The Australian territory of Christmas Island is a cultural melting pot, discovers Greg Roberts
IT takes a while to sink in. When I glimpse a line of blue-grey shapes in the gloom of the forest, I think they are rocks. Then I realise with a start that the rocks are moving and I see that they have claws, big claws. am watching so-called coconut, or robber, crabs. Ten coconut crabs, each the size of a soccer ball, are converging on a fallen palm tree on the rainforest floor of Christmas Island. Coconut crabs are so prized for their succulent flesh that they have been hunted to extinction through most of their tropical island range. Only on Christmas Island, Australia’s far-flung Indian Ocean territory, do they remain abundant in their natural environs.
Christmas Island is crab heaven. Before encountering the first of many coconut crabs, I see thousands of the island’s famous red crabs. Their annual migration, from the emerald rainforest that clothes the island, to the seashore to spawn is described by British naturalist David Attenborough as one of the world’s great natural wonders. One hundred crabs a square metre pack the shoreline at the turning of the tide as each female ejects 100,000 eggs into the surf.
The red crab is the centrepiece of efforts by locals to put Christmas Island, about 2600km northwest of Perth, on the international tourist map, but the island has more to offer than crustaceans galore.
Christmas Island is so called because it was discovered on that day in 1643 by Captain William Mynors aboard the British ship Royal Mary. It was declared a British colony in 1888 and for a while was administered as part of Singapore, 400km to the north. These days it is Australia’s smallest territory.
Most of the island’s 1500 residents are descended from the Asians who went there in the 1890s to work the phosphate mines. As I drive southwards along the coast from the island’s main town, known simply as The Settlement, I pass a long line of neat Chinese graves on the right and a parallel assemblage of Malay graves on the left.
Dotted around the coastline are Chinese Buddhist temples perched atop limestone cliffs with glorious views across the Indian Ocean. In The Settlement, Malay Muslims are called to prayer at the mosque five times a day. All written notices are in English, Cantonese and Malay. There are no apparent racial tensions in this cultural melting pot; people unite in celebrating Easter and Christmas with as much gusto as the Malays do at Hari Raya Puasa celebrations or the Chinese Mooncake Festival.
Racial diversity is reflected in the cuisine. I sample a roti for breakfast in a cafe in Poon Saan, a village on a ridge above The Settlement that could as easily be on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. Lunch is Chinese noodles. Freshly caught wahoo fish is for dinner at the Rumah Tinggi Tavern, where the air is heavy with the scent of frangipani as I watch the sun set over the sea.
At the island port, Flying Fish Cove, adjacent to The Settlement, I don snorkel and flippers and within seconds am floating above a vast meadow of soft coral. I am surrounded by thousands of fish of many species; white-tipped reef sharks dart about and huge marine eels lurk on the seabed.
I join a film crew, here to shoot a documentary on the island, for an offshore scuba diving excursion. The day before, they filmed two whale sharks a short distance offshore. The world’s biggest fish, whale sharks are attracted to Christmas Island by vast sheets of red crab spawn in the sea. At the right time of year, they are easier to encounter here than on Western Australia’s world-renowned Ningaloo Reef.
The film crew describe underwater visibility off Christmas Island as the best they’ve experienced. The island is so remote that there is no pollution to cloud the water. It is the tip of a huge submarine mountain and, with almost no coastal shelf, the seabed plummets 500m within a few metres of the rugged cliffs that line 80km of coast. A short distance offshore is the Java Trench, the Indian Ocean’s deepest point.
The dive boat’s Japanese-born operator, Teruki, visited Christmas Island for a threeday stopover while returning home from a holiday in Australia 11 years ago. ‘‘ I’ve been here ever since,’’ Teruki says. ‘‘ This place is heaven.’’ Teruki says big game fishers are beginning to discover the island. They try their hand at hooking a wahoo, described as the fastest table fish in the world, huge sailfish that leap from the water, or 100kg yellowfin and dogtooth tuna. Fishing expeditions depart regularly from Flying Fish Cove, which also has moorings for visiting yachts.
On a cliff above the cove, World War II gun placements flank Tai Jin House, a stately colonial home where the first administrators lived. To get there, I drive past neat seaside homes with prayer flags fluttering from balconies to the island’s sole traffic light. When it turns green, I negotiate a narrow, one-way lane up a steep cliff incline.
Hovering above the cliff are scores of seabirds that have no fear of humans. Curious brown and red-footed boobies fly in to check me out, landing within touching distance and cackling vigorously. Around The Settlement, frigatebirds home in on swimming pools, recalling images of ancient pterodactyls as they skim for fresh water on improbably long wings.
This is the Indian Ocean’s answer to the Pacific’s Galapagos; boobies and noddy terns build flimsy nests on cliffs and the stone fences of waterfront properties. Frigatebirds and tropicbirds nest in tall trees behind The Settlement. But not all birds are welcome. Feral chickens abound, making a nuisance of themselves by digging up gardens. The local newspaper reports that chicken-related complaints to the shire council are mounting but ‘‘ unfortunately the shire’s chook traps were stolen, making it very difficult to assist’’.
Two or three days are needed to explore the island, some of which can be reached only by four-wheel-drive vehicle. Almost two-thirds of Christmas Island is protected as national park and well-maintained walking tracks have interpretive signs explaining the dynamics of local fauna and flora.
I climb down steep ladders on cliffs to reach isolated beaches. On Greta Beach, slide marks in the sand show that the night before a turtle dragged itself ashore to lay eggs. Nearby Dolly Beach is picture-postcard perfect. Waves crash on a beach of dazzling white sand and coconut palms sway in the southeasterly trade winds. I dodge crabs as I walk to the Dales, a series of freshwater streams running through the rainforest to the sea. I find an ice-cold waterfall splashing over moss-laden rocks. Farther up the coast is the Blowholes, a moonscape of craggy limestone outcrops; the roar of waves washing through sea caves can be heard long before I see them exploding through crevices.
The weather is bliss. Year round, temperatures rarely exceed 28C or fall below 22C. Most accommodation centres are modestly presented and priced. My motel, called VQ3, has ocean views from spacious balconies. Guests are invited to help themselves to supplies of everything from sunscreen lotion and insect repellent to coffee and Vegemite.
The five-star Christmas Island Resort, mothballed for nine years after its casino closed during Asia’s economic meltdown, reopened recently following a $3 million refurbishment. It has rooms with king-size beds, plasma screen televisions and Spanish marble bathrooms.
One drawback for visitors is the island’s visually confronting phosphate mining industry, but with a decision by Canberra to refuse new mining licences, operations are being phased out. Islanders hope a thriving tourism sector will compensate for lost mining jobs.
I run into red crabs everywhere; something like 50 million of the creatures live on the island’s 12,000ha. Nowhere on the planet are crabs, or indeed animals of any kind, according to one study, so numerous.
The crabs are captivating in an odd sort of way. I enter the forest early one morning and watch as they leave their burrows en masse. The leaf litter reddens as the sun rises. The 25cm crabs, utterly inoffensive and quick to get out of my way, shuffle about in search of the fallen leaves they feed on. I try hard not to run over crabs on the roads. Signs painted by schoolchildren ask motorists to slow down to avoid them. Many roads are closed during the summer spawning season. Residents pull over to shoo crabs off roads before driving on. I am surprised that something as prosaic as a crab engenders such affection.
Playing a round of golf on the island’s nine-hole course means having to sidestep crabs and nesting seabirds. It’s the sort of experience that makes for a successful ecotourism destination. With visitor numbers doubling during the past 12 months, it seems that Christmas Island is finding its niche.
National Jet Systems operates two or three flights a week to Christmas Island from Perth, depending on demand. More: www.nationaljet.com.au. Austasia operates weekly flights from Singapore. More: www.austasiaairlines.com. Though the island is part of Australia, immigration and Customs checks are required. Tax concessions mean products such as alcohol and tobacco are cheaper than in mainland duty-free stores. The Christmas Island Tourism Association offers details of accommodation, hire car and local tour options and can make bookings.
Claws for thought: Clockwise from above, the coconut crab is the size of a soccer ball; Dolly Beach; the Dales; this red-footed booby is unconcerned by visitors