Christmas Island is as different from Cocos as you can get. For a small island (142 square kilometres) it is amazingly diverse, with tropical forest, rain forest, mangrove swamps, caves, endemic bird species, coral reef, Chinese temples and millions and millions of crabs; a mini-Galapgos with something for everyone.
We landed on a high plateau, and were surprised to find a group of local hire-car people meeting the plane, offering to hire us a four wheel drive vehicle for the week. 'Whatever for?' we wondered, and declined. We had a map of the island; it couldn't be more than 20 kilometres wide at any point, and we planned to walk around to the places of interest. We sorted out our luggage, and joined Beth and Frank, the only other regular tourists, to be driven to our accommodation. At the edge of the plateau we drove through 'Silver City', a collection of prefabs favoured by the Chinese population, then we started down to the main settlement. At about this stage we started to work out that we should have looked at our map a little closer - perhaps we should have looked at the contours, for example - and that a 4*4 just might be useful after all. Most of the island is around 200 metres high, but the settlement is right down on the coast, on the slim coastline at the foot of an immense escarpment, and we would have to climb up and down each time we wanted to explore.
There were no hotels or formal accommodation, and were staying in a self-catering one-bedroom flat, in a block of four. Beth and Frank had the flat next door. As soon as we could, we phoned one of the people with a car to hire, and became the proud temporary owners of a very beat up Toyota. Our flat was a little bit removed from the main settlement, but still within walking distance of the shop. The settlement was fairly strung out along the shore, with the hospital, supermarket, temple, Government offices and yacht club. The phosphate conveyor belt and jetty dominated one end of the bay, and there was a swimming beach up the other end. The population seemed to be stratified, although whether this was by choice or design it was difficult to tell. The Chinese population tended to live in Silver City, high on the scarp, the Malays congregated in the squat apartment blocks down in the settlement, and the Europeans lived in houses scattered over the low shoreline.
Our first trip was a bit of a drive, going up onto the bluff high above the town to get an overview of the island. The view was spectacular, and we could see the coral reef just off the yacht club, dark through the emerald water. Coming back we explored the town, then parked the car and walked around the shore, getting a feel for the place. At the back of our flat strangely apricot-coloured tropicbirds soared, and not far out of town there was a cave, The Grotto, where waves tunneled in underneath the rocks, far from the shore, and bright carmine crabs clung to the walls. Back in the car, we headed out to Ethel Beach, one of the many beaches marked on our map. We passed the golf course and the casino, then in the process of being constructed. The road down to the beach was loose and steep, but we had a 4*4, so no wuckers. We drove down, had a look around the 'beach' - it was a rocky shoreline, interesting, but no place to swim, then we set off up the hill.
Did I mention we had never driven a 4-wheel drive before? That we didn't know about engaging wheel locks? We put the vehicle into 4-wheel drive, and slipped and slid to a stall. Tried again. Same result. Actually, this was getting serious - time was passing, it was getting late, and we were at the wrong end of a deserted road. We began to discuss who was going to walk back to the casino site for help, when, at last, some local workers from the site came down the track. We explained the the car didn't seem to be capable of driving back up the road. They smiled, did something to the wheels, then calmly drove it up the slope. OK - we now know aboutwheel locks, and how to lock them into position! They were nice blokes, and saved their laughter until we were out of sight.
With renewed confidence, the next day we set off on a longer trip, exploring some of the other beaches around the island. Most of them were inaccessible by car, and some had narrow metal ladders down the steep cliffs to a handkerchief-sized pocket of sand amid sharp limestone reef. It was the dry season, but even then there were crowds of red crabs, early for the migration from the forest to the sea. Walking through the forest was fantastic. There were red, brown and blue land crabs, and the enormous robber crabs, with their garish colours. Fruit bats slept in the high rain-forest trees, and the the vegetation was quite unrelated to that of the Australian mainland, owing more to Asia. Epiphytes hung from the trunks and branches of the tall trees, and ferns and soft bushes crowded the path. Native pigeons roosted in the bushes, and we stopped and watched an indigenous hawk, perched close to the trail and apparently unafraid of us. We followed an old stream bed through the forest and emerged in a steep gorge, where the waves washed in from the ocean. On the way back to the settlement we stopped at the blowholes, where air rushed up through the holes with a roar and a groan, adding sound effects to the dramatic gush of water.
It was hot on the island, with bright sunny days, and the coral reef just off the town was a great place to swim. More than that, it is the most spectacular snorkeling we have ever enjoyed, with a shallow (chest-deep) reef platform spilling down to the deeper bay, and thousands of bright tropical fish pouring over the edge like a waterfall. Lionfish hung suspended in the depth, and the variety and number of corals and fish was beyond belief. We went back time and time again, and spent hours quietly laying on the surface of the water, just enjoying the magnificent underwater show. The proximity to the yacht club was also good - you could enjoy a long cold beer after the swim.
The most favoured beach on the island is Dolly Beach, so we decided to spend a day there, taking a picnic lunch. Along the way we deviated off for a walk towards the coast, where we were told some fresh-water giant mangrove trees could be found. We didn't find the mangroves, but we did see more bats in the trees. We continued via Greta Beach, then drove as far out along the forest track as we could before parking the car and walking about 45 minutes along a rough track to the beach. It isn't the world's best beach, but it actually had sand, as opposed to the rocks prominent on the other beaches, and was rather pleasant. A small stream ran down from the forest and across the beach, and the reef was eroded into shallow pools, allowing limited snorkeling.
Our first walk through the forest had made us keen on returning to the western end of the island, to the less well-used tracks. We drove up to the old phosphate works, and out to the small temple, still used and full of fascinating items, off to the side of the workshop. Then it was off on the tracks through the national park. In the beginning the road was reasonable, but it was thick with crabs, and we were loath to run over them, so I spent most of about 4km running ahead of Geoff in the car, gently persuading crabs to get off the road. Towards the end of our drive the road had disintegrated into a narrow, overgrown track through the dim, cool forest. We drove home via the southern point of the island, where the countryside is covered with jagged limestone outcrops - all that is left behind after the phosphate is removed.
We had one last place to explore before we left the island. Our map showed the existence of the Daniel Roux cave, out past Government house, to the west of the settlement. We asked in town about a route to the cave, but the locals suggested it was difficult to find. We figured that it couldn't be too difficult, and set off on a path that led in the right general direction. The path did get a bit tenuous, but someone had tied pink plastic ribbons to some of the trees, and we figured that they might mark a path to the cave. It was a bit late in the afternoon, but we decided to keep going, and a final rough scramble brought us to the mouth of the cave. It's quite a big cave, with an antechamber and a much bigger dark cavern. The floor was soft, and it took us a while to work out what we were wading through. The huge conical pile of bat guano mirrored the domed ceiling where thousands of small insectivorous bats were clinging. There was an opening in the floor of the first cave, with a rickety steel ladder leading down to what we were told was a deep cave leading over 1km to the ocean. Geoff decided to climb down, but after a sequence of three increasingly more decayed ladders, with still no sign of the bottom of the hole, he climbed back up, and we made a hasty exit in the growing dusk, back to the settlement. About three weeks after we left the island we read of a tourist who, like Geoff, climbed down the cave and fell when the rusty ladder crumbled, breaking her leg, amongst other injuries
A week was just perfect for a visit to Christmas Island. There was a lot to do and see, and the 4*4 was just great to get us out to what proved to be a more rugged and varied place than we had imagined. We were sorry not to have been there when the crabs were migrating, but the idea of seeing that many crabs might be better than the reality. Local people told us stories of houses invaded by crabs, and of trying to drive to work and giving up after 13 punctures in a row!
A year later the same friends were again working on Christmas Island, following their own personal artistic pursuits as well as facilitating another theatrical performance by the islanders. This time we were more organised; we booked the (very expensive) flights and arranged to hire a Rav4 from the same people that we had hired our four-wheel drive from nearly 20 years before. The flight went via Cocus Island, but we just had a 40 minute stopover, picking up the local golfing team who were on their way to the annual inter-island tournament on Christmas Island.
A number of things have changed in 20 years. There is a new hospital, and the yacht club and Chinese restaurant at the foot of the cliff have gone. There are new buildings, but many of the old ones are still as we remembered them. With an incredible lack of imagination and foresight, the government had all the rail lines ripped up, but mining of lower-grade phosphate deposits continues. The big addition to the island, well away from the settlement, is the detention camp for illegal immigrants. Its existence on the island means that places to stay are in very short supply; without someone to share with we would not have been able to book independent accommodation. In a strange contrast to this situation, the "casino" has been empty and unused for most of the last 20 years, and is slowly rotting away. It is closed to visitors with just a caretaker in residence.
After being warned that fresh food was very expensive on the island, we arrived with a box of vegetables and fruit. We stayed in the same buildings that the Japanese kept their European prisoners in during the war when the island was attacked and occupied for several years. More "central" than our previous accommodation, these buildings are across the road from the phosphate loading facilities and very near the celebrated Christmas Island traffic round-about. We had a bit of rain on a couple of days, but the temperature hovered around 28 degrees for the whole time, day and night.
We did much the same things as we had on the previous trip; drove to the "beaches", walked through the forest, went skindiving, had a look at the temples and the wildlife, failed to catch any fish and for the second time failed to find the mangroves despite having a new set of instructions from someone who claimed to have been to where they were. There seemed to be less crabs than before, but the fish and coral in Flying Fish Cove were as spectacular as ever.
As before, the holiday was very relaxing, in the "get away from everyday cares" rather than the "laze around doing nothing" sense. There are still almost no tourists (partly because all the spare accommodation is taken up by would-be immigrants and the people who deal with them). Christmas Island is a place we could visit many times without tiring of its attractions.