PARADISE FOUND: Play castaway on the Cocos Keeling Islands

The Cocos Keeling Islands – a remote, independent Australian territory – may only be a few hours away from Perth, but it’s another world when you arrive

Turtle Snorkel Cocos Keeling Islands
See the underwater wonderland that surrounds the Cocos Keeling Islands © Rik Soderlund

“Keep scooping!” Kylie James from Cocos Islands Adventure Tours hollers from the helm as she steers our motorised canoe into gusty winds. Salt spray slaps across my cheeks as we slam into oncoming swell dumping ocean over us. Scooping is futile. For every bucket of water tossed out, another boomerangs back on the wind, filling our narrow vessel in the process. Wet and windswept, we finally make it to Pulu Blan Madar, one of 27 islets in the Cocos Keeling archipelago. Sunlight has replaced the storm, and now all around us, green turtles glide through the lagoon-like reigning kings.

Draw a straight line heading west from Darwin and you’ll discover this remote Australian territory. A pen-nib size dot peeking out of the Indian Ocean, where deserted beaches fan out across two coral atolls. It’s no wonder that the islands are fast becoming a haven for travellers hankering for an ‘overseas’ getaway. There’s even a duty-free allowance when you depart Perth’s International Airport on the 4.5-hour flight.

Direction Island Cocos Keeling
Direction Island © Rik Soderlund

Wilderness and wildlife

At dawn, our group of eight stood on Canoe Beach on the Cocos Keeling archipelago’s capital of West Island, watching as a heavy curtain of cloud approached, threatening our outdoor excursion. Where had the promised sun-draped sand and dreamy days gone? Was Mother Nature testing our adventurous spirit? A sliver of silver-blue sky breaking the clouds convinced us to embark on our expedition. It was just half an hour, after all…

Surviving the swell, we find ourselves in a wilderness wonderland. Turtles aside, the beach we land on is blanketed by hermit crabs, which scuttle from the surrounding thicket. Because of the islands’ isolation and sandy soil conditions, some plants struggle to survive here. On the other hand, those introduced during colonisation, and by chance arrival from neighbouring Asia, have thrived.

Hermit Crab at sunset on the Cocos Keeling Islands
Entertainment gets creative on the Cocos Keeling Islands © Rik Soderlund

Off to the races: Island entertainment on Cocos Keeling

“Find yourself a crab – the redder the better – for speed”. Ash James – the other half of Cocos Islands Adventure Tours – is calling us to action from the circular racetrack he has drawn in the sand. Sounding like a sports commentator, he bellows from the sidelines: “Racing on Cocos is a-go!” Crabs take off in every direction until Ash announces the winner. “Through our sponsorship, you have won a trip overseas. In fact, you all have – everyone has won a trip back to Canoe Beach”.

Most things on the Cocos Keeling Islands can be counted on one hand: restaurants, shops, pub (one), mosque (one). So, when it comes to entertainment, the community here has become inventive. Better than winning the crab race, though, is the picnic champagne breakfast. This consists of salmon and cream cheese bagels, followed by melt-in-your-mouth chocolate gateau. I think of it as refuelling before we head out snorkelling.

We leave the crabs fighting over crumbs and head to the palm-encrusted isle of Pula Maraya to dive in. The absorbing underwater world is dense with yellowfin goatfish and stripey butterfly fish. Not to mention the iridescent blue clams, with lips so luscious you’d swear they were blowing kisses. I drift aimlessly, completely mesmerised, until Kylie wolf-whistles us back aboard our canoes.

Snorkel shipwrecks in Cocos and Keeling Islands
Shipwrecks off the coast of Cocos Keeling Islands © Marcus-Eleysha

History & heritage: The story of the Cocos Keeling Islands

Only two of the Cocos Keeling Islands are inhabited. The first is West Island, with around 110 expatriate residents. The second is Home Island, the history hub of the archipelago. This is where about 450 Cocos Malay Muslims live in a neatly kept kampong (a typical Malaysian village). We spend a morning visiting the community with local guide Shakirin ‘Shak’ Keegan, who regales us with stories of tragedies and turmoils that islanders have faced in the past. During the early years of settlement, when sea merchants John Clunies-Ross and Alexander Hare fought for control over the coconut plantations, Home Island endured its fair share of heartache. Thankfully, peace now prevails on its quiet shores.

A visit to the tiny, intriguing museum uncovers stories behind the Cocos Malay, a culture not found anywhere else in the world. The Clunies-Ross family were ingenious at making money – they literally printed their own. Banknotes and coins that were used to pay plantation workers are displayed in a cabinet. The money had no value; hired hands exchanged it for goods sold by the Clunies-Ross, thus returning it to their pockets.

On a brighter note, Shak tells us how the Clunies-Ross family introduced Scottish line dancing, now a Cocos Malay tradition. It forms part of Self-Determination Day, marking the anniversary the islands became a self-governing territory of Australia in 1984.

Cossies Beach Cocos Keeling
Cossies Beach – voted Australia’s Best Beach 2017 © Rik Soderlund

Snorkelling, shipwrecks, and Australia’s best beach

When it comes to adventure, the Cocos Keeling Islands deliver. We meet up with Dieter Gerhard, a burly local from West Island and owner of Cocos Dive. Dieter’s one-liners have us smiling all the way to deeper waters, where we snorkel wrecks and coral reefs visible to the ocean’s floor. The Phaeton sank in 1889 after catching fire. Now, it’s is home to countless tropical fish that glide beside us while we explore the ship’s rusted hull.

We cruise on to the silky sands of Cossies Beach on Direction Island. A particular favourite of visitors, it was voted Australia’s best beach in 2017 in Brad Farmer’s 101 Best Beaches. A golden crescent stretches before us. It’s as though a shiny poster, proclaiming paradise, has slid from a billboard and landed ashore. The island’s famous fast-running rip lies at its tip. Apprehensively, I stare into the current. In contrast to our earlier snorkel, it’s a gushing, horizontal waterfall. Dieter hands me a powered-up sea scooter as I tentatively enter the ocean. “To make the experience an extra zippy one,” he winks, as the current pulls me into its undertow.

I’m whisked past colourful seabeds where noduled plants peek through spaghetti-like tentacles. Meanwhile, exotic fish dance through algae the colour of rainbows. I spot Nemo the clownfish, resplendent in his vibrant orange and white striped suit. By the end, all anxiety has dissolved, and I jump back in to do it all again.

SUP Boarding in the Cocos Keeling Islands
Sunset SUP © Rik Soderlund

World first: Tee-off with a difference on Cocos Keeling

The locals have a knack for creating recreational events. Scroungers Golf, played every Thursday at the airport, is a nine-hole round of golf with a difference. Trust me, it’s fun whether you’re a fan of fairways or not. And that’s not to mention the bragging rights. To explain, this is the only place in the world you can play golf across an international runway.

Dressed in thongs and T-shirts, we hire clubs and bags. And, to follow protocol, we pack a few cold bevvies in the front pocket and get ready for tee-off. By the time the sun swings below the palm trees, we feel like locals. The beer and banter back at the club after the ninth hole are a hoot.

Drone image of Cocos Keeling Islands
Tropical waters await on the Cocos Keeling Islands © Rik Soderlund

Big Barge Art Centre: The cultural heart of the islands

The islands wouldn’t be complete without an art and coffee hideaway. Once overgrown with dense tropical jungle, the now manicured, palm-fringed entrance to the Big Barge Art Centre. Housed in a restored old barge, the centre entices modern-day visionaries. In addition, the Big Barge Art Centre is a hub for creatives who fashion artwork utilising recycled and washed-up waste. Along the path to the gallery, trash-turned-treasure includes driftwood hand-carved into fish and frayed ropes knotted into garden knick-knacks. Nearby, ornamental sea glass glistens in the sun.

Inside, a boho-styled cafe, built using repurposed boat timber, is a recent addition. It’s where locals pull up recycled crates that double as coffee tables. Dressed in their Sunday best – thongs and boardies – they watch waves roll in. Woven mats, recovered armchairs and plump pillows dot the foreshore. Meanwhile, my only decision is where to sit and what to order: the chickpea slice or ‘Big Barge’ brownie? Chai latte or cappuccino?

Real life feels far away. I could get used to this footloose existence.

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