Friday, September 20, 2013

Christmas in the sun

Well, this blog is supposed to be about the traveling bears, and at last there's some significant travel to talk about. (I know, I know, there are those out there who would like to hear The Everyday Story of Tasmanian Folk......)

A couple of weeks ago we took part in the (notorious!) Bird and Nature Week on Christmas Island. This involved flights to Melbourne, then Perth, an overnight stop in Perth and finally the scheduled flight with Virgin Australia to CI, which takes the best part of four hours. That kinda confirms what the map tells you, that CI is much closer to Indonesia than Australia, and well into the tropics. The CI airstrip was once among the world's six hairiest commercial landings, but since it has been lengthened the pilot only has to cope with the turbulence that the trade winds create over the edge of the island. We got down with only a few bumps, but the cabin crew still suggested that a round of applause for the pilot was appropriate.

CI stands in a rather strange place, operating under the laws of Western Australia, but administered by the Federal government, so there is no GST or Duty on alcohol, for example. And the island was excised from the Australian migration zone by the Howard Liberal government, which means that people arriving on the island cannot automatically apply for refugee status. This is overlaid on a resident population of about 2000, and an economy that has been based largely on the mining of phosphate rock, at least before the construction of the refugee detention centre.

Flying Fish Cove. Phosphate loading right alongside the only swimming beach.

But we were there for the birds, and the crabs! CI is home to large numbers of seabirds, several of which only nest on the island, but also a huge and diverse array of terrestrial crabs which live mainly in the island's rainforests (or "jungle" as the locals call it), but can appear anywhere (such as under the steps up to our room), or everywhere, as they do during the migration when millions of red crabs march to the sea to deposit their eggs.

The ubiquitous Red Crab. Bigger than I thought.

Robber Crab on my boots. The world's largest terrestrial invertebrate.

Forest floor scene. Crabs everywhere and hardly a leaf in sight.

We were part of a group of 30-odd, but we were split up into groups of seven for a rotation of activities with four experts, who dealt with their own specialities (goshawks, Abbots Booby, seabirds and general natural history) but also took us all over the island to see things of interest. And it was all fascinating. The birds were gorgeous, and we got to meet many of them close up and in the hand (I was mildly scarred by a Red-tailed Tropic Bird, but I was warned to wear the gloves). Memories of the birds include the ethereal Golden Bosuns against the blue sky, the prehistoric-looking Frigate birds scooping up water from the resort's swimming pool, the confiding Island Thrush and the (it has to be said) stupidity of the Goshawk.

Red-tailed Tropic Bird.

The "Golden Bosun", CI's unique morph of the White-tailed Tropic Bird.
Often more golden than that, and I can't think of another seabird that isn't either black or white, or a combination.

Frigate birds drinking from the resort pool.
A bit scary for swimmers.

The charming, and very tame, Island Thrush.

CI Goshawk, caught by Jeannie (well, more or less).
This is an immature bird.

And the crabs were just amazing. We knew that we were not at the right time for the mass migration, but thanks to a late end to the wet season there were still plenty about. It was so strange to look into the forest and see the floor bare of fallen leaves, with crabs dotted about all over the place, chewing away. And so many giant Robber Crabs! CI is now the main refuge for this huge invertebrate, and it was good to see that the islanders take their conservation seriously. The "Slow Down, Drive Around" road signs were everywhere, and there are very expensive underpasses and even bridges for the crabs to cross the roads. A competition for a new save-the-crabs slogan was on while we were there; our driver John (from Cornwall) came second with his entry: "Better Red than Dead".

Mind that Robber Crab! They jump up under vehicles.

The monthly toll. Note the insert directed at the detention centre staff.

Underpass for Red Crabs. They cost $0.5m each to build!

The alternative: a crab bridge. And cheaper at a mere $250,000.

We got a small taste of what life is like in the CI community. Like islands everywhere, I suspect. Nobody locks their doors, piles of gear left by the beach while you take a walk are perfectly safe, people stop if you even look like crossing the road and many people have more than one job, like the tourist bureau lady who re-appeared at the airport in a uniform operating the security check. The fact that three of our seven evening meals were Chinese, one Malayasian and the rest "western" reflects the make up of the community nicely. The Chinese and Malays came to the island as coolies for the phosphate mine, and for a long time the ethnic communities were segregated, but that's all over now. In fact our best meal was the one prepared and served by the hospitality students at the island high school, who were a mix from all three communities, and very charming.

Chinese Buddhist centre in The Settlement.

Christmas Island is a long way from being the stereotypical island paradise, if your mental picture includes sand, loungers and beach umbrellas. Most of the island is ringed by steep, jagged limestone cliffs and really the only sheltered beach where you can reliably enter the water from sand is Flying Fish Cove, which also houses the phosphate port, a jetty and the community housing just across the road. My first impression was "scruffy", but by the end of the week I understood that it's everyone's beach, everybody goes there to relax and swim, and what's more the snorkelling just off the beach was fantastic!

The swimming end of Flying Fish Cove. Really the only sheltered beach in the island.

As he was taking us for a look at the detention centre, one of the guides said, apologetically, that was the one thing that everyone would ask about when we got home, and so far he has been quite right. Even though the centre is tucked away at the far end of the island, we were struck by everyone's openness about it. There were two "arrivals" while we were on the island. The navy frigate that was in sight offshore most of the time came close in (can't anchor, too deep) and small boats ferried off two more loads of asylum seekers, or "illegals" as the recent election campaign wanted them to be know as. The islanders we spoke to were all very sympathetic to the refugees (but less so to the detention centre staff), and several spoke of the horror of the shipwreck in 2010 when 50 people drowned just offshore of the main settlement, in full view of the locals who could done nothing to help because of the seas and the savage rocks.

The detention centre, tucked away at the other end of the island.

Navy frigate unloading asylum seekers.

SIEV: Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel.There was another very moving memorial to the SIEV X.

The detention centre has a significant effect on the island, economically of course, but also through the renovation of the "resort", a failed casino that was being gradually swallowed by the jungle, to the commandeering of aviation fuel to take refugees away. The latter gives Virgin some headaches for their flight schedules, and we fell foul of that as we left, having to return to Perth via Port Headland in order to take on enough fuel, and consequently arriving in Perth at 2.30am.

Would I go back? Like a shot: to see the crab migration, to take time to watch the birds and to enjoy the gentle pace of quirky Christmas Island.


  1. Nice to read a good travel and I hear the delight in voice/fingers as you type about all those birds and crabs. Incidently to any of the birds eat crabs?

  2. Hi Big Al, trying to comment but it looks like 'anonymous' is the only easy option - and I don't particularly want to be anonymous.

    Wordpress is much easier for technically challenged people.


  3. Comment...just to see if I could add a comment. But also to let you know that (thanks to Facebook!) I now know about your blog, have added it to my RSS reader and will endeavour to follow all your wise words...

    1. PS I found commenting easy, not sure what Wilson's problem is...

    2. Well, you know..... some people aren't quite cut out for the 21st century.

  4. Hi :-)
    Back home now - lovely to catch up with your travels - yes I enjoy the everyday life of Tassie folk but enjoy travels too :-) xx

  5. Loved reading this and seeing your pictures. Took me straight back to CI and what a great experience that was! Thankyou.