What To Do On Christmas Island -
It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
I had fondly imagined white coral beaches and coral atolls, but apparently that’s Cocos and that’s next. My heart is sinking as I drive into town. I've flown into Christmas Island from East Timor via Perth.
The majority of the islanders live on the northern tip of Christmas Island. The main inhabited area (according to Wikipedia) is at Flying Fish Cove (named in the late nineteenth century when Captain John Maclear anchored HMS Flying Fish here) and it’s imaginatively named Settlement. The buildings around the bay are mainly dilapidated apartment blocks with cracked concrete, serried rows of satellites on the roof and washing draped over the balconies. There’s a huge gantry across the entrance to the main bay to transport minerals from one of the mines at the top of the hill, which is helpfully named Phosphate Hill. It’s all too eerily reminiscent of Nauru.
My RAV 4 hire car reflects the state of the buildings. It’s got 170,000 kilometres on the clock and is scratched and battered. My apartment has also seen better days. It does have a view of the sea as stated. There’s just a crumbling car park between me and the water.
There's no hot water in the apartment. The owners have thoughtfully left a contact mobile number on a notice on the wall. Though I haven’t got a signal - except for emergencies. I eventually sort it by emailing Lisa, the travel consultant I made the booking with.
I've been trying to plan what to do on the island, talking to Lisa and the Visitor Centre. The latter has three employees, which is curious, considering there don’t seem to be any other tourists, and the employees seem astonished to be asked questions about what to do.
The island's geographic isolation has led to a high level of endemism among its flora and fauna, so it's held in high esteem by naturalists. Over half the island is included in the Christmas Island National Park, which features several areas of primary monsoonal forest. There are sandy coves, birds and sea life - especially crabs - to be seen. It emerges that roughly half the roads and boardwalks (there are a lot of boardwalks) are closed for renovation, so quite a lot of the island is out of bounds. Much of it also seems to be accessed down rough tracks – 4 WD only.
There’s a big red sign board down by the island's only roundabout, at the bottom of the hill telling me which routes are closed. There are blackboards there too, where the locals write up all the latest announcements. It's fascinating - I have to be careful I don't crash while I'm reading it all.
I've asked about snorkelling, but the boats aren’t going out, as there are no tourists. The flights from Indonesia have been cancelled, it’s a bit chicken and egg. I don’t know if there are no tourists because they cancelled the flights, or if they cancelled the flights because there were no tourists. Anyway, it’s more or less just me. A friendly dive-master tells me that the best snorkelling is off the jetty in Flying Fish Cove, anyway. The beach just under the gantry and opposite the blocks of grubby apartments.
And I’ve been warned about being very careful where I go on my own. Two tourists have disappeared completely in the rainforest over the last couple of years.
Christmas Island - Facts and Factoids
- Christmas Island, officially the Territory of Christmas Island, is an Australian external territory. It is 19 kilometres long and 14 kilometres wide and has an area of 135 square kilometres. There was another Christmas Island, in the central Pacific, But that's ex Gilbert Islands, now part of Kiribati. (In Gilbertese Kiribati is pronounced Kiribass and Kirimati stands for the English name, Christmas (Kirimass.)
- Christmas Island has a population of just over 2,000 residents. Around two-thirds of the island's population are Malaysian Chinese. Several languages are in use, including English, Malay, and various Chinese dialects.
- Buddhism and Islam are the main religions.
- The first European to sight the island was Richard Rowe of the Thomas in 1615. The island was later named on Christmas Day (25 December) 1643, by Captain William Mynors, but only first settled in 1888 by George Clunies-Ross (of the Cocos Islands), who together with Sir John Murray, a British naturalist, was granted the first land lease.
- Christmas Island was administered, as a British possession, by British Governors in Ceylon or Singapore under the Straits Settlements.
- Murray had analysed specimens of rock and soil taken from the island and found them to be composed of nearly pure phosphate of lime (originally guano). Phosphate mining on the island commenced in 1897. An indentured workforce of Chinese, Malays and Sikhs were transported to the island and set to work, often in appalling conditions.
- During World War Two, Christmas Island was garrisoned by 32 men, primarily of Punjabi troops under a British officer, Captain L. W. T. Williams. The Japanese, were keen to occupy the island, both for its strategic position in the east Indian Ocean. and for the valuable phosphate deposits.
- However, before the Japanese even arrived, a group of the Punjabi soldiers mutinied, killing Williams and four other British officers. So, the Japanese landed unopposed, scoured the jungle for the fleeing workforce and sent most of them to prison camps.
- After the war, the British again took possession, but Christmas Island became an Australian Territory on 1 October 1958 with the proclamation of the Christmas Island Act 1958–59.
- Boats carrying asylum seekers, mainly from Indonesia, began arriving on Christmas Island. from the late 1980s to the early 1990s. So, the Australian government excluded the island from Australia’s migration zone, meaning asylum seekers couldn’t apply for refugee status. In 2006, an immigration (detention) centre containing 800 beds was constructed on the island. The centre is currently open.