The Southern Islands, Cocos

I've flown into the Cocos Islands from Perth via Christmas Island. A quick bike tour down the side of the runway, to the southern tip of West Island, where there’s a gorgeous beach, islets floating beyond, in shallow glimmering water. The crabs here are mini robots, fast running, with vertical square heads and revolving eyes on top. Tiny reef sharks are so close in I can see the tips of their dorsal fins above the water.

The Southern Atoll

All the Cocos Islands, except one are in the southern atoll and I’m off to explore that on a motorized canoe tour. It’s an idyllic afternoon scudding round little palm topped dots. I’m allowed to be a princess, as Anthony from Perth does the necessary with the little outboard and we follow a rainbow of bright bobbing plastic boats. Sonal and Chris and Donna and Barry from my lodging have come along and there are more folk I recognise - they were on the plane from Perth.

We snorkel in a channel running half way round one island. It’s a natural water park – the current wafts us along the chute, past all the fish who are lurking in the overhangs and then catapults us into the ocean on the other side. Very clever. There are a multitude of garfish (under the surface), clams and sea cucumbers, as well as more small sharks and a couple of turtles. The current is so strong, it’s like watching a movie in fast forward and I’m hanging onto clumps of rock to try and take photos. We walk back the few metres across the island.

Julia and Tony are celebrating their 48th wedding anniversary and the next stop involves champagne, curry puffs, hordes of hermit crabs (I’m sure they can smell food, like robber crabs) and clouds of ravenous mosquitoes. (These can also smell a meal).

We meander round the atoll and  take a jungle walk to the highest point in the territory, on another island, used as a lookout during the war. It’s 13 metres high - this would not be  a good place to try to survive a tsunami. Then we fill a sack with plastic rubbish that has drifted onto the beach (a dent in the heap) and return to our boats, more alcohol and more meanderings.

The trip is timed perfectly, so that we return as the sun is setting over the islets.

A Boat Trip to Direction Island, Cocos - Meet Jaws

Next, I've planned a trip to Direction Island. You have to go on the special big ferry to Home Island, which then continues on to ‘Australia’s Best Beach’, Cossie Beach. But they’ve cancelled the ferry tomorrow (it only goes on Thursdays and Saturdays). The Visitor Information Centre (who actually seem to enjoy helping visitors here) say they can get me a glass bottomed boat trip that will include a visit to the beach, providing I can find three other people to join in. Sonal and Chris, from Christmas Island, are staying at the same place. And there’s an English couple, Donna and Barry from Essex, in the villa next to mine. Job done.

Today, the north part of the atoll in our glass bottomed boat, with  captain, Peter. The journey commences with a stop in the lagoon, for too much fishing, in my opinion. Chris and Peter enjoy themselves hugely, with the aid of some intricate red and white lures. They  land some large coral trout, which Peter excitedly explains, are a gastronomic delight.

We motor past some classic Robinson Crusoe islands with just one or two palm trees. Their names are less romantic - one is called Prison Island.

Horsbrough Island

Next, Horsbrough Island, which is surrounded by huge green turtles and more small black tipped reef sharks. We snorkel at a coral bomie  with white tipped reef shark lurking and then at a wrecked nineteenth century barge,. It's an apartment home for golden yellow striped goatfish.

Shark Attack

Peter promises more sharks on our way to Direction Island and bangs the glass panel with a brush. Nine sharks appear, the usual white and black tipped reef sharks and some larger, two metre grey reef sharks. They circle impatiently, waiting for the fish scraps that Peter feeds to them. Peter invites us to swim  with the sharks, but they are much bigger than those I have previously encountered in the water. I decide to abstain. My wound is also open again.

It’s a very good decision. Chris descends the ladder, putting one  leg into the water, and then appears again in the boat announcing he has been bitten by a shark. For a moment, I think he is joking, but then I spot the crimson fountain spurting out of his shin. Peter instantly springs into action, grabbing a towel a to fashion into a compression bandage. Then we head for the clinic on Home Island, where a sizeable proportion of the population of the Cocos Islands reside. Peter is bailing out bloody water. Direction Island recedes into the distance. I’m thinking it might be one of those places that’s just not meant to be.

An ambulance waits on the quay and Chris and Sonal are ferried off. Peter then announces that he will take the rest of us to Direction Island. we are to wait on the beach, while Chris is tended to. It’s a hollow victory. We’re all feeling shocked and sober.

Cossies Beach, Cocos Islands - The Best Beach in Australia?

This beach has been named Cossies Beach after Peter Cosgrave, a recent governor. It’s a classic arc of pale white sand backed by palm trees (not bendy), giving way to clear azure water. I’ll mark it eight, or maybe nine, out of ten. It's lovely but it's not the best beach I've ever seen by some way. So I decide to write my own list of Best Beaches in the World. More small black tipped reef sharks are circling in the bay and I’m not to be persuaded into the water again today (or maybe for a long while). Eventually, we return without Chris and Sonal. Barry accidentally does a Colin Firth impression, his white cheesecloth shirt soaking in the bow spray.

Sixteen Stitches

Peter returns for the patient later. It’s a nasty bite, sixteen stitches in a shark’s mouth crescent shape, and there have been Zoom conversations with medics in Australia. He was almost air lifted out. But it's now deemed not life threatening, provided he keeps it clean and elevated. Sonal and Chris have another four nights in the Cocos Islands and Chris will be confined to barracks for all of that time. We’ve booked dinner at Maxi’s restaurant tonight (she only opens Thursdays) and she cooks the coral trout for us. Sonal and I ferry some up the road to Chris. It’s delicious.

Next stop, Perth again.

Who Owns the Cocos Islands?

  • The Cocos (Keeling) Islands, officially Territory of Cocos (Keeling) Islands, are a remote territory of Australia in the Indian Ocean.  (Not to be confused with the Pacific Cocos Island, owned by Costa Rica), An administrator appointed by the Australian governor-general is the senior governmental official in the Cocos and a Shire Council administers most local government services.
  • Oddly, many other services are provided through agencies of the Western Australian state government, but Cocos Islanders vote in federal elections as part an electoral district of Northern Territory.

Facts and Factoids

  • There are 27 tiny islands here, in Cocos, on two atolls and the airport is on the largest of them, West Island, where I’m based, along with the territory’s administrative headquarters. Total land area 5 square miles Population (2016) 544.
  • The highest point in the territory rises to only 6 metres above sea level.
  • The Cocos Keeling Island Golf Club is the only course in the world that straddles an international runway.
  • Crime is very rare - a judge pops over from Australia every so often.

What's the History of the Cocos Islands?

The islands were uninhabited at the time of their first European sighting, in 1609, by the English mariner, William Keeling, who was working for the East India Company. They were first settled in 1826, by an English adventurer named Alexander Hare, who brought his Malay harem and slaves. But he didn't stay long.

The production and export of copra is the territory’s economic mainstay. The inhabitants are predominantly the descendants of the original coconut plantation workers, mostly of Malay origin, and gain, mostly enslaved. They were brought to the islands by John Clunies-Ross, a Scotsman who also settled here, in 1827–31. The islands formally became a British possession in 1857, but the Clunies-Ross family retained complete control, supported by a royal grant. The press referred to them. as 'Kings of the Cocos'. The locals settled for 'tuan'.

The islands were transferred from Great Britain to Australia in 1955, when n umerous Cocos Islanders moved to the Australian mainland in the, because of overcrowded conditions on the islands. Control and land ownership were gradually prised from the family, by the Australians. Today, some four-fifths of the population - Cocos Islanders, or Cocos Malays, as they are often called, together with the descendants of the Clunies-Ross family - live on Home Island. Most of the Cocos Malays speak a dialect of Malay and are Muslim. The islands' motto is spoken in Malay - Maju Pulu Kita (Onward our Island).

Arriving in the Cocos Islands

I've arrived from Christmas Island. First impressions are exciting - this is how one expects coral islands to look. It reminds me of Funafuti, the main island at Tuvalu, in that half the island consists of runway and the houses are built alongside it; but this is way more sophisticated. No games on the runway here. In fact, nothing on the runway, unless you want a hefty fine. It’s also used regularly by the Air Force. The bungalows are large and well-tended  and the few shops, one supermarket and restaurants are clustered in and around the airport. My lodging, like Tuvalu is just over the road (hopefully no rats this time) and is elegant and modern.

Is There Wi-fi in the Cocos Islands?

Wi-Fi has to be paid for and even then is only found in certain hot spots. I buy three hours, but then park it, as I realise if I go just up the road I can get a free connection from the airport. I sit on the benching outside for a couple of hours catching up, enjoying the balmy breeze.

More free Wi-Fi very early (the Air Force are in, noisily showing off) and then they cut the connection. So, I go back to my hotspot . Except you have to use your time consecutively here and it all got used up last night, even though I wasn’t online . You win some and you lose some.

The little airport comes alive twice a week when the plane from Perth comes in. It does a triangle via Christmas Island. The café/bakery does a roaring trade as folk congregate round the tables after they have checked in. The enterprising owner manifests again, once we have cleared security, with a chef’s hat and another, tiny coffee bar.

Too Many Adventures

- The Most Wonderful Time of the Year...

I've flown in from East Timor via Perth. I'm very apprehensive, after all my injunctions against exploring Christmas Island, (see Christmas Island in a Nutshell) but I set off towards Ethel and Lily beaches (Five of the six main beaches have women’s names. Winifred is the one where the tourists disappeared. But they’ve closed that track now.) I’m feeling more upbeat. I’ve been reading about all the amazing wildlife on this Australian Galapagos and the scenery improves the moment I get out of town. I’m already captivated by the tropic  birds wheeling, seabirds popping out of holes and little scarlet Tao temples.

The coast is a winding line of volcanic and coral crags, very spiky, with blowholes that are spectacular today, as the sea is rough. There’s no-one else around and I navigate slowly to a limestone grotto, replete with stalactites and bright vermilion crabs, cautiously waving their claws from beneath the rocks. The island is renowned for its crabs and the vivid red (with an angry face cunningly drawn on the carapace) and pastel blue crabs are endemic.

The red crabs undertake a massive annual migration across the island to spawn and the moving sea of bodies at that time is sufficient to close some of the roads (again). There are numerous yellow road signs warning of crabs on the highway and requesting that they are driven round and not over. The huge robber crabs (largest invertebrate in the world, at up to a metre wide including the legs), have a tendency to latch onto the chassis.

- Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

It’s been suggested that I swim at the grotto, but the swell is making a great deal of angry noise, as if the cave god requires propitiation, so I decide not.

The trees along the route  are inhabited by a profusion of red footed boobies, at least one on each branch, supplemented by sunning frigate birds, as I descend a steep hair-pinned hill. The frigate birds are stretching their dark wings on the branches (for a moment I think they’re bats) and even squat on the tarmac. It’s a little precarious stopping for pictures, but I haven’t seen another car at all.

Eventually, Lily and Ethel Beaches, both small, one golden sand, one shingle and both beset by a great deal of surf. There’s a slatted boardwalk between them with more spray and cliff views and numerous adorable fluffy booby chicks; paths are carved between the coral pinnacles for easier observation.

- I'll be Home for Christmas

I change my camera battery and am  happily watching, until I’m attacked by a brown booby mother, who deems me to be too close to her chick. (I read afterwards you’re supposed to stay 10 metres away from these - but they seemed so unconcerned). She has a long sharp beak and, thoroughly startled and more than a little afraid, I pitch over onto the coral. The booby’s now standing guard over my sunglasses and I have to wander away until she’s lost interest and I can venture in and retrieve them. That’s when I notice all the blood running down my leg.

Back to my vehicle then, so I can  go back to town and deal with my wounds. Except that I’ve lost the car keys. Panic. Retrace steps - can’t see them. and I’ve been walking a long way, scrambling over rocks. I’m searching near the booby with trepidation and no enthusiasm. And my leg hurts. There’s no-one to ask for help and I have no mobile signal except for emergencies. So, I call the police.

Two cars arrive complete with flashing beacons and three officers. They’re very kind (I think they’re glad of something to do) and take me to hospital. They also find the car keys - just up the boardwalk. The nurse cleans me up and says I’m not to get the wound wet under any circumstances. Somebody up there is very much against me snorkelling on this trip. And I bought that new camera.

Today was much too exciting. And none of my pictures of Lily Beach have been saved – the battery obviously malfunctioned before I noticed. I shall have to go back…

The Dales

- Merry Christmas, Darling

The Dales misleadingly sound like bucolic Yorkshire. They are a series of   inlets in the jungle carved by rainforests, important wetlands, the sign says.  Hugh’s Dale has a waterfall. I fondly imagine ( I shall have to stop doing this) parking up and eating a pleasant lunch by the waterside. I can’t go in the water now as I’ve been forbidden.

The approach is well inside the national park , on dusty sealed roads and then steeper bumpy tracks, the rainforest closing in dramatically on all three sides, fronds brushing the windscreen. The waterfall is a half hour trail, mainly on boardwalk, through Tahitian chestnuts with tentacles for roots. There are plenty of blue crabs, enjoying the stream, claws flailing in an attempt to look fierce, as they scuttle away and sink into their mud burrows, some distant robber crabs in the gulley and too many mosquitoes.

Up the steep steps to a trickle of water over an escarpment and a naked man standing underneath, splashing. It seems there are two other tourists on the island – Sonal and Chris from Sydney. They assure me that Anderson’s Dale is also easily accessible, with robber crabs to be seen, though the sign said moderately strenuous, and I set off hesitantly down another track.

- Lost Christmas

The path is more level, but not flat. It’s a scramble over lumps of coral and under branches and there aren’t enough of the red arrow markers. The jungle is very dense (and tall  here). At one point I can’t see the way ahead at all and wander around lost and starting to panic - again. Perhaps I should carry my Rescue Remedy with me while I’m out exploring here. Then I notice an arrow and relieved, follow the signs once more. Ending up back where I started. Anderson’s Dale is not meant to be.

More dusty roads down to South Point, through mining country with ‘road trains’ full of rock roaring past. There are three Tao temples, each having ownership of the best sea views.

This island is a curious fusion of oriental and western culture, perched between Asia and Oceania. I eat kung pow chicken and salt and pepper prawns with my new Australian friends (Chris has put his clothes on now) – it’s one of the best Chinese meals I’ve had.

Dolly Beach

- Driving Home for Christmas (Island)

I’ve decided I have to stop worrying about the perils on the island and enjoy its natural wonders. So, I’m driving to Dolly Beach, which is at the end of  a steep and stony 4 WD track. My destination is famous for its beauty and its robber crabs. After a little slithering, and one or two nasty sounding bangs, I arrive. It’s a two kilometre jungle walk this time, but it’s a relatively straightforward one, with a plethora of pink ribbons on the trunks to guide me.

Dolly is indeed gorgeous. If you discount the rubbish lodged all around the edges, piles of bottles, rope and flip flops (or thongs as they say here) drifting in from Indonesia. It’s a stretch of  silvery beach, backed by bendy palm trees and cliffs. There are basalt peaks and rock pools and the sea is surging in and around them, huge waves throwing up waterfalls of spray. It’s a great spectacle and a good place to spend a couple of hours lazing.

- Blue Christmas - Robber Crabs and Blue Crabs

The famed robber crabs nest around the streams behind the beach, their carapaces a striking psychedelic mish-mash of purple, blue and red. They would fit in very well on Doctor Who. They’re called robber crabs because they do indeed scavenge and steal and are not averse to shiny objects, like saucepans. Unlike the blue crabs, they stand their ground, as I approach, brandishing feelers and claws threateningly. Their alternative name is coconut crab, because they can crush and feed on these fruits. After my previous experience I have no intention of initiating a skirmish with an armed  member of the animal kingdom and I lurch round the trees and across the many husks on the damp ground in order to evade close contact.

- Do They Know it's Christmas? - Another Jungle Emergency

After this and another uneventful return walk (it goes without saying I’ve met no-one) I’m very pleased that I’ve managed to use the correct gear mode and gain enough traction to return back up the almost vertical hill and to the main unsealed road. My worries are over. Until I smell burning rubber and the car bumps ominously. One very flat tyre. This time I have no mobile signal at all, not even for emergencies only.

Fortunately, the seventh cavalry arrives in the form of Kenny, a Chinese-Australian mine worker from Perth. He’s a practical sort, who decries the poor equipment in my car (sad to say there’s not much hope of me being able to use it correctly on my own anyway) and cheerfully sets about changing my wheel. ‘Your tyre is wrecked,’ is the diagnosis. No other vehicles have passed by; it’s Saturday afternoon. How lucky am I?

The evening is spent watching the new version of The Lion King at the open air cinema with Sonal and Chris. He buys us Choco-pots. There’s almost enough (hard bench) seating for the whole of the island. And most of them are there.

The Golf Course Lookout on Christmas Island

- So Here It Is, Merry Christmas, Everybody’s Having Fun

As I have no spare tyre I decide to stick to the paved roads on Christmas Island and return to Lily Beach in search of replacement photos.

The golf course lookout en route seems like a good idea. But nothing on this island is straightforward. The lookout path is a skiddy 15 minute descent on gravel. The lookout carved out of a towering clifftop gives way to a panorama up the coastline, palm trees and azure sea. It’s very blustery today. The blowholes are burgeoning down below and the sea birds wheeling frantically above. I’m clutching the rails. It’s uphill all the way back.

There are fewer frigate birds roosting; it doesn’t seem to be their allotted day of rest. Most of them are down at picturesque Lily Beach instead, chasing the smaller birds round the cove, until they drop their catch and the frigates can scoop it up. They are well named. There are five trucks parked at the beach this afternoon and a family enjoying the waves. Sunday is obviously the day to lose your car keys.

Christmas comes but once per life time - if that - so I’ve decided to go snorkelling at Flying Fish Cove. I’ve bought  waterproof dressings. They weren’t cheap. The snorkelling is more scenic than the surroundings and there are some very unusual fish. My dressing comes off almost as soon as I enter the water.

Poon Saan

- I Wish It Could be Christmas Every Day

My last full day on Christmas Island and I’ve errands to do: buy more dressings and get a new tyre. The Chinese owner of the car hire gives me a dressing down. ‘You shouldn’t drive on a puncture’. No good trying to explain that I couldn’t even hear that I’d got a problem on a road that bad. He’s more affable after I’ve paid the 265 dollar bill.

No more dodgy roads for me then. I explore the inhabited areas: Poon Saan, Kampong, Silver City, Drumsite. There are pretty bungalows on the winding roads beneath the apartment blocks. Nearly all of them have a boat in the garden. There are worse ways to live. There are more temples and this, more Chinese residential area, also boasts restaurants and a row of modern(ish) cafes and shops with a coconut crab sculpture alongside.

Through Settlement, round to Smith Point, past Christmas Island's only traffic light. This is because it’s a one way road constructed  on the edge of the cliff. There wasn’t a road here at all when the governor’s house (called Tai Jinn but known as Buck House) was built at the end.

More snorkelling. The fish are plentiful this afternoon and I stay in the water so long I resemble a prune.

I’ve been cooking most evenings, buying from the supermarket, but I’ve nothing left in the fridge and I decide I must  eat out. Nothing is open. I suppose I should have expected that on a Monday, but there are some odd opening times. Friday night’s Chinese restaurant doesn’t open on Saturday evenings and most of the cafes close after lunch. Or earlier. Gin and salt and vinegar crisps for supper

Ethel Beach Revisited

- Happy Xmas (War Is Over)

A final snorkel - Flying Fish Cove is so accessible, and so rewarding, and a last visit to Ethel Beach. The frigates are back on the road today. This is a weird, unique and wonderful place. Christmas Island has grown on me, the shabbiness diminished with familiarity. It’s not a place for the faint hearted and not really a safe destination for the solo traveller. But I shall be sorry to leave. Next stop, the Cocos Islands.

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.

Facts and Factoids

  • Timor-Leste, literally East-East (or East Timor) occupies half the island of Timor. It is the largest and easternmost of the Lesser Sunda Islands.
  • It is the only Asian country to be located completely in the Southern Hemisphere.
  • It's only 600 kilometres from Darwin to Dili, the capital. The Japanese came very close to Australia, when they invaded during World War II
  • It is one of only two predominantly Christian nations in South-east Asia, the other being the Philippines.

Getting into East Timor

It was relatively easy to get a visa on arrival in Timor-Leste. There are regular flights from Darwin. I've come from the Ghan train.

A Brief History of East Timor

  • Timor was colonised by Portugal in the sixteenth century, (the incentive being sandalwood). Skirmishing with the Dutch in the region eventually resulted in an 1859 treaty, in which Portugal ceded the western half of the island, leaving East Timor..
  • During World War II East Timor was partly occupied by first Dutch and Australian troops and then the Japanese, despite Portugal’s declared neutrality. The island was the scene of some bitter fighting and many Timorese lost their lives in the process.
  • The country was known as Portuguese Timor until 28 November 1975, when the Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (Fretilin) declared the territory's independence. Nine days later, with the encouragement of the USA, it was invaded and occupied by the Indonesian military, and was declared as that country's 27th province the following year. The Indonesian occupation of East Timor resulted in a highly violent, decades-long conflict between separatist groups and the Indonesian military.
  • In 1999, following a United Nations-sponsored referendum, Indonesia relinquished control of the territory. East Timor became the first new sovereign state of the twenty-first century on 20 May 2002.

What's in a Name?

  • In Indonesia, East Timor is usually called Tim Tim (Timor Timor). Timor means East in Indonesian.
  • This is the only country in the world with a properly hyphenated name. Others have hyphenated add-ons to distinguish them from neighbours - like Guinea-Bissau or Congo-Brazzaville.

Is Timor-Leste a Poor Country?

East Timor continues to be one of the world's poorest countries, Over half the one millon population are unemployed. The main export is oil (a developing industry), followed by coffee.

Is Timor-Leste Safe for Tourists?

There are very few tourists in Timor-Leste. There is little infrastructure and the roads are terrible. So it's uncomfortable rather than dangerous for the most part. Though the levels of poverty mean that travellers always have to be wary of crime, including gang-related violence, robbery (in some cases armed), and assault.

Where Am I Visiting In Timor-Leste?

  • I'm spending time in the capital Dili and the beautiful beaches around
  • I had planned to visit the island of Artauro, where the snorkelling is said to be sublime, but the ferry has been cancelled. They say it's bad weather. I'm not convinced.
  • I also spend 6 days travelling clockwise round Timor-Leste. I get to do some snorkelling at Jaco Island. The spirit houses are the most interesting sight, the scenery varied (mountains, villages, paddy fields and beaches) the, roads are terrible, the accommodation hugely variable and the people friendly.

Dili to Baucau

Today, we’re setting off clockwise round Timor-Leste from Dili .The Chinese haven’t got very far with their road building projects. The whole route is one bumpy construction site – it takes much too long to reach the second city, Baucau. Most of the locals ride motor bikes and wear face masks as protection against the billowing clouds of dust (even inside cars and lorries).

We’re bouncing up and down mountain roads and hairpin bends, some great views down to the reefs and azure water. There are more stunning silvery stretches of sand too; Dollar Beach used to carry a charge - hence the name - but now the little watch tower picnic areas are free, if you don’t mind the filth and litter on the sand. Others are thankfully, cleaner, but instead carry signs warning of crocodiles. They’re a sacred animal here, an integral part of the myth of how Timor came into being, and nobody will kill one. Besides, Luis says, crocodiles only harm people who have done them wrong in the past. Paradise is never perfect.

The housing is corrugated roofed boxes and the hills arid brown carpets, dotted with green trees. There have been a few drops of rain, however, much to Luis’ astonishment. ‘It never rains in the dry season’. Further into rural areas there are golden paddies, water buffalo wandering. The animals used to be used for farming, but have been replaced by tractors and are only now raised for their meat, which is tough eating. They’re picturesque though, lowered heads and long horns.

Tethered russet cattle with long white stockings and pretty calves and goats, watchful of their cute kids, line the route. The tiniest of pigs run squeaking across the road, along with bobbing chicks. We’re not really going fast enough to scatter them and Luis is a cautious driver. I’m not complaining about that, but it’s hard to appreciate the scenery, when the heat and humidity is making me catatonic and the journey is tortuously slow.

Baucau, the Second City of Timor-Leste

I haven’t met any other tourists in Timor-Leste, but there are several groups of friendly Australian volunteers, taking in the sights on a Sunday and braving the possibility of salties on beautiful Baucau Beach. And all the locals wave as we pass, ‘Foreigner, foreigner.’

My coral pink pousada is a very welcome surprise. I had been warned that accommodation outside Dili would be squat toilets and mandis (bucket showers). But this is verging on luxurious, partly new, partly historic. However, sleep isn’t part of the package. First, children playing outside seem to be having an all-night party. When they finally depart the dogs take over. In the morning it’s the turn of the cockerels and in-between there’s continually running water just outside my room. I’m unsure if it’s a piped stream or a water feature.

Baucau to Valu Beach

Luis says today's journey involves even more potholes, on the road east, to  the tip of Timor-Leste. I resign myself to a long day. We pass World War II Japanese bunkers, and several road houses. These are groups of open air restaurants selling barbecued fish and rice. The villages are more interesting and traditional out here, grassy in rainforest clearings.

The houses are on stilts, there are tall thatch-roofed ceremonial spirit houses and huge enclosed graves. These feature posts with  buffalo skulls, one for each animal that was slaughtered at the funeral. Dotted amongst the thatch there are smart new multi-coloured mansions with multiple pitched roofs. Luis says these have been built with money sent back from England. The Timorese go there to work on their Portuguese passports and send money back. These gaudy  homes are the proud result. Even some of the buses sport union flags in gratitude. Apparently, there’s no work in Portugal.

The highways here are in even more upheaval and we’re upending over numerous new culverts. If this all goes to plan they’ll eventually be able to use the roads in the rainy season – they’re usually a sea of mud.

Crocodiles and Tamarinds

We meet one of yesterday’s Australian groups on a bridge, whilst I’m photographing a crocodile in the river. They’re excited by this. They say it’s the first one they’ve seen. I think that’s a good sign. We’re all heading to the beach at Com for lunch. There’s a huge tamarind tree, spreading over Kati’s guest house and its leathery pods thump alarmingly down onto the corrugated roof as we eat.

Valu Beach, Timor-Leste

Finally, the mandi and outside toilet (not a squat) at a new ‘modern’ guest house on Valu Beach. There’s still plastic covering the bedhead. Tomorrow’s destination, Jaco Island, is beckoning, just across the dappled strait.

There don’t seem to be any other guests and the staff have all disappeared. It’s a good job I’m not hungry and there won’t be any jokes about valu for money.

Jaco Island, Timor-Leste

The staff have reappeared. Breakfast is one cold fried egg and two hot rolls.

Trip Advisor is divided as to whether the Jaco is worth the arduous journey across Timor-Leste or not. We commission a fisherman to take us over in one of the many blue painted outrigger canoes hauled up on the beach. Forget the we, Luis is sending me on my own and there’s me fondly imagining he would keep watch for crocodiles.

The jury is split on the verdict. The beach is picture perfect white coral and is deserted, apart from one brooding young Portuguese guy who clearly wants to be left alone. Maybe he’s had an unhappy love affair. The water is delightfully translucent, except for some clusters of jellyfish and there are plenty of bright swimming creatures and several varieties of coral: staghorn, fan and fern, though there also bleached fragmented stretches.  It’s all within easy reach of the shore, and there’s no sign of crocodiles, so I’m happy, though I’m marooned rather longer than promised. The fishermen eventually tootle up, trailing a line, the bottom of the boat red with the blood of snapper and John Dory that are nestling beneath my plank seat.

Valu Beach to Lospalos

I’m offered a mandi shower on my return. The water is hold your breath cold, but not so cool that I can’t force my head underneath the Winnie the Pooh ladle. I’ve arranged all my clothes on the sill, as the floor is sopping. There’s a gust of wind and it’s now all wringing wet.

Back along the tortuous road, past the traditional thatched houses to Lospalos. I’m promised hot water in the hotel here. Except that no-one is around to check us in. Eventually, the water has been turned on, my flickering fluorescent light tube has been replaced and I’m all settled. I’ve hung all my wet gear on the bushes to dry. When in Rome.

Luis says the road is even worse tomorrow, in the less visited south of Timor-Leste. Reconstruction isn’t even a glint in anyone’s eye.


It’s been a rough eight hours. The dozen or so resident dogs didn’t stop arguing all night. They mark out their territory by staking themselves at intervals all round the cabin style rooms and right through the kitchen. There are four cream puppies. My light has stopped working again and my clothes are even wetter than when I put them out, there’s been a very heavy dew running off the metal roof.

Lospalos to Viequeque

Breakfast is two fried eggs and three cold rolls. I’m warned there isn’t anywhere to stop for lunch. And Luis isn’t wrong about the road. I’m not convinced it deserves the name. It looks like a dried up river bed for much of the way. Indeed, twice it actually is a river bed, once with water at least a foot deep. We have to detour, as the bridges have fallen into disrepair. At another point the road has caved in completely and we have to pay ten dollars  to cross, using a path belonging to a local entrepreneur. Luis says this is cheap. He’s been given a discount, as he comes from this area.

We’ve climbed gradually up into the mountains, where thankfully it’s cooler  and the lifestyle more rural and more conservative. The women here wear the more traditional long, sarong type woven skirts. The journey takes nine and half tortuous hours. It’s made even slower as Luis knows many of the folk that we pass and they all have to be greeted. But these are the interesting parts of the day. We stop at his aunt’s for ‘morning tea’ and are served cassava, bitter greens and sweet potato, to sustain us in the absence of restaurants. Luis bounces his second cousins around. He doesn’t see them very often – it’s a long ride from Dili. This is his aunt on his father’s side. There are numerous other cousins and family on his mother’s side as we venture on. It’s a cavalcade of cheering (tourists are a rarity) waving and stopping, waving and stopping.

Descending to the south of Timor-Leste, we’re surrounded by lush emerald green paddy fields - the scenery is really gorgeous here. I wander off to take pictures of buffalo and thatched houses and return to find Luis gossiping. It seems that he knows the people here too. They’re from his village, but have moved to this area to harvest the rice and then they will go home again.

Searching for a Friendly Tree

Finally, we emerge onto the south coast, a line of dark volcanic beaches and rock formations splashed by surf. We flirt with the sea for a while before heading inland again. Luis calls a toilet stop ‘looking for a friendly tree’ and I’ve requested one, but since heading inland the road has been lined with houses. Everyone wants to live on the road and there aren’t many of those.

Luis takes off up what looks like an old grassy cart track.’ No houses up here. After finding a friendly tree, and a less than friendly cow, I expect that we will turn round. But no, Luis heads off along the crest of a ridge for an hour or so. It’s just like a downland bostal road, except that we’re encountering fan palms instead of gorse bushes. I’m wondering if we will still be up here at sunset, but we eventually turn onto the ‘main road’ once more and the town of Viqueque.


Viequeque boasts a couple of interesting churches. But the guesthouse here, located in the compound of a filling station is decidedly grim. The cardboard ceiling has holes in it and the bathroom walls are more mould than plaster. Scented toilet blocs are festooned all round, still in their torn packaging. Even in the dining room.

Viequeque to Same

Breakfast is one fried egg and two very large hot rolls. I’m going to supplement it with banana fritters from the restaurant down the road. The owner is some distant relation of Luis. He says today’s journey is shorter - the worst is over - hurray.

The journey is indeed shorter, but has little to commend it, except that the road surface isn’t quite as uncomfortable. Much of the route is through dusty bush. We meet the sea again for a while and the spirit houses here in the south have shorter roofs. Luis says that some of the villages  are about to be displaced to make way for oil development. And we only pass one house where his relations live.

Our destination, Same, is a pleasant highland  retreat decorated with bougainvillea bushes. My guest house is a distinct improvement. It’s modern and there are balconies with views across to the mountains. Except that the manager denies all knowledge of my booking and the place is full up with oil workers. Fortunately, there’s another acceptable hotel down the road, though minus the views.

Same - The Voice of the Voiceless in Timor-Leste

Breakfast today is a fried egg, four rolls and two frankfurters. I avoid the sausages.

There’s a ceremony just outside town today, at the statue for resistance fighter, Boaventura, a part of the build up to the twentieth anniversary of the independence referendum in Timor-Leste. The signs all say they are commemorating ‘A Voice for the Voiceless’. The president of parliament is attending and the local people are parading down the street in trucks, garbed in traditional woven cloaks and scarves and bearing huge flags. I join the journalists and wander around with my camera taking pictures, jigging to  the drumming and chatting to the school children. It might be the highlight of the trip.

The road back to Dili wanders through some dramatic mountain scenery. We stop at the town of Maubisse for lunch and to admire the views. Luis has a headache. He was standing in the sun, watching the celebrations and I diagnose dehydration, administer ibuprofen and instruct him to drink more water. This is a long and winding road, but the surface, for the most part is the best we’ve driven on so far. It’s smooth most of the way, although an unmade section is so dusty, that we literally cannot see a thing when lorries pelt past and we have to stop until it clears.

I’m very happy to be in my clean Dili hotel room again, with hot water and no mosquitoes.

Getting into Dili (Lavender's Blue)

I've flown into Dili from Darwin after travelling on the Ghan. I keep wanting to sing ‘Lavender’s blue Dilly Dilly,’ but I’m not sure how well it would go down.

My guide, Luis, is a very serious and earnest man. He’s already told me that he was orphaned by the age of seven (as a result of the war with Indonesia - (see Timor- Leste in a Nutshell) and fended for himself, from then on, as did his siblings. He has a lot to say about the Indonesian occupation. It was a tough life. The morning follows that theme as we tour the tiny capital.

About Dili

Like most capital cities Dili is a magnet for those seeking work. Dili is a melting pot of the different ethnic groups of East Timor. There also far more men than women living here. The use of Portuguese was banned under Indonesian rule, The Roman Catholic Church l became a focus for resistance to Indonesian occupation.

We drive round all the new civic and national buildings. These are mostly constructed by the Chinese to replace those razed in pique, by the Indonesians, when they left the country ). If you look hard you can still find some Portuguese colonial buildings, such as. the former Market Hall, which is used as a Congress Centre nowadays. The former Portuguese Governor's office is now the office of the Prime Minister. Even under Indonesian rule, during which the use of Portuguese was banned, Portuguese street names like Avenida Marechal Carmona remained unchanged, although they were prefixed with the Indonesian word Jalan or 'road. Most of the supermarkets and hardware shops are Chinese and Chinatown in Dili is a modern, industrial swathe.

The Main Sights of Dili

The main sights of Dili are mainly independence struggle related. There's the statue of the first president and independence leader, Nicolau Lobato and others commemorating the martyrs in the two most recent conflicts. Then, the cemetery, where the Indonesian army massacred protestors and the Resistance Museum, which tells the story of the country's struggles for independence from Portugal in 1975 and then Indonesia in 2002. It’s a sobering experience, especially the videos shot by journalists one or two days before they died, trying to bring the plight of the people to the world’s attention. It brings to mind the photographic exhibitions in  Vietnam. There are cases displaying their clothes and cameras.

There are legacies of Jakarta's occupation too, the Church of the Immaculate Conception, seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Díli, purportedly the largest cathedral in Southeast Asia, and the 'Integration Monument', commemorating the Indonesian annexation of the territory in 1976. Not to mention a Hindu Temple. Luis hasn't taken me to see these.


Cristo Rei

At the end of the bay sitting on a hilltop high over the city, is the 27 metre tall Cristo Rei statue. It's a vague mimic of Rio's Christ the Redeemer - this one has Jesus atop a globe. It was built by the Indonesians, in an attempt to ingratiate themselves with the catholic population. It also marked the 20th anniversary of East Timor's 'integration' into Indonesia. Beneath are a couple of beautiful white sand beaches lapped by clear turquoise water. One of them is referred to as 'Jesus' Backside Beach'. There’s also a row of embassies, all on premium sites with views over the water, just like in Libreville.


A clockwise tour of the island and back to Dili.

I’m supposed to be sailing to Artauro Island at the end of my visit and staying overnight for snorkelling. The itinerary says the water is sublime there. Except that the company booked to take me have cancelled. They say the weather will be bad for a week and I won’t be able to get back. To say I’m disappointed is an understatement. It’s a notoriously rough stretch of water and the boats aren’t huge, but the BBC forecast isn’t flagging up any storms.

Luis turns up with his head shaven today. He says that he thinks his ‘long hair’ was the cause of his bad headache when we were travelling. He offers to take me west to see some resistance sites. But I’m determined to stay in comfortable accommodation at least and I’ve had enough of the bad roads round the island. I can stay in Dili and read about history. So, we compromise on the beach at Liquica, where he says there is snorkelling available.

There’s an upmarket little beach restaurant where we can loll on settees, but the tide is very high on the black volcanic beach. There's a strong current running  and no-one is in the water. Snorkelling is off.

Dili Dally

Time by the pool at this, the top hotel in Dili. I’m alone, except for several staff who spend hours weaving a pastel pink and purple balloon arch and pleating a cloth to cover a table alongside the water. I’m fascinated. I’ve always been intrigued as to how they make those. I wonder what important event is to be held here. Then they fetch some stands and display some child’s plastic toys. It’s a Dr Samara kit, complete with stethoscope, hypodermic and sundry other accompaniments. This is a strange world, Horatio. Back to Darwin on my way to Christmas Island.

Getting into Niue

It’s Ground Hog Day again as I start my journey to visit Niue on July 27 and finish it on July 26, back across the International Date Line. The flight from Auckland, coming from Norfolk Island is horrendously bumpy. The captain apologises profusely for most of the journey, I grip the seats of my chair and the crew are ordered to stay in their seats, as we career through the skies. We landed in pouring rain, of course.

Locate my Rav 4 hire car - no map provided. Proceed to become totally lost for an hour, undertaking what I’ve been told is a five kilometre journey. My wipers make the most appalling noise, like screeching parrots and I can’t demist the screen. Eventually,  end up at the hospital. I suppose it’s useful to know where that is - assuming I can find it again.

Meet two more bewildered tourists trying to make their way to the same place as me. Follow them. And end up back at the hospital. After stopping several residents and begging a map off one family  finally arrive at my resort, to discover I’m I’ve been allocated an apartment a mile up the road from the main building. Just as well I have a car. but it has a gorgeous view over the reef.

How Big is Niue?

Niue is one of the world's largest coral islands, at ten miles by seven miles; it’s actually a coral atoll raised by volcanic upheavals, so there are caves and chasms above and below water. so, It's known as The Rock of Polynesia, or simply The Rock (not to be confused with Jamaica.)

Niue’s highest point is only 223 feet (about 68 meters) above sea level.

Who Colonised Niue?

Niue has no recognised strategic trade significance and was not annexed by a European power until 1900, long after most other Pacific islands. It was first sighted by Captain Cook in 1774, but he was refused landing by the inhabitants, on three different attempts. He then named Niue ‘Savage Island’. Missionaries from the LMS (London Missionary Society) established Christianity in 1846. Niue chiefs took British Protectorate status in 1900, and in 1901 Niue was annexed to New Zealand.

Is Niue a Country?

Niue is a small island nation in the South Pacific Ocean. Niue has been in free association with New Zealand since 1974, (so the currency is the New Zealand Dollar) and government follows a Westminster-style rule with a 20 member assembly. The Premier is selected by the House and the Premier then selects 3 other members for Cabinet posts. So, Niue has the world’s highest per capita number of politicians, with one MP for every 65 people!

More Niueans live in New Zealand than in Niue: 1500 on Niue, 24000 in New Zealand.

Is Niue Safe to Visit?

The local literature also tells me, boasts no crime, no traffic lights, no queues and no crowds. As far as I can see this information is entirely accurate.

Facts and Factoids

  • It’s estimated that only 7,000 people speak Niuean, therefore the Niuean language is classified as a “definitely endangered language” by UNESCO
  • Although Niue is a country in free association with New Zealand and therefore uses the New Zealand Dollar, it has issued some of its own commemorative currency, including Pokemon and Star Wars coins.
  • Niue Island grows coconuts, limes, yams, tapioca, passion fruit and sweet potatoes; they also rear pigs, cattle and poultry and produce honey.
  • The prison is lodged between the bowls club and the golf course

What Do I Plan to See and Do in Niue?

Niue is famous for its diving, snorkelling and coastal scenery, so I plan to take this in, driving my hire car round the island. Niue is also known for being the world’s first country to become a Dark Sky Place or 'Dark Sky Nation'. So, star-gazing is a possibility. Or it would be, if it stopped raining. Niue is one of the least visited countries in the world, but the inhabitants plan to keep it that way. There’s talk of capping the number of visiting tourists to 15,000 a year., to make sure Niue stays a place worth visiting.

However, my main reason for visiting, is to try to swim with whales.

Getting Out of Niue

I manage to navigate safely back to the airport today, with plenty of time in hand. It’s on the same road as the New Zealand High Commission (very plush), the supermarket, the golf club, the bowling club and the rugby club.

The airport is packed with familiar Kiwi faces from around the island, including Julia and Marion  and some islanders sporting their traditional travel garb of flower garlands in their hair. There are signs up forbidding the transport of uga on the plane. Honey and coconuts are, additionally, not allowed in the cabin.

The plane is an hour late departing. The pilot sighs and explains that some of the paperwork hasn’t been filed correctly and we have to wait. Back to Australia and Melbourne now.

It Never Rains But it Pours

Yesterday, I flew in from Norfolk Island via Auckland to visit Niue. Today, I'm up at 6 a.m. for my abortive whale trip. As it's still raining I resolve to track down the rental car man to repair my screeching wipers and then come back to catch up on sleep. Willie works out of his cafe in the main town, Alofi, fifteen minutes north. (I went here by mistake yesterday). Realise the map is ancient and the signposts are all out of date.

Finally, locate the Crazy Uga. (Uga is coconut crab - there’s even a designated road crossing for them, there are large numbers scuttling across at night). Willie is summonsed and fixes my wipers. He’s not sure how long I’m staying for, or what price he quoted, but we agree on 40 dollars a day and he tells me to pay when I feel like it. No paperwork, no license check, no credit card deposit. Discover I’m officially supposed to get a Niue driving licence, but the police station is closed for the weekend and I leave on Monday.

Niue, The Rock of the Pacific

Decide I might as well  have a look a little further up the coast while I’m out this way. Spend the next six hours pottering clockwise round the island. The local literature tells me that Niue is known as the Rock of the Pacific, because it sits atop 30 metre cliffs rising straight out of deep ocean. It is a typical Pacific island – a potholed road runs all round the coast. The road is edged with palm trees, dense low tropical vegetation and clusters of graves. Barking dogs chase the car whenever I drive through a village.

It’s not as neat as neighbouring Samoa; some of the houses are distinctly shabby, but the interest is definitely all by the sea. It seems that the whole coast is a mass of teeny waterfalls and cobalt pools, below the steep cliffs, the tide churning in and out of the coppery reef. And there are chasms (at least one a king’s bathing place), numerous caves and arches to explore. Not to mention the facsianting creations at the Hikulagi Sculpture Park-

Aikaivai Cave

Most of the sights are accessed down purpose built steps - some showing signs of wear, the way hewn out of the coral. I have to slide down algae covered rocks in unlit grottoes and wade out to sea, for the view of Aikaivai Cave. The tide is coming in, but it is just stunning. It is scooped out of the duskiest pink coral, complementing the deep turquoise of the pools superbly.

Matapa Chasm and Talava Arches - the Highlights of Niue

Right in the north of Niue, down a winding track is Matapa Chasm,  a gorge, with crystal clear water, where kings, apparently, used to bathe. Adjacent, the path to the Niue signature tourist poster picture (see above), Talava Arches. This is an even more treacherous slippery assault course, over sharp and spiky coral; the final descent involves rope and very slimy rocks. Fortunately, I’m chaperoned by three young Kiwi ladies, Jo, Emma and Holly, who turn out to be outdoor instructors. Ideal for me, though I’m feeling they might have gone a little faster on their own. The reward is several interconnecting caverns, complete with stalactites and some very impressive arches forming windows of different shapes onto the reef. It’s a bit like Playschool. What can we see through the triangular window today children?

The rain hasn’t relented all day.

Tomorrow is Sunday. Monday is my last chance to swim with whales.

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