Christmas Island is a rugged, isolated natural wonder – perfect travel for those seeking well off the beaten track.
2400 kms to the left of perth and up a bit lies christmas island, australia’s tiniest, most remarkable territory. It’s almost two-thirds national parkland, home to bird and wildlife species found nowhere else in the world, it’s rugged, isolated . . . And the crabs – oh, god, the crabs.
By Timothy Bull
My clapped-out hire car spluttered along the bumpy road, its air-con dead, its brakes emitting an occasional disconcerting screech, a pall of phosphorus-laden dust settling on its windscreen. To call my initial impression of Christmas Island unfavourable would be something of an understatement.
Named by British Captain William Mynors, who landed here on December 25, 1643, this remote Australian territory in the Indian Ocean appeared at first glance to be the very antithesis of most people’s idea of a tropical holiday destination. After successfully navigating the poorly signposted road leading down from the lone airport – an airport precariously placed atop the tip of a 60 million-year-old volcano – I eventually pulled up in the centre of The Settlement, the island’s only town.
Actually, “town” is probably a bit strong; it’s more a processing centre for the island’s major industry, phosphate mining, along with a confused mixture of buildings in various states of disrepair that the island’s population of just over 1000 call home.
When I arrived the streets were deserted. Unless you count the island’s other primary residents, some 120 million terrestrial red crabs, a few thousand of which were currently scurrying across the scorching asphalt in front of me. All else was quiet. Half expecting a giant phosphorus-encrusted tumbleweed to drift around the corner at any moment, I checked out the accommodation options.
In terms of location, The Captain’s Last Resort, a nice enough looking cottage clinging to rocks on the edge of the ocean, seemed hard to go past. But the fact that it was once the island’s morgue spooked me a bit, so go past it I did, settling instead for a room at the nearby Sunset Lodge. It certainly wasn’t 5-star luxury, but it was more than comfortable.
A BEACH, FIVE CASTAWAYS AND MACCA
Hot and bothered, towel in hand, I went looking for a swim – and found a sign pointing to Dolly Beach. Half the fun of Christmas Island’s secluded beaches is in getting there; Dolly was to prove no exception. After a cautious drive down a bumpy 4WD track, made all the slower by the need to dodge thousands more of the ubiquitous red crabs on their annual migration, I came upon the beginnings of a 2.5km walking track. It appeared the rest of the way would be on foot. The final 500 metres wound through thick stands of pandanus palms – which is about when I learned that their spiky leaves are harmless if you push through them instead of holding them to the side.
When I finally reached Dolly’s palm-studded sands, it turned out to be one of those out-of-the-way beaches you dream of, where the only footprints are tractor-like tracks from nesting turtles, and where – if you’re thirsty – you can crack open a fresh coconut. Apparently, back in 1855, five Dutch castaways swam ashore here and weren’t rescued until a full year had passed; as I splashed my way into a natural rock spa, I wondered why in the world they would’ve wanted to be rescued. The place is a paradise.
Buoyed by my newfound appreciation for the island, I watched, captivated, as hungry frigate birds dove for fish in the water around me. Their aerobatic antics made me realise I was a tad peckish myself, so I headed back to “town.”
Not surprisingly, there are only a couple of eateries to choose from on Christmas Island. I quickly spotted a place serving fish ’n’ chips, a Thai restaurant completely overrun with sailors from a naval vessel in port, and the Golden Bosun Tavern – or simply “the pub”, as it’s called by the residents of “The Settlement.”
I chose the pub. While tucking into my burger, I met a local luminary named Macca, a bearded Scotsman who came to the island for a holiday about 20 years ago and never left. He told me that during World War II, the Allied prisoners on the island collected firewood in such a pattern that, when their Japanese captors moved out, they were left with a ready-made golf course. It’s true. It really is.
A DRAGON, A MOVIE AND BROWN-FOOTED BOOBIES
Early the next morning I accepted an offer to join local adventurer Diane Masters and her friend Lynnie to check out the Grotto, a cave hacked out of the island’s rugged coastline by a millennia of restless seas. Local legend has it that the Grotto is home to an ancient dragon, which swam out from China at the end of the 19th Century. When it finally reached Christmas Island, lost and exhausted, the dragon swam into a cave to recuperate and has remained there ever since.
As we lowered ourselves down a rope, over several red crabs and towards the jaws of the cave, Diane motioned for us to look up. There, on the roof, I could make out the unmistakeable shape of the neck and head of a dragon – complete with claws.
After a bite to eat (I eventually succumbed to the fish ’n’ chips), I revved up the engine of my spluttering car and motored along the island’s major highway – a strip of dirt flanked by jungle – to explore three of the walking tracks on the west coast. One track took me through a pandanus tunnel to a hidden blowhole, while another lead over pumice stone fields to a cliff face where craggy, volcanic pinnacles met the crashing ocean. Soaring above these cliffs was a veritable menagerie of sea birds. Tiptoeing through the sharp pinnacles and dodging football-sized robber crabs – another of the island’s 33 total crab species – I was delighted to find a cuddly ball of white fluff tucked away in a nest of pandanus: a tiny silver bosun chick, one of two species of tropicbirds that have made Christmas Island their home. A few metres further along I spotted a brown-footed booby feeding its young, seemingly oblivious to my excited voyeurism. I’d stumbled into a twitchers paradise (the birdwatchers’ equivalent of a tick-tourist). After thousands of years of isolation, the birds there don’t seem scared of humans in the slightest.
After retracing my steps I headed down the third and final track – as it turned out, saving the best for last. I wound my way through an enchanted forest of giant Tahitian chestnuts, eventually fetching up at a spring, where fresh water bubbled from a limestone cave before cascading over a rock ledge inlaid with an intricate pattern of moss. Some of the island’s Chinese population believe this waterfall to be the centre of the Earth’s water universe. While I’m no expert on Feng Shui, it’s definitely one of the prettiest waterfalls I’d set eyes upon. I felt as though I could linger there all evening, but it was a Saturday – which meant it was time for the most popular community event on the island: the weekly movie.
This was far from your standard night out at the movies. This was cinema Christmas Island-style. Armed with an esky of cool drinks, a stash of snacks and a comfy cushion, I paid my five dollars and took a seat amongst the expectant throng of locals. The night’s offering was Pirates Of The Caribbean – a fitting choice for a far-flung, open-air cinema perched on a cliff-top with never-ending views over a moonlit ocean. Midway through the first pillaging scene, beyond the screen and makeshift sound system, bolts of lightning punctuated an otherwise darkened horizon. A light sea breeze touched our faces while a flock of birds returned late to their roosts, squawking loudly overhead. For a moment I thought I actually was in the Caribbean.
As the credits rolled, many of the locals gathered in groups to polish off the contents of their eskies and catch up on the week’s gossip. Exhausted from my day of exploring, I drove carefully back down the winding road to my accommodation, half expecting some sword-bearing bandit to leap out at me. Thankfully – sort of – all I encountered was more crabs.
A DIVE, A CAVE AND A WHALE SHARK
Waking early the next morning (partly due to the toc-toc-toc of wayward crabs crawling up my window), I readied myself for what I hoped would be the highlight of my stay on this isolated island: a dive in its tropical waters.
As my guided charter group chugged out of the aptly named Flying Fish Cove, I gazed upwards to a massive caldera of sheer cliffs festooned with lush jungle. Boobies flirted with the updrafts, their silhouettes becoming clearer as they flew from the dark green of the ancient forest and up into the endless blue sky. Only a couple of hundred metres offshore, the shallow sea floor of the Indian Ocean dropped off dramatically to a depth of more than three kilometres. With my back to Christmas Island and the nearest land some 1200 kilometres beyond the horizon, it felt as though I’d come to the end of the world.
Expectantly, I splashed into the warm waters (around 27C). It was like entering an underwater Garden of Eden. I spied on a myriad of brightly coloured sea creatures – some weird, some wonderful. Some, like an inquisitive marble shrimp, both weird and wonderful. Apparently, its furry tongue is a result of it drinking too much water.
But it was the black hole dead ahead of our group that beckoned me – the entrance to Thundercliff Cave, a catacomb of submerged caverns that extend from the side of the drop-off and back under the land. Leaving a school of playful batfish behind, we cautiously swam into the abyss. After navigating the 20m-long cave entrance, we eventually surfaced inside a cavern draped in beautiful cave shawls. Shedding our dive gear, we continued on foot, our torch beams lancing through the thick, humid cave air. We crept slowly along a slippery rock ledge that led to a brackish underground lake.
Overcome by that ungenerous impulse to want a place completely to yourself, we turned our lights off. The darkness was broken only by a couple of tiny flashlight fish frolicking in the lake, sporadically blinking their bioluminescent lights on and off. Immersed in such a surreal landscape, I wondered if I really had reached the end of the world.
Carefully, we retraced our steps and swam back through to the ocean. As our group waited, motionless, strung out in a rough line at five metres beneath the surface (our safety stop), a large shape loomed imposingly before us.
A whale shark. Six to seven metres long at least.
With stunning white spots all over and a mouth wider than I am long, he was both dazzling and scary. As if in slow motion, his gentle blue eyes made contact with each of us in turn. His curiosity satisfied, and with a couple of flaps of his massive tail, he disappeared back into the deep blue.
Back on land, as the last of the sun’s rays silently splashed into the Indian Ocean, I cracked open a bottle of champagne. In just two days I’d gone from seriously contemplating catching the next plane home to never wanting to leave. If you’re after a tropical island getaway, and are prepared to forgo the glitz and glamour of a resort – beat a path to Christmas Island before the rest of Australia discovers it.
DETAILS: CHRISTMAS ISLAND
National Jet Systems flies twice a week ex-Perth. Forget shopping around – it’s the only way to get there. Phone: (08) 9479 9700
Best months to go
The yearly crab migration takes place after the onset of the wet season and in synch with the cycle of the moon, so its timing varies slightly – usually in November or December. Whale sharks are generally sighted November – April.
Most under-rated aspect: Nature. It’s much more than just crabs.
Most over-rated aspect: Hard to find one, given the island is relatively new on the tourism scene.
Be prepared for: Only one petrol station, and it’s closed Saturday afternoons and Sundays. Also no ATM.
Watch out for: Regular opportunities to swim with dolphins.
Best value encountered: Ranger Max Orchard’s sea bird feeding session at his house every weekday at 4pm. It’s free and everyone’s invited.
Christmas Island Tourism Association.
Phone: (08) 9164 8382