In every direction we look all we can see is red – the roads, the jungle, the footpaths, they are all one seething mass of crimson red.
Described by many naturalists, including Sir David Attenborough, as one of the most spectacular animal migrations on earth, the scale of the migration of Christmas Island’s red crabs in their annual march to the edge of the Indian Ocean to mate, really has to be seen and heard to be believed.
Heard? Yes, you read correctly, apart some of the crab’s cannibalistic tendencies, what surprises us the most is the constant pitter-patter of their pincers. By itself, one crab’s crawl is barely audible, however when you multiply that by several hundred thousand, it becomes astonishingly rowdy.
In fact, our first night’s sleep on Christmas Island is a restless one, as we wake up hourly to the unusual sound of wayward crabs trying to crawl in through my window.
Arriving on during the annual migration, it’s hard to believe that Christmas Island is more than just crabs, but it is. With the majority of the island a national park boasting many endemic creatures and a surrealistic landscape, and an island that every nature lover Australian should try and visit at least once in their lifetime.
After a day chasing (and avoiding in our 4WD rental vehicle) crabs, next morning we opt for a more leisurely pursuit – the beach. Well, we are on a tropical island after all! Half the fun of Christmas Island’s secluded beaches is in getting there and Dolly Beach is no exception.
After a cautious drive down a bumpy 4WD track, made all the slower by the need to dodge thousands of ubiquitous red crabs (tip: take a palm frond with you to sweep the crabs off the road in front of you), on reaching the end of the road, we set off along the 2.5 km walking track to Dolly Beach.
The final 500 m of the track winds through thick stands of pandanus palms – their spiky leaves are harmless if you push through them instead of holding them to the side.
This is probably a bit longer a walk than we’d normally make to get to a beach. But then again Dolly is no ordinary beach. This is one of those deserted beaches that you dream of, where the only footprints on the sand are tractor-like tracks from nesting turtles, and where, if you’re thirsty, you can crack open a fresh coconut.
Apparently, in 1855, five Dutch castaways swam ashore here and weren’t rescued for over a year. As we splash into a natural rock spa, I wonder why in the world they would have wanted to be rescued.
As gentle waves wash through our spa, we watch, captivated, by the aerobatic antics of hungry frigate birds diving for fish in the water around us. After about an hour of this bliss, realising that we are more than a tad peckish ourselves, we embark on the journey back into ‘town’.
Not surprisingly for a relatively isolated island with a permanent population of less than 1500, there are only a handful of cafes/restaurants to choose from but the food is fresh and relatively inexpensive.
And yes, you can even get a cappuccino here!
While tucking into local wahoo at the Golden Bosun Tavern, a bearded Scotsman who claims he came to the island for a holiday about twenty years ago, but never left, explains that during World War II, the allied prisoners on the island collected firewood in such a pattern, that when their Japanese captors moved out, they were left with a ready–made golf course. It’s true, really it is.
With tummies full, it’s time to explore more of this remarkable Australian outpost – on foot. Christmas Island is criss-crossed by a number of walking tracks. Although the odd track is quite challenging (there’s plenty of warnings on brochures and signs so don’t worry, you won’t get caught out), the vast majority of the tracks are reasonably gentle, yet spectacular.
One track at the eastern end of the island forks into three. One fork leads through a pandanus tunnel to a hidden blowhole, and another, which we take, leads over pumice stone fields to a cliff-face where cragged volcanic pinnacles meet the crashing ocean.
Soaring above these cliffs are a menagerie of sea birds. Tiptoeing through the sharp pinnacles and dodging football-sized robber crabs, we are rewarded when we spot a cuddly ball of white fluff tucked away in a nest of pandanus – it’s a tiny silver bosun chick. How cute!
A few metres up the track we spot a brown-footed booby bird feeding its young, seemingly oblivious to our excited voyeurism.
This is a twitchers paradise – after thousands of years of isolation, the birds here don’t seem to be scared of humans. In fact, due to the island’s extraordinary birdlife, a Bird and Nature Week is held here every September (September 4 -11 in 2010) where participants assist the scientists in their research. There’s a lot of hands-on activities including helping to catch the majestic Abbott’s Booby high in the rainforest canopy, monitoring Brown Boobies on the remote rocky coasts and learning first-hand the nesting biology of Christmas Island Frigatebirds and Red-tailed tropicbirds.
Retracing our steps back up the track, we head down the third and final fork. After winding through an enchanted forest of giant Tahitian chestnuts it eventually leads to a spring, where fresh water bubbles out of a limestone cave and cascades over a rock ledge that is sculptured in an intricate pattern of moss.
Some of the island’s Chinese population believe that this waterfall is the centre of the Earth’s water universe. While we’re no experts on Feng Shui, it is definitely one of the prettiest waterfalls we’ve ever set eyes upon.
We could linger here all evening, but its Saturday night, which means it’s time for the most popular community event on the island – the weekly movie.
But this isn’t your standard night out at the movies; this is cinema Christmas Island-style. Armed with an esky of cool drinks, a stash of snacks, and comfy cushion, we pay $5 each and take a seat amongst the expectant throng of locals. Tonight’s offering is ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ – a fitting choice for this far-flung outdoor cinema, which perched atop a cliff-top, commands never-ending views over the moonlit ocean below.
Mid-way through the first pillaging scene, beyond the screen and make-shift sound system, bolts of lightning punctuate an otherwise darkened horizon. With a light sea breeze blowing in our faces and with a flock of birds returning late to their roosts, squawking loudly overhead, you could easily be excused for thinking you were actually in the Caribbean.
As the credits roll, many of the locals gather in groups to finish off the contents of their eskies while catching up on the week’s gossip. Exhausted from our day’s exploring, we carefully drive back down the winding road to our accommodation, all the while half-expecting some sword-bearing bandit to jump out in front of us.
Thankfully, all we encounter is even more crabs.
Waking early the next morning, we ready ourselves for what we hope to be the highlight of our journey to this isolated island – a dive in its tropical waters.
We have the dive charter to ourselves and as it charter chugs out of the island’s aptly-named Flying Fish Cove, we gaze upwards to a massive caldera of sheer cliffs festooned with lush jungle. Booby birds flirt with the updrafts, their silhouettes becoming clearer as they fly out of the dark green of the ancient forest and up into the endless blue sky.
Only a couple of hundred metres off shore, the shallow sea floor of the Indian Ocean dramatically drops off to a depth of over 3km. With the nearest land over 1200 kilometres beyond the horizon, it’s like we’ve reached the end of the world.
Expectantly, we splash into the warm waters (around 28 C) – it’s like entering an underwater Garden of Eden. We spy on a myriad of brightly coloured sea creatures some weird, some wonderful and some, like an inquisitive starry marble shrimp, both weird and wonderful. Apparently, its furry tongue is a result of it drinking too much water.
But it is the black hole ahead that beckons us – the entrance to Thundercliff Cave, a catacomb of submerged caverns that extend from the side of the drop-off and back under the land. Leaving a school of playful batfish behind, one by one we cautiously swim into the abyss. After navigating through the 20m long cave entrance, we eventually surface into a cavern draped in beautiful cave shawls.
Shedding our dive gear, we continue on foot, our dive torch beams lancing through the thick, humid cave air. Slowly we creep along a slippery rock ledge, which leads to a brackish underground lake.
Overcome with that ungenerous impulse to want a place completely to ourselves, we turn our lights off. The absolute darkness is broken only by a couple of tiny flashlight fish frolicking in the lake, sporadically blinking their bioluminescent lights on and off.
Immersed in such a surreal landscape, we wonder if we really have reached the end of the world.
Carefully, we retrace our steps and swim back through to the ocean. As we wait motionless, strung out in a rough line at five metres (our safety stop), a large shape looms imposingly before us.
It’s a whaleshark! Six to seven metres long at least.
With a mouth wider than my body is long and with stunning white spots all over, he is both scary and stunning.
As if in slow motion, his gentle blue eyes make contact with each of us in turn. His curiosity satisfied, a couple of flaps of its massive tail and he disappears back into the deep blue.
Back on land, as the last of the sun’s golden rays silently splash into the Indian Ocean, we crack open a bottle of champagne. Our brush with a whaleshark on this island paradise is a once in a lifetime experience that we want to cherish and celebrate.
Until recently, air access to Christmas Island was expensive and irregular, however, Virgin Blue has recently commenced discounted direct flights to the island. This has opened up the island to many more potential visitors, so if you’re after a tropical island getaway, and are prepared to forgo the glitz and glamour of a resort, then beat a path to Christmas Island before the rest of Australia discovers it.
Getting there: Virgin Blue flies direct to Christmas Island from Perth with connections from Sydney. Flights from $464 one-way on the web. For more information: www.virginblue.com.au
Stay: VQ3 Lodge and The Sunset Lodge have a range of rooms including waterfront rooms with balconies – a great place to view the island’s fiery red sunsets. From $120 per night double or twin share.
With sublime views, perched on the edge of the ocean, the fully self-contained ‘Captain’s Last Resort’ cottage starts from $140 per night. For more info or to book visit: www.christmas.net.au
Eat: Despite the island’s relative isolation, there’s a small number of high quality restaurants, the pick of which is Rumah Tinggi Restaurant in Gaze Road at the Settlement. It serves up scrumptious A La Carte cuisine on a balcony overlooking the Indian Ocean. Great spot to watch the moon rise. Romantic plus. Bookings advisable.
Not a diver? If you’re not a diver, you can still appreciate the island’s coral gardens by snorkelling in one of its protected bays.
Crab migration: As this natural phenomenon takes place each year after the onset of the wet season, and in synchronisation with the cycle of the moon, its timing will vary from year to year, but usually occurs in November or December. To maximise your chances of seeing the crabs, contact the Christmas Island Tourism Association before planning your trip on 08 91648382 or www.christmas.net.au
Kingdom of the Crabs: Apart from millions of red crabs, Christmas island is home to 32 other species of crabs, the most eye-popping being the robber crab which can grow in size to larger than a football.
Did You Know? Christmas Island was given its present name by British Captain William Mynors who arrived there on December 25, 1643.
More: Call the Christmas Island Tourism Association on 08 91648382 or www.christmas.net.au