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.

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