By Sherri Donovan
Sherri Donovan (a silver member) is the new co-coordinator of the New York Chapter.
Christmas and Cocos Islands are semi-autonomous territories of Australia with a primarily Malay population. Located in the northern Indian Ocean, they are closer to Indonesia than Australia; Christmas Island is less than 500km (305 miles) south of Jakarta. Cocos Island is 2,940km (1,825 miles) northwest of Perth, Western Australia, and 930km (578 miles) west of Christmas Island.
Visas and Flights
Separate visas are not required to enter. Only the Australian electronic travel auhorizations (ETA) online form is required.
Flights vary from four to six hours depending on the circle route flown from Perth. Virgin Australia flies twice a week. On Tuesdays the flight stops first on Christmas Island and then Cocos Keeling Island before returning to Perth. The flight is the reverse direction on Fridays. Christmas Island is a 90-minute nonstop flight from the West Island of Coco. Beware! Flight schedules are heavily affected by the weather.
A rental 4WD pickup truck is the best way to get around and see the island of two thousand residents. Arrangements for flights, accommodations, rental vehicles and tours should be made in advance and prior to arrival.
The southeast wind season between April and November is the ideal time to visit with the highlight being the red crab migration in October and November. The Hari Raya Puasa celebrations are special to the local culture — marking the end of Ramadan.
Christmas Island has lush rainforests and volcanic rocks. Hiking amongst banyan trees, strangler figs, and Tahitian chestnut trees, there is an opportunity to see 253 species endemic to the island including 17 vascular plants, 27 molluscs, 15 crustaceans, 150 insects and 21 vertebrates.
Drive to deserted beaches, numerous lookout points, a Chinese cemetery, the Post Office, Buddhist Temple, and the Grotto where a scramble across slippery rocks with a rope rewards you with a refreshing dip. There is also an outdoor cinema and Chinese island food at the Chinese Literary Association and Poon Saan restaurants. It should be noted that all restaurants on both Christmas and Cocos Islands are only open 1-3 days a week on different days and only for certain meals. Menus and market items are limited due to a dependency on supply ships not able to land at times for weeks. Credit cards and Australian dollar cash are accepted.
We didn’t view it, but there is a prison-style detention centre on Christmas Island. As of May 2022, there are 212 inmates.
Tens of millions of endemic red crabs rule Christmas Island during the annual migration. The moment I arrived inside my room, I was greeted by my first red crab. Then, their claws appeared everywhere: at the beaches, in the forests, swarming the roads, 5:30 AM sightings in the ocean, on the sandy shores and climbing on the rocks—they were everywhere. Endemic crabs have the right of way on Christmas Island and include the following species: red crab, blue crab, ghost crab, hermit crab, mottled crab, purple crab, red nipper and the robber crab. The robber crab, also known as the coconut crab, is the world’s largest land crustacean.
Our group serendipitously met world renowned birder Richard Baxter, who has guided over 400 birders to Christmas and Cocos Islands more than thirty times. Refer to his Australian Birding Tours website for a complete list of endemic species on the islands.
Cocos (Keeling) Islands
The archipelago consists of two atolls and 27 coral islands. Home Island and West Island are the only inhabited islands with white sand, coconut trees and clear blue lagoons.
A charter was granted by Queen Elizabeth I to Captain William Keeling of the East India Company in 1857. On this voyage, the Cocos Islands were sighted by Captain Keeling and it was thereafter called “Cocos Keeling Islands.” In 1955, Cocos Keeling became an Australian territory and in 1979, the semi-autonomous governing Cocos Council was formed. The Cocos Malay people speak a mixture of English, Malay and Cocos Malay, and practice Sunni Islam. A museum on Home Island offers cultural tours three days a week. Visitors can stop by Oceania House, an historical property built in the late 19th century by the Clunies-Ross family, who were granted all of Cocos Island by Queen Victoria. The island also features a World War Two memorial.
On Home Island, the Cocos Malay account for the 450 people who live here and are believed to have arrived in the 1820s. Predominantly from Malaysia and Indonesia, ninety enslaved Borneo men, women and children arrived with English explorer Alexander Hare to engage in coconut plantation work. . Whole coconuts were exported to Singapore and Mauritius and coconut oil to Java and the UK. Try to meet Siti, the Malay woman who owns the one supermarket and the restaurant near the ferry which can take you to Direction Island for drift snorkeling and diving.
West Island is a 20-minute ferry ride from Home Island. It has a population of about 100 people. Tourist accommodations are mostly small guest houses and not plentiful. It is possible to get around the island by bicycle or vehicle. There is one medical clinic and a visitor centre.
A motorized canoe day tour with Indian Ocean Experiences guided our group to various uninhabited islands to snorkel amongst sea turtles, colorful fish and sea cucumbers. Diving with pelagics is also available— sharks and manta rays. On one of the islands, there is a local ongoing research project about Christmas Island blue-tailed skinks. Recently back from extinction, they slither like miniature blue snakes on tree barks.