors for the territory they’d established on Cocos. That was until Alexander Hare, a rogue British sailor, arrived with about 100 Malay slaves.
Relations between the two soured over time and Hare eventually left the islands for Singapore in 1831, leaving behind his harem of Malay women and some of the slaves, whose descendents now form the Malay community on Home Island. Crowning the northern end of Home Island is Oceania House, the colonial mansion home originally owned by the Clunies-Ross family. The cemetery on the southern end is where many Malays and Clunies-Ross family members ended their days.
Saddling the middle of Home Island, a scattering of brightly painted bungalows, separated by narrow alleys, house the 450-or-so-strong Cocos Malay community. Core to the culture of Cocos Malays is the retention of Bahasa as their first language, divine food and a devout belief in Islam. Once a week, a tiny restaurant opens its doors to a handful of guests, who savour the delights of Malay seafood curries, while a muezzin calls the faithful to pray at sunset.
After dinner, we returned to West Island by ferry and chose to spend the next day snorkelling in the lagoon. We were picked up by long-time local Geoff Christie, who epitomises the laid back lifestyle of Cocos. Geoff owns a converted zodiac with a glass bottom and a shade canopy. He delights in showing tourists his backyard, and offered to take us wherever we wished.
Not being too familiar with the lagoon, we left our fate in his hands. After a brief look at The Cabbage Patch, we decided to cruise over to Prison Island. Hardly larger than your average backyard, Prison Island is a monument of tropical island idyll. It takes about 10 minutes to beachcomb the island’s perimeter and you’ll find brittle, flashy pink sea urchins amidst bright red hermit crabs that scuttle around your feet.
A ramshackle hut of thatched coconut leaves is partnered by another shelter, with rustic tables and chairs fashioned out of driftwood for overnight campers.
The 28-degree waters barely create a wave when they wash the shores of Prison Island and we donned our snorkelling gear from shore. Entering the water, we were joined by a number of baby black-tipped reef sharks that were chasing small fish in the shallows. Like rambunctious teenagers playing rugby, one would grab a fish and then be tackled by others trying to steal the bounty. We could have stayed watching them for hours as they engaged in play. If this was prison, we wondered what sort of crimes we’d have to commit to extend our sentence.
Leaving Prison Island, we took off south across the lagoon to the wreck of the 18th-century clipper, the Phaeton. Marked as the only shipwreck navigational hazard on chart AUS607, the remains of the Phaeton sit in only 10m of water. Given its age, we were astonished to discover that most of the ship’s hull was intact. Bare ribs, a funnel and assorted debris littered the sandy floor, providing homes to hundreds of brightly-coloured residents such as emperor angelfish, Moorish idols and parrotfish.
Further east, on the fringes of the lagoon, we snorkelled ‘The Rip’ at the southern end of Direction Island. As the current carried our bodies over luminous corals, we encountered the fattest barracuda we had ever seen. His girth was so round from an overstuffing of fish, he could barely move.
Direction Island is one of the best anchorages of Cocos and it is a famous stopover for round-the-world yachties. The beach on Direction is the perfect place to anchor up and shelter from the winds and swell that buffet the sides of Cocos from the Indian Ocean. Onshore there is plenty of tank water, a barbecue area and a tin shed decorated with a collection of yachtie memorabilia, each piece secured with care by its original owner.
I wandered around examining carefully strung Linea Aquavit bottles, carved driftwood draped with shells, threadbare flags, buoys and messages to friends, until I chanced upon a sign from the French yacht Sortilege (‘Magic Spell’ in English). Adopting the tag ‘Gypsies of the Sea’, the owners, Bea and Diane, had scribbled a map onto their sign outlining their 12 years of Indian Ocean voyages. They had notched up their seventh visit to Cocos as recently as August, 2006. Inspired and somewhat envious of their accomplishments, we rapidly started on our own action plan to follow in their footsteps, even before we’d left.
COCOS BY SEA
• Chart AUS607 covers the islands and lagoon for Cocos Islands
• Boats arriving at Cocos must report to the Customs and Quarantine officer on Channel 20 within 12 nautical miles of the islands
• Take your passport, as Customs and Quarantine officers will require identification documents before you land
• Cocos is policed by the Australian Federal Police and not the WA police, so any problems should be reported directly to the AFP office on West Island
COCOS BY AIR
• Travel light. Flights to Cocos have a maximum 15kg limit from Perth
• National Jet operates two flights a week from Perth to Cocos, one direct and the other via Christmas Island and Learmonth
• Further information about tourism and activities can be found at: www.cocos-tourism.cc