The sea spray soaks right through my clothes as I desperately clutch the boat’s rubber sides. It’s bouncing at speed across deep open water to Prison Island. We’ve just passed a school of grey reef sharks when our salty sea-dog guide Geoff cuts the engine and we come to a halt.
“Good place for snorkelling,” Geoff says. The other four passengers and I look at each other with bemused expressions. It has gone quiet apart from the water sloshing against the boat. The island paradise he’d promised us is a mirage in the far distance. “Just a quick one,” he adds. Later, I discover this is how Geoff gauges our swimming abilities.
As the current drags me under the boat, my mask fills with water. I swim to the surface, rearrange my gear and my dignity and am ready to explore. Immediately I’m transfixed. Below me the water is aquarium clear, reef fish flit around a buffet of age-old coral and I mentally pinch myself – I am snorkelling in the Cocos Islands! It’s been on my bucket list for a long time.
Just a few days previously, as the plane drifted in, I wondered how we could possibly land on an atoll consisting of 27 islands and measuring only 14 square kilometres. Below me, it looked as though there was only ocean. An ocean that was every hue of blue and green imaginable, but water just the same. Where was the runway? But there it was and on this far-flung Australian territory, a stone’s throw from Jakarta and a half-day’s travel from Perth, everything is in close proximity.
We finally reach Prison Island where Geoff drops anchor. We do a 10-minute lap of its beaches as he tells us about Alexander Hare. The guy had something of a reputation as a bit of a Romeo and moved his harem of 40 women from nearby Home Island where he had settled in 1826 to produce coconut oil. The women, he suspected, were up to no good with the Sumatran and Javanese men who’d sailed in to work the plantations. Hare kept close tabs on ‘his’ women and enjoyed free rein with the ones he felt worthy of his attentions. Until everything fell apart.
These days, there’s no sign of Hare’s former home or his fate. The water is bathtub warm and there are black tip reef sharks playing in the gentle waves. I can almost reach out and touch their fins. After a few hours that pass too quickly, we’re back in Geoff’s boat and heading to Direction Island, home of the notorious Rip, one of Cocos’s most famous snorkelling spots.
“It’s not for the faint-hearted,” an islander had warned the previous day, and the earlier swimming test starts to make more sense. We ask Geoff increasingly panicked questions as we walk across sand the texture of flour. The coconut palms are rustling gently in the breeze. Are they trying to warn us?
“Been a few near misses,” Geoff offers. “Being July and trade-wind season the tide is rougher than normal. We had a woman from Tennessee determined to go by herself. Ended up over there.” He points to deep water a hundred metres away. “Little fella watching from the beach jumps in his boat to rescue her. ‘Just like catching a fish,’ he told me.”
Although fins would make the crossing so much easier, I’m secretly relieved they’re back in the boat as we jump in and head to the safety of a coral wall. “Better to swim it in the Doldrums, around March, when the water is calmer,” Geoff says dryly.
Although no one lives on Direction Island, people often camp here, some staying for long periods and living a nomadic existence. I can see the attraction as we swim out to a pontoon in the protected lagoon. Apart from us and a couple of moored yachts, there’s no one else around. I feel like a kid again as we dive off the pontoon. It’s an absurd ‘dance as if nobody’s watching’ moment as one silly jump follows another before it’s time to head back to dry land.
The following day, it’s time to explore West Island, one of only two that’s inhabited in the Cocos (the other is Home Island), where about 150, mainly Australian, expats reside. It’s the kind of place where everyone leaves their homes unlocked and the keys in the car, just in case someone needs to use it. There is almost no crime on the island. A magistrate visits four times a year to rule over pending cases, most of them traffic offences. Borrowing a cup of sugar from next door still seems to be the norm.
This is not the sort of place for tourists looking for happy hours and piña coladas by the pool. There are, in fact, just two cafes, two restaurants, one pub, a supermarket and an art centre in an old restored barge on the island. It might go some way to explaining the hospitality of the community in general – within a couple of days I feel as though I’m a local.
The alluring ingredient of these untouched isles is the spell they cast. As I begin to beach hop, the rest of the world and its troubles seem a million miles away. Just below the surface of the ocean – the water temperature here ranges between 26ºC and 30ºC year round – the abundant marine life makes for spectacular snorkelling.
Off the shore, colour dots the horizon as kitesurfers skim across the water, picking up speed to show off their aerobatics. The water becomes a playground as windsurfers and stand-up paddle boarders join the mix. I try my luck at windsurfing, but my fight with the elements is lost too quickly. I retreat to the powder-soft shore and drift off to the sound of rustling palms.
The next morning, I catch the 20-minute ferry to Home Island to join the Hari Raya festivities. These mark the end of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during daylight hours for 30 days. Around 450 Cocos Malay live in the kampong (village) called Bantam, and their culture and history are unique.
They have an individual way of dressing and their own language, both of which take a little bit from the cultures of Indonesia, Malaysia and Scotland. The latter is thanks to Captain John Clunies-Ross, who dropped anchor briefly here in 1814 on a trip to India and returned to live, with his family, in 1827. Of course, by that time, Hare had set up shop with his harem and the two men immediately began a bitter feud, which saw Hare’s women begin leaving him to hook up with the newly arriving sailors. Hare began to lose his marbles and eventually left for Indonesia, while the Clunies-Ross family ruled for more than 150 years until the Australian government took over in 1978. All that remains of that era is the family’s Victorian mansion, Oceania House. It’s now run as a guesthouse where I’ll be spending the next two nights.
As I arrive, the local mosque’s call to prayer floats through the large windows of the Rose Room. The charming owner Avril shows me around and introduces the house’s friendly ghosts, and I almost expect Basil Fawlty to come flying down the spiral staircase. As the sun sets, four other guests and I gather around a Victorian table fit for the Queen to share dinner.
At 5am the call to prayer shifts me from a deep sleep. Swirling colour surrounds the mosque as the worshippers arrive in traditional clothes. After they pay their respects to Allah, the families converge on the local cemetery to read the Koran to the dearly departed. My guide, a constantly smiling local called Nek Neng, explains that all graves point to Mecca. Something strange – to a Westerner, at least – is occurring though; people are approaching one another, clutching each other’s hands, wailing and dabbing away tears. Nek Neng explains that Hari Raya is also a time when people wipe the slate clean of the previous year’s sins. “We forgive one another then start all over again,” he says with a wry smile. As I witness tightly drawn faces flood with relief I wonder if Western society could benefit from adopting such a ritual.
On my final day, I join the whole kampong at the water’s edge to see the annual jukong boat race. Ten newly varnished boats, hitched with pristine triangles of fabric, set sail, eventually fading into the turquoise horizon. On the shore, the sense of community is heart-warming and clean slates the order of the day.
Virgin Australia operates two flights a week (Tuesday and Friday) from Perth to Cocos (Keeling) Islands.
Ninetysixeast boutique bed and breakfast, located on the ocean side of the West Island, is a heritage-listed property. It has a queen-size room with ensuite and a double room. Both are stylishly furnished and have decks. Rooms are AU$205 a night, minimum four nights, including use of a buggy for two days and continental breakfast.
There are four bedrooms upstairs at the old Clunies-Ross residence, Oceania House, on Home Island. The mansion, overlooking the lagoon, is set within five hectares of botanical gardens and guests have use of the self-catering kitchen. Double rooms start at AU$225 a night.