The Aus­tralian ter­ri­tory of Christ­mas Is­land is a cul­tural melt­ing pot, dis­cov­ers Greg Roberts

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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:­tion­al­ Aus­ta­sia op­er­ates weekly flights from Sin­ga­pore. More: www.aus­tasi­aair­ 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.


Pic­tures: Greg Roberts

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

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