Travel Story A Christmas (Island) cracker

A red crab feasts on moss in the rainforest. Christmas Island travel feature. 12 JUNE 2017 Picture: Danella Bevis The West Australian

A visit to Christmas Island is a step back in time, an era when millions of crustaceans roamed the earth, sprawling rainforests grew and there is no such thing as mobile phone data.

The flight from Perth only takes a few hours but setting foot on Christmas Island feels a bit like stepping back in time.

Back to an era when millions of crustaceans roamed the earth uninhibited, sprawling rainforests grew as far as the eye could see and there was no such thing as mobile phone data.

It becomes apparent only moments after leaving the airport that this isolated Australian Territory is a bit of an anomaly.

Where else in the world can you drive just a few kilometres down the road and have spotted several species of endemic birds, an endangered fruit bat (one of the few bats in the world that flies during the day) and wild mushrooms that glow in the dark come nightfall?

It becomes clear during the short journey to our hotel that we humans are mere guests of the populous eight-legged locals who have ruled the roost for thousands of years.

With no natural predators to speak of, the island’s red crabs, which famously migrate to the ocean at the end of each year to spawn, are not shy about using the road to get around.

They are joined on the roadside every so often by their bigger, more imposing cousins, the robber crabs, which are known to weigh almost 5kg by the time they reach 80 years of age.

This Indian Ocean island, the summit of an ancient volcano about 2000km north-west of Broome, can best be likened to a three-tiered cake.

If Christmas Island were a real-life cake, its abundance of natural beauty would no doubt be the icing.

Of the island’s 135sqkm land mass, 63 per cent is national park and is home to about 45 million red crabs, one million robber crabs and 80,000 birds, including the only nesting site of the endemic Abbot’s booby. It has different settlements, or suburbs, on each tier of the island including one actually called Settlement, where you can find the local pub, small specialty stores, a cafe and the majority of the island’s hotels.

There are no resorts, high-rise hotels or trendy small bars but what Christmas Island lacks in pomp it makes up for in charm.

A roundabout, around which each vehicle must drive to reach the different tiers, is a centre of sorts for the community.

The big blackboard next to the roundabout provides an outlet for special announcements and to have a bit of fun, including messages welcoming visitors by name.

It’s the kind of community spirit that makes you feel like you’re a part of something pretty special, if only for a short time.

About 60 per cent of the island’s 1200 permanent residents are of Chinese heritage, 30 per cent Malaysian and 10 per cent European Australians.

The diverse cultural mix on the island is nowhere more apparent than at Poon Saan, meaning “halfway”, where Chinese restaurant Lucky Ho is an institution among locals.

After asking a local what the best dish on the menu is, the reply comes without hesitation: “The one cooked with the fish you’ve gone out and caught that morning.”

If only we could all be so lucky.

On the north-east point of the island, the red-brick-and-tile Ma Chor Nui Nui, or Goddess of the Sea, temple is visited regularly by the island’s practising Buddhists and even boaties keen to bless a new boat.

Offerings include fruit and bottles of beer.

The island’s coastline spans 70km and beneath the surface of the clear turquoise waters are some 600 species of fish and myriad towering coral gardens.

Big schools of black triggerfish remain unperturbed by passing snorkellers as they bob close to the surface, while parrotfish, convict surgeons and even a 1m white tip reef shark weave in and out of the coral below.

Whale sharks are known to visit between November and April.

Two diving companies operate on the island, including Extra Divers, which opened in October last year, and Wet’n’Dry Adventures.

While the snorkelling is spectacular just metres from shore at Flying Fish Cove, diving at Smith Point 2km around the coast opens up a whole new world.

Even at a depth of 12m on an introductory dive, the clarity of the water is impeccable.

In between dives, it’s possible to witness the sheer power of giant trevally as they compete for a free feed. 

An unwritten agreement between local fishermen sees waste from the day’s catch thrown into waters at a spot frequented by the huge fish, which can grow up to 80kg in size.

These GTs, as they are called, are spared the hook.

Christmas Island itself was named on Christmas Day in 1643, but was not settled until more than 250 years later when phosphate mining began in 1899.

Many of the island’s landmarks are named after the wives of colonial mine managers — including Dolly, Ethel and Lily beaches, as well as Margaret Knoll.

Mining remains the biggest industry, employing 200 people.

Ships are loaded every three to four days at Flying Fish Cove but as resources become less accessible, phosphate mining and conservation efforts are at pains to strike a balance.

On the other side of the island, Pink House Research Station’s conservation projects are full steam ahead as a team of researchers attempts to mitigate the effects of introduced species.

A successful breeding program to help save the endemic blue tail skink and Lister’s gecko has so far produced hundreds of the reptiles, which were close to extinction just a few years ago. 

Researchers suspect the culprit for their demise is the wolf snake, which is thought to have been inadvertently introduced to the island by a visiting ship in the 1980s.

As part of a separate project, micro-wasps were introduced from Malaysia in January as part of an effort to combat super colonies of introduced “yellow crazy ants” which, in the early 2000s, destroyed more than 30 per cent of the red crab population.

It was recently announced that Swell Lodge, the first luxury, nature-based, tent-style accommodation of its kind on the island, would be constructed on the secluded cliff-lined west coast near Martin Point.

The eco-lodge will open with two accommodation units by the middle of next year and is expected to expand from there.

It is a major coup for the island’s tourism industry, which had been overshadowed in recent years as Christmas Island became synonymous with its immigration detention centre. 

Locals hope a luxury accommodation offering will help turn that around, opening the door for tourism to step up as a tangible way to diversify the island’s economy, bringing with it the potential to bring dozens of visitors to discover the island’s natural wonders every week.

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