Island paradise

Emma George | VOLUME 32, ISSUE 1
Nature and the marine environment are the star attractions
One of Australia’s lesser-known tropical paradises, the Cocos Keeling Islands boast an abundance of natural beauty and a plethora of on- and underwater activities.

I swung on a hammock strung between two palm trees and watched as the children swam in calm, 28-degree water. We had the whole island to ourselves and I wished I could freeze time and spend the rest of my life here …

This was my third trip to the Cocos Keeling Islands and nothing had changed since my husband, Ashley, and I first visited 16 years ago – except this time, we were holidaying with our three children, aged five, eight and 10.

The Cocos Keeling Islands are one of Australia’s best-kept secrets. Rich in marine life, beauty and wonder, but unspoilt by resorts and crowds, they’re a tropical paradise of 27 remote islands where you can truly escape and relax. Located some 1500nm northwest of Perth, this offshore territory is a popular stopover for yachts. We chose the easy 4.5-hour flight from Perth, though, and looked forward to an ‘unplugged’ holiday to spend our days exploring, swimming, snorkelling and connecting as a family.

We stayed at My Island Home, a lovely air-conditioned, two-bedroom house on West Island, the main tourist hub of Cocos. Although the island is only 15km long, we hired a dual-cab ute, which was perfect to get us from one place to another. On reading the hire car agreement, I wondered how many companies would stipulate leaving the key in the ignition at all times … a testimony to the safety of the island, where there’s no need to lock your house or car and locals are happy to share their utopia with visitors.

Be warned, though – if you are after a resort holiday with kid’s club, pool and room service, this destination is not for you. Instead, nature and the marine environment are the star attractions.

Only two of the 27 islands are inhabited, with just over 100 Australian expats on West Island while, across the lagoon, around 400 Cocos Malay people live on Home Island. The Home Island community has been there for longer than 150 years and the locals welcome visitors to share their culture, food and religion, which creates an interesting and harmonic mix between the two islands.

SWEPT AWAY

Direction Island, with its white sandy beaches fringed by palm trees and surrounded by calm, turquoise water, is the most perfect island I have ever visited. It lies across the lagoon from West Island, with locals often making the 15-minute trip in their boats, while the ferry service takes visitors twice a week. The protected bay has barbecue, shelter and toilet facilities and is a popular place for yachts to moor. Many visitors have left their calling cards of flags, engraved thongs, signs and original artworks that adorn the shelters and nearby trees.

Rope swings and hammocks overlook the ocean and our kids spent hours swimming to the small pontoon anchored just off the beach, where they leapt into the ocean from the rustic diving board. Walk trails meander around the island, or you can cut through the coconut trees to the unprotected waters of the Indian Ocean.

For the more adventurous, Direction Island is famous for its rip snorkelling. We waited for the change of tide, when the water flow eases, to take the kids. It was a quick, but exciting snorkel that saw us swim to the edge before being dragged into the lagoon – I held my 10-year-old’s hand tight as the water dragged us along, spotting reef sharks and a plethora of fish and multi-coloured coral as we zoomed by, before we made our way back to the start of the rip to do it again. The next time around, we kept to the slower section near the reef and I watched as my daring eight-year-old dived down to get a better look at the reef sharks resting under enormous plate coral. The kids delighted as the colourful array of Christmas tree worms ducked for cover, and we saw big trevally, emperors and other predatory species alongside a dainty array of tropical fish.

ON THE WATER

Cocos is a small-boat wonderland, with the locals mostly using dinghies that were transported to the island in shipping containers. The tinnies are perfect to island-hop across the lagoon and, as the kilometre-deep drop-off is close to shore, big fish are well within reach.

When we visited, there were no fishing-charter boats, but a couple of the locals kindly offered to take me out for a morning. I came prepared with a selection of deep-diving Halco lures, perfect for wahoo and tuna, and planned to give whatever lures survived to my hosts.

We trolled the 70m line on the outside of West Island and I marvelled at how the depth dropped to over 2km when we detoured slightly off course. It wasn’t long before the lines hurtled off and I picked up the rod, trying to get the fish to the boat. We had trolled through a school of yellowfin tuna, producing a double hook-up, and I soon had a sizable fish on the boat that was perfect for our evening meal. Although I enjoyed catching fish, it was interesting to see the houses dotted along the beachfront and local surfers catching a wave.

The shore fishing at Cocos is superb. There are plenty of places to keep even the most discerning angler happy, with big GTs, sweetlip, cod, sharks and crays prowling the waters. People come from afar to chase the illusive bonefish on fly, too, as this is one of the only locations in Australia where you’ll find these enigmatic fighters. Ashley and I were determined to catch a bonefish so, after careful research on fishing techniques, times and locations, we waited for low tide and headed to the waters near the yacht club. I used a soft plastic and Ashley had his fly rod. We waded in knee-deep water, sight casting at any silver flash. On the first day, we saw a couple of bonefish and caught some trevally but, after a few hours of wading, the tide was too high. We came back the next day and the next … but still no bonefish.

Getting increasingly frustrated and desperate, we finally took up the kind offer from local Mike Garbin to show us how to catch one on bait. Meeting at his spot near the ferry jetty, the kids seemed keener on shell collecting than fishing, so we let them wander the beach while we focused on the task at hand. After spending hours chasing these elusive fish, I had my line in the water for less than a minute when I hooked up. I couldn’t contain my excitement – it felt like I was cheating a little by using bait, but at least I had one and I could finally understand why these ultra-fighting machines rate so highly as a bucket-list fish.

It was a glorious morning on the beach and a relief to catch a bonefish, and the kids finally found the prized nautilus shell they had been searching for.

NATURAL PARADISE

Kite and windsurfers come from across the globe when the trade winds blow from July to September, as the Cocos Keeling Islands are one of the best places in the world to enjoy this adrenaline sport. You can hire equipment or try a beginner class if you have never kitesurfed, windsurfed or been on a stand-up paddleboard. There are a couple of good surf breaks on the islands, with The Spot being an easy wave that stand-up paddleboards can ride as well.

Scuba diving at Cocos is incredible. With visibility that can exceed 40m, you can see dolphins, turtles, Kat the friendly local dugong and even shipwrecks, while admiring a stunning array of corals, pelagic and tropical fish. After diving at Cocos, it’s difficult to scuba anywhere else as this place truly spoils anyone who enters its underwater world.

Geof’s Glass Bottom Boat Tour was a highlight for our family. Geof had tailored a tour just for us that took us to a spot near Prison Island, which is a good spot for beginner snorkelers as there is little current and the water is filled with an array of coral and fish. We easily spent an hour totally absorbed while Geof waited patiently to take us to Prison Island. The tiny island once served as a prison for early settlers, who were unable to swim, but these days it’s a picture-perfect island where we could have spent all day sitting on deck chairs under the coconut trees.

We also visited Horsburgh Island, where the kids got a chance to climb the WWII cannon they had been eyeing off in the brochures since our arrival. After a special request from our oldest child, Geof took us to snorkel the Phaeton, a ship that sank in 1889 that’s now covered in coral and filled with fish.

It was time to head home but Geof had one more surprise for us. Like a modern-day Pied Piper, he motored past the deep blue holes and sharks quickly began to follow the boat. The boys were engrossed by the amount of reef sharks now aggregating below the glass-bottomed boat – they recognise the boat, as Geof feeds them on most days and welcomes his pals by giving them a good back rub with his scrubbing brush.

Intrigued, I asked if I was allowed to snorkel with them. Geof said it had been done before, but most of his customers felt safer in the boat. Not one to miss an opportunity, I slowly dipped my fins in first and gently entered the water. It was the most incredible sight – about 30 reef sharks, some of them 2m long, were casually cruising past, totally unperturbed by my presence. I looked up and my 10-year-old was coming in as well and, within a couple of minutes, our whole family was in the water, totally mesmerised by these incredible creatures. We finally got back into the boat to watch Geof throw out fish frames and saw the sharks transform from angelic to predator in a feeding frenzy.

Kayaking is another great way to explore the southern group of islands and Cocos Islands Adventure Tours takes it to a whole new level with its motorised outrigger canoes. We met with Kylie James for an afternoon tour and were soon motoring our canoes to snorkel the nearby islands. As we cruised along, we trolled our light rods and caught a number of cod and trevally. At South Island, we climbed to the highest peak on Cocos, which sits about 9m above sea level, and spent the rest of the afternoon swimming in the protected waters before returning to Scout Park before sunset.

Migratory birds often drop by Cocos for a rest or to get their bearings if they fly a little off course, making the islands a haven for bird watchers. Hard-core twitchers are known to jump on a plane to come here to sight rare Australian visitors (of the feathery type). The beauty of bird watching at Cocos is that you never know what bird might visit next.

Scroungers golf is big on the Cocos calendar, with visitors welcome to experience the only golf course in the world that includes an international airport runway. The islanders are a very social bunch and the festivities at the clubrooms after nine holes is taken just as seriously as the golf.

The Big Barge Arts Centre is located inside the hull of one the island’s old ferries, which was dragged out of the rainforest and lovingly restored by residents over a 10-year period. Local artists sell jewellery, artwork and carvings, many of which have been created from the flotsam and jetsam that washes up ashore.

Just as we were really getting into the swing of island life, two weeks had passed and it was time for the kids to farewell their 30 or so pet hermit crabs and to pack our bags. We had made so many friends at Trannies Beach, while fishing, at the Cocos Club’s weekly pizza night and while grabbing a coffee at Maxi’s by the sea, that we almost felt like locals. We had the ferry times to Home and Direction Island down pat and were adjusted to the prices of goods at the only supermarket on the island. As the plane lifted off, we marvelled at the spectacular blue holes and many islands we had visited. Although it was sad to leave, we will return, as there is nowhere in the world quite like Cocos Keeling Islands.


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